It’s a classic fiction trope: take two similar (if not identical) characters (not necessarily protagonists, but for this article they will be), switch them out for each other, and see what havoc (or lack thereof) ensues. See The Prince and the Pauper, The Parent Trap, The Lizzie McGuire Movie, The Horse and his Boy, an episode of Xena, Warrior Princess, an episode of Wishbone covering The Prince and the Pauper, an episode of The Simpsons, and, well, you get my drift. Culturally speaking, it’s been done a few times over. What if we applied the Prince and Pauper situation to soccer? I won’t flatter myself by thinking I was the first to come up with this idea.
Take two teams that, despite wildly different backgrounds, appear similar (at least in terms of success). Why not, Barcelona and Manchester United? Let’s imagine that Michel Platini had a bad acid trip and mandated that the two teams switch leagues for three seasons. What would we learn about Barca and Man U? About the Premier League and La Liga? Let’s assume that, for laboratory purposes, the teams remain at their same quality level over the three seasons (through signings, magic, or what have you).
Let’s take Manchester United first. The empirical evidence gained from imagining this aggressive speed (not possession)-oriented offense would belie difficulties approaching many possession-oriented Spanish teams. In the Premier League, only a few teams retain possession better than Man U, and United are simply better at creating opportunities and finishing (which often leads to greater possession). 17/20 teams in the Premier League play United’s game, and if United are the best at playing their own game, then it makes sense that they win year after year. Going to Spain would obviously be different and problematic.
Don’t get me wrong, United would probably own most teams in La Liga, defending staunchly, winning balls in the air, and counterattacking with speed and aggression. But they’d be susceptible to a team that could hold possession well, or one who was disciplined enough to cancel out Rooney and the flanks. Man U have been 50/50 against Manchester City since they commandeered David Silva, Sergio Aguero, and Yaya Toure (aka, former giants of La Liga).
The physical evidence doesn’t leave us any more confident. United were recently unceremoniously bounced from the Europa League by a Bielsa-led and 11th-placed Athletic Bilbao squad. Among the several factors that led to the first leg 3-2 win noted by Michael Cox, notable were Bilbao’s pressing and ability to retain possession, creating more chances. The second leg was a similar story, and United were unable to cope with Bilbao’s energy, which Cox calls “lightyears ahead” in terms of attitude.
You’d have to assume United would get every La Liga team’s best shot, and would be seeing a lot of similar tactical attention. Take into account that United have been embarrassed by Barca in two of the last three Champions Leagues, and it leaves you wondering about the gap in quality between the two leagues. That said, I imagine United would do well in La Liga, just not well enough to win it. They’d probably finish second (if not third) to Real Madrid at least once, and probably all three years they were there.
If United would be negatively impacted by the translation of their style into the tactical politics of La Liga, Barcelona would (in all likelihood) be positively impacted. Let’s remember that Barcelona have been the best team in the world for the last four years. It’s not quite a fair comparison to put them in any league. Their style is developed to dominate other teams, squelching out any opportunity to be aggressive, defending through offense. I imagine the average team in the EPL would be befuddled into submission by the tiki taka and possession based game of the blaugrana. In fact, I imagine Barcelona would get even more boring against the likes of QPR and Blackburn.
What of the supposed increased physicality and speed of the EPL style? Well, at the highest level, Barcelona would certainly be susceptible. Chelsea and Arsenal have both shown in the Champions League they can hang with Barca in a one-off. Man City plays a more Spanish-like style than anyone else in the EPL, so they would theoretically be a good match-up as well. Also, you’d have to imagine the physicality imposed by players like Ryan Shawcross or Nigel De Jong would eventually make its mark, leading to (God forbid) injuries to Messi and co. that might impact their seasons. That said, once the EPL players began seeing yellow and red for persistent fouling, teams would be either at a loss for how to compete, or at a disadvantage after losing a player.
Imagine what Barcelona would do if they had a whole new set of trophies to win, if they could free themselves of the hum-drum schedule of La Liga, and Pep didn’t have to give an arm and a leg to get the players motivated to win? (To be fair, the same could be said of United…but United haven’t been nearly as dominant over the last few years as Barca). In practice, I imagine Barcelona would win the league all three years (again, given identical quality of play each year). There is always the chance that EPL managers could figure out a way to beat Barca consistently. But even then, Pep would probably find a new way to deploy his embarrassment of riches and put English teams into shock all over again.
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