Many football fans around the world are bemused at the constant criticism, especially in the Catalan press, of Tata Martino and the new regime at Barcelona.
A dispassionate look at the statistics might, at first glance, lead one to believe they have a point. Forty points out of a possible 42, 42 goals scored, just eight conceded and a place in the last 16 of the Champions League doesn't sound too bad. Who wouldn’t want that type of record for their own club?
Except, of course, this is Barcelona, and nothing is ever that simple at Camp Nou. Let me try to explain.
The reason Martino is criticised is because Barcelona really are a different type of club. They have a philosophy, an ideology that permeates the system from the youngest players at La Masia all the way to the first team, and one that has been as successful as it has been entertaining, especially in the past five years.
Barca have played a style of football loved by the fans and suited perfectly to the players in their squad. Of course it’s about winning, but it’s also about respecting the philosophy that has brought footballing paradise to Catalonia.
Everyone agrees that changes had to be made—not just because of what happened with Tito Vilanova, but also because of the last season when Pep Guardiola was in charge, when cracks began to appear.
But what was needed was a change of personnel, with the addition of three or four new players and, more importantly, the disappearance of some famous names. That would have been a continuation of Barcelona philosophy.
In terms of trying to classify coaching philosophies, let's look back at the history of Barcelona. In classification terms, Rinus Michels could be seen as management version 1.1, with Johan Cruyff 1.2, Louis van Gaal 1.3, Frank Rijkaard 1.4 and Guardiola 1.5.
Unfortunately for Martino, he is classified in the eyes of the Barcelona faithful and his critics as version 2.0. He brings to the table a different ideology, and he doesn’t have the players to play that way.
So what you’re getting is a Barcelona playing too direct, unable to press high up the pitch, with too many long balls and without the players to hold the ball up and win the 50-50 challenges. And as the team becomes more stretched, the opposition create more chances, and the effort required by the team, more accustomed to defending with the ball, becomes greater.
Might that in some way explain the increase in muscle injuries suffered by the players, which is the highest seen at the club for many a year?
There are some players who enjoy the new approach, not least Cesc Fabregas and Neymar, but what you’re now getting is no longer the product of a team effort, but rather that of the individual.
Barcelona are still winning because they have some of the best players around, not as a consequence of the team structure or the style.
Is that a problem? Not now, but it might be when they face stronger opposition.
As well, in the eyes of a large percentage of people in Catalonia, Martino is taking the team away from their essence—a heresy as big as losing.
I don’t expect you to understand, but I have a soft spot for clubs with a philosophy, and the effort to keep it is the hardest test they always face.
Those who say that the criticism of Martino is harsh do not understand the essence of what makes Barcelona, but more worryingly, perhaps, I feel that Martino himself is also struggling to understand it.