Monthly Archives: July 2015

FC Barcelona – change and continuity

Time for a little break from politics and a look at the changes in personnel at Barça over recent seasons. Last season was the club’s most successful since the glory years of Guardiola. To be the first club to win the prized triplete – league, cup and Champions League – for a second time, was a tremendous achievement.. The team has changed a lot since they managed this feat the first time around in 2009. How much as the squad changed since then? 2009 is a longish time ago, so perhaps a more relevant comparison is with the squad which last won the Champions League in 2011. The most striking difference is with the coaching team. Since Guardiola left the club in 2012 the team has had three different coaches, one for each season. Luis Enrique, a former player, took over at the beginning of last season and, after a bit of a shaky start, led the team to the three trophies. Luis Enrique is a very different person from Guardiola. He is less media friendly and seems to be even more stringent and demanding of the players than Guardiola. Whatever goes on behind the scenes, it certainly worked for last season. Repeating any kind of success is of course even more challenging, both for the coach and the players.

Though the current team has many similarities with Guardiola’s teams, there are some small but significant differences. In terms of playing style, this has not changed much, but the current team is a bit more direct at times and is not as secure at retaining possession as previous teams. This is probably due to other teams working out how Barça play and trying even harder to disrupt this possession. This probably explains why the team now counter attack more often. There is no point in over egging this change. It is only marginal as Barça still usually dominate possession and mostly try to play, sometimes overplay, their way to the opposition goal.

The biggest changes are to do with the players. In summary the team has fewer Spanish and Catalan players and fewer players have come through from the youth set-up, the famous cantera.  The team that started the 2011 Champions League final included seven Spanish players of whom four were from Catalunya. The 18 man squad for the final contained a further four Spanish nationals, of whom two were Catalans. By contrast for the 2015 final the figures were completely reversed when it came to nationality. Only four of the starting 11 were from Spain, though three of them were Catalans. Out of the 18 man squad, seven were Spanish, of whom five were Catalans. It is clear that the team and the larger squad has become progressively less Spanish and much more international. Though the number of Catalans in the team and squad has declined less so. In a sense the team is slightly more Catalan than Spanish, but overall it is more international. Below is a table showing a comparison of the two squads by nationality.

2011

2015

Starting 11
Spanish Iniesta Iniesta
Villa
Pedro
Catalan Valdés Piqué
Piqué Busquets
Busquets Alba
Xavi
Other Alves Ter-Stegen
Mascherano Alves
Abidal Mascherano
Messi Rakitić
Messi
Suarez
Neymar
Substitutes
Spanish Olazábal Pedro
Thiago
Catalan Puyol Bartra
Bojan Xavi
Other Adriano Bravo
Safely Adriano
Keita Mathieu
Rafinha

There is just as marked a difference when it comes to players who have progressed from the youth team to the first team. In 2011 the starting 11 included no fewer than seven players who had been formed in the youth team. One of these, Piqué, had left and returned, but the other six had been with the club for all of their careers. Some would leave after 2011, but at that time they had been with Barça for just about all of their professional career. A further four players from the youth team were included among the substitutes. By the 2015 there were fewer former youth team players in the starting team –  five instead of seven. These included Alba, another player who had left the youth team only to return. The substitutes included a further four players who had come through the youth team. Barcelona’s youth teams take in players from all over the world and the most famous of them all is from Argentina – Lionel Messi. However of the nine who were in the squad for the 2015 final, five were from Catalunya.

2011

2015

From Youth Team
Starting 11 Valdés Piqué
Piqué Alba
Busquets Busquets
Xavi Iniesta
Iniesta Messi
Messi
Pedro
Substitutes Puyol Xavi
Thiago Pedro
Bojan Rafinha
Olazábal Bartra

Looking ahead this trend is only likely to continue at least for the foreseeable future. It does not look like any of the current crop of youngsters is ready to make the jump to regular first team football. Rafinha, Sergi Roberto and the third goalkeeper, Masip, will continue to form part of the first team squad, but are unlikely to dislodge the current first choice players. Either Sandro or Munir may get a chance to join the first team squad, particularly if Pedro does finally decide to leave.  As the B team has just descended from the second to the third division its future is a bit uncertain, so it will probably take a few years before the youth team will produce any new future stars.

Two big name signings have been made, though neither can play until next January, due to the FIFA ban. Aleix Vidal is a Catalan who has signed from Sevilla. He is likely to be the long term replacement for Dani Alves at right back. Arda Turan is a Turkish international who has come from Atletico Madrid. Not quite sure where he will fit in. He seems most similar to Iniesta, but he has a good few years left in him at the top level. We will all find out from January onwards.

In the meantime the immediate future will rest will the same players who achieved the treble last season. Minus Xavi who has left for the Gulf. This leaves an opening for either Rafinha or Sergi Roberto, at least until January. Vermaelen seems to have recovered from his injury and if he stays fit will offer extra cover for the defence. Roll on the start of the season!

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Syriza – And Now?

As a former UK Prime Minister once said, a week is a long time in politics. Mind  you, it did not take a whole week for the political situation in Greece to gyrate almost 180 degrees. The big No vote against the EU imposed austerity measures barely lasted a day. Greece has now put forward new proposals which look remarkably like the one they rejected a week ago. These new proposals have even been enthusiastically approved by the Greek parliament. What is going on?

As I and others have consistently pointed out there is a yawning chasm at the heart of Syriza’s platform. This was to end austerity and to stay in the Euro. It was never made clear how they would be able to achieve both. The first, ending austerity, was not and still is not, something that Greece can do on its own. It needs the agreement of the infamous Troika, which is not really just three players, but anything up to 21. To get an agreement on changing the bailout conditions and thus ending austerity, Greece needed the approval of all 18 of the other eurozone members. Some of whom need to get Parliamentary approval to do so. Some are smaller and poorer than Greece, and they find it difficult to understand why Greece needs so much additional support.

The other big problem for Syriza is that while an overwhelming majority of Greeks want both an end to austerity and to stay in the Euro, Syriza never explained what might happen if both were not achievable. In large part this may be because the majority in Syriza regards euro membership as essential for the long term future of Greece. In this they are supported by an overwhelming majority of the Greek population. Polls consistently show anything between 70% and 80% in favour of staying in the eurozone.

However Syriza never really engaged with the people of Greece in terms of what alternatives there might be to not getting an agreement with the EU. Which makes last weekend’s referendum all the more puzzling. It is all very well to say you want to strengthen your hand in the negotiations, but for that you need to be able to threaten the others with something. That something could only be a default and with it a possible Grexit. But this is precisely what Syriza refused to do. It made it crystal clear that a No vote was not a vote for either default or Grexit. So what precisely was the point of the referendum?

Some informed commentators, with good contacts with leading Syriza members, have stated that the Syriza leadership expected to lose the referendum. They had reached the end of the road and wanted someone else to take on the burden of agreeing a new deal, with the extra austerity this would entail. This reading certainly makes some sense and is further borne out by the fact that after the resounding No vote, Syriza had no new proposals in place. It took until late on Thursday evening for their new plan to reach Brussels.

Whatever he expected from the referendum, given the massive No vote, Tsipras had no choice but to continue as Prime Minister. However he moved quickly to shore up his position by getting formal support from the main opposition parties in the Parliament. Hence the big vote in Parliament for the new EU proposals. Everyone now awaits the various meetings which will take place in Brussels tomorrow, Sunday. Most commentators expect the EU to agree on a new package for Greece, though it is by no means guaranteed.

What next for Syriza? If the deal goes ahead then the current financial crisis should end, and the banks reopen. The reforms will need to be legislated for and then implemented. Something that has not really happened up to now. Though the new austerity measures will be hard for many Greeks and completely unnecessary in economic terms, there is still much that a radical left government could do. Not everything depends on money. Once the negotiations are over, perhaps Syriza can spend more time on actually governing and implementing some of the small, but essential changes that will in time improve things for the majority of Greeks. Reducing the rather large military spending for example.

Other radical left forces in the EU need to reflect long and hard on the recent developments in Greece. In particular do not promise to achieve two objectives that are likely to be incompatible. In the case of Greece this was promising to end austerity and stay in the Euro. It is not that these two objectives could not be achieved, but rather that, given the current configuration of power within the EU, it was most unlikely. Power in the EU rests with the governments of the member states. And to the misfortune of Greece, almost all of these governments are right wing governments, some of them very right wing. All are committed to austerity and neoliberalism. All have been legitimately and democratically elected, so this is not a conflict between democracy and unelected institutions.

This should not have been news to Syriza. Which makes it all the more incomprehensible that they pointlessly stuck to their original plan. Which seems to have amounted to nothing more than hoping that the other 18 eurozone governments would be swayed by the eloquence of Varoufakis. In this situation it matters not a jot that Varoufakis may be right. What matters is that the others have the power and Greece did not and does not.

The only alternative to accepting a bad deal was to go for no deal and default and probably leave the eurozone. But the people of Greece, including the Syriza government, have consistently made clear that that choice would likely be even worse. Many commentators have urged Syriza to go for a Grexit, on the grounds that a devaluation would speed up an economic recovery and that anyway, things are so bad that they cannot get any worse.

I think they are wrong on both counts. Those arguing for a return of the Drachma and a massive devaluation point to the likes of Argentina and Canada as examples of where this has worked. This seems to me to ignore both that Greece and its economy is nothing like either Argentina or Canada, and just as importantly the global economy is pretty much stagnant at best right now. In the previous examples, both Argentina and Canada benefitted from rising global demand. Not to mention that Greece imports more than it exports.

As regards the argument that things are so bad, why not just go for it, this seems to me to be irresponsible in the extreme. Just to remind some people, things can actually get worse. In fact things can get a lot worse. The people of Greece need all the support they can get, but false promises of a new dawn are the last thing they need just now. Syriza in government can still make a difference to the lives of the majority of Greeks. Not as much of a difference as they would have liked, but still a difference. Let us wish them well and offer any support we can.

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Puerto Rico and Greece

While just about everyone is fixated on developments in Greece and the outcome of Sunday’s referendum, another little crisis is brewing away nicely on the other side of the Atlantic. Puerto Rico may be a few thousand miles away from Greece, but it is not a million miles away in terms of its economic woes. Even Paul Krugman took time to pen a brief article on Puerto Rico. So what is up on the sun drenched island?

Unsustainable debt is the short answer. According to the New York Times the state’s debt has ballooned because of a failing economy and an inefficient government that has taken in more that it has spent. Sounds a lot like Greece. Puerto Rico’s governor, Mr Garcia Padilla has declared that the state’s
$72bn debt is unpayable. Like Greece, Puerto Rico is now faced with further austerity. And in an further eerie parallel with Greece, the IMF has waded in with a call for debt relief. In the case of Puerto Rico this has come in the shape of a report issued by three former IMF and World Bank officials. They state quite categorically that even big spending cuts and tax increases will not fix the fundamental problem.

So, for both Greece and Puerto Rico a key element in any sustainable plan will include some debt relief and an extension of the pay back time for the rest of the debt. There is an added hurdle for Puerto Rico to overcome to get this part right. As a Commonwealth and not a fully paid up state of the US, Puerto Rico is not covered by the Federal bankruptcy law for municipalities and states. Basically this means that Puerto Rico cannot legally default! Action on this will need to be taken in Washington by Congress.

However there is no such thing as a free lunch. In exchange for debt relief, US commentators all seem to be in agreement that investors and Congress should press Puerto Rico to make significant regulatory reforms. Or, as the Economist likes to put it, many of the reforms needed to revive growth must be ordered from Washington.

With luck, both Puerto Rico and Greece can reach an agreement that is satisfactory to both sides, but in both cases it will involve some degree of continued austerity and almost certainly some economic changes that many will find difficult to accept. The alternative of a forced default is likely to prove even more unpalatable.

A couple of key differences in respect of the two crisis. Both Puerto Rico and Greece are part of a single currency zone. While many are using the Greek crisis as an opportunity to question the whole of the eurozone and its survival, nobody is doing this in relation to Puerto Rico. Whatever happens there, no-one is going to raise questions about the sustainability of the dollar zone. It also does not look like that anyone is calling for Puerto Rico to be expelled from the dollar zone either.

Another key difference is that Puerto Rico only has to deal with two political intermediaries – the President and Congress. Contrast that with Greece, which has to negotiate with the IMF, European Commission and all 18 other member states in the eurozone. While most commentators focus on Germany, all of the other 17 governments have their own concerns and electorates to worry about. Not to mention their own veto on any new deal with Greece. It should raise the question as to how Syriza has managed to alienate all of these partners?

Greece and Puerto Rico desperately need an agreed deal. I am not at all sure what outcome in Greece tomorrow is more likely to promote an agreement. One situation where I am glad I do not have a vote.

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