Barça 3, Villarreal 0, aka “Team. Always team.”

Barça is in first place, 3 points clear of its eternal rival. One team defeated a difficult Villarreal side, the other lost to an inexplicably mid-table Sevilla. For those interested in such things, it’s easy to say that two moments spoke volumes about where each club is, and why:

— Real Madrid was on a break, and Ronaldo had two teammates in excellent position for the pass, and an almost certain goal. He chose to shoot.
— Luis Suarez had been struggling, and was getting increasingly cranky. Munir won a penalty, and Neymar handed duties over to Suarez.

Team is a notion that is rooted in a loss of self. You do what you do because of the unit. Messi doesn’t score a goal because he wants an award, he scores a goal because he wants Barça to win. Iniesta doesn’t make some mazy bit of vaporware to watch on YouTube. He does it so that Barça can win. Selflessness is rather a difficult thing, and something that was at the core of many of Barça’s early-season complexities, as has been noted in this space before. Rather than someone doing what they are supposed to do, there was reliance on someone else doing it. Ter Stegen didn’t concede that long goal against Athletic Club because of his laxity. That goal was conceded because midfield possession was lost, and nobody closed down the shooter.

Compare those performances to yesterday against Villarreal, or BATE, or any of the recent clean sheets. Players running their lungs out, backstopping each other and helping out. Mathieu works with Bravo to stop a chance. Alba chases down a ball that nobody really has a right to reach. Munir makes run after run even though he knows that he probably isn’t going to get the pass just because that one time, he might, as he did from Sergi Roberto. And he won the penalty that Neymar handed over to Suarez, who converted the penalty to give his team needed score line breathing space. Team just does what it has to, at every level. Sergi Roberto never fussed, never groused about playing time, just did his job until he had the opportunity to stand out, then he took it. Because team isn’t just what you do on the pitch.

roberto

In the first half, Villarreal did all that it could to harry, harass and disrupt Barça. Kicking, fighting, fouling, breaking up the match as the team wrestled with not only a resolute opponent and a ref who lost the plot, but the team’s own fallibility. The ball moved too slowly, and Villarreal specifically targeted Busquets as the metronome of the crazy clock that is the Barça attack. Deny him space, shut him down and even if good things don’t happen for you, nothing good will happen for Barça, which is almost as good for you.

That all changed in the second half. Enrique said, simply enough, that Villarreal tired, but it was more than that. Everything moved faster, and the Barça players were sharper, first touches pillow soft as the ball zipped around the pitch. And suddenly, there was danger in a way that was new for Villarreal. They cleared it, but almost as if Busquets can see into the future he was there to intercept and almost in the same motion, spank a pass to Neymar.

Take a moment to appreciate the pass, not only for its spatial delights as it sundered the defense, but for the knowledge that all the pace laid on that ball exhibited. Villarreal was pressing hard and defending excellently, always able to get a foot in, to block a shot, to thwart yet another Barça attack. Busquets hit that pass with enough venom to preclude that possibility, and also catch the Villarreal defense at the weakest time – when it was sure the danger was past. The velocity of the pass was such that not every player was going to be able to control it. Neymar just pillowed it in and slotted home. The goal looked easy but it was execution of the highest order, a footballing masterclass in two simple actions. Recently, Busquets has been being hailed as the best midfielder in the world. His play on that goal is as vivid an argument as anyone needs.

The match wasn’t over yet because Villarreal is a proud, dangerous side that kept right on coming. Then came another very simple football action, Sergi Roberto sliding a pass to Munir, who took his defender out before being taken down, to draw the penalty that put Barca over last season’s penalty total. And then came the moment that Neymar handed off to Suarez.

Culers with good memories will recall that last season, when Neymar was struggling in a match just as Suarez was, when Barça earned a penalty, Messi let Neymar take it. It was what was needed for the good of the team, and the result was a revived Neymar, just as Suarez suddenly got sharper and more dangerous, worked even harder and acted like a man who was part of things again. Right action, at the right time.

But it also showed, as much as anything, a maturing Neymar. When the player came to Barça, it was widely considered that because he was a Messi fanboy. But more than that, he understood that it is only by playing with the best, that you can have a shot at becoming the best. When Messi went out with his injury, the first phrase out of most mouths was “Neymar will have to step up.” His stats have been Messilike, and against Villarreal he recovered more balls than he lost, 7-6, which is huge for such a high-risk player.

Also as interesting, even more interesting than the proposed reasons for it, was when Messi went out, Neymar suddenly had adult hair. No highlights, no Mohawks, no peacock stuff, just … hair. It doesn’t take far to look to notice that Messi just has … hair. Barber cut, nothing fancy, hair. He doesn’t have time for that stuff. In many ways the symbolism of Neymar’s hair is deeper than just a cut. He’s a grownup, a player who has taken the team on his shoulders. Suarez said, in a recent interview, that everyone has their job, that his role isn’t to dribble past 4 defenders … he leaves that to Neymar.

neymar

When Neymar came from Santos, nobody knew what to expect, but most people didn’t expect much from the peacock-haired showpony. But the recent run of form from the Brazilian has demonstrated that he has been learning from the best every day at Barça. Messi doesn’t have fancy hair, nor does Iniesta. Xavi had the gel action, and Busquets probably just hits his with an electric razor in the morning. No nonsense. Let’s play football as best we can, for the team. Neymar’s stats aren’t as important as the fact that he is playing his brilliant football for the team, in many ways mimicking another Brazilian, Ronaldinho, who did his trick and flicks for the team. If a butt pass was the only way to get the ball to a streaking attacker, that’s what he would do.

This made Neymar’s second goal all the more remarkable for its reminder of a very similar Ronaldinho goal. It’s simple enough to describe, as Suarez and Neymar go running at the Villarreal defense on a counter. Suarez feeds Neymar, who is bracketed by a pair of defenders. Neymar just pauses, flicks the ball around to the other side of the last defender, follows the ball and volleys home. As the Villarreal coach, Marcelino, said, as a coach you can’t show that you appreciate a tally such as that, but as a fan of the game.

It was a stupefying bit of skill, and a goal that Neymar, and only Neymar, could have scored. No, not Messi, and not because Messi doesn’t have the ability to do something as remarkable. In a recent piece written by Giggs Boson, the dying role of the soccer artist was at issue. The author described Messi perfectly, even as he made it clear why Messi was, though he is the best the game has seen and probably will ever see, not an artist. Here is the description:

Messi’s a realist. Messi plays like an engineer would design as the perfect, effective, efficient attacker. One of the greatest dribblers of all time but unmistakeably an academy product. It’s mixed into his no-nonsense personality though. Nothing needless usually happens, as mesmerising as he can be. Messi, unlike Maradona, won’t knowingly play to the crowd, like Maradona would. Ronaldinho played like no one could’ve thought it up. He played like a million people were watching and he knew it. Messi leaves you in awe of his inhuman proficiency, acceleration, quickness and focus. He takes the ball, and he puts it in your net. But there’s something almost too perfect about him. Doesn’t have the abundance of flair of Ronaldinho, doesn’t have the unpredictable unorthodox trickery of a Zidane, doesn’t have the unusual touch of a Baggio or Bergkamp. He’s not unpredictable, he’s unstoppable.

This is spot on, with no slight meant toward Messi whatsoever. This piece also mentions improvisation and beautiful absurdity. The Neymar golazo had those two features in abudance, and even though a better goal was scored on that same day by Inaki Williams of Athletic Club, somehow Neymar’s grabbed the heart because of its exuberance. The Williams goal was spectacular, but extravagance born of necessity. The Neymar goal was pure art and extravagance, in many ways unnecessary as he had the shotmaking prowess to slot home from right on the doorstep, via blast or curl. But in that moment, “Wheeee!” took over. Messi would have shouldered off the defender and calmly slotted home. A player without a sense of the absurd would have rode the challenge of the defender and curled it around the keeper or blasted it past him.

Stuff like that just doesn’t occur to every player. And even when it does, they lack the skill set to pull it off. They try it in backyards, or in training. They miss it, teammates laugh, and that’s that. It takes audacity to try that on a stage as massive as the Camp Nou, an effort by a player still on thin ice with many culers who still view him as a show pony. Try a goal like that an fail, and “See? Told you.” Neymar doesn’t have the luxury of failure, which makes that goal, and the way that he has been playing since the Messi injury, even more remarkable. Some players just take on pressure and wear it as a favorite shirt. Neymar is no stranger to pressure, being only the best player and captain of the national team of a football-deranged nation, but he has plenty of rope for the Selecao. At Barça, he has none. And he steps up and plays his game as best he can, for the team.

Munir excelled in the right-sided attacker role, that thankless spot previously occupied by players such as Alexis Sanchez and Pedro, a role that is much more donkey work than glamour. You make run after endless run, track back, win balls, do everything necessary to facilitate the glamour boys. That role is a lot of the reason that Sanchez is at Arsenal, and Pedro is at Chelsea. It’s a role tailor-made for a talented academy player with touch and guile, who can move into space with alacrity. It’s a role that has the team first and foremost.

Before the Villarreal match, Enrique had the idea of taking the entire team and their families to an amusement park. A day off to ride roller coasters, run around and eat bad food. We giggle at the training mirth that we see, at the pranks the players perpetrate on each other, the light moments that the BarçaTV cameras show us. But all of that stuff is team building. The players decide to dress up for Halloween and give their coach a start. And not just one or two. And the best players. It’s family as much as a team. All of the training, all of the work, all of the effort that goes into making players cohere is about building a team. It’s military in a way, but exceptional when it works. Even if Barça wasn’t the most talented group last season, it was the strongest team, an interlocking group of pieces that learned to succeed as a whole.

This season, a lot has happened including an early run of poor form, dodgy refereeing decisions and a blizzard of injuries sufficient to make even the most staunch believer embrace doubt. What has happened is that the team is a draw away from winning its Champions League group, alone atop the Liga, and playing the kind of football that is raising eyebrows, all without its best player. Enrique has said it, other players have said it, that it’s the team making this all happen. Everyone is working for everyone.

In an off season of tours, bonuses and promotional stuff, that feeling seemed to get lost. Victories, clean sheets and sweat-soaked shirts are as sure a sign as any that it’s back.

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Written by:

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. luisthebeast
    November 9, 2015

    Maybe we also can count the number of times that Suarez have easy chances to score but he choose to pass to Neymar for tap ins!Maybe Neymar know that and he let Luis to take the penalty!

  2. ChaoticReaper
    November 9, 2015

    Samper learned a lot on the bench -_-

    • Davour
      November 10, 2015

      I’m sure he learned plenty of what it takes, watching the mids go about their business on the pitch!

      Great article about what is so mesmerising about both Messi and Neymar – we are intrigued both by perfection AND by crazy. Many have described acing Messi as “We all know what he is going to do, but still there’s no stopping him. Messi, in a sense, is more about details and nuance; he has that vision, intelligence and perfect timing to make the difficult seem easy. Neymar is a bohemian, trying new routes, an entertainer who happens to be good enough to pull it off more often than not. To have them both in the same team… it’s simply fantastic.

  3. November 10, 2015

    I find it difficult to digest what is said about Messi not being an artist, in that referred article. It is true Messi is not unpredictable, just unstoppable. Just because of that, he is no less an artist than Deigo or Ronaldinho. For me the real artist was Deigo and Ronaldinho was more like a trickster or a magician. Messi has had more Maradonesque moments than Maradona himself had in his whole career.

    Ever since we played football, we considered every player who could dribble well as someone special. And the ones who did it a lot, with lots of consistency, who could even dribble the ball out of a box of defenders, we always considered them special. In international level, whenever someone did this with unbelievable flair and consistency they have been considered as football artists. I mean, a beautiful and brilliant dribbling capability alone can be enough to call a player an artist. Add to that all the other qualities like that of Messi or Iniesta or Busquets (for me Busquests is a real modern football artist) and these players are making an exhibition of their art work, not executing an engineered act.
    Messi averages more or double the no. of dribbles per game than any of those artistes mentioned in the article. More than that he is marked by more opponent players than anybody mentioned in the article. And he is not just a dribbler. Some of his passes are amazing juxtaposition of vision, precision and imagination. If that is not artistry what is. Add to it, some of his goals like the one he scored against Arsenal, which no player could have dreamed possible. When the Arsenal players said that they couldn’t believe what they saw, later when they watched it on TV, was that engineering precision? It was a first time in football. It is not for a reason Drobga said – we all play football, Messi creates football.. He does things live on the pitch. Not practising and perform it. No engineer would go to make a presentation of anything, without practising and fine tuning on his product in the lab.

    Messi repeatedly have said that he does things by instinct, and many players too have said that his magic work is not from training ground, but inborn genius. The only issue with Messi is that, he doesnt try to show off his capabilities or tricks, just for the sake of showing off. He does things, only when it is necessary, to get a result to help his team. That makes him an even greater artist.

    Am sorry, I do not know that writer and if he was an ex player or what, but I cant agree with him. For me, Messi is up there with Maradona as an artist. He seems to have even surpassed him. Its crazy to not call the greatest dribbler and passer of the ball an artist. All those famous writers who have written about Messi in the past – most of that started coming in after that Arsenal match I think- were not stupid to call him so. Right now, I would not dare to say that anything is impossible for Messi to do on the football pitch.

    • Davour
      November 10, 2015

      As I understand it, “artist” in this context, refers to attitude, doing tricks for the sake of the trickery, in a sense. Messi does crazy, wonderful things, but he is still pragmatic. In that sense he is a genius, the best and most effective player, but not an artist. Rather a force of nature.

      But it’s all in the definition, I suppose.

  4. November 10, 2015

    Tata Martino seems to be living in a dream world. The line ups suggest that he will play the hapless, utterly poor Ronacaglia against Neymar (having an in form Peruzzi knocking on the door). Neymar is going to have a field day against one of the weakest wing backs in International football today. If Argentina lose against both Brazil and Columbia, chances are very high, with some very tough away matches coming up they will be in a deep trouble for the WC qualification.
    How can the association of world’s leading footballing nation be so mean to not pay well for a good coach and instead select a puppet. They have never fired a coach before so Tata is quite secured inspite of all his naive coaching.

  5. dl
    November 10, 2015

    What a great picture. Thanks.

  6. ooga aga
    November 10, 2015

    Great victory and great piece by kxevin. The team is growing, as I expected…as evidenced last year, the team cant be at its peak all the time, and there will probably always be injuries, but LE knows how to manage a squad. He is a fitness master and also knows a thing or two about the game. And pardon me if it’s provocative but it is hard to not notice thatcertain “fans” stop commenting here when the team is doing well. Scratching my head.

  7. luisthebeast
    November 10, 2015

    Most fans cant wait January for Arda Turan but i believe Aleix Vidal will be the surprise.He is a player that will make our right flank stronger.He is a winger but he also can be a great RB or RM.I can see Lucho playing him RB and that can give Rakitic the freedom to be more offensive.Or in some games he can be the RW if Leo needs rest.Thats why i am against any January transfer.Turan and Vidal are top class players and they give Lucho a lot of options!

  8. luisthebeast
    November 10, 2015

    To make it more specific if we face Bayern later in CL with Vidal against Douglas Costa i would be calm!With Dani or Roberto not so much;-)

  9. Barcathegreatestever
    November 11, 2015

    Thoroughly enjoyed your article Kxevin!
    When Messi collects his 5th Balon D’ Or an engineer will be the furthest analogy in my mind. I see him as a lion cutting out a victim from a stampeding herd of African water buffalo. Or a wolf doing the same amongst thousand pound elk. He’s not a jaguar or mountain lion stalking and ambushing, he lets everyone know he’s coming and then he comes. Not just any lion or wolf but the most dominant of his generation and all time. Messi is King of the beasts mAybe Xavi is the Engineer

  10. November 11, 2015

    Luis Enrique should have a least given Samper a cameo in this game. Winning by three goals is enough reason to give the youngster some minutes to kick the ball at least. All the same, w are Barça!

    http://www.barcalens.com

  11. raj
    November 11, 2015

    Few players in any sports are awaited like Messi is awaited for the El Classico even when we know the team is still good enough. And happy that he seems on track to make a return. I personally wish that he make a super-sub entry and you know, let the world know who the Daddy is.

  12. Dar_vincy
    November 11, 2015

    Looked forward to your post with great anticipation since Sunday’s game and couldn’t have wished for a more apt review, especially as regards Ney’s performance.
    I really am glad that Busq’s maturation into the Xavi role has been nothing short of a conductorial revelation. I was of the opinion that he should be given a sustained period in that role to enable him gain complete acculturation. The effect of this midfield modification has seen us augment our possession stat in addition to more creativity from the midfield to the final third that was severely lacking in the initial stages succeeding Messi’s absence.

    As frustrating as it has been watching Munir for the past 1 year, he still exudes quality that needs a catalyst- most likely a goal.

  13. Jim
    November 11, 2015

    I’m maybe the only one here who wouldn’t let Messi near even the subs bench for this game. Knee ligaments you don’t muck about with and you can only imagine the thoughts going through the hatchets in the RM team if he trots onto the pitch. Running in straight lines is one thing. Twisting and turning quite another. Getting your confidence back in your knee to push it as hard as Messi does is a whole new level.

    No, Messi, the weight of public opinion, the press and maybe even the docs will tell us he’s fit but don’t believe them. Warm coat in the stands for me.

    Besides, imagine the message for them if we beat them without Messi ? If they win, well we have Messi to come back and are still level with them. Why would we ever risk this ?

    I reckon the team we put out last time, if repeated, is good enough to beat them in their own house in what is effectively a shot to nothing. My worry is that the coach won’t see it that way.

  14. dl
    November 11, 2015

    I’m with you on that, Jim. Lucho ought to be a boss and keep messi in a warm coat in the stands. The rest of the team has earned the right to show rm a thing or two. Suarez and Neymar have been on FIRE, as has the rest of the team. Everyone has really stepped up, filling in where needed and really digging deep. Let ’em run without Messi, I say.

  15. Tata2
    November 11, 2015

    I want us to be able to say, “hey! we beat you without our best player, how about that huh?”

  16. luisthebeast
    November 11, 2015

    Leo is a top athlete and i am sure that if he is not ready he will not play.And Lucho is a coach who never used a player after an injury without to be sure that he is 100% ready!So if Leo play it would be only if he is 100% ready!The news of the day is that Barca B beat Girona for Copa Catalunya and players like Alena Carbonell and Perez played.Despite Barca B poor form in Segunda A i have a feeling that maybe as a team they dont have yet a great chemistry but as individuals some of them will have a future in the club.

  17. luisthebeast
    November 11, 2015

    Oh and great news that Eusebio is the new coach of Sociedad!Now we have another team in La Liga to give b players on loan to develop under him:-P

    • Dar_vincy
      November 12, 2015

      hmm…good thinking, Luis.

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