Barça 4, Real Sociedad 0, aka “Great things that go great together”

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.

By Kxevin

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. True to some extent, though we already saw that the team can get by for some weeks with only two of the three playing. Unless Arda Turan feels comfortable playing forward on occasion, winter would be a good time to get a fourth forward. Of course, there’s also the problem that it seems unthinkable for Enrique to sub off any of our forwards even in games that are already won, and a talented forward who comes to Barca would want at least SOME playing time…

  1. You might also like:Choosing your path.Or a lesson for all football fans!Patience is key for our health;-)

  2. You’re right, Kxevin, that the way Barca played today was pretty scary, a 4-0 victory against a good team where they only played in second gear half the time.

    As incredible as the interplay leading to some of our goals was, today the defensive work from the team was also immense, general lack of concentration after the third goal notwithstanding. For the first sixty or seventy minutes, whenever La Real had the ball they were were facing a very well-organized defense they couldn’t get through. The pieces all fit neatly together.

    Messi very clearly wanted his goal after the third one, and started seeking it even to the detriment of our overall play. Which is fine since he didn’t actually do that when it mattered, before we were three goals up.

    If the team can prolong this great form into spring, then everything is possible!

  3. It is obvious for a third game in a row that Messi is not 100% yet — he’s still looks kind of slow and low on energy, which is not surprising given that he never managed to get in top shape to begin with in the beginning of the season and then he got injured.

    That should be the real scary thought for opponents right now

  4. I had the feeling messi was getting more and more annoyed as the game went on. He had a few good chances, and they just didn’t seem to fall his way — several of them off the wood (not least that free kick, if memory serves) that had they gone in would have been fine goals. In the end, it looked to me that Neymar and Suarez were bending backwards to get messi a goal (!). Messi looked pretty disgusted (comparatively speaking) and hardly cracked a smile. Funny turn of events, eh? It shouldn’t be long before he’s firing on all cylinders, though.

    Neymar and Suarez, though! Wow!

  5. Ho Hum, another automatic win!

    My only ‘concern’ is the team ‘peaking’ too early. Not that I believe the critics or there really is such a thing. As I said in an earlier post, we just need to be HEALTHY in the big dances. 4-0, 6-1 wins are great, but I’d also just take a 1-0 win.

    The fact we have reinforcements comming in makes me more optimistic for our list management as the minutes chalk up on players legs. Lucho is no fool and managed the players minutes superbly last sesaon and I expect the same to occur again.

    What makes me laugh is we have to endure ‘The Sun’ rumours of Messi being open to EPL and 800,000 a week offers. If that isnt amusing enough it’s lines like ‘How will Neymar cope now Messi is back?’

    What do you mean how he will cope? he’ll keep doing what he is doing! LOL – honestly the media at times….cringe worthy.

    1. Hopefully, this is no peak… also, with Messi looking about 50%, his return to full fitness will hopefully drag the rest along. And similar to last year’s inclusion of Suarez, perhaps Arda and Vidal will generate energy, keep the rest on their toes. But man, the team looked unbelievably good at times, even Raki is showing off with nutmegs and whatnot (he had a magnificent game, despite minor mistakes that I think come down to tiredness after running for both himself, Messi and Dani.)

      Furthermore, with the tactic employed against EE, one wonders wether there really is a need for another forward at this point. Arda, Roberto and Iniesta could all function in that role one way or another, while I for one still think Munir has the potential to contribute. Of course, an injury to any of the MSN in the wrong moment might cause trouble, but which forward with enough quality would sit around and wait for that to (hopefully not) happen? And then be ready to deliver on that level without much match time behind him? Lavezzi is the only one who comes to mind; you’d need a laid back character in this situation, not some stiff like RvP.

  6. If I was in school making a thesis, I’d be doing it on Systems Knowledge, using Barca as a case study in the capacity for collective learning.

    It’s tempting to dread ill feelings are growing among MSN, as seems to be the case with another trio, especially since Neymar and Suarez are leading the scoring tally. But remember, that this is the first time those two have been part of something greater, and it’s really jazzing them. Messi’s already been there, and now he only cracks a smile after truly astounding play. But it’s clear that those two won’t get lost in chasing goal tallies or hat-tricks, and they have been sending that message out to all opponents, both in that penalty handoff to Neymar and working to get Messi that goal.

    Also remember that the two worked hard and close in Messi’s absence, and they need more playing time to restore the 3-man MSN dynamic, just as it took some time to integrate Suarez into what people are already saying is one of the greatest front lines in footballing history.

    Did anyone feel that the defense was intentionally making poor clearances in the last 10 minutes to allow Real to attack, just for some practice?

  7. What is the likelihood that the Ballon D’Or voting results will be fair and the finalists read 1. LM 2. LS 3. Njr?

  8. No chance.Top 3 will be Leo Ney and Ronaldo.Btw i did nt know that Suarez last penalty was taken back in 2010 when he was at Ajax.At LFC and here he only have 1 penalty taken.Well in life u cant have it all,my campaign to be Luis at top 3 failed:(

  9. But thats ok.A number 9 with 30+goals and 20+ assists and a treble dont deserve that.Players and coaches know better(like 2013 and 2014)

  10. And of course old CR made it to the finals. Thing is, he had a great last season in terms of scoring, but primarily in the first half (last year, that is). Can’t see his inclusion as anything but politics and old habits. He should be beaten by Ney, but far from certain this will happen.

    And of course it does not matter, this is just for show – and who knows, perhaps him being left out would have been a boost that he needs to start showing up! I think Suarez can handle his exclusion just fine, he seems a humble enough fella. Just keeping banging in them volleys anyway!

    1. I would have liked Suarez there instead of Ronaldo, but with his sheer number of goals, it was clear some players and coaches would be voting for him. Since the votes are made public, I cant see any politics here. CR7 is simply goals, and there are players and coaches who are fans for those numbers, even if Neymer and Suarez are not just about goal numbers. Messi will still walk into that final 3, even if he scores only half the nos of Cr7. Probably next year, we will see a Barca final 3.
      But this time, the gap between the winner and second could be a huge, I guess.

    2. True, perhaps politics was the wrong term to use. I thought of pressure and bias, rather. But I’m sure you are right – numbers and habit, then – the idea that Messi and Ronaldo are on top takes time to dismantle!

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