What is football supposed to be and what do we, as supporters, have a legitimate right to expect from it?
For those of you old enough to remember analog radio, and that sound that emanated when the knob was almost on the station — that is what watching Barça play feels like a lot of the time. There are passages of sublime play, but then a touch is a little too heavy, or someone hits the ball right at the keeper. And we wonder if today will be the day that the Football Gods decide that enough is enough, that there are limits to what a group of supporters have a right to be treated to.
And something happens, and it’s all better.
Barça is now on a 30-match unbeaten run. Throughout a lot of that run, journos, supporters and other folks have said “Well, they aren’t really playing that well,” or “Boy, if a few bounces go differently … ” Sometimes it’s the consolation of the vanquished. Other times it’s the anticipation of the hopeful, of the people who in some way small or otherwise, don’t like the team/club. Still other times it’s a sense of acceptance, that this kind of stuff can’t keep happening, that logically, something has to go wrong, at some point.
And then it happens again.
For a half of football, Celta was the thorn in the side that they always are for Barça, pushing, prodding, pressing and playing a brave, high-flying style that believes the best way to defend is to attack. The score was 1-1 at the half, after a stunning Messi free kick that saw him dialing in the range on its predecessor, which made you wonder why the keeper didn’t realize this, and shade that way. Celta’s equalizer came from a bit of Jordi Alba boneheadedness that he compounded with petulance. The penalty was converted, and the teams went into the locker room.
What so many of us forget is that Celta played a stunning, energetic half of football that had their coach thrilled. Barça played a half of football that almost certainly had Luis Enrique blasting paint from the Camp Nou locker room walls. Potential counts for a lot in sport, that dynamic range that gives a team the flexibility to be poor and suddenly, be good. Is it as simple as concentrating harder, as simple as playing better? As weird as that sounds, yes.
Some of it is also the domino effect of sport. Legs get a little heavy, and those last-ditch challenges that Celta were making, time and again in the first half, fall short as the match progresses, even as the opponent talent doesn’t. Defenders can’t make the same plays against a vastly superior opponent who is also more focused. There are a host of factors that contribute to converting a 1-1 halftime score into a 6-1 final, but most of them have to do with the fact that this Barça football team can perform at a level that no other team can match.
It isn’t effort. Another team can work as hard, or harder. It’s a simple question of talent and capability, of the hundreds of decisions made during the course of a game, the moves and possibilities born out of an athlete knowing what is before him, and what he can do. Messi earned a penalty by performing a series of moves that left a defender with no choice. The defender argued and really, what can you say? “It was Messi, and he just did that. Give me a break.”
The goal was a wonderful homage to the iconic club figure Johan Cruijff, who had good news this week in the progress of his battle with cancer. In 1982, while playing for Ajax, Cruijff stepped up to take a penalty. Rather than smashing it home, he laid the ball off for a teammate, who fed him for a tap-in. Today, Messi strolled up to the ball, and calmly slid it to the right. Suarez smashed it home as those with a sense of football history melted, even as the ball was intended for Neymar.
“It was for me,” Neymar said, laughing. “But Luis was also around.”
Another goal came when Messi provided an otherworldly pass for Neymar, who seemed to be running almost parallel to the Camp Nou turf as he rounded the corner and released a shot from almost behind the goal, that Suarez slammed home. When you play against that kind of a team, every attacker that you have played against slips when making the cut, or bangs the ball off your shin for a corner. Or they don’t even get a shot off. What Neymar did doesn’t happen. The pass that Messi made was an obvious one if he plays it to Suarez. There is a set of expectations attendant to any action, a set of choices that an athlete has to make. These probabilities are defined not only by track records, but what you think an opponent can do.
Confronted by a pair of defenders, Neymar just did a backheel flick over their heads to himself, and kept running. If that fails, he looks like a dumbass. It’s why more players don’t try it. If it’s the sole option for you, a flick becomes practical. Football doesn’t make sense when it’s played at the level that Messi, Suarez, Neymar, Iniesta and Busquets can play it. And none of us know what to make of it. There were a few humorous Tweets during the explosion, to the effect of, “If you can do this all the time, why in the hell do you play with our hearts like that?”
But that kind of football doesn’t make sense to us, either, for many odd, psychological reasons. We don’t like really great stuff to happen for too long, and too often. It’s weird. There is an unspeakable joy matrix that makes us anticipate the yang to the yin of delight. It’s human nature. We see Barça do this, and we don’t fully trust it. Neutrals believe that culers are silly to see doom around every corner, see it as a misguided defense mechanism or hedging bets.
“This doesn’t feel good today. We’re probably going to lose.” But for 30 matches now, Barça has been performing magic with roots in redefining possibilities, and supporters struggle with that. Claudio Bravo makes a save, and audible gasps occur, because well … “he had to make a save! What is our defense doing?!” That’s how high the bar is. It’s also what’s at the root of the delight of a match such as today.
On the same day that Barça dispatched Celta, Arsenal beat Leicester City to narrow the gap at the top of the table. They struggled, and finally took advantage of a team that went down to ten, and it still took a last-second header. It was a match that was fun to watch, even if it wasn’t particularly well played. Passes went awry, players were up and down and people struggled. It was a battle. Barça, it seemed, just decided, on something of a whim, to play better. The dimwitted decisions that Neymar was making in the first half, stopped. The ham-handing that Suarez was taking part in, stopped. Pique’s passes went to the right spots, and Busquets was himself, suddenly. And the goals began to happen. It seemed simple. It looked simple even as it was certainly nothing of the kind.
Tactics and substitutions had a role in it. Luis Enrique subbed Alves and Sergi Roberto at the same time, the former because he was having a stinker, the latter because he was tired from mopping up and saving the ass of the former. Aleix Vidal and Ivan Rakitic bring a different set of possibilities. A higher-quality player at RB means that Rakitic is free to contribute fully to the midfield, which makes the Celta press less effective because Iniesta and Busquets have diminished spheres of influence. Logically, it’s easy to watch this stuff happen, nod and explain it.
But Barça has an absurd array of talent, led by a player who is now in form, a player who, miraculously, despite all of the goals, all of the golden baubles, all of the records, only won his first Liga Player of the Month award, for January. Lionel Messi is the best player in the game. He has been rounding into form since his return from injury, having returned to a team that had fashioned itself into a juggernaut in his absence. Bit by bit, you could see the edge returning, but today’s match reminded everyone just how good an in-form Messi is. He sees the game differently. For every player, success is a series of obstacles that need be overcome. A defender is one such obstacle. So is a pass.
Messi struggled for a bit in slotting himself into that team, a team that no longer always need for him to make the mazy, crazy runs, a team that no longer needs him to score all of the goals, to carry them on his back. That diminution of needs has led to a vast increase in possibilities. Messi feeds Neymar because he understands that Neymar has the ability to do things with a football that make sense only to he and Messi. Those things will result in goals. Suarez has a knack not only for scoring goals, but seeing the pitch in an unselfish way.
Forwards score goals, when you give them the ball. Suarez makes passes like the one for Rakitic’s goal, a flawless ball that set up a deft chip. He can also lace a long diagonal ball with enough pace to get it to Neymar and only Neymar, a ball that finds his cohort in stride and able to chip home in one touch.
Real Madrid had its Galacticos, an experiment that assembled superstar players in the quest to create an unstoppable force. That notion failed. Most of us have never before seen a team with such a collection of talent, fronted by the three best attackers in world football, a trio who want nothing more than to win. In a lot of ways, that’s good. We aren’t ever supposed to become accustomed to the unprecedented. We won’t sit back, smile when a match starts and say, “We got this.” It’s the same rollercoaster of emotions that the supporters of other teams have. Neutrals say, “Those jackasses don’t realize how good they have it.” This is true. It will, should and will always seem undeserved, that it has to end as we wrestle to understand what we’re privy to, week after week.
Barça destroyed Celta in the second half, with a lustrous display of football that was also ruthless. Atleti won on the same day, scoring a goal in the first minute, then doing what Atleti does for the other 89 minutes. The final score was 0-1. They were two different displays of effectiveness, Atleti’s based in always having one more defender for you to beat, while Barça just ran around, setting off glitter bombs. The 6-1 scoreline wasn’t gaudy, but rather a consequence of this collection of the best players in the game doing what they do and, for yet another week, an opponent not having an answer for it.
This streak will end, because all good things do. But match after match, Barça is capable of making us believe, for 90 minutes at a time, that football is supposed to be art, that we can expect the extraordinary. That isn’t healthy or normal, even as it’s pretty wonderful.