Indeed, on that glorious evening, Barça played without a recognizable point-man, and yet managed to score 3 goals. Not only that, we had two wing defenders (Alves and Abidal) who spent more time in midfield than in defense; a center back who frequently made vertical, penetrating runs (Pique), and a midfielder who often sat as the last player on the defensive line (Busquets). Of course, most importantly, we managed to make the Red Devils look like a second-tier team, playing a football void of positional discipline.
The Barça attacking force comprised of David Villa, Pedro, Iniesta, Xavi, and the most-awesome Messi. Some would argue that Villa is a forward; but he’s certainly not what comes in mind when we think about the Ibrahimovichs, Shearers, or Drogbas of this world. Messi scores goals by the bunch; but he often is demanded to play the role of creator, usually dissecting the opposing team with blisteringly brave diagonal runs. Pedro is certainly not Bierhoff, Van Basten, or Rush; he’s much shorter, and plays more like a winger. And then, there’s Xavi and Iniesta; definitely not forwards.
It was then – right after reading Ferdinand’s lament – that it struck me. A revelation. Yes, Barça – with its small, fast, and technical midfield-strikers – was not only entertaining to watch, but very potent in real life. But more so, Barça didn’t play with a “true” forward that night because we were playing a new breed of football.
While many like to call Barça’s game as something out of this planet, I’ve come to realize that it is not so. The truth is that the club of my heart is mortal. But mortality has never been the hurdle to progress. Barça is simply at the forefront of this continuum called “football tactics”. Just like Italy’s catenaccio and Ajax’s “total football” in their respective eras, Barça’s play is the new revolution in football tactics. Without wanting to be forcibly humble, Barça simply is the next generation in football.
In his book, “Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics”, Jonathan Wilson confirmed my views. Wilson explained the following about the evolution of football tactics: “As system has replaced individuality, the winger has gone and been reincarnated in a different more complex form; so too, has the playmaker; and so, now, might the striker be refined out of existence. The future, it seems, is universality.” In a world as imagined by Wilson, players will no longer be identified simply as strikers, midfielders, or defensemen; these identifications will be interchangeable, thus making play more fluid. What’s so great about this quote is that Wilson’s book was printed in 2008, a year before Pep Guardiola took over as manager of the Catalan team. What a prophecy!
I’ve always regarded football as something more than just a game. And even if it was truly a game, then it was never just about scoring goals. Football represents the evolution of cultures and the mixing of ideas among great nations. Football is also about the struggle between individuality and the system, between traditions and avant-gardism. Practically, football is about life. And when the final whistle is over, when one talks about the game that has just ended, it’s not only about the score on the newspaper headlines. It’s about the dreams… fulfilled or ended. It’s about passion… won or lost. It’s bigger than the player. Bigger than the club. It’s as big as life itself.
To understand more beyond the score line, it is important to understand the evolution of tactics in the history of this beautiful game. To understand international relations, one would have to read about the theoretical debates between realism and liberalism. To measure the size of energy, one would need to make calculations based on the laws of physics. Well, the same could be said about football.
If you’re happy simply with the sight of an acrobatic goal, then enjoy them. If you prefer to focus on a particular bad call by the referee, than so be it. But for me, football is more than just Maradona-like solo runs or Beckham-like bended free kicks. Football is not only about the player with the ball, but also those who are not, making runs into open space. Football is designing a movement encompassing the whole team, in synch, and with a common purpose. Football is about the bigger picture. And the bigger picture always has some deeper meaning to it. Deeper than the replay of a missed Baggio penalty.
This is when I turn to writings like Wilson’s. This is not the first time, though. There’ve been a number of good books on football that I’ve read. David Winner's Brilliant Orange was a good companion of mine during my short stay in Holland, as I try to understand Dutch culture through its football tactics. Steve Bloomfield's Africa United attempted to explain the lives of people in many different African countries through football. And of course, Phil Ball’s Morbo is a bible to understanding La Liga in Spain, the history, rivalries, and ethnical anecdotes related to it.
“Inverting the Pyramid” is a detailed, comprehensive study of the evolution of football tactics. From the early times of organized matches in England to the Dynamo Kiew scientific approach and the end of the enganche era of players like Riquelme. I learned about the early 2-3-5 formation, which led to the way shirt numberings became (i.e. why a right defender wears #2, and a left winger #11). I learned about the difference between a trequartista (Seedorf) and a regista (Pirlo) in AC Milan’s winning ways. And how a 3-4-2-1 formation (with one less defender) may end up being more defensive than a traditional back four (i.e. 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 formations). I also learned about the thoughts of great coaches from Viktor Maslov, to Helenio Herrerra, to Arrigo Sacchi, and Johan Cruyff.
What’s more, I enjoyed immensely Wilson’s analysis of how football tactics evolved in accordance to the different cultures and lifestyles of the football players. The Italian catenaccio evolved during a period of lacking confidence, an Italian society that had lived through invasions after another. As the Italian society dug deep, defended its nation, and waited for the best opportunity to pounce, these sentiments and feelings were transpired into its football tactics.
At the same time, it is no wonder that the free-flowing, bohemian, and democratic play of Ajax’s total football came about at a time when Amsterdam became the hippie capital of the world. Neither is it surprising that the scientific approach of Dynamo Kiev’s legendary coach, Valeriy Lobonovskiy, grew amidst the growth of Kiev as one of the centers of technology and science for the Soviet empire. Nor the reason that many African countries have strong midfielders capable of making vertical runs (think Yaya Toure and Michael Essien) is because football pitches in Africa are mostly long, narrow, clogged by players, and hugged on its sides by a sewer or garbage dump.
I also enjoyed the recurring themes framing football tactics over the years. The debates between the pragmatists – who’d do anything for a win – and the idealists – who only has a beautiful game in his mind, win or lose. As well, the debate between those who favor a system of tactics and those who highlight the individual brilliance of players. How to strike a balance between these extremes to come up with not only the best team, but most importantly, the best-looking team.
To some, this would be observed simply as a matter of the football pitch. But to me, this looks so much like our society. The contests between realists and idealists in international relations. The tensions between individual freedoms and communal responsibility, between democracy and authoritarian efficacy.
In ending his book, Wilson quoted Arrigo Sacchi who said: “As long as humanity exists, something new [football tactics] will come along. Otherwise football dies.” In life, people must progress. We invent new things, come up with new ideas. All for the purpose of survival. Those who can, will proceed. And those who can’t cope with the changes will be left behind, lamenting that the other team “didn’t play with a forward”. The same is for football.
More than a game, football should be seen as a form of art, and football players as artists. The managers, the people with the music sheet, are the music conductor, leading the entire ensemble on a musical journey. Of course, the music written is often colored immensely by the culture, experience, and lives of these musicians, particularly the conductor. Once a while, a violinist or pianist would be asked to rise for a solo, but in the end, those solo occasions are simply parts of the orchestra’s repertoire, a splat of red highlighting the bigger picture. Messi’s runs are magical, but they often don’t stand alone, but as a precursor to a nice pass to Pedro, which often ends with a goal, on the bottom corner of Casillas’ net.
And so, if football is art, and art imitates life. Then, would it mean that football imitates life? I certainly think so.