There is as much danger in being overly pessimistic as there is in getting overly excited, but it’s very safe to say that there isn’t a culer who, even in a most optimistic moment, would have thought that after 5 matches Barça would be perfect: 5 wins and 0 goals conceded.
Last season Barça delivered the best start in the history of the club as a Christmas present, before fizzling to a trophyless conclusion. Whether you want to place the blame on the loss of Valdes, heartache, fatigue physical and psychological or whatever is up to you. Maybe it was all of the above.
Yet it isn’t misguided to suggest that this season feels different, even if the future might yet make this gaudy start a fond memory. Let’s have a few looks at feelings and why they matter:
Quality and discipline
Last season as with this one, a new coach started. But where last season’s coach was saying that “Puyol will be our most important signing,” this year’s new coach had a veritable bumper crop of new signings from which to choose, players who enhanced the team at crucial points. Rakitic, who functions as more of a second DM than the traditional Barça midfielder, has been the biggest difference. His presence means that suddenly Busquets doesn’t have acres of space to cover all by his lonesome as Xavi and Iniesta chug their wee legs to catch up to an opponent attack.
Rakitic is also a more disciplined player, knowing when to move up and when to move back. He stopped a Levante scoring chance in our box, and blasted home a golazo from the edge of theirs. He has covered for Alves, cleaned up Busquets mistakes and recovered possession. And just as importantly, he has added pace to the Barça midfield, which once again allows that group to function as a buffer for the pushed-up back line rather than a turnstile.
Last season, bereft of any covering pace, the FBs had to pinch in to help put out fires in the center of the pitch, which left the flanks open to opponent wingers. The gaps for opponents to exploit were many, and often required Valdes heroics to plug at the death. This season, midfield pace and discipline means that Busquets can return to his role of hybrid midfielder, one with defensive duties who is cognizant of his importance in the team’s attacks. Yet again today, a Busquets turnover became a pass for Messi and a goal threat.
We also see that stability in what has become Enrique’s preferred CB tandem of Mascherano and Mathieu. For those who say “Hell, Mascherano is STILL playing at CB,” I would suggest that he isn’t, that the traditional Barça CB’s role makes him more of a DM than Busquets, adding yet another layer of security with sure tackling and interventions, roaming helped by the pace of Mathieu and the defensive strength of Alba, who is also playing a more disciplined role this season even as Alves flits about on his fanciful bursts, secure in the knowledge that Rakitic and Mascherano have his back.
And yes, there is something of a placebo effect in the head coaching presence. Last year, it was “Tata who? That Argentine nobody? I’m worried!” This year, Enrique was greeted with huzzahs. It’s easier to find an effect that is reassuring and positive in something that you actually want.
Return to the past
Barça is not a defensive football club and never will be, but when the system is working, Barça is also one of the most secure teams, defensively, in the world. It’s because once again, defending is starting with the attackers as Messi, Munir, Pedro and Sandro all press opponents who try to play the ball out from the back, applying pressure at the most crucial part of an attack.
This leaves an opponent with a couple of options: continue trying to play it out and risk an interception, or hoof it long in an attempt to bypass the pressing forwards and mids. But because of the pressed-up defenders and attackers, if you don’t win possession of that hoofed ball (more difficult because the spaces between the lines is more compressed this season), you are on the back foot as a midfielder feeds the ball to Messi, who is right at your doorstep with a running start.
If you try to play it out, a stray ball leaks from that applied pressure and is scooped up by the CBs, who then feed it back into the mixer.
Either way, it means that an opponent’s chances on goal will be minimal, which means defensive security. This was a crucial element of the Treble season, as unsettled opponents turned the ball over, or just hoofed it out to stop attackers from running at them yet again, as fouls and yellow cards piled up. Gaudy possession stats weren’t a desire as much as a byproduct of an effective system. During today’s 0-5 win over Levante, Barça possession percentage was in the low 70s. Some fluke occurrences might transpire, but it will usually be rather difficult to beat an opponent when you don’t have the ball.
Another return to the past is in the return to the pass, judiciously applied. As part of the myth of tika-taka, sprites played rondos hither and yon, deciding to pass the ball into the net when the moment was right. The reality of that system is that triangles facilitated the short passing game. Under Enrique, the passing game is still there but the lines are longer, the mobile rondos exchanged by a man moving into an open space to receive the ball from a slightly longer distance away, even as it is a pass with just as much security as the shorter ones of the past as a consequence of how the team uses space.
It’s no coincidence that this season, Messi has more assists than goals. The Argentina Messi was bound to collide with the Barça Messi at some point. The difference this season is that Messi has players to pass to.
Last season, Messi was the center of the universe. Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Sanchez all fed Messi, and Neymar was still learning what he could do. This season, Messi is still the center of the universe but a more versatile one with real actual forwards to play with. Neymar has been used in that role, as well as Munir and Sandro. All have benefited from Messi passes.
But it’s obvious that this is an incomplete system that is still awaiting its final piece in the arrival of Luis Suarez, who has just over a month to go in his four-month ban. Right now, Sandro and Munir are the beneficiaries of this system that draws attention to Messi, who is more often than not fronted by 3-5 defenders whenever he gets the ball near the box.
In the past, there have been two problems: static attackers and Magic Messi. So an attack would either fizzle when there was nobody to take a pass, or when Messi would try to beat the entire defense to score. Both offer poor percentages, no matter how often you apply them. Sanchez was certainly capable of functioning as a forward, but he was more often than not, stationed on the right wing as Messi had freedom of movement in a cleared-out center.
This year, Messi is a bit more withdrawn, still close to the opponent box but in a way that draws defenders and opens up space for a mobile, hard-working forward. At present, Munir and Sandro are thinking, “Boy, howdy, this scoring goals in La Liga stuff is easy.” Because it is. And it is because the best player in the game right now has taken on a role that will not yield him as many goals, but is every bit as decisive.
It has often been said that Messi just wants to win. Who scores the goals is immaterial. And while this has always been true, if we want to parse truth by degree of veracity, it has never been more true than right now. Neymar slotted home into an empty net, thanks to a Messi pass. Sandro slotted home into an empty net, thanks to a Messi pass.
When Luis Suarez comes on line, it is impossible to say what will happen. Messi might have to return to scoring more, as defenses collapse on Suarez. Neymar might take off like a rocket as the third man in a bizarre situation in which he is the lesser of three evils. But it’s plain to see that the attack is being worked out and groomed for the presence of that last piece.
This season, Barça has yet to play an excellent match, or even a very good one. They have been good, very good at times and kinda clunky at others. The team has faced opponents who are defensive, for anyone foolish enough to think that no major silver last season would make teams more brave. Even as Barça has struggled to score, it has, up to this moment, always found ways to score. Pique bundles it in off a set piece. Neymar gets loose like a jackrabbit behind the defense. And when all else fails, a moment of sublime skill turns the trick.
Last season, far too often it felt like that last option was the only viable one, that if an opponent set up in two banks of 5 as Levante did today, a draw was the inevitable result as the team would somehow cadge a goal, then give one up in a moment of frailty, or a set piece.
Against Elche, the first goal came in the 43rd minute. The goal against Villarreal came in the 82nd minute. Against Athletic Club, it was the 80th minute. APOEL broke the trend as the goal came in the first half-hour. Then against Levante, it was just before the stroke of halftime. The stats are interesting:
Elche 72% possession/0 opponent shots on target/93% passing; Villarreal 72% possession/0 on target/89% passing; Athletic Club 61% possession/2 on target/82% passing; APOEL 71% possession/1 on target/91% passing; Levante 73% possession/2 on target/92% passing
There are lies, damned lies and statistics, but in considering why this year’s team feels more secure, numbers do indeed say something.
Even as the team is FC Barcelona and not FC Messi, you would be wrong to discount the effect of a happy genius on the team’s overall play. Is it a coincidence that the team’s most desultory performance was against APOEL, the match in which distracted Messi returned? Psychology is an important part of any sport, that belief and contentment that go into the makeup of a top athlete that makes him do his best, and want to do his best.
It isn’t difficult to deduce that the millions and millions spent this summer transfer window on adding quality players to the team invigorated its best player. Yes, the World Cup was also playing on matters Messi last season, but you’d better believe that the inaction of parsimonious weasels had a significant effect on players, as they wondered exactly how committed this board was to producing a winning football team.
In the here and now, for whatever motivations, that commitment is no longer in doubt. That makes the employees, most notably the perpetual Employee of the Month, happy. Happy workers are productive workers.
The house has a foundation
Last year’s house was beautiful, but was built on stilts. This year’s house is also beautiful, but sits on a foundation of concrete, resting on granite pillars. This year’s good start feels different because it is different, even as the season might end in the same way as last season did, and we should be prepared for that. There is certainty even in the face of uncertainty because of structure and discipline. There is a structure that is important and apparent, systems in place that should serve the team well against faster, stronger opponents as well as slower, weaker ones.
In the legal profession, it’s called due diligence. In athletics, it’s simply doing the work. Neymar, once he figured out that his ankle injury wasn’t as bad as he thought, wanted to get back onto the pitch. Players are coming in on days off to work out, and rushing back from international duty early. It’s the work and quality born of competition that makes the team better.
Last season, Pique was the starter by default. It was him, Mascherano and Bartra. Who YOU gonna pick? This season, Mathieu would appear to be Enrique’s choice, and you can see why. Mascherano is a player who, like Martino, Vilanova and Guardiola before, Enrique wants to have on the pitch. And Thomas Vermaelen is about to come on line, as well. If you want that spot, take it. Earn it. Make it impossible for me not to play you, is the gauntlet that Enrique is throwing down this season. There might be preferred starters, but there aren’t any automatic ones.
That, so far, is the biggest difference this season: the players have to put out. Not that they didn’t work their tails off last season in the face of soul-crushing adversity, but there is nothing like worry over losing your place to make you raise that personal bar. And there is no better foundation than happy, hungry players trying to outwork each other to curry the coach’s favor. So Messi kicks at a defender’s ankles as he tries to bring the ball out, Rakitic slides into an upright or Neymar earns a yellow for an opponent after stealing the ball then leading the break.
I like it, and you should too even as you should also be cautiously optimistic. There’s a long way to go yet.