Villarreal 1, Barça 3, aka “Whaddaya know … a final!”

ney

Well, ain’t that just a kick in the teeth?

There are so many eminently logical reasons for the predictions that this season’s Barça team wouldn’t do well. But just as with upsets in sport, the theory all falls by the wayside when the kicking begins. And this match is interesting for the simple fact that it isn’t all that interesting. And that’s good.

It is almost impossible to overstate how lucky Barça is to have three attacking players of the quality of Messi, Neymar and Suarez playing for it at the same time. When people illustrate the complexities that face lesser teams, not only in the Liga but in football in general, a vicious world of the haves and have nots, they need only find an image of Messi, Neymar and Suarez celebrating.

Is it unfair? Good question. There is some extraordinary, star-kissed luck in that the best player in the game, and one of the best in history, was raised by and at Barça. Transferring Messi would be, and is, impossible. So you make him. But if you think about the teams that can afford almost 60m for Neymar and then 82m for Suarez, it’s a small list. And we’re on it. This is worth considering the next time culers snuffle indignantly at Flo Flo flinging money at yet another expensive bauble.

But in that fiscal madness exists some great fortune. The other day I was listening to “Mode to John” by the McCoy Tyner Band, from an album titled “Tender Moments” that is anything but tender. Jazz players used to call them “cutting contests,” when great players would knock heads, trading riffs, throwing down notes and solos to not only knock down the other musicians, but elevate them. This song features a spectacular band throwing down, each member elevated by the presence of the other. You don’t have to play as well when your trumpet player isn’t Lee Morgan.

In the wonderful James Brown documentary “Mr. Dynamite,” the back story of the incendiary Tami Show “Night Train” performance came out. The bassist and drummer said to each other, “Let’s see if they can keep up with us.” And when the song started, they hit it. Hard and fast. And you know what? James Brown could keep up, even if not all of the band could.

At Barça something similar exists, which has been alluded to in the past, the idea of “can you handle this?” Iniesta sees a hole and smokes the pass so that it can get through that hole. Can you deal with the ball that is coming at you? In many ways it’s an on-pitch cutting contest as great players make demand after demand of each other. “Can you handle it?” Our luck is in having such a group of players on the same team, at the same time.

The situation is such that Ivan Rakitic, who was by miles one of the best mids in La Liga last season, can be questioned for his quality, for not being up to the Barça stuff. It boggles the mind to consider that culers are lucky enough to have hitched emotional wagons to that group. And we’re lucky because Messi, Suarez and Neymar all have that rare thing, that baseline that is so high that even an ordinary match still makes them a formidable player. Moments of genius become things of wonder.

That first goal, that came less than 10 minutes into the match and decided the tie, was three long passes: one from the back to Suarez, who ran onto it then lofted one to Messi, who made a bit of space then dropped a rainbow at the feet of Neymar, who almost on the dead run executed a deft rainbow of a shot that nestled into the back of the net.

If you’re an opponent, what you want to say is something like, “Asshole!”

messi

It isn’t because of the goal. Lots of players on lots of teams score goals. It was the mazy, crazy, high-wire precision of the goal and how casual it looked as great players each asked the other, “What can you do?” The finish almost looked like Neymar just walked the ball in, but consider what it takes for Messi to, over a distance and with defenders surrounding a player, deduce how fast Neymar is running, whether a defender will be fast enough to get there and therefore, how far in front of Neymar the ball needs to be to be run onto. This doesn’t even take into account putting the right spin on the ball so that it sits there for Neymar to deal with.

The pass from Suarez. He had to control a long ball spanked at him in a way that didn’t make it possible for the defender to deal with it, see Messi in enough time and hit the ball hard enough to have it fall at Messi’s feet in a way that made it controllable.

It’s all fundamentally absurd when you really, really think about it. It’s also why I giggle at people who snark about “individual brilliance” as though it was something to be discounted as part of the team’s success, a flaw that is relied upon instead of marching sprites. Are you kidding me? We should be giddy with rapture that we live in a world where such magic is possible, and that we support a team whose players are capable of it. It isn’t a failing, but a celebration. We should put on a funny little hat, run around the room and dance a jig when stuff like that happens, because it’s rare. It might not seem so because we have players who can produce magic with such regularity, but goals such as that are special, special, moments in this beautiful game of ours.

In that moment, the time that it took 3 passes to fly through the air, the tie was over. Because Villarreal went from having to win 2-0, to needing to score 4 goals against this Barça. And it was at that point that our players became human.

Let’s say you have a job to do, something like loading 100 boxes into a truck in 9 hours. You hit a roll, you’re feeling great and those boxes are flying into the truck. You look up, two hours in and 91 boxes are already done. With 7 hours to go, what is going to happen? “Let’s go get drunk, boys! We have time!” Complacency is natural and human. I will guarantee you that every one of the 11 players on the pitch for Barça said, “Well, we can’t go get drunk, but we have 80 minutes to kill somehow.”

The task, at that point, became how to deliver a professional win. On Barça Twitter, the talking started about “playing like crap,” and “wake up,” and “sloppy, Villarreal is going to score.” They did, and so what? Jonathan Dos Santos will never score another goal like that in his playing career. If that is the kind of goal that it takes for Villarreal to score, it IS time to go get drunk.

People carped that they had chances, forgetting how easily our attackers found their way behind their back line. Chances went both ways. The unremarkable nature of that match was what was so lovely about it.

Before the match, there was talk that Barça needs to learn to put its foot on an opponent’s throat. That early goal did it.

When I started bicycle racing, I was like a colt unbound. I would win by 4, 6, 8 bike lengths. I got a coach, who came to watch me race for the first time. I raced, and won, and my coach said, “Stupid! Don’t waste energy. You only need to win by enough to be clear.” I always think about that when supporters castigate a team for being ahead by 2 goals, and wanting 6 goals. The tie is decided. Time to save energy for an away match in mere days, and other matches to come. Relaxation is allowed when the task is finished.

When Messi strolls about, people scream at those who wonder why, “He is resting within the match. He knows what he is doing.” So did the team yesterday. They, and Villarreal knew that Neymar’s goal ended that as a contest. Villarreal made a great show of it, but the fact that they started getting rough and petulant early made their views on the proceedings clear.

Some culers only relaxed in the aftermath of Pina’s deserved red card. I relaxed right after that Neymar goal and switched to “Don’t get anyone injured mode.” I figured Villarreal would win 2-1 going in, so the Dos Santos goal didn’t bother me. The Busquets injury did.

Irrespective of how you feel about the player, and there are some preternaturally stupid keyboard jockeys out there, polluting comments spaces with notions that Busquets somehow deserved that for being a cheat, that was a horror moment. It came, from as near as I can tell from watching and rewatching it, just one of those moments in a match in which something can go horribly wrong as two players go for the same ball. The good news is that Busquets will be out 4 weeks at the most, even as the bad news is that Barça is potentially without an essential player for the home Classic.

That bridge will be crossed when it comes, but for now, let’s just be pleased that Busquets didn’t suffer a more severe injury, and return to a match that wasn’t really much of one and the questions that it leaves us with.

Were naysayers silly?

I was one of them, and good question. I don’t think that people were counting on Messi on the right being so successful or the player cooperating with it so unreservedly. Nor was anyone figuring that Neymar would make the leap that he has this season, or that Suarez would come online so quickly. A team that gets a new coach, new philosophy and 8 new faces in the dressing room will usually need a season to acclimate, even more when a key part of the attack missed almost the entire first half of the season.

neysua

It’s difficult to find even the most fervent culer who believed that the team would come together with the effectiveness to be competitive for a Treble. Few even believed that this team could beat Atleti. So what can I say? We were wrong. Silver isn’t in the cupboard yet, but this team has gone farther than I ever presumed it would.

Suarez is scoring. Now what?

This is the weird one. It usually takes a forward at Barça a year to bed in. Phil Schoen very astutely noted that everyone was expecting the Liverpool Suarez (the man) rather than the Uruguay Suarez (an active, integrative force that also scores goals). That difference is significant. If his scoring continues, it is a significant complexity for opponents. Before it was Neymar and Messi, and Suarez couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Even more significantly, most of his goals have been first-touch goals, which are usually unstoppable. Yikes.

For opponents, a confident striker moves differently than one who is having difficulties finishing. He seeks the spaces that vex defenses and becomes more of a threat. The sound that you just barely heard after Suarez scored yesterday, a pure striker’s goal, was dozens of clipboards being destroyed as coaches wondered, “NOW what?”

Injury situation?

A great many things go into keeping a top-flight football team injury free. Luck is part of it, as evinced by the Busquets situation yesterday. If he is slower, faster and same for the Villarreal player, nothing happens.

Fatigue plays a big part of it, which makes it high time to wonder if the rotation that was so vexing at the beginning of the season is paying dividends right now. Even Adriano is fit and ready for battle. There have been the usual minor prangs, but nothing significant. Which brings me to the last thing worth wondering about …

What of Enrique?

Anybody who isn’t already inclined to give him credit isn’t going to start now. But from my view, crises real or imaginary aside, it’s high time that his work with this team is acknowledged. No, the team isn’t scoring goals or winning matches in the “pure Barça way” that many crave. But I can’t be the only one surprised that the team is still in contention for the Treble.

Now, even mentioning that word is kinda absurd. It was a lightning bolt out of the blue when it happened in 08-09. Expecting it, or even discussing it with a straight face is kinda crazy. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen, even to a supporter still nursing a hangover from the last time that it happened. There are a great many twists and turns left in this season. Barça has a task that is as simple to say as it is impossible to consider: win out and win the Liga.

Barça has the most difficult remaining schedule in the Liga, including the Classic and Atleti away. The Sevilla and Espanyol matches are also away. And a pitfall can come in a surprising spot (Malaga at home … NOT La Real away).

The eventual fate of this team will be fun to watch. But its coach has it playing a style of football that is in many ways better equipped for success in context of the way the game is being played at present (packed, pressing midfields and high back lines). If that is blasphemy, so be it. To my view, that’s the case.

Holy crap, Busquets!

busq

This team will probably have to meet two big rivals in RM and City without a player who is, for many, almost as essential as Messi. What are the options?

— Mascherano: A very different kind of approach that would require a more 10-like role from Messi. The team overall would be less rhythmic, more risky and dynamic.

— Rakitic: An interesting option. He has the skills, and would probably result in a Xavi/Iniesta/Rakitic midfield that would necessitate Mascherano as that back line fireman.

— Rafinha: Don’t discount this possibility. His range, strength on the ball and ability to distribute makes this worth considering.

What isn’t worth considering is Sergi Samper, even as there have been mutterings of that sort in Barça Twitter. But the B team needs him, and Enrique will be loath to essay that kind of experimentation in the meat of the season. He’s a man who is, in effect, playing for his job with elections coming in the summer. The best way, after all, to make yourself fireproof is with a silver shield.

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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.

15 Comments

  1. March 5, 2015

    Kevin, this article is fantastic, as always!!!

    Having Mascherano at CDM is a huge risk, and so is Rakitic. In both cases, the risk factor as you said is increased manifold.
    Rafinha, well it’s a good alternative but his tackling ability is unproven.

    I would rather have Samper play and make the mistakes that come with young age rather than play Rafinha and completely lose control of the midfield.

    Sacrificing a little control for dynamism is what we’ve been doing till now, but we’ve achieved a balance and we can’t upset that.

  2. agar2515
    March 5, 2015

    A fellow Jazz Lover !

    Really though I am happy more and more being proved wrong by Enrique. Yes he is blessed with a once in a generation forward line, yes one of those forwards is the GOAT, but any coach could be nitpicked ad nauseam. One final ahead and within striking distance in a League and CL that doesn’t have any overwhelming favorite.

    Hope Busi is ok, would be very interesting to see what Enrique does without him…

  3. agar2515
    March 5, 2015

    Dang forgot,

    ALL HAIL GERARD PIQUE. Seriously, best CB in the world. The man is immense, all I’ve ever wanted is for him to become the leader at the back to go with his talent. Well here it is. He isn’t vocal like Puyol or a ball of fire like Masche, but his consistency is the mark of a player that has really matured. His play is fantastic, even as he has to cover for two back 4 compatriots that are less than stellar (Dani) or capable of over aggression and losing their ( Masche) positioning.

    To some he’ll always be Mr Waka Waka but I for one am happy as hell one of the jersey’s I own is of the Best CB in the world ( even if it is the “bad luck” black one of a few years ago)

  4. dl
    March 5, 2015

    I didn’t really ‘predict’ a treble, but I did mention in print that it was certainly a possibility and I’m glad to see that we are in the running still. And I absolutely predicted delicious football this season. So happy, so far.

  5. ooga aga
    March 5, 2015

    Let’s also remember, and state again, that the treble isnt the yardstick we should be using. But, it looks like we will be in contention for it, though, at least into April — i think we will get the job done vs ManCity. I think that alone is pretty durn good for a first year coach with lots of new players.

    On another note…
    LE seems like an arrogant pr*ck sometimes, like super alpha. The kind of guy I usually wouldnt hang out with. A bit of a contrast to Pep in that he probably doesnt get too close to the players. But maybe there is something to be said for this, especially when you are in a competitive environment. To give an analogy in the form of an anecdote, my good friend was a school teacher at a private school. The parents thought she was too close to the students and as such had trouble with discipline and task setting. They thought a stricter teacher that students respected and maybe even feared would get more out of the kids. Im not saying which philosophy Id go with, Im just saying there are different ways of looking at it.

  6. Inamess
    March 5, 2015

    Another great piece with a lot of points of discussion. Barca’s season so far raises some important points about this team and football in general.

    1) The musical analogy is a good one. The front three have raised their game to such a level that might be unprecedented in world football: three of the best players in the world on one front line. If the front line is capable of playing A Love Supreme with Messi as Coltrane, Neymar as MCoy Tyner, and Suarez as a combination of Jimmy Garrison/Elvin Jones then can we get away with a comparatively inferior supporting orchestra? The answer, of course, is yes depending on whether the fron three can play their stellar best in the important games coming up?

    2) Is Luis Enrique doing a good job as coach? My first thought is that how the hell can I possibly know. I can feel confident about my opinion of a player that I see on TV week after week, but not for the performance of a coach. I don’t sit in on team preparations and practices. I can only evaluate how the team plays on the field and then ascribe blame or praise to the coach depending on the play of the team so far. This perspective is different from that of the players or the coach himself who can better evaluate the coaches relative contribution to the team’s performance, though their views may may contradict each other and be unreliable as well.

    So is there any way to objectively evaluate a coach given that we don’t usually know what goes on behind the scenes. Maybe not, but here are some of the criteria that coaches are usually evaluated on:

    A) How does the team respond to a adversity?
    B) Does the performance of the team exceed expectations?
    C) How does the team play in decisive games?

    Fair or not, like him or not, what we will find out in the next few months is how Enrique’s performance as coach this year will be defined.

    • Inamess
      March 5, 2015

      As an addendum, I found a website that does supposedly objectively ranks coaches and as it turns out Enrique is the 4th best coach in the world! Glad that issue has finally been put behind us.
      http://www.coachworldranking.com/

      • March 6, 2015

        Hehehe, nice to see Unai Emery above Mourinho, although I do wonder what Wenger’s doing on that list.

      • Rahul
        March 6, 2015

        Interesting to note that 4 of the top 5 are plying their trade in Spain and the 5th is a Spaniard

  7. March 6, 2015

    Also, folks talk about us being in contention for the treble like that’s some mind blowing thing. Well, we are second in the league, in the second round of the CL and in the final of the Copa.

    I don’t think that this is above expectations for a team with our talent and a club of our stature. In fact, we are pretty much exactly where we were last season. There are a lot of games to go, still.

  8. lala10
    March 6, 2015

    Busi’s injury could not have come at a worse time. LE and the team shoukd not be counting on him for the big games coming up. Even if he is well within two weeks will he be match fit?

  9. lala10
    March 6, 2015

    Agree with you there. The skewed financial landscape make it imperative that we and EE are obliged to contest the domestic honours.

    The same in Europe where a few clubs are shoe ins before a ball has been kicked. Whilst that may make fans seem like spolied brats that is the uncomfortable naked reality. We are where we are expected to be at this moment in time. Hoping we go on to realise the potential in the end.

  10. Davour
    March 6, 2015

    Thanks for another fine read! I would definitely go with Masch as pivote, at least in the tougher games. I would be wary of fielding both Xavi and iniesta against RM again. Perhaps a tougher midfield of Ini (with his new attitude), Rak and Masch would be able to unsettle a more delicate trio of EE minions (ah, reversed roles!), leaving the playground open for MSN.

  11. Jim
    March 6, 2015

    Still not sure where this comes from. Xavi and Iniesta completely outplayed RM in the first half. Look at their chances first half then look at ours.

    • Davour
      March 7, 2015

      Good point. But if RM learned anything from that second half… and without Busquets as a reference I am not sure this would be a good idea. I am simply not sure they can control the game enough to cover for the attacking style of our current front three. They have not played together for many games this season; must be a reason for that, I reckon.

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