This is the part where the joy dissipates into a blizzard of muttering, whining and beating on unfavored whipping boys. But I am impatient with that kind of stuff, so permit me to present a wee bit of perspective at the end of a fascinating, tiring, fraught day.
As one of my favorite Twitter accounts posted, Classics are to be endured, rather than enjoyed. If you are a supporter, you don’t enjoy them. You can’t. There’s just too much in it. You fret, you scream, you pace, you sweat, the anguish is almost a palpable thing in the room. But this was an extraordinary match for so many reasons.
This was really a tale of two matches and two very different sets of tactics. Barça started out the match in the wide-open, let’s do this style that lets Messi, Neymar and Suarez do their thing. The danger in that approach, however, was multifaceted. That style of play takes a lot of energy, because there is a lot of running. Spaces are bigger, passes are longer, runs are more constant. The sharpness and awareness necessitated by this style means that if any part of the machine isn’t at all sharp, things are going to look a mess.
The other problem is that RM is set up to play excellently against that kind of a style. They love open spaces, love a midfield that is subordinate to the forwards, really existing just to feed the ball forward. You press the forwards, cut off the passing angles and their greyhounds are off and running.
In the first 20 minutes of the match it was all working, even with a subdued Messi and a rootless Suarez. Neymar was pretty much still off form, showing flashes of quality that ultimately fizzled, and things were pretty clunky but still, the match was in control. Then came the mother of all set pieces as Mathieu headed home, and suddenly there was a 1-0 lead, an advantage accompanied by a massive exhale, with the Ronaldo shot that clanged off the underside of the crossbar and out, still fresh in our minds.
Then after a brilliant sequence of play, Neymar found himself all alone with the ball and Casillas, and he pranged it off his knee directly into the arms of a waiting Casillas. Shortly thereafter it was 1-1, thanks to a piece of exquisite football from Benzema. People will lash out at various folks for losing men, etc, etc, but you just can’t account for that kind of assist or footballing quality. As I noted in the preview, form goes out the window when you have players who can do exceptional stuff. Ronaldo kept running, figuring maybe, just maybe … and damned if Benzema didn’t get him the ball.
Most interesting is the effect that the Neymar miss seemed to have on both teams. RM suddenly puffed out their chests and got on the front foot as Barça relied upon a different kind of individual excellence in the form of that poker-playing, pop star-loving playboy, Gerard Pique, who just happens to at the moment be playing football better than any CB that I can think of. He broke up play after play and chance after chance, emerging from the fray with his hair unmussed and that “next Puyol” potential still waiting in the wings like the echo of a word yet to be spoken. He was a battleship that, along with luck, kept Barça in that first half.
When Bale pushed his shot wide with the net and Bravo at his mercy, it’s doubtful that a culer complained when Lahoz didn’t add any extra time. Get to the locker room, chug some Red Bulls and let’s do this.
On Barça Twitter and in this space, it was a mess of accusations, from “We’re doomed,” to “Told you so,” “How can you create without a midfield,” etc, etc. Memories are short in football, so the dismantling of Atleti without even bothering with a midfield is already lost to the sands of time. The difference in that match, however, was that the front three were rampant and rapacious, full of energy and danger as Barça bypassed the midfield.
Some will suggest that a strong midfield will catch this Barça out. I would suggest that while one of today’s combatants was fighting tooth and nail on Wednesday, running, pressing and being physical in a Champions League tie, the other was sitting at home, sipping libations and watching on television, relishing the moment in today’s match when the opponent’s energy began to wane and they could slip the knife in. It almost happened. Exactly why it didn’t is something that great minds will have to figure out. It’s more complex than “Bale choked.”
And favorite whipping boys aside, almost the whole team looked flat in that first half. Thankfully, Pique and Bravo didn’t. Mathieu was also exceptional as he not only scored the lead goal, but broke up attacks and set pieces.
The questions that I had at the half were, simply enough, would Messi wake up and what kind of individual excellence was going to decide this match.
People are and will offer all kinds of excuses for Messi, tactics this, isolated that. If Messi decides to be unplayable, he will be. He doesn’t need any help, or anything when he gets in that mood, as he was against Atleti at Camp Nou, and Manchester City. When he isn’t in that mood, it doesn’t really matter who is doing what. He isn’t in that mood and it’s as simple as that. Supporters can’t have it both ways. He can’t be an uncontrollable force of nature one week, then subject to the whims of coaching error or tactical missteps the next. Like any great player, he decides how his match is going to go, and I can only speculate that he figured he had one good half of football in him, and would make it the second.
In that second half, Barça looked different. The team wasn’t only on the front foot, but Messi was suddenly awake, running, passing, setting up teammates and raising the kind of hell that many had been expecting. Tactics, shmactics. He decided it was time, and time it was as he swiveled, ran, evaded, nutmegged and made a general nuisance of himself. This not only put RM’s midfield on the back foot but it made their defense tentative, which created passing spaces as they sat back more rather than pressing up.
Seems simple enough when you really think about it, that one player could completely change how a match would proceed, but that is essentially what happened. Spaces also tightened up as the adjustment was made to remove the possibility of playing the kind of match that RM wanted to play. If they got possession, rather than winning it in the midfield it would be in their end, where it would take 4 or 5 passes to get at the Barça back line rather than 2 or 3.
Tactical fouling from both sides reared its head as players were willing to do pretty much anything to stop the other team, from sticking out a leg to hip and shoulder checks. Time passed, and the rampant RM of the last 15 minutes of the first half was a more tentative bunch as Messi made run after run, controlling and pulling strings as everyone moved around him.
The biggest beneficiary of this resurgent Messi was Neymar, who found himself making those shambling, darting runs of his at defenders who were suddenly a bit more tentative at the prospect of an active Messi, and Suarez lurking around. That Neymar should have had a hat trick needs to be said. But to lambast him and him alone wouldn’t be entirely fair, even as I am sure that people will. Should he have put the match away? You bet. But you know what? Everyone has those kinds of matches. When Suarez had them, it was “He will come good.” Neymar was scoring for fun in the first two thirds of the season, and will come good because that’s what players do. Let him be. He already knows that he owes us some goals.
Then came the moment that completely changed the match, a vindication of the new Enrique system, irrespective of how someone might feel about it, and the exact thing that Barça paid 82m for. Alves unleashed a bomb of a pass, call it long ball all you like, but it found Suarez in stride. After a pillow-soft first touch, he allowed the defenders and Casillas to move with him, all thinking of protecting the near post before sliding a shot that seemed to take forever to roll past Casillas and nestle into the far corner.
You have read in this space before about moments made possible solely by the expanded possibilities of a great talent. That goal was that. It was a pure striker’s goal, and a goal that very few players in the world would have even dared to try, let alone make. Consider the moment. It’s the second half of a colossal match, and the score is tied. And you score a goal like that. Could Casillas have done better? Maybe in a different lifetime. It’s about possibilities and percentages. 99.9% of strikers don’t have the skill set to stretch out time with an absurd first touch, or the audacity to go for the improbable. Most strikers control the ball, then try to blast it past on the near side. It was, simply put, an absurd goal that bookended the brilliance of Benzema’s assist. That kind of stuff happens when you have that kind of talent on the pitch.
And then, with the lead, Enrique made three substitutions that turned back the clock as Barça decided it was time for old school football. Xavi, Busquets and eventually Rafinha entered the match. Alves moved closed to Messi, Xavi probed the midfield as he used to and Busquets was the rhythm section. Suddenly, where in the first half Kroos, Modric and Isco were getting the ball and controlling play, RM wasn’t getting a sniff of it as it pinged around a midfield that must have brought back less-than-fond memories for those who remember the Guardiola days.
Time passed and passing numbers built along with possession percentage. In the Classic preview I mentioned possession without control. This was possession with full and complete control, and it was precisely the kind of match that the team needed to play to neutralize an opponent capable of defeating it.
For those seeking a sign of the pragmatism of Enrique, look no farther than this second half as he embraced a style that many suggested he kicked to the curb in his frenzy to hand the keys over to an attacking trio. This win was a combination of his way and the Barça way of recent tradition, an acceptance that if you have the personnel to see out a match and a team that doesn’t have the energy levels to do it the preferred way, coupled with an opponent who is ready to run and gun, possession football is the answer.
What we should take a moment to appreciate is that for all of the cries that Enrique has an ego that is too big to allow him to work successfully with this team, etc, etc, that second half showed that like most pragmatists, ego is subordinate to effectiveness. Enrique doesn’t really care how the team wins. Whether that makes him a hypocrite, or an impure apostle unsuited to the a Keeper of the Way is for others to debate. But that pragmatism lies at the core of the malleability that enabled a successful result today.
Was there some luck involved? Damn right. Good and bad, for both teams. Ronaldo hit the crossbar. Bale pushed his shot wide. Neymar screwed the pooch 3 times. Messi shot it right at Casillas. Stuff happens. At the end of it all, there is subjective assessment and objective reality. The former is that a tired team found a way to beat a fresher opponent, and the notions about how that happened are above. The objective realities are that Barça won, 2-1 at home, and now have a 4-point lead atop the Liga table.
And sometimes, that’s all there is.