The 1985 Chicago Bears won a Super Bowl, the hyperbolically monikered championship of American football, a Roman-numeraled event that was an extraordinary thing.
The Bears had style, the Bears had swagger. The Bears had a long-suffering group of supporters, who braved weather that would make even hardy souls giggle at the notion of sitting around in it for three hours to witness a passel of mediocre giants stumble about.
The 1985 Bears didn’t just do it. They told you they were going to do it, and then did it. The group played one way, and dared you to stop it. The root of the team’s dominance was its defense, a then-groundbreaking “46” defense (that eventually came to be known as the Bear defense) that placed an emphasis on stopping the run and destroying the quarterback. They rang up gaudy scorelines, and didn’t just win … they often humiliated and destroyed, coming within one game of an undefeated season.
The NFL had seen nothing like it. The team was full of personalities, and its coach was a hard-working, possessed demon of a man who starred for the Bears as an offensive weapon. He wore his heart on his sleeve, demanded the absolute best from his players and tolerated no impediments to excellence.
That team also had a diminutive powerhouse of a superstar, a one-team player named Walter Payton, drafted by the Bears, a running back who rose to fame with the Bears and was known as “Sweetness.” And when the team won, it was as much for Payton as anything else, and fans grumbled when the team didn’t get Payton a touchdown in that iconic Super Bowl.
In that championship game, the Bears stomped their opponents 46-10 (the symbolism of the score can assuredly be noted), and became legend — a standard that to this day, stands. And in many ways that legend permeates and corrupts, stalking the halls like a chain-rattling spectre, this wonderful thing that people won’t, can’t let go of.
As usual, following the Ajax match via social media and reading some breakdowns afterward, I settled down for my post-facto viewing with snacks and a box of tissues close at hand. They were a mess, Ajax ran them around and got in their faces. Things got more stable in the second half, but man … whew! The signs still aren’t there, though, etc, etc, ad infinitum.
Then was then …
During a Twitter discussion about Treble Barça and the ghosts of it that culers just refuse to let rest, I got to thinking about standards and the aforementioned Chicago Bears. As I dove in, the similarities between the two great teams were striking. So the Ajax match, with the simultaneous old and new standards ripping at Barça, became even more interesting …
… Because it really wasn’t all that stressful. Ajax had possession, mostly in their half. They had two good scoring chances, both from Barça errors and both dealt with. Messi scored two goals but didn’t have a good match overall. Xavi turned back the clock.
In the aftermath, Graham Hunter, a favorite writer who still has written the definitive assessment of this team to date, noted that the intensity and work rate that had been lacking was present against Ajax, which explained what I saw, in part. This wasn’t like Celta Vigo, in which chances were being created but Barça wasn’t in control. Far from it. The Ajax match was never, ever in danger.
Some of that is the calm of hindsight talking, and I do wonder what my reactions would have been had I been watching the match live. But in that delayed viewing, you could see Barça all over Ajax, with three near-miss attacking efforts in the first 5 minutes. Neymar and Suarez were tracking back, albeit not with the vigor of an Henry or Eto’o, and Messi had as many recovered balls as Alves. Effort.
And after watching the three times in the first 5 minutes of the match where Barça could have scored, after watching the ball movement, effort and overall match control, I began to wonder what the standard is.
It is never going to be 2008 again. Just as opponents caught up to the ’85 Bears, employing quarterbacks with short drops and quick releases, the rest of the world caught up to Treble Barça. That time is gone, a fond memory as I occasionally stumble across my Year of the Six Cups soci card, but having absolutely nothing to do with my view of this Barça.
Playing like champions
I watched Ajax with possession as they were, in most cases, fronted by a pair of Barça defenders and wondered what the standard was. Alves was mediocre, Mascherano magnificent in his function as the perfect grownup for Bartra. But strangely, it didn’t bring to mind Pique and Puyol, in their apprentice/grownup relationship, because that was then, and this is now.
Busquets also seemed to turn back the clock, but if you look at how Barça was defending, it made Busquets’ life easier. He didn’t have to cover as much ground because of the press, and teammates slowing the match down as it came at him. So the clock was turned back in the sense that the conditions were present that allowed Busquets to again show at his best.
Ajax attacks that developed were snuffed out at the defensive level, which again made me wonder what the standard is. Barça is going to have to defend, mostly because Ajax doesn’t suck. But missed passes were the bane of the Barça existence more than Ajax defenders and attackers. Messi was off, Alves off, Alba off, Rakitic off. Their balls found the feet of Ajax defenders more capably than teammates in the box, in addition to all of that passing when they should have been shooting.
Standards. In the 22nd minute the announcer castigated Neymar for running offside, suggesting that he should have done better. And as I watched the play, I wondered why instead he didn’t say “Well done” to the Ajax player who perfectly played Neymar off, simultaneously raising his arm to make absolutely certain the ref noted his tactical move.
Ajax was almost completely reduced to speculative shots from distance, and efforts cut off by the defense. We laud teams who reduce Barça to that, so I naturally found myself wondering what makes it a sign of crisis and impending frailty when the same thing is done by players wearing blaugrana (or highlighter yellow).
Their two chances came from errors, via a sloppy clearance and appalling marking. And that was that.
Effort and energy
The signs that I do see from this team, in the absence of ghosts, are interesting. Against Ajax, Suarez was not good. He was loose in possession, and too casual with the ball. He was also moving ponderously, stomping around like a mastodon. And the chance that he missed was absurd. A striker of that level, even after four months off, shouldn’t be shooting those directly at the keeper. Yes, he is still coming into match fitness, but dude … come on.
Xavi, people. Covered the most ground of anyone, was often the leading tentacle of the press, as well. I will no longer deal with the contentions and arguments about why it’s a complexity that Barça have to call upon a 35 year-old with sketchy tendons, and just say “Damn, yo!”
Messi was like something of an on/off switch, at times mercurial and vibrant, at others kinda laconic, as though conserving energy. Thankfully, he got lucky on his first goal. He was walking back onside after the rebound effort, and as Bartra outfought the Ajax keeper and whipped a ball into the box, thanks to some very smart movement, there was Messi. But I did find myself wondering if he had run back onside, would the ball that Bartra wound up chasing have wound up at Messi’s feet.
Enrique is going to have to come up with a suitable rotation plan for his star players, most notably the best of them all, Messi. If we acknowledge the existence of Messidependencia, it seems a two-pronged attack would be to attempt to eradicate it, and preserve its icon, in case the “cure” doesn’t take.
And Pedro. Ah, Pedro. In about a minute, we saw all the sides of Pedro, defending like a demon, then working a perfect give-and-go with Messi to assist the second goal, then moving perfectly in the box to anticipate a pass coming to him, only to have it whack off his feet as if they were bricks instead of human appendages.
That said, it was yet another match in which the inclusion of He Who Used to Be P! made a clear difference. As people wonder why he exists, hasn’t been sold, etc, etc, it isn’t hard to see those recent situations and understand exactly why.
Next up is Almeria, a winnable match that would be a perfect way to send this group off on yet another international break, and leave the team at worst 2 points off the top of the table. In full honesty, that isn’t a situation that I would have predicted for this group at the start of the season. I expected worse.
Real and imaginary crises mount as Enrique grows evidently tired of the press who laud and make life a living hell. At his Friday presser, the first three questions were about Pique until finally, Enrique said that he wasn’t going to talk about it. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. Play Pique, and why is he playing that n’er do-well. Play Bartra, and “Why aren’t you playing Pique? What has he done?”
Notions of identity from a team that is still taking shape would seem contradictory, but this is among the demands being made of this group of players. People want to see something, something taking shape, some sign of something, this thing that reassures and comforts. It’s like when a bus pulls up and the sign is broken. You get on with a bit of trepidation. Where is this thing going, anyway?
At the beginning of this season, I predicted that this team wouldn’t win any major silver this season. I am fairly confident of that prediction, even as I can see this group coming together in a way that would make it a world-beating ensemble. No, Ajax isn’t RM or PSG, but you could see signs of that budding excellence, even as you could also see the things that might sabotage it.
I went nosing around for a quality quote to sum up after reckoning that “History’s Bunk!” the title of the Gang of Four EP wasn’t going to cut it, and came upon a bit of perfection, from author John Still:
“The memories of men are too frail a thread to hang history from.”