This was such a beautiful match today.
The things that made it beautiful are the same things that make long-time spouses or lovers beautiful to us: everyday beauty, day in and day out, when they aren’t at their best — flaws, unshaven, hair messy — true beauty that comes across in the simplest of ways.
You don’t worry at all that the beauty will abate. You worry more about your ability to appreciate it as time passes and excitement becomes expectation becomes expectoration. “Pah! Nothing to see here!”
The arc of this season’s Barça has been an odd one, from excitement and anticipation to disillusionment and disgruntlement, to mutiny and muttering and now to an odd sort of discomfort rooted in the very simple fact of a basic reality: ain’t no room for wrong. The team still has critics, still has people who aren’t happy with the way that it’s playing, even as it is increasingly difficult for them to articulate the precise root of that unhappiness.
Others begrudgingly admit that something cool might be going on, but will reserve judgment until the end of the season to see what trophies are won, a fascinating complexity that flies in the face of the “Results aren’t the only metric, but how the team plays.” Got it.
How the team played today made a believer out of me. Not a full-on, get me a seat at the victory parade believer, but one who is beginning to think that the silverless prediction uttered at the start of the season was hasty. A lot has happened that was difficult for even the most optimistic culer to expect:
— Neymar has exploded into vibrant life.
— Suarez is coming good more quickly than anticipated
— Messi on the right works.
— Mascherano has become even more of a boss.
— Pique isn’t washed up. Far, far from it.
— Alba has found a new level.
— There is a manageable press that isn’t the hyper-fast press of Treble Barça, but an effective one.
— Malleability has made this team more, rather than less formidable.
This brings us to Levante, a team that placed a very different set of demands on this Barça, one of expectation. Levante was supposed to get the crap kicked out of it today, the only question would be how. And that sort of pressure manifests itself on the kicker and the kickee. Levante decided to deal with it by applying a hybrid of semi-intelligent defense and attacking when possible, a “Damn the torpedoes” approach that displayed an understanding of its role at the Camp Nou today.
Barça had the challenge … no, pressure of having to stomp an opponent, but in a way that didn’t require full energy as there is a date with Villarreal for a spot in the Copa final looming. But there is also the entorno, silent and waiting for any sliver of daylight to leap at a Barça that still isn’t fully trusted, and probably won’t be this season.
The team didn’t have to go all out to beat Levante, and knew it. Lapses of concentration were apparent in runs not made, players standing offside, passes not quite linking up in the box. Messi was giving away balls early like he was Santa Claus. But superior quality is a luxury that allows the better team to indulge its quest for the perfect goal. Because even as Levante started brightly, the outcome of this match was never, ever in doubt. So when Messi laced a pass for Neymar that he one-timed for a stupefying goal, it was more than meeting expectation. It was almost as if two stellar players said “Okay, time to do this,” and turned up the wick just a little brighter.
Neymar’s happy accident was intended to be a pass to a wide-open Pedro, sitting on the doorstep. And this makes perfect sense because nobody has the audacity to hit a swinging drop volley of a shot that delicately landed just over the goal line, more rebuke than pillaging of the kind that occurred on the second goal, when Levante tried to play football. The press worked the ball loose and Bartra did his best Busquets impersonation, lacing a flawless pass to Messi who is suddenly a right-footed finisher.
That second goal effectively ended the match, turning this affair into something more academic, real-time pondering of questions worth asking.
Does Barça have a system?
Some say no, that it’s still “Let the geniuses do their thing.” But a more pertinent question is does any team have a system, or is it a set of athletes who react to a stimulus in the form of an opponent. Barça has returned to a past that it never really left in a pressing back line and midfield, controlling players with excellent technical skills who can pass their way out of a hurricane and a genius player or two up front. Think of the last time that this hasn’t been true.
That the team was proficient enough in that system to calmly and with muted energy dispatch Levante, even though expected, was wonderful to see. That it could do so with its best player scoring a hat trick but not having all that good a match was also pretty wonderful.
What of Messidependencia?
Messi wants to play all the time is a very different statement than Messi has to play all the time. Recent editions of Barça have gone as Messi goes. If he’s brilliant, so is the team. If he’s on that sort of walkabout that he employs to save energy, the team usually struggles. Messidependencia was a psychological as it was physical. But even as Messi wasn’t good today, the team was. Messi scored a hat trick, two gimmes and a penalty, but Neymar was far and away the best attacker today, dripping stardust from almost every touch of the ball, slashing, attacking, distributing and doing that “disrespect” thing he does.
And Barça rolled. Only a fool would say that Barça shouldn’t revel in the presence of the best player in the game, and one of the best players of all time. But a bigger fool wouldn’t be thrilled at the fact that in the here and now, Barça doesn’t need its genius to light up the field for the team to shine.
What if the trident is fragmented?
Messi wasn’t sterling, and Suarez started the match on the bench. Suarez later came in for Neymar, and scored one hell of a golazo before turning down the wick a bit and helping the team cruise home. It’s easy to say that Barça’s system is give it to Messi/Neymar/Suarez and let them have at it. Harder still is to replace Suarez with Pedro and still have the attack work.
“Yeah, but Messi scored a hat trick, so your theory is stupid.” Okay. But Pedro or Munir could have finished any of those goals that Messi did, which is the beauty of the thing. There are goals that only Messi can score. None of the three that he tallied today were those sorts of goals. Rather they were team goals that found Messi at the terminus of the move.
That is exciting.
In a moment of mirth, it’s easy to notice an inverse correlation between what’s going on with the board and the team’s play. As things slide downhill in the carpeted, paneled boardroom as Bartomeu said “Rosell did it, and what’s more, I signed those things, but didn’t read them,” the team is being increasingly wonderful. Here’s hoping that trend continues.
The team has won 11 matches in a row since the failure at Anoeta. It won today with the motor on idle and a rotation lineup. It has won with an old-school beat, it was won with a modern, non-linear flair that verges on digital. It just keeps winning. The gloom in all the rays of sunlight streaming down is that this club is only a single negative result away from the return of all the crisis talk and the doubt. And that, for me, just ain’t right.