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.