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Arsenal vs Barcelona

Depth Charge

by Carlos Amato / 08.03.2011

“Depth” is a belter of a word. Sonically, it’s one of the finest items that English has to offer. Say it out loud: it starts underground and ends up in the clouds, all within half a second. Much deeper than “deepness”. (If you’re interested, these are the etymological cousins of “depth”: Old Saxon diupitha, Dutch diepte, Old Norse dypð, Gothic diupiþa.)

But enough phonetic phrippery. Let’s talk phootball.

FC Barcelona have depth, in both senses of the word. Firstly, they have it in the shallow football sense: a powerful bench. An all-star cast of supporting actors who can keep the show alive when the leads stumble.

Tonight’s game is a good example. Kingpins Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique are both unavailable (due to injury and suspension) when Arsenal come calling for the return leg of their Champions League war. But Barca coach Pep Guardiola will be able to restock his central defence with minimal anxiety, by reassigning his regular leftback, the exceptional Eric Abidal, and his superb central midfielder Sergio Busquets. Maxwell will slot in at leftback, while the world-class Javier Mascherano will deputise for Busquets in the engine room.

No worries. The tiki-taka circus will roll happily on. If Arsenal advance instead of Barcelona, I will eat an avocado, which would be harder for me than eating my hat.

But the strange thing about Barcelona’s depth is that Guardiola’s squad is actually quite small: just 20 players, compared to Arsenal’s 24. But all the peripheral players in Barca’s 20 are either seasoned soldiers of exceptional quality – such as Mascherano and Maxwell – or homegrown youngsters so carefully tutored in the beautiful science of possession football that they are able to function on the highest stage with little experience.

By contrast, Arsenal’s chronic shallowness has been exposed yet again by a run of injuries. Robin van Persie, Alex Song and Theo Walcott are definitely out of tonight’s game due to injury, while Cesc Fabregas may not play. In their stead, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger will have to entrust his European dream to perennially unconvincing players like Nicklas Bendtner, Tomas Rosicky, Abou Diaby and Denilson. They won’t be up to the task.

Andre Arshavin

Why is Arsenal’s depth never deep enough, year after year? Some blame Wenger’s stinginess. But it’s not that simple. How do you convince someone like Mascherano to play for Arsenal as an understudy to Song? You could pay him over the odds to do so, but that would throw your entire salary structure out of whack. Wenger lives within his means; Guardiola doesn’t.

Mascherano is happy to understudy Busquets because a) he gets paid silly sums to do so; b) he gets to play quite often for the coolest team in the world; c) he gets to live in Barcelona; and c) he avoids the brutal physical warfare of the Premiership, where he used to get a dose of his own dirty medicine every four days.

The quasi-feudal structure of Spanish football is deepening the hegemony of Barcelona in Europe, both in economic and physical terms. All the Spanish minnows are happy servants, tenants, extras: most of La Liga’s television money goes to Real Madrid and Barcelona. As a result, they barely ever lose in Spain to anyone but each other.

Plus, the servants don’t kick the shit out of their masters. Spanish footie culture doesn’t accept the kind of wild, intimidatory tackling of “craque” players that’s still tolerated in England. There are no Stoke Cities among the La Liga underclass, and the reign of civility helps Leo Messi to stay fit all season. While Messi’s ridiculous speed of foot and thought allows him to dodge most flying boots before they hit, it’s a safe bet he wouldn’t be as safe in the anarchic fray of the Premiership. Sometimes you just can’t get away in time – ask Aaron Ramsey, Eduardo da Silva and Abou Diaby.

Short of emigrating to Spain, there’s no clear route ahead for Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, and the various continental challengers to Barcelona’s power. Spending alone won’t shake off their shallowness. Yes, Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan saw off Barca, but that was a freakish feat of defensive mania; it was never a sustainable counter-force to Guardiola’s regime.

UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, soon to come into effect, will not change the balance of power significantly. Everyone will have to confine their spending to football-related income; hence Barcelona will have to become a little more prudent, but the lucrative reach of their brand will soften the blow. Already they spend less on players than Real, Manchester City and Chelsea.

And they have depth, in a deeper sense of the word. Barcelona don’t possess any profound moral truth about their sport, much as Xavi and company fancy themselves as philosophers and revolutionaries in shorts. Football is not a moral pursuit. But they have made football deeper, by making it better.

 

*Images © Nike Football.

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