Winning is kinda weird when you think about it, because it isn’t supposed to happen.
Even if you consider what has to happen for a goal to be scored, never mind enough goals to win a match, the mind boggles at the amazing complexity of it all, the chain reaction of attackers doing the exact right thing, a sphere being struck by a running foot also doing the exact right thing on a playing surface that contains dips, bumps and other imperfections, finding another running set of feet in the exact same way, as the people trying to stop the ball from going into the net have to do the exact wrong things.
This absurd high-wire act has to happen again and again and again. A cycling coach once told me that to win a race, you have to do 100 things absolutely right. Do 99 of them right, and you finish second. 98 spot on, and you finish third.
Winning can best be described as a state of grace, because it is something of a seeming impossibility even as usually, someone wins and someone loses a match.
During an interview in the days before today’s match, Rayo player and passing gem Roberto Trahsorras said, “If you can’t choose how you win, you can at least choose how you lose.” The idea here is that there is a way that an athlete approaches a task, and Rayo is like Barça in that they play their way, and will live or die playing that way. Many culers say they would rather lose playing beautiful football than win playing ugly. Mr. Trashorras knows exactly how they feel.
Live by the pass …
So when Rayo began the match trying to out-Barça Barça, some described it as “suicidal,” or playing right into the better team’s hands. Many of these same people scoff and snarl at yet another hyper-defensive, bus parking side who believes that against Barça, 0-0 is the same as a victory, and they will gladly take it. Rayo wasn’t interested in that.
They passed, moved, ran, pressed high and pushed up the pitch in front of their vocal home support, who cheered lustily just as Barça home fans do at lovely passing sequences and effort expended in playing to win, rather than not to lose.
And truth be told, Rayo was doing rather well at their task, even forcing Claudio Bravo to do something that really, no other Liga opponent had to this point: make actual saves.
There was a lesson to be learned from a match that happened earlier in the day’s cycle, as Valencia, in their house, decided that a midweek match would be just the thing, just the time for them to go for the jugular against their defending Liga champion opponents. And Atleti was down 3-0 before anyone really knew it. And dollars to donuts Enrique said to his squad, “See? You’re in their house. Small pitch, crowd right on top of you. Learn.”
But lessons, intentions and execution are all very different things, because Rayo had some instruction of their own to impart, helped by a PSG side who beat Barça and wore them down. There were moments, but nothing to really suggest that anything was going to happen, nothing to dissuade watchers from the notion that maybe, just maybe, there might be something odd in the air.
And then, just like that, it happened:
— Pique dropped a remarkable ball over distance for Messi to run onto. Messi controlled while outrunning and fighting off defenders, and dropped it in over the onrushing keeper. That made it 0-1 at 35 minutes.
— Barely into the 36th minute, Munir took a long pass and, with exquisite holdup play, released Neymar who was rushing into space. At 36:12 Barça’s second goal nestled into the back of the Rayo net.
It was then that the looks on the faces of the Rayo players changed, from “We’re in this,” to “What the hell just happened?” In barely a minute the match changed completely, thanks to a series of exceptional plays that exceptional players make. We’re used to seeing Messi perform the extraordinary, but for me, I vastly prefer the kinds of goals that demonstrate his strength and willingness to do anything to help his club win. The swashbuckling goals are lovely, and make the highlight reels. But today’s goal was like a rugby or American football player, shrugging off would-be obstacles to score the points.
And just as we’re used to seeing Messi perform extraordinary tasks, we’re fast becoming accustomed to seeing Neymar make very difficult goals look easy. Together, they effectively killed the match, thanks to an unusual thing for Barça these days, squad versatility.
Change, and good change
The back line was one that many had been suggesting for this match: Alves/Pique/Bartra/Mathieu. Pique and Bartra performed very well, as they seem to have a bond that makes them mesh. The delight was Mathieu at LB, who provided — it has only been one match in that role, however — that Abidalesque quality at LB, from forward runs to positioning and quality defending.
For me, the roots of Hlebruary stem to when Abidal used to get his annual injury around that time of the season and suddenly, everyone wondered why the defense seemed less capable. Abidal still wasn’t all that well-liked back then, so the folks who said “It’s the missing Abidal,” were kinda scoffed at. It’s only now, years after his departure that the essential nature of a player in that role, of that type, became apparent, just as it was abundantly clear that Alba wasn’t that player.
But as with almost any Barça win these days, quibbles abounded, assertions that the team has all sorts of problems, flaws and deficiencies that are just waiting for a top European side to lay bare. It’s a shifting bar, however. In Liga, it was Villarreal, then Athletic Club. In Champions League, a trio of schoolboy defensive errors prompted the chorus of “A-HA!” instead of “Man, those were silly. Hope they worked that crap out on the practice pitch.”
Because what I saw vs Malaga and PSG was a team that didn’t play particularly well, and still almost got a result. The PSG goals weren’t like the Bayern goals, where the defense was stripped bare. They were boneheaded plays, rooted in something that could be called marking only in the vaguest sense. Errors like that can be corrected but even at that, preserving the draw (or even, crazily enough a win) took desperate defending from PSG.
Today, the team wasn’t at its best, offensively. Messi couldn’t finish his lunch, but he scored when he had to, one goal when a sharper Messi would have had at least a hat trick. It happens. What is extraordinary about today’s match was amid all of the impediments and a team that again wasn’t at its best, that state of grace was achieved. We take it for granted, but it isn’t easy.
Another Liga match, another clean sheet. Transfers who were scoffed at in the summer are proving to be in fact what coaches and the technical staff thought they would be. Pique was selected by WhoScored.com as Man of the Match and very few people argued, even as some heads probably exploded. And the echoes of the ref’s whistle had barely dissipated before the dissections began.
But only a blind fool wouldn’t acknowledge that this team is far from perfect. There are complexities to address, and issues to rectify. But man, I just wish that after a win and 7th clean sheet, a chorus of “Way to go,” or “Nice work” would sound, a little stay of execution before leaping right into the “It was just Rayo! We will lose to a real team,” or litany of problems that will prevent the team from doing anything this season.
This season as last, it’s “The results don’t matter, it’s how the team is playing that has us worried,” as culers fret about an unattainable standard, a perpetual state of grace. No team has ever been as good as so many expect Barça to be every week. Even the Treble side, if you watch the matches, can’t live up to its own standard. “They were 50 feet tall and scored 100 goals a match. They had 99% possession too. I remember it so well.” Yet in football time, it really wasn’t all THAT long ago that a Rivaldo bicycle sent the Camp Nou into spasms of ecstasy as the team grabbed a European spot. It wasn’t that long ago that winning was really, really cool and worth celebrating.
Now winning is an expectation that is becoming increasingly grim. And not only a win, but the team has to win a certain way or it’s a win that feels like a loss. “Only 0-2 against Rayo. We have so many problems.”
Last year Martino’s team won 0-4 against Rayo, but lost the possession battle by a single percentage point. You’d have thought he killed a puppy. This year, Enrique had two fewer goals, but won possession by a healthy 18% margin so I reckon the grousing will not be as strident. It’s also worth noting that tactically, Enrique, like Martino last year, went over the top and long to take advantage of a pressing Rayo team, to get directly at their vulnerable back line. Imagine that.
Winning is an extraordinary thing that I fear we have come to take for granted, and even expect. But it really is worth thinking about the amount of stuff that has to go right for a team to have a successful result. For us to have the pleasure of being able to watch a team that does it time and time again, in so many different ways … it’s kinda nuts, when you think about it. And this is true even when the team succeeds at the individual battles but fails at the season goal of winning a championship.
We see this when people say that the PSG loss isn’t that big of a deal, because the objective of the Champions League group stage is to advance. “No. It’s to win the group, you idiot,” noted a helpful soul on social media. “If you win the group, you get the second-placed team from …blablabla.” Again, that expectation. Just advancing is for those mere mortal teams, who don’t scrabble at the lock of Mount Olympus so its immortals can nutmeg the Gods.
We take pains to diminish this team. “Well, Rayo was stupid to play like that,” as memories already have them being overrun, rather than doing a more than quality job at taking the match to Barça. So a win becomes “easy” because the opponent was complicit, somehow, by putting their foolhardy neck on the chopping block as they tried to play football with Barça.
Conversely it’s the gratification at the struggles against parked buses, the need for the team to have an Achilles heel to pick at. “We need a Plan B,” as result becomes history and people forget incorrectly disallowed goals, or chances created against Chelsea because the legend needs that, as well. It’s no fun to say “If only we’d finished better.” It’s easier to say that a team can’t break a bus, beginning a legend that persists to this day.
Opponents deserve credit, just as Barça deserves credit. Yes, we should examine the wins as well as the losses, as they fuel the endless cycle of tactics talk, speculation about this player or that player’s quality, etc, etc.
Yet even as I type the above I wonder if, when it’s all over and the Messis, Xavis and Iniestas are gone, when a few clunky transfers and a dried-up Masia pipeline maybe reduce Barça from “We didn’t win everything, we suck,” to “Lucky to finish second,” if we won’t look back on these wonder years with a tinge of sadness, at not having enjoyed them to the fullest.