Pressure is a nasty, brutal thing that manifests itself in various ways. Rolling into an away match 7 points down in the Liga standings, the querrulous might suggest that a cold, windy Pamplona is precisely the wrong place for a team whose away form has been, at best, funky.
But there it was.
For me, this piece isn’t as much a review, as a question: Does this club want it?
Osasuna wanted it. They wanted the hell out of it, and started the match looking a lot like we were supposed to, applying pressure on the ball, linking passes together and not giving the opponent a moment’s respite in pressing for the early goal. When it came, 5 minutes in, you could try to assess blame all that you like, but it was a team goal. No pressure, no possession, Puyol marking loose, leading to a shot that no keeper alive could have stopped. All three were team goals. When we are playing as we are supposed to, with want, Messi is as much a defender as Puyol. Everyone is all in. We aren’t all in, and ….
Suddenly it was 1-0, and Osasuna were rampant. Their pressure continued to lead to long clearances that did precious little more than cede possession. When it wound up 2-0, again it was done the Barca way, with style, aggression and lovely, lovely passing for a slot home goal that came at an exceptionally perilous time, and sent us into the locker room down 2-0.
At this point, it’s easy to hail the fight back, and the spike that youth players such as Tello and Cuenca brought to the side. Even Sergi Roberto, despite his lack of manliness on a clearance and maybesortatouch on our third disallowed goal, had a fine match. The future is bright, even if the present is still, for me, defined by a surfeit of want. It’s away matches that define a team and its desire. Hostile crowd, pumped up players, unfamiliar pitch.
Unfortunately for us, it has too often been a lack of edge that results in draws and losses. You win the Liga by taking care of business against teams that you are supposed to take care of business against. In the past, we have. If we do this season, we’re sitting pretty. But we haven’t, and I lay it directly at the feet of want.
For you American football fans, recall that the Super Bowl came down to three plays: two passes from Tom Brady to Patriot receivers, both of which hit their hands and were dropped; that absurd pass to Manningham for an even more absurd catch. Want brings that little bit of extra concentration, that extra effort that gets you to the right spot at the fraction of a second that you need to be there.
When I’ve said it it before, I’ve been lambasted. I suspect that I will again. But I just don’t think that there is the same desire that drove the side in the past. Is it the lack of Xavi, the engine room for our attack? Nope. We’ve looked laconic with him in the side. Is it players going from doing it themselves, to thinking that someone else will do it? All valid questions whose answers lie in a 3-2 away defeat and potentially, a 10-point gap in the Liga standings.
For me, that gap isn’t due to injuries or fatigue. The club has had injuries before, it’s been tired before. This is different. Lack of fire? I can’t say. I can say that from what I have been seeing this season, and it’s easy to see how different the past few years have been via downloads or in my case, DVDs of seasons past. There isn’t the same edge, the same quality to the play. Would Pique have allowed his man to so easily get inside him for that third, backbreaking goal? Good question.
What I know is that championships come down to moments. Little things that change or define a match. It’s also a team’s best player stepping up and playing like that best player, not letting the club have things such as today’s match happen.
Yes, urgency came after going down 3-2. But it should have been there all along. And when people say “Oh, the Liga is dead,” I say not until it’s mathematically impossible, in theory.
But in reality, this team has to show me that it wants it. Is it foolhardy to bust legs and lungs, chasing after Liga points when the whole world thinks that EE’s victory is a forgone conclusion? Valid point. Champions League is what we have a real shot at, right? But I say that you take care of business, and put pressure on your opponent, as EE has done, week after week. Then you see how the opponent responds.
In our case, the answers have sort of been “Yeah, whatever.” But not in the obvious sense. It’s positioning, it’s hustle, it’s the concentration that allows a team to read a match and be in the right places, take care of the ball and snuff out danger before it has a chance to develop. As Guardiola said, without the ball, we’re crap. Osasuna, with its gritty, top-class effort, demonstrated that today. But to have the ball, you have to want it.
And I just don’t know that it does any longer, not in the way necessary to get it done against Liga opponents who are, increasingly, smelling blood in the water. It ain’t over til it’s over, but the players, the gladiators, have to want it to not be over.
It isn’t about blaming refs, or conditions. It’s about saying we didn’t get it done, yet again, this season, and having armchair pundits like me ask why. My want theory is just that, a theory, one supported in my own little mind by the lack of edge present in the side, a lack of edge that manifests itself in away matches at first. Can that home invincibility be the next flex point?
It’s easy to say that we didn’t want it enough, and not also give full credit to an Osasuna side that played its heart out. That would be a mistake. Those players worked like dogs, did all the right things and showed a heart and soul that always makes Pamplona a place where it’s pretty easy to get gored.
No, the season isn’t over. Nor is the Liga. But the want has to resurface, and I would imagine that Guardiola is wracking his brain, trying to figure out how to bring it back.
But not the blame game
This is a collective thing that shows how difficult sustained excellence is. For three glorious seasons, this has been the best club footballing side that anyone has ever seen. Psychologically, that’s hard to sustain, even harder to maintain. You can’t actually blame the players for a lack of want. They don’t even know that it has happened, really. How can you? You’re absolutely certain that you’re working as hard as you can. But the want factor is different, and that’s huge.
Excellence has a life cycle, the end of which is unavoidable. To be clear, I am in no way calling the players out for that lack of want. It’s like getting angry at your body when you get sick. Due to any number of factors, it happened. And now you deal with it. I can’t even begin to imagine the soul-crushing pressure that must attend every. last. match. for this side, knowing that the world is watching, waiting for a slip-up, the opportunity to say “A-HA! Told you they weren’t the best!”
What the world doesn’t understand is that these are human beings, striving, week after week, to make sporting magic. Like any other human, they respond to pressures, internal and external and suddenly, things are different.
Believe in this club
It ain’t over til’ it’s over, and it ain’t going to be easy. I’m sure some are saying that Guardiola, with his lineup today, all but said that the Liga is done with. But if you look at the chances that lineup created, he could just as easily have looked line a genius. That’s the game, and the breaks of the game. But a club also makes its own breaks.
The bandwagon is going to get a bit lighter. Let it. This is my club. It’s our club. It burns in my heart, and fills my soul with pride every time I look at my pile of soci cards. But it did the same thing during the last two Rijkaard years, the trophyless ones. That’s just what it does. But I believe, and will continue to believe in this club and love this club, irrespective of what happens in this, or any other season.
Because that’s just how it is.