Back in high school, during an advanced physics class, a teacher explained to us how, assuming everything was exactly, perfectly right, if you threw a rock into a pond, the rock would bounce off the surface, back at you. He even did some of the math.
Suffice it to say, he never convinced a skeptical group of eggheads, because some things are best left to theory, which is something of the exalted realm in which Barça football exists. We do maths, we discuss formations, wax eloquent about ideal-world situations …
And then the team enters the San Mames, where Athletic kicks them in the Achilles and says, “That is our ideal.”
At the apogee of a weekend of football debauch was Barça, returning to the scene of the beatdown against the team that messed up the #Dr5am hashtag, SuperCopa holders Athletic. The reason San Mames is one of the most difficult pitches in La Liga in which to get a result is because in a really, really good mood, Athletic is nasty. They are rarely in a good mood. As a unit, they understand that they have enough talent to compete against most teams in the Liga, but when it comes to the big two, it will be necessary to drag the match down to turf level. Cleats are king, the ref won’t call them all and often the most effective way to break up elegance is to smash it in the face.
It is matches such as this that Barça feels a lot like the person with the mathematical proof, throwing rocks into the pond only to watch each one emit an accusatory “Plunk!” as it cleaves the water’s surface. “How is this happening.” “This is horrible.” “String some passes together.” “This is not our football.”
Athletic played a brilliant match that almost got them the result they would have been happy with, just coming off a very difficult midweek tie in Europa League. They fought, scraped, pressed high, fouled and when all else failed, relied upon their excellent keeper to work toward an end result forged in grit. Barça got a penalty and it was denied as a fanbase went from high to low, as that looked like it might be last best scoring chance. In many ways this match was two theories slamming into each other, beauty and grit, and as they clashed, there was beauty in the struggle.
It would have been a lot more fun to watch Barça make its lovely triangles, string together passes and caper about with a team such as Rayo, a side so devoted to principles that it doesn’t bother that much with the result. But it wouldn’t have been as beautiful. These matches, or the 0-1, last-second Busquets put back goal against Valencia are more glorious to watch from my seat, because they teach us something about the team.
We already know that Barça can play football. We already know it can dismantle an opponent that lets it play football. But what can it do when its starting right back goes down injured, early in the match? What can it do when its midfield defensive and attack starting linchpin goes down? What can it do when it strings more than four passes together, knowing that the fifth one will be accompanied by a foul? What can you do when you are missing key players from the outset? These are the questions that Athletic asked of Barça today.
Barça answered them in a fashion that put three points on the board because this is a team that doesn’t exist in theory. It is, in its own way, just as nasty as any kicking, fouling opponent. But it doesn’t fight back by kicking harder (though I wish at times that it did). It fights back by finding a way to disrupt and then defeat.
At the beginning of all this was a wonderful team with roots in a new way of playing, that the world wasn’t ready for. As that team had to adapt, its coach started finding new ways to attack, eventually beginning to go more vertical. Pep Guardiola’s successor, Tito Vilanova, continued that revolution. Tata Martino tried, then backed off. Enrique has, potentially, completed that revolution in creating a Barça that can exist in all realms, the theoretical and the real, the flawless and the mud-soaked.
Today’s goal was exquisite because it was perfect in every way. It was perfectly executed, starting with some deft one-touch passes from the back. It was pulled off with flawless precision, as if a foot strike is off by even a millimeter, nothing happens. It was perfect because it was the only way that Barça was going to be able to score against Athletic today, and it took it.
It wasn’t going to be the day for Messi runs, because at the end of it all, after winding and twisting through 4-5 defenders, there is Gorka Iraizoz. Perfect passes marching geometrically up the pitch wasn’t going to happen, because of … “POOM!” It was going to take something extraordinary. Rakitic lofted a pass to Jordi Alba, into space that allowed him and only him to run onto, a pass that left Alba enough room to play his cross, but not enough to think. Alba arced his cross perfectly into space for Luis Suarez to run onto, and lash the ball past a flummoxed Iraizoz on the volley. Bang. Was it a “Barça” goal? Not the Barça of legend and theory, but it wasn’t that kind of a game, wasn’t that kind of a world.
This was a day to get stuff done. When Alves went down injured early in the first half and Sergi Roberto leapt to his feet to begin warming up, only people who haven’t been paying attention were surprised. That the maligned midfielder came on and performed almost flawlessly, with stats that would make any RB in world football jealous was icing on the cake. This wasn’t a “Okay son, don’t screw up,” kind of performance. It was a performance that unleashed something that only culers already knew. And his energy was just as present in the 90th minute as it was in the 30th.
Thomas Vermaelen, the waste of money who many asserted was never going to play a minute of football for Barça, was brilliant. Theoreticians will pick apart his game, will say “Well, his building from the back was this, or that.” But again, passing charts will put the lie to this as Vermaelen was effective in every phase of the game, from sliding tackles that denied goal opportunities on in the air. He was proactive like Mascherano and commanding like Pique. He was pretty much everything that nobody thought he would ever be again, and it was pretty cool to watch, because it was needed. Pique was out with a case of the stupids, Mathieu on an accumulation of cards. The available CBs options were Mascherano (automatic), Vermaelen and Bartra. Anyone who paid attention to Barça in preseason knew that Vermaelen would get the start today, but I don’t think anyone figured he would play as well as he did.
This was a match in which Messi wasn’t at his best, and Iniesta wasn’t allowed to be at his best. Athletic fought and scraped, pressed and harried, launching intelligent, airborne attacks that tried to bypass Barça’s midfield maw for direct access to the theoretically suspect back line. There was Mascherano at RCB, where he rarely plays, and that new, fragile Belgian. Get ’em!
Barça, the team of legend and theory, wasn’t allowed to exist today, thanks to a wonderful, resolute opponent with an almost flawless match plan that was undone by brilliance. Maybe on another day, one of those passes is a little off. Maybe Gorka tracks Suarez and is standing there to take that shot into his waiting arms. Maybe. More theory. When the Athletic pressure eased as humanity set in, Barça’s football gained some sparkle, and it was beautiful to witness as the ball sizzled about the pitch. Athletic figured out the error of its ways, found new energy and once again stormed the ramparts, repelled each and every time by Barça.
This wasn’t the prettiest match Barça will ever play, but it was one of the most beautiful as a pragmatic, adaptable, resourceful team gifted with an abundance of talent, found a way to win. Injuries, suspensions, it found a way to win against a top-six Liga side as on the same day, its storied eternal rival was held to a 0-0 draw by a newly promoted side in Sporting Gijon.
The amount of energy that it requires to play as Athletic did today, to never allow space, to contest everything, to assume that every square inch of your home pitch is belongs to you, is stunning. Barça found equal energy, added some beauty along with a heaping spoonful of the spectacular, and got a win. Xavi was gone, Pedro was sold, and if the bench had a name, it would be No Hope, if something was needed to turn a match around, mids, defenders, a wide-eyed forward and a question mark. That question mark, Sandro, came in and raised the precise kind of hell that Pedro raised, a running, hard-working force that carried goal threat if an opponent let its guard down.
For me, the most extraordinary part of the match was the last 15 minutes, as Barça was seeing off a pressing Athletic via defensive stops, clearances and calm possession, a wounded veteran side that was not at its best but that understood exactly how to win. Athletic scrambled and created danger that was calmly dealt with. This wasn’t the Barça of theory, who defended from the front with possession, and stroked the ball around until the vanquished uttered a meek, “I yield, sir.” This was the cool kid backed into an alley fight, whose face changed as he figured out a rabbit punch works as well as a haymaker, and came out a winner.
You find beauty where you can. This team has flaws, some created by circumstance, others by a transfer ban of the club’s own making and Masia graduates not quite up to grade. It is going to have to find a way to ride some injury luck, and hang on until January, when its two new signings come online for the last big push. The mistake would be to conflate flawed and damaged as Barça showed that it might be one, but it ain’t the other. At least not today.