Narratives. Quite a lot happened in the match today, an event that pundits and ancillary critters have weighed in on and found wanting. Not surprisingly, I think they are dead wrong, and not just because I am a culer. Today’s match for me, the first time the teams have met in 8 months (as opposed to the frustrating regularity that defined the rivalry in recent seasons), signified that our sprites have grown up.
This was a man’s match, a calm, pragmatic thing that was exactly what it had to be when it had to be, a match in which one team in effect, put away childish things to potentially reach that next level. That alone made it fascinating to watch.
Without casting anything negative on the Guardiola years, I would liken them to the time when a kid gets his first bicycle. He rips, he runs, he rides faster and farther than he should, he has a blast. That was the first season, the year of the eleventeen cups. It was one big, giant “Wheeeeee!”
Then, that kid takes a ride that’s a little too far, gets lost, gets a flat tire, eventually finds his way home. He’s wiser, but still loves that bicycle of his. It isn’t quite as much fun, but it’s still awesome and he wants to learn to do a little more with it. Second year.
The kid progresses through learning to ride and race, when and how to go fast, how to use that bicycle to maximise his efforts, when to put out and when to sit in the pack, how to become a pragmatist. And more than a toy, that bicycle is now a tool.
In looking at the evolution of our club under its various coaches, Guardiola was the romantic. His successor, Vilanova, was the professor, the man with ideas whose teaching tenure was cut short. Martino is the pragmatist, the man who will do what it takes.
This is a weird notion for culers, in this time of residual romance. We ceded possession to an opponent but whomped them on the scoreline, and it was a shame. We nicked a couple of goals off the counter, and people wondered what the hell Martino was doing. Today we beat our bitterest league rival, and some wondered whether Barça has lost The Way, and again, just what the hell Tata Martino is doing.
But the answer is simple: He’s winning. Look at his substitutions. RM found a way back into the match as Barça legs began to tire, and the trap doors just weren’t slamming shut as they did in the first half. His substitutions, Song, Sanchez and Pedro, were fundamentally all defensive, fresh legs to deal with a counterattacking team’s massive potential to damage. And those three subs restored balance.
The Barça Way is this odd, constraining sort of thing that I don’t think Martino gives a rat’s ass about. And like a favorite blanket for the soul, that fact will keep my psyche warm at night. He analyzes opponents, watches film and figures out the best way to win a match, a Way that will vary from opponent to opponent. And today, he pulled off something extraordinary on many levels, that are worth having a look at.
Messi is awesome
I know. Duh. But remember that moment, late in the match, when setting up for a corner … the camera panned to Messi, and he was dripping sweat, his hair matted to his skull, shirt plastered to his soaked skin. It wasn’t until that moment, unless you had been watching him, that you were fully aware of how hard he worked for his club in that match. And it was at that moment, if you were at all on the fence about what a wonder he is, that it all became clear.
I don’t know if Messi was 100 percent for this match. What I do know is that Martino put him on the right wing today, and did so with the full knowledge (Messi had to know it too) that he wouldn’t have his usual influence on the match, that all eyes and cameras wouldn’t be on him, even as the eyes of all of the RM defenders would be.
That the best player alive and his coach decided upon that notion is staggering. Further, in making that decision to put him on the right, it was clear that it would open up the pitch for others, who were going to have to step up to take their opportunity. The match was going to be on them rather than Messi, and the star’s recent injuries had prepared this club for precisely this day.
And Messi worked. Like a dog. He ran, feinted, maintained tactical width, made passes and put the hell out in a way that had me thinking about the last time he looked that bedraggled, late in a match. It was awesome, and the ultimate proof that whatever anyone says about that man, he is a team player who just wants to win matches. He wasn’t anywhere near the best player on the pitch today, but he was one of the most influential.
It’s also another sign that our beloved club has come of age in the hands of its pragmatic leader, when it can take on an opponent that many people who know the game had us losing to, and win.
Neymar is almost ready
He even struck almost the same pose as Messi, after he slotted home a shot off an astounding setup from Iniesta, celebrating his first Classic goal as if it were his first goal ever. Even though he has only started his career with Barça, he understands the importance of this match. People speak of him as though he is a young player. Chronologically, Neymar is. But in football years, he is a wizened veteran of many a Big Match. So in the spotlight, he knew exactly what to do, and did it.
More significantly, it was a spotlight ceded to him by Messi, and I don’t want to ask what might have happened had Neymar not lived up to the moment. He had a hand in both goals, scoring one and assisting on the other, a glorious turn and pass to substitute Alexis Sanchez, who continued his evolution into something astonishing.
More importantly and once again, Neymar played football. In the face of the people who insist that he is something that he isn’t these days, he played football. He took shoulder to shoulder challenges and clips from behind, shrugging them off in the way of the pragmatist. And took the spotlight and shone. It made Martino look a genius. It probably sparked a rictus grin that is still frozen on Sandro Rosell’s face … and it helped to win a match.
He still dwells on the ball a beat too long, is still too fond of dancing when he should be passing. There are things that he has to fix, footballing culture things that will sort themselves out. It will be fun to watch.
Many a time when an opponent charged up the pitch to bang in a crucial goal against us, many of us have lamented the fact that our players won’t just stick out a damned leg and trip somebody. Those days are here. Adriano did it, Mascherano did it, Alves banged out two in a row, and it was wonderful to see, another sign of footballing pragmatism. Martino has talked about this, for good reason: it is a useful tactic that stops an attack and disrupts the rhythm and flow of a match. Yes, you make a play for the ball. But if you don’t get it, let the leg hang out there, or lean in with the shoulder.
It was beautiful to watch, and for people fond of signs and portents, yet another indication of a club that is putting away its toys to understand what is in its available toolbox.
For me, the match was also about key moments, and the use of space. Key moments included the second Barça tally from the magical feet of Sanchez, a crossbar that is still shaking from Benzema’s near miss, five top-drawer saves from Victor Valdes. But space is the thing that just knocks me over.
Today was as close to defensive as I suspect you will ever see our club play, yet another sign of a coach who understands what he is doing. RM has always killed us in two ways: set pieces and the break. So give them the ball. What can it hurt, as they don’t appear to be good at building play and scoring chances from extended possession turns. They had 45% possession today, and did nothing with it. Their goal came off a turnover and a counter.
Bending but not breaking was a phrase of the day as we played them as many opponents play us, allowing them possession until they reached a part of the pitch that was a no-go zone, then the defense tightened and the pressure kicked in. The effect was often a turnover, a misplaced pass or a ball knocked back to the keeper, to reset the offense. And time goes off the clock, even as no threat is being generated. Because contrary to popular opinion in culer-land, possession isn’t everything. It’s what you DO with that possession.
RM didn’t use space the way opponents usually (and successfully) do against us, which is to press hard and heavy when we have the ball, with speed and physicality. Some of the reason that didn’t happen was because we let them have the ball a lot more than usual, watching them stroke it around the pitch. Announcers assumed from that possession that they were finding their way back into the match. Nope.
But the other reason they couldn’t use the physical pressure was because Messi was lurking on the right like a ticking time bomb, Iniesta was absurd and Xavi was a boss. When we had the ball there was a level of control being evinced that I haven’t seen since before teams figured out how to beat tika taka. And with Neymar on the left wing, a midfielder could just pass him the ball. He would feint, dance, run into the box and then pass it back to the midfield to hit the reset button.
Today, however, was possession football rather than tika taka, control with intent as our attackers used the space created by their setup. Messi was on the right and often lurking, which meant that unlike when he was in the center, darting and dashing about and the whole defense could keep in in easy view, he sat in a blind spot, forcing their back line to play a little tighter to keep him in view, which had an effect on how physically they could press our midfielders. Space management.
Big players, big match
This was billed as another clash of the titans, Messi vs Ronaldo, the two best players in the world leading their teams. One was left a sweaty, disheveled mess and the other reduced to a frustration-induced acting out. But this was a day for others. Neymar has been previously dealt with. Let’s look at how some other biggies fared:
Bale: He started, and had no effect on the match, as Adriano stepped up in a massive way.
Pique: Wow. I was among the folks whose eyebrows were raised when the XI was announced. Apologies.
Mascherano: Passes, interventions and space control. Yes, he had a few moments. Focus on those if you like.
Iniesta: He flicked a switch and became Ghostface again, right? Well, sorta. He also reverted more to his traditional role a lot of the time, darting into the box and functioning as setup man, rather than aggro Xavi.
Toss his, Valdes and Neymar’s names into the MOTM hat and I’m fine with whomever gets plucked out.
Xavi: Oh, man, it seems like whenever folks get to going on too loudly about how he’s a doddering old coot, he has a match like he had today.
Busquets: You know we’re having a good match when he is invisible, and it never occurs to you why nothing is happening for the opponent in the middle of the pitch. If he is obvious, that means we’re struggling.
Ronaldo: I can’t help it. Whenever he gets the ball and starts running at our defense, I get nervous. It took a village to keep him in check today.
Ancelotti says that if the penalty had been called on the Mascherano/Ronaldo interaction, that it would have been a different match. Was it a penalty? Angle is significant. From one angle, it looks like Mascherano just bowled him over. From another, it looks shoulder to shoulder. From yet another, it looks like Ronaldo was anticipating the contact and ready to topple. What we do know is that it wasn’t called. It’s safe to say that when this match kicked off, I never suspected that we would be a significant benefactor of Undiamo Mallenco’s tendency to allow physical play.
But culers who want to scoff at their penalty claims should know that has Ramos done the same thing to Messi, our cries would be just as vehement and outraged as theirs.
More significantly, some suggest that Ancelotti is trying to shift the narrative from a starting lineup and tactical duel that he might have gotten wrong. I leave that to them.
WAS this a great match? Nope. But there are few great matches. The Classic is like the Super Bowl, in that it is rarely as good as the hype that accompanies it. This match had a lot riding on it, mostly psychological as the two teams met. But the players didn’t care a whit about outsiders’ burdens of expectation.
For me, it was a very good match in which two teams of very high quality knocked heads and tried to cancel each other out. In such a match, the tide will usually turn on a few moments of individual brilliance, just as today. Ours worked, theirs didn’t. And that’s that. When the two sides meet at their house, a different result might well be in the offing.
But I will not have this result diminished by anyone who wants to claim things such as “Well, RM weren’t at their best, blablabla.” Neither was Barça. This was a match featuring two excellent football clubs stacked with talent, both under new coaches who are still finding their way and wrestling with form. Even at that, this was a gripping, intense match packed with quality, and one that was most crucially, devoid of all the anguish and mayhem that defined encounters under the reign of Mourinho.
For now, it’s a six-point lead over the team that will most likely leapfrog Atletico at some point in the season, to set up what should be a fascinating duel. Round One went to Barça.