A shoe was thrown, a fullback came face to face with a lineman’s flag, a player was arrested on the way to the match, and Barça put a big match away without much of a midfield. Crazy days.
Rules are nonsense in certain situations, even as they provide behavioral guidelines in others. The danger, particularly when it comes to situations in which anarchy reigns, is in mistaken application of rules or when an idea that works becomes a rule. How else to explain the reactions by some during the Barça dismantling of Atletico de Madrid in the Copa quarterfinals.
“Oh, Lord, what’s happened to my Barça?”
Even before the Atleti match had ended, wagons were being circled with “Where’s the midfield,” “There is no match control,” “I don’t recognize this style,” and other statements aimed at hanging on to something that never was, which I humorously refer to as The Way.
Pep Guardiola was brilliant as he devised a tactic that suited the technicians that Barça had. Instead of big, strong, fast players the team had diminutive technicians and magic-makers. They could control a ball in a hurricane and play it on the ground around an octopus. It was beautiful, logical and a tactic. Not a style, but a tactic.
Over the years, Barça has played many different ways and scored all kinds of goals. But one of the most fascinating editions of the team might be manifesting itself this season, with its characteristics on fullest display against Atleti.
“Just win, baby,” is a base expression bereft of nuance. When the late Al Davis, head of the Oakland Raiders American football franchise said it, he of course meant that he didn’t really give a damn how his team won, just that it did. Barça is different. People want the team to win, but they also care how it wins. Many would even prefer losing with principles to winning without them. So “Just win, baby” becomes something different to consider, mostly as something to be avoided. “Well sure we won, but … “
Over time, football has been evolving. The midfield used to be everything. When Luis Enrique took over Barça, the early matches were something of a mess as the team looked like three separate parts: front, back and middle. Much was made of the team getting away from the Barça style, early and often, along with suggestions that Enrique is messing things up. Rules, even without considering just what a style is. Attractive possession football? Sure. Tell that to Ronaldinho as he made his bull-like runs. Tell that to Messi, who takes on a defense single-handedly. No rondos, no elegance, no messing about but rather a colossus of talent, bulling his way toward goal.
Opponents don’t care about The Way, except as a template for destruction. The longer a team plays in a certain style, the more time opponents have to dissect and destroy it. Adaptation becomes essential. More importantly, a tactic isn’t a style.
Think back to when Barça beat Rayo 4-0, but the biggest story was that Barça didn’t win the possession stat. For many who observe the club, that was the moment when the dogma jumped the shark and style took precedence over results. Martino flinched, and the team seemed in closer compliance with those style dictates even as it was less effective overall as a season was declared “lost” rather than tossed away on the ash heap of neotraditionalism.
Enrique took over, saying whenever asked that he doesn’t really care what anyone thinks. He flailed a bit and the team looked funky. For a while it all looked a mess until suddenly, signs were visible. Then Enrique came at PSG with a 3-4-3 and the Parisians didn’t know what hit them. The final was 3-1 in a match that wasn’t really as close as the score indicated. Enrique detractors scoffed that he was changing the team’s style to fit an opponent in a bizarre world where tactical flexibility from a coach is a bad thing, and a funny thing happened along the way. Out came the Guardiola quote that he played a double pivot during a match while at Barça because beauty be damned, he wanted to win. Messi became the false 9 as much out of necessity as genius. Barça had to adapt. “Just win, baby,” indeed.
The Guardiola quote also put into perspective what Enrique was doing in adapting the way his team plays to the strengths and weaknesses of an opponent. He wants to win. You change your team to win. Adapting isn’t bending to the whim of the opposition, but figuring out the best way to beat it. If you have an opponent who has given up 80 percent of its goals from set pieces and 2 percent from open play, what are you as a coach going to be trying for. You want the win. I can’t remember the last time culers celebrated a pretty loss. The gift of talent and talented players is that they are rarely as rigid as a team’s supporters.
“If you play over there instead of over here, we will win.” Tactical nous isn’t capitulation, and Barça isn’t some relegation side who changes how they play and puts 10 behind the ball in an effort to salvage a draw. But at the same time naïve would be to roll out, play the exact same way and expect it to work every time, against every opponent. It will until smart coaches adapt, and smart coaches always adapt. Then you have a problem.
Reassuringly, Enrique doesn’t care. It was clear how little he cares during the first half of the Atleti tie when Barca functioned without a midfield, essentially. The players were there, but the way that Atleti was playing, pressing in the midfield and fouling aggressively, the game was forced to the flanks and over the top, from back line to forwards. Look at the first goal, and the speed of it. Defensive header to Messi to Suarez to Neymar. Done. 12 seconds later the ball is in the net and a midfielder didn’t touch it.
Third goal: defensive rebound to Messi, run and pass to Alba who crosses to Neymar. Goal. Again, a midfielder doesn’t touch the ball.
A set piece split the two other goals, but that rumble of thunder was the universe being sundered as Barça scored three goals in which the midfield wasn’t involved. Weird and aberrant, even though you don’t really need to go all that far back in culer time to find goals that show that same adaptability. Txigrinski spanks a ball from the back line to Pedro, who scores is just one of them. It’s all about finding out the best way to beat an opponent.
In a larger sense, football is changing. It’s faster and more athletic, and is moving from the midfield to the wings, like it or not, and purists won’t like it. But Neymar, Robben, Messi on the right, Cuadrado, Bale, Ronaldo, all players who can change the game with a single run, are achieving pre-eminence. The midfield still matters as a possession battleground, and it always will. In the second half of the Atleti match the midfield returned to its Barça roots as keepaway was played vs an Atleti who by then had reined their ambition to do anything except foul. Again, that way of play was dictated not only by an opponent but by situational necessity. Time has to run, and Atleti can’t have the ball.
But is this really a glimpse of the future? Alba had the most passes on the team. A Neymar goal was incorrectly judged to be offside, but what was interesting about that non-goal is that it came via long pass from the keeper, Ter Stegen.
“Just win, baby?” Far from it. And we must be very careful not to make any judgments from this one match. That would be as erroneous as the people who made judgements from the early-season matches this team played. But there is an engaging (well, for me) tactical malleability in this team, a pragmatism that might see it surprise this season, and make liars out of the dummies like me who predicted yet another silverless go-round.
Threats, taunting, fouls and brilliance was the story of Neymar’s match. He scored two wondrous goals, and wound up Atleti players in a way that had them making comments after the match, from “He only plays like that when he’s winning,” to “Something will happen to him,” etc. Juanfran held up seven fingers at him, a taunt referencing Brazil’s World Cup dismantling at the hands of Germany and worst of all, the Atleti players kicked chunks out of him. The fouls were so aggressive and excessive that Enrique said he subbed him for the player’s own safety.
Media in Madrid were, naturally, twisting the narrative. “Oh, that Neymar, bringing it on himself,” somehow suggesting, as did Celtic supporters when one of their players had a red mist moment with Neymar, that this is all linked to something he’s doing. And in a way, it is: He’s owning an opponent. To suggest that having chunks kicked out of him is attributed to his playing style runs against the lie of Messi, who suffered three yellow-cardable fouls by the same player in the first half-hour of the match. And Messi doesn’t say a damned thing.
Does Neymar play the game with attitude? Absolutely. Does he get riled up a bit and want to show up an abusive opponent? Yep. “You kicked me? Here’s a nutmeg for you.” He trash talks, battles and generally tries to get under the skin of an opponent. In many ways he is the modern player unleashed in terms of playing style and approach to the game. Iniesta doesn’t trash talk. Xavi doesn’t trash talk. Messi doesn’t trash talk. And they all get kicked anyhow. Against Atleti yesterday, Neymar never backed down. They kicked him, and he kept getting the ball, kept running at their back line, kept doing the work that he had to because his team needed him to.
Brazilians are often thought of as soft. When the spindly Neymar came to Barca, many weren’t sure how he would stand up to the wear-and-tear of the European game. Sure, he was used to getting kicked in Brazil, but this is Europe now, where bigger dudes kick harder. When he first came, he embellished, flying through the air in a way that called attention to every foul he took. He was called a diver, etc, and even during his first season you could see it all toning down. He began running through challenges and putting on weight. Now when he’s fouled, you can see some of the self-preservation of jumping into the challenge, or jumping so that his cleats don’t stick, taking the contact and going down. And he keeps getting kicked, in match after match after match, getting kicked when even Messi isn’t getting kicked.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic rebelled against the “schoolboys” at Barca. Neymar has assimilated, becoming part of the team but doing it in his own way, with flair and style. That style includes winding players up, and I don’t see anything wrong with it, frankly. He plays within the system, tracks back, puts in an honest shift and never shirks from his duty. But he also understands the psychological component of the game. An angry player is a rash player, who is a player more likely to lunge, which makes him more beatable off the dribble. When he was king of all that he surveyed, Michael Jordan was king of the trash talkers, for the same reason: it’s hard to see through the red mist.