Can little people run hurdles? If so, yet another one was leapt today as FC Barcelona has gotten off to the best start in club history.
— Better than last season, in which the club won a Liga in record-settings style
— Better than any of the Guardiola years
— Just plain better
And on a day when Chelsea drew and both Manchesters lost, our club went about its business-as-usual with high style at times, but with more than enough effectiveness to get the job done. Another win, another three points, another clean sheet.
The chronicling of the event is drab and rather bloodless. Barça sashayed around as if some of them were still hitting the snooze button back at the hotel. Almeria came out with the intent to show intent, eventually … as soon as they stopped being scared, when IT happened:
Dribble the ball, give and go, defy physics, off the post, nothing but net.
I was having breakfast during that remarkable Messi goal, dropped my fork and lost a little bit of my pancakes to the front of my shirt. After a goal like that, the keeper yells at his defense because that’s what keepers are supposed to do. But really, that was indefensible goal, mostly because you really don’t consider those sorts of options. Any keeper will play for the likely, the within the realm of human capability.
Then a player such as Messi does something like that. You half expect the keeper to run out and join in the Barça huddle to congratulate him, such was the quality of that goal.
It was 0-1, and that was about as threatening as Almeria really got. Then Messi pulled up with a thigh injury (will miss Celtic and Valladolid, back after that), and something remarkable happened, aside from every culer in the universe except for me swallowing their heart:
Martino made the exact right substitution in bringing in Xavi, and that was the match. Because thanks to rotation and sensible man usage, Xavi was daisy fresh, capering about the pitch as though he was (shudder!) rested. The result was iron-clad ball and match control, that continued on until the second half, when Fabregas worked some magic, slid the ball to a hurtling Adriano, and it was 0-2. Game, set, match.
To be sure, there were moments when Almeria had a ball in our end. A few. There were moments where they might have even scored against a lesser team, but they had the great misfortune to be playing us. In their end, when we lost the ball, three players converged on the Almeria player who had the ball. In midfield, Busquets just shut everything down. In our half, Bartra grew into the match, backstopped by Pique.
This last was an interesting switch in roles, as usually Pique is the one dashing hither and yon, while Mascherano and/or Puyol are holding down things with deep cover. Bartra broke up plays, made excellent interceptions, a couple of runs, even just missed a goal in a performance that argued for MOTM status for him.
Some other important stuff happened: Martino didn’t have to play Neymar, who is going to be needed at full strength for the Celtic match, since even if the physios say Messi can play, Messi shouldn’t play.
Barça also showed off that thing that they were supposed to have kicked to the curb in a frenzy of counterattacking, “this way, sprites!” long-balling: defense with the ball. Xavi to Iniesta to Busquets to Pique to Adriano to Alves to Sanchez (runs around a bit) to Xavi to Iniesta to Busquets ….
Minutes passed, and Almeria, so terrified of giving up a third goal and not wanting to deviate from their match plan, just let it happen. Even when they decided to try to seize control of the match, they got the ball, then we took it right back and resumed the triangles of inexorability.
Xavi and Valdes had a squabble, which I am sure the press will be all over as yet another sign that this perfect-so-far team is in fact doomed.
And the panic during the match was fascinating, as some didn’t like the Pique/Bartra pairing, others seized upon a few quavering Pique moments as reasons for this or that. Almeria got set pieces that were dealt with, featuring things tantamount to “Omigod! They kicked the ball! That was close! Damn defense!”
Those wondering about Neymar and how well he has integrated himself into this club from day one, almost, need only have watched the lack of a cutting edge from the left, as the usual fullback overlap was relied upon to create attacking energy on the left side of the pitch. The Neymar acquisition is another reason why the Messi injury isn’t as dire this season as it would have been last season: This team has another world-class attacker, capable of magic, who can start matches and raise hell. The only reason he didn’t have an assist today is because he didn’t play.
So. Calm. There will be plenty of drama this season without culers trying to create it.
A favorite Tweet that was sent my way in the aftermath of the La Real match: Culers: “What do we want?! We don’t know! When do we want it?! NOW!” That made me giggle.
Some other stuff to consider
What if that crazy coach of ours who wasn’t supposed to be ready for this level, etc, etc, has an actual plan? Look at his comments from yesterday’s presser:
— On Bartra: “He has great character, impetus and the hunger to do well at Barça. He’ll settle down with time and we’ll be seeing the best of him in a few years’ time.”
— On a record-setting start: “winning 7 out of 7 wouldn’t mean much if we don’t end up winning the league. I’m more worried about where we’ll be next May.”
— Most telling, on Neymar, etc: “between international and club matches, he has played the most minutes apart from Valdés. 8 games in 28 days. As I understand it, we have to protect him and look after him, because I don’t want anyone exhausted when it comes down to the definitive matches … We are being very cautious about the game with Almeria but are also thinking about the one with Celtic. It’s not long until the Tuesday match.”
Here’s something else. Barça got out-possessed by a single percentage point against Rayo Vallecano, and the world was coming to an end, the club was abandoning its soul, etc, etc. Against La Real it was a brilliant display of possession and getting back to something that the club never left. (Never mind that the display wasn’t all THAT brilliant.) Against Almeria, it was a variant of possession football, parking the bus with possession.
Three victories, three different ways of playing and winning.
In American football, a coach scouts an opponent, watches film and draws up a game plan. Sometimes, a team runs the ball if that is a perceived opponent weakness. Sometimes short passes. Other times, long passes. The exact same NFL team could play 6-8 different offensive approaches over the course of a season. Because that is why coaches get the money that they get.
I have never understood why in proper football, when some teams don’t play the way that they are somehow expected to play, it is some kind of betrayal of principle. No. It’s adapting a game plan to the opponent. Ceding possession was fine against Rayo, because the game plan was to do all the damage on the flanks in attack, limit the damage they could cause with possession (mostly in their end) and move the ball up quickly.
Against La Real it was traditional tika-taka with intent, to capitalize on an opponent who played a more scattered defensive style. Against Almeria, it was (or rather, it became) protect the lead with possession, aka “possession for possession’s sake.” Three different matches, three different ways of winning.
The technical staff of this club is, so far, doing an excellent job of winning matches in various ways, keeping players fresh and planning for the future. I don’t believe that this team is going to end the season as perfect as it is beginning it, even though I believe that it has the talent to do exactly that. Why? Mental fatigue, pressure, some opponent playing out of its mind, lots of things. But, one match at a time, and so far, perfect.
Did you SEE Xavi today? The pressing, the movement, the ability to create and make the most of space? It was a maestro in his element. It was also energy brought about as a consequence of intelligent rotation. Fabregas didn’t tire, even if today he donned the cloak of invisibility for a bit. Neymar was rested. Iniesta has received plenty of rest. Fresh players are effective players. 8 matches in 28 days is an absurd load for a team to carry. Even as we ask why Martino isn’t playing X or Y player, I an just not sure that we are equipped to.
We don’t see what he sees, we don’t know what he knows, we don’t have the same vision for this club that he does. We seem to want it to win, be perfect, and be beautiful. But any good coach knows that is impossible. Sometimes, just just have to win, and take the points. Sure, we can armchair quarterback, debate and ask questions. Why not? But just as he is the boss in pressers and on the pitch, our coach has a plan that, so far, has been completely effective. So let him coach, and let’s have fun watching the results.