There was much irony in the two goals scored by Athletic Bilbao, moments that will make history believe that they were actually, at some point, in this match.
Both goals had as their genesis moments of lost midfield possession by members of a team whose detractors allege doesn’t cherish the midfield OR possession as it should. And the defensive shambles created by those flaws was no more acute than it has been at any time in this team’s storied history, despite what the burnished patina of memory might suggest.
And if you listened carefully, just off in the distance you could make out the groaning springs and creaking suspension of people hopping back on a bandwagon as semantic malleability rears its head from many a person who but a short time ago was banging a #luchoout social media hashtag, or suggesting that this team’s coach, Luis Enrique, was in over his head.
It’s funny what time does to things. Eat a hunk of raw pizza dough and it tastes pretty crappy. Give the chef time to season it, bake it, add the right ingredients and serve it properly, and things are a different proposition. So it is with this Barça, a team that is even defeating my predictions that it wouldn’t come together with quite this level of effectiveness this season, that there were too many questions still lingering.
But it’s worth asking whether that rather routine loss at the already-jinxed ground of La Anoeta was cause or circumstance, as the team has won every match since then. There are, after all, many ways to learn not to put your hand on a fire. Your parent can tell you 20 times, or you can do it once. Both provide the same lesson, albeit at a different price. This Barça didn’t seem to believe that it was as delicate as it was. You could almost imagine them looking at the roster and saying “Sheeeee, we got this,” and not doing everything possible, not fully believing a coach who said not only are you NOT as good as you think, but if you do things my way, I can help you get there.
It took that listless morass of a belly-up to drive lessons home. There were so many thoughts about the match, so many people who screamed for Enrique’s head for not starting Messi, Neymar and Suarez, people who forgot that they were out there in the second half, when they couldn’t do it against a team that already had a scrambled, crazy half of football in its legs. For me, that loss was a symptom of something easier and more difficult to track. It is often said that Enrique was clueless as he coached this team, but you wonder if the team wasn’t also clueless, didn’t quite have a handle on what it took to accomplish tasks with great players who were still great, but had acquired flaws due to nothing more than the passage of time and what it does to athletes.
The weekend began with an object lesson as Atleti destroyed its capitol city rival in the derby, doing so by applying absurd pressure that destroyed the RM midfield and made building anything close to impossible. That display made it fairly easy to go back and watch the Barça vs Atleti matches and the de-emphasized midfield as the team played with a directness that removed the opponent’s principal weapon. And as people snarled “We have no midfield,” you could be forgiven for wondering if it was a flaw or a tactic? You might further be forgiven for wondering about the lack of patience that is endemic in the game and how it is covered these days.
Today’s headlines blare that “Barça Liga favorites,” and “RM in crisis.” But it wasn’t that long ago that RM was being compared to l’annus Guardiolus and Barça was in crisis. Seems some modulation of that rheostat of punditry is in order, just as there should be of necessity some consideration as a supporter. You don’t have to blindly, unquestioningly support your team. But it isn’t unreasonable to expect time for things to fall into shape before declarations are made. As Xavi said, Barça isn’t as good as many say, or as bad as many say. It’s a football team that is coming into shape and form, that we should deal with using that template.
The best part is that you’re then able to have fun with a match such as yesterday’s, instead of having to wrestle with the back flips necessary to not seem like the curmudgeon sitting in the corner. Barça has dropped zero points since La Anoeta, and the Athletic match was a perfect illustration as to why. This team has become a stylistic amoeba. As Enrique said, you’d be nuts not to take advantage of the space being offered by a pressing team who was also packing the midfield. Atleti did it, and it was the same result. This is worth noting because pretty much since Anoeta, Barça has been becoming the team that many hoped it would become when Neymar was signed, a turbocharged version of Barça football, with liberal doses of “Wheeee!”
Tata Martino started that sort of transformation, then backed off. He seemed to care what people thought. Enrique has no such constraints, and the result is a crazy, hazy version of total football adapted to a front three possessed of astonishing levels of skill on and off the ball. Good luck trying to figure out who was playing where. Busquets was in the Alves role as he spanked that assist to Pedro. Alba had the most passes on the team. Xavi was diving at a submarine header off a Messi pass, Neymar was tackling the ball to make an interception outside the Barça box. Everybody was everywhere in a living, breathing adaptation of the Ray Hudson chestnut that involves trying to nail Jello to the ceiling.
Let’s look at the goals:
— The first was just a crazy free kick that took a deflection or two, and just eluded the clutching hands of the keeper. Messi’s wry grin as he celebrated was pretty much all you needed to know.
— The second was a Pique long pass out of the back to Neymar, who headed it perfectly to Suarez who held up play a bit so that Messi could arrive. He slid the ball to Messi and then hung back, knowing the defense would be unsettled. Messi took note of that, fed a trailing Suarez, who smoked it home.
— The third was born of a midfield interception. A Rakitic pass to Suarez saw the Uruguayan get the ball in the box and draw three defenders, while Messi and Neymar capered in. Suarez crossed, and that was that. It was credited as an own goal.
— The fourth was a Rakitic run, pass to Messi who alertly saw Neymar streaking in and fed him. Neymar made a difficult finish look easy.
— The last was the most beautiful, a blinding passing sequence that even included Busquets getting fouled and Messi holding up play until Busquets could get up and make the run into the box. He crossed to Pedro, who slotted home on the doorstep.
Except for the Messi free kick, these weren’t goals born of the kind of individual brilliance that people like to scoff at. They were team goals, which is the principal reason I won’t march in lock step with the “Messi was wonderful” stories and testimonials that came after the match. He was, but this was as complete a team performance as I have seen in some time, worth celebrating precisely because of that beauty. Yes, Messi was a catalyst and a force. So was Neymar, Suarez, Alba, Pique, Busquets, you name it. But Messi had his team game on display for a few reasons, most importantly because he understands that he is playing with people he can trust.
When was the last time Messi was in the box and didn’t shoot at goal? When he laid that ball off for a streaking Suarez to unleash a piledriver from outside the box, he was saying, with silent eloquence, “Welcome to Barça, teammate.” Does Messi lay that ball off for Pedro or Munir? Not likely. Much is being made of Messi’s assists this season, but he is assisting because it hasn’t been since he played alongside Eto’o and Henry that he had people he could play with in full confidence. No, that isn’t a knock on Pedro and Villa, but it would be inflating their abilities to claim that they were anything other than what they were. In Neymar and Suarez, Messi has two players who are in their own ways every bit as dangerous as he is. Neymar is scoring goals at an absurd rate, because he is, strangely enough, the third of three evils after Messi and Suarez. It’s worth thinking about how open most of his shots are as he capitalizes on the chaos created by the other two tines of the trident.
Luis Enrique has predicated his attack on a very simple thing: You can’t stop all three of them. Say that “Barça don’t have a plan” all you like, but that IS a plan, to structure the attack in a way that capitalizes on the quality of three of the best attackers in the game. As the trio works together and grow in confidence with each other, it’s only natural that Messi will become more and more of a team player. He believes in his cohorts, and he should. There’s no need for him to run at 5 defenders, and no point. So he feints, stops and slides the ball to someone else to do damage. It’s wonderful, and wonderful to witness.
Messi is always worth celebrating, but for me he is never better than when he is doing his genius thing within the team’s framework, mostly because it makes him functionally unplayable. Play him for the run, and he passes. Play him for the pass, and he runs. In the past, because it was easy to wall off Pedro, a defense could control Messi. Even when it was Neymar and Pedro, a defense could take its chance that Pedro isn’t going to be the one to kill you, and wall off Messi and Neymar. Adding Suarez makes that task a fool’s errand.
Complicating matters for opponents is that the midfield is on board with the program. Xavi was here, Xavi was there, Xavi was in the box heading a ball home, Xavi was there, controlling a pass. To be sure, there is less control from this edition of Barça, but significantly more danger. Athletic scored, and Barça scored. Then scored again, for good measure. A significant part of that midfield adaptability was Busquets, who played one of the best matches I have seen from him in some time. In a recent piece in this space, I mused about the possibility of moving forward without the reference in Busquets, who it seems has little interest in being left behind. He was a metronome, and on defense, some shaky moments aside, more of a negative influence than a destructive force, and he was brilliant as the team built its attacks at times in that traditional Barça way that so many still expect.
Finally, a shout-out for Gerard Pique, who has been enjoying some exceptional form of late. All you need to know about Pique is that he took a blast of a shot in a way that, for a moment left him with an additional and wholly unwanted ball. He lay there long enough to thank the stars for his second child having already arrived, leapt to his feet and intervened in another defensive effort. Exemplary, and yet another example of this game’s willingness to bury someone who isn’t even all that sick.
Name after name came up to replace Pique, who was deemed washed up, an no-longer-effective playboy married to a glamorous pop star. Enrique sat him down, with the option of getting his mind (and thus his game) right. He did. It’s no coincidence that Enrique’s building from the back, with a defensive foundation, has found its fullest flower now that Pique has returned to form.
This weekend begs for comparisons to be made — Messi and Ronaldo, Barça and RM, yin and yang — but you should resist in favor of something vastly more interesting: a football team that now has its destiny in its own hands. The task is simple: win matches, win a championship. Whether that is possible remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure — the challenge will be fun to watch.