Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Clipped Wings: Generational Fractures in the Magical Kingdom of Iberia

I find nothing more seductive than process except writing about seduction by process. As soon as Spain gently defeated Honduras, I ran to my computer, giddy at the prospect of writing yet another piece about a team who became so enamored with the act of playing that they forget to score goals. A piece I could add to my library full of unfinished explorations of every possible cliche of Arsenal heartbreak. Unfinished because in the middle of each piece I would be driven to write down thoughts about writing my piece about process. But once I thought on Spain v. Honduras and wrote about my thoughts about thinking on it, I realized that I wasn't concerned by the over-simplified threat of "death by passing". Instead, I noticed a couple of emerging on-pitch fissures on the Spain team that the translucent anonymity of the Honduran performance had brought to the surface.
Spain’s early efforts were full of the fresh, elegant, telepathic play they’re known for and every football fan on earth (outside Tegucigalpawas at least) simply had to find pleasure in Villa’s one great- and one supergreat- goal. But by the middle of the second half, they looked out of ideas and exhausted. Much of the post-match analysis focused on Torres’ wastefulness of chances, but placing blame on him seems given how little game time he’s had since his surgery, and with the Jabulani/altitude combination. But mainly it seems odd because I found myself transfixed by Torres' early missing. As much as I admire Torres, he’s never been one of my favorite players to watch. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed watching him play as much as I did today.

It's true that every time Torres was fit enough to play for Liverpool this season he looked hopelessly miserable, and when he did manage to score it seemed like the goal was either dragged out of him against his will, or motivated by a ferocious, athletic spite. So I found it quite startling to see him smiling today, without a trace of petulance, after his botched attempts. But it's absurd to view his smiles as indicators of complacency. I think he had just accepted the process of letting his body re-memorize its ease. We all know that when a striker tries to force it he always fails; he has to get past it, to a sort of state of post-scoring, when he honestly trusts that his touch to return, and lead him. I’m especially vigilant for these signs of killer ease after waiting all season, sadly in vain, for to see them reappear in Eduardo. But tonight Torres seemed to get more confident with each miss; every attempt was a sort of sloppy physical and psychological unfurling towards goal, the muscle memories clicking into place one by one. By the end of the Chile game if you listen, under the ocean of Vuvuzela, I'm sure you’ll hear the sound of mechanical agreement, a lock lock lock lock lock, and he’ll be back. 
My thought about Barcelona all year, even before the loss to Inter, was that if a team managed to disconnect their matrix of connectivity, all was lost. They didn’t seem to have another way to play, a Plan B. They were like the Death Star of footballing beauty, and Xavi was Darth Vader. Once splintered, they become less than the sum of their parts and I never saw them offer new solutions. But of course, their Plan A was heavenly. And, of course, Messi alone offers a Plan C through Z. As long as Iniesta returns, everything should be fine. But  if he doesn’t, despite the supposed “positional redundancies”, there will be a problem. Because I’ve been starting to suspect that Xavi doesn’t quite works without Iniesta. 
Today, and in other outings without the movement and threat of attack that Iniesta offers, Xavi has looked to me in this World Cup well- a bit- formulaic. Considering the fact that he plays on the most popular team on earth right now, this presents a real problem: every footballer from Chile to Slovakia studies Barcelona, and Xavi especially. They all know his plays, because they want to emulate them. And it’s becoming more and more clear how much Xavi has tailored his play for Messi’s “playstation” abilities. Messi will always be moving and yet is always where you need him to be. Neither Torres or Villa offer that kind of variety; or on the most basic level, that unknown quantity. I suppose that’s it- without Messi and Iniesta, Xavi’s midfield, despite its unrivaled intelligence and elegance, is very much a known quantity to every team they are going to meet in the World Cup. It’s a bit...static. (Ok. So far so good. I don't appear to have been immediately sentenced and transported to hell for such sentiments. Perhaps this is a local line?)
So I know I put myself in line for the mockery of, well everyone, but I think if Spain is to have any chance of being a serious competitor something radical is called for. The one element of surprise they have right now is Jesus Navas, who gives them desperately needed width and speed on the right. Navas’ similarity with Theo Walcott is marked, and there were many complaints today about his lack of accuracy, but I disagreed. I thought his backpass to set up the second goal was sublime and quite unexpected, and there were several other decent chances that Villa and Torres missed. In order to capitalize on his speed, Spain need a creative midfielder that has more both more mobility, physicality, and most of all, potential for tactical looseness and surprise than Xavi. It seems to me they need Fabregas not as an ancillary, but as the coordinating force. 
Despite Cesc’s public protestations of patience and teamwork, his frustration with the stubborn aesthetic system that was in effect when he got on the pitch was immediately evident. Even Martin Tyler commented on his almost destructive eagerness “shuttling the ball back and forth”. But it was clear in the short time that he was in the game that though he might want to leave the EPL, he certainly has taken his lessons from it.  And while he looks adorably young- funny how on Arsenal he seems like such an august leader, but here the beard just makes him look like he’s about to have a pictures taken for his fake ID- he offers everything Xavi offers, plus another attacking option. And, of course: he’s hungry. I've seen a slight lack of hunger from Xavi in recent performances. He’s become almost an automaton of Barca creative passing perfection; his play, while still perfect, has looked a bit insular to me; caught in his ways.
This positional/generational rebellion is also evident in Pique’s aggressive waywardness. His role as make-do forward at Barca seems to have left him with a distracting hunger for goals. Over and over again he rushed forward, like a bear in an RV camp looking for the sandwiches. There was a certain amount of room and support for that on Barca, but here it’s more disruptive; Ramos too never wants to be left out of the action in the front. Everyone’s down on Busquets, but I see his continued inclusion as an act of great tactical honesty by Del Bosque. Without him covering the gaps Pique and Ramos leave through assertions of their own attacking agendas, the back would have been shockingly exposed to any Honduran counter, had they offered one. The subtleties in the difference of play between the more results-minded Madrid and the system-loyalty of Barca still seem to be causing a breakdown in coordination between Pique and Ramos. And though defensively Ramos is fine as ever, he seems to be struggling with the Jabulani more than his teammates; his crosses in haven't ben up to his usual standard.
But thankfully in the middle of all these agendas and subtle clashes of style, there is the human machine of precision and footballing sense that is Xabi Alonso. How is it possible that he keeps getting better? No other player has been able to fuse the pragmatic, physical style of the EPL with the intelligent keep-away of La Liga with as much efficiency and grace. While the same Barca-Mardrid aesthetic friction is existent between him and Xavi, it hardly seems a long-range worry; it’s clear both players will adjust for the good of the team. When Xabi Alonso retires from football, he should consider being a SWAT officer or dealing with high-pressure hostage situations, or bridge jumpers. As long as he is on the field, I know that even if I find myself trapped in a tactical suicide mission like suggesting the absurd changes I just did, everything will be alright. 

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