Iniesta and Neymar. The two players who most contributed to the destruction of Real Madrid yesterday are both fascinating cases to consider in the match’s aftermath.
Iniesta, MOTM in everyone’s books, even those of the RM supporters who applauded him off the pitch, has come such a long way from the lonely, weeping lad from Fuentealbilla. He came up through the ranks of Barça’s La Masia academy, a place that back then was just another academy rather than the place of dreams that it has become, thanks to a legendary graduating class.
He rose, calmly, through the ranks, his quality apparent for all to see, embodied in the now almost apocryphal Guardiola statement to Xavi, “there goes the man who will retire us both.” It’s a phrase also worth correcting as “will succeed and evolve us both.”
It’s easy to call Iniesta “modified Xavi,” but it hasn’t really been until this season that the truth of that description has been so apparent, particularly after a match that displayed this new Iniesta at his peak. To be fair, it was a display enhanced by a team who decided to functionally play without a DM against the best midfield in the game, but that should take nothing away from the exquisite quality of Iniesta’s match.
Xavi controlled with a metronomic precision. Alves said that Xavi plays into the future, speaking to his remarkable ability to be able to see things even before they develop, and influence the game. Iniesta, then, plays to a future that he creates. It’s difficult to think of la pausa and not think of Iniesta as time after time during the Classic, he escaped from complex situations by hesitating for a beat, to allow players who depend on mere physicality and pace to set up on the wrong foot, so that he could then glide past them. At one point he lost possession, then regained it, allowing play to proceed with a neat slide tackle/pass.
The game wants to run, it wants to move. Balls roll, players dash after it. Yet so many greats could make everything stop, just for long enough to allow control of a moment to be regained.
When Enrique assumed the reins of Barça, Iniesta was thought to be in trouble. People assume that the coach demands power and physicality from his charges, even as that same coach makes comments that revere Busquets, a player who is the antithesis of power and physicality. Many declared Iniesta past it as he struggled to adapt to the new demands of a new system, and blamed its creator for not utilizing Iniesta in a way best suited to his skills. Meanwhile, Iniesta adapted. He was magic, but a yin to Xavi’s yang, the capriciousness that didn’t control, but danced past everybody, then missed the open shot.
Yet in addition to the defensive stats that display his evolution, and how different the attack feels when he is guiding it, that goal struck by the man whose foot often lets him down in front of goal, was punctuation to the changing of a player. He ran into space created by Neymar, and struck home with power and precision.
Football is so beautiful at times, but never more so than when an artisan decides to control a game with elegance, raising his game to its peak and daring his teammates to keep up. When they do, beatdowns happen. Iniesta was quiet but demanding in the Classic, not as demonstrative as Puyol, but no less a Capita. He was also a rather immense contrast to Neymar, his partner in crime.
Where Iniesta went off to an ovation from the RM crowd, echoing Ronaldinho, another Barça legend who dismantled them in their house, Neymar got frustration-filled kicks from first one then another RM player, finally resulting in a straight red for Isco, a man billed, ironically in this moment, as the next Iniesta.
In many ways Neymar is an Iniesta for the modern age, again a player who has to use something more than pace and physicality to influence things. He isn’t the fastest or the strongest, but he has been gifted with swivels for ankles, and an ability to stop and start with alacrity. Like Iniesta, he understands how the game can be influenced with movement, and from that influence can come control.
Even their versions of la pausa are different, Iniesta’s more elegance based in movement, his own and the defender’s. Neymar’s version stops everything, understanding that because only he knows where his next step will be, the advantage lies with him. Both use feints and trickery to break a defense, but in very different ways. Even the goal that Neymar scored was based in influence, in a run made, a shot held long enough for the keeper to stride so that he could slot between his legs.
We have read enough about how Neymar has stepped up in the absence of Messi, but only the hasty would suggest that yesterday’s dismantling was emblematic of that maturation, even as it was (that word again) influential. Iniesta was the hand that drove the wrecking machine, with Neymar as his co-pilot. People went nuts when Messi came onto the pitch yesterday, and history may well forget that it was already 0-3 at that point, thanks in part to tallies from Neymar and Iniesta, both calm, emphatic finishes. Two influential artisans who decided a match in their way.
But where Iniesta came to Barça as a snot-nosed kid, Neymar came to Barça as (allegedly) a snot-nosed punk, all hair and attitude. As you watched him toy with Varane yesterday, or in his own, Iniesta-like way somehow wriggle from amid a thicket of defenders, was it that hard to wonder what might have happened had Neymar decided to choose RM instead of Barça.
Would he have developed into the same player? Would the glitz, glamour and pressure of life in the spotlight have made those Robinho II quips come to pass? Who knows. But RM bought Bale, a player who had them effectively playing with 10 yesterday, while Barça bought Neymar, a player who along with Iniesta, seemed to have their team playing with 14.
Iniesta and Neymar both led from the front yesterday, raising their games from an already-high level, and their teammates came along. Suarez had his big match brain on today, never getting caught offside, dispossessing Modric and kick starting the second Barça goal. Busquets was otherworldly, coming into the match in a way that few might have predicted when he was a mere DM. It was a team destruction, and it needed to be. But the two artisans of Barça laid the groundwork for a period that became playtime when Messi entered, a celebration of sorts. And as Iniesta walked off, handing the Capita armband to Messi, he enjoyed an ovation but he also looked dog-tired, like a player who had given absolutely everything that he had, in a dose precisely metered to his last second on the pitch.
That face, and that moment, said so much about the 0-4 victory. And it was fitting that a player who, at the mid-pitch captains photo op was the smallest of all, dwarfed even by the officials, would be the biggest and most influential with the ball.