Take what you need, need what you take

In my day job at the Chicago Tribune I often work with our film critic, whom I tease with some regularity about his “job.” “You go to movies and interpret what you saw. That ain’t no job. That’s Saturday night.”

He takes it in good humor because he’s a super-nice guy, and he knows I’m kidding. But I got to thinking about interpretation and seeing what we see when a spate of “We still kinda suck” broke out like a brush fire, in Barça Twitter.

Interpretation is fascinating, because of the different experiences that people bring to a situation. You go to dinner and order a steak, with a salad and steak fries. It comes. You eat it, pay your bill, pat your tummy like a sated bear and drive home.

At the table next to you is a dining critic, who orders the exact same dish. He eats it, and in the weekend paper is a piece about the low-grade dog food that caused you to coo in contentment.

Both perspectives are perfectly valid. In a way, we return to the notion of subjectivity always being right, no matter the view. More interesting to explore is the idea of need, as in what do people need from a thing such as Barça. At its basest level, it’s validation. We follow this team and it wins, therefore we are better than you.

Adding layers of complexity to this is the Internet, with its blogs, comment spaces and social media, where suddenly people who until now were limited to haranguing friends with their views on Messi and how Barça is playing, have a forum. It’s fun, but it’s also the profoundest nonsense that too many take entirely too seriously. The professional journalists are working. Everybody else is just wanking.

But that forum also gives us a textbook example of expectation and how it affects what we see. Take as a for instance, when Barça dismantled Atleti at the Camp Nou. Atleti packed the midfield, ready to do battle there on the traditional battleground upon which football matches are won or lost. The midfield. Like the high ground of war textbooks, to win it is to win everything.

Barça bypassed the midfield. Or did it? Necessity or talented happenstance? Dependent upon what you wanted to see, it was tactical nous that outsmarted an opponent by simply bypassing the midfield, or you sighed into your martini at how Enrique has forsaken the midfield, the thing upon which Barça football is based.

It all depends on what you need from the team. Was Pep Guardiola a genius, or a good-but-lucky coach who parachuted into a team that was primed and ready to explode, a coach who couldn’t continue to get results as his team aged and opponents caught on? What do you need? In a recent poll, 16% of respondents thought that selling Messi was a good idea. So is it that 84% of people want to keep Messi, or 16% are crazy? What do you need from the Messi situation?

To be a football supporter is in many ways a prescription for perpetual unhappiness. A win is never just a win, a loss is never just a loss. Right or wrong ways are always part of the debate, again based on what someone wants to see. There is no right or wrong. When the dining critic says that the meal that you just had sucks, it doesn’t invalidate your perceived quality of said meal, or the satisfaction derived from ingesting it. It’s just another view of the same event. Back when I reviewed concerts, my favorite huffy response began, “I don’t know what show you saw, but … ”

“We won, but they got at our defense way too easily. The keeper had to make three saves. If he doesn’t do that, the match probably has a different outcome. We could easily have lost.”

An attacker is on a break and at the last instant Mascherano wins the ball with a slide tackle. One announcer will say, “Brilliant intervention by Mascherano, to win the ball and stop the attack.” Another announcer will say, “Yet another rash challenge where he dived in at the last. That could have been a penalty.” Funniest of all is that both assessments are right and wrong. They are subjective assessments of a reality. Only Mascherano knows what his intention was, and he ain’t talking about it.

There is a need to have Barça be something, represent something. When Tata Martino’s side beat Rayo 4-0 but lost possession, it was as if the scoreline didn’t matter, as something fundamentally off had occurred: Barça didn’t win possession. It is still, to my view, the absolutely apogee of football navel-gazing taken to its most absurd conclusion, and simultaneously the most flawless example of need-based analysis. But that need had a great many layers, all rooted in an extraordinary stretch of football by an excellent team that won everything.

The biggest flaw of Martino for many is that he wasn’t Pep Guardiola. He didn’t play the Guardiola way because he wasn’t Pep Guardiola. He saw the necessity for playing a different way and tried it, but he wasn’t … you know. So the Rayo match was a win that became a loss because of the need that people have to get something from a situation, so the situation is shaped to meet the need.

Xavi is correct when he says that Barça is neither as good as people say, or as bad as they say. Gary Neville, who has seen and played just a couple of football matches during his time, wrote a piece for the Telegraph that was more of an ode, a sonnet to the beauty of the way Barça played against City. Just the day before a Daily Mail columnist, Jeff Powell, wrote a column that in effect called Messi a flat-track bully beating up on a crap City, a never-will-be who hasn’t won a World Cup and isn’t even as good as Cristiano Ronaldo.

Two very different views of the same match, making it important that we think as much about what we need to see as what we actually “saw.” When Messi nutmegged James Milner, what did it mean except that Messi isn’t getting a holiday card from Milner? Interesting question.

So when people hold forth — including, and especially me — with views on what happened at a Barça match and what they think they might have seen, read it, but whistle the Bullshit Song while you do because again, reality is the scoreline. Everything else is interpretation.

Like legal action against the club, “Hey, wait, this team ain’t all that good” pops up right at the times when supporters are most happy and euphoric, linguistic cold water in giddy faces. “Stop that, fools. Things are far from being that good. Don’t believe results.” There is talk of the Treble, talk of a win on Sunday meaning the league, views that meet a need, in this case anticipation of a good event.

You go on a job interview and you think it went really well. You have your office picked out, and wonder how your first day will be. You’re negotiating salary in your mind, and mapping out the best transportation route to your new place of business. Then one week becomes two and you wonder if they somehow lost your phone number. You call, and hear that the position has been filled. And that’s that. Anticipation of a good event led to misunderstanding what actually happened. Maybe your dazzling answers to interview questions doomed you as too glib. Maybe your resolute, business-like quality was interpreted as being dour and sullen, making you a poor fit to be part of that group.

You will never know, but the need leads to an interpretation of a situation. The players are winning in spite of Enrique, or Enrique has created a situation in which the team can play a new, more dynamic way. Take what you need, just don’t misinterpret that acquisition as something other than what it is: your needs being met.

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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. georgjorge
    March 20, 2015

    I liked what I somehow perceived to be a very well-written article. Thanks Kxevin!

    As someone who sometimes uses constructionist approaches, I think there are some great points here. Football seems to be even more subject to arbitrary ascriptions to real-world phenomena (if such things exist) than other things. I think the huge mass of viewers with relatively little knowledge of the game (I’m not excluding myself here, pity Euler isn’t here to educate me anymore) has to do something with that, and of course the whole thing taking place on the internet (aka one big mob) elevates it.

    Just today, a Chelsea fan wrote on a local forum that “it’s a shame Chelsea lost to PSG because Chelsea would have won against Barca rather easily”. You can’t really argue with that kind of statement even if it seems ridiculous by intuition. Or maybe you could – some people go all the way in order to disprove points like this with elaborate statistics and whatnot, but I like to relax when dealing with football, and the point likely would have been lost him anyway.

    • March 20, 2015

      It seems to me EPL football has become a contest of running, with skill, passing and vision coming a very distant fifth, sixth and seventh.

      Back in 2011 when I started watching educational football videos featuring small kids being trained at United or videos of Beckham’s academy, there was one thing which stuck in my mind, a response by a seven-year old kid from United’s academy. The question was “Why do we need skills like the step-over, the Cruyff turn, etc?”

      The answer by that kid was simple: “For when we don’t have someone to pass to.”

      Think about that. Let it sink. Now if you look at EPL matches, look at how often you see a player pass as opposed to a player keep the ball and run with it until he’s robbed of it or he tries to pass inaccurately and has his pass intercepted. Chaos, roaring fans, kicking of the ball and lots and lots of running.

      To paraphrase a French General watching the Charge of the Light Brigade “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas le football. C’est de la folie.” (It’s magnificent, but that’s not football. It’s madness.)

  2. luisthebeast
    March 20, 2015

    About the draw:We will win both games.I dont afraid PSG.They are a good team but we are a much better team.Are we a perfect team?No.But there are not perfect teams.Bayern or Real are very good but far from perfect.I remember not a long time ago a team with Ronaldo Zidane Figo Beckham R carlos e.t.c coming to Camp Nou and our team won 3-0 playing beautiful football.And guess what!! We had not better players than we have now!We are one of The 5 best teams in the world.To win CL we will need hard work and luck.The same luck that the last 3 CL winners had.So we trust the team and have faith.

  3. Inamess
    March 20, 2015

    Interesting piece! The problem with football is it is the sport in which analysis and predictions are least helpful. A team can play extremely well and lose or really poorly and win. Which leads, of course, to that dirty word that we all try to avoid: Luck. With this in mind here are a few points and questions:

    1) Why is there this convention after a game that the outcome was an inevitable result of superior tactics and one coach out-thinking the other. One off-side call at the wrong time or one lucky bounce can often decide a match. If football is 50% luck then having Messi on the pitch or Courtois in goal is the only way to make sure your team gets as much out of the other 50%.

    2) Why is there this annoying convention that if a player has a good or bad game then fans of that player somehow see that performance as consummate proof that every good opinion they had about that player is right and everyone who had the nerve to doubt that players abilities is an idiot? It seems reasonable to talk about a player being in good form or having an excellent season, but one game usually proves nothing. Even the best players only have great games about half of the time.

    3) One of the reasons that Barca fans may still be so infatuated with Guardiola’s Barcelona, aside from its aesthetic appeal, is that it seemed to take out so much of the luck factor. If we don’t lose possession then the other team can’t score. If our passing is crisp enough, we can get the ball to Messi in a good position so he can dribble around three defenders and then put the ball two inches inside of the post and into the net. The only problem, of course, is that despite this ideal, there can always be an Inter or a Chelsea to burst your bubble and remind us of the role of luck.

    4) So that leads to the present incarnation of Barcelona. A team with the greatest forward line ever assembled, a still unproven coach, and some good but controversial players such as Rakitic, Mathieu, Mascherano, and now Alves whose skills and talents are not of La Masia and whose imperfections make them just as likely to be goats as heroes. And yet if we win on Sunday, this team is good enough to be well on its way towards that elusive and improbable Treble. All we need is a bit of luck!

    • georgjorge
      March 21, 2015

      Regarding your first point, I don’t think I would watch football anymore if it was 50 percent luck. It’s true that in very tight games one bad decision can make a difference, but I don’t think there are many games that are that tight. You could say that a wrong offside call decided a game if each team only had two or three chances, but usually there are much more, and then it becomes a matter of who is better at finishing them off/better at defending them, something which doesn’t necessarily have much to do with luck.

      I think that as fans of Barca we are especially prone to blame luck on defeats – after all, why else would we lose when we dominated possession and created many chances? But finishing chances and defending against counterattacks/set pieces are equally parts of the game, and being worse than the opposition at these parts (as previous incarnations of the team were) can lead to defeats without much luck being involved.

      I think you’re dead on with your third point though, and it’s also the reason why Barca was hated in certain parts with such passion. For many, football is about spectacle and fighting (as Peter mentioned about the Premier League). The ball goes from one end of the pitch to the other, players run their lungs out while scrambling for the ball etc. It’s exciting. Barca – for a short time – did away with that. It always attempted to destroy that kind of match and put in its place calm, clean, sterile (some might say) passing, over and over again. Control instead of excitement – and certainty instead of uncertainty. After all, it’s rather clear who is going to win if only one team has the ball. I’m taking things to the extreme here, but I think it’s the underlying philosophy of that Barca even more than their practical playing that angered many fans so much.

  4. luisthebeast
    March 20, 2015

    We know that after we will beat madrid,some fans will say:Yeah but wait until we play Bayern..For me there are 11 finals remaining in La Liga and i want this trophy so bad.I know i belong to the minority who believe that the most important trophy is the Championship.You play 38 games and you must win almost every game.I was so sad in 2007 when we lost the trophy despite we had the same points with madrid,more wins and more goals scored.And last year a goal that was cancelled,in my opinion a bad call.The CL is a different story.If u have luck in draw,if u have an easy league to play,if u quite your league games like madrid last year u have the best chances.Barca won CL 3 times the last decade and the same year won LA LIGA.That was HUGE.IF we win La liga and the CDR i will be so happy!!

    • Shaco
      March 21, 2015

      Refreshing to see someone ware of the disallowed goal against Altetico. It wasn’t given much attention because neutrals wanted Atletico to win and it was a great day for them. But really, that wrong decision likely cost us the league, imagine it was the other way around and Atletico were disallowed a goal.

  5. luisthebeast
    March 20, 2015

    My point is this:Bayern faced in the groups City Roma and Csska.Then they had almost a month winter break.Then they faced Shaktar and now Porto.In Bundesliga they are champions from the summer.So they will walk to semifinals without to face a top team,with a winter break and with a huge lead so they can rotate whenever they want.I am sorry but if we had the same conditions i am sure we would walk to the final….

    • Inamess
      March 21, 2015

      Good Points Luis! Bayern has become the Bundesliga All-Star team by acquiring their rivals best players and now it looks like they will walk their way to the semi-finals. I hope Pep enjoyed his Spanish vacation. Now he can go and scout Porto and meticulously overprepare his juggernaut for the next three weeks on ways to contain Tello.

      All things considered, our team has been the most fun to follow this year with good competition in all three competition with an interesting “mini-crisis” thrown in for good measure. If we can win on Sunday then we will be in great shape and RM on the ropes.

  6. barca96
    March 21, 2015

    Haven’t had time to read it yet, will do later in the day but I am sure it’s another masterpiece. Wanted to share Ray’s first visit to Camp Nou;

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z94863fDclE

  7. March 21, 2015

    I couldnt believe how Gary Neville was heaping super duper praise on us and Messi. Finally, he seems to have taken the courage to come out in the open that EPL is poor in quality.

  8. Davour
    March 21, 2015

    Bias is a funny thing; when powerful, it really stops you from arriving at a balanced position. Me, I can’t help being annoyed when people do not appreciate Messi’s greatness (despite being a trained academic, I simply can’t be that open-minded…). It’s like when I read a piece claiming Martin Amis was a greater writer than JM Coetzee, because the latter lacks humor. Preposterous, in my opinion.
    However, when claiming that Ronaldo helped his team more during the WC than did Messi, well… then I feel it is simply a case of an unsupported claim. Not including Messi on the list of the 5 all-time greats simply because he has not won the WC (he was runner-up!) is, to my mind, blatantly narrow-minded. It seems, though, that this preference for CR always, bar EE-fans, comes form Britain. How can that be…
    But this is, of course, all bias…

    • Jim
      March 21, 2015

      Shouldn’t get to worked up about that column. The guy is a boxing reporter for goodness’ sake.

    • Jim
      March 21, 2015

      Too…

    • ciaran
      March 21, 2015

      My thoughts on the situation are simple, if you can’t see the difference in quality between Messi and Ronaldo then there’s no hope for you

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