I don’t have many wishes, nor do I really believe in the concept as a construct of anything that we know on this plane of existence. But if such things were so, if wishing something could make it actually happen, I would wish that people could understand exactly what in the star-crossed hell we’re seeing here.
Because it is fundamentally absurd. Let’s recap:
–FC Barcelona has dropped two points this Liga season, in a draw to its most hated rival.
–In today’s 14th of 38 matches in the Liga season, it dismantled a brave opponent.
–Lionel Messi, 14 matches into the Liga season, has 21 league goals.
–This club is off to the best start in Liga history, amid a back line injury crisis of Biblical proportions.
–The club is 11 points up on its most hated rival, and 6 up on the second-place club.
It’s pretty difficult to get my mind around, but I admit to having a pretty little brain.
People, myself included, often scoff at cules who don’t understand how extraordinary this all is, calling them spoiled. But they aren’t spoiled. It’s just this is all that they know. Put another way, you come home from work, and your spouse greets you with a hug and a kiss, rubs your feet, brings you dinner then asks if there’s anything else you need. This goes on for four years. The first time you come home from work to a messy home, sore feet and leftovers, are you spoiled, or merely conditioned to expect great things?
This is the lot of the cule.
We squabble about players, fair or unfair coaches, rarely stopping to think “This club has THE best, or one of the best players in the world at every position. Of course it’s going to be hard for someone to just waltz right into that lineup and make a difference.” It’s The Way Things Are. What would be an excellent year for another club is “not good enough, we should sell him” for this club. And it’s nobody’s fault. It’s only the fault of the conditioning that leads people to expect the extraordinary.
In the one-paragraph recap of How Did We Get Here, Frank Rijkaard led FCB to two silverless seasons, whereupon Pep Guardiola took over and promptly won everything in sight. Trophies, card games, lotteries, stuffed animals at carnivals …. everything, then almost did it again and again, until having a season with no major silver and handing the reins over to his assistant, Tito Vilanova.
Now, forgive me if everyone knows all this, but I want to get it down so that we understand what we’re working with here.
While winning everything, the team played a beautiful, uplifting brand of football that gained fans left and right, sent press critters into spasms of ecstasy and left opponents and ex-player pundits to gibber praise.
This is what we have known since the 2008-2009 season. But it’s also a condition that makes what we are seeing here kinda difficult to understand. I finally got my head around it today, first watching us after having watched two matches from The Best League in the World as I sat there, wondering just what in the hell they were doing with the ball. And then, during our match, again understanding hit while watching a goal that didn’t come off, a magic trick in the box that made me actually scream “That didn’t just happen!” But it did.
We aren’t just seeing history, manifested in things like all eleven players on the pitch during a match being from La Masia, or Messi threatening Gerd Muller’s historic, “never-to-be-broken” record. We are seeing something extraordinary and expectation defining/defying, something made even better because it is quite the surprise.
When Guardiola left amid tears, shock and disbelief, nobody knew what was going to happen when Vilanova took over. Everyone figured “Hell, he knows the players and the system, and he probably won’t screw it up and stuff.” What Vilanova did instead was make this club more dangerous. Yes, it has always been at times direct. As Linda notes in her excellent post, the notion that before Vilanova, all we did was pass the ball around and then score some geometric lovely of a goal is an illusion, as well as being nonsense.
Rijkaard was a friend. And for a while, that was what the club needed in order to give its best. The problem with a friend is there is no whip hand. Enter Guardiola, who was a father. Stern at times, soft at others, he had a parent’s belief in things, a faith in players and a way of doing things that sometimes took things too far, or left things too late. Enter Vilanova, who is a coach, concerned with the system and its execution, perfectly willing to shift, discard, cobble and fiddle to achieve an intended result.
The progression is perfect. Guardiola taught them how to drive, then tossed Vilanova the keys.
So what the hell does all this have to do with the Athletic Bilbao match, dammit? Nothing, and everything. Athletic Bilbao is just another opponent, another brick in the wall of unprecedented Liga success. Athletic Bilbao is also representative of the thing that makes what we are seeing so extraordinary: no fear.
During the first two years of the Guardiola reign, the club had a head start because people were afraid of it. Opponents huddled on the rocks like otters when polar bears are on the swim, trying not to be eaten. It wasn’t until the last year of Guardiola’s tenure that opponents said “Hey, what would happen if we got down from the rocks, and fought back?” Different opponents chose different ways to fight back, but they all started fighting back, rather than sitting around, waiting for death by tika taka.
In the season of Vilanova, there is no more fear, so the victories, the dismantlings, are coming through sheer quality, through facing an opponent that comes at us like an equal, taking their best and putting the hammer down. It really is a spectacular thing. Bilbao came out fighting, pushing, shoving, pressing, gaining and holding possession, playing football. We kept turning the screws, coming closer and closer with plays, passes and runs in a match that was kinda breathless and, frankly, a little nervous-making.
And then, suddenly, boom. A sequence of beautiful play led to an ugly goal, a scrap picked up by Gerard Pique and bashed home, a goal worthy not of sonnets but of four-leaf clovers and an exclaimed “Hey, look what I found!” Yes, it was the beautiful play that created the luck but that first goal was, typically in this typically atypical season, typical of how Vilanova’s charges have been getting it done — any way possible.
The second goal too, came from circumstance created by exquisite play as Messi took a pass, rounded the keeper and, a little too cheekily, tapped the ball toward goal. But it look a lunging Athletic defender to slam it fully home. Beauty and circumstance colluding for our greater good.
That third goal, however, was a swashbuckling thing of beauty, an almost RM-like goal in which the pitch swapped ends with startling directness, and Fabregas slid a perfect ball to Adriano who, on the dead run and in perfect stride, slammed it home. All five goals today had one thing in common: minimal doses of the tika taka that people think is (still) the only way that this club can score.
This Vilanova Barca is less patient, and more dangerous because of that impatience. It is more dangerous because, like its coach, it is a results-driven beast that cares little for beauty. Yes, this club now, as always, seeks beauty and often finds it. But it will also bang a ball over the top to a running attacker, or clog the box with kicking sprites digging for gold with their cleats. The results are the thing.
Cesc Fabregas has found his way, becoming a valuable cog in the attack, a molasses-slow player who is, nonetheless, in the right spot with amazing frequency. Andres Iniesta is, before our eyes, becoming the player that his legend says that he already is, verging on becoming essentially unplayable. “Just foul him, dammit.” This team isn’t about clean sheets, or seeking perfection. It’s about scoring one more goal than its opponent, a pragmatism that already reflects the man holding the strings.
It seems so logical now, even as none of us could have possibly predicted that this would happen, like one of those plays where somebody flicks a back heel to someone, who volleys to someone else, who slide-rules a ball that rolls precisely to the feet of a player running at full speed, just like it was planned. We’re too busy screaming about the goal to think “Wait a freaking minute! That was pretty stupid. Let me see that again.”
But we need to understand this thing, this stuff that we’re seeing.
Curiously, this match comes hot on the heels of a very recent re-watching of the famous manita, an ass-whipping of epic proportions and probably one of the best matches of football that you will ever see played. Compared to that beast, Vilanova’s group is more precarious, leaving you on the edge of your seat until a Mascherano leg or Pique interception allows us to exhale. Yet it is just as controlled and so far more successful, even as it makes us rend our garments in emotion.
Only Iniesta and Busquets are playing at the mind-boggling level of that manita side, and yet this current club is doing better, making Liga history with every successful match. What will happen when everyone is fit and back to form, apart from cules fainting with glee? Good question, but one that doesn’t really concern me because I am too busy watching something remarkable.
Yet because people like to compare, at some point attentions will turn to Vilanova’s vs Guardiola’s. And I will laugh, not only because they are the same, but because only a churl would endeavor to parse joy.