In the wake of a match that leaves bloggers struggling with a suitable subject, culers come through for us all:
The second half.
In many ways, the return leg of the tie with Bayern Munich was a complex one for Barça supporters, because it represented so many conflicting feelings:
— Romance vs pragmatism
— The coach we have vs the coach so many still pine over
— A rival that gave us a beating, and a “need” to return the favor
— A fan base’s need for bragging and affirmation
There is so much analysis, so much worrying, so much talking about the now-legendary Second Half, which really does deserve upper case letters, such is its immediate legend status among culers. But let’s dispense with that good stuff, so that we can get to the bad and the worrying.
FC Barcelona is in the Champions League final. It is there because it was the better team over two legs than Bayern Munich. It won the aggregate scoreline and was a superior team in very crucial ways that underscored its current status, on form and despite what too many of its supporters say, as best team in Europe.
Bayern came out fighting in that return leg, as a home team is supposed to do for its fans. Its first goal came from a truly woeful piece of set piece defending, and one that I am sure Unzue and Enrique will be working to resolve in subsequent trainings, not that they really need to because it came down to concentration. Focus is crucial, and it’s pretty hard to focus fully, no matter a team’s intentions, when they are playing a dead rubber.
So Benatia got to head home, unmarked thanks to Busquets, and the Bayern crowd got to scream, chant and sing. But then Barça focused, and began to play its game. In that game, possession built and triangles moved the ball around, probing just as Bayern probed, rather than the one-sided notions that many seem to have. And then Barça stepped on the gas.
What’s funny is that English commentators almost always put Barça goals at the feet of “woeful defending,” which is their favorite phrase. But if you look at both goals, they did exactly what an intelligent opponent is supposed to do, which is take advantage of a weakness. Bayern played as it always does, played in a way that effectively had the Bundesliga over by mid-season: pressing, and with a high defensive line. What made the two Barça goals different for Bayern is that three of the best attackers in the world were facing that defense.
On the first goal, Messi laced an absurd pass to Suarez, a pass that wasn’t credited because it’s easy for commentators during a match to cite “woeful defending,” probably because of a narrative that makes it easier to take credit than give it, much like supporters. So instead of “Holy Jesus what a pass!” deficiencies need to exist, so allow me to say it: “Holy Jesus what a pass!”
It was also a pass that, as it found Luis Suarez, the most lethal 9 in the game for goals and exposed necks, caused the defense to immediately think “Holy crap, what about this stuff here!” A defense has the task of putting out the fire that is facing it. Neymar intelligently made the darting run into the exposed space, taking advantage of having jettisoned his marker, and slotted home. It was an easy goal that was facilitated by a pass that few players in world football can make, thus making a defense look “woeful.”
The second goal was even more absurd as Bayern, again playing a high line, once again had a loose ball fall to Messi. Of all the players in football who you want to have the ball in time and space as a defensive coach, there is one you absolutely DO NOT WANT. That player is Messi. He casually flicked a backward header to Suarez, who was already running because he knew. The hours and hours of training, the anticipation that comes from playing with great players, made him know. And he ran for a ball that once again, found him in stride. And once again, Neymar jettisoned his marker, but had a little bit more to do this time.
Manuel Neuer is the best goalkeeper in the world. But for all of the talk about how a keeper should never be beaten on his near side, he was facing Neymar, who had the ball in space with all kinds of shooting angles from a curler into the corner to a blast across the face of goal. Hell, Neymar could even have run at Neuer, faked him out and slotted home. In the instant of contemplative paralysis that defines such a match moment, Neymar saw his opening and blasted home to the near side, a shot with enough power and pace to leave Neuer helpless. It was a quality finish that wasn’t as easy as it looked.
Now, whether those were two instances of “woeful defending” or three amazing players doing what they do will depend on worldview and desired narrative. All season, people have been seeing what they want to in this Barça. Reassuringly, it has a coach, a coaching staff and players who give exactly zero craps about any of that stuff. So people can say what they like, and have fun doing it. Meanwhile, Barça is making Berlin hotel reservations.
If you are the more prevalent culer, you will say that “Bayern outplayed us for most of the two legs, as we didn’t have an answer for …” If you have a sense of what this team has been doing all season, and the pragmatism that has governed its behavior, you understand that this team will never, ever win by a mile when all it needs to win by is an inch, that it is wholly unconcerned with the natterings of an entorno that assesses every pass, every glance, every haircut and conspires to find it all wanting in some way. And it is unconcerned with all of that because it is too busy winning.
The net effect that those two goals had, at the nexus of a stretch of play in which Barça raised its game and imposed its will, is that they ended the tie. If, at the moment of the second goal the match was stopped and the players were asked if they would rather continue, or go have dinner together and get hotel advice from the German players, they would have chosen the latter. Because really, all that could happen from that point is undesirable, namely in the form of injury. Everything that happened after Neymar bashed that second goal past Neuer was irrelevant. Barça played well enough to not concede another in the first half, with immense thanks to a world-beating performance by Ter Stegen, another transfer success of the folks who are inept at making transfers, and that was that.
But there was a Second Half to be played, and it is here where the contention comes from a team that is so many things to so many people. Bayern won the match 3-2, but lost the tie. Many culers wanted destruction, revenge for the 7-0 aggregate shelling at the hands of a different coach, with many different players. They wanted the bragging rights, the satisfaction that lets supporters live vicariously through their heroes, who don’t care all that much about such needs. And there was dissatisfaction.
There was dissatisfaction with the loss, joylessness in the way Bayern scored three goals. THREE GOALS!!!! That it scored those goals against a team that was effectively doing Sudoku puzzles while walking around is immaterial. But here is something else to consider for a team that can’t win for losing among portions of its fanbase, mostly because it has the difficulty of being run by the wrong man:
What if Barça had gone all out, hell-bent on destruction, and wore itself out to the extent that it was toothless and pillow-soft against Atleti on the weekend. What if, in wanting to stamp a mark for eternity on a dead rubber, it cost itself the chance to win the league in the house of the opponent who won the league in their house last season?
The answer is clear, of course: “Stupid Enrique, running the score up against Bayern when he should have been worried about Atleti!”
So the team trapped between a rock and hard place of perception, did what it had to do and what it should have done, which was play so as not to give up 6 goals, because it has a big match coming up, a match that wasn’t already decided.
All the rest is for bench racing.
In the days when the right coach was running Barça, the guy who is now running the team defeated by Barça, his first legs were invariably pragmatic affairs, history tells us. It was smart, because you always want to win the tie in the deciding leg, doing enough in the first leg to ensure that the tie is winnable. It was smart, and tactical.
This Barça is different, because its coach is different, in the ways outlined above. The smart culer would also be willing to bet his house on the fact that Guardiola takes exactly zero satisfaction from his team winning that match, because he and the players knew exactly how hard Barça was putting out, that all they did was win a practice scrimmage against a team thinking more about its next big match.
So, to put that Second Half into perspective: It was meaningless. There are no inferences to be drawn from it, no tactical dissertations to be written about it, no conclusions to be drawn about unfavored players. It was an exercise in playing out the remaining time. Bayern fans will say that their team won, that if only they Barç hadn’t scored three at home, Bayern would have been right there. Those same fans will forget the times Barça was focused with full concentration, and could score almost at will, because fanbases need to forget that stuff so they can feel better about things.
The other fanbase needs to feel better about things in its own way, a way that too often rips at the hide of a team that is having success but going about it the wrong way. That doesn’t make anyone right or wrong. It just makes them part of the most demanding fan base on the planet. And to be sure, there is no romance in pragmatism, nothing that will inspire sonnets. Accountants don’t finish a complex tax return, slam the lid on the laptop and do a celebration dance. That’s their job. On to the next task.
Enrique has this team grounded. As Mascherano said, three matches for everything, or three matches for nothing. That is the sense that this team has, this bunch of elegant, cutthroat pragmatists. Its next match is against Atleti. Win that match, and the last home match against Deportivo, a team that might already know its relegation fate by then, will be one for the Babies and subs. That means rest for the next two big matches, which means no injury risk, etc, etc. And if all of that meant winning by losing, okay. Because you can’t win them all, and history doesn’t record style points, only wins. And Barça won. In a world in which everything is impossible, it is also pragmatic to accept what matters most.