It had to be you / It had to be youuuuu …
It is hard to think of a more extraordinary short stretch of time in recent Barça history: beating Bayern, beating La Real and Valencia drawing RM. Revenge in the first two cases, psychic revenge in the last as our two wins over them compare to a loss and a draw for RM.
And today, of course, dispatching the team that was the catalyst for Armageddon.
What a week. And fittingly perhaps, in a way that feels so appropriate in this crazy quilt of a season, the man who scored a magnificent golazo to seal the deal today, Mr. Maligned himself, Pedro.
It’s difficult to consider sentiment when there are still titles to be fought for, but two magnificent players might have been applauded off by the home crowd for the last time in the Camp Nou. If we are to believe rumors, Xavi and Pedro are both moving on in the summer, one to a fat payday in Qatar, the other to goals and glory in the Premiership. Both picked an excellent way to say farewell if so, Xavi with a starting stint that found him turning back the hands of time against the exact team his skills dazzle against, and Pedro coming on late, to do what he does.
There is one play in the match that typifies Xavi’s performance today. He rolled up the sideline with the ball, fouled by one La Real player, shouldered by another, fouled by yet another as through it all he not only retained possession, but at the end of his battering did what he always does: make the next pass. He didn’t complain, didn’t whine or fall down, because there was work to be done.
It was no surprise when La Real came out today with 10 behind the ball. And if there is a player in world football who you would rather have pulling the strings for your team when facing a bus, it is Xavi. He unerringly picked out pass after pass, helping created chance after chance, opportunities done and undone by beautiful football concluded by slack finishing.
The team could be forgiven for lacking that last little bit of edge that makes it so clinical. The match after a huge European date is always the one that catches the top teams out. Barça was lucky enough to have La Real at home, a date against an opponent who would be coming in with the sole ambition of taking a point. It made the match easy, and meant that the team could find its way in, seeking that little bit of quality at the right time, chipping away at the lock via attack after attack that wore down the legs of the La Real defenders.
Through it all, until he was subbed off for Iniesta (and a subsequent loss of control), was Xavi. If this was to be his last home match at the Camp Nou, this was a fitting one.
That the comfort-giving goal was scored by Pedro, for the two fans of his sitting in the corner wearing party hats, was wonderful. All this season, Pedro has been that guy. Worthless this, incapable of that. Pointing out that his job had changed, that he was doing what the team and his coach needed mattered not. Pedro sucked for too many culers because he wasn’t doing what he used to do, in very different times for a very different team.
But Pedro doesn’t care, because he understands his role. When he came on, he immediately set about doing what he does. He ran, made the right pass, facilitated control and defended like a demon. Then he capped it off with an overhead kick for the ages, because it came at a time when La Real was having possession, winding the culer doom and gloom clock ever tighter as fevered minds began to construct scenarios in which they could, and would, equalize the match.
And then came Pedro, with a staggering goal off of a deflection in the La Real box. Most overheads come from chest control, so the player is in effect, setting himself up. Pedro’s came off a defender, a less predictable ball that he nonetheless crushed, beating a keeper who was having an excellent match. The Camp Nou screamed, my Twitter timeline filled with Pedro! and for a bit of time, all of the bleating about his inadequacy and being terrible was forgotten. The pressure relief was immediate and almost explosive.
The odd thing about the match is that the typical culer pessimism felt almost rote, like a reflex action, a ghost movement performed because that is how it has always been. Because there is a control about this team that hasn’t been present for some time. The team is very level. In this space, it was noted a while ago that Barça was taking on the personality of its coach. That it has done this in a single season is a remarkable thing. But in addition to the toughness, the mental and physical drive that makes this team flush with the stuff of champions, there is an even keel to this group. Just as its coach stands on the sidelines and does his thing, so does his team. There are highs and lows, but they aren’t stratospheric nor subterranean. They are ups and downs that seem almost planned.
Recall when Enrique said that the Anoeta result was just part of the stuff that goes on in a season. That it is, isn’t the point. That he understands, said and almost seemed to account for such an occurrence is the noteworthy thing. Last season, late into a match, Barça lost its way, began to panic and players tried individual stuff to prise open an opponent. This year, it’s the system. The players keep doing what they are supposed to do, in full confidence that if they do that, results will come. That confidence comes from the coach.
Enrique has repeatedly this season lauded his players’ professionalism, a word that means more than showing up and getting the job done. It’s a mental attitude, a confidence that if I give of my best, so will the man next to me, and the man next to him. If we all do this, even if one of us might not be on form, the collective will raise us up. The assists, the passes, the generosity stems from this, the confidence that professionals have in one another. Two plus two equals four. It’s just how it is. And a player thinks, “If I make this pass, I believe this will happen, because of the player I am passing the ball to.”
It’s easy to play well when you have full confidence in the professionals you are playing with. Combine that with a coach who is working out a way that everyone can more effectively give of their best, and it isn’t all that difficult to understand why the team’s attitude is great, why it is playing exceptional, selfless football. It isn’t that everything being right dissipates adversity. It’s that attitude leads to everything being right, and the rest will follow.
The strange irony is that in a season that people have carped about individual brilliance. this has been a team effort as everyone gives for everyone. In the 89th minute of a 2-0 match at home, Mascherano came flying up from the back line to dive bomb a defensive header. Why? Because that is what you do, and there isn’t even a question of doing anything else. That’s professionalism, and that’s what this team has. And from professionalism comes confidence. So they don’t panic. They just get stuff done.
This brings us back to Pedro and Xavi, avatars of exemplary professionalism. No “Play me or I am gone,” no rumors about buyout clauses being activated, just a full commitment to the team, a thing that is returned by their teammates. In today’s match, Neymar knew that possession was worth more than any dead ball, so he raced over to the right sideline to save a ball that was going out into touch. He somehow ran the ball down, stopped it dead by standing on it, whirled away and possession continued for Barça. It was a magnificent play that depicts hunger and professionalism.
Another example is the Neymar goal, the match winning tally. He made a speculative run based on nothing more than the necessity of doing the right thing. “What if the ball comes loose?” “What if a teammate can make a play to the back post?” So when the deflection came off a La Real player, Neymar was right there, already on the move, to head home.
Did Enrique have to say “Run, you bastards, run!” as Pep Guardiola did? Probably not. We can only guess, but it’s easy to envision him saying “If we do what we are supposed to do, we will have success.” It’s pragmatic, and logical. It’s also something that is said by every coach to his team. The difference is that Enrique might have said it to Messi, Neymar, Suarez, Busquets, Iniesta, etc, etc. They have the talent to make that bit of pragmatism real.
Both Barça goals today were “ugly” goals, tallies that didn’t come from the run of play but rather from the detritus of a defensive effort. They tried, but they couldn’t do it. Clearance attempts became goals in a scythe-like, clinical fashion. “You were sloppy, I wasn’t.”
Belief is an extravagance rooted in execution. Players from lesser teams don’t continue a run too long or delay the pass solely because they aren’t as good as the players on the top teams. It’s the doubt. Messi believes. Neymar believes. Xavi believes. As a consequence, through all of the crises real or imagined, through everything that the entorno has done and tried to do, everything in the world of 23 players comes down to one thing: the team.
What made today’s match so special was not only what transpired later in the day, but that the team did what it had to. How easy would it have been to say, “it’s going to be one of those days,” and not keep running, keep making the effort. Barça did what it had to do. That’s what a professional does. As long as you do what you have to do, what anyone else doesn’t matter. Valencia taking points from RM was a luxury, but the accompanying sighs of relief were more from supporters who want breathing room. It’s easy to get the sense that the team doesn’t really need any breathing room, that it understands what it needs to do, just as it has all season, and sees no impediment to that successful task.
What will happen with the rest of this season is still uncertain. The true culer, a pessimist to his soul, sees a Bayern remuntada, a loss to Atleti and a draw to Deportivo at home, as RM win out and take the Liga on the head-to-head tiebreaker as a four-point lead dissipates. The team doesn’t see those possibilities, because supporters can’t know, don’t see what players see. We believe in our team, but it’s nothing like the belief that professionals of the highest quality have in each other. How far that belief takes them is, as and true pro would want it, up to them.