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.
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.
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.