The best league ever, and the failings of a GOAT

None of it matters.

Messi was absent from the UEFA Team of the Week, but Ronaldo was in there. So what.

Some don’t think that Messi is better than Ronaldo. So what.

The Premiership is called by many “best league in the world.” So what.

At the end of a remarkable week of football, in which Premiership teams dropped like flies in a firestorm, comes the blizzard of analysis pieces. “If it’s the best league in the world, what happened?”

The answers are simple and obvious, really. The running and industry that makes for excellent television as people sit down, ooh and aah as they watch a giant, high-def screen and tackles go flying in. The reason that Prem sides used to be better in Europe is that they had managers who understood that you have to play different ways when you go to Europe, rather than suffuse your side with the institutional arrogance attendant to being “best in the world.” Chelsea will go farther in Europe because its manager understands that a team has to play different ways in the league, as well as in Europe. It also has to play differently in the first leg at home, vs the second leg away, or vice versa.

Only a fool would give Barça the space that City allowed in that first half, and Pellegrini isn’t a fool. Is he a manager who believes in his side, to the extent of fully believing that they are equals to one of the best football clubs in the world? Yup. But that’s naïve, rather than foolish. Arsenal didn’t think that Monaco had a chance against them, and played like it. But just because Monaco is in Ligue 1 doesn’t mean they are terrible. It just means that they are in a league with a different set of requirements and standards of excellence.

Arsenal might still turn that tie, just as City might. The broader question, as people snuffle and snort about the Prem’s status, hot on the heels of a giant TV contract, is what does it matter? The Premiership exists in a vacuum. It isn’t the “best league in the world” because of any status bestowed by anyone. It’s the “best league in the world” because people became convinced that such a thing is true. You say it enough times and it becomes so. But if people already know that the Prem isn’t the best league in the world, why the surprise when its clubs get bounced from Europe? Do Prem neutrals find the “best league in the world” stuff just as seductive as Prem devotees?

If this wasn’t the case, the hand-wringing would be largely absent, replaced by a much simpler, “Duh.” Yes, we all like to pick on the rich kid, but the Prem got that status by understanding how to put on a show, marketing that league and not being run by jackasses. The language is also English. Yes, we know that given the dominance of foreigners in the Prem, language is a distinction lost to logic, but people don’t think that closely about the game. “It’s English. I speak English.” And the influential U.S. market becomes a monolingual slam dunk.

The Prem doesn’t have to be the best, people just have to think that it is, and the myopia will build. In many ways it’s like Formula One, a sport whose press is predominantly English, and whose roots are felt by many to be, even as the sport is one of the most truly international at every level.

A story came out Friday about the organizers of the British Grand Prix, which is customarily held at Silverstone, wondering what kind of championship F1 would be without Silverstone. There again, it’s a peculiar kind of myopia that comes from a status bestowed by tenure. F1 did just fine without Spa (Belgium). Why would it somehow be devalued because of the absence of Silverstone? It wouldn’t, any more than the Prem will be devalued because its teams are absent from the European stage.

The Prem is, in the U.S., on a major network in NBC. That means that any, all and everyone can see it. You don’t need cable, or a special sports tier as you do with La Liga. You can just turn on the TV, and there it is, available to people who might not even care about football. “Hey, looka those little guys go!” The matches are broadcast in crystalline HD, and miked in a way that makes “You’ll Never Walk Alone” positively spine-tingling. Meanwhile in La Liga you get vague echoes of what might be the sound of fans in a stadium.

A colleague who doesn’t give two craps about football suddenly stated talking to me about the Prem last season, when matches started being broadcast on NBC. You want marketing? That is marketing. People can snuffle all they like about the technical prowess of Spain, or the packed stadiums and screaming supporters of the Bayernsliga. Nobody cares because they can’t SEE it. It’s the same reason nobody cares about Europe and its effect on the Premiership. Liverpool won’t stop being a storied club because it got bounced out of the Europa League. Arsenal won’t stop being Arsenal because it lost to a Monaco side who will next have to have tryouts among its supporters to find a pair of CBs to rub together.

It doesn’t matter, because reality is what people believe.

The penalty of Messi

In the week’s Champions League football, Ronaldo scored a goal and Messi missed a penalty. Is making the Team of the Week as simple as that? Yep. Supporters crow about the goals that Messi scores. When someone hears that Messi dominated a match, the first question is “How many goals did he score?” “None.” “Then how did he dominate?” Goals are the currency that define greatness. It is in many ways hypocritical to crow about Messi becoming the all-time leading scorer, breaking this or that scoring record then snarl because the Ballon d’Or has been reduced to a goal scoring competition. He isn’t just goals, but the timing of the goals, the creation of the goals, all the stuff that he does in between the goals. Goals captivate, goals are the thing. So it makes sense that the most enduring image from the City match was Messi laying on his face, trying to burrow into the Etihad pitch. Why? He missed a penalty.

The two questions lingering are did that missed PK devalue the rest of his match to a degree sufficient to have him NOT make Team of the Week, and should we care? No, and no.

On an Internet where people can’t even suss whether a dress is black and blue or white and gold, how in hell are they going to parse whether a player is in fact GOAT. Many of them can barely find a picture of a goat. But the Internet has made affirmation more important than ever. It isn’t that we believe, it’s that we want others to believe. We argue, post statistics, scoff and snark. But at the end of it all, we are trying to convince someone that what we believe is “correct.” The Premiership has convinced people that it is the best league in the world, to the tune of a 5bn+ television package. That’s some convincing.

But as long as his supporters believe that Messi is the best, none of the rest of it matters. He missed a penalty that would have put the tie out of reach for City. Does that change anything? Depends on who you ask. If you believe that it does, it does. If you believe that it doesn’t then it doesn’t. The rest is a waste of bandwidth.

What’s interesting is the stat that of the 10 penalties Messi has taken after the 85th minute, he has missed half of them. Is a 50% conversion rate for penalties in the part of a match that makes converted ones potentially the most devastating an acceptable conversion rate for a player of Messi’s caliber? Here’s another question: what if Enrique suggested that Suarez start taking penalties?

When I raised that question on Twitter, the variety of responses was interesting. Some said “He’s the best, why would anyone else take them?” “It would be an insult.” But would it be? If Messi, as rumor has it, doesn’t like taking them, what’s the harm? Would it goad Messi into improving that aspect of his game? Would it pad Suarez’s goal totals now that Barca is getting penalties thanks to its altered playing style?

But there is danger afoot, Dr. Watson! A crisis even, if certain media critters are to tickle our credibility bones. “Penalties are as much mine as my PlayStation, dammit. Rip them from my sleeve-covered digits at your own peril, Asturian Man.”

The other complexity of course is how in the brimstone-scented hell can the Best Player Alive ™, the dude who bangs in massive goals at key times for his club like he’s booting a stray ball off the practice pitch, not also be an infallible demon from the spot? His lessers, the likes of Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic, who blasts rockets into various spots of the goal like he’s playing foot darts, step to the spot and you just look away, anticipating the partisan roar as a keeper dives for nothing. What the hell, Messi?

Is it as simple as a previously mentioned lack of perfection? That if he did all that AND banged the hell out of penalties, it just wouldn’t be fair. And what if he just needs something to work on? Michael Jordan wasn’t always automatic from the free throw line. Work, work and more work bred the player who, late in a basketball game, strolled to the free throw line, looked at an opponent who had been trash talking and said “This one’s for you, baby.” Jordan then closed his eyes and … swish. All net.

Are penalties a question of work, of honing that instinct just like a free throw? No, the free throw doesn’t have a multi-limbed colossus striving to outguess you, to leap to his feet in the aftermath and scream, “Yo gimme just got got, G! Hooooraw!” How is it that a player who successfully manages the audacious with a frequency that renders his merely exceptional goals mundane, pop a shot anywhere a keeper can get to it. Top corner? Sure. Corkscrew ball that curls off through the parking lot, comes in the back entrance and plops into the net? Okay. Off the post and in? Snore, but why not?

And yet, he misses. He’s missed them in friendlies, missed them with a Liga match on the line, missed them against Chelsea in Champions League. Why? Who knows. A penalty kick has never been automatic, never a guaranteed goal. But the percentage with which they are converted by mortal players hovers somewhere in the stratosphere. What’s the deal with the man who might truly go down in history as the best who ever played, for those who crave such a limiting definition.

And how wrong is someone who suggests that maybe, just maybe, a lesser being might be better equipped to grab a gimme.

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Written by:

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.

29 Comments

  1. ciaran
    February 27, 2015

    Nice piece Kxevin.
    I for one don’t see the problem with handing over the penalty duties as Messi has never been a good penalty taker. Neymar missed one penalty and people said that he shouldn’t take them.
    Ok ok, everyone misses a penalty but Messi’s conversion rate is too low for such an important part of the game.

    As an aside, has any actual story ever started with ‘Goal understands’?

  2. Inamess
    February 27, 2015

    Great article and a great summary of what it’s like to have the EPL start invading your country like a well produced but cheesy Soap Opera. It’s the league that American’s deserve and Harry Kane crying in 1080 pixels as he trots around in triumph at White Hart Lane after a match is no doubt gripping TV in a Leni Riefenstahl kind of a way.

    As easy as it is to draw conclusions as to why so many EPL teams lost in Europe this week I not sure one explanation really works. But there is something about a European ties that causes all kinds of mischief and messes with managers’ heads. Maybe it’s the away goals rule or the stamp that Jose Mourinho has put on these competitions, but it seems there is too much over-coaching and tactics seems to completely switch with each goal scored.

    One of my biggest fears for Barca in the CL and to a lesser extent Copa this year was for the team to get too conservative and try to play to the score instead of taking advantage of its talent on the field. The best way to make sure we finish off City and Villarreal is too forget about all the away goals rules and strategy and just play our best to win these games.

    • BarcaSon
      February 28, 2015

      Agreed.

  3. February 28, 2015

    Nice article.

    I personally feel that as long as Messi, who in my opinion is indeed the GOAT, wants to take the penalties he should take them. He’s the leader of the team and he’s given us so much that he’s earned the right not to be doubted, even in the face of a bad penalty conversion record.

    The risk of pissing him off by assigning this duty to another player is not worth it, let alone the negative consequences that could have on the team as a whole, and I’m pretty sure Luis Enrique feels the same way, with the pair supposedly not even being on speaking terms and all…

    Let’s just hope Messi is fed up enough to start really working on his penalty shooting. It’s a skill like any other, after all. Maybe he could give Matt Le Tissier a call?

    • BarcaSon
      February 28, 2015

      I’m with you here.
      As long as he wants to take, let him Take.
      If he says pass on, then go for it.
      Its not because he’s the best player, its not because he’s the GOAT
      BUT its because he has earned it.

    • flyzowee
      February 28, 2015

      Nice Article.
      I am of the opinion that if messi is having some issues from the spot then HE (Not Enrique) could approach Neymar and suggest that they share that duty just like he did with Eto’o in guardiolas first season. Other than that things should remain as they are.

  4. ddungbo
    February 28, 2015

    This seems crazy when said about a guy who, as Kxevin said, has performed so well in so, SO many big games, but I think Messi has some anxiety issues. Two pieces of evidence, based on personal experience with relatively mild anxiety: (1) the vomiting, especially in big games; and (2) the missed penalties. Penalties are a special case in football because unlike a shot from open play you have at least a minute to think about what you’re going to do, and unlike a direct free-kick you are overwhelmingly *expected* to score. So, lots of pressure and lots of time to think about how you’ll look if you fail.

  5. georgjorge
    February 28, 2015

    Granada – FC Barcelona:

    Bravo

    Alves Bartra Mathieu Alba

    Rakitic Mascherano Xavi

    Messi Suarez Neymar

    I like it (except for Messi not being rested of course).

  6. lala10
    February 28, 2015

    Our midfield has struggled a bit. They are shying away from the ball when we bring it out of defense. They need to come back a bit more and not camouflage themselves in the Granada half.

  7. Ryan
    February 28, 2015

    Wow, that was really classy from Suarez to give the tap-in to Messi. Nice to see!

    • Gekko64
      February 28, 2015

      apparently it was offside XD

      but I agree, very nice gesture from Suarez.

    • barca96
      February 28, 2015

      The rule does say that it’s an offside but Ive always find that ruling to be pretty weird. I think it should always be the defender no matter what that should be the last man for offside.

    • G6O
      February 28, 2015

      The rule is what it is because of the historical evolution of the the rules of the game. Of course, it was so long ago that it was last significant;y changed (1925) that people who have never read the rules and have only inferred what they are from watching games, are surprised to find out what the book actually says.

    • G6O
      February 28, 2015

      Technically it was, but it was very tight, and there was no advantage that we gained from the offside, so I don’t feel bad about it any way.

      Also, that reminded of a comment I saw on the Guardian after the Bale/Ronaldo situation a few weeks ago, about how our forwards are like “Here’s the ball, you score it”, “No, after you, please”, etc. in contrast to the bruised egos at RM when someone doesn’t pass.

      That goal was an almost cartoonish illustration of that kind of team spirit.

    • Gekko64
      February 28, 2015

      real gentleman Suarez 😀

  8. georgjorge
    February 28, 2015

    What I particularly like about this match: Neymar is ineffective, Messi can’t produce much in front of goal (though both were trying hard) – but the goals still are coming. Some seasons ago, someone said that the beauty of Xavi – Iniesta together on the pitch was that you just couldn’t take both out of the game at the same time. It’s the same here – SOMEONE of the front three is going to put those goals in.

    The defense was a bit sloppy though – Granada got one penalty, and could easily have gotten two more (one in first half after a Bartra tackle and one late in second half after a double team in the box). Still, that second half was a very good showing from the team.

  9. barca96
    February 28, 2015

    Why are the fans booing Messi? This must be the first time where the fans target Messi. I found it really weird. I would understand if it was Neymar who tries to humiliate players, trash talk and does revenge tackles. Messi doesn’t do any of them.

    • Ttemple
      February 28, 2015

      Shouldn’t be weird, really. Sometimes the human mind has a natural aversion to goodness.

  10. barca96
    February 28, 2015

    Suarez was hustling today. He was busting his ass. He really doesn’t deserve to be taken off but he has to think a bit further here. Neymar is already going to miss the next league match so why take him off? And Suarez is already on a yellow. With his aggressive style of play he could get a 2nd booking. Now is the time to rest Messi or Suarez. Lucho doesn’t have the balls to take Messi off as he looks lethargic in Liga matches of late. So Suarez goes off. It’s for his own good and the team in the long run.

  11. Adethings
    February 28, 2015

    Yeah, Messi looks really tired. He couldn’t even trap the ball towards the end. Hopefully LE has the balls to rest him. Up Barca

    • barca96
      February 28, 2015

      That’s what I thought too but he let the ball go on purpose as one of our player was injured.

  12. Inamess
    February 28, 2015

    Some really interesting comments above. Additional thoughts:

    1) Agree with the opinions on the offside call on the Messi goal. I’m with G60 that the offside rule needs to be updated because it is now archaic. The position of the goalkeeper should be irrelevant in an offside call and it should be made only on the basis of the last defender. The new era of the sweeper keeper is just going to make the old rule look even worse.

    2) The two PK solution that fly recommends is a great one and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team adopt it. The evidence seems to support that Messi is a good but not great PK taker but dreads taking hugely important penalties. So it should be Messi’s duty to defer to another player if he doesn’t want to take an upcoming penalty like he did with Villareal. The interesting question is what would have happened had Neymar made the penalty against Villareal and whether that was the plan all along.

    3) Matheiu at CB and Masch at DM aren’t bad, but our team loses a lot of cohesion without Pique and Busquets on the pitch. The team that started the Man City game is our best 11.

    4) By all reasonable standards Alves should not be on the team next year but the team got itself in this predicament and there is no good solution. This time I wouldn’t mind if a socio brings a suit against the club to find out what was really behind the Douglas transfer.

  13. Jim
    February 28, 2015

    Wo got what we needed to out of this match and after a CL tie that’s not to be sneezed at. There were also some positives in that Rakitic continued to play an important part and Suarez was the main man again with both Messi and Neymar struggling to run with the ball on that pitch.

    On the other hand, defence didn’t look great and we had trouble bringing the ball out of defence and playing any kind of football with it. I’m still not clear what LE is asking the two mids to do. Xavi was poor and couldn’t get into the game and seemed to be playing some advanced left sided role with a huge distance between he and Rakitic. However, I suppose given the pitch and wind it was never going to be a day for pretty build ups and the hash and bash nature of it suited Suarez a bit more. It was all pretty dull for me if I’m honest but I’m happy with the points with important games coming up.

    I can understand LE taking Suarez off because of the booking ( if that was it) but I’d have made sure I was at the side of the pitch to put an arm round him and tell him that and not let it fester like it seemed to when he was clearly better than either Messi or Neymar on the day. Didn’t like the sight of him shaking his head on the bench.

  14. Messiah10
    February 28, 2015

    Been a long time. New job, new family, and new house. This place is special. More so when you’ve been away for a while. The Mods who keep pumping out brilliant piece after brilliant piece are unrivaled in the blogosphere! Kxevin, fantastic writing, as always! Americans are always going to gravitate to the EPL. The league has a significant advantage because of its official language. Point two is a great topic for discussion. For me, Messi still takes every penalty hands down. Why? Because he’s still the best penalty taker on the team. He’s converted dozens of them. It was a big miss. Hart guessed right and Leo didn’t put it in the exact spot he wanted to. It looked like Hart was off his line considerably. It’s never called on a keeper, but should be. I’m still not worried because there’s no way Citeh come to Camp Nou and score 2 or 3 without us scoring as many. That game was a tale of two halfs. We completely dominated the 1st. Some of the best football I’ve seen us play this year. However, the 2nd half was almost unbearable to watch. Yes Citeh pressured us harder, but we’ve been pressed harder by EE and many other teams and coped. Not sure what went wrong. The Granada game was scrappy. Sure they could be unhappy about a few calls made, but we could be just as unhappy about a few calls not made. Especially fouls. I don’t get beINsport HD so I couldn’t see the pitch that well, but it didn’t seem to be in great shape. Balls were popping up a few times and our players weren’t getting the best touches on the ball. For me Busi is the most important player on the team. He makes it all tick and gets us forward in transition quickly and seamlessly. I love Masch at DM, but would rather he play CB because Busi makes us flow offensively. When he came in the game was over.

    • Inamess
      February 28, 2015

      I know the discussion might seem provincial to non-North Americans, but the fact that Bein-Sport is not offered in HD to most in the region is a huge disappointment to fans and the Spanish League. La Liga certainly could never directly compete with the EPL but it’s a hugely wasted opportunity. I love Ray and Phil but from a business/ promotional perspective Bein-sports seems like it is run by a bunch of amateurs. Qatar will spend 200 billion on the World Cup. How about putting some of that money to use at Bein?

      I also read that La Liga has put a lot of its effort into China, but for some reason hasn’t tried as hard in North American and Japan. Interested to know from some of the Barca fans how the La Liga vs EPL competition is working out in different countries around the world. Just as a trivia question, I wonder if people can guess the most popular foreign club in China?

  15. andrecito
    February 28, 2015

    most popular club in china.. is it manchester united?

    iN japan there is 1 cable station that shows games fromw the major euro leagues.. i dont have it, so i dont know exactly, but from what ive heard, about a third of fcb’s games are televised.

    recently, a japanese apartment finder became a sponsor.. and they have all kinds of promo stuff in the window.. i purposely walk on that side of the road when i go down the street that the shop is on. Last week they put up a huge poster with 5 of the players.. and neymar, not messi was the focal point.. that made me feel weird.

  16. March 1, 2015

    My takeaways from the game:

    1. Messi looked tired.
    2. Credit where credit is due, Bravo looked good.
    3. Matthieu looked worse than ever.
    4. Suarez looked like an €80 striker.
    5. Rakitic looked like an actual Barça midfielder for once. Quality performance from the Croat, easily his best so far and probably the first in which he was a consistent passing threat. More of this, please!

    • bhed
      March 1, 2015

      Agreed. Rakitic, Suarez, Bravo, and maybe Alba were the only ones who really looked like bosses today. Luckily, it was enough.

      With Suarez coming good goal-wise, it reminds me a bit of the super trident of ’08, where at least one of the front 3 would always be good for a couple of clutch goals in any given game. Let’s hope so.

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