The great Tostao, centre forward of Brazil’s 1970 side and the wisest voice in his country’s game, recently tried to clear up a basic confusion in football – the difference between ability and technique.
Ability, he wrote, “is the capacity to control the ball, dribble and create special effects in small spaces,” while the latter “is the lucidity in taking the right decision and the sound execution of the fundamentals of the position.”
It is an important distinction. “In recent times,” he continued, “Brazil has produced many more players with ability than those with technique, thinkers who organise the game and are capable of taking the initiative. The Europeans love Brazilian and South American strikers and attacking midfielders, able to dribble and create chances close to the area, while Brazil lacks the great midfielders of Europe, with technique, lucidity and an excellent range of passing, symbols of collective football. The two styles complete each other.”
Has this ever been more apparent than in the current Barcelona team?
Brazil’s Neymar is the classic example of the type of player that the Barcelona academy struggles to produce – precisely because his brand of improvisation is almost impossible to be formally taught.
Luis Suarez has plenty of this, as well. Indeed, a case can be made for the argument that the Uruguayan has suffered an injustice with his exclusion from the Ballon D’Or podium. His skill at playing on the shoulder of the last defender consistently forces the opposing line deep, and thus opens up space for the likes of Neymar.
Suarez has given Barcelona an ingredient they lacked even through the great years of Pep Guardiola – a centre forward fully integrated into the team and its style of play, And he, too is in the best South American tradition of being able to improvise at pace.
Barcelona usually have to buy in their one-on-one dribblers from South America – often seen in the full back positions, too. But there is no need to import the central midfield organisers. This is a type of player that the club are more than proficient at producing.
In the recent 4-0 dismantling of Real Madrid, in their stadium of their rivals, the performance of Sergio Busquets was breathtaking.
Real were determined to press, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez all aggressively attacking the ball. In such circumstances, it takes real nerve to keep playing out of defence.
Barcelona’s style of play, though, is not up for negotiation – which Busquets makes possible. Always available to receive the ball, always prepared to give a first time pass, he knits together the first phase of the team’s possession – and then the second phase belongs to Andres Iniesta.
With his skipping dynamism and the capacity to receive and give the ball in a full arc of 360 degrees, Iniesta can pass holes in the opposition.
Busquets and Iniesta with the technique, Suarez and Neymar with the ability – and Real Madrid were outclassed to such an extent that the score was already 3-0 when Lionel Messi, coming back from injury, was introduced some 11 minutes into the second half. Barcelona had made sure of the points, away to their great rivals, even before their most potent weapon made it on to the field.
What makes Messi so extraordinary is that he excels both in terms of technique and of ability. His reduced space dribbling is superb, the ball tied to his left foot as he changes direction at speed. But he also has the capacity to command a game with the eye of a strategist.
As his club and international colleague Javier Mascherano said last season, “most players are controlled by the game. Messi controls it.” This marks a difference between him and Cristiano Ronaldo – and a difference between most of the game’s wonderfully talented individuals. As his compatriot, the footballing philosopher Jorge Valdano once put it, Messi is a perfect synthesis of Argentine street football and the Barcelona academy.
Messi, then, will share a podium with Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo when the Ballon D’Or is handed over. But he has something extra. Both of the others might be able to claim a wider range of individual moves.
Messi, though, can wield more influence over the collective context – down to the fact that, unlike Ronaldo, he does not seem to regard these awards as an end in themselves, merely as a consequence of well executed teamwork – a process in which he stands out as a consequence of his uncanny combination of ability and technique.