The challenge of watching and enjoying a football team is to always focus on the team. FC Barcelona has, over its history but more so than now, makes that task particularly difficult.
As Barça lines up to take on Villarreal in the first (away) leg of the Copa semi-finals, that notion is worth thinking about.
Barça Twitter is a fascinating thing as, irrespective of the match result, it dissolves into factions. Most predominant is the “Ooooh, did you see what Messi did?!?” faction. But the other factions, not only on Barca Twitter but in this space, are just as interesting. That team focus is always a challenge.
— On Twitter, there were a few Tweets devoted to Jordi Alba and how he doesn’t make the correct decisions with Messi passes.
— Here, Rakitic is called out for not being something, or meeting a standard.
For me, the totality of the extraordinary thing that is happening tends to outweigh all of that, even as I can sit back, analyze the club and find things to point out in between making high-pitched, seal-like exclamations of glee. Because the TEAM … not any individual player … the TEAM is doing exceptionally well, far ahead of the schedule that I had mapped out in my addled brain.
The presence of a transcendent talent such as Messi makes anyone in their right mind squeal like an electrified pig. Duh. The challenge is in not losing sight of the team and how it is improving, as well as the path that it’s taken to reach that destination. The first thing to note is that Messi is wonderful, and we should all thank our stars that he is in the colors, but so much of the reason he is kicking so much ass is because of the team, and the improved team. Alves is better, so Messi is better. Rakitic is better, so Messi is better. Busquets is improving, so Messi is better.
What’s interesting is that you can shift and play with that analogy for almost any player on the team. Messi is moving and tracking the ball more, so Pique is better. Busquets is better, so Pique is better. Alba is more cognizant of not getting caught in a difficult position, so Pique is better. Alves doesn’t need as much help from Raktic, so Pique is better.
Barça has become a team of interlocking influences, something that sits at the core of the group’s increased effectiveness. Things looked a mess early in the season because it was a collection of individuals with somewhat related talents, capering about. Now it’s a team that understands how those talents relate to and affect the talents of the person next to him. Rakitic isn’t supposed to be Xavi, because Xavi is Xavi. No other player alive is Xavi. Xavi isn’t even Xavi any longer. That template doesn’t fit into this team as it is currently playing.
At the same time Rakitic is a more dynamic midfielder who works with Xavi or Iniesta because he influences the game in ways that have as much to do with positioning as making things that can be directly pointed to. He’s tackling a ball or tracking a man. He’s Keita, for lack of a better comparison, another player who people said they didn’t understand the value of. It’s easy to say that Rakitic lost his man on the Athletic break, but without looking at the totality of the goal-scoring attacks that had at their genesis, lost balls by Messi (the first) and Busquets (the second), both in the worst place to lose the ball against a pressing team, midfield, it’s tough to make a case for anyone really being at fault. Falling dominoes, really.
It’s the complexity of the wholistic view of things. Does a goal conceded follow the garbage in, garbage out pathway, or is it “Well, it was that dude because I noticed him more.” I’m a fan of garbage in, garbage out. A lost ball means nobody has time to set, and with a team in which everyone is attacking and defending, nobody is where they need to be, making defending a more complex proposition than it would be if an opponent’s attack wasn’t building from an error in a dangerous part of the pitch.
For example, for the first Athletic goal, when Messi loses the ball, Pique and Mathieu are the only ones back. Alves is dashing back to get into position, Alba is still moving forward. Rakitic is trying to get back into some sort of position, and Busquets is just screwed. Athletic have 6 players in the immediate area around the ball. In the ensuing scramble, 5 Barça players are ball watching as Mathieu moves over to protect the left wing that he already senses Alba isn’t going to be able to. I will also suggest, Mascherano’s undesirability in the back line for many notwithstanding, that he would probably have prevented that initial pass into the box with a ball block that Mathieu failed to make.
Alves is running to the ball, basically everybody is running to the ball. This happens in a panic situation, even to the best defenses. The capability of sticking to the plan, finding a man and keeping him from doing anything to hurt you is difficult. But had Alves done that instead of running to the ball, his man wouldn’t have been free for the put back.
So who is to “blame” for that goal? Any one of about seven players could have done something to prevent it. Why didn’t somebody just foul someone who had the ball, before they got into the box? None of our players did anything effective because of the peculiar set of stresses that turned possession in midfield against a pressing team presents. And voila.
Scored goals are as (usually) collective as conceded ones.
Tactics devotees fascinate me because they can easily see the interrelated sequences that result in a result. It takes me a few viewings to understand what happened fully. But stuff like that makes watching the game fun. But what makes the game difficult to analyze, even more than a lack of that sort of immediate tactical nous, is losing sight of the team part of things. Messi is better because the team is better. It’s that simple, at the core of the matter. Everything is better because everyone is better and that’s wonderful, because individuals with Ballons d’Or. Teams with championships. Further, a great team is a collective of collectively maximized individuals, and what’s most exciting for me is that Barça is moving toward that ideal, something we haven’t seen in a long time. Let’s enjoy the trip.