Before Sunday’s faceoff against Athletic Club, a nemesis that took issue with Neymar being the capricious will o’ the wisp that he is, Luis Enrique said something that didn’t get a lot of notice, but was huge.
“I’m going to give him the advice that he should continue enjoying football. He’s not doing anything offensive. It’s his way of playing and people can no longer use being chipped or getting nutmegged by Neymar as an excuse. … There’s no disrespect. If there’s an opponent who doesn’t understand that then there’s a referee who can send him off.”
Neymar enjoyed the ever-loving hell out of his football on Sunday in an MOTM performance that not only showed off his maturation as one of the team leaders. It also signaled the end of Messidependencia in a very significant way. Messi was substituted at the half and a 2-0 lead grew to 6-0, via a Neymar who went from subordinate to leader. Significantly for the team, we can all remember the time when Messi going off would have meant a desultory, kinda disjointed offensive display. Iniesta would have tried some stuff, the team might have nicked another goal. On Sunday, they didn’t break stride. Messi showed off his 5 Ballon d’Ors before the match, then the team showed off.
Only a fool would say that any team is better without the best player in the game, so we should dispense with that hooraw right away. What is most encouraging about Sunday’s display, even against a 10-man Athletic Club, is that the wrecking ball remained intact.
Enough has been written about what Neymar can do as a football player. It’s his unselfishness and associative play that make him so special. There are lots of players who can go on mazy solo runs and miss a shot at goal. Neymar will destroy to create, breaking a defense down to do nothing more than set up a teammate, as he did Rakitic after essentially taking out four Athletic defenders, then slotting in a perfect pass to Rakitic, who tapped home. It’s a play that rendered everyone who watched it speechless, because it was illogical. He was running, full speed toward the end line, bracketed by defenders. In that physical phone booth, he saw Rakitic and had the presence of mind to make a perfect pass.
This was, of course, after his role in the third goal, a full-speed give and go with Suarez that rendered the Athletic defense incapable of stopping it. On the same day that RM put five goals past Sporting Gijon, Barça put six past a much better team, and kept a clean sheet, to boot.
Things started off with a bit of bedwetting, and some controversy. Pique laid off a horrific pass in his defensive zone, that was intercepted by Athletic. Busquets’ role in clogging that break was key, as he immediately shut down the player with the ball, who helped Barça by making a poor decision and trying to chip three defenders and the keeper.
Seconds later, a 3-pass move had Suarez running loose at the Athletic goal, and he was fouled by the keeper. Liga rules are, of course, straight red if the keeper is the last man, but the controversy for some will lie in what happened before Suarez was fouled by the keeper.
In his rush to the ball, he was confronted by a defender, who essentially tried to wall off Suarez from the ball. It appeared that Suarez pulled back the defender to get around him, before getting to the ball and being fouled in the box. Others say that the defender was pillow soft, and looking for the foul to stop the break and bail out his team.
This is also one of those “in their shoes” moments, in which we can ask about what might be said if Aduriz pulled Pique back the way that Suarez appeared to do to the Athletic defender, a play that would then have resulted in Bravo being sent off. Pique was pillow soft? The foul should have been called before the penalty? The question and quandary are interesting.
The net result was that Athletic went down to 10, and chose to sub off Munain for the keeper, thus losing a key part of their attack and defense. Messi slotted home for the 1-0 lead, and things proceeded. Make no mistake: Barça played an exceptionally good match against Athletic, as those who saw how the team played against a 9-man Espanyol will recall. It was a display of football in which movement was key, and pace was essential.
In addition to Neymar and Alba on the left, Aleix Vidal started for Dani Alves on the right, giving Barça pace on both wings. Vidal, of course, is a different player than Alves and brought a different approach to the side that his teammates still have to get their minds around, but his pitch-stretching abilities are going to be very useful, and potentially dangerous. Vidal’s ball to Suarez on the play that resulted in the first goal and Athletic going down to 10, was extravagant and flawless.
This was a match before which Enrique noted that the team hadn’t forgotten about the Spanish SuperCopa, and the team that denied Barça its sextuple. From the quality of play, particularly by Neymar, it seemed that the players didn’t either. Neymar didn’t just have something to prove, he played like a colt unbound, almost as if the words of his coach liberated him. He had a moment of sideline control, a moment easy to dismiss as the kid being a show pony again, until you realized that it allowed him to take the pass, control it and keep running, a move that facilitated an effective attack.
Suarez isn’t just paying lip service when he says that he is playing with the two best players in the world. Messi’s deputization of Neymar is clear. When Messi left, Neymar’s role changed as he used more of the field, attacked Athletic differently as he became devastating in a way very different than Messi, who will destroy with a mazy, crazy run that has a goal at the end of it. His route to goal is direct, his instincts pure. Messi has shown off his exceptional passing skills, but when he’s running at a defense, its denizens shift into “Holy crap, what now?” mode.
When Neymar runs at a defense, it’s rather a different proposition. He isn’t as direct as Messi, and is much more likely to stop the ball, because his acceleration can beat almost any defender. When he resumes his movements toward goal, you have to play him for the shot and the pass. If Messi is in the box with the ball, you can pretty much bet the house on him shooting. Neymar brings almost an equal chance that he will shoot, or slide the ball over to a teammate. Messi has the supreme confidence of the best goalscorer in the history of a game, a reality that is objective as well as subjective.
Neymar doesn’t have that same confidence in his finishing, which is good, because he shouldn’t. But he also understands that he is much more devastating as a versatile attacker who can dismantle in a variety of ways. He was unplayable, even at one point breaking a defender down so completely that it resulted in a Boateng moment. It was almost like the player and the team was trying to send a message.
Then Luis Enrique began making substitutions that, coupled with Jordi Alba injuring himself in making a stupid, stupid attempt for a ball when his team was up 5-0, demonstrated the versatility and potential that Vidal and Arda Turan added, as well as allowing Sergi Roberto to play his seventh (of 11) position this season, as he was the direct sub for Jordi Alba.
Meanwhile, Busquets slid over to something approximating a Rakitic role, while Mascherano slid up into the Busquets role and Arda Turan morphed into a modified Messi, even throwing in an inch-perfect assist to Suarez for yet another goal. And the play of Sergi Roberto at LB demonstrated the deep understanding of a player who understands his shortcomings, and knows that he has to minimize them with discipline and intelligence.
After a turnover, Athletic was breaking. Sergi Roberto moved over and covered space and the ball, effectively stopping the move single-handedly. Alba would have dealt with the play differently, because he’s a different player, with more pace. He’s also the incumbent LB, where Sergi Roberto is just the team’s Swiss Army knife, who has been very good in every role that he has played this season. LB was just the latest.
These teams meet again on Wednesday, in the Copa del Rey. Athletic will have their striker back, who was absent today. Suarez will be serving the second game of his two-match ban for saying something that he actually didn’t say. Potentially, Barça could also be without Messi and Alba.
There was a time when Barça going into a match against a difficult opponent without Suarez, Messi and Alba would have had culers pulling hair out and rending garments. But Luis Enrique has built a team that can deal with key absences because of not only depth but quality depth, and versatility. It is also a team that, when it is on as it was on Sunday, is head and shoulders above any other in the world.