What were we worried about? What are we ever worried about? It’s something worth pondering and something that came to mind during an excellent post-match social media chat with a tenured BFBer.
Worry. I was worried about the Getafe match going in, worried during the match and didn’t really relax until the second goal went in, then the worry shifted to keeping a clean sheet. It’s easy to wonder about the root of all that dread, the notions that pop up in our minds that create doom from the whole cloth of confidence.
Even stranger is that we have a team that has just come off a treble, is sitting atop its Champions League group, and atop the Liga standings alongside its eternal rival. That team can call upon a lineup that, even when it doesn’t have the presence of the best player in the game, boasts athletes who start and star for their national sides.
And yet, we worry. Is it that worry is an extravagance that is allowed the person with the best hand? It isn’t even logical when you really think about it, but how rarely do supporters of a football team really, truly think? Going into the match, Getafe was sitting 13th in La Liga. We were first. How else was this match going to go, really, except how it went?
This is despite the fact that last year’s team got a scoreless draw at the same ground, but the thing about athletics is that it is usually true to itself. The reason there are statistics that can often quantify a performance is because the best do what the best do. The best team doesn’t always win, but it wins with a regularity that you can bet the house on, so why wouldn’t the best team playing football in the Madrid area win its match?
Perhaps some of the worry is due to the myth, the worry about living up to an unattainable standard. This is a team that has won two trebles in seven years. One is stupefying. Two in the history of a club is bonkers. Two in ten years just defies logic.
But The Fear is also rooted in having that good thing, and not wanting to let it go. It’s fun to support a winning football team. It’s even more fun to support a football team that not just wins, but wins everything. This trophy, that trophy, AND the other trophy. Gimme. As a supporter, you roll through life with your chest stuck out a bit more, talk a bit more crap in social media and other forums. Some of that worry, the “What will I say when we don’t win?” eats at the supporter of a successful team. It’s unavoidable.
And for Barça of late, winning is almost like reflex. Show up, collect the points, go home and celebrate. Draws are the new losses, and actual losses are cataclysms that a fanbase doesn’t really know how to deal with. This is true even if you remember that Barça really hadn’t been all that successful on that same scale before Pep Guardiola assumed the helm of the team. Yes, the Rijkaard years brought about Ligas, and a Champions League win, but it wasn’t the metronomic precision that seems to govern the team now, winning as if by rote. The very nature of reflex demands that the same thing happen. Whack the knee with the mallet, watch the leg jump. Done.
Getafe came at Barça today with a very intelligent game plan, one that found them attacking with abandoned reserve, but always able to have 7 to 9 men in their box, so that death by a thousand passes didn’t result in the same number of goals. The Barça of myth is supposed to not care about that, supposed to be able to have every footstrike generate stardust as players describe a symmetrical attack that is beautiful football. If that doesn’t happen, much of the fanbase is dissatisfied.
“Well, they won, but the team didn’t look very good at all,” or “It was chaotic,” or “Where is the positional play?”
The two goals came from extraordinary passages of play from beginning to end, complete team goals that relied upon magic as well as excellence, even as Getafe did everything within its power to stop logical football. The luxury of having extraordinary players is that they can do illogical things, moments that destroy a match plan. For the first goal, the superstar striker tracked over, and worked to tackle a ball loose, then ran to the box. The superstar winger worked his magic, got loose and flicked a pass to a midfielder who would be a star on almost any other team in the Liga and a great many teams in the world, and that midfielder did a no-look, volleyed backheel that fell perfectly to the feet of the man who began the sequence with his tackle, who slotted home.
That goal was bonkers. And because Getafe was pressing and ball hawking, every touch had to be perfect. Sergi Roberto didn’t have time to control, then pass to Suarez because by then Getafe would have closed off all the angles. That such a pass even occurred to him demonstrates the monstrous quality of this team. Ordinary players don’t think of stuff like that, because their minds don’t even work that way, never mind having the skill set to make crazy stuff happen. And as you’re defending, you don’t consider the no-look backheel volley, because why in the hell would you? People don’t do that kind of stuff.
It was a beautiful footballing goal of the type that many say Barça doesn’t score any more. Football was played of the type that people say Barça doesn’t play any more, midfield fluency, triangles and positional advantages used to lever Getafe players into exploitable positions, time and again. And Getafe was still fighting, still playing tight, still thinking that they were just one mistake away, one gift by a team that had heretofore been handing out brain-cramped gifts to opponents like candies on Halloween. So why not dream a little dream?
Then came the second goal, just as startling as the first, but even more devastating because again, there isn’t a template for such a thing. Getafe had a set piece. Logic dictates that when you are attacking a deep block team, the best time to get them is just after they get a set piece. You dribble, make runs and scramble up the pitch, racing to get there before opponents arrive. These rarely work, because modern players can run really fast without a ball to control. All they have to do is get into position. And that’s what Getafe was doing, but here’s what happened.
Claudio Bravo played the ball fast, flinging it up the pitch to Sergi Roberto, who looked up and saw a trio of Barça attackers, all running, all marked by nearby Getafe players. In another moment of absurdity, he laced a pass, over distance, that plopped at Neymar’s feet. Barely breaking stride, Neymar lashed the strike home on the near side, off the volley. That was the second goal, something that took about 10 seconds from one end to the other. It was also a goal not only of the highest quality, but a level of execution that verged on the impossible.
Barça made it look routine. That is the team that we worry about every week, often multiple times in the same week, worry that somehow they are going to fall short, even though the best team wins 9 out of 10 times, even though that team has players who can do what those players did today. Even stuff that doesn’t result in goals, is still extraordinary. As Barça played the ball out of its own end late in the match, a pass came to Busquets, who just influenced it along. He didn’t control it or even stop the ball. He just sent it along with a touch so magnificent that it almost took your breath away. “That just happened!” And it didn’t even need to happen. It just happened because it’s what players of that caliber do.
So why do we worry? Maybe because in addition to not ever wanting the success to end, there is something else eating at us. The first treble was kinda crazy, because nobody really fully understood what was going on until it happened, like meeting a supermodel on your way to meeting a friend at a restaurant, but at that eatery is a surprise birthday party that turns out to be the best night of your life, and the supermodel falls for you. Like it or not, you wake up the next morning blinking, patting yourself because you have to be dreaming.
Week after week, month after month, and you are now settled in with your supermodel. You have almost gotten used to having someone around who looks perfect, is smart and fun to be with. And once used to it, you never want it to end, and that is when the Fear begins. So the year after the treble season, even as the football Barça played was even better, was beginning to hint at something paradigm shifting, getting used to the success led to expectation and confidence.
After a while, culer paranoia shifted to confidence. We expected Barça to win and it did, because its style of play was so logical. Pique to Busquets to Xavi to Iniesta to Xavi to Messi to Villa to Messi, and the keeper was shaking his head as he picked yet another ball out of the back of his net. The odd thing was even as the reliability factor of the team decreased, the confidence in it didn’t, and the expectation was still present.
When Manchester United scored a goal in the 2011 Champions League final, admit it — you probably said, “Well, that’s their honor goal. Now let’s finish them off.” And that’s what happens, because the best team almost always wins.
But compare that feeling to when Juventus scored in this past year’s Champions League final, as butt cheeks clenched and throats constricted. The worry factor, the Fear began to rise. Why? In every statistical measure, last year’s team was better that the first treble team. More goals, more wins, more points in league, more, more, more. But that team inspired less confidence, and not just a little bit less.
Certainly, some of it is rooted in the way that this team plays. Its organic response to how the game has evolved is in three unplayable players, cavorting. You might stop one, you might stop two, but you won’t stop three. So go ahead and clog the midfield with fast, long-legged athletes, because we have moved on. But that style of play, as evinced by the second goal today, made last year’s treble more a high-wire act in a stiff crosswind than the wonderful surprise party of the first treble. Expectations were different, everything was different.
“Individual brilliance” was a flaw because it is unreliable, we think. We have players such as we have who do what they do, and we still aren’t used to it. It’s still weird, and kinda crazy. The two goals today would, from most other teams, be considered flukes, rather than as they are at Barça, a logical consequence of what top players do. But who the hell hits a ball over almost a half-pitch distance, directly to the feet of a dude, who volleys it home. “Is THAT what we have to rely on to score goals? And you wonder why I’m nervous?!”
And then there is the coach, a pragmatist rather than a romantic, a coach whose Way is different because it has to be — something less logical and more dynamic, something seemingly more uncertain. “We got lucky today,” was an oft-heard refrain, because of the seeming illogic of individuals doing remarkable things, when in fact exceptionalism being exceptional is as logical as can be. It makes perfect sense when you think about it. That second goal against Getafe wasn’t a fluke, or anything crazy. It was just top athletes operating at a high level.
When Messi scores some crazy-ass goal, does his usual devotion to the heavens then celebrates with his teammates, it’s all very ordinary, it’s because it’s what he does. A top athlete operating at a high level will do things that ordinary, or even very good athletes can’t do. Sandro would have maybe pranged that Sergi Roberto pass wide, because Sandro isn’t Neymar.
Thinking of it that way makes it all make sense and yet, we will worry. We will worry when BATE comes to the Camp Nou, even as we know that they don’t really have the weapons to beat us at our house because simply put, Barça is much better team than BATE. We will worry about Villarreal when they come to town because well, this, that and the other. We will worry because in a strange way it comforts us. Expecting something good leads to nothing other than disappointment, right? “Yeah, the good thing came again” or even worse, “The good thing didn’t happen.” The Fear is an insulator, even as it doesn’t really make a lot of sense.