This is weird.
Yesterday’s fascinating Copa match came in the wake of a recent conversation that in the here and now of 140-character blasts, self-curated football knowledge bases and the YouTube immediacy of the modern game, a patient, long view is not only unrewarded but unwanted. (As an aside, this piece by Seb Stafford-Bloor on that very thing, is essential reading.)
Back in the day, someone could call for patience and there was no choice, really. So when events transpired to make that person seem like a seer, it was cool. Today, nobody wants to admit they don’t know, so everyone acts like they know.
And as I was watching the away leg of the Copa tie vs Elche, a dead rubber in which Barça already had an insurmountable lead and even the Elche coach said before the match, “I know what I’m supposed to say, but this is impossible,” I got to thinking about the long view and its unrewarding nature.
When Luis Enrique took the helm at Barça, it was mostly “Huzzah!” and “One of us, a man who understands The Way,” or “He’s a hard worker, the kind of coach we need.” (Since presumably, Tata Martino was so busy being fanned by slaves on his Barçalounger, he didn’t even have time to change his polo shirts.)
Then with lineup after lineup, no match the same and a team that looked sort of a mess to be honest, almost instantly the mutterings began. “Where’s his system?” “Why does he keep changing lineups?” “I want to see logic!” and of course, “Lucho out!”
Some said that Enrique took over a team that he didn’t know, a team that included 8 new transfers (well, 7.5 since one of them is a cripple), a new coaching staff and a new system, and patience would be required.
“Stop defending him! Lucho out!”
And suddenly (but not so suddenly, if folks were paying attention) two matches came along that showed something, a semblance of a system, and the reaction is a lot like it is when an unfavored player has a good match: this eerie sort of silence. If everyone was in a room together, it would be people looking around at other people, nobody wanting to be the first one to say it: maybe, just maybe, he isn’t as clueless as many surmised.
Different actors, same play
In tonight’s presentation, the director has made some changes. The part of Neymar will be played by Pedro. The part of Luis Suarez will be played by Munir el-Haddadi, and the part of Messi will be played by Adama Traore. Thank you, and enjoy the show.
Things looked pretty much the same as they did on Sunday when Barca dismantled Atleti with a thrilling display, and many were waiting for this match not as much for any results that might come as the tie was decided, but to see what, who and how the team would play. And I’m not sure about what anyone else did, but I just sat and clapped my hands with glee as the signs that the team might be coming together with a coherent way of playing solidified into something approximating a vision.
It wasn’t the same bodies, but it looked the same: the press, defenders pressing and attacking, intelligent width coming from fullbacks as the front three pretty much had the run of the place, fed by an active midfield that contributed to defending but also shuttled the ball back and forth via darting runs, and everyone had pressing and attack-starting duties. And as proof the system was working, the goals came from unusual people rather than places, because when a team defends and attacks as one, everyone is a danger.
It’s far too early to say “A-ha!” But it isn’t too early to suggest that perhaps Enrique’s demise has been exaggerated in the haste to get somethinganythingrightnowwhat’stakingsolong!
In the full confession category, my view is certainly tempered by my acceptance that the team isn’t going to win any silver this season. That makes it easy to sit back and see what is going to happen, and removes all the pressure from events as they transpire. 321 different lineups? So what. The biggest question is do those lineups have a unified way of playing. As noted in the Atleti post-mortem, in many ways even as it is stupid for people to sit around, stroking their copies of the “Pep Confidential” book and wishing for the good ol’ days, the way it seems this team is shaping up is as close to the Guardiola Way and the Barça Way as any team we have seen in a while.
Enrique has modified things a bit to suit his personnel, and his defensive base that was also a starting point for him as he built from the back, approaches the game differently. But it’s difficult to look at this team go about its business and not recognize Barça football, rather than that variant that has become The Way, the Guardiola style of playing (a style that also shifted based on available personnel).
It’s still too early to know what it all will mean, just as it was too early to call for Enrique’s head. And yet the signs are clear that something potentially wonderful is coming into shape at FC Barcelona. We should sit back and enjoy the show.
That show included glimpses of the future. Even though an incomplete recovery from a recent illness deprived us of Sergi Samper, do we really need to see more of him to know that he’s the future? More interesting was seeing players such as Halilovic and Adama Traore, one of the brightest future lights of Barça B. Many wondered how he would do against Liga-quality defenders, and he did pretty much what he does. He’s raw, and has a ways to go before we can begin to fully assess what awaits him, but the journey is going to be a delight.
Halilovic made his first-team debut, and has that Neymar-like quality that makes the game speed up. Even Douglas got an assist in that rare fullback-to-fullback goal, setting up Adriano for the team’s last tally.
With apologies to Jim
Another odd thing is that the way this team is going to play might have taken fullest shape during the injury period of a man who has long been considered the team’s reference, in Xavi.
It’s no sin to say that Xavi has, as have we all, become less than we were over time. And while you would certainly strain to point to specific instances during a match that Xavi plays where it could be said that “This happened. See?” But in his absence and the possibilities provided by a different player the future took on a bit of shape. The midfield on Sunday was Busquets/Rakitic/Iniesta. In that midfield there was really no Xavi analog, even as Iniesta performed as a modified Xavi, that cenral point through which the ball took a breath before resuming its dizzying journey around the pitch.
Iniesta passed, moved and shuttled the ball about while Rakitic performed a wonderful box-to-box role in his best big-match performance in the colors (aided of course by a more defensive Alves). And it was in one marvelous tackle, a foul really because of what the trailing leg did, that the future became clearer in many ways. Rakitic destroyed an attack with a sliding sort of hook tackle, and Pique cleaned up the mess. In that tackle he showed pace, range, aggression and physicality, all things that the way Enrique seems to want to play the game requires.
That is also a way that is incompatible with what Xavi brings to the game in the here and now. There’s no shame in admitting that, even as it is a difficult thing to write because Xavi is Xavi, The Inevitable Xavi as Ray Hudson so lovingly nicknamed him. And that player was and will be invaluable to the club this season. When things were getting messy as a system took shape, Xavi would come in and stabilize things, taking, moving, surveying and distributing. This more dynamic Barca has a different need for him, a need that I suspect we will see manifested as the season progresses, that essential sub that calms a fraught match in the second half, or the unerring eye against a parked bus.
The hallmark of a truly intelligent player is that their game shifts to adapt to circumstances, until such time as there isn’t any more shifting to be done. As that progression happens, the player becomes a reference, then a role player, then a cameo, then either the subject of a heartfelt farewell tribute and immense ovation from the home fans, or a fat paycheck in a monied foreign league in a warm country.
It is as yet uncertain which ultimate outcome will befall Xavi, even as it is without question that he is on that path. He is, and will always be our Maestro. But there is a reason that he had his bags packed, ready to go, just as there is a reason that Enrique begged him to stay. The Barca coach understood that Xavi still had a very important role to play on this team. And we can be even more grateful to Xavi because that immense role hasn’t just been on the pitch, as some things have needed to get worked out in the dressing room, evidence would suggest.
The true greats don’t want us to mourn their passing but to appreciate the arc and art of their careers in every phase even as what they can do shifts. Puyol was never more lovable than when he became increasingly reckless in his visible attempts to battle with his body and the limitations it was trying to impose on him. He broke an elbow by actually trying to fly, shoved his iron-hard noggin into places a younger Puyol would not even have considered, raging against the dying of the light. And then he couldn’t any longer.
Xavi will be more elegant than Puyol. He only stayed because he was assured that he would have a role to play, and I suspect the size of the role surprised even him. But Xavi won’t stay one millisecond longer than his immense value to the team and club requires him to. And it’s that quality that makes my heart a little sad inside as I think about the day when No. 6 won’t be there. Because if you love a club, you have to love the iconic player who always does what is right for that club. That’s Xavi.