Football is funny, because it likes nothing more than to confound us, to giggle at vehement prognostications and assertions that issue forth from bile-flecked keyboards.
This season has been something of an object lesson in that, no matter its eventual outcome. From notions that Messi is past it, to Pique being a worthless playboy and Enrique being a prat who needs to be fired, to his team not having a snowball’s chance in hell of beating Atleti to the latest, that Sergi Roberto is just a pile of hair and a smile.
Vidal Sassoon started today, in a spot that many speculated he might, in the hole that is usually occupied by Sergio Busquets. That he had an excellent match, including the most passes on the team (91) and a stellar completion rate on those passes (82 of them) was a surprise to many. But it’s just par for the course, when you think about it.
Yes, it was Eibar. As Sergi Roberto himself said, he always seems to play against Eibar and he wishes that Barça played them more often. But the thing about playing in the position that he occupied today is that it is opponent proof in many ways, because that position often operates independently and irrespectively of what an opponent does.
That position dictates tempo, picks out that first ball that starts an attack after taking the pass from a CB and serves as a relief valve. Though that player can be subject to direct pressure as he moves up the pitch, a tactic employed by some opponents against Busquets, as he sits there in the hole, the job is the thing and Sergi Roberto performed it quite well today. There were even some who liked his performance better than Mascherano’s in that same position, though there are certainly a different set of skills that Mascherano brings to the table, along with gobs of destructive force.
When we usually see SR, he’s in one of the more advanced midfield positions, the danger zones in which his skill set: physicality, picking out a nice forward pass come under all kinds of pressure from opponents and expectation. Anybody who fills that role should be named He Isn’t Xavi Dammit. Because when they aren’t, for who is, they are almost immediately deemed a failure. That even includes Rakitic, who continued his streak of excellent play today.
Enrique won’t get credit for the squad management that allowed a tactical and player shift, but putting SR in the hole means that suddenly he has time and a broader view of the pitch, two of the things that can benefit a ‘tweener like him. It took an injury to a key player and a particular set of difficulties — Mascherano being one yellow away from suspension — to create the set of circumstances that resulted in his opportunity, a moment that should give culers pause and reflection.
A player is rarely as terrible as legend makes him out to be, mostly because the people whose job it is to make those kinds of decisions aren’t stupid, but also because the bar is absurdly high, almost jaw-droppingly so. Someone can sub for Xavi, a reference at his position, or Busquets, hailed by many as the best DM in the world. Or maybe Iniesta, Mr. Big Goal. So as SR stepped into the spotlight for his command performance, it was a role that was easy to enjoy as long as you had nothing invested in its outcome, i.e. “He sucks and that’s that.”
This was also true of the team’s performance today, a delicious bit of pragmatism that impressed, again if you let the expectations relax just a bit. This was never, ever going to be glittering football, nor should it have been. Teams have standards, and those standards exist despite the pragmatism of coaches and players. The blessing and the curse of Pep Guardiola is, frankly, those standards. The team played exactly the same beautiful way, and rarely relented, rarely played just good enough to win. Guardiola drove them, harried them and always, always demanded of their best. It’s the stuff that makes for legend coaches and storied team. But it’s also a psychological deep fryer that will eventually produce toast.
Enrique seems to have given the team carte blanche to be good enough, to understand that with the players that it has (large roster that is actually limited at the top, against top teams as is true of most squads) care must be taken if his charges are going to survive the pressure cooker that is this season, one on the perpetual brink.
In a rather surprising development, prompted by a Tweet from someone that really put it into perspective, I have come to accept Walking Messi as a reality of a complex situation. He wants to play all the time, and no coach wants to be the one to risk the wrath of Angry Messi. But much more than my objections to that is a reality that this year’s Barça and its pragmatism have shaped for me, broadening my view to encompass being good enough. This year’s team seems to have one standard: winning. All the rest is theory, semantics and gilded legend.
This fascinates as you watch a match such as Eibar, or Rayo last week, and see the social media hue and cry about things not being pretty and “this half sucks,” etc. But the match was exactly as it needed to be: a few moments of elevation to bring about a desired result, then enough effort to bring the result home.
The first goal, even if you allow that it wasn’t a penalty except in the technical letter of the law, came after one of those sequences of elevated play, a remarkable exchange of passes that found a heretofore staunch Eibar defense suddenly flummoxed and out of position. And Messi took the resultant penalty like a player who now understands that penalties matter. It was a rocket of a shot and an unstoppable PK from a player who until that point had missed 5 of his last 11 penalties.
We can even allow ourselves to giggle at the reality that Messi became pichichi on a penalty, a way of scoring that seems to be disdained by culers who nickname his rival for best in the game Penaldo. That Messi’s second goal came off a submarine header is just him trolling the football universe. Lost in the ruckus over that goal will be the flawless corner from Rakitic, a rainbow that wound up exactly where it had to be as Messi trailed the box ruckus to head home.
And then Barça resumed playing like a team that has not one, but two “season-defining” matches in the space of a week. Eibar hit the crossbar on a shot that really should have resulted in a goal, and Barça kept a clean sheet. Would Enrique have been vexed at the 1-2 scoreline? Probably not as much as culers who have unassailable standards that often butt heads with a shifting reality. Walking Messi is okay but Pragmatic Barça isn’t. Yet both are necessary realities for an ambitious team as once again, good enough to win is fine and dandy.
When Xavi subbed in for Rakitic, who was pulled with the mid-week clash against City in mind, that was his 750th appearance for Barça. You sit, you think, you try to do math and you struggle with that kind of bonkers reality that a player has played 750 matches for the club that he loves. It’s remarkable.
Even more admirable is that even after those 750 matches, Xavi comes in, straps on the captain’s armband and does What Xavi Does. It’s even hard to explain what that is. Simply enough it’s passing and tempo control. But because Xavi had made it so much more and performs it at a level that will never be matched by any other player, it’s something that you don’t need to explain. It just happens.
It’s like That Run Messi made today. That run, like the way Xavi plays, is an inexplicable reaction to a set of circumstances, rooted in an extraordinary skill set that makes the exceptional just another day’s work.
That’s Xavi, and that’s awesome. Happy 750th, Maestro.