Standards and ghosts, aka “Barça and the 1985 Chicago Bears”

bears

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.

Sound familiar?

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.

"Here ya go, baby. Get some!"
“Here ya go, baby. Get some!”

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!”

"I have shoes older than you are!"
“I have shoes older than you are!”

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.

Meanwhile …

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.”

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Written by:

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

55 Comments

  1. ooga aga
    November 8, 2014

    good read, Kxevin. im from seattle and when i was 10 in 1985 i was a rabid Seahawks fan, but i also jumped on the Bears bandwagon. i read jim mcmahons autobiography when it came out and the only thing i remember was that he once dropped a fork in his eye and that’s why he always wore sunglasses. what does that have to do with anything? i don’t know.

  2. ian_percival
    November 8, 2014

    Guys whats with all the fuss about Larporta hiring Mourinho if he becomes president.I really think its cool,lol. Oh i miss that man larporta,this board have landed in more shit than that of larporta’s,they even got us banned from transfer,when the club needed it most.

    • G6O
      November 8, 2014

      Why does he have to say he would bring Mourinho? Pep’s contract with Bayern, was for three years if I remember correctly, i.e. it ends in 2016, which is a curious coincidence.

    • November 8, 2014

      I was wondering, only today morning, how would Mourinho play with our present squad. Interesting development, if its true.

  3. IamXavi6
    November 8, 2014

    Faircall bringing out the 85 Bears. Tons of similarities.

    LE pressers are really interesting. Personally, despite how much I truely like the guy (he is my fav all time Barca player), some of his answers while direct and demonstrates forthrightness to the media, I think he has much to work on in the media game not to cause trouble for the team and the get the press offside who are already in a lot of ways waiting for him to ‘slip up’ more.

    I.E some of his quotes from his latest:

    Luis Enrique: “Pique benched? He’s doing everything a footballer can do. I’ll leave it to the press to blow things out of proportion.”

    Luis Enrique: “Vermaelen? There’s nothing new to announce. My previous answers about him from the last two months are still valid…”

    Luis Enrique: “You won’t lie. Some of you (press) should get to know that commandment…”

    Perhaps it’s just me, but I think he needs to tread warily there.

  4. Jafri
    November 8, 2014

    Messi scored two goals but didn’t have a good match overall.

    I’m struggling to remember the last time he did have a good match, by our standards.

    • Ttemple
      November 8, 2014

      So there ya go, Jafri. I sometimes wonder if the “mythical standard” of Barca, as Kxevin noted, isn’t as nefarious as the purported “standard” of Messi.

    • Jafri
      November 8, 2014

      Exactly. One thing that I notice is that the narrative goes that this player has declined, that player has declined but Messi? He’s disinterested. Or in a funk. It’s as if we can’t bring ourselves to even consider that his best days may be behind him. Sure he’s only 27, but that includes the constant grind of ten years of top level football.

    • November 8, 2014

      Neymar can try tricks, lose the ball, dive and then score a goal – he was excellent.
      Ronaldo, dives, shoots million balls from 30 yards and then score a tap in, he is the best in the game.

      Like wise, almost every big striker in football, lurks around the box and finally manages a goal, they will be treated like the best player in their team.

      Messi plays 3 key passes, wins the most balls together with another defender, dribbles 7 and was almost a one man creator for us, but he still cant be treated as having a good match.
      He too has a mythical standard, you see. If Barca should not be compared to the mythical standard, why should Messi be.

      And it is not just in BFB. The whole British media talks as if CR7 has taken his play to an exceptional level. But we look at the below, and am afraid, its not such an exceptional difference.

      Most goals+assists in the year 2014: Messi 45+21, Ronaldo 50+13, Benzema 31+18, Alexis 26+19, Bale 21+18, Muller 24+11 [via @barcastat]

      Poor Messi must be wondering, why he set such a high standard. 🙂

    • Valdemar II
      November 8, 2014

      The mediocre Benzema would be their best scorer if he was the penalty-taker. I’m laughing.

  5. BA
    November 8, 2014

    i think it’s not a great sign when, in a team containing Neymar, Messi and Suarez, the highlights were the passing of the goalkeeper and a 35-year-old.

    • Peter
      November 8, 2014

      Not sure what highlights you were seeing, but in any case the passing that ter Stegen showed and the workrate and vision of Xavi are good for just about any highlight reel.

  6. luisthebeast
    November 8, 2014

    I believe messi had a great game because the job of a forward in a team is to score goals!!!And for the people who want our forwards to press like mad men please watch other teams,there is no team in the world where that happens.Ronaldo benzema costa lewandowski most of the game walk

    • November 8, 2014

      Of course, in modern game, even forwards press. But no coach will ask forwards to press relentlessly.
      Even when I re watch our 08-09 games, its not like H, M and E were pressing all the time.Only those who have ever played football, understand that if a forward is pressing all the time, he wont have the energy left to finish properly when he get a chance. Coaches understands this, thats why we see strikers taking time out and walking.
      Look at our Pedro. Its his full fledged pressing, which is affecting his finishing.

  7. luisthebeast
    November 8, 2014

    I watched again clasico and our 3 forwards where our best players.Against a very good team they created clear chances and almost chances out of nothing.It s sad that we have the 3 best forwards in the world and our midfield and defense cant help them:(

  8. Peter
    November 8, 2014

    Line-up announced:

    ———-Bravo———-
    Adriano–Mascherano–Bartra–Alba
    —Rakitic–Sergio—Rafinha—
    –Munir—Messi—-Pedro

    • November 8, 2014

      was thinking it would be Suarez, Munir and Pedro.
      so no more hope for Masche to go to his best position, it seems.

    • Valdemar II
      November 8, 2014

      Happy thoughts about this line-up.. Adriano at RB, cool. Bartra starting, cool. Then there’s Rafinha/Rakitic. Neymar and Suarez are rested before the international break, not sure if I understand that.

    • Peter
      November 8, 2014

      Suarez has to travel to South America. Neymar doesn’t.

      I think Luis Enrique wants pressing from the striker team. Say what you want about Pedro and Munir, but they will run. A lot.

      Also, Suarez and Neymar may feature as power-subs. With a Xavi as another power sub for control of the late game for example…

    • georgjorge
      November 8, 2014

      This line-up seems to say that Enrique is taking Almeria a bit less seriously than many previous opponents (no Neymar, no Alves) and is taking the opportunity to rest players. No rest for the wicked, I mean Messi, of course…

    • Rami
      November 8, 2014

      That front line doesn’t spark much confidence in me.
      Almeria coach has said they’ll try to close down spaces and look for the counter, So we should ex[ect another ‘malaga’ on our hands today, In that case winning those 1vs1 encounters on the wing will be crucial to reach their box, Pedro and munir aren’t best suited for that.

      It’s doable if we managed somehow to score first and open up the game, But if we failed at that, This match can get very complicated, That’s all i’m trying to say.

  9. lala10
    November 8, 2014

    risky line up

  10. Tebzat
    November 8, 2014

    Kxevin,nice article.

    I don’t know if you guys have noticed but Messi started losing form/interest during the time his son was born. Maybe he really lost interest and found something else to love

  11. TITO
    November 8, 2014

    This one is again on LE. We are playing do slow and so predictable that is pathetic.
    And before everybody start to blame Messi on the goal, almost our entire team was at their half and i can’t understand why.

  12. lala10
    November 8, 2014

    LE needs to make some changes. Again the ball is worked more and more towards the flanks. As an amchair coach i would hook Munir and Rafinha in the second half for Neymar and Xavi and hold it a bit. As the game progresses i had introduce Suarez at some point. LE should man up and admit his experiment has failed.

  13. Rami
    November 8, 2014

    Haven’t said anything close to this, this season, But that was absolutely horrendous, And nauseating.
    That break away will take most of the talks, Blame or not to blame messi, But it’s just a red herring to what was happening before.

    When your over the defense balls come from your FB and CB, Something is wrong, When the only time you see your midfield players touch the ball is on a counter, Something is definitely wrong.

    The only thing i sense now, Is hopelessness and nothing else.

  14. stefan2k
    November 8, 2014

    Rafinha is like a taller JDS 😀 bring Xavi already!!

  15. TITO
    November 8, 2014

    If Celta game was bad, then i dont know how to label this one.

  16. lala10
    November 8, 2014

    im shocked unlless Busi is injured

  17. morph73
    November 8, 2014

    I’m happy for the victory but am not too convinced with the way the game was played today… A lot of improvement needs to be done…

  18. BA
    November 8, 2014

    like the Ajax game, that was such a disjointed performance. different parts of the team look like they just don’t know how to play together.

    and we once again have to revert to Xavi to re-assert control of the match. that doesn’t bode well for the coming 18 months without any transfers.

    • barca96
      November 8, 2014

      What are we going to do without Xavi?

    • G6O
      November 8, 2014

      Shortly before we equalized I was watching how Messi was holding on the ball for about 20 seconds and thinking “This is how we play our pick up games” – the team looked like a collection of players without any established connection between them, no organization, no purpose.

      I had great hopes for LE, but this just looks like a coaching problem to me

  19. G6O
    November 8, 2014

    Needless to say, horrible game, with only one positive – Suarez showed why we were talking how he can help break the bus when he was in the process of signing.

    But other than that, that was depressing to watch.

    • November 8, 2014

      it was very very depressing. hopefully messi can break his stupid record already. the only positive thing was that we can afford for messi to be crap because suarez was amazing coming in. he’s a fighter and exactly the energy we need up front to deal with teams like this.

  20. luisthebeast
    November 8, 2014

    What a player luis is i am so happy he is ours…for the rest nothing much to say

  21. norden
    November 8, 2014

    Messi needs to work on his headers and we should be fine 🙂

    • G6O
      November 8, 2014

      I don’t think it’s that simple – there is a problem with him too. That situation at the very end used to be an automatic goal – once you saw such a gap open and him heading towards it with the ball, you knew it was going to soon be in the back of the net. But this season it has been a miss after miss, and we’re talking great chances that he normally scores. And he would have had about 10 more goals than he currently does. Graham Hunter talked about it in that article that was discussed here the other day too.

    • norden
      November 8, 2014

      Sorry, I was only joking… I thought it was obvious 🙂

    • barca96
      November 8, 2014

      Neymar is the one who should improve on his header. It’s horrible.

  22. lala10
    November 8, 2014

    Yeah it doesn’t bode well at all. I am miffed. You wonder how and when we will start playing as a team again for the whole match.

    Raktic, Busi and Rafinha was too much of a gamble. At least we picked the three points.

  23. fedway
    November 8, 2014

    I don’t follow golf, but when I look at Messi, I shudder when I think about Tiger Woods. I think finishing in football might have something to do with golf.
    I’m not that worried about our team. We’re basically in pre-season with Suarez finally playing, and Iniesta and Mathieu out; 3 of the key positions since the start of the year have basically been reshuffled.
    What has gone well is how Lucho has used Xavi, and Xavi’s admirable attitude of adjusting to his new role instead of pouting.

  24. November 8, 2014

    Well that was a depressing game to watch. For a team who used to focus so much on control and possession I have to admit that watching them play now is both uncomfortable and tense. I am not sure what LE thinks the benefits to this style of play bring because so far I have yet to really see it. I guess we all have to start getting used to it because LE doesnt strike me as the sort of coach who is going to give up on a plan. He obviously believes there is some benefit to playing this way, I hope we get to see it soon!

    On the more positive side Suarez was brilliant today. His touches, his strength and his link up play all fantastic and both his assists were top, top class. Man, I hope that LE knows what he is doing because we really do have a front 3 now that should be completely destroying teams.

  25. Peter
    November 8, 2014

    I got a real nice headache watching that. Good thing this one is over. Mind you, with just 30 hours between the two trips and with just over four hours of sleep after the Ajax game they couldn’t have been fresh as daisies. Messi, Rakitic, Busquets all looked worn down.

    I guessed all the subs, but for the wrong reasons. Damn…

    Suarez made the real difference, though. Starting to get real understanding with the rest, and could’ve gotten a hattrick of assists if it hadn’t been for that Zarra curse.

    Well, at least it’s over now. Let’s see what happens after the break:

    Iniesta could be already back.
    Xavi will have had two weeks of training and recovery.
    Suarez will have played two more competitive matches.
    Messi, Neymar, Mascherano will have played (only) two friendlies in two weeks.
    Mathieu will have recovered from his injury(hopefully).

    I don’t think Busquets will have gotten enough rest, due to del Bosque not calling enough pivotes.

  26. Rami
    November 8, 2014

    The heavens smiled upon us………..through luis suarez.

    I’m not the kind of guy to undermine the work of his own team, So no, It wasn’t luck that got us the 3 points, But all i know, Is that the next 14 days, Enrique has some serious thinking and work to do, And it’ll be crucial in keeping our hopes in winning the league, Or any of the other trophies. The performance of today can’t happen again.

  27. BA
    November 8, 2014

    fully agree with Euler that Sergi Samper needs to start getting time in our midfield as a CM orchestrator, with Mascherano behind him at DM. we need to be planning for the future and playing one of our best players in his best position.

    the Mascherano at CB thing at this point is just so grating: we KNOW his deficiencies there will be exposed and we KNOW that he’s an outstanding player when played in midfield. what the hell is Luis Enrique thinking?

    • Peter
      November 8, 2014

      Quick question: Who will you change him with? Mathieu and Vermaelen are injured. Who in the team has the leadership, experience, intelligence, tenacity, grit and sheer physicality/willingness to tackle to take over Mascherano?

      Pique?

      I think Luis Enrique was sending a clear signal to Pique. Start working. Earn your wages.

      I think he wants to see the Pique who used to get his mouth smashed with a boot, getting kicked in the head, and then going out to get bandaged, so that he can come back as soon as possible, bloody bandage and all, and help the team.

    • BA
      November 8, 2014

      good point. now tell me how that is NOT a failure of the administration’s transfer policy in purchasing adequate cover at center-back?

      and don’t tell me that “injuries stack up”: we purchased an injured player and a 31-year-old who will be increasingly prone to injuries as our CB options over the summer. it should come as no surprise that they are out injured.

      Mascherano is a brilliant midfield player, who has clear deficiencies at CB that teams are looking to exploit (balls over the top, set pieces). we, FC Barcelona, should not HAVE to play him at CB but for a failure in the construction of the squad.

    • Peter
      November 8, 2014

      What is adequate cover for you? Marquinhos, Thiago Silva, Hummels AND Benatia?

      In case you haven’t been paying attention to some of the current events:

      Thiago Silva – injured from August to mid-October
      Hummels – injured
      Mangala – was injured
      Alaba – injured
      Rojo – injured

      The only reason why Benatia is not at least 500 km away from Munich is because Javi Martinez is (you may have guessed it) injured. Oh, and Thiago Alcantara is injured. Again.

      You know why? Because injuries stack up. Just ask Wenger.

    • BA
      November 8, 2014

      a good starting place might have been CBs who weren’t on the wrong side of 30 and injured when we bought them.

      in other words: we needed a Ferrari and a Land Rover at the back, but instead we got a busted Imperia and an old Peugeot and we’re wondering why we’re not going anywhere.

    • Peter
      November 8, 2014

      You aren’t answering the question, mate. Which is that cheap available Ferrari?

      I can use generalizations as well, for example, would pay for the Ferrari at a custom-modelled Lamborghini price yourself?

      See how easy it is?

    • Rami
      November 8, 2014

      Mascherano is our best CB, Makes no sense putting him anywhere else, It’ll be a downgrade.

    • BA
      November 8, 2014

      and that in itself is a huge problem. we spent €100m+ on players this summer and our defense is increasingly looking every bit as disheveled as it was last season when it cost us the title.

  28. lala10
    November 8, 2014

    We should be bracing for some tough times ahead. So many pieces to put in place. And LE will put them where he thinks they fit. If these past games are anything to go by we need to toughen up and get used to the new way.

    Sevilla and then Valencia will be interesting to see.

  29. ibbe
    November 8, 2014

    I don’t care how badly we played im just happy we got that win..

    We’ve all been crying for barca to change styles and be a more complete team. Remember last year when real were trying adopt our possesion football? didn’t really work out too well for them. They won both cups parking the bus. But they kept on improving their possesion skills and only now we’re seeing the results.

    Now we are trying to be a complete team. To change our players style that runs in their DNA won’t be a walk in the park. It will take time and it’ll seem as though we have no identity (just like real last season).

    I don’t know if LE is the right man for the job and I don’t know if we have the right personell to actually do such a transition in the style of play. But I will support LE and the team, WIN or LOSS.

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