Imagine being Ivan Rakitic.
You are the best player on your team, a coveted midfielder who is chased by big clubs. You come to Barça and your aren’t even the best midfielder, never mind being the best player. You practice, you watch, and what must you think. You play a Champions League match in a knockout tie, and you make a run. As you make that run, you throw your arm up to ensure that your teammate sees you.
But that teammate is Lionel Messi. So he not only sees you, but he plops a pass to you so soft and perfect that it feels like you have forever to cushion it with your chest and calmly flick it over the onrushing opposition keeper. You have scored the opening, and eventually match-winnning goal.
Imagine being Ivan Rakitic.
We watch Messi and we marvel at him, but what must it be like to be a player who plays against him match after match, who has to wonder in his head what it must be like to play with, instead of against Messi, especially when he’s in one of those moods, where he wants to win. That Messi is a different Messi. That Messi wins a ball just outside of his own box and leads the break. That Messi runs, passes, defends, battles for possession and uses every tool in his immense bag of tricks to eviscerate the opponent.
Who wouldn’t want to play with that player? He doesn’t preen or pout. There are no on-pitch histrionics. If he gets fouled and doesn’t get the call, he gets up and resumes his business. His face doesn’t change whether he is having the match of his life, or a merely ordinary day. You wonder how that is possible, how when he is having a match such as he had today that he isn’t grinning, turning cartwheels and setting off an air horn whenever he gets the ball. “Woot! Party time!” I can’t remember a more dominant performance from a player who didn’t score. Most touches, most dribbles, most recovered balls by an attacker, most, most, most, most.
When people sit and debate who is the better player, Messi or Ronaldo, a lot of things get thrown about, but the simple reality is that Messi can dominate and completely control a match without putting a ball in the net. It happens often when he is That Messi, a newcomer to the world this season. The talk was always that Messi would, as he aged, develop into a 10 as a concession to a diminishing skill set. But nobody stopped to consider that he would do it in his prime, or that he would embrace the right side of the pitch as a launch pad rather than a jail.
People bring their own notions to the game. “Messi on the right is stupid. Enrique is a fool for not having Messi as close as possible to goal, etc, blablabla.” I, like many, like to write about football. I can even pretend that I know a wee something about tactics. But when someone whose money and ass are on the line makes a move such as putting Messi on the right, it’s probably for a reason. In this case, it has unleashed him. He isn’t running up the middle at a bank of defenders now. He has a fullback and maybe a midfielder to beat. And he has playmates in Neymar and Suarez.
Whatever people care to attribute the Messi “return,” such as it is, to, for me it’s easy as pie: he has a coach who understands, and has made him understand the potential that comes from Messi being on the right. If you are an opponent trying to figure out what to do with That Messi, it’s a problem because like his teammates, he’s abnormal in that good way.
There was a passing sequence that occurred on the touch line that will never make a highlight reel as Barça played out of trouble, out of what seemed to be a Manchester City lockdown. But a flick, a backheel and a couple of one touches later, the ball was in the midfield in space, and City was scrambling yet again.
Much is made of style and manner when it comes to Barça. It is often said that the result doesn’t matter as much as the method from which the result was obtained. That is a statement that isn’t malleable. It isn’t a brickbat one time, then the silence of crickets at others. It’s a constant. This 1-0 match was a beatdown. That it could easily have been 6 or 7-0 for better finishing is, for me, immaterial. Barça played an exquisite match against a top-quality opponent in Europe, in a knockout round, and did it with style.
The result became the thing in some quarters, that the result and the match were somehow poor because there wasn’t a gaudy scoreline on the board. For me, that’s in error, as Barça was exquisite in almost completely controlling an opponent. In a Champions League knockout stage. The moment when Messi nutmegged James Milner and danced around him, leaving the opponent on hands and knees, defeated, typified this match overall. But this was having the cake and eating it, too — the result was the proper one, and the team played beautifully in achieving that result.
Manchester City started the match with 5 midfielders, and Barça still bossed the midfield. Manchester City got set pieces, things that used to be the bane of the Barça defense, but this new team is dealing with set pieces calmly and confidently, having only conceded 4 goals via set pieces (and scoring 11, which is also quite new). And this Barça wanted the ball. So when City had it, passes were contested and comfort was rare as the ball was pressed. Neymar fought for balls, Iniesta fought for balls, Jordi Alba went shoulder-to-shoulder with Toure Yaya, and the big man was felled like a giant sequoia.
City didn’t have a chance.
In the strange world of Barça Twitter, people were acting as though they did, as though that team was going to score two goals against Barça, the way it was playing tonight. On the biggest stage in European football, Barça out-everythinged Manchester City, defending Premier League champion. Outran, outfought, outpassed. Except for the penalty, a debatable call, every reasonable scoring chance that City could generate ended at the defense. And the penalty was saved by Ter Stegen. And that was that, because there was a psychological battle that ended with that deft bit of skill from Rakitic.
When Barça scored, City’s mission didn’t change. It still needed two goals. But the demeanor of the players changed. It must have felt to them like they had to score three times, like Barça could scamper about and threaten Joe Hart at will, while City had to walk a tightrope of kicking little feet with a ball that they never really felt in full possession of. It needed two goals, but City might as well have needed 10.
Method. Neymar finished for crap. But his all-pitch game brought to mind Thierry Henry when he was on the team. He ran, passed, stole, recovered, held up play and was an almost constant thorn in the side of City. If you focused on his finishing, you’d say he had a poor match. But the smart money would wager that Enrique pulled him aside and said, “Nice work. Thank you,” because Neymar put out for the colors. He was everywhere at both ends of the pitch. Again, method over results. Yes, he passed when he should have shot, and when he shot he should have done better with his shooting. But the mission that night wasn’t to score 6, but rather to not concede two.
In this, Neymar helped Barça stay on mission just as Iniesta did, in serving as a pit bull.
The Ghostface Iniesta was a spectral virtuoso who almost didn’t seem to exist on the corporeal plane as he danced with the ball. The physical aspects of his game were usually the result of an opponent saying “Enough,” and choosing Iniestabuse. Against Manchester City, time and again, he was fighting in midfield, taking balls back, shoving a foot in, at one moment putting Fernandinho on his butt and immediately rushing over to apologize. He probably sent him a fruit basket after the match with an apology card. “xoxo, Andres.”
The season until now has mostly been a focus on what this Barça is lacking compared to other, more idealized Barça teams. It is only recently that people have begun to notice what this team has, rather than what it lacks. People are beginning to evaluate this Barça in the context of a team that wants to achieve something, and they are liking what they see.
On the outside, all that we can do is speculate. Despite the vehemence of anyone’s assertion, the truly inside, in-the-know crowd is small. Everyone else is trying to read tea leaves. All that we have to go on, really, is competition and how the team comports itself, how it plays, the method that it uses to achieve a desired result. And on a night when a storied former coach was in the stands, this Barça separated itself from his Barça, even as some of the psychological characteristics, most notably the fight and hunger, were present. It was magic and magical, a team effort that for many will be lost in the fairy dust of a great player deciding to have his way with a theoretically powerful opponent.
Barça is a team on a mission. The success of that mission will depend, in the end, on so much, but mostly on the ministrations of a man who, like Rakitic, was in a very different situation last year. But this year, he’s putting the keys in the ignition and taking the wheel of a car, even as he, like us, is probably still not sure how fast this thing can go.