Though I confess to being entertained by Ray Ray, I don’t often agree with his stone table pronouncements about The Way Things Are. But today, as the match began, his observations about our side and its shape were spot on. He eschewed any real designations for the formation(s) that we play, instead calling it “amoeba.” How right he is, hell, even as amoebas move by changing the shape of their bodies, ask yourself how Messi, Cuenca and Iniesta got out of some of the spots they were in today.
Yes, we start out in a formation, but what can you really call it when Fabregas is playing defender, breaking up an attack in our box before threading a pass that starts an attack the other way, then dashing down to join in on the attack. A label-defying shapelessness. “Total football?” Dunno. I do know it’s beautiful, and when it’s played the way that it was today, it warms the cockles of my cold little heart.
After the Getafe mess, Guardiola said this club will be fine, and he was right. There is too much talent for the club not to be fine. The simple complexity is that sometimes, that talent isn’t used to its full effectiveness, for whatever reason. And it’s soul-illuminating outings such as today’s destruction of the 4th-placed side in the Liga, that make those clunky outings so frustrating. There is so much beauty present in this team, this once in a lifetime bunch, that we get used to the sparkle, the footsteps that seem to strike ocular glitter from the pitch as our diminutive sprites work their magic. They make it look so easy, so fluent. It is just when we question the matches where they go through the motions. Is it the burden of expectations? Not for me.
No, for me, it is that such loveliness deserves its reward. Those brilliant “total football” sides didn’t have the success their mellifluous elegance deserved, the success that makes people say “See, the game can be beautiful and effective.” As they say of us. This club needs to pile up as much silver as it can, like a singer in her prime who nabs sales and artistic awards galore, stockpiling accolades to build a fortress of comfort for the time when the voice isn’t as pretty, its range shortened and suddenly rough around the edges.
And what a time for our beauties to return to us. Levante rolled into town a mere week before El Clasic, probably thinking they would find us distracted and nervous, anticipating the titanic struggle that is to come, rather than taking them seriously enough to be at our absolute best. They were right and wrong, right in that El Clasic was definitely on the brain, wrong in that the state in which they would find us. They also had the great misfortune of being the tuneup opponent, the one that helps the club figure out the form the week before a big match. Levante was therapy, in other words.
Guardiola rolled out with a lineup that I have mentioned being desirous of for the Clasic, Valdes, Mascherano, Puyol, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Sanchez, Cuenca, Messi. But frankly, I was surprised to see it, even as its vindication was evident. Width, pace and movement were the hallmarks of a side that looked like marbles in a giant glass bowl. It wasn’t that Levante played poorly. Far from it. They were organized defensively, and aggressive at both ends of the pitch, determined to play like men, rather than just keeping 10 behind the ball. They came at us with midfield pressure and tight lines. But they had to hit the reset button after about 3 minutes, as Messi, Iniesta and Fabregas combined for the first of a series of exquisite goals. On paper and the pitch, it looked so simple: Messi passed to Iniesta who passed to Fabregas who slotted home.
In reality, it was one player, measuring the defense right down to the way it closed spaces and the pace at which it would do so, then striking his pass with the precise amount of weight to get it through that defense, but not so hard that the receiver can’t control and redirect it. It was a pass that was exactly right. Then the receiver has to, rather than controlling the ball and giving the defense the opportunity to close down, almost parry the ball with his heel, into space for the teammate that he already knows will be exactly where he already is, because Iniesta created the space with his run toward the box. So his backheel was flicked to Fabregas, who hit a shot that was hard enough to sizzle, but not so hard as not to be precisely controllable, placed in the sliver of space between the post and a diving keeper.
But on screen, it was “Pip, pang, goal.” And there was much rejoicing.
Ray Ray said that “Knowing where it’s going to be, you’ve won three-fourths of the battle.” Which is exactly right. Our players aren’t telepaths, even though they are footballing savants. But they know, because the system has taught them, the same system that nurtured every last one of them, the same system that fast learners such as Abidal have now become part of.
The biggest difference today was movement, movement of the kind that always leaves every player with a passing option, that helps the defense by shutting down the midfield by filling it with kicking, clawing little people who want the ball back, so they can resume making like the inside of a supercollider. Movement makes goals. But movement, the kind of movement we saw today, is admittedly impossible to pull off every match. But it’s the kind of movement that makes us the best club in the world, a club that today, would have beaten any club that it faced. It just happened to be Levante, who could only shrug and glare in wonderment and the opponent does the impossible.
The second goal was atypical for us, scored off a header from a set piece. And again, simple on its surface, as Xavi plonked a ball onto the poorly coiffed head of Fabregas, who headed the ball to the one spot the keeper couldn’t get to, something that Sanchez didn’t take notes on when he had his header opportunity, it must be noted. But again, it was a goal of such exquisite precision as to boggle the mind. Drogba today, against Newcastle, hit a rocket of a header that if the keeper had gotten a hand to it, would have knocked him back into the net with the ball. The Fabregas header was a deft, glancing blow that was flawlessly placed. With his head.
At this point in time, Levante were done. No way were they going to score two goals, because the movement and aggression were back, qualities that limit the comfort, the chances that a team has to score against us. They had two excellent ones. Valdes stopped them both. Done. Their keeper was excellent today, which didn’t matter, because none of our goals made all that much sense in a real world in which such things aren’t really possible. I think of a recent episode of the wonderful “Top Gear,” in which Jeremy Clarkson was driving a replical of a Lotus Formula One car. He explained that the car was difficult to drive because it was faster than his mind would comfortably fathom. So he would brake three times sooner than the car needed to make a corner.
So it was with our third goal, a work of art that saw Cuenca as the beneficiary of the largesse of Messi and Iniesta. Again, Messi smote a pass for Iniesta, who simply moved it along to Cuenca, who calmly bent the ball around a diving keeper, who probably figured he had it, that that …. that …. kid wouldn’t have the presence of mind to hit that kind of a shot, the perfectly bent ball that made diving, a keeper’s anticipation and knowledge, as useful as a umbrella in a rock slide.
Were we scoring goals for fun? No, we were scoring them for practice, reacquainting ourselves with being at absolute best. The goals were rooted in movement and excellence, not formations, Xs and Os. It was Alves scrambling, fighting, hustling to win a ball back and put it in the perfect spot for Messi to slot home. How do you defend the indefensible? Two weeks ago, Alves probably loses that battle. Not today. Not a week before El Clasic. Not when he and the club have to be at their absolute best.
In addition to movement, width was back. Real width, not the fake stuff that comes from players taking the ball out wide and cutting in to make an already congested middle of the pitch more so. Cuenca hugged the right sideline, and Sanchez set up station at extreme left. As both players were dangerous, when Xavi wisely sprayed balls out to them, Levante’s defense absolutely had to shift. A club would be crazy not to play the ball, right? It becomes a daft decision time of whether you just leave Cuenca on his own, staying home on the likes of Messi and Fabregas, or whether you play the ball. Whatever you do, the answer is almost certainly going to be wrong.
Yes, this means you’re a little loose, because Messi and Iniesta are the dangers. So when Sanchez takes a ball on the left, he has a little more space than he probably should have. He takes a little shimmy to create a bit more, then bends/lobs an amazing shot that caroms off the underside of the crossbar before nestling into its rightful place, in back of the net. It was goal that made me scream with delight, because it started in the very very back of the pitch, in the corner from which Abidal banged a foot-perfect pass to Xavi after some deft interplay with Cuenca. Then it’s Xavi to Messi to Sanchez to yield another offering at the altar of beauty.
And the side could turn it down a notch or three, coasting home with the confidence that it is ready for the test that is to come, against an opponent that is better, more prepared than it has ever been, an opponent that cost Levante its dignity, as we took them seriously because of the task at hand: preparing for a titanic struggle against a powerful foe. Yes, it was as simple as that, but it was also indescribably beautiful.
Team: 9. Allowed Levante some time with the ball as Kone’s pace and strength were surprising. But apart from that, what a match, on every level.
Guardiola: 10. Right lineup, right strategy, right substitutions. He has his side at its best at the exact time that it has to be.
Valdes: 8. Extraordinary stop 1-v-1 against Kone. Yes, the attacker panicked a bit, but Valdes made himself huge and showed excellent reflexes. He has to stop spraying balls from the back, however. Could be dangerous against the wrong opponent.
Mascherano: 10. Ray Ray was justifiably having gush fits about his performance, including the one remarkable sequence where he stopped two different Levante players, then played the ball brilliantly out of the back. He’s our best defender right now.
Puyol: 8. Very strong match. He has a spiritual presence that is hard to define, but it’s there. The defense is tighter, better-marshaled when he’s in the side. He and Mascherano worked very well together.
Abidal: 8. A few fraught moments, including a lapse on the header that Valdes had to save but overall, an excellent match as he outran everyone and everything. All the time.
Busquets: 8. He played to a higher score, with omnipresence in the defensive midfield. He kept the ball moving, stole it from Levante attackers and almost always made the right pass. But his “I’m dead! I’m dead!” routine almost cost the club, as an attack streamed right through the space he would have been occupying, had he not gone fetal. Stop it. Just stop it.
Xavi: 9. There were actually a couple of (shudder) errant passes, but he was thriving in the space created by the presence of Iniesta and Fabregas. He understands the value of width, as he constantly played wide balls to Sanchez and Cuenca.
Iniesta: 8. What a match for La Illusionista, who had a hand in two goals, should have scored another himself and sparkled with the kind of aggressive movement that makes us a much more dangerous side. The difference when he’s in there is so easy to see.
Fabregas: 9. Scored a brace, made lovely passes, tracked back on defense, even threw in a Prem-quality strategic foul. Awesome, awesome match.
Sanchez: 8. A constant threat, with or without the ball, and what a golazo he threw in. His pace and creativity make him a very different prospect for teams to consider on the wing. I suspect he will start the Clasic, with Villa as the impact sub.
Cuenca!: 9. Some moments of positional uncertainty, along with a beautifully taken goal, and the tactical discipline that saw him hugging the right sideline to maintain width and the threat of an active winger. This dude is for real.
Messi: 7. The strongest match he has played in some time, even as he was a little subdued, clearly marshaling his energies for the big fish. A constant danger that would materialize at horrifying times for Levante. Two defense-splitting passes and one goal himself (which should have been three, as he badly missed a couple of sitters).
Keita (for Busquets): 5. Disappeared, with occasional appearances to do his Keita Thing. “I’m in the way. Neener, neener!” Then vanish again.
Alves (for Puyol): 6. Would probably have played to a higher rating with more time. He still gets caught pinched in toward the middle too much for my tasters.
Pedro (for Fabregas): incomplete. His pace energy are wonderful, as he seems to always be working under the instructions of “Go chase the ball!” And this he does, tirelessly.
For me, the revelation of the match was Cuenca. He is playing to a level beyond his years, and is creating quite the selection headache for Guardiola, who has to want him in, because of the effect that he has on the right side of pitch, as he seems to always be able to find a way around his defender. So in his honor ….