Much has been made of the effect that Messi had on Saturday’s match, a Liga classic that featured unfettered brilliance. Sportswriters issued a heartfelt “Whew!” as Messi saving the day makes that matchday story a bit easier to write. But the most fascinating part of the match from my seat was the time before Messi came onto the pitch, because it was that period that showed what an extraordinary team Luis Enrique has built.
Despite the ways in which people assert that he isn’t the coach Guardiola was, the parallels keep rearing their heads, from a first-season treble to the way each manager uses the best player in the game. Under Guardiola as well as Enrique, the best Barça will almost certainly turn out to be the one that is least Messi-dependent.
Prima facie that’s a crazy thing to say, but the extraordinary first half of football against Atleti lends a little bit of backbone to the madness.
As the match started, Atleti spent a brief time on the front foot, moments comfortably parried away by Barça, who then found their way into the match via a number of unlikely sources. Atleti once again made the midfield the battleground, in a fascinating display of controlled aggression. This was countered by Enrique in a number of ways, most notably use of the flanks, switching the field and unleashing Iniesta.
It’s probably no coincidence that Iniesta’s best match in a very long time in the colors had something to do with his being unleashed to take on attackers and get into the Atleti box, as he used to when occupying his role as Xavi’s rambunctious shadow. It was a perfect tactical move because Atleti was set up to stop Barça playing football rather than trying to harness a ghost, and the Iniesta runs almost led to paydirt on two occasions, most notably a run in which I still believe he dematerialized for a moment, before placing a perfect ball for Rakitic to run onto.
The other beautiful thing about unleashing Iniesta is one of those philosophical moments that makes me woozy, as Enrique countered destruction with creativity. Atleti was clearly under orders to let nothing happen, by hook or by crook. If you can’t stop the play, foul. But as Iniesta flitted around the pitch as if on a hoverboard, it was his delectable creativity that brought beauty to what could have been a nasty, fraught affair.
And while it was Iniesta’s show to run, Neymar assumed the mantel as the Player Most Likely To. He, too, was unleashed by Enrique and his dynamic play, coupled with touch and trickery, hasn’t been so in evidence since the Messi injury break during the Tata Martino season, when Neymar and Sanchez proceeded to lay waste to opposing defenses. The Atleti supporters even backed off whistling Neymar, as even they came to realize that the sleight of foot that he uses is because he doesn’t have other options. He, like Ronaldinho, has a different set of choices than most players, and he isn’t afraid to use them.
The consequence of Neymar and Iniesta being unfettered as Suarez stalked around, was a Barça that had Atleti flummoxed. Along with more than 70 percent possession against a team that many (including me) picked to win La Liga, was an attendant sense of desperation as they held off Barça. This wasn’t Atleti calmly stonewalling Sevilla before putting the knife in.
Rafinha was another who had one of his best matches in the colors, a physical, dynamic force that was part of the Barça display of aggressive, one-touch football that relied on skill sets forged in hours of rondos, with roots in Masia training. Pass and move, create with movement of the player and the ball. Pass then move to the open space in case your teammate needs you.
Atleti didn’t know where the ball was coming from as every Barça player became a possible key to prise open their defensive lock and by all rights, the first half should have ended 0-2, possibly 0-3. Suarez hit the post, and Neymar, on a break, got into the Atleti box and, 90 percent of the time a goal is the result.
There was structure, there was a system, there was elegance along with grit as Barça went tooth and nail with Atleti, no longer the supplicant as sprites were getting kicked, but giving as good as they got, keeping the ball moving too quickly for them to get kicked and, on the rare occasions that Atleti was able to get forward, Mascherano and Vermaelen kept things under control.
Atleti had a spectacular transfer window, but what that first half showed is that Barça might not be as deep, but it has higher quality at almost every position on the pitch. As Simeone said, “Barça was better,” and he was correct. But not just better in the ultimate talent worldview. Barça was also better from a systemic viewpoint, as the ball movement made Atleti move, which created opportunities. This was the theoretical Barça, that tactical ideal that the naysayers craved, but in a different way than the short, incisive passing team of yore.
Instead there were diagonals, cross-pitch passes that swiftly changed the angle of attack, overlaps and runs in behind the defense, forcing an opponent back via dynamism rather than scalpel-like precision. That first half team was amazing, part of a scintillating half of football, but it also showed how much this team has grown up.
Messi didn’t start, for obvious reasons: trans-Atlantic flight after some Argentina friendlies and the birth of his second son. And while some corners of the culerverse freaked out, most saw the logic in Enrique’s decision, as did the player. What I don’t think many anticipated was how well the team played, an aggressive, independent group that spent exactly zero seconds just passing the ball around and looking to the bench for its salvation.
In the second half Atleti changed tactics, deciding to come out and play Barça more as equals, a decision that would lead to their undoing even as it initially resulted in something good when a risky Mathieu pass was converted into a springboard attack that led to a Torres goal. And the thing about the tally that many noticed is that Ter Stegen, starting in place of the pranged Claudio Bravo, was more passive than he usually is. In his usual role, that pass probably doesn’t even reach Torres as Ter Stegen is hovering somewhere around the top of his box, and he would have easily raced out to either play the ball into touch, or control it and feed a teammate to start the attack.
Instead he was cowering near his goal line. Whether this was a decision rooted in the idea that his forward position made him vulnerable (something that so many culers are misguided about), or him just having a tentative moment is uncertain, but it was nice to see him gradually easing forward as the match progressed. Barça already has a Bravo. It needs a Ter Stegen.
As an aside on keepers, have a look at the 44th minute when Ter Stegen catches an Atleti effort and immediately rolls the ball to an attacker, kick starting a dangerous Barça break. Now recall when Bravo catches a ball, how he cradles it, then looks around, sometimes gesticulating and yelling at people to assume positions that will ease his comfort. Then he rolls the ball out to a defender, and the moment is lost. In the Barça system, the keeper is as much an attack starter as any midfielder. And with the attacking talent that Barça has along with the pace of players like Alba and Neymar, it often behooves a keeper to get the ball into play as quickly as possible, before an opponent’s defense has the chance to set.
A truly spectacular Neymar free kick equalized, a free kick whose wonder got lost in Messi netting the winning goal, but it really was a wonderful strike from a distance that makes it quite difficult to beat a keeper. Barça had not only held their own, but fought back, all without Messi, shrugging off the error and Torres goal as this team almost always does, like a temporary glitch in the matrix.
Messi entering the match in the second half was almost like Dad coming home from work. The kids are squealing and running around the backyard less, and are calmer and more deferential. Barça became less dynamic and more predictable when Messi came onto the pitch as an overall force, even as Messi doing those Messi things made him more unpredictable, unbalancing Atleti in a different way, but one they could control by, as with Neymar on that first-half break of his, having one player too many facing him.
Most interesting was that the Barça goal came during one of the times when Barça was playing like Messi was just another player, right until the end. The ball pinged around between Barça players, an attempted Atleti clearance quickly controlled by Alba who slid it to Suarez, who played in Messi for a delightful finish. And it was really a goal of two Barças, the independent one and the deferential one. Does Suarez make that pass to anyone except Messi? Does anyone else except Messi have the quickness and intelligence of movement to not only know what Suarez is going to do but be able to capitalize on it?
This is a Barça where for the first time in a long time, having the Best Player Ever is a luxury rather than a necessity. Before watching that first-half display against Atleti, many would have argued. Many more would argue that it was a fluke, that the team is still better off with Messi always in the XI. But for some time my contention has been that Messi can be rested against the Levantes and Granadas, that the XI should still be more than good enough to defeat those mid and lower-table opponents, allowing Messi the rest that he needs to be at his best.
Just look at how electric Messi was when he came on, running at a defense that had been parrying his teammates for more than 60 minutes, “And now we have to deal with THIS?!” They couldn’t. Messi was always going to get some running time in advance of the mid-week Champions League clash against Roma, but you wonder, had Neymar had a better first touch, Suarez not hit the woodwork or if Rakitic had done more with that Iniesta pass, how much running time Messi would have needed to get.
That we can ask that question speaks a lot about the job that Enrique has done in forging this team into one of the best in Europe, quite possibly the best in Europe. That team can take on a legit Liga title contender without its best player and still not only go toe to toe, but be vastly more dangerous. That’s pretty wonderful, and I imagine that as Messi sat there on the bench, smiling to himself, he thought the same thing.