In wrestling with the vastly different reactions to an effective home leg victory against a quality opponent, unbidden, my mind turns to the great Kurosawa classic film “Rashomon.” For those unfamiliar, Wikipedia is your friend. The long and short of the movie is that an incident occurs, and four different people have four different views of the same event.
What is truth? What is reality? Is reality as simple as a subjective reaction to what we see that takes into account our own biases and narratives? Like a flash mob of ire, can social media play a role in reality, as thousands of voices begin to amplify each other, thus creating a combo platter of “Rashomon” and the Biblical Tower of Babel story.
Hell of a way to roll into a musing about a football match, isn’t it?
Real Sociedad came into the Camp Nou for the first leg of the Copa del Reig semifinals. Fresh off a weekend loss to Valencia, Tata Martino used the “get back on that horse” theory in selecting the same XI (except for the Cup keeper, Pinto) that lost to Valencia.
In following the match via Twitter and then in the aftermath of the thing, you would be forgiven for thinking that Barça had lost 0-2, instead of winning by that same scoreline, with possession stats in the low 80s, more than 20 shots on goal and a midfielder (Xavi) who completed as many passes as the whole La Real team.
Terrible, terrible defending, overrun, so much danger on set pieces, Pinto bailed us out from disaster, we got lucky, team needs an overhaul, this club will get killed against a quality opponent, etc, etc, ad infinitum.
And with Barça Rashomon, it isn’t fair to castigate anyone for their view, to call culers spoiled. All you can do is rely on your perspective. For me, there are many reasons that I subscribe to a theory best found in the title of a Gang of Four recording, “History’s Bunk!” History is the past. For a footballing club, a successful history can morph, like a tale told and retold, from something glorious to a millstone that hangs around the neck of successive generations.
History is a glorious season in which the club won everything, under a swashbuckling coach who jammed Coldplay and wept like a schoolboy with joy. “Remember! It was magic!”
But like “Rashomon,” history is also riddled with memories, of the doubt that plagued that swashbuckling coach throughout that season that wasn’t all that glorious at the time, but became so in retrospect. Conservative lineups, he isn’t playing Toure Yaya enough in favor of that spindly diver Busquets. Eric Abidal, now firmly enshrined in Barça iconography as The Answer for Everything was a player who didn’t attack enough, like the rest of those marauding sprites. “What’s wrong with him? Why doesn’t he get forward?” He was tested by culers, and found wanting during his stints at CB.
That Treble team had Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry pressing like demons, as Henry had as many fouls from battles for possession as defenders. Ah! Memory! But then, Henry was an overpriced import who didn’t give his all for the shirt, and Eto’o missed too many open chances.
This is why I don’t subscribe to notions of history. Because memory is malleable, and people often remember what they want, preferring to hang onto the good times, because that is what people do. And this current team, an adaptation and modification of personnel, is perpetually compared to that bright, shining past, and found wanting.
History can blind in the glare from its burnished glow.
What of La Real and the match?
Ah. That. What I saw on Wednesday was a team in control of a match of football, facing off against an opponent who decided that goodness started by not letting Barça score. So they played 10 behind the ball. Whether you call it a “deep block” or a parked bus, La Real had a solid line of 5 players at the back, with the other 5 stacked sometimes 1-4, other times 2-3, with the idea being to harass our midfielders, work the ball loose and get busy on the break.
This worked exactly twice, both off giveaways, which will always be the bane of a team who presses as much as ours does, with a stratospherically high back line. It’s why as people natter about aimless possession should realize that as long as we have the ball, they don’t. Even when goals aren’t the result for us, that is also true for our opponent.
Of those turnovers, one resulted in an easy save for Pinto as the La Real attacker shot directly at him, doing for us what we do for other keepers; then a bad Messi giveaway led to a springboard attack which brought another “Rashomon” moment, as people debated whether Mascherano deserved a penalty or not.
La Real’s coach said of course, absolutely it was a penalty. Shameful it was, that blind man calling the match.
Others say that Vela and Mascherano were locked up anyhow, contact instigated by Vela, and their arms were entangled, again something instigated as much by Vela as by Mascherano. So the result was a good no-call by the official.
And we saw again how history affects view, how Mascherano was an inept bottler for cocking up a simple bit of defending, etc, while Messi, who would have warranted a key pass had the La Real goal actually occurred, was blameless, even on a team where The Great Guardiola said “without the ball, we’re crap.” It is as true then as it is now, even more so.
The referee and his assistants decided, in their own “Rashomon,” that a penalty wasn’t warranted, resulting in a snit which subsequently led to a red card for Iñigo “Out Ya Go” Martinez, for suggesting an act that would require a lifetime of yoga training and a spectacular endowment. That rather humorless chief official put La Real down to 10, which made them even MORE determined to not let Barça score. Taking advantage of a red mist, the very intricate passing effort of the sort we had been seeing the entire match worked, found Busquets fundamentally unmarked (there were bigger fish to fry, you know), and he slotted home for a 1-0. Given how La Real had decided to play, that goal was pretty much game over.
The second goal came at the end of a sequence in which Sanchez ran onto a lovely pass, and smacked his shot off the post. In attempting to clear the ball, a La Real defender deflected it into his own net. Voila. 2-0, and another “Rashomon” moment.
— Shambolic defending resulted in a hilarious own goal.
— Relentless pressure caused a defender to panic, as he was worried about a shark-like Sanchez, skulking the area, and screwed up. Pressure caused that own goal.
Meanwhile, an example was made of RM in exactly how to dispatch an opponent at home in the Copa, an RM who received not one, but TWO lucky deflections that beat Atleti’s Courtois. Ah, but their luck was forged on the fire of attacking flair and brilliance. Ours was just stupid luck that we didn’t deserve, goes the Barça Rashomon narrative.
And we passed, and passed, and passed some more, and people talked about systematic problems, how the deep block once again proved the undoing of this football club, inept buffoons who only won 2-0, instead of the 54-0 that history and shining memory demand.
Barça isn’t the first team to come up against 10 behind the ball, and have complexities putting the ball in the net. You can expand that list to oh, every team in professional football. When 10 behind the ball stops being effective, teams who don’t want to concede will stop doing it. Meanwhile, Barça found ways to score, against La Real as against Levante. Luck? Sure. A team needs luck to succeed. Never discount the value of good fortune.
Nonetheless, it was stormageddon, post-match. The Mouthpiece of the Mandateless Ones, Toni Freixa, tweeted that in his view of events, the club didn’t play all that well. What is influencing his view, is the question of the moment. Maybe a healthy fear that if the club doesn’t stomp the terra with every poor team that ventures into our house, people might start looking askance at he and his fellow junta mates, and call for elections sooner rather than later? Maybe.
And Freixa was castigated for calling the team’s quality into question by many of the same culers who were calling the team’s quality into question. That’s Barça Life. Freixa deleted the Tweet, but it lived on in screen grabs, as evidence of some sort or another.
Henk Ten Cate, best known as Frank Rijkaard’s enforcer, said it was the worst match of the past 6 years, or 8 years, or something or other. Does he have a historical view? Hmmm … nope. He only wants what is best for the club, and is wholly unconcerned with burnishing his own legacy, with grabbing a chunk by mere verbal association of that glorious Treble side.
And I started to doubt what I was seeing, which was a quality performance by a team facing an opponent with 10 behind the ball. And if I squinted just so, applied the right amount of ire at the board over past transgressions then yes, I could see it. This team sucks because of the neglect of those evil men. La Real could well have been up 0-1. The horrors! Our keeper isn’t supposed to have to make saves! Ever! Our defense is so terrible that it can’t even keep a keeper from having to do his job. Gaaaaah!
Then I started thinking about what Barça really need this season, and I decided it was a darned sight easier than pie-in-the-sky winter window transfers, team overhauls and other stuff. Our sprites just need to start putting the ball in the back of the net. How different would Barça Rashomon had been had any of the following happened differently?
— Fabregas scuffed a shot on the doorstep
— Sanchez shot just wide of a gaping net
— Messi had not one, but TWO chances to score a goal, on the doorstep
— Messi smacked a free kick off the crossbar
Would a 4-0 scoreline have sated, leaving culers crowing about our bus-breaking sprites, and bring on RM for the final rather than about trends, and how much the team really isn’t that good, and City is going to kill us, etc, etc.
It’s all that “Rashomon” stuff. When the nattering nabobs were reaching their peak, one of my favorite Twitter level heads said “Is it just me, or was that a pretty good match?” It was like the kid who said “Hey, the emperor is nekkid!”
The difference between good and bad is based on centimeters. A lot of players couldn’t even hit the post if they tried. We did it twice in the same match. So let’s be harsh, and say that the other two chances were discards. So that means 4-0 instead of the 6-0 that the chances created actually warranted. And we’re back at that “Rashomon” moment.
Only a blind fool would not suggest that our team needs new blood, a CB or two, an Alves replacement, etc. Only a blind fool wouldn’t look at the current board and its history of club management and find them woeful, wanting and deserving of electoral reconsideration. That is all very true, even as that board’s supporters would suggest that more Barça Rashomon is going on.
But we have what we have. And what we have is gobs of talent in the bodies of world-class players. Are those players perfect for a world of Goliaths who have sussed out how to battle David? Nope. But we will have to make do, and wish them our best. Sure, analysis and pointing out errors, etc, can and should happen, as a way of understanding what we have just seen and subsequent coaching moves.
And yet, perspective is important, that view of what actually happened. Because sometimes, that’s all there is.
PS: I couldn’t find a picture of Iniesta holding a puppy to make everyone say “Awwwwww!” but I did find this picture of Neymar, cuddling his son as they visited the Museu.