Athletic 0, Barça 1, aka “From the theoretical to the real”

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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.”

Plunk!

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.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

20 Comments

  1. August 23, 2015

    Nice article. All I know is that if Sergi Roberto keeps this up, he’ll be our new right back. Very surprising, regardless of his preseason game at that position.

    • Jason
      August 24, 2015

      Indeed, Roberto played well. I’ll refrain from annoiting him heir to Alves’ throne because I still think there is a lot to learn. The alves-rakitic-Messi right-side was a critical component of their play last season. There exists no direct replacement for any of those pieces. Game time will be needed.. And, I forsee a learning curve but if this is the beginning of Sergio Roberto the Right-back then hats off to the coaching staff.

    • Jason
      August 24, 2015

      Is it Sergi or Sergio?

    • barca96
      August 24, 2015

      Sergi Roberto. Sergio Roberto.

    • barca96
      August 24, 2015

      Sorry for th confusion. A bit blur. Just woke up. It’s Sergi Roberto and Sergio Busquets.

  2. August 23, 2015

    I caught the game from the 28th minute onwards. The way Athletic played that match made me do something undoable: wish that Vermaelen or Mascherano inflict an injury on some Athletic player, preferably Aduriz. Something worth a yellow card, but leaving the dirty bastard sobbing on the grass, as Valverde and the Basque bastards stare at the abyss of two months without strikers. I am not proud of those thoughts, but I would still shout in jubilation if it happened.

    Afterwards I wished luck to Athletic in their upcoming EL second leg. May they win it, and qualify for the group stage. May they play two times per week for the next four and a half months. May every their victory eventually becomes a Pyrric one,
    Serves the bastards right.

    • barca96
      August 23, 2015

      Very unlike you. I can’t hate Athletic. I admire them so I’m of wishing the best of them.

      The match wasn’t broadcasted here so I couldn’t watch. Are you angry at Arduriz for scoring a handful of goals against us in Copa or did he do something terrible in the match?

    • ooga aga
      August 23, 2015

      He hacked dani ‘s ankle from behind like a goon, directly leading to dani’s injury

      I think they are goons when they face us but i hope they do well in Europe

    • August 23, 2015

      And he also hacked Busi’s ankle from the side, leading to Busi’s injury. And he hit Bravo with a deliberate elbow.

    • TITO
      August 24, 2015

      That asshole deliberately injured Dani who is out for a month, injured Busi who is probably out for few weeks and tried or did elbowed Bravo

    • barca96
      August 24, 2015

      Thanks for explaining guys. Athletic Bilbao players usually behaved well. I don’t have any bad memories of them that’s why it came as a surprise.

  3. luisthebeast
    August 23, 2015

    Our goal was beautiful.With Alba the team is so much better.If Roberto keeps playing like today,maybe we found the new RB for next decade.I dont know what will happen until January with the hard schedule,injuries and all that.What i know is that this team,this amazing team,have faith in their great mentality and greatness,unlike some of its fans.

  4. luisthebeast
    August 23, 2015

    They won everything,they won again everything and they keep winning.A team of winners and a fanbase of whiners.

    • August 24, 2015

      Who are you referring to? Who’s wining? Stop bringing your negativity in here. It’s getting quite annoying.

  5. ooga aga
    August 23, 2015

    Kxevin not writing would be like messi not wanting to kick a ball. Im glad he didnt stay away. I agree that if you get 3 points from san mames you have done well, no matter what. And frankly if i had to choose between these 3 pts and the spanish not-super cup, id take these.

  6. August 24, 2015

    At the end of the first half, with our CB possession statistics soaring, I was sincerely wishing we ought to lose this match. The way Athletic pressed, I even felt having feelings for them that, when that penalty was given, not a penalty for me, I felt sorry for them. Luckily, Messi obliged 🙂

    But we still won, as a team, and am not sure how much Sergi Roberto was instrumental to this change, should watch the match again. We have got a new RB signed. And Alba too, no words for his run and the assist.

    If more teams learn from Athletic pressing, we will have quite a tough season. Which will be ok, as long as we grind a 1 goal lead.

    Heard Pedro scored and assisted. So glad for him.

  7. Tommy11
    August 24, 2015

    Can’t blame you for such thoughts. Anyone who has a grudge with is playing mes que un club- I don’t buy it. I will on any team or player who feels the best way to play Barca is to kick, push, shove and bully our players of the ball. For everything Athletic stands for, it’s all crop if inflicting injuries on the opposing teams players is the way to go. Imagine Bartra/Masche committed an error leading to their goal, imagine Young Sergi becoming the weak link after Aves was out, imagine iniesta not been able to continue, how would the match have turned out. Thank the heavens that this Barca doesn’t really get bullied off the ball these days-like Kxevin likes to point out. Any team- Mourinho’s EE, Chelsea, 2013 Bayern, Simeone’s Atleti, you name it- who employs dirty tactics deserves to be hated on.

    • barca96
      August 24, 2015

      Bayern didn’t and still isn’t playing dirty tactics.

  8. Dar_vincy
    August 24, 2015

    Giving credit to whom it’s due, i never imagined a day would come where i’d admit i was impressed with a Vermaeleen or Roberto’s display in such a feisty contest.
    I feared the worst when Bartra came in, and i’m glad nothing disastrous came from his sub…even though it threatened to.
    Great work, as usual, Kexvin.

  9. Tarek Arslan
    August 24, 2015

    Nice article kxevin, always impressed with your writings. Not wanting to sound negative or anything but if Bilbao didn’t play a european qualifier 3 days earlier, this would have been a totally different game. Anyhow, I was expecting a draw and we got a win, much to be thankful for. Sergi Roberto really proves a lot of us wrong, he really is a useful squad player and is a potential good choice rb for the future(might as well give him a try at right wing as he was very dangerous going forward). I saw Vermaelen taking pique’s responsibilities with open arms and Messi desperately needing a rest. Can’t wait to see the MSN back in actions.

    Busquets injury was unexpected , most people would say it’s ok we have mascherano but we only lost control of the game once Busquets got injured and went off. I would like to see a midfield of Rakitic,rafinha and Iniesta, I have a feeling that rakitic would thrive in Busi’s role.

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