Elx 0, Barça 4 (9-0 agg), aka “Is that something visible taking shape?”

"Do it like this, not like that."
“Do it like this, not like that.”

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.

"I have places to go. Step aside."
“I have places to go. Step aside.”

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.


By Kxevin

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.


  1. Great post!Kxevin what is your opinion about sergi roberto and rafhinia?Can they be the future of our midfield with denis suarez and samper?

    1. I know I’m not Kxevin…
      ..but just wanted to chip in.

      Usually, I don’t like making comparisons to other players as each player has an individual skill set….but anyways…

      All those who you mentioned have quality, no doubt, but I doubt they will make it.

      In five-six years I really don’t think Messi will be playing on the right wing, rather drop deep into a more Iniesta-esque role, like what Maradona did in his later days.

      Even if somehow magically Adama was made into a no 9 to accommodate Halilovic on the right wing, Munir and Sandro flopped (I still think Sandro has it though), we still have way too much choice in midfield.

      Sergi Samper
      Sergi Roberto
      Denis Suarez.
      Rafinha and Denis Suarez are both quite Iniesta-esque, so that begs the question….will MESSI not play? Unlikely.

      I think all of the players have a chance to make it. Some players are just late bloomers, like Trashorras at Rayo (33 and still -what an engine!) and to an extent Iniesta. I think Sergi Roberto is showing signs of the same development.

      But maybe not at Barcelona, who just have too much quality at the moment…

      What I can think of –
      Samper as a pivot
      Sergi Roberto on the right side of midfield.
      Messi on the left.

      Rafinha and Denis Suarez as depth – both on the wings and in the center.
      Halilovic on the right, Adama/Sandro in the center, Neymar on the left.
      And all this is factoring that Munir and Deulofeu will not make it, Rakitic, Masche and Suarez are past their prime and we make NO forays in the transfer market, unlikely, given that each board likes to make a “big signing” to define their era.

      However, it’s very hard to say that someone will “make it” or not. Sometimes, it just takes a match for someone to “not make it”, like Bojan against Inter.

      And who knows, just like the days of yore Barca might actually turn to a double pivot and all this will make no sense. (Yes, we used to play a double pivot, in the 2006 UCL final no less)

      Brighter days are ahead…..

      (Note, this is my first comment on a blog I’ve been reading for years, so excuse the length and the excitement!!)

    2. Sergi Roberto – no. The technical ability simply isn’t there.

      Rafinha can be a part of it if he stays healthy, but it’s neither in the “Xavi” not the “Iniesta” role. His brother would have been very useful, but that’s water under the bridge at this point.

  2. sorry folks but i have just read a recent Guardian Sid Lowe article that gave me the impression that Messi playing on the right against Atletico was sort of new.

    From my recollection, since Suarez returned from the ban he played a couple of games on the right. After a few games LE changed it because Suarez was not comfortable and put Messi. Ever since Messi has nominally started on the right. Is the pattern of events? Because i struggled to understand if Sid was saying Suarez was stationed centrally for the first time/ whether it was Barca’s first complete performance with Suarez in the centre.

    1. Wasn’t it the 4-3-1-2 system, with messi tucked in behind wide-ish strikers ?
      All narrow & defensive midfield.

  3. If you want to gleam anything concrete out of a 9-0 against a team that will play in the segunda next year… go right ahead. LE is still on borrowed time imo, we will win due to MSN magic NOT because he’s Rinus Michels.

    1. I gleam even whilst watching rondos.
      Is that pathetic ?
      I don’t care.

      BTW, Most teams can’t even pull off a Barcaesque rondo, forget 9-0 !

      Visca Barca.

    2. Thats the point. Hr doesnt have to be a super coach. No coach at barca does with this talent. Let the players do what they do best. He jist needs to get them on board and keep motivation up. This isnt a moyes at everton style team.

    3. I hope so, I can’t see us with backs against the wall being rescued by his “tactics” or a ” super sub” we have to get out ahead asap against a top opponent

  4. Thanks for the answers:-)The fact is that we won easy against elche using 3 players from barca b and the bench.Find me one big team in the world who can use so many players of the academy and play beautiful football.One.

  5. And i agree that this board made a lot of mistakes and we need a new one.But lets see the other teams.Madrid with perez one la liga and CL after spending billions.Fail?Yes.Manchester united??Fail.Chelsea??Fail.Milan??Fail.Manchester city??Fail.Psg??Fail.Only bayern had a lot of trophies but in a weak league.So in last 20 years we are the most successful team in europe.We must understand that we cant win trophies every season.And despite the mistakes we are in the top 5 teams in the world.In what position??In may we will know;-)

    1. Grammatical errors aside, I get what you’re saying Luis. The thing is, not everyone is as subjective as you on that. A lot fans (‘plastic’) or otherwise, have no issues with HOW it’s won, as long as trophies come (be in from a despicable Russian tycoon, a cashed up Sheik or otherwise)

      The thing a lot of people need to realize is, the prestige this club has and it’s standing in world football does and will continue to cause haters to hate and people to job on and off the bandwagon at a whim.

      Beyond that, we’re are not any different than any other sporting organisation. Yes, people look to us, yes people think we should rock up and win every game all day long and twice on Sunday. The reality is, in football, nothing is certain.

      Barca, on the whole, lives and dies on it’s own success and stance. The mere fact it is so iconic and puts itself outside of a typical run organisation, be it in football or any other sporting code, is also the entire reason why people point fingers and can’t wait for (well, anything) to happen in the way the club ‘trips up’. That’s the nature of the beast.

      Top Five teams? well, yes, even if we don’t win another trophy, we are easily the go to club in world football. That I don’t think is to ever be denied. It should be celebrated.

    2. We are indeed the best club, but over the last 25 years, not 20. Cruyff’s tam won the title in 1991-1994.

      In that period it’s 12 league titles + 4 CL for us

      For comparison

      RM: 7 titles
      4 CLs

      Man Utd:
      13 titles
      2 CLs

      12 titles
      2 CLs

      No need to retell the story about how our fortunes changes (the 25 years prior to that we won a grand total of 2 titles). The biggest sin of the current board is beginning to move away from that. The transfer ban, the Neymar trasfner, a few other things they messed up, those are forgivable in my view. But the philosophy has to be maintained because it is what has brought sustained success to the club.

    3. The good thing is, IMO, there is clearly light at the end of the tunnel, and the board and other such staff have or are on their way out. All clubs go through difficult periods with administration and personnel, but I believe with the elections and a bit more (now) transparency, we are getting to be back on the right track.

      The philosophy doesn’t guarantee success, not in the trophy sense, but I agree that the ethos of the club AND the demanding playing style (technical excellence) must always be the pillar. I don’t see this ever changing mind you, no matter who is club president or manager. Socias won’t accept it.

  6. xavi heard the noise and he’s back practicing with the team again today. still without the OK from the doc. Mathieu, however, is gimpy again and wont be available for the La Coruna match.

    1. Love seeing him play well. DO NOT love him still moaning about CL final and not getting game time. Grow up.

    1. I prefer to be using a different lineup in every match to using the same players every match like Madrid at the moment. Their front 6 will be burnt out by the business end of the season I think.
      I still think that we need more continuity at the centre of defense.

  7. What a ball from Rakitic and a great header from Messi. This is looking like a good match from us. Neymar looks very dangerous too.

  8. I like what I am seeing in the first half

    They parked the bus but it does not matter because both the ball and the players are moving fast and the ball is recovered very quickly when lost allowing us to take risks and catch them unprepared.

    Which is the template that brought success initially

    1. Yup, we were doing that at the beginning of the season. Hard to do it every game, all season. It’s something that needs to be managed. Im very interested to see our rotation and our freshness over next week: game on wednesday, saturday, then wednesday again.

  9. Wonderfully controlled game. Nothing crazy, just simple and intense in recovering balls. Neymar sparkling at times, Messi clinical – Suarez, alas, makes no one smile (kindly). I’m sure he does plenty of good work as CF, but he really needs to bury those chances – or set up Messi, who was open on two occasions. On a more positive note: Another fine outing by Rakitic. Overall, really encouraging.

  10. THAT RAKITIC ASSIST! wasn’t expecting that kind of thing from typical tiki taka barca. It took everyone including depor defence by surprise. Same for that Messi third, they were expecting him to do a one two or any of those fancy things that attempt to walk the ball into the net

  11. Very good perfmance by the team.Now we must focus in la liga and i want rotation in the two cup games.And for the people who said after the game that suarez was bad,that his first touch is poor and blah blah blah nothing to comment.Haters always gonna hate.

    1. I wish we had more players capable of playing the “9” role that Suarez is playing right now. Maybe give him some competition for improvement.

      Would you say that today he played to his potential ? He didn’t score a couple that I would have expected him to and he lost the ball when building up plays a little too often. Seeing how he is still new to the team, I can understand that his passing will improve as he gets used to his teammates, but I am pretty sure he himself will not be satisfied with his efforts on goal. His first touch hasn’t been as good as it usually is when he is on song. Not saying he doesn’t have the ability. We all know what he is capable of, but just recognizing the fact that he hasn’t been close to his 100% in this game.

  12. Everyone including ma granny knows Suarez only needs time to come good in our team. He has quality and his work rate as an attacker has been second to none among the attackers. With time his finishing will be back to lethal and everyone will be happy again as we all ride into the sun set. Its also interesting that the team started playing well once the criticism got to its peak and the word ‘sack’ or ‘fire’ was hovering over LE’s house. The #Lucho out camp should sure take the credit for the good things happening now

  13. Thanks for the namecheck, Kxevin, even as you know I’m not gonna agree with everything you say in that section. You give Xavi appropriate credit for what he has meant to this team and I can certainly subscribe to that. It’s no less than a disgrace to me that he hasn’t even won one BDO as, for me, there has never been another player who so completely controls the tempo of a top level game.

    To be clear first, it was almost two seasons ago now that I first advocated iniesta starting to take over the Xavi role. Xavi will go at the end of the season and we need to be ready. I have no problems at all with Iniesta stepping up to it as he has the skills and temperament to do it. He did worry me a little with his poor form until recently but he is still the only one I have seen with the necessary skills to do that job – and it still needs doing but more of that later.

    The team has played really well in the last two major games. I’m not counting the cup as even the portion didn’t play their first team. From reading a lot of comments on both it seems I’m seeing something different yet again. What I saw in these two games is what quite a few of us have predicted from the start of the season: when Suarez gets match fit we will see that he is the answer to our problems of the last two seasons. We have been persevering with a flawed system in the sense that we’ve made it too easy for teams to cope with Messi, largely by placing him in the crowded centre which is where any sensible opposition would want him. Like Villa should have been ( Milan game apart) but wasn’t allowed to , Suarez is making the two CBs life a misery. You put that together with the best player in the world with freedom to begin his runs in space from the right and the chaotic, and improving presence of Neymar on the left ( it’d be interesting to go back and see how many of us supported his arrival enthusiastically) you have an unstoppable force. Forget about Suarez missing a few. He’ll start sinking them just as we’re needing them at the tail end of the season, taking the pressure off Messi in those huge games. Not needed at the moment.

    So what I think Ive seen is:

    A team totally fired up by the rubbish surrounding it recently
    A team with a really good defence ( which it has been for ages now ) which isn’t making the silly mistakes it has in the early part of e season. And all last!
    A defence which isn’t being left short numbered on counters
    A front three whose movement is off the charts in the couple of games – hope it continues
    A return to the pressing from the start of the season

    What I’ve not seen is

    A new Barca way. This is just our style played as it has and should be
    There is no sudden quick ball forward allowing us to escape the clutches of buses. The difference, if any, is coming from the fact that when the ball goes out wide to Messi or Neymar they spring into action rather than playing a safe ball back as Pedro, Sanchez et al would have done.
    A different style from the midfield. The front three are almost carrying this transformation on their own although they are being helped by the fact some of our mids are getting into the box a little more and the pressing is back.

    We are still for the vast majority of the time having to play the ball about in front of eight or nine players looking for gaps or someone to do something. Can you think of any goals which haven’t followed this pattern in the last two big games? Important feature is we are slinging the ball about quite quickly but that isn’t anything new when we are playing well.

    A couple of extra thoughts. Mascherano played much better last night because he was calmer. No ( well maybe one) impulsive darts to the ball or moving too far from his best position. Still not an answer at the back for me because Pique is still either doing really well or being lucky in the all cross balls are being drawn to his head that can’t continue and we have a ready made answer in Mathieu who I’m afraid is in danger of becoming LE’s latest whipping boy. Rakitic also played a lot better although I wouldn’t go so far as to say he had a great game. I liked his ball for Messi’s first goal in that he took a chance and whipped it in early. Couldn’t possibly have known Messi would get his head to it but it asked a question of their defence? I also liked his dink to Messi for the third but with two defenders against two attackers they should be shot for their marking.

    For me, whatever LE has done to Messi is the biggest difference in this team. Can’t agree with your assessment of the last article that that Messi of a few years ago is gone, Kxevin. For me, the difference is that he’s getting the chance to take those first few steps to get speed up, largely due to Suarez bearing the brunt of the central defence. His goals in the last two games have all been world class. Just arty LE didn’t take him off after scoring his hat tricks. Not even Messi could have ( or would have) complained. You could see him looking at the touch line to see if it was him.

    Finally, back to Xavi. If you take the view that this midfield has moved up a notch and is creating chance after chance against buses, controlling the game and preventing counters then you may think that Xavi doesn’t have a large part to play. I’m not seeing much of a difference other than that we are taking our chances ( and creating) more. However, this is almost exclusively being done by the front three. Just as everyone was quick to write Xavi off towards the end of last season the same will happen again. Likewise, our team will find it hard to maintain this pressing as the games pile up and the fact we aren’t conceding will become the largest factor in our success or not.

    That’s not to say I don’t think Rakitic and to a lesser extent Rafinha can’t make it in our midfield. Both have shown some promise over the last three games. We do need to stay real, though. Rakitic made one tackle I can think of which wasn’t necessary and took him out of the game had he missed it but it was a great tackle. However, let’s not turn that into a colour copier moment which is dredged up every time his name is mentioned. He is still standing on occasion watching things go past him. Against AM go back and see who was standing level with Torres when the Manduzkic break started and watch the differing reactions of Rakitic and Torres. It was left to Busi to chase him and as I said before Rakitic has previous for this. However, this was his best game for us and with improving confidence we might start to see some of his potential realised.

    All in all, it’ll be an interesting few weeks coming up.

    1. One of the best things about this match, for me, was that LE seems to have sorted out the right role for Rakitic, to be in the real midfield, and that was helped the player to look more like what he was. This match would give him more confidence and it must be really good for us.

      Also, I would not argue with anyone who thinks, may be 2015 might turn up as the best Messi year, so far. He has in fact become a mini DeStefano in his plays, turning up every where and I think, we are yet to see the best Messi. This Messi is not just an attacking player with lots of goals, but his influence on the whole game is even more now.

    2. Agreed. I didn’t buy the covering for Alves bit but he is now looking more confident and playing a fuller part.

      For me, Messi’s face is the barometer. The joy he has shown in celebrating with his team mates over the last two games is clear to see and actually makes me smile as well. In fact, the whole front three seem very comfortable with each other.

      Forgot to say, another mention in despatches for Bravo. Very quietly he has made himself into a top keeper with a great touch on the ground.

    3. Agree completely with Messi’s face being the barometer. His smile makes me enjoy the game (I like to think, anyway) almost as much as he does. There’s something like pure joy in it.

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