Season predictions and the life of a junkie

“First one’s free, sucka.” says the drug dealer who mutters, “You’ll be back,” under their breath as the customer leaves.

Anyone who has seen live Barça understands this feeling. It’s a drug, an adrenaline rush that you almost can’t believe as you are experiencing it, that buzz that begins during the warmup as players display skills we can only imagine possessing. During the match it’s a dizzying roar of magic, the “POOM!” of a foot striking the ball that we are accustomed to during live football is replaced by something more quiet when the Barça players strike the ball with boot, as if they are playing a different game.

You need it. You want it. No sooner has one fix ebbed, than you find yourself looking for ways to get the next one, an itch that can only be scratched one way: witnessing the wonder in person.

Busquets takes a pass on the sidelines as two opposing players hurtle toward him, and you worry because you’re a fool, because you don’t understand the haircut that hides the eyes in the back of his head as he calmly influence peddles a pass to a teammate, who strolls along as if magic didn’t just happen.

Hot on the heels of a live viewing of the Spanish SuperCopa second leg, it’s difficult not to walk away with the idea that Barça plays a different game. TV doesn’t prepare you for the experience. Live is drastically, radically different. The arc of a pass, the curl of an ankle as foot strikes ball, the subtleties of movement. TV can’t provide the vantage point of a seat in the stands, can’t match the three-dimensional purity of witnessing the best at manipulating a wee sphere do what they do.

And at the end of everything, of a whirlwind of motion and elegance, a look at the upcoming Barça season has to begin with a simple statement: This is the best Barça team that I have ever seen.

The persistent, consistent doubt about the coaching skill of Luis Enrique has its echoes of Phil Jackson. Both inherited the greatest player in the game. Both had to assemble a cast around that player to work with the skills of a transcendent athlete. People say that their greatest skill is getting egos to work together, and the leave the coaching genius talk for others — Pat Riley during the Jackson days, Pep Guardiola for Luis Enrique.

As their teams keep winning, continue adapting in a game that wants to do everything to stop them, both coaches kept changing, kept winning and people kept doubting. Guardiola has taken over a new team at Manchester City, and social media fills with coos and gushes as people who used to coo and gush over Bayern now oooh, and aaah when City plays. Guardiola has the genius reputation. Luis Enrique is just a coach.

When his Barça dismantled Guardiola’s Bayern, a host of reasons were given, just as they were when Jackson destroyed Riley’s teams. This player was off, that player made an error, tactical naivete allowed Barça to take advantage of an error of genius, and a flawed juggernaut led by a mere coach got lucky in a way, and because it has the best player in the game, and a front three capable of individual brilliance, the rest is history.

I have seen every iteration of Barça live, from Rijkaard to Guardiola to Vilanova to Enrique. We talk of systems, of innovations and ways of playing, of technicians and tactics. Sometimes we need to ignore team building if it doesn’t suit a notion. But when Luis Enrique took over Barça, just as Guardiola did he brought with him a batch of transfers that kick-started a side. Memory is faint, but Rijkaard’s Barça didn’t exactly suck. It was a machine waiting to hit the reset button, that needed a coach who would re-instill that urge, that energy and harness it tactically.

Both Guardiola and Luis Enrique won the Treble in their first season, by turbocharging an existing engine with fresh blood, energy and ideas. Yet Luis Enrique had what was denied Guardiola: the chance to do it again.

Guardiola’s transfer cravings were rebuffed by a Sandro Rosell board that was preaching austerity, while Luis Enrique is almost getting his every craving fulfilled. This summer, he has redesigned a team that needed it. Not only was it aging, but its star player was in the process of adapting his game, just as opponents were adapting to the way the team played. A coach has to see all of this, has to make plans and bring in the right players if those bodies aren’t to be found in the B team.

This summer, Luis Enrique didn’t just make the team younger and set it up for the future. He removed the ability to disrupt the attack by ganging up on Busquets. He resolved the complexity of losing the wonderful, irreplaceable Dani Alves. He made the left back position the deepest it has ever been, and created a versatile midfield that is relearning how to work with Lionel Messi.

Luis Enrique took a team that wasn’t supposed to be able to beat Atleti and, by adapting its attack to bypass an opponent’s key tactic, dismantled a strong, impressive side. During the match, people stuck in the past wondered about the midfield and its demise, almost neglecting to comment on what they were seeing in reality, a coach who took a team and adapted so that it could destroy.

Coming into this season, Barça had weaknesses, most notably age and depth. Those have not only been addressed in the summer window, but some of the most coveted players in Europe have been added, along with surprises. The net result is the best Barça team that I have seen. It can play possession, making those midfield, pam-pam triangles that the cognoscenti crave. It can attack up the wings in keeping with the contemporary way. It can do all three at once, boasting the dynamic range that lulls an opponent with lovely possession football, then a bomb over the top finds a streaking forward.

All of which leads to the obvious question: If this is the best Barça team ever, how will it perform this season? The year started with silver, now how will it end?

Veterans here know of culer paranoia, anticipations of alien abductions, injury plagues and the like. It’s everything possible to downplay the team’s chances because that is The Way. Veterans here also know of my reluctance of predict silver, and not only because so many things can happen during a season. It’s almost become a talisman, a superstition like the player who hops over the sideline as he enters the pitch. No silver one year, and the team won a treble. No silver the next, and the team did the double.

Barça’s opponents have strengthened as well. RM brought back Morata, fixing a significant hole in their attack, particularly as much of that team’s difficulty was mental. Zidane has resolved that. Atleti’s problem has been scoring goals, so they addressed that need by adding Nico Gaitan and Kevin Gameiro. Some think that the Liga has returned to the big two but not from this seat.

Having said that, this Barça team is stunning. It’s deep and versatile and just as importantly, it’s hungry, as if the double left it with unfinished business. Everyone returned early from vacation, ready to get to work as if they understand the potential of what they are a part of. Competition from young, talented faces makes veterans dig a little deeper. Anyone who doesn’t think that Denis Suarez had as much to do with the Arda Turan revival as full adaptation is kidding themselves. But the best team in the world last season got better, and is seemingly even hungrier.

What kind of fool would predict no silver for a group such as that? A superstitious one. That’s who. In consideration of the zillion things that all have to happen for a team to win one trophy, never mind three, only a madman would predict silver for their club. Ever. In Liga, Atleti’s augmentation could be just the trick to produce the goals they struggle to produce against Barça. Morata could be that missing link, now that Ronaldo is seeing a diminution of his impressive physical skills. Guardiola is molding City into somehing impressive, as is Mourinho at Manchester United.

This doesn’t even take into account injuries, and the other things that can derail a season. Depth acquired in the market is one solution, but a string of injuries can lay low even the most well-stocked team. So, with feet held to the fire, I’m sticking with my traditional silverless prognostication, even in full acknowledgement that this team, rolling into this season, is fantastic, the best Blaugrana army ever, in my opinion.

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Written by:

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.

17 Comments

  1. georgjorge
    August 20, 2016

    I am glad for you that you got to see this new Barca team live, and envious that I didn’t (yet).

    Thanks for a great article, right on time – now I can’t wait for tonight’s match! I haven’t watched any of the preseason or the Supercopa so no idea what the new players will bring to the team. But it sounds awesome already.

  2. Jim
    August 20, 2016

    Really looking forward to this. A little nervous – Poyet is no fool but we should have enough. Interested to see if SR’s defending has improved and if Umtiti can stake a claim for a starting place as Pique’s sidekick. However,mad Balague has just said it’ll probably still be mainly about Messi.

    Predictions can wait till later !

  3. Jim
    August 20, 2016

    Didn’t mean to imply Balague was mad. Typo ( but an interesting one from my iPad). I actually kinda agree with him on this one.

  4. TITO
    August 20, 2016

    Well, that was a joy to watch, with few mistakes here and there, i enjoyed it.

  5. August 20, 2016

    Robert confirms the deal with Manchester City for Claudio Bravo. Rumor is 12m for Cilessen.

  6. August 20, 2016

    Today’s match was stunning in every way, but most notably Messi. My heavens, what a match. He clearly wants to lay down a gauntlet for his teammates.

    The Arda Turan renaissance continues. Some think it’s wing vs midfield, I rather think it’s fitness and confidence. Don’t forget that in the offseason he got a special diet, and was working out before almost anybody else. Between the adaptation and confidence from being fit, his game is back, and it’s great to see.

    Umtiti. Enough said.

    Sergi Roberto is the starting RB. That much is clear. And he should be. The right side featured so much attacking danger today. He’s such a smart player.

    The whole team played in a way, that special way, in which the opponent doesn’t matter. If you look at the quality of the goals scored, from ball movement to finishing, there aren’t a great many teams that would have been able to argue with Barça today. The two conceded goals were from a free kick. Okay. It sucks for any defense to concede (note Pique’s reaction after the second), but you’d rather give up FKs than open play goals.

    Above I made the claim that this is the best Barça side I have ever seen. I’m sticking to that statement. Adan standing on his head today was the only reason it wasn’t 10 or 11 on the board for Barça. A truly stunning display.

  7. Davour
    August 20, 2016

    The team does look pretty amazing, yes, and this early in the season. Let’s hope that’s a good sign (and I think it is, considering depth and new players needing confidence). Today’s win was just brutal, even more so than the scoreline. Messi was beyond words; at one moment, I even felt he was unfairly good. There will be no golden ball for him this time, I reckon, but that is of no consequence. This man is playing another game; he was everywhere and did everything. Sure, Betis, blabla., but still – jesus!

    Alba looked like a man with a status to defend, Denis looked better, Arda still good, Suarez hattrick, Umtiti vastly promising, Busi getting into the groove, Raki solid, Piqué engaged, SR confirmed LE made the right choice, etc. etc. etc.

    Next week will be interesting, away at San Mames.

    But let’s go for no (more) silver, then!

  8. PPos
    August 20, 2016

    Messi Capità! Messi Capità! Messi Capità!

    Messi led today in a way Puyol taught him.
    What a win! L and D Suarèz were subliminal. With days like today I hope Arda’s Barça Version trumps his Atlético version. Why didn’t Gomes play? Did he pick up a knock? Well, Neymar got it done. You know he’s going to come hungry from Brasil.

  9. Jason
    August 20, 2016

    Andre Gomes is carrying over a suspension from last year.

    Lots to like in this game especially Messi’s positioning. He influenced the game all across the pitch but did not drop deep into that zone where things seem to get too tight.

    Denis gets the start at the new San Mames but if the super copa is any indication Andre looks a more ready fit to deputize Iniesta at LM.

    I’m so happy to see Roberto play so well. He truly has personified professionalism. Worked hard and bid his time. And when his time came he was adaptable to the expectations of his coach. Class act that guy!!

    Umtiti is so powerful in the air. I look forward to seeing his range of passing more on display. Not much change to the CB depth chart after one game but it was a damn good start to climbing up it.

  10. Chiu
    August 20, 2016

    Great display. Betis have no chance at all. The game was over after the 4th goal.

    – messi is beast. Looked so hungry and scary. He was everywhere. Hope his agony with arg nt would motivate him even more to win more silver with barca. Supermessi.

    – arda looked like a new signing. Confident and enjoying the game. He was fine as the left striker. And looked ok when he move to midfield replacing denis. Just wondering now with so much quality midfileder and arda can be a back up for neymar on left fwrd. Do we need another striker ??

    – sergi roberto. He played like he have plas as rb his whole life. Wish he could stamp his position as barca starting rb. Getting better and accustomed with his role as season evolve. Lucho trust sergi roberto alot.

    – umtiti brick wall. A very promosing cb. Very confident with the ball. Great interception and speed. And taller than jefecito. Masch would share lots of minutes with umtiti this seasons looks like. Certainly looked like an updgraded masch. Hope lucho could manage all the youngster involvement in the team. Keep all motivated, adapted to our style and share contribution.

    My prediction: la liga winner and cl winner

    Visca barca

    • Jason
      August 20, 2016

      Chui, I think he’ll balance the squad to the best of his abilities. And , he is a man that does ironman competitions! Or something like that. He seems highly motivated.

  11. raj
    August 21, 2016

    All this without Ini, Neymar and Masche? And Kxevin says we will win nothing? What?

    The thing that no one mentioned above was Rakitic. He tried to up his game in the creative aspects. Maybe because there was no Ini, or because he feels threatened (rightly so), but he is extremely skilled in those aspects and should do the long shots, key passes/ crosses more.

    • Davour
      August 21, 2016

      Hey! I said he was solid… ; ) But I agree with you; you could clearly see an attempt to provide more of an attacking threat. His role will change as Messi drifts, Alves is gone and the competition for places is much more fierce. He has the upper hand against Gomez and Denis, due to being integrated and defensively stronger, but cannot not take anything for granted. To me, his game looked very promising – less of the easy pass home, more aggressive movement and initiative, and Messi did not seem reluctant to pass to him, as to me has seemed the case at times. Hopefully he keeps growing into a new identity of seniority in the team, no longer being new.

    • raj
      August 21, 2016

      Yes you did say that – you just got away this time 🙂

      Yes, with Iniesta, Rakitic, Arda, Denis and Gomez fighting for 2 places – it is going to be a tough season for some. Rakitic has the upper hand against the new comers but watch out for Arda, he is too juicy now to be benched!

    • August 21, 2016

      Rakitic is liberated because he doesn’t have to babysit Alves defensively. He should be even better this year.

  12. raj
    August 21, 2016

    As for seasons predictions: I am betting my house on TREBLE this season, simply based on whats left out of yesterdays adrenaline.

    Can I talk about some key contests, the ones which make or break a fan:
    Real Madrid/ City/ Arsenal/Juventus et all.: Cake walk – even with renewed resources and coaches, I can’t see any team daring to go head-on into a end-to-end/ midfield clash against THIS Messi, and come out alive. Not even the current RM.
    If Pep tries a three-man back line of City against us (or anything near that) , I’d be convinced that he crossed the line from bravado to foolishness.

    Athletico M/ Bayern/ ManU – All this preparation, new signings and stuff is (should be?) aimed at one target only – creating GOALS against an Athletico team over 2 legs in UCL when we are trailing by 2 goals. That, as is always the case, is the real test for a Barca team. I am quite confident this time around. I am thinking that a pragmatic Carlo or a defensive Mou would try to set their teams in similar lines.

    All in all, good time to be a fan (until the next heart-break, of course)

  13. August 21, 2016

    Very happy for Neymar and the people of Brazil in the wake of the Olympics victory. He was brilliant. Pass after pass that a better teammate would have put away, and then he hits the winning penalty in the shootout.

    Immediately after the match, he resigned as Captain of the Selecao. More developments on that front.

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