Anyone looking to understand the success of this FC Barcelona season really only need pay attention to about two minutes of the Copa final to understand, even in a match filled with such moments.
At 0-1 down, Athletic began to play with more urgency. They pressed, they got the ball into the Barça end. But just when the announcer said Athletic was getting into it Barça pressed back, bullying Athletic back into their end. They then pressed the ball free, played a series of exquisite one touches and it was 0-2.
Barça plays football that seems almost telepathic. Other teams train as hard, work on possession and all of the same stuff that Barça does in its trainings. Other teams work on fitness, do all of the same things. There is talk of triangles, but every team in top-flight club football will manifest triangles at some point. So what is it about the automatic behaviors, the knowledge of self and teammates that makes these things, when applied by Barça, unstoppable? Knowledge is power, naturally. But in the right hands, knowledge is unstoppable. Yet part of knowledge is belief.
When Barça went out in the Champions League semis to Chelsea in part thanks to appalling finishing, I noted in my match review that Chelsea was defending so well and so physically, they made panic set in. Calm players became rushed because a challenge was always expected. Time was pressing.
Strong teams put a timer on you that is as much psychological as real. When Messi scored a goal like he did, Athletic worried about when it would happen again. You are facing a team that is fitter, runs more, moves better, is more technically skilled and completely unselfish. It’s also a team whose default setting is to keep the ball. You forget that the goal was a bolt out of blue. The guy who is struck by lightning, instead of thinking “TWICE in a lifetime? Sheeeit,” heads for home when the skies cloud over. It’s suddenly all that he can think about.
Athletic is stressed, Barça is calm, considered and understanding of the necessity of possession. Neymar takes a pass, feints, surveys and seeing nothing, passes back to Busquets for the reset. And it starts again. The sequence I refer to at the beginning of this post is an extraordinary thing, that bears an in-depth dissection.
34:27: Mikel Rico worked the ball loose from Alves. They made some passes, applied a bit of pressure.
34:44 A brilliant bit of influence play from Busquets forces Athletic to pass back into their end. When that happens the Barça back four is sprinting forward as is the entire team. They already know. The ball is where they want it now, in the opponent half.
More crucially, Athletic players are walking or trotting while Barça players are running. And it isn’t even halftime.
The Athletic keeper punts it long. Alves controls and at 34:52, not even 30 seconds after Athletic had life, Barça was back on the attack.
35:55 The ball is in the back of the Athletic net.
One of the keys to that goal happened about 40 seconds before the goal was scored. Jordi Alba was on the sideline, being charged by a pair of Athletic defenders. Neymar runs in to provide an option and as quickly as he gets the pass taps it to Iniesta, who is already off and running into a gaping hole on the Athletic wing. Panic.
“Always options,” said the matchcaster, which is exactly the point. Then as now, it is crucial to always have a safe haven for the ball. Pam! Pam! Pam! A trio of Alves, Rakitic and Messi ping-ponged the ball into the box. When Rakitic played the pass to Suarez, you can see Messi looking at the linesman in case there is an offside flag. He knows. Rakitic, when the pass is slid to Neymar, is already celebrating. He knows.
Pity the Athletic keeper. Messi, Suarez, Rakitic and Neymar are running at you, and your defenders are mostly behind them.
Craig Burley, the ESPN color commentator, said “In terms of football, in terms of soccer, in terms of quality, it doesn’t get much better than what we’ve been seeing.
“And that’s the thing about this Barcelona front three they’re full of big egos, they’re full of quality, they’re full of stars, but they’re unselfish. They’re team players, and that’s why it works.”
Suarez looked up and fed Neymar for the sure thing. Neymar made a remarkable run in and across the box, looking to pass all the time. For the second goal, Suarez could have taken the shot with a reasonable degree of confidence but the keeper was facing him, waiting. You never know. Slide the ball to Neymar, and you DO know. Rakitic also had the open net. He saw Neymar coming, and he knew. Everyone knows.
When Pep Guardiola assumed the reins at Barça he famously said “Run, you bastards, run!” It is not known what Enrique said, but a safe bet is that it was “Play as a TEAM, and we will win.” It’s a batch of the best players in the game, sacrificing for each other and the team. No idea how you beat that.
Every player has a tendency. A striker in the box can be played to shoot, because that’s what strikers do. With Barça, the other two superstars are bursting their lungs to get into position, to provide options and suddenly the defenders have no idea. Messi, Suarez, Neymar … um … Sacrifice is an extraordinary thing. The run, the extra pass. Everybody is, suddenly, Xavi.
At the opening of the second half, Messi is smiling and laughing. He knows. The confetti was ready, the families were on hand, the banners were ready. Yes, teams plan celebrations all the time, then have to put the things in storage for a time, possibly forever. Did Athletic have their celebration stuff all ready? Good question, but as they lined up to face a nasty footballing side at the peak of its powers, you have to wonder.
What’s worrying for opponents is that Busquets is 26. Messi is 27. Neymar is 23. Rakitic is 27. Suarez is 28. Pique is 28. There are more years of this, assuming none of the odd things happen that derail dynasties. In the past, if Messi took a knock, then what? Now, Pedro comes on, Neymar moves central and there’s also Suarez. Business as usual, without the absurd bits of genius from the greatest player in the game. That Messi goal was crazy, but it’s easy to forget about the chances created before and after that goal.
Always options, always on the move. Working. In the 52nd minute with a 0-2 lead, Inkesta and Busquets combine to steal the ball from an Athletic midfielder who swore he had more time. His head goes down to look the pass in. He looks up and Busquets is in the way. He dribbles and Iniesta reaches in with a boot to take the ball and start the other way. It’s a little thing that sows stress and confusion. What do you do when you have no time? More crucially, you have no time but your opponent seems to have all the time in the world.
Athletic have a set piece at 55 minutes. Rakitic takes the ball just outside the Barça box, and hoofing it never occurs to him. Instead he slides a perfectly weighted pass to Neymar, who rolls it to Busquets and keeps running because he knows that Busquets is going to flick the ball to him in stride. And the attack can resume, the relentless task of destruction.
What makes this team extraordinary, as Graham Hunter so correctly notes in his excellent Copa post-match, is that it is a team. It’s facile and lazy to reduce this season of success to Messi, even as Messi changes everything. As Hunter puts it:
“Yet the thing that deserves emphasis is that this Barcelona team does not and cannot win by Messi alone. He is the lead violinist; he is the soaring solo soprano voice, true. But the orchestra must also be in tune. They have been working hard. They have been sharing the concept of “we want it all, we want it all” until it becomes a mantra.
That was sufficient today. Barcelona’s mega talent mixed with 10 months of utter dedication. They had a target, it was the treble, and because they worked like Trojans, it’s now in sight.
It would be unseemly, unbecoming to assume victory in Berlin. Juventus is an excellent footballing side that has been working on nothing except ways to stop Barça, because it isn’t enough to stop Messi any longer. Because he is the best player alive who inspires sonnets of rapture, it’s easy to forget that Barça is absolutely loaded with talent. Just because they play with Messi all the time doesn’t mean they can’t play without him.
Athletic is a very good football team. Barça isn’t strolling matches because its opponents are in some way inferior. Popular is the act of futility that transplants Barça into the Premiership, to suggest that they wouldn’t have it as easy, that somehow the talent would be diminished because of location. And this argument is being made by coaches of teams who will be watching the Champions League final on TV. RM, City, PSG, Bayern, Atleti — these are championship teams that have all been dispatched in various ways by Barça this season.
For me, this has happened because a coach got an extraordinary group of players to forge itself into a unit — a complete unit with one thing at the forefront: winning. It doesn’t matter who scores the goal, who blocks the shot, who gets the assist as long as Barça gets the full points. A great team that also understands sacrifice will be pretty tough to beat.