We might never know how good this Barça team is.
At the core of the carping on Barça Twitter, the pundits who weigh in about how closely run a victory was is something of that basic reality: this might be the best football that we have never seen.
Some of it is the cruelty of the modern game, that has a top team battling on three fronts, as well as needing its stars to muster energy for international competitions. It’s a schedule that has had Barça without a free midweek since August. What are these players to do, except adopt a pragmatism that is really a bit arrogant, when you think about it, applying a governor that lets them play as good as they need, to accomplish a desired result. It doesn’t have to be great, doesn’t even need to play a complete match.
We’ve seen glimpses of the real power of this team, in the 0-4 Classic win, or the five minutes of beauty that turned a tight match into a rout. But there has yet to be a full match this season, where everyone was giving it everything, because of the necessity of that governor.
During the Champions League match, the first of two against Arsenal, there was a lot of talk before the match, speculation and tactical nattering. But for many, it was as simple as there being no realistic way to beat this team. You can’t park the bus, you can’t press them, you can’t do anything except hope that the collective is tired, trapped in the trough of a difficult block of training, and everyone has a bad match. Athletic caught them that way, and still had to play a flawless match. Celta caught them that way, and played what the players will probably tell friends was the best match they possibly could. Sevilla mustered an otherworldly flurry at the start of a second half that got it done.
This team can be beaten, in the right set of circumstances. But as the unbeaten run stretches to 33, what Arsenal discovered is what 32 other teams already know. You can come close, you can do almost everything right, but it’s the almost that will kill you.
Arsene Wenger drew up an excellent match plan, one that was working. It was pressure, intelligent pressing, vigilance off the ball and keeping passing lanes closed. It was smart positioning and really smart play of the type that many presumed Arsenal to be incapable of. They even got scoring chances that were parried, thanks to an excellent display by Ter Stegen.
But almost isn’t sufficient for a Barça team that is not only capable of sustained bursts of unfathomable excellence, but can take advantage of moments. Arsenal had a spell of possession, and was pressing at the Barça goal. The ball came loose, and Iniesta to Suarez to Neymar to Messi and the result was a counterattack goal of the highest order, one almost violent in its pace and execution.
Before the match, much was made of the fact that Messi had never scored against the indomitable Petr Cech. An article even explained why, the things that Cech does to make Messi think twice, consider his options when facing the helmeted giant. All of that talk, all of that speculation fell apart in a single, beautiful moment:
Messi took the pass from Neymar and hesitated just a fraction, taking an interminable touch and pause to force Cech, who was playing Messi to be human, to take the first-time shot like every other mortal player in the game would have, to make a decision. He got it wrong, tumbling to the Emirates turf. Messi then calmly laced the ball home, and scampered away to celebrate with his teammates.
It all seemed so simple, but every player rushes, every player has that tendency to take the wrong decision. Suarez did, Neymar did. Great players talk about how game time works for them, how seconds seem like minutes, minutes like hours. They can see it all play out and understand exactly what is going to happen next. It’s a safe bet that Messi wasn’t even thinking about what he was going to do, that he just did it, chose the right action at the right time.
Suarez and Neymar have scored more goals, but the reason they defer to Messi is because there isn’t a player in the game who is capable of doing what he can. His teammates know it, almost all of the rest of the footballing world knows it, except for the diminishing island of those who assert that Ronaldo is as good.
And that’s the problem with Barça, this frustrating tease of a team. They can possess you into oblivion, playing football every bit as pretty as the halcyon days of Guardiola. Individual brilliance can kill you. A ball over the top to Suarez can destroy. Press too hard for a goal and a lightning counter results. Go tight on Busquets, and Iniesta gets you. Clamp down on Messi and Neymar capers free. You can do everything right, almost all of the time, and up pops Messi, with a “I’m still here, you know.” And that’s that.
Another bit of honey-dripped football found Messi in the box, fouled by Flamini, a consequence of panic. There were times, during the passing days, where periods would pass where there wasn’t an attacker in the box. No longer. There is almost a race to the box now, and one, both, often all of Messi, Suarez and Neymar are in the box. Barça is getting more penalties this season not because of any rectification by any conspiratorial entities. It’s simply that tricky, talented players are in the most dangerous part of the pitch for a defender, doing magical things with the ball.
The penalty was earned, and a culerverse groaned, very aware of the … um … complexities attendant to Barça and the penalty spot. But this was today, and the goal mattered. Messi beat Cech again, and that was that as Barça proceeded to see out the match, already thinking ahead to Sevilla at home on the weekend, another opportunity to extract vengeance and extend a gaudy winning streak.
All the speculation, all of the prophesies — Walcott’s pace, Ozil’s trickery, Bellerin’s quality, Giroud on set pieces, crashed upon the rocks of a team playing in third gear. Other teams do rondos in training, working on ball control and passing in tight spaces. Matches are rather a different thing. A defender will think, “Get it away!” and hoof it. Barça will take control of a ball, and Alves will play to Ter Stegen, who will pause and play to Mascherano, who might play back to Ter Stegen, then Alves to Rakitic to Busquets to Iniesta and the opponent is wondering how the hell a team just played out of the back like that, and will they ever see the ball again.
It was the focus of Alves, who was a defensive rock in tandem with Rakitic. It didn’t even really settle in how good a match they were having until Alves and Ozil had a verbal set-to and the “Hey! Ozil!” entered your brain. They broke loose on a break in the first half, Alex Oxelade-Chamberlain streaking at pace toward the Barça box until, like a rocket, Mascherano came streaking in with another memorable tackle against Arsenal to match his one on Bendtner, many years before. POOM! And that was that.
Wenger said, after the match, that Barça was “95 percent” of the way through to the next round. The Arsenal coach understands that his team will have to go to the Camp Nou chasing victory, chasing two away goals, just to start, without conceding, without leaving themselves exposed to the rapaciousness of a better team. And that is impossible.
Luis Enrique, when asked what he liked about his team’s display, said “Everything.” Busquets said that the team was calm in the first half, because the players knew that Arsenal would tire in the second half. They did, and that was that, another match played at something well below the team’s considerable best.
In training, there are legends of wonderful things as Barça players talk about feats of wonder, of a quality of play that only facing other members of the best football team in the world can bring out. We don’t ever see those sustained moments, don’t ever get a real glimpse of exactly how good this team is, for an extended period of time. That is the frustration with this team, that anticipation, that need to want to see its best. At the end of a film, “The Color of Money,” an aging pool hustler played by Paul Newman, faces off against the young lion in Tom Cruise.
“You want my game? You couldn’t deal with my game,” Cruise spits at Newman. Maybe that’s what it comes to for us, who have the pleasure of watching this team play, week after week, match after match. They got game, but don’t need to show it because who can handle it? And that only leaves us to watch, wonder, marvel and crave more of those times it all comes together like a song.