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!”
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.
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?”
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!
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.