Barça 6, Athletic Club 0, aka “Lessons learned, bills paid”

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.

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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.

18 Comments

  1. luisthebeast
    January 17, 2016

    How lucky we are,after we saw last decade Ronaldinio,then we saw in front of our eyes the rise of Leo,now to see and enjoy the evolution of Neymar.After 2 years in Barca he is so much better in every aspect of his game:-)Btw is January and we already played 34 games and if we go all the way we have 31 until end of May…i dont mind in Wednesday if Lucho rest Iniesta Pique Raki and Leo.We are ok with this squad.

  2. January 17, 2016

    Alba is out for 10 days, says medical staff. So will be out for both Athletic Copa legs and Malaga in Liga.

  3. FinallyCrushingBuses
    January 18, 2016

    “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”

    I’m elated that a prominent person had a chance to say it to the media.. As if packing the penalty box with 7-10 people is sporting football.

  4. Davour
    January 18, 2016

    It’s interesting, the comparison of how Ney and Leo acts in the box. I’ve thought on a number of occasions that Messi at times finishes when he should pass, and I’m thinking that apart from this supreme confidence, there is also the habit stemming from an expectation that he SHOULD assume the responsibility in a team of passers.

    On Messi’s position, it was interesting to see how after the sending off, he basically did not occupy the flank at all. Whether this was part of tactics, allowing space for Vidal’s speed, or a preference on Leo’s part to play more centrally, I don’t know. But it seems he does not take on defenders too often as of late, but generally drops deep, seeking the pass, or – more rarely – linking up (as he did once yesterday, in a lovely move).

    I don’t think there is anything “blasphemous” to state that the team at times look more dynamic without Messi, simply because others need to assume responsibility when he is missing – Ney and Iniesta primarily, but also Suarez and Busquets. This means that there is less predictability, regardless of how unpredictable Messi can be, And his skills are more acutely and obviously needed in tight, tough games (Bayern, etc.) than against medium opposition (like yesterday). When faced with an important challenge he lives up and becomes more dynamic, the team follows. When, like yesterday, he is more static, the team movement and force declines a little, I think.

    But regardless of this and that, I will always prefer an 11 including Leo. Still, it is a relief to see the team not suffering too much from his absence; Neymar is really becoming an extremely good player, laying waste to defences with apparent (but not actual) ease. Wow.

  5. lala10
    January 18, 2016

    Enter Your Comment…Early penalty and red ruined the match in its infancy. What followed there was painful to watch even as a cule. We were good and the boys exacted some revenge for the thrashing we received at San Mames.

    Since we have a Copa tie with them it seemed necessary to inflict as much pain as is possible and to tire them. Physcologically and physically they should be shot for the first Copa leg.

    As it is we seem good and are well placed to challenge again.

  6. lala10
    January 18, 2016

    Enter Your Comment… The team sure seems more dynamic in his absence sometimes. One possible explanation that his presence on the field generates. Teams are almost always in their own half when Messi is on the field. Secondly that has to do with the contrasting styles of Messi and Neymar as well as their ages.

    In general Messi is picky about his dribbling and chooses when to do his dribbling. When he gets the ball he usually tries to pass it short, whether its the 1-2 with Dani. Neymar on the other hand treats almost every ball that he gets as an opportunity to dribble and which he does quite successfully.

    I don’t have the stats at hand to compare the number of Messi dribbles per game over the years to compare his output but its logical that his output be a bit down as its natural to slow down as he ages. Neymar on the hand has youth on his side so can burn those calories without a problem. I will not be surprised though if Messi’s numbers are not that different from prior years as he does not rely too much on speed to execute his dribbles.

    Lastly the team has shown it can cope without Messi recently. There is a nagging feeling of doubt that entails being a cule. We can’t just help it. And i wonder sometimes how that trasnslates to the players. Whether its transmitted to the players and if so if that insecurity has led to a feeling of having achieved nothing and then fuelling the achievement of more trophies.

    Yet amidst all this uncertainty, this insecurity, lives and strides this wee man who does and has always done things largely to his own liking. Others harry and hurry yet he seems to plod through moments sometimes. Sometimes he exasperates you so much when he does not move an inch trying to stop an attack he would in all likelihood would have stopped. And to warm your heart he sometimes tracks an attacker the whole lenght of the pitch like he did on Aguero so many years ago. And you ask why not everytime and only he knows.

    As he ages and ascends we have so much to ponder and so does the club. Yet even on his bad day he provides so much offensively than two/three players combined. Doing it on his terms. He is come from injury and he shows no sign of hurry. Nothing. We have to enjoy him whilst we still can.

    • January 18, 2016

      Thanks for that excellent comment.

  7. luisthebeast
    January 18, 2016

    Who else than our amazing number 9 would have made the most out of what it seems a wasted pass??How smart footballer is really Luis Suarez??He used his body so great to beat defender,won the ball and made the dribble!!!

    • georgjorge
      January 18, 2016

      You’re right, I can think of only a few other forwards who would have made so much out of this pass. Luckily, two of them are playing for our team as well ; )

    • January 18, 2016

      For me the best striker in the world, no doubt. Some people prefer Lewandowski, but I think Suarez is better.

      Even when he was in his 3 game “drought” his constant movement, pressing and aggression was priceless. He creates so much space for the other two strikers with his intelligent movement. 29 goals and 11 assists in 29 games. WTF. Messi would be proud of those stats.

      Some people didn’t like the way he acted vs Espanyol. I loved it. That’s what makes him so great, he plays on the edge. We need a player like that, sometimes he might push it a bit too far but as long as he doesn’t do anything ridiculous I am all for it.

  8. Jim
    January 18, 2016

    OT: Wow, what a bummer of a year already! Bowie and now Glen Frey gone and we’re only half way through January. For folk of my age this is so sad . . .

  9. bwullur
    January 18, 2016

    Hurray for Suarez… All of his goals were fantastic! a one-two, long pass dribble, and heading… all three goals were done in perfect skill. What a complete striker! We are so lucky he is ours. We are so lucky to have Leo, Ney and Luisito!

    Suarez should be in FIFA ProXI, the funny thing is Messi won Ballon d’or listed as midfielder, but on FIFA ProXI as striker… so no more place could be assigned for Suarez!

  10. Dar_vincy
    January 19, 2016

    Though I realize i’m in no position to make demands of any sort, since this is a pro bono service by the writers here, it’d be enlightening to get a thorough perspective on the Zubi interview by Marca. Just enough talking points to spark a good discourse.

    • January 19, 2016

      Thought of that very thing yesterday. In drafts, scheduled for later today.

    • Dar_vincy
      January 19, 2016

      Gratitude, Kxevin. I was very reluctant to make that request considering how much time and effort it would require do an article on the myriads of talking points raised by Zubi. Looking forward to your piece with great eagerness. Gracias.

    • dl
      January 19, 2016

      Good God Kevin! Between day job, bike racing, and a home life, where on earth do you find time for this?

    • January 19, 2016

      It’s up.
      DL, writing for me is the easiest thing in the world. Pieces come into my mind fully formed. The actual process becomes like dictation, essentially.

  11. luisthebeast
    January 19, 2016

    Who needs Qatar and their money?We can take a 250m loan from Bankia in summer or we can sell land to the major of Barcelona for 100m and then take it back for 1m…..oh wait we cant:-P……Well i hope we will find another sponsor and even the money would be 30-35m it will be ok…

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