Barcelona — the city, like the club — is a victim of its own success.
About a decade ago, still reeling from the global recession and high unemployment, Catalonia’s capital threw open its doors and a whole world of tourists poured in. Even if you weren’t there, you probably saw enough of the Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell on Instagram to feel like you were.
The open doors weren’t just a figure of speech: thanks to the app economy, millions of visitors spilt out of Barcelona’s hotels and into its chamfered apartment blocks, renting rooms and whole homes through companies such as Airbnb. At first, locals welcomed the supplemental income, but when investors started snapping up properties in the heart of the city to turn them into vacation rentals, the mood turned.
“If you put a tourist apartment there, you can rent it quite easily,” one resident told the New Yorker on a walk through El Raval in 2019. “And once there is one, or two, or three, or four, it changes the street.”
Airbnb promised to let visitors “experience a place like you live there”, sleeping in real bedrooms in residential neighbourhoods. On the inside, though, the increasingly professional listings converged on a global millennial aesthetic that the critic Kyle Chayka dubbed “AirSpace” — think upscale Ikea for people who own a lot of Apple products. If the tulip tables and wire lamps felt familiar, that was partly because it was getting harder to tell if you were waking up in Barcelona, San Francisco or Shanghai.
This is also pretty much the story of what happened during the same years to FC Barcelona’s style of play, once so dazzlingly unique, now tasteful but generic.
Once upon a time, Barcelona were different from every other club. They played a strange short passing game that helped them dominate the ball and suffocate opponents. But the players who made their style special aged out of the squad, while at the same time the principles that made their game successful were studied, copied, simplified and adapted by teams all over the world.
If you could open an app full of rental listings for fancy football clubs nowadays, everything would look a little bit alike. It would look like Barca.
So when Barcelona lost to Manchester United last week in an ingloriously early round of the Europa League, it wasn’t some big surprise. Both teams have more or less the same ideas about how to play good football. With no big tactical edge, Barcelona needed better players. They didn’t have them available.
Players cost money. Barcelona don’t have money. Welcome to the new economy — maybe try launching an app or something?
‘A pass backwards does not mean fear’
In better circumstances, Barcelona losing a two-legged tie to Manchester United by a single goal shouldn’t be the end of the world. It’s football. It happens.
It happened in the Champions League semi-finals in 2008, and the next season a rejuvenated Barcelona came back and beat United in the final, won every trophy there was to win and kicked off one of the most storied eras that football has ever witnessed.
There were two main factors in their comeback: a bunch of really, really good players and a promising young coach — promoted from the B team — named Pep Guardiola. Maybe you’ve heard of this guy. He had some ideas.
Guardiola inherited his footballing ideology from his former manager Johan Cruyff, who had brought the Dutch principles of possession play from Ajax to Barcelona in 1988. Cruyffian football demanded control, which meant keeping the ball away from the opponent as a means of both attack and defence.
To pull it off, a team needed technical, highly-trained players at every position, even in goal. “In my teams,” Cruyff said, “the goalie is the first attacker.”
You could see why that mattered in the goal that put Manchester United past Barcelona a few months before Guardiola took over. The Italian right-back Gianluca Zambrotta cut out an attack at the edge of Barcelona’s box, but instead of sending the ball back to the keeper to secure possession and start the build-up, he panicked under pressure and played a no-look pass toward midfield that Paul Scholes picked off and rifled past Victor Valdes.
It’s hard to imagine that sequence happening to a Guardiola team, where the decision to play back to the keeper would be automatic. “A pass backwards does not mean fear,” Guardiola once wrote, “but the start of another, better move.”
In the 2018 documentary Take the Ball, Pass the Ball, Valdes remembered being baffled the first time Guardiola showed him where his centre-backs would position themselves when the goalkeeper had the ball, split almost all the way to the byline at the sides of the box, daring opponents to press them. Taking risks at the back would open space and allow Barcelona to construct play more effectively.
“I had no idea what he was talking about,” Valdes said. “It sounded Chinese.”
Guardiola was obsessed with positioning and passing angles, the underlying geometry of the game. He had that in common with Cruyff, who rejected the popular 4-4-2 of the 1990s, with its straight-line emphasis on defensive solidity and fast counter-attacking play up the wings, in favour of a 3-4-3 diamond that constructed natural passing triangles in midfield. Shapes dictated style.
When Guardiola’s Barcelona beat Manchester United in the Champions League final in 2009 and again in 2011, it was a contest of ideas. United still liked to attack up the wings, while the Spanish side played a Cruyffian game, spidering their way through midfield with short passes that made it easier to swarm the ball on the rare occasions that they lost it.
Critics called it “tiki-taka”. Sir Alex Ferguson called them the best team he’d ever faced.
Over the next decade, Barcelona’s principles became the new orthodoxy at the top of the game: instead of aspiring to play like Ferguson’s Manchester United, good teams built from the back, recycled play, passed short, pressed hard, tilted the field, crossed less and took more valuable shots. Guardiola’s team didn’t just play good football — they changed what playing good football meant.
One reason the style spread across Europe was that Guardiola exported it himself. First at Bayern Munich, where he tore down a treble-winning side and rebuilt it in his image, then at Manchester City, where Abu Dhabi gave a Catalan leadership team venture capital to create an AirSpace version of Barcelona, Guardiola’s style won trophies and (sometimes reluctant) admirers.
Back at the Camp Nou, the same core group of players went on winning more or less the same way they had since 2008 — a team built around Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi was only ever going to play a certain way. At his new clubs, though, Guardiola had to try new things to coax a similar style out of different players.
Sometimes that meant dropping a forward into midfield, the way Messi used to do, to outnumber the opponent in the centre; other times a technical full-back like Philipp Lahm tucked inside while a traditional striker like Robert Lewandowski occupied the centre-backs.
Sometimes a defensive midfielder joined the back line to outnumber a two-forward press, a la Busquets; other times a defender would swing into a hybrid wide role like Kyle Walker.
Some wingers were encouraged to dribble, others made off-ball runs. Some midfielders were asked to be Xavi-style orchestrators but players with different gifts, such as Kevin De Bruyne, had different roles.
There was no one-tactical formula, in other words, to be “like Barcelona”. The obsession with shapes and angles only got more acute, and the basic Cruyffian principles — control, two-touch passing, counter-pressing — remained, but Guardiola borrowed freely from other coaches and they from him as the footballing world developed a common playbook for adapting those principles to teams that weren’t blessed with Barcelona’s idiosyncratic genius.
The playbook even had a name: ‘juego de posicion’, or positional play.
In Chayka’s essay about the spreading AirSpace aesthetic, a tech investor defended the virtues of bland sameness in religious terms: “If you go to a Catholic church in most parts of the world, the mass is going to feel like the mass.”
It sounded a lot like how Guardiola talks about Cruyff. “Before he came we didn’t have a cathedral of football, this beautiful church, at Barcelona,” he told the Guardian in his first year in Manchester. “To make it and build it and get everyone to follow? Amazing.”
Now that the church of Cruyff had gone global, though, Barcelona weren’t special. Europe’s stadiums were rented rooms; the formations were particleboard furniture. Only the people changed.
Xavi — the new normal
In the last few seasons, a new wave of managers have introduced their brands of positional play to some of the world’s biggest clubs.
Julian Nagelsmann dragged Bayern Munich, who had never totally embraced Guardiola, back to a structured possession game. Mikel Arteta grafted a lot of Manchester City onto Arsenal. Maybe the most symbolic appointment was Erik ten Hag, hired from Ajax to bring Cruyffian football straight from the source to the no longer Fergie-fied Manchester United.
But no coaching hire meant more to a fanbase than Xavi’s long-awaited return to Barcelona. Nobody was sure what to expect — could handing the keys to the central player of the Guardiola era somehow recapture the old magic, the way Guardiola had resuscitated Cruyff? — but after years of aimless recruitment and stylistic drift, fans wanted a coach who stood for something.
It turns out that what Xavi stands for is not the intricate style of his playing days but a simpler, more current kind of positional play. It’s crisp and efficient in an Airbnb sort of way.
In his first year, Xavi’s 4-3-3 looked sort of like this season’s Arsenal: dribbling wingers high and wide; full-backs low and sometimes inside; Pedri doing Martin Odegaard duty between the lines. The difference was Barcelona’s extreme (by their standards, anyway) reliance on crosses.
Instead of trusting his midfielders to riff off each other the way he and Iniesta used to, Xavi pushed them high and far apart in the channels, where they sometimes looked like decoys whose sole purpose was to make space so the team could get the ball to the wingers, dribble to the byline, cross, win the clearance, repeat.
This season, Barcelona have settled into a de facto 3-2-2-3, pretty similar to what Guardiola has been doing recently at Man City.
They achieve this in a slightly more complicated way, pushing the left back up the sideline and pulling a spare midfielder in from the wing, but the final shape still has positional play’s standard wide, staggered front five and narrow, flexible trapezoid (three at the back and two in midfield or vice versa, depending on the opponent) taking care of distribution and rest defence at the back.
If Xavi’s early tactics were meant to impose certain ideas on his team, this winter’s concept is tailored to the players.
The four-man midfield puts Frenkie de Jong in his best role on the left side of a double pivot, giving a creaky but crafty Busquets a partner so he doesn’t have to cover too much grass in defence. In front of them, there’s room for Pedri (who’s been given more freedom to create on the ball this season) and Gavi (who gets to run around as much as he likes as a false left-winger).
Starting a fourth midfielder on the left wing helps cover up one of the squad’s weirder holes: even though Xavi adores dribbling wingers, the two that the club has chosen to sign since he was hired (Raphinha and Ferran Torres — three if you count the brief loan of Adama Traore) are better on the right. When Gavi comes inside, the teenage left-back Alejandro Balde, who’s fast and sort of dribbly, pushes up to do winger things.
At the back, Jules Kounde is Barcelona’s answer to Walker, a defender who’s comfortable as a right-back or third centre-back to give the team a versatile base. Up front, Lewandowski is the attacking focal point of Barcelona’s endless crosses missed last year.
It’s all very organised and reasonable — it’s just not very Cruyffian.
There’s a research paper from 2013 that went looking for evidence of what made peak Barcelona special and found it in patterns called ‘pass motifs‘. For each sequence of three completed passes, the researchers coded the players involved as letters: if Player A passes to Player B, who slides it back to Player A, who turns and sends it the other way to Player C, that sequence would be coded with the motif ABAC.
The study found that Barcelona were a lot more likely than other teams to rely on those triangular ABAC sequences and less likely to play the more strung-out ABCD motif, where three passes involved four different players. Compared to all 97 other teams in the top five leagues in 2012-13, Barcelona’s passing patterns were utterly original.
“FC Barcelona’s famous tiki-taka does not consist of uncountable random passes,” the researchers wrote, “but rather has a precise, finely constructed structure.”
In recent years, their passing motifs haven’t been as distinctive. A few seasons ago, Barcelona still did more triangular ABAC passing and less linear ABCD passing than the average team, but so did clubs such as Manchester City and Liverpool — and even Real Sociedad. For a certain kind of passing team, Cruyffian triangles are the new normal.
This season, Barcelona’s passing patterns are simply average. That doesn’t mean they’re bad at passing — they still complete more passes at a higher success rate than almost any team in Europe — but that they no longer tiki-taka their way around the pitch in a particularly unusual way.
That’s backed up by other un-Cruyffian stats: they’re more reliant on crosses (38 per cent of their open-play passes are into the box, double the 19 per cent from the two seasons before) and long balls out of the back. It’s fine. The team is very good. They’re just not beautifully weird anymore.
Everyone plays a little bit like Barcelona now, and Barcelona plays more like everyone else, too.
Levers and leavers
By the end of the last decade, Airbnb was the target of frequent protests in Barcelona, as locals concerned that the city was losing its character fought to stop vacation rentals. As it turned out, they didn’t need to worry. The 2020 pandemic brought tourism screeching to a halt, temporarily emptying out all those fashionably-boring, placeless rooms.
Nowhere was hit harder than the Camp Nou (Barcelona’s ninth-best attraction, according to TripAdvisor). After years of financial mismanagement, the club’s accounts couldn’t handle the sudden shock of losing almost all income from tourism. Barcelona suddenly discovered they could no longer afford to keep Messi — or almost anyone, really.
Still, president Joan Laporta decided belt-tightening wasn’t an option. The club had to find a way to spend its way back to relevance no matter what it cost. That was how we got last summer’s infamous “economic levers”, Laporta’s euphemism for Barcelona selling off decades of revenue streams to fit new players under La Liga’s salary cap rules.
The levers did what they were meant to do. Barcelona signed almost all the players that they said they would. But as anyone who had glanced over the club’s transfer record would have predicted, only some of them have worked out.
Last season’s raft of desperation signings (Traore, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Memphis Depay) are gone, all except for the most expensive one, Torres, who’s usually buried on the bench.
Of the summer’s crop, Lewandowski, Kounde and Andreas Christensen have all been excellent for Barcelona, though it’s an open question whether the club can actually afford them. Raphinha has been good, not great. Franck Kessie has been mediocre at best, Marcos Alonso just plain bad.
Long story short, the squad needs reinforcements if Barcelona want to compete with the best teams in the world next year. But with the club and La Liga locked in a “cold war” over the league’s salary cap, it’s not clear the cavalry is coming any time soon.
That was the real cost of crashing out of Europe. No revenue from springtime knockout games means less money to sign players, which means less hope of a return to glory next season. It’s the exact opposite of the “virtuous cycle” Laporta promised when he sold his lever plan.
Once upon a time, Barcelona were different from every other football club. Now that’s all up in the air.
(Top photo: David S Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)