The marquee matchup of the Round of 16 is without a doubt Arsenal vs. Barcelona. That’s partly because Arsenal is the one group-stage favorite that slipped into 2nd place in their group (behind Shakhtar Donetsk, due to losses at Donetsk and at Sporting Braga), and hence had to draw a group winner for the Round of 16. But it’s also because these teams have an affinity, a rivalry, and a history.
Their rivalry comes out of their affinity and their history. Both play what might be called the Dutch style of football–one that emphasizes possession, with the ball on the ground, intricate and sustained buildup (the opposite of “Route one” football), one- and two-touch passing (tiki-taka, if you will), individual technical skill, movement off the ball, a fearful geometry of passing angles..all in all, various aspects of “total” football.
Indeed, this Dutch heritage is real, especially in Barcelona’s case: their spiritual leader is Johan Cryuff, who brought to Barcelona this style–or rather philosophy–from Ajax in the early ’70s, when he was the best player in the world. It was Cryuff who suggested that Barcelona set up a youth academy, similar to the Ajax Academy, which became the famous La Masia–“The House that Built Barca” (h/t to Sumit for the link).
And Cryuff returned to Barcelona in the early ’90s, managing a group of fantastic players called Cryuff’s Dream Team–the “fulcrum” of which was a young midfielder named Pep Guardiola. Now of course Guardiola is manager–and some are saying Guardiola’s current team is better than those Barcelona teams; including some who played alongside Pep back then (“when they won the European Cup for the first time in 1992 and clinched four consecutive league titles between 1991 and 1994. That side featured the likes of Romario, Hristo Stoichkov and Ronald Koeman.)
Cryuff now dispenses his opinions and wisdom with weekly essays that appear in the Barcelona newspaper El Periódico. One of his recent entries was titled “El fútbol total del siglo XXI“–“Total Football for the 21st Century” (“Solo dos equipos, el Madrid de Di Stéfano y el Ajax de los años 70, habían sido capaces hasta ahora de reinventar el fútbol como lo está haciendo el de Guardiola” which translates to: “Only two teams, the Madrid of de Di Stefano and the Ajax of the early ’70s were able to reinvent the game as Guardiola’s team is now doing.”
With Arsenal, a similar “continental” style of play came to north London via France–Arsene Wenger arrived to manage Arsenal in the mid-’90s, after a decade managing in France. Although he’s perhaps best known for bringing to the Premier League French and African (and especially, perhaps, French-African), two of his most influential players in his first decade coaching at Arsenal were Dutch internationals Denis Bergkamps and Marc Overmars–and one of his most important right now is Dutch striker Robin van Persie.
But his most important player, Arsenal’s talisman, if you will, is Cesc Fabregas–a native Catalan whom Wenger signed away from Barcelona’s La Masia seven years ago, when Cesc was only 16. Apparently Cesc was convinced that he wouldn’t have the same opportunities to play at Barcelona that he has had at Arsenal, given the midfield talent that was being groomed at La Masia back then. But now Barcelona now wants to bring Fabregas back–which is one source of conflict between the clubs, and one of the major storylines of these meetings.
Consider this anecdote related in a BBC piece titled “The One That Got Away“:
As a player, Guardiola was very much the prototype of the modern Spanish midfielder: technically-gifted, balanced and an immaculate passer of the ball.
He was at the heart of Johan Cruyff’s all-conquering Barca side in the 1990s and was idolised by the young Fabregas as he made his way through the academy ranks.
Borrell, who has remained a friend and confidante to Fabregas, tells a story that encapsulates the connection between the Arsenal star and his one-time hero.
In 2001, when Fabregas was going through the pain of his parents’ divorce, Borrell persuaded Guardiola to sign his famous number four shirt for the young protege. On it, he wrote: ‘One day, you will be the number four of Barcelona.’
But for now, of course, the heart of the Barcelona midfield, the deus ex machina, is Xavi. Messi scores the goals, gets the press, gets the awards–but many thought it was Xavi that should have received the Balon d’Or this year, instead of Messi (but Xavi finished 3rd in the balloting–with Iniesta finishing 2nd!).
You must read this interview with Xavi that Guardian Football’s Spanish correspondent Sid Lowe conducted last weekend. An excerpt:
Think quickly, look for spaces. That’s what I do: look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking. All day, all day. [Xavi starts gesturing as if he is looking around, swinging his head]. Here? No. There? No. People who haven’t played don’t always realise how hard that is. Space, space, space. It’s like being on the PlayStation. I think shit, the defender’s here, play it there. I see the space and pass. That’s what I do.
That’s at the heart of the Barcelona model and runs all the way through the club, doesn’t it? When you beat Madrid, eight of the starting XI were youth-team products and all three finalists in this year’s Ballon d’Or were too – Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta and you.
Some youth academies worry about winning, we worry about education. You see a kid who lifts his head up, who plays the pass first time, pum, and you think, ‘Yep, he’ll do.’ Bring him in, coach him. Our model was imposed by [Johan] Cruyff; it’s an Ajax model. It’s all about rondos [piggy in the middle]. Rondo, rondo, rondo. Every. Single. Day. It’s the best exercise there is. You learn responsibility and not to lose the ball. If you lose the ball, you go in the middle. Pum-pum-pum-pum, always one touch. If you go in the middle, it’s humiliating, the rest applaud and laugh at you.
Your Barcelona team-mate Dani Alves said that you don’t play to the run, you make the run by obliging team-mates to move into certain areas. “Xavi,” he said, “plays in the future.”
They make it easy. My football is passing but, wow, if I have Dani, Iniesta, Pedro, [David] Villa … there are so many options. Sometimes, I even think to myself: man, so-and-so is going to get annoyed because I’ve played three passes and haven’t given him the ball yet. I’d better give the next one to Dani because he’s gone up the wing three times. When Leo [Messi] doesn’t get involved, it’s like he gets annoyed … and the next pass is for him.
See below for what Xavi has to say about Arsenal and English football. (With apologies to Sid Lowe and the Guardian, we’ve ended up excerpting the majority of the interview–so click thru and give them a pageview. Or even better, make sure you read everything Sid Lowe writes–no better English-language coverage of La Liga exists, as far as we can tell. In fact, click thru to Lowe’s breakdown of “Three lessons for Arsenal before they take on Barcelona“; namely–1: Internazionale, Champions League, 20 Apr 2010; 2: Sporting Gijón, La Liga 12 Feb 2010; 3: Real Madrid, La Liga 29 Nov 2010.)
Next week you play Arsenal again in the Champions League last 16. Are they different? A kind of Barcelona-lite?
Arsenal are a great team. When I watch Arsenal, I see Barça. I see Cesc carry the game, Nasri, Arshavin. The difference between them and us is we have more players who think before they play, quicker. Education is the key. Players have had 10 or 12 years here. When you arrive at Barça the first thing they teach you is: think. Think, think, think. Quickly. [Xavi starts doing the actions, looking around himself.] Lift your head up, move, see, think. Look before you get the ball. If you’re getting this pass, look to see if that guy is free. Pum. First time. Look at [Sergio] Busquets – the best midfielder there is playing one-touch. He doesn’t need more. He controls, looks and passes in one touch. Some need two or three and, given how fast the game is, that’s too slow. Alves, one touch. Iniesta, one touch. Messi, one touch. Piqué, one touch. Busi [Busquets], me … seven or eight players with one touch. Fast. In fact, [the youth coach] Charly [Rexach] always used to say: a mig toc. Half a touch.
Arsenal-Barcelona always provokes questions about Cesc Fábregas’s future.
If I’d ever gone to another club, I’d have been thinking about Barcelona – the link is strong. The same is happening to him. But now there’s a problem: now he’s expensive. But I think that a footballer ends up playing where he wants. He has to end up here.
That’s not what Arsenal fans want to hear and some have accused Barcelona players, you included, of stirring trouble. Last summer there were so many remarks supposedly coming out of Barcelona …
Really? I hardly spoke then. I imagine they wouldn’t have liked that. [Xavi pauses, adding quietly, almost shamefacedly] You know, often footballers don’t think. We’re selfish, we don’t realise. I also say it because I’m thinking of Cesc. He wants to come here. Barcelona has always been his dream. But of course he’s Arsenal’s captain, the standard bearer, a leader. This situation is a putada [bummer] for him. He’s at a club that plays his style with Wenger who has treated him well, taught him, raised him. Cesc respects him. If he’d been at, say, Blackburn it might have been easier to leave. Look, the truth is: I want him to come here. Of course. Barcelona have a very clear style and not many footballers fit. It’s not easy. But Cesc fits it perfectly.
Would he replace you, though?
I don’t see new players as a threat; I don’t say “this is my patch”. I’m more: “bring them here, let them play”. The more talent in the middle, the better. Four or five years ago [people said] me and Iniesta couldn’t play together. We can’t play together? Look how that one turned out.
Last year, you beat Arsenal comfortably …
Yes, but this year they’re much better. I think it’s a disadvantage for us that we played last year. They had [too] much respect for us. It was as if they let us have the ball; we always had it, home and away. The game in London could have been a 4-0 we dominated so much – but it finished 2-2. This year will be different.
What was your reaction to the draw?
I was happy. I like the fact that we’ll see a great game. Arsenal aren’t the kind of team that come to try to putear you [piss you off, break up the game, destroy the match]. If it was Chelsea, you might think Madre mía, they’re going to leave the initiative to you, wait deep, close up, play on the break with Drogba and Malouda. But, no, I think Arsenal will want the ball. There will be more of a game. As a fan I’d definitely pay for a ticket to see this game. Manchester United or Chelsea would play in a more speculative way. They would leave us the ball. Arsenal won’t.
Does English football attract you? Spanish players always return from there raving about it.
It’s incredible. Una pasada. Now that is football. England really is the birthplace, the heart and soul of football. If Barcelona had Liverpool’s fans, or Arsenal’s, or United’s, we’d have won 20 Champions Leagues, hahaha! OK, so that’s an exaggeration but I’ve never seen anything like it. We won 3-1 at Liverpool once and we were both applauded off the pitch. In England, footballers are respected more, the game is more noble, there’s less cheating. Every Spaniard who goes loves it – and comes back a better player. If I had ever left it would have been to England.
The final is at Wembley, which makes it even more special for Barcelona, doesn’t it? Last year it was special because it was at the Bernabéu but Wembley is the scene of the Dream Team’s one European Cup. And this feels like a year in which you are being constantly compared to them …
In 1992, I was 12 and my brothers went but my parents wouldn’t let me. I was in tears but it made no difference. I’d love to play at Wembley. It’s special for Barça – and for everyone in football. Last year was moremorbosa [about the rivalry with Real Madrid, almost a little dirty, titillating]. This year is more nostalgic, more classic. And I’m more of a nostalgic. Me? I’m a romantic.