When people talk about Luis Enrique having built a team in his image, today’s match is precisely what they mean. This Barça is a team that wins with effort. It’s one thing to have gobs of talent, and the team does possess that, with even more coming online in January, but the real key to making it all work is effort.
Barça was up by 5 goals against Roma, and Suarez was tracking back on defense. Barça was cruising today, and Neymar and Suarez were working like dogs on defense, even to the detriment of their attacking games. Rakitic was in his own defensive box, making plays. What Enrique has drilled into his team is something pretty magical: it isn’t enough to have talent, you have to also work harder than the other team.
Coming off the heels of two dazzling displays against Real Madrid and Roma, people were wondering what kind of match they would get from the team today. What they got was precisely the kind of match that the team needed to play, a comfortable ride mostly in second gear, hitting the throttle often enough to take care of business then doing the work necessary to consolidate, and bring the result home. We often mention pragmatism with this team, but playing just well enough to win comfortably is of value over the course of a long season.
Consider the second goal, made from a sumptuous cross from Dani Alves who rewarded a striker’s hard work. He didn’t play in Messi and Neymar but saw that Suarez would be running into space, unmolested by a defense who already had its hands full with Messi and Neymar in the box. So he lofts a cross that Suarez runs onto and volleys home.
The first goal was beauty and work, as Messi created a deft little touch then a pass for Alves, who slid the ball to Neymar, who slammed home. That goal looked easy, but think about the attackers who don’t have the pace or savvy to get on the right side of the defender, or the crosses that are just a little bit off. Alves worked to shape and create that pass, and Neymar worked to get himself into the exact right position.
Time after time, all over the pitch, even as La Real came out with a high-pressing style that everyone who knew anything about the game knew would lead to their collective doom, Barça outworked their opponent. Sometimes this didn’t show in physical work, but instead in the mental effort, as Iniesta and Busquets found themselves in the right spot time and again, to disrupt, harry and harass La Real attackers.
As a player, Enrique had immense quality, but he also had a work ethic that allowed him to maximize that quality. What is happening with Barça right now is that a collection of some of the best players in the game has also been shaped into some of the hardest workers in the game. If you beat one of them, two more are chasing you down. Work a pass, and a defense is shifting to close off angles. Alves is out of position, so Mathieu runs across the pitch to play RB, and shut down an opponent attack.
When Guardiola assumed the helm of the team, much was made of his “Run, you bastards, run!” Without knowing what Enrique said, he has developed more of the same, a cohesive group that wants nothing more than to succeed, and understands that success comes from work, not being more talented. Talent and genius is the luxury afforded by the foundation that you lay in effort. Work to get in the right position, then be magical. But without the former, the latter never happens.
Neymar arrived at Barça with much doubt. What he has done is worked, on his body, his attitude, everything that is standing in the way of his being the best player that he can. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that he is finding his fullest flower under Enrique, a coach who sent away one of the brightest attacking talents to come out of La Masia, because they player didn’t have a high enough work rate. So Neymar works, and runs, and tracks back, and tackles, in addition to being a genius when he has the ball in attack. It’s what he has to do, what he is supposed to do.
Atop all of this is a wonderful chemistry rooted in the good side of the “Dictator Messi” business. When Neymar and Suarez came to the club, the best player in the game was already there. And he wasn’t just the best by a little bit, either. And that player set a template of hard work and selflessness that makes it impossible to do anything except emulate that. So what you get is a trio of the three best attackers in the game, playing for and with each other, who are as happy when the other scores a goal as when they themselves score.
First Neymar, then Suarez. And after they got their goals, their minds turned to Messi. That success didn’t come until late, but it came on a play that demonstrated not only how far Neymar has come, but how far the team has come.
Late in the match, Neymar took a pass and made a run up the sideline, closely shadowed by a defender. Off the dead run, he just stopped, again with his own version of La Pausa. As the defender slid past him, he darted into the box, holding, holding, holding, then creating enough space to, almost without looking, lash a perfect ball across the face of a hyperactive, attacking keeper to the foot of Messi, who slammed home. It was a goal that was magic because it was defined by pure selflessness, as a man who is on form the best player in the game right now, working and twisting his body hither and yon so that his teammate could get his goal.
That is fundamentally absurd, when you think about it, and it all comes from the excellence of Messi precluding the possibility that anyone at the club can do anything except work hard and strive for consistent, selfless excellence.
This 4-0 win was at a canter, a calm dismantling of a team in a showing that was in many ways more frightening than the previous two. We often hear that teams can’t turn it on at will. Yet today, that is precisely what Barça did. There is also an intelligence to how the team plays, a group that is learning as it goes along. A month ago, Bravo takes an easy catch, waves everybody away, waits a bit then hoofs a long “pass” toward midfield. Today, Bravo took the ball and immediately played a long throw for Neymar, who was streaking up the left side, a play aimed at taking advantage of a pressing opponent in the exact right way.
Against RM and Roma, Barça was a high-flying passing machine. Against La Real, Barça was malleable, with goals coming from fullback crosses, because that is what the opponent was giving up. It’s one thing to have a way of playing. It’s another thing to be so talented, so diverse in attacking skill set and mentality that you can beat different opponents in different ways. And the foundation for everything is work, to get into place to receive a pass, to be in the space necessary to create a passing angle, to deflect a ball, to help with the press. Work, work, endless work as a collective selflessly strives toward a common goal.
It isn’t that Messi, Suarez and Neymar are great, even as they are. It’s that they are great together, buttressed by a support network in which everyone understands their role, which is to be whatever the team needs. Mids will be fullbacks as centerbacks morph into forwards and FBs work as midfielders. Total football? Maybe, even as such academic distinctions are best left for the folks who reduce games to theory.
But from my chair the story of this match was in a picture, Neymar digging in to sprint as hard as he could, his face grimacing from the effort as his feet dug divots out of the Camp Nou pitch. The game was out of reach, but Messi needed a goal. It was work, toil that had its reward in the joy of a teammate. That’s pure, beautiful and most of why Barça is the best team in the game right now.