Wow. Just … wow.
It is rare that a Classic lives up to the billing. At the nexus of all the hype, all the reams of verbiage and speculation have in the past, resulted in high-volume bits of drollery. Even the first Classic this season was, truth to tell, kinda boring unless you were culer. It was 2-1, and Barça pretty much put the match on lockdown.
But Bale was knocked, RM was still finding its way, pundits said. They are playing great right now, and know what is at stake. Bale is fit and productive, Ronaldo is in rare form. Barça on the other hand, is beleagured, set upon even by people who were presumed to be friends. It’s easy to see why pretty much everyone said that RM was going to win today.
I Tweeted before the match that we were going to win 1-2, and would walk it if Alba brought his defensive game today. Why? Because this club has not, this season, lost a big match. And there is absolutely no reason to think that they were going to lose this one, because Barça still has the best players in the world. Is Barça the best team in the world right now? No. But it is a team that is made up of players who are the best or among the best at their position.
Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Neymar, Messi. That is a fantasy football side that you buy if you have an unlimited budget in Football Manager, rather than one that a manager can routinely call upon. People bet against that team, call it inadequate, say that it can’t defend, can’t attack, can’t do this or that. And when it confounds its critics, the cries of “Yeah, but …” begin, nitpicks at this or that player.
I have said it before and will say it again: you go all in with love. There shouldn’t be half measures to cushion the blow should a bad outcome happen. It diminishes the potential joy. Go all in. I believed this team would win because I believe this team can win every match that it plays. Just look at the roster.
As we know, it doesn’t win every match that it plays, because those great players are also human beings. Can’t say that such knowledge will ever affect the belief I have in this team. And it showed why today in a glorious moment, made more so by a very simple fact: win or go home. The Liga is either 1 point, or insurmountable at 4 or 7 with 9 matches left.
So those little geniuses won. But they didn’t just win by outplaying their more physical, bigger, stronger opponents. They won by controlling space more effectively than their opponent. Every key play in the match today was the result of space — taken or created — being used to positive effect. RM ran and slashed, while Barça picked and plucked.
31 games without defeat. The last time RM was beaten was the last time that they played us. There are now 9 matches left in the season. The big winner today was Atletico, who are now top and have the head-to-head tiebreaker against RM, but they play us in the last match of the season.
“We weren’t always in the right shape on the pitch, and we paid the price,” said Ancelotti. Spot on.
The consequence of being in that wrong shape was opportunity and difficulty.
Space: The contested frontier
In just one example, look at the astonishing pass (14:35) that Xavi puts right on Messi’s boot. When Xavi looks up, he sees that Messi is in between two RM players, with nobody covering the inside. The run is just begging, and when Messi makes it, the ball is already on the way. It lands directly on his boot, and you would have bet your house on Messi making the score 0-2 instead of bending the ball wide. And yet, there it was, space being used and ceded, as only the Gods know what possessed them to let Messi get behind the back line, unmarked.
Truth be told it was a pass that few players in the world can make, a pass that maybe you just don’t account for in your Probability Factors. But it happened, and was another symbolic moment in a match absolutely filled with them.
Look at earlier in the match, when the first goal came. At the moment when Messi is about to receive the ball that he is going to spank to Iniesta for the first goal, if you pause the image (at 6:08), Iniesta is all alone on the left side, trotting with purpose like a sleeper. The RM players are ball focused, with four players around Messi. Bale just let Iniesta sashay past him to begin the run, and when Messi gets the ball he already knows what is going to happen, and so does Iniesta.
Iniesta takes the pass in acres of space, and detonates past Diego Lopez to give Barça a 0-1 lead. Just like that, in the 7th minute. Can RM be forgiven for thinking that Iniesta doesn’t score goals, or did someone not do their job on that run? Either way, space was crucial.
Even before that it was clear the kind of match it was going to be, as Messi (again) laid out a pass for Neymar to run onto, a ball into space created by player movement. In the past, in more violent times, a tighter back line probably cuts out both those passes, or Arebeloa just knocks Iniesta over. In this match, today, a goal was the result, a goal that defined the proceedings.
Carvajal pointed at Bale as Ray Hudson screamed, “The mad magic of Barcelona comes out, with beautiful football!” And so it did as more than 20 passes were strung together, up and back, passes that made a pressing, ball-hawking RM defense move and pay attention, waiting for the sleeper. Neymar on the right was an interesting decision from Tata Martino, almost one that optimists could suggest shifted attention to that side of the pitch, with just a mere creator on the left in Iniesta, while hell raisers in Neymar and Alves were on the right.
When RM equalized, again space was used and ceded. But rather than making space with passing and control, Di Maria did a slash-and-burn run, facilitated by an exquisite flip pass from Bale. At the moment Di Maria crosses the ball, there are players looking at him. Neymar was trotting back, while Alves was laying off. Space. So Di Maria put the ball directly onto Benzema’s head, whereupon he made space by outleaping Mascherano. 1-1.
Shockingly, the same thing happens again, and Benzema tags us for a brace in less than 10 minutes, all because of space, poorly controlled.
Whenever a goal is conceded, goats are looked for. Mascherano was the whipping post on this goal but if you look at the situation when Di Maria lays in his cross, Benzema is on the dead run, already to the inside of Mascherano, who didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of outjumping the bigger, stronger Benzema. Pressure on the passer from Neymar (trotting) or Alves (watching) might have prevented such an accurate cross but there again, space conceded, and taken advantage of.
“You cannot give Benzema that amount of space,” said Ray Hudson after their go-ahead goal and he was absolutely right. But the space creation started with quality. This pitch was filled with great players. How can anyone really, truly expect this match to NOT have goals, NOT have great plays? Spectacular players make things happen, things that create an advantage for their team.
Pundits mutter that Barça relies upon great individual players doing their thing rather than team excellence. That isn’t a valid argument for me, because why the hell do you have those kinds of players if you aren’t going to let them do what they do? The first Barça goal was team and system. The second was individual wonder, as Neymar and Messi did the kind of craziness that they do, in phone booth-like spaces. The final, go-ahead goal was Iniesta being his own absurd self, forcing an error from yet another world-class player.
Look at that second goal. Messi did a high-speed give and go, bounced off an RM defender, stumbled, regained control of the ball and slammed it to Neymar who somehow controlled it while surrounded by 3 defenders, then did a crazy sort of side-foot pass to Messi, who slammed it home. You can take every X and O in the world, diagram stuff and whiteboard plays in practice. But the goal came down to two top-class players deciding to make some magic.
Rather than seeing those moments of solo magic as some sort of failing, I see it as a broadened success window. If that whole team thing doesn’t work, give it to a genius and let him do his thing. Our geniuses were slightly better than their geniuses, with one in particular standing above all: Messi.
For me the worst use of space by RM was in how much they ceded to Messi. Maybe they read Marca, who said before the match that Messi was in crap form. But pass after pass, when he got the ball he had space to move, space to pick passes and make runs without fear of a rugby tackle or cleat to the Achilles. In one absurd moment (18:32) Messi AND Neymar have gobs of space to play with, as Fabregas runs into his own bubble on the left side. Messi plays it to Neymar, who is stopped by a last-ditch tackle in the box.
Complicating matters is that Barça continued to play as a team that includes the best player alive. And that best player decided that he didn’t care how he hurt an opponent. He scored goals in the run of play. He scored a hat trick, two from penalties. But most impressive for me is the stupefying passes that he laid on, one for Iniesta on his goal, the other for Neymar in the red card incident.
“You don’t need to love these players, people, but you should marvel at them,” says Hudson.
Tactics and selection headaches
Knowledgeable people say that Ancelotti got the tactics wrong. Culers screamed that Martino got the starting XI wrong. Maybe they are all right. The space was odd, to be sure. But was that because of a system that worked? People always think that teams play in a vacuum. “So and so can’t defend.” Ronaldo makes his living making defenders seem inadequate. Messi makes them seem invisible. These top-class players will wreak havoc with any coach’s game plan.
But boy, were people out for Martino. “Should have started Sanchez,” “Going for name players instead of relying on form.” But Martino knew what he was doing. In a match in which teams can play to a standoff, talented 1v1 players can make a difference. Neymar set up Messi for the tying goal, then drew the penalty that put RM down to 10. Yes, he was laggardly in tracking back in the first half, but clearly got a talking to before the second half. Neymar was decisive even as he wasn’t brilliant, because of potential that was respected by an opponent, potential that created space.
When Pedro was brought on for Neymar, the difference was clear. Pedro got the ball, did a feint or two and passed it back to midfield. That is what he was supposed to do at that point in the match, in a substitution that was as much defensive as offensive.
Was Mourinho right?
Classics under Mourinho were nasty, violent, contentious affairs. And finally, he beat us by playing a different kind of football. It distracted, bowled over and turned talented sprites into unfocused whiners. And it worked.
Ancelotti came into this match riding a 31-match unbeaten streak. The last team that beat them was us. They were, by all accounts in brilliant form, and many people whose opinions I trust had us losing this match. Ancelotti came out to play a football match, because he had football players. He pressed, played a high line, attacked and lost.
There were fouls, but things didn’t really acquire an edge until late in the match, when the outcome was beginning to feel like a done deal. But 95% of the match was two teams, each with their own style of play, running at each other like gladiators.
And Mourinho had to be watching and thinking, “See, told you they can’t be beaten by playing football.”
There were three penalties and one red card in this match, a match that was nonetheless well officiated. Culers usually mutter about an official who keeps his whistle in his pocket because it benefits the opponent. But in a more cleanly played, balanced match, that same ref can benefit us as much as the opponent. So it was today.
The penalties are most contentious, of course. When Ronaldo got his penalty, dragging the leg and being clipped by Alves, my first reaction was to suggest that Messi or Neymar get into the RM box at the first opportunity, to force the official to make that same call on the other end. Neymar did, and got the call. Supporters of each club will say that no, theirs was justified. But the Neymar and Ronaldo penalties were pretty much the same, a dragged leg and player looking for contact in the box. Yes, Ronaldo was fouled outside the box, but between continuation and the pace of the play, you try making that judgment call.
The Iniesta penalty was a flat-out mugging. So. Was the controversy that the visiting team got not one, but TWO penalties in RM’s house? That is the only rational contention that anyone could have. All three were penalties, correctly adjudged. Play was allowed to flow, niggling calls weren’t being made and a great match of football was the result. Controversy? There will always be controversy in a Classic. But today’s, for me, didn’t come from the officiating.
Quality in abundance
Individual performances in such a dynamic match are easy and difficult to evaluate. Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets were delights. For a player who is past it and doesn’t make forward passes, I wonder who that was playing today.
Alba continues to be the defender many hoped he would be, holding down that side of the pitch and roaming, a la Abidal.
Pique was excellent today, even keeping Benzema from a first-half hat trick with an off the line clearance.
Mascherano was strong, even having the audacity to take a poke at goal from distance.
Neymar wasn’t great, even as he was decisive, and Valdes, truth be told, didn’t have much to do but did make a couple of fine saves.
Yes, those players all made errors. Of course they did. When you square off against excellent players, they will make you create some errors, but don’t be mistaken: this team rose to the occasion with quality and style.
Now it’s a Liga horse race in which Atletico has the upper hand. Win out and they win the Liga. It’s simple for them. But they play us the last match of the season, a match that could well, if we win, result in the RM winning the championship. And wouldn’t THAT just be a kettle of crap?
But for now, there are 9 matches left. The top two teams are level on points and the third-place team, Barça, is but a single point off the top. Every match is a final is usually a cliche, but not in this case. 9 matches to decide the league, and we can delight in being fully in love with a team that has found its form.