‘…it stands to reason that the more sophisticated technology becomes, the more sophisticated systems will become. The biggest obstacle to that, in fact, is the egos of players. Puffed up by years of immense wages and celebrity status, are they willing, as Lobanovskyi and Arrigo Sacchi demanded, to sacrifice themselves utterly to the collective?’
Anyone who has ever watched Barcelona in the last three years, by now realizes that the answer to the above question posed by Jonathan Wilson in his book ‘Inverting the Pyramid’, is yes. Pep Guardiola has managed to create a team with a near total absence of any kind of ego, or selfishness. This means that they all express their individuality first and foremost within the context of the system. It has helped them become recognised as being only second to the Ajax team of 1972 in the roll of greatest club sides of all time.
Seven of Barca’s starting eleven are starters for World Champions Spain, and they have transferred their chemistry to the national side. Success has followed. Alves and Messi however, have failed to perform to a similar level for Brazil and Argentina and have failed to find similar success, despite being on top of their respective games for the last three years.
Messi’s form has been a source of frustration for Argentines, so much so that AFA President Julio Grondona even suggested that mounting criticism could lead to him quitting the national team. He looks like two different players. He has scored 100 goals in the last 2 seasons of club football, but his last competitive goal for Albiceleste was over 2 years ago. His current run is 0 in 16 competitive games which includes two major tournaments.
Even though he contributes immensely going forward, Alves is a liability defensively. Barcelona’s total domination of the ball with their pressing and high line, coupled with the cover provided by Sergio Busquets, who drops into defence to form a three man back line, enables the Brazilian to play almost like a winger, and ensures his flaws are rarely highlighted. 12 goals and 50 assists for Barcelona in 3 seasons is the result. In the national team, however, he has no such support. The system is simply different. In other words, he actually needs to be sound defensively, and he isn’t. Under Carlos Dunga, Maicon was preferred at right-back with Alves coming on as a substitute and deployed on the wing. Mano Menezes made him first choice, but a poor defensive display against Paraguayan winger Estigarribia saw him dropped for the last 2 games of an unsuccessful Copa America campaign.
The kind of cohesion at Barcelona that enables both players excel is difficult for any national team to replicate, because they don’t have anywhere near the same time to train. It doesn’t also help that both Menezes and Batista are less than a year on the job. Both teams were knocked out of the Copa America at the quarter-final stage, and it may be that the coaches need more time to pass on their ideas, or that they are unsuitable for the jobs.
Either way, yet another failure at an international tournament will give the few critics of Messi that exist more ammunition, and will restrain his supporters who are eager to crown him as the best player who has ever lived. It is an accolade he cannot be given until he is successful for his country, but that does not depend on him alone.
It also raises the issue about how effective some of Barca’s players would be were if they are taken out of Guardiola’s system, which amplifies the positives of each player and suppresses the negatives, to the point that they may become exposed under a different set-up. Antonio Conte said recently that when he looks at Barca, he sees ‘seven players who can’t defend’.
Despite that observation, Guardiola has made that team tremendously successful, and the Spanish national team has benefited from it. Dani Alves and Lionel Messi must be looking on in envy.