Injuries can be interesting in what they force upon a team. Messi’s being out for two months has not only forced Barça to adapt, but also given a potential glimpse of the future.
As Enrique made the tactical adaptations in reaction to the latest spate of injuries, the team changed a bit. If the two Barça styles can be likened to Norse gods, Messi’s Barça is ruled by the God of Thunder, while Neymar’s Barça is ruled by the God of Mischief.
When Messi went down with an injury, it’s a safe bet that a scientist would have declared the Camp Nou a vacuum after all of the air was sucked out of the place. After that, what people said was:
Neymar has to step up.
It started slowly enough, as he was dynamic and influential against Bayer Leverkusen, then had a strong match against Sevilla even as Barça lost. Yet it almost seemed like the team was trapped a bit between two worlds tactically, something that seemed clearer in the differences between Sevilla and the Rayo Vallecano matches, which were more than a style of play facilitated by a willing opponent. Luis Enrique began making changes that albeit temporary, are allowing the advent of Neymar Ball as an organism adapts to external stresses.
Is it really as simple as “Give it to No. 11?” Kinda, in the same way it was “Give it to No. 10” before, and will be again. You always want the most influential player on the pitch to be your point of reference in attack. Ego says that the system must be honored, that the stroking the ball around that happens when Barça is fully fit should continue when key players are absent. Naaaah. Give it to No. 11. Neymar was directly involved in every one of the five goals against Rayo, either scoring or assisting, even earning the penalties that he subsequently converted. Against BATE Borisov he was again dominant, directing play, tracking back, winning balls and provider of the two assists, both to Rakitic, for both Barça goals.
This success is more than the schedule being kind, even as the success is also due to something that will chagrin purists who think that Barça has a system, and should play that system at all times. Barça does have a system, and plays that system whenever possible. But even in the heyday of the system, there were moments when a talented individual said “Screw that, it’s Go Time.”
It isn’t abandoning a credo as much as Enrique recognizing, as did Rijkaard with Ronaldinho, that you shouldn’t harness crazy. When Neymar earned that second penalty against Rayo, he did it in a way that his detractors point to as a reason that he still isn’t suited to the Barça Way. He stopped the ball, made a couple of feints, nutmegged the defender and blew past him. It was the personification of modern-day Joga Bonito, an in-your-face manner in keeping with the modern sporting aesthetic.
Gone are the 237 perfect little passes to a logical terminus, as lovely triangle shapes force logical opponent movement which prises open locks which results in goals. But those days were long gone anyhow. Progress does that to systems as it forces them to adapt. This was one brilliant player, given carte blanche by his coach in the same way that same coach gives the same thing to the best player in the game, Messi.
“Go do what you do.”
Against both Rayo and BATE, teams that approached Barça in very different ways, the attack was the same open, space-making, run-and-gun style that depended on getting Neymar into spaces where he had the option to run, pass or shoot. Without Messi on the pitch, Neymar’s palette broadened as areas of the pitch that were heretofore off limits, became his playground. He prised a ball loose from a BATE attacker on the right, slipped passes to Suarez from the center and bamboozled defenders from the left. He did it by being a very different pain in the butt than Messi.
The other thing facilitating the arrival of Neymar Ball is injuries to key players. Iniesta went down, now Sergi Roberto is down. So rather than the metronomic precision of Barça tradition (even as the team looked very traditional at times against BATE), some freelancing was called for in the form of individual brilliance. No shame in that game, unless you consider it cheating to drive a Ferrari fast.
The Malaga and BATE matches both featured an inferior opponent playing physical, defensive football. Both resulted in scoreless first halves, and second halves that featured a difficult opponent finally being figured out. Both even featured big scoring chances being missed. But the football was quite different, systemic vs dynamic, with changes such as Munir assuming the Sanchez role of right-sided foil/workhorse as Busquets slid up the pitch, adding one-touch pragmatism to the mix.
Even the opening goals against both teams were interesting, as Malaga came from a system-based shot from Suarez, with a rebound that fell to Vermaelen. The BATE opener came via a jerky, jinking Neymar run that drew the defense, leaving Rakitic in acres to space to slot home. The second against BATE came in the same way, flowing, freelance football that ended with a sublime pass and quality finish, almost sandlot football.
Though it’s easy to dismiss that Barça approach as “everybody just running,” that was the point. In the second half, Barça played faster, pressed higher and harder with the intention of speeding up the game, of creating more movement than BATE could deal with, drawing them forward to hit them in the back. In theory, the ball moves faster than any man, but if you’re playing the ball around an opponent in two banks of four with two pressing high, the ball would need to move like a rocket. Just as a dynamic Messi run cracked open Atleti in last season’s 3-1 home win, a dynamic Neymar run opened up Rayo repeatedly, then BATE.
The complexity of this approach is that Suarez is a casualty, as he is forced to play differently. With Messi, Neymar and Suarez, the Uruguayan has a bit more time on and off the ball before defenders close down on him. He doesn’t have the same sort of moves and control that will allow him to create his own space, so defenders sit on him. In effect, Suarez becomes like Pedro, a player forced to do something that he really isn’t good at in an attempt to do his job. There are many remarks on Suarez’s first touch, as he attempts to dribble past a defender or two. That’s the consequence.
Another consequence is the misunderstood right wing. People said that Munir had a bad match just as they used to say that Sanchez had a bad match, and for the same reasons. In the role that Sanchez used to play and the role that Munir played against BATE, the job is to provide tactical width and influence the match in all ways. Calling it “donkey work” would be selling it short, particularly as Munir’s defending had a key role in one of the goals. But it’s something that is often difficult to understand, because the job of an attacker is to attack, and if they aren’t creating chances or scoring goals, how is that a good match? Yet Munir had a great day.
Whether this “get it to No. 11” is a tactical failure or a smart adaptation will depend on how a given evaluator thinks about the football that Barça plays. But there is no denying that it works, because crazy thrives in chaos. It isn’t that Sanchez wasn’t the player that he is at Arsenal when he was at Barça, but rather that the system didn’t allow him to be that player. Some will find it a delight that Enrique chose to sow chaos in an effort to give a player who thrives on it his best chances to excel. Others will find it an appalling betrayal. Both sides are right.
Meanwhile, the hope is that aspects of this new way of thinking will persevere when Messi returns from his injury hiatus. With Messi and Iniesta in the lineup, there isn’t a need for the kind of constant tactical “chaos” that we saw against Rayo and BATE. But it comes in handy sometimes, and the beauty of having talented players is that every now and again, you can turn them loose to do what they do.
No player is as good as Messi is with the ball at his feet, and Neymar isn’t as good as Messi — he might never be. This isn’t to say that Messi wouldn’t be able to thrive from the chaos that Neymar sows, just as Rakitic and Suarez can. We are getting a glimpse of a possible future as Neymar assumes a more significant leadership role on the team, part of a maturation process that goes farther than a sensible haircut. He is being less theatrical, taking more fouls and just getting up, playing with more calm. That is the Messi influence, but also the Barça influence.
Neymar didn’t just come to Barça because he would be able to walk into this XI. That would have been true at any club in the world. He came to Barça to grow and improve as a player, and what better way to do that than to play with the best player in the game? This Barça, being run by the God of Mischief, is showing some of the results of that high-level finishing school.