When people snark and caterwaul about the Liga talent gap, today’s Catalan derby serves as an excellent illustration.
More than a tale of two halves, it was as stark a depiction of haves vs have nots as you will ever see.
It’s a fairly easy thing to summarize this match, and the truth lies in that summation: Espanyol played a perfect half of football, while Barça was far from perfect. In the second half Barça raised its level, rendering what Espanyol did irrelevant. 5-1. Done.
Is it really as simple as it seems from that stark paragraph? Well, yes.
The brilliance dilemma
It’s worth repeating that Barça has an XI that is like if a kid found the FIFA ’15 unlimited budget cheat code and assembled a team. It’s a starting group that includes not only the best player to ever play the game, but the best 9 in the game right now and a winger in Neymar who is taking immense strides to becoming one of Those players. And those players are brilliant. They have gifts of passing and associative play, but they can also, at times, just decide to do something jaw-dropping.
So there was Espanyol, having capitalized on a stupid Busquets error to find itself up (deservedly, it should be said) 0-1, less than a minute from the break. They could be forgiven for thinking, “Take this into the locker room, guzzle some energy drink, and let’s DO this.”
Then in a bizarre, almost unfair sequence of events, Jordi Alba turned his marker inside out then nutmegged him, took the return ball from Suarez and pinged it to Xavi who slid it to Messi, who unleashed a strike that kinda giggled at the laws of physics. It was 1-1, courtesy of one of those moments that make supporters realize why teams spend all that money on players who can decide, seemingly on a whim, to be unstoppable.
The strike was so pure and crazy, there was a pause before I cheered. I didn’t believe it had gone in. Logically, it couldn’t. There were at least 5 Espanyol defenders and a giant banana of a keeper in the way, so … no. But as it nestled into the far corner, it was clear, and remarkable. It was pure. And there was no shame in it, because individual brilliance isn’t a crutch. It’s more like at atomic bomb that can destroy hopes and render game plans irrelevant. Recall Henry’s submarine header equalizer against Lyon in Champions League, or that crazy Eto’o toe poke goal against United in the Champions League final. Great players do what they do, and it’s crucial that a great team have great players like that.
The shame of it if you’re an Espanyol supporter, is that the Liga is structured in a way that really allows only two teams to be able to reliably afford players of that sort, the magic makers.
Many noted on Twitter that it was unfortunate that Barça had to be bailed out by a moment of Messi magic. But that assertion means that, of necessity, it’s necessary to ignore the beautiful teamwork that went into setting up the chance. The ball pinged around in a way that left Espanyol all but helpless, unable to do much except watch as that crazy curler of a shot slid its way home.
And that glorious moment was the difference in that match, as it often is when an underdog is forced to have a moment of doubt. Long-term tennis devotees will recall that memorable Wimbledon match when Jana Novotna was playing Steffi Graf, who at that time was a juggernaut, unbeatable and unplayable. Novotna was up 4-1 in the decisive third set, serving at 40-30 for a 5-1 lead … and she double-faulted. There was that doubt, that little lapse that allowed the universe to set itself right. Novotna went on to lose the set 6-4 and the match. It is still the most historic collapse in tennis.
Espanyol didn’t cave in like that, but once that Messi goal nestled home, order was restored. Enrique no doubt blistered some ears and called players’ ancestry into question but a lot of the work was done by that bit of teamwork, capped off by the Messi wonder strike. The Espanyol players’ faces looked stunned as the players trudged into the locker room. “We did absolutely everything right, and this happened.”
That one goal made the second half a formality, as Espanyol never had a chance. The alert, hyperactive (and absolutely wonderful) Eric let Pique loose for a header. Another Messi wonder strike tallied. Pedro got behind a defense that was suddenly seeing threats from all angles, then Messi basically ran onto a hat trick-making third goal. It was smiles, control, 78% possession and seeming ease.
Was it the best Barça that we have seen, even in this season? No. Was there much to celebrate in this performance that made this culer giddy right down to his toes? Absolutely.
It wasn’t a manita with 100% possession but there are elements of a team coming together that are clear to see, if you choose to look. Jordi Alba is becoming a left-sided Alves. There were passages of beautiful play, pretty triangles and building play from the back in a stayle reminiscent of … dare we admit it … The Barça Way. The team got an opponent down and stepped on their throats, again finding many different ways to score goals. Espanyol wasn’t parked, but was defending aggressively and intelligently, but Barça broke them. In the first half I observed that only one team was working really hard, but it still went into the break even. Enrique said that Messi goal did something to Espanyol, and helped to decide the match.
A moment that typified the match and the way the team and its best player approached things in the second half happened in the 87th minute. Messi lost a ball, hopped on his horse, sprinted and dove into a challenge to recover it. In the 87th minute, with a 5-1 lead, its best player didn’t even want to lose a ball. In a week during which England great Paul Scholes said that Barça looked “bored,” and a shadow of its former selves, that kind of effort, work that was happening all over the pitch, was exciting.
Reasons for concern
In every match, after every win, there are always reasons for concern, and this one was no exception. The conceded goal reminds us of how crucial possession is for this Barça team, a group that now as it was then, is crap without the ball.
Luis Suarez is showing signs of coming around, even as he also shows signs that he still isn’t with the program.
It is still too easy to score a goal if a team gets a break on our back line, even though that fact makes Barça no different than any other team in world football.
Messidependencia is as acute as it has ever been. Assuredly every team should rely on its best player, but not to the extent that Barça is Messi. It remains to be seen whether the team is one wrong foot plant away from becoming a psychologically hollow shell.
Barça is susceptible to being punched in the face, as last season a fist of an Atleti side put paid to Liga and Champions League hopes. This season, a fist of a Malaga side got a result. A fist of a Valencia side almost got a result and a fist of en Espanyol side made lives hell for 44 minutes.
With these areas of concern come a quandary, as we balance the joy of an easy, convincing win over a difficult opponent with not wanting to let results seduce us into thinking that everything is just fine and dandy.
The job of a team
It’s also worth asking what is the job of a football team, as we examine yet another win by this talented group of footballers. Is it to win games, win championships, thrill supporters, or all of the above. It’s easy to lay out concerns, even in the wake of a 5-1 pasting of a hard-fighting rival, a win that boasted some 78% possession and no credible threats on the Barça goal in the entire second half (and most of the first, really). But should those concerns leaven the joy of the result, allowing supporters to let some gloom seep into a happy, happy day. And what of the aggregate? Was Tata Martino a remarkable coach who got an exhausted, damaged, mess of a team withing a few goals of being in for the Treble, or a failure who didn’t win a championship?
What is a team supposed to do? If Barça wins no silver this season, is it a wasted season, or are we not to examine the moments of unfettered joy such as last week’s late, late show, or seeing today a team that is coming together slowly but surely and be happy for those moments.
It’s an interesting way to think about a team’s accomplishments. For big clubs, championships are the expectation. That’s why they have the big players and the big money. But is enjoying wins and results selling that expectation short?
It’s easy to wonder, even as it is difficult to conceive, how supporters of other teams feel, teams who are thrilled to get into European play, never mind dissolving into spasms of frustrated failure when a championship doesn’t come. Does their football team have a different job than that of a big club? Does “Just win, baby,” become “Just do okay?” That perfect game, that remarkable, elusive thing, is like a unicorn. It’s art, really, because it’s subject to subjectivity outside of the objective reality of the statistical chronicling of the match.
The team won, but did it win in the right way, some wonder. A goal scored from a long diagonal pass to a forward counts as a goal on the scoresheet, but sits as an aesthetic sin for many as a past playing template becomes an absolute, unwavering standard. It’s failure in success.
In baseball, there is a perfect game, in which a pitcher allows no hits or players on base. No runs, no walks, no nothing. Is a perfect game in which an outfielder makes a couple of amazing solo plays to deny the opponent a baserunner still a perfect game in every parameter, or is it flawed because the pitcher had to rely on his teammates to achieve that excellence.
Lots of questions, but there is a lot to think about as we watch this new Barça come together, seeking rewards in continued overall excellence.