Barça is metal.
Past iterations of the team, like all the rest, have sung their various songs, from the classical of Cruijff’s Dream Team to the syncopated jazz of Pep Guardiola’s squads. But this team is metal — violent, impatient, in-your-face, romping, stomping and not at all interested in what an opponent does except in dissecting it as a means to destroy.
Like metal, this Barça isn’t to everyone’s taste. Sonic revolutions rarely are even as their presence sets a tone. At the inception of rock ‘n’ roll people snarled about the harsh sounds, craved the soothing, familiar tones of the past. Many stopped buying albums, carped about how “This isn’t music,” but people bought in and the music flourished, guttural sounds less possessed of sonority than an insistent tone, impatience in sound. Eleven times this season, Barça has scored within ten minutes of conceding.
That’s metal, and that’s Barça.
The team that rolled into the Copa semi-final against Villarreal in midweek was on a roll, throwing down power chords, making devil horns and laughing in the faces of those who insisted things were done, that a non-crisis crisis with roots in an accursed away ground was something more than what it was: un jour sans; as the French so elegantly put it.
Easy answers beckon, team meetings and captains this and coaches that, nothing and everything that came down to a team essentially flipping a switch, a team that was there all along and had been showing gradual signs of coming out, signs ignored in the necessity that a rush to judgment forces. This can’t be happening, because it’s necessary for that to be happening. And where once there was a note or two, a riff is now a nasty, distorted, symphonic blizzard of joy, a tune that is a surprise to everyone except those who were paying attention as the drummer kicked in … then the bassist and suddenly a rhythm section formed as the rest of the band coalesced around it.
Teams don’t know what to expect from this band. It’s like a bebop ensemble that decided metal would be more fun. Opponents talk of no longer being afraid of Barça. Some find that their interview room courage becomes on-pitch trepidation and they cower on the rocks of their box like seals in the face of a predator.
Others, such as Villarreal, whistle a happy tune so that nobody will know they’re afraid, and attack because they, like so many others, are still expecting a jazz band. “What is that noise? That doesn’t sound like Barça.” And a mean-faced Iniesta combines with Mascherano of the shaved pate to force a ball loose. The influence pressing of the past is now direct and physical, not as a matter of routine but when it has to be, when the band decides to play a different song. The metronomic precision of Busquets is replaced by the slam-bang action of Mascherano as it seemed the team almost took on the character of that most important figure in Barça offensive lore, the DM that isn’t really, the man who pulls the strings and counts off the beat.
On Wednesday, at the intersection of tactics and an opponent desire for stasis, a football match broke out in which many wonderful things happened.
The most delightful aspect of the match, from this seat, has roots that can be found in a previous post that dealt with the fragility of the Barca ecosystem, a world without as much margin for error as it had when everyone was what they used to be. This, of course, makes you speculate about what might happen when that system didn’t function at its new norm, when the trident was for whatever reason missing a tine and things weren’t quite perfect.
What happened was a 3-1 victory over a high-quality opponent, a victory that has almost assured Barca a space in the Copa finals.
But strangely, it was a result facilitated by an opponent attempting to be tactical in the first leg of a home/away series and getting surprised. Villarreal came out doing what every away team does: sit back, try not to get killed, and hope to nick an away goal on the counter. In the past, that would have worked against Barça. Sit deep, put Messi in a cage, collect a goal and go home with confidence. This Barça is an anomaly in that it can score goals even against a deep block, and absorbs midfield pressure like a sponge.
Further complicating matters for Villarreal is that Enrique chose to play Mascherano in midfield instead of Busquets because, as he himself said, he wanted to stop the fast Villarreal counters. Further complicating things was the presence of Mathieu and Pique in the back line as well as an in-form Jordi Alba, making defense the base in a tight, pressing, nasty XI that was also designed to not concede any precious away goals.
In other words, Villarreal was screwed as knockout round stasis ran headlong into a coach and a team with a better plan and better players. When a team can stop you from scoring yet score itself, it doesn’t require a coaching genius to know that’s a bad outcome. You wonder what might have happened had Villarreal decided to try to pin Barca back by attacking, using offense as a form of defense. Probably an even more lopsided scoreline. As it was, their conservatism played right into Enrique’s hands because they weren’t as interested as usual in attacking, but were susceptible to a rather savage press when they did try to attack.
The first goal is an excellent example of this. As Villarreal tried to play out of their own end, Iniesta and Mascherano converged, forcing an error. A ravenous Suarez dispossessed the Villarreal player, pushed the ball forward and banged a perfect layoff for Messi to slot home. Messi got the goal, but that tally was the press and Suarez as well as a sign of this new Barca, a team that can play many different ways in defeating an opponent. Two of the three goals came from activation of the press as Barca could sit back and, functionally, attack when attacked. Villarreal would have, in the absence of a pell-mell defending by attacking stragegy, been better off putting 10 behind the ball, 8 in the box and calling it a day.
Another wonderful occurrence is that Barça didn’t play a complete match. This was more a professional dispatching of an inferior opponent, as the team played much like driving a car with a turbo engine. You cruise along until you have to really hit the gas, then fun things happen.
Neymar had one of those days, even missing a penalty that Messi decided to give him, probably as a pick-me-up as overall Barça didn’t play its best match, but it didn’t have to. 70 percent or so was more than sufficient to turn the trick, which delights because it means that suddenly this team has a margin for error. Neymar was fully committed to defending and tracking back to the detriment of his offensive game, a calculated risk that paid off. The down side was the attack didn’t move with the same alacrity as when Neymar is fully involved, but an opponent trying not to lose the tie in the first match helped that cause. There was something of a belief that he had a poor match mostly because he wasn’t his same attack-minded self, and missed a penalty. But he was donkey working all match long, teaming with the rest of the midfield fiends to disrupt, harry and disable.
But man, Iniesta. It’s too early to tell whether his dominating performance was a one-off, or the signs of a return, which would make fools out of many including me. But he was brilliant against Villarreal, dynamic and aggressive in a way different from past Iniesta. He was almost … direct, and even scored a goal as a reward for his work in the press, as a willing partner alongside Mascherano.
This team and its performance might have been the purest manifestation of a personality change, a taking on the visage of its coach and his titular captain. Mascherano was everywhere as Enrique smiled at his team’s … dare I say it … Atleti-like display, right down to a set piece goal.
The only thing really, that sullied the display was a Villarreal goal, a fluke of a shot that seemed to take a bit of a deflection, a shot that really should have been contested but Messi chose to stand there rather than running at the man with the ball. I reckon he thought that, like everyone else, “If dude can beat our keeper from there … ” He did.
Many culers wanted 4-1 or even 4-0, heading into the away leg at Villarreal. It’s understandable. But Barça would have to lose by a two-goal difference with Villarreal keeping a clean sheet at home. And as with Atleti away in the previous Copa round, it gets more complex if Barça scores. The 3-1 is excellent as the team heads into a rather fraught part of the season that will do a lot to decide its direction. Hosting both Levante and Malaga helps, going into the the knockout tie against Manchester City. Enrique will have decisions to make, but the rotation that was an early-season sign of a coach who didn’t know what he was doing should now result in the payoff of an entire team that is blooded and ready to fight.
As strange as it sounds, this Barça is in with a shot at the Treble, the only one of the Liga big three that can say that. Such talk is extremely premature, particularly from the flying fingers of one who predicted a silverless season. But just like a concert at which you don’t sit in anticipation of the triumphant encore, let’s enjoy the tunes and see how the gig shakes out.