Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar are three of the best forwards in the world. Nobody can seriously doubt that.
All three are mobile and technically gifted, all score goals and all can pull wide and drop deep. Put them together and the result could be spectacular, should be spectacular.
Against lesser sides—all but perhaps half-a-dozen teams in the world—they will thrive. They will score goals and produce brilliant passages of play.
People in the future will look back at clips of moves they put together in awe. But it’s hard not to look at the three and see a tactical regression, to see the signing of Neymar as the first stage in a shift at Barcelona from an approach based on philosophy to one based on celebrity.
The marketing men are no doubt delighted. They have three major stars with global appeal to flaunt; each comes from a different South American country which means Barcelona can be pushed, where appropriate, as the team of the Americas.
There’s Messi, the hunched and inscrutable genius; Neymar with the boyish charm; and now there’s Suarez, furious and unpredictable.
It’s like one of those superhero ensemble films from Marvel, the fascination being as much in how the differing temperaments fit together as in whether they can overcome the opposition. It’s also—and this won’t be popular—a little like Real Madrid.
Of course Barcelona have been buying major stars for decades—perhaps not quite as many as Real, but still, they’ve signed the likes of Laszlo Kubala, Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona and Ronaldinho.
For a time, though, under Pep Guardiola, the difference in ethos was clear: There was Barcelona, the club that developed its own talent and trusted in its way of playing, and there was Real Madrid, with their shop-bought stars.
Six of the Barcelona starting XI in the 2011 Champions League final were developed by the club, an extraordinary proportion.
It’s true that five of the starting line-up in the defeat to Real on Saturday were la Masia graduates, but two of them—Xavi and Andres Iniesta—are on the wrong side of 30.
But the bigger issue is not so much where the players come from as how they play.
Arrigo Sacchi expressed despair after his brief stint as technical director of Real Madrid in 2004-05 at the focus on “specialists”—looking at players as individuals rather than how they can operate together as a unit. The best tactical systems, Sacchi argues, have a “multiplicatory” impact on the efficiency of the individuals within it.
Under Guardiola, Barca were the epitome of that, but no longer. The cohesiveness which used to characterise their play has been eroded, and there were times on Saturday when they began to resemble a “broken team” with seven outfielders deep to defend and three forwards high up the pitch with little to link them.
According to stats from WhoScored.com, Messi made no tackles or interceptions in the Clasico, Neymar one tackle and no interceptions and Suarez one tackle and no interceptions (he went off after 68 minutes, with his replacement, Pedro, making two tackles and no interceptions).
Those are not the statistics of a hard-pressing team—and it’s significant that Pedro, an archetypal la Masia graduate—won possession back as often in a quarter of the game as all the other forwards combined over the whole game.
This is part of a trend. In 2009-10, Messi made an average of 0.9 tackles and 1.2 interceptions per game, while last season he was down to 0.5 tackles and 0.1 interceptions (WhoScored.com). Neymar made 0.8 tackles and 0.3 interceptions per game last season, according to WhoScored.com.
The intensity of Barcelona’s pressing has slowed down, the aggression and the energy of the Guardiola years aren’t there anymore.
Suarez, perhaps, can restore some of that, but this isn’t a question of individuals, more one of philosophy.
The greatness of Barcelona lays in their team ethic, in their faith in their system that seemed to suggest it was possible to compete at the highest level without huge expenditure on stars.
Those they did sign, in fact, struggled to adapt to the esoteric ecosystem. But now they’ve changed tack. They, too, are buying the glamorous big names, focusing on individuals not stars.
The lack of pressing may stop them winning the biggest tournaments but, worse than that, they have become just another super-club.