Barça and the joys of the maximized collective

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.

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. I’m liking Mathieu getting another chance. He needs to take it. Be intresting to see how well the mids cope tonight. I suspect Ini will need to have a good game.

  2. Did someone say “no midfield” or “too little possession”? The way this game plays out should look more familiar to most – lots of patient build-up from the back against a bus. Which once again shows the many game plans and the adaptability this team has.

    And they’re getting closer and closer, though I have to wonder at the amount of chances missed in the last five minutes of the second half alone…

    1. There is no excuse for letting that goal – he has to react better, but still, it looked like it he had it covered, but then it took a slight deflection and then he just froze.

  3. kinda a harsh yellow and penalty, and then messing around from neymar. sorta glad it didnt go in. lets get another real goal.

    1. I wouldn’t call it messing around, he always takes penalties like that. Lots of forwards vary their run up to make it harder to judge where they are going to place the shot. All credit should go to Asenjo for a great save.

    2. thats true…but if one isnt careful one spends more time trying to read the keeper than just putting the ball away…great save though, youre right.

    3. Yup. Speaking as one who could’ve been better taking them, I became dangerous once I completely forgot about rubbish like trying to put the keeper the wrong way, just picked a spot and stuck to it. Neymar’s was neither wide enough nor high nor low. Poor penalty. Having said that not sure why Messi passed it across. Was he feeling okay tonight?

    4. Why Messi passed it? I guess he noticed Neymar hasnt been the same since Atletico and looked out of form and Neymar wasn’t really into the match so I guess he wanted lend a hand. Similar to Zlatan many years back.

      I wished it was Suarez who had gotten it though. He deserves it the most. So unbelievably unlucky in front of goal. Works his socks off. He really needs a rest at some point in the weekend match before Man City. Likewise Messi and Neymar. But it’s impossible to rest all 3 of them now. Lucho should’ve done it vs Athletic and last night but didn’t take the opportunity.

    5. The only good penalty is one that is scored. If Asenjo guessed the wrong way then it’s a great penalty. Neymar probably has a better conversion rate than Messi in reality. I remember him missing only a couple of others While Messi has dedefinitely missed more.

      I don’t mind the run up or mind games but I prefer that the player knows that he is the first choice penalty taker and Neymar isn’t normally. The only exception is the third goal of a hat trick in my opinion.

    6. Let’s admit it, it was poorly taken (which has nothing to do with the run up) – that’s exactly the height you don’t want because that’s where the keeper’s hands are, and it was not sufficiently far into the corner either.

      The interesting question is why he took it. They showed Messi doing what looked like vomiting shortly after that, who knows, maybe he wasn’t feeling well. His own penalty-taking record isn’t spectacular either, though – that’s probably the weakest part of his game, as strange as it is.

    7. This, of course, is pure speculation, but here is my theory: Messi has gotten to a point in which he hates taking penalties. I can’t imagine Neymar getting a shot at that PK unless it was Leo’s idea.

      I agree with the comments above that PKs are the weakest part of Leo’s game and at this point of the season with all the weight of the team on his shoulders, Messi may have requested to give Neymar a try so he will not have what in many ways is a “thankless” burden even though it may cost him some goals in his tally. Also, Leo’s cup record in penalties has been very poor so maybe that has also played into it.

      Overall it has been a bad period for penalties for Messi including an unlucky miss against Courtois last year that in hindsight would have given us the league. I also don’t think the ghosts of Chelsea can be discounted either. If I remember right, Messi completely changed his style that year after missing to Diego Alves only to start shooting the ball higher and risking hitting the bar.

      Perhaps this was Neymar’s audition to be the new co-penalty taker for the rest of the season, but it looks like that ship is not going to fly. There may be at least an advantage to some unpredictability in who will take the PK, but I’ll leave that up to those more informed than me.

      Anyway, just throwing my completely unsupported idea out there. My guess is that this may be the subject of a lot of speculation in the next few days.

    8. Penalty taking a subject of speculation? Now someone sounds like we depend on penalty to win. Who cares about the penalties so long they keep their games top notch and take their chances from open play.

  4. The team looked tired in the second half – lots of lapses in concentration and small errors towards the end. Good that there’s one of the less dangerous opponents to play on the weekend.

    Overall one of the more frustrating 2-goal-difference wins (and doesn’t that show how spoiled we really are?). Villareal defended well but the game seemed lopsided enough for a better result. On the other hand, if Ter Stegen catches that ball then we’re basically through. And Iniesta is back (or maybe he never left?) – happy about that.

  5. Ter Stegen said the goal was his fault.
    Enrique said that Messi is the penalty taker, and that he and Neymar must have talked on the pitch.

    1. I recorded the match so could go back and play it 1/10x. I suspected live that it took a minor deflection and it certainly did. The ball hit Matthieu’s butt which cause a minor deflection. MAtS’ positioning was perfect for the initial shot. But he should’ve still gotten his hands to the deflection as it wasn’t much, perhaps 10-30cm off target. Really should’ve gotten at least a hand to it. His footwork was wrong too.

      And something that the commentator noted which I have been noticing with MAtS, his hands are a bit weird when he’s defending a corner. Hands are one thing but he doesn’t look confident at all at set pieces. Brings back memories of Valdes.

      I hope this slight mistake won’t cause the tERMINATOR to lose confidence.

  6. Oh God “OOGA AGA”!! Ur goin on n on bout the T (or t). Another parked bus today. Was a good game tho. It seems the team is playing collectively now. I remember reading somewhere that this is perhaps closest to Total Football. Defenders attacking, and attackers defending.
    The last 15 min we made a few errors and if I saw it right the track back from Neymar/Iniesta and usually the fronts and the mids had lessened. There was a drop in energy and a bit of tiredness set in. But thats normal I suppose.
    And what a blunder by ter Stegen. It was horrible. Although distribution wise I think he’s one of the best around.
    Check this out if u guys still haven’t already:

  7. Your second line (in opening paragraph) is confusing – definitely not correct in grammer or syntax, and thus confusing.

    Second para – it wasn’t away leg for Barca (might want to change for historical record).

    As for the point of this article, it is a point well taken and good to remind ourselves of. Yes, it is a team that wins, especially the championships, and it is well-functioning team that assists individuals in shining. Let’s hope the sun keeps shining at Barca, until we all need super-sunglasses and still will need to shade our eyes.

  8. On this form we can beat any team in the word, you cannot stop a Leo on form like this that FINALLY has more attacking threats complimenting him. In the past it would be nullify Leo= neuter our attack. Not anymore.

  9. Neymar being a bit *forward* by taking that penalty might? just disturb the ship a bit. Enrique needs to stress seniority to Neymar.

    Messi would never hav tried to convince Ronnie to allow him the penalty. Neymar’s a bit of a hustler/smoothe. But this is Barça. U don’t always get ur way. Wait ur turn like the rest.

    This is where 1 can see Neymar wasn’t Masia groomed… All the kissing up to Messi might? just b for other reasons.

  10. So much about talk about the villa real away goal giving them a life line. Really? people believe Villa real is gonna beat this barca 2-0? Hahahaha… Its a question of how many we would score when the score 1 cos that’s what this team is about, the quick response or shut up goal. You score one against them and you are not even done celebrating then you have to pick the ball out of your own net again.

    1. The team we fielded yesterday isn’t going to be beat by two goals. But beating them 4-0 or something similar would have enabled heavy rotation – i.e. an almost B team – for the return leg since it’s between two tough matches, so it’s a bit bad that we’re not enitrely through after the first leg (I can imagine a team without Messi, Neymar and Pique, for example, getting beat by two goals). Still not too bad, a lopsided 3-1 victory against a good team is always to be celebrated.

    2. I wouldn’t be so sure if it was a Barca from Sept-Jan. Anything could happen but with the form they’re in and Lucho not tinkering too much with the line up, we are certainly better than them even if we conceded first.

    3. I’d almost be tempted to send Pique out against Levante, get him booked by holding a jersey, take him off immediately, he serves ban against Malaga and gets decent rest. Remember when others were out having fun he and Neymar were off to do sponsors’ duties in Qatar. He’s had a couple of close shaves with injury recently and a new baby at home. Could do with the time off. Besides, Bartra seriously needs some time in case he’s called upon later in a bigger game.

  11. Meant to respond to the article earlier but real life ( in the form of lowering my golf handicap by hitting more balls than I should ) got in the way.

    Excellent display by the team and as has been rightly said we do need to acknowledge that there are players in all positions doing their job well which contributes to the improvement in the team’s results. I also pointed out immediately after the game that both Messi and Neymar need to switch mind sets when they retreat into their own half where possession is key. Both were guilty of losing the ball in positions we could have done without, yet on all occasions we had six or seven men between the opposition and the goal so I’m not buying the Messi at fault for the goal argument. ( That’ll be two down to him in not many more games then, failing as he did to anticipate Masche’s 40 yard slow lobbed diagonal ball after 39 seconds of the AM game when we were under the cosh and possession was key, rather than the skoosh of a 15 yard pass back to a free GK ? )

    We really need to sort out what we want of Messi.

    He plays EVERY game. Blame him or LE who picks the side but that’s a fact.
    He is the sole discriminating factor which lifts us into an unplayable bracket. When was the last game he didn’t either score or assist?
    Every time he runs with the ball he gets brought down or there is an attempted lunge. He gets right up, unlike most of our side even.
    He plays RW but has to come inside to cause bother, he has to sprint to be on the end of passes that only he can take at such speed and control, yet he has to come back into midfield to become our playmaker because we’re down to just either Xavi or Iniesta.

    He wasn’t right last night. You could see it, whether or not he was being physically sick.

    So, he does his job, better than any other player in the world and I for one am gonna cut him some slack if he doesn’t feel he can press or chase during a game because if he could he would and if he doesn’t feel up to it then I’m sorry but we have six or seven there who need to take the slack. They’re not helping him a huge amount with his goals / assists so that’s the time they earn their corn.

    I’m gonna agree with most of the rest of Kxevin’s assessment of their first. Busi was caught a little too high up the pitch and screwed as Kxevin said when the pass to him didn’t get to him. I also think Mathieu should have cut out the through ball and agree that Mascherano would have. While I’m on the subject I thought Masche had a great game last night at DM. Very disciplined and even covering for the CBs when he had to ! That position suits his talents and there’ll be games where he’d be my first choice there but he’s also up against Busi who is world class there – good problem to have.

    I’m not letting Rakitic off here though. When the move breaks down he has one job, which is to get goal side. He starts following one man, sees Dani racing back so leaves him sees the folically challenged one start his run – right in front of him – runs for two or three paces then leaves him to run into the box completely unmarked. Not the only one who should have done better but when I hear him lauded for dashing round the field putting out fires times like this – and there are a few now- come to mind.

    I also wasn’t aware I’d become part of a “faction” as far as Rakitic is concerned. Not a very flattering comment, at least to my understanding of the word. If I think he’s had a good game I’ll say so. If not, I’ll say and give reasons which anyone is free to disagree with. I said he hasn’t been playing badly, just that I expect more of a Barcelona midfielder although it was still just his first season. We’re back in a Sanchez situation in that I, and others, had been saying for two seasons that Sanchez, although he worked hard, wouldn’t last unless he contributed more danger to our attack. He’s gone – for whatever reason – and I think we now see what we were on about. My standard for a Barca midfielder is that he gets involved, can move the ball quickly, has unbelievable technical skills, can thread passes and help control a game. Rakitic may come onto that game – he’s obviously a top player – and is entitled to his learning curve but isn’t where he needs to be, imo, at the moment. God help Xavi if he’d let that man away from him !

    These are exciting times, ‘though, and I hope wanting to tweak this and that doesn’t come across as not enjoying what we have. My wife can sit and watch a whodunnit and wait till the ending is revealed. I, on the other hand, am that annoying person in the corner saying “it was him, because …. “. I’ve always been that way about football. In management speak, I suppose it’s the notion of continuous improvement but that doesn’t mean I’m not sitting down excited for each and every game. You can feel the confidence in the side and there’s no doubt that some of them will come to the end of the season with more energy. For that reason Xavi is scampering about like a young thing, Iniesta is just now getting into his stride, Busi is getting some rest and I’m sure there are others lined up for a break.

    However, the one person we need fresh for the big games hasn’t had his rotation yet so next task for LE is to sit Messi down and say which games would you like to sit out ‘cos I need you to sit out at least a couple. The guy is tired.

  12. Don’t think we ever got that piece in the UK. Shame. Looks like it would have been interesting. R.I.P.

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