The hyperbole is coming fast and furious after a 0-4 thrashing of Real Madrid that was either not as close as the score indicated or a close-run affair at that. And then came Roma in Champions League, a team that when last faced, grabbed a 1-1 draw at their house thanks to a wonder of a golazo. This time, it was 6-1 and even their keeper, the pinata of pint-sized tormentors, talked about the beauty of it all.
And one of the first things the coach said, was “We can be better.”
Perspective is a weird thing, as mostly absent as that absence distresses. The long view isn’t popular in this day and age of the hot take, of the “5 Reasons Why … ” and instant conclusions. But it wasn’t that long ago that a great many culers wanted to see the back of the man who has built this machine, and screamed at anyone foolish enough to counsel patience. “Why are you defending him?!”
It’s easy to forget that Barça lost to Sevilla, and got a 4-1 beatdown from Celta, that it drew 1-1 with Roma. If that was so long ago, it’s easier to ask what might have happened had Claudio Bravo not been having an out-of-body experience in the Bernabeu, or what if Dzeko had been as accurate as he was unmolested? Observers don’t know what to think, so one team is tactically naive or has the wrong XI, because the other team can’t be that good … can they?
We gush and crow because memories are short, like the exes with stinky feet and beautiful eyes that makes us shut down our sense of smell and augment our senses of sight. And everything is wonderful again. There are even people who say that, in reaction to Samper making his presence felt against Roma, that they understand the plan Enrique had for him all along. And yet it isn’t that long ago that the watchword for Samper was that Enrique has no idea what he’s doing, and Samper should go to Arsenal, or somewhere that he can be appreciated, and “You idiot, you are defending a man who prefers Gumbau to a massive talent like Samper.”
Perspective is important, and crucial. Last year at the beginning of the season, Real Madrid was playing the best football that anyone had ever seen, and what did they win. Tata Martino’s Barça laid waste to the Liga and its Champions League group before the break, and what did that team win?
What was clear in the two most recent Barça matches, is that this is a team coming into form. It isn’t fully in form yet, and Enrique will grouse about the Dzeko shot, the Ronaldo and Benzema chances and the penalty conceded, to deflate puffed chests. Certain coaches are singled out as perfectionists, but in fact every coach is a perfectionist. An interesting question would be whether they prefer a 5-4 win, or a 1-0 win in which the opponent had zero shots on goal. You probably wouldn’t lose much dough wagering on the latter, because perfection for most coaches implies a lack of risk, an easy win as a consequence of that control.
Barça kicked the crap out of Roma, and dominated RM to a remarkable degree, and both matches were glorious to watch, even as flaws were visible. As the adage goes, form is temporary, class is permanent. Barça got its butts handed to it in the SuperCopa, and the bandwagon suspension groaned from the rebounding of culers leaping off. But now the wagon is riding low again, and everybody is happy. And they should be. But we should also keep in mind that this team is a “negative” result away from being doubted again because that’s what football does, and that’s what football supporters do.
It has been a very long time since I have seen football executed with the extravagance of that first Barça goal. We saw a lot of “next-level football” descriptions, but it really wasn’t. It is the kind of football that can result when the three best players in the game decide to play for each other and the team, rather than themselves. Suarez said in an interview that there isn’t any discord among the superstars because they know that Messi is the best. So done, and done. Suarez was pressing Roma in the 92nd minute of a 6-1 match. That was as impressive as that first goal, because it means that a team that won a treble the previous season is hungry for more, that its players are working hard, motivated by that ultimate potential.
Football sometimes exists in the abstract. In Formula One racing, qualifying sessions include a feature that morphs drivers’ hot laps. So if you can the first sector of this driver, the second sector of that driver and the last sector of the other, you have the perfect lap. Footballers, particularly exceptional ones, dream of the game in the abstract — how can I play a perfect match, what can I do to be better? Enrique, like most coaches, thinks of his team in the abstract, effort and execution matching potential.
That first goal would have made Enrique happy because it was an unstoppable goal. The system worked. It relied on the system and the players as well as the excellence of those athletes, but the automations and execution of that first goal made it an ideal, a momentary pinnacle reached. It was as perfect as football gets.
People started bringing up the Guardiola years and discarded phrases such as tika-taka, comparing a living, breathing thing to a ghost. It took an observer and supporter of Real Madrid to assert that the differences are such that the two teams can’t and shouldn’t be compared, except in that both played Barça football, which is possession-based, attacking football.
The Enrique team builds differently from the back, handles possession differently, takes more risks, uses its attackers differently. Busquets is playing differently, so many systems are functioning differently. This Enrique team is playing football that is almost a direct response to the reaction to the way that the Guardiola team played football, as opponents got their minds around that game and how they could stop it.
To go even farther, it does Enrique’s team a disservice to compare it to anything other than itself, because that’s the yardstick it is measuring itself by. Athletes rarely chase ghosts. Records are tangible things, moments that can be attained. More goals, more assists, more clean sheets, objective quantifiers of effort. But the players who achieved those things are ghosts, figments of the past.
Football should look forward even as it is fond of looking back, to Milan teams, Guardiola teams, Mourinho teams, Pele, Maradona, Zamora. Supporters rank goals, and say that such a goal was nice, but remember the one Ronaldinho/Pele/Rivaldo scored. That’s something of the struggle. Some of it is that we can’t fully believe that such things are happening, and perhaps clinging to the past gives us more comfort. We know what happened. It’s scary to consider, and try to embrace what might happen, and not only because it’s unknowable. Uncertainty is weird and distressing.
Samper has gotten the hype, and he isn’t playing. Why in the hell not? Gumbau is playing, and Samper is so much better than Gumbau that the mind boggles, so what the hell? When supporters don’t know, they tend to react in a certain way. Others shrug, and say there must be a plan, and let’s wait.
But there’s also the other angles worth considering, that maybe Gumbau is a physical profile the club doesn’t have, and Enrique wanted to see enough of Gumbau to gather data for the future. Maybe. Maybe the answer is not an OR but a BOTH, Samper and Gumbau.
Somehow the rage started when one was training with the first team while the other one wasn’t, and it isn’t fair to the team, coaching staff or the players involved, nor is it defensible. Supporters do what they do, but young players are working their butts off to make the first team. We don’t know how they look in training, we don’t know what coaches are looking for, we don’t know much of anything except that at some point, someone anointed one player and said that the other one was crap, and that’s that. It’s wrong, and something that should be learned from, just as Samper will learn from the first-team outings that he has gotten and will get, just as Gumbau did. And time will tell.
But this isn’t just true of Samper and Gumbau and any other talent that someone will or will not be stupid about. Andoni Zubizarreta worked with the coaching staff to build this dynamo, and he has bus tire tracks up his ass as a consequence, and the echoes of “Incompetent!” filling his head.
So many things have happened to teach the value of patience, calm and the long view that it is difficult not to see the last two matches as just one more example of this, more chances to learn. It was only two months ago that Messi ventured forward on a scoring chance and hobbled away with a knee injury. Form comes and goes. Victor Valdes made a routine play, landed and went from arguably best keeper in the game to a guy looking for steady employment. The crazy dynamics that govern the spin of a football work for and against a team. Luck? Nope. But a wee bit of dissipated concentration is all it takes to change a foot strike from a goal to a the groan of a near miss.
We have a football team that pulsates with brilliance. We have also been lucky enough to have a team that pulsates with brilliance, even when it hasn’t won trophies. Martino’s team has become this horrible thing in legend, instead of a group that surmounted injuries, turmoil and heartache to come within a lousy 5 goals of being in with a treble shout, a group that put up with stuff that would have most of us huddled in our apartments under blankets, weeping. And they were out there kicking a football. There have been stupefying footballers plying their magical wares for our enjoyment, athletes of a quality that makes me curse my reserve, make me wonder why I can’t buy a shirt and argue with anyone who would dare question their excellence.
Each and every time any one of those athletes take to the pitch, we have absolutely no idea what will happen. You can describe that first Roma goal, but the words just don’t do anything. You have to see it. And irrespective of what happens this season, that goal will be magical. It won’t be a waste, or a piece of glitter on a failed season. It will be perfection, the apogee of what supremely talented athletes can accomplish. Goals like that, results such as the last two, conspire to steal perspective, conspire to make us want this wonderful, wonderful thing to go on forever. But it can’t. And that is where a coach comes in, to say, “The win was nice, but we can be better.”