Real Madrid 0, Barça 4, aka “All systems go”

What a stunning result.

Predictions for this match were all over the place, but it’s a safe bet that even the most devoted, die-hard culer wasn’t expecting what transpired.

Maybe it’s because as a collective, we’re busy lamenting what isn’t there, building shrines to past glories and picking nits with current ones. This player this, this player that, this coach this, this coach that. Meanwhile, something extraordinary was happening.

When Pep Guardiola said that Luis Enrique would do great as the Barça coach, it’s a statement that went flitting off into the ephemera because it isn’t something that is easily accepted. We don’t have the coach we want. He’s in the arms of another. In his place we have this dyspeptic endurance athlete who wants to do things differently. It’s a complex thing to manage, to see what is happening instead of what can never happen, because past is past.

Individual brilliance and luck were used to explain away a first-season treble, but you could see that it was so much more than that, if we’d only look. The team was transforming from artisans to thugs, not in the Pepe sense, but in the Puyol sense. The style was changing, even as it was still Barça’s. The players being used were implementing Barça tactics in different ways. And that wasn’t wrong, it was just … different.

The culmination of every last bit of that progression was manifested in today’s decisive domination of an historic rival. This wasn’t some Messi burst or Neymar trick. It was a team dissection that began with, appropriately enough, the ultimate team player in Sergi Roberto helping prise open the lock at the end of a 36-pass move. It was a beautiful finish of a beautiful team goal, the kind that this team was supposed to be incapable of scoring, off of a sequence of play that this team was supposed to be incapable of creating.

Perhaps the fury with which Enrique celebrates goals these days has roots in the joy of a man for whom it is all coming together. His team put its foot on RM’s throat, without Messi. The best player in the game was leaping from the bench to roar in exultation as his teammates put the wood to its hated rival. The assumption that Messi was fit and would start was automatic. Anyone who suggested otherwise was called a fool, or a hater.

Enrique, like any coach, had to weigh the decision of the collective. I was more worried about Rakitic starting than Messi, and didn’t even mind the abuse that I took from some segments of Barça Twitter, because Rakitic is as important as any midfielder has been in a while, because he enables Busquets and Iniesta. He does all of that dirty work while Iniesta is off being balletic. Messi is Messi. He is magic, and the best player in the game. But Enrique built his team from the back forward, upon clean sheet after clean sheet. Rakitic is one of the keys to that.

The XI today was Bravo, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Sergi Roberto, Suarez, Neymar.

That XI was also, on form, the best that Barça could offer, a meritocracy built from the players who, while their Colossus was healing, built a fortress of quality and ascended to the top of La Liga. Those players deserved their shot but more than that, those players earned their shot. Enrique did the exact right thing with that lineup because he has built a system of play that incorporates what Barça does, while adding some things. It would be fascinating to wonder if this is what Guardiola would have built had he remained at the club, realizing that the game had figured out the art, and that every now and again you had to hit somebody in the face.

Enrique has forged a player worthy of starting the Classic from Sergi Roberto, who was widely considered to be little more than shark bait. He has set up a system that has allowed Busquets to become even better, being more dominant and controlling. He has recreated Iniesta as a ballet dancer with steel-toed boots, whose defensive contribution is as important as his offensive one. Neymar tracks back and has matured into a true world-class player.

Atop that, the back line is a system of interconnected blocks, almost like things that divert the flow of water rather than stop it, and clean sheets are the result. He called for Claudio Bravo, a keeper so many didn’t rate, and that confidence was repaid today with a series of exceptional saves that not only kept the clean sheet, but kept the match from becoming significantly more fraught than it was.

He has created a midfield system, a far cry from when people said that Barça had no midfield, even as it was clear that the team was playing a certain way as a stopgap as it worked toward what we saw today. Everywhere you look on this team, you see Enrique’s handiwork. Pique is more mature, Alba more solid in defense and the entire team has adopted the pugnacious attitude of its coach.

Last season, it was clear to see in how quickly the team got goals back that it conceded, the clean sheets and match control that arrived in a different way. Even as this season started out in rather a messy fashion and many didn’t know what to think, time was working, along with a coaching staff and its charges. Through injuries that should have set it back, the group not only worked hard, but worked together, and rounded into form together. And then came today.

The win wasn’t about Messi, or Neymar, or Suarez, or Busquets, or even Enrique. Today was about the unit, from starting XI to physios to bench players, about its best player becoming a wild man as he celebrated his teammates. Barça feels like a family. We see the training videos, the mirth, the comfort with and in each other, the confidence, and it feels good to witness even as we wonder whether it is a show, if any group can be as relaxed and cohesive as that.

That group destroyed a collection of individuals who played like individuals. It was more than them being let down by a selection or tactical approach. The RM XI played into Barça’s hands because it was a collection of store-bought goodies, put in the shop window for supporters to marvel at. This is true even as they aren’t in any way sympathetic parts. Bale can’t work with Ronaldo because he wants to be Ronaldo. Modric is brilliant and selfless, but moves can’t build because the right things aren’t happening.

By contrast, Neymar doesn’t want to be Messi, because he acknowledges that Messi is the best. He just wants to learn how to do what he needs to do to become the best player that he can. And you can only learn that from the best player in the game. Messi is selfless, and that rubs off. If the best player alive revels in an assist as much or more than a goal, who the hell is anyone else to not work in the same joyful, devoted manner. And so the collective becomes a force, and that force dismantles its biggest league rival. The system worked. If everyone gives everything for the person next to them and understands how it can all work together, today’s match is what can happen.

Enrique did that.

Ronaldo was left to fume ineffectually, just as he did when Guardiola’s artisans were playing monkey in the middle, with him as the centerpiece. On another day, against another team, he scores some goals. But against this team, a group whose members don’t want to let each other down, Bravo did what he had to do, then did it again. And again.

There are tactical people who will be able to break down the nuts and bolts of what happened at the Bernabeu. They are a lot smarter than those of us who just say that a team went to work, did what it does and pulled off an extravagant result. It’s still one match, still 3 points in the standings. These essentials make what happened today no less a masterpiece, even if it was one forged in hard work and fighting as much as elegant brushstrokes.

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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.


  1. georgjorge
    November 21, 2015

    Great article about the match!

    In addition to what I already wrote beneath the previous article, it almost seemed as if Barca had prepared and trained months and months only for this game, while M*drid had been too busy with other matches and had to come unprepared. Funny when in light of Messi’s injury and the number of players from Barca having played for their national teams before this match it’s actually the other way round.

    Without Bravo’s astonishing reflexes, they could have scored three or so. But they also could have had three more scored against them. And 4-0 is so much more aesthetically pleasing than 7-3.

    What a night!

  2. ChaoticReaper
    November 21, 2015

    I feel like Suarez plays better without Messi. With Messi on the pitch Suarez is confused and doesn’t know whether to pass to Messi or to shoot.

  3. ChaoticReaper
    November 21, 2015

    Also when Messi came on we became less sharp and started giving away chances because he didn’t put in the workrate of Roberto

  4. mourasaint
    November 21, 2015

    Commenting in this space because I’ve seen my name mentioned here on occasion, so thought it might me appropriate, not to mention deliciously ironic.

    In case any of you recognize me from my frequent contributions at the guardian over the years, the following may interest you (pass it along, as it’s been swiftly deleted from the Guardian comments’ section):
    ———————————- // ————————————————-
    Hello there,

    Your friendly neighborhood mourasaint here to let you know The Guardian has taken it upon themselves to ban me, apparently for ruffling the feathers of a certain one of their contributors, who shall remain unnamed (those of you who care will know who) for the purposes of maintaining this post intact.

    Anyway, just wanted to let you know the reason for why I won’t be posting anymore. Not because I got depressed w/ tonight’s shellacking of Madrid, or Neymar’s recent ascension to world’s best, or Ronaldo’s impending departure to parts unknown, but because The Guardian saw it fit to censor me. Many of you will relish this fact, and even more of you won’t care. But I felt I owed the few of you who actually agreed with, and/or enjoyed my ramblings over the years (a total of four, by my count) some disclosure.

    It’s been fun, folks,


    • ChaoticReaper
      November 22, 2015

      I googled you and got like no relevant hits bro

    • mourasaint
      November 22, 2015

      Ask around The Guardian.

  5. lovell
    November 21, 2015

    This is the first el clssico we’ve enjoyed not endured since guardiola
    Utterly ‘smooth’ and ‘painless’

  6. FinallyCrushingBuses
    November 22, 2015

    “If the best player alive revels in an assist as much or more than a goal, who the hell is anyone else to not work in the same joyful, devoted manner.” That’s beautiful man.
    I was a bit put off when Pique started chomping at the bit to get a fifth goal. If he got it was he going to raise his hand and incite a riot? I was glad that Munir missed that late cross, and it didn’t reach Pique. I was starting to feel sorry for the home team.
    There was no imperative to put a final nail in the coffin. The Real Mercenaries was mentally beat five minutes into the game. I couldn’t believe how early they started throwing cheap shots. The early takedown on Neymar to deny an opportunity was paid back well when Ronnie Boy tried to do the Running Man, and he got the business from Craggy Dani.
    Marcello was such a punk back in Mou days, but now he is one the few players who doesn’t fear Barca and plays aggressively, but unfortunately he was taken off the pitch early. Same with James Rodrigez, he doesn’t have the emotional baggage of El Clasico and just plays normally.
    The English commentators I heard were not very good. One said that Munir had two shots on a silver platter (the late one was a good chance), but earlier kept repeating that Sergi Roberto is not expected to score goals.
    So happy to have a manly player like Bravo at the back. Like a boss!

    • raj
      November 22, 2015

      Well said about the Pique inciting a riot. But you got to understand the aesthetic beauty of a Manita.

      As for Real Madrid, the most dissapointing part is when the coach decides that the two players who could turn the game around are not worth the risk,

      Don’t agree with you on Munir. I feel pity for the nervous boy (I have been there, believe me), but he has to take responsibility for not getting his primary job done (which, incidentally, is not tracking back and pressing)

    • FinallyCrushingBuses
      November 26, 2015

      Well we disagree on Munir then. His primary job is not scoring goals. It was the 88th minute in a 4-0 humiliation of the world’s most valuable franchise on their own turf. With over a billion eyes trained on the game, you might forgive him for being tired in one of the most stressful events in world sport, and not converting a meaningless goal. It’s quite normal for many strikers to miss several opportunities in each and every game. If you watch some compilation videos of Messi or Neymar passing, you see even MSN have missed many many greater chances for goal after some amazing play creation. Sergi took a few seasons to even look like he deserves being on the pitch with Barca, I say cut Munir some slack. Even Fabregas and Alexis looked pale in the starting lineup, and they are top players.

  7. Jim
    November 22, 2015

    Not for me.

    After the constant abuse Pique has suffered from Madrid I’d have loved it if he had scored a fifth. He, like most of the team, had a great match , burst a gut to get up to support the attack and was back to his position in good time to deal with anything although we had cover for him. His stamina to get up and down the pitch so often and so quickly is actually pretty remarkable. Did he want the fifth for the Manita or to silence the fans ? Don’t know what was in his mind so can’t say but either was fine for me. Would it have incited a riot ? No. Would it have upset their fans? You bet, but like many fans who complain about Neymar’s showboating etc they need to get over themselves. if you dish it out you need to be able to take it. If I’d been Pique and scored a fifth against them in the Bernebeu after that abuse I’d have Stood in the centre circle and blown kisses to the crowd . (Ouch. Just visualising that makes me cringe but I’d also have been off my seat shouting “Yesss !!! ” )

    • FinallyCrushingBuses
      November 22, 2015

      I hear you. The crowd was relentlessly booing him from the get-go. Makes sense in that context. At the end of the first half they were booing their own team. Not a good sign when your home pitch is a hostile working environment.

      I liked the way Barca celebrated. Not over the top, but like “It ain’t no big thing.” And how many cool angled backheel passes did Iniesta make? Even the RM fans were applauding him when he was substituted.

  8. luisthebeast
    November 22, 2015

    Lucho u are the boss.Ancellotti Simeone Pellegrini Blanc Allegri Guardiola.How many scalps of the famous and loved by media coaches u will have in ur collection until Barca fans accept that ur a great Manager??Maybe never!Last season Messi saved u and now it was Benitez fault.Yeah.Damn right!Without transfers,with players that won everything last may,without Leo,with Neymar tired,with Macherano injured in 27 minute,with Sergi Roberto!You thrashed the best squad in the world(that was the word from many fans)into their house.Thank u boss.Thank u team.

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