So many things have become inevitable about this Barça team:
— Academic discussions that find it wanting compared to the past
— Contentions that it has somehow an “easy” path
— Lack of recognition for its sheer excellence
When Barça rolled into Eibar, the second of a pair of away matches that come at the tail end of an extended stretch of a match every few days, many predicted that this would be the one where points were dropped. “Mighty Eibar,” BeIN Sports’ Ray Hudson labeled them, in a bit of hyperbole that was delivered with a bit of a wink. For though formidable at home, Eibar sits in eighth spot in La Liga, a healthy distance from the European spots.
Eibar is, however, a very good football club that has always been strong at home. On Sunday, Barça came in and took them apart via a display of adaptable football that will vex the academics but was thrilling to watch for so many reasons, not least of which is that it was yet another step in the maturation of a great football team.
Traditional logic has been that you get at Barça by pressing, by being physical, by limiting the options and compressing space. Reality is that such an approach will buy you time and work Barça supporters into a lather, before the team notches enough goals to win, then goes home. Eibar tried an attack similar to that pressing notion, but there was no logic or discipline to it. Lots of running, lots of chasing the ball but it was always clear that once they tired, a gaudy scoreline beckoned. Barça underperformed, even at 0-4.
The way it dismantled Eibar today was art, executed at the highest level by the best player in football, driving an attack in a way we haven’t witnessed in some time. That first Barça goal found vibrant life courtesy of an otherworldly pass from Messi, a flawless lift over distance for Suarez, a ball so precisely hit that it didn’t even need controlling. Suarez just ran on to it and sent it on its merry way to the foot of Munir, who had made the far post run.
It’s a goal that wouldn’t have been by a team such as Atleti, who understand how to press and harry Barça, even as Luis Enrique’s team has a perfect record against Simeone’s side. But a ball-chasing Eibar left the necessary space to be taken advantage of, to yield a simple-looking slot home by Munir that was in fact football of the highest order — beautiful, jaw-dropping, devastating or any number of adjectives that can be summoned.
Messi was absurd today, from tracking back on defense and making interceptions that dismantled Eibar breaks, to making pass after pass, balls indicative of this “new” Barça that can only be described as such if you hew to a single period in the club’s illustrious history.
This Barça is aggressive and impatient. It plays as if it has somewhere else to be, another thing to consider. There can be the interlaced, intelligently positioned football that some refer to as tika-taka, something we have seen so much of this season and last. But this team can also lace a long pass over space to release an attacker, direct play that takes advantage of an opponent such as Eibar, one naive enough to believe that just chasing the ball and trying to get in the way is actual pressing. That sort of pressing would disrupt a team that plays as Barça used to, but this team has the capacity to play in many different ways against many different opponents.
It also applies incessant pressure in attack via players who, reflective of that impatient nature, are constantly heading toward the goal. The days of balls into the box being greeted by the sound of crickets is in the past. Almost every forward foray features multiple players in the box. Barça is winning more penalties, a direct consequence of that more aggressive play because when you put attackers in the box and get them the ball, the possibility for danger is constant. Ronaldo wins penalties not because of any conspiracy, but because he’s always in the box, moving and trying to create danger.
Messi won a penalty by being Messi. As the best player in the game with the ball at his feet, he turned a defender inside out before dribbling past him and forcing a handball call. Some debated whether it was a legit penalty. What is not debatable is the quality of the dribble that resulted in the penalty, which was dispatched by Messi.
It was also a goal that was typical of the way this team plays, a team that wants nothing more than to get at the goal. Why 12 passes? Here’s two. Now step aside. It’s an attack that could be described as chaotic only if you aren’t paying attention. In Barça football, the run has always dictated the pass. So it does with this current team, but the runs are more dynamic, more focused on minimizing the opportunities for something incorrect to happen. Messi played ball after ball over distance, passes that found teammates in the box, sowing as much danger as scorn for logic in a game that lives in the midfield. Win the midfield, and you have a great shot at the match. And people talk about midfield play, and how the Barça midfield isn’t playing properly. Messi isn’t interested in that. He gets a ball, spots a run and bang. It’s direct, unrelenting play that becomes increasingly difficult to manage because of the quality of the Barça attackers.
Eibar chased and chased as Barça calmly played out of the back, then directly hit at their back line. Such aggression puts a team on its heels, but the complexity with that is when you have a player such as Messi. Look at the second goal, which came as a consequence of getting the ball quickly to Messi and letting him run. He’s sprinting at the Eibar defense with the ball at his feet. He’s faced by three defenders, all of whom are backpedaling and watching the ball. Messi cuts left as another Eibar defender catches up to the play, to retain what for him and only him, is a numerical advantage.
As he drifts left, Munir is to his left on the edge of the box, a functionally useless attacker at that moment. Meanwhile Suarez has made a run, wide open for any square ball. As Messi drifted left the keeper tracked him, in something of a march to his own doom as the shot came, off the dead run, hard and low into the far corner. Eibar’s keeper pounded the ground in frustration, when he should have just walked over and shook Messi’s hand. It was an exceptional goal of the type he probably doesn’t score if a suspended Neymar isn’t back home, because MSN sows a different kind of destruction than MMS, plus Messi was rampant.
It was another goal that looked easy, only because we have become so accustomed to footballing extravagance. It’s just another Messi goal. For another team, by another player, people would be talking about That goal. It was also the kind of goal that was enabled by the way Eibar was playing Barça, an approach that was rather naive in the face of the way this team attacks. The fourth goal was another example of that.
Eibar misplayed a pass in midfield that Sergi Roberto
Rakitic instantly lofted to Suarez, who dutifully slashed into the Eibar box. He nutmegged the first defender and rushed toward goal where he was confronted by two other defenders, who chose a physical approach. Suarez bounced off one, then the other, leaving both prone in his wake as he slammed home a shot between the legs of the last defender and the Eibar keeper.
It was a ridiculous goal that was as emblematic of the kind of player that Suarez is as the Messi goal depicted the kind of player Messi is. Suarez was direct, physical and uninterested in anything except doing what he had to do to get the ball into the back of the net. It has been a very long time that the Barça attack has had that kind of a player. The team has had direct players, strikers who were deadly. But Suarez brings a special set of skills to the game and this team, skills that enable a very different approach to the game, a much more direct one that also assails football logic in the aforementioned ways.
Messi was MOTM today, but close on his heels was Mascherano, who had such an impressive match. People were raving about the way Kimmich, a midfielder converted to a CB, played for Bayern Munich against Dortmund. Mascherano is the prototype. Guardiola wanted him for the precise reasons every coach since relies on him: he reads the game and play, and far more often than not can be counted on to make the right action. He destroys, influences, makes runs and passes out of the back. He will get stuck in, transmit instruction from the bench. And until Pique assumes that heavy, heavy crown, Mascherano is as close to Puyol as the Barça defense will see for a while. And his coaches know that.
Meanwhile, Luis Enrique sits in the shadows. He isn’t flamboyant. Nobody will ever call him a genius, say that he is redefining the game or creating some sort of genius mode team. The world won’t breathlessly await his decision when he decides to leave FC Barcelona. People say that Messi, Neymar and Suarez are a dream come true, that who couldn’t win with those guys leading an attack. The coach himself says that coaching them is like saying “Abracadabra,” and magic happens. The danger is that people see that self-deprecating quote and believe it.
Meanwhile, Luis Enrique has calmly, quietly built the best team in football, a team capable of playing possession football with strung-together passes and a logical goal. This team can also play route one football or hit you on the counter. It can be direct, physical and aggressive, or calm and indirect, but still aggressive. It’s a team that, on average this season, scores almost four goals for every one that it concedes, aesthetes who are also thugs when necessary. It’s also a team that verges on automatic.
Many predicted dropped points today, because that’s the logical thing. It’s a tough away side in Liga, a top-ten club that has been waiting, lurking while Barça plays match after match. Dropping points made sense. But nothing makes sense about this team, even as everything does. This group is logical, destructive and inevitable, led by a player whose immense talents make him as capricious as Loki, the Norse god of mischief, playing games with Mercury and Mars, the god of war. Death and taxes are two of life’s inevitabilities. Barça is becoming another. As Reese said in “The Terminator”:
“Listen, and understand! That Terminator is out there! It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”