Alacrity. If seeking one word to describe the way Barça played in a 7-0 destruction of Celtic, that’s the one.
Webster succinctly defines the word as “brisk and cheerful” readiness, a condition that began in the tunnel before the match as the players were laughing and joking, while Messi was messing about with the kids who accompany the player to the pre-match presentation.
It wasn’t that Barça wasn’t feeling the pressure as the team opened its Champions League effort in a home fixture against Celtic. The players had to be. But the mood, as much as could be discerned from TV images, seemed to be a belief, a simple readiness to take care of business.
Before the match, asked who the best player in the Champions League was, Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola praised Lionel Messi. After the match, Messi’s coach and teammates added to the pile of effusion. But it was during the match that the truth was told. Messi served as a goad, a constant challenge, a gantlet hurled down with the force of thunder. He sprinted across the pitch to pick up a loose ball just before a Celtic player could get there, dropped honey-dipped passes at the feet of his teammates, scored a hat trick and hurtled around the pitch, a human absolute.
“You can’t be as good as me, but let’s have some fun together. Ready?”
Look at that picture above, Messi standing there almost like professor with his apprentice as Neymar laced a free kick into the Celtic net to layer insult upon injury. Messi wants more than anyone could possibly have. What’s most dangerous about him is that he wants to take his teammates with him, wants to lift them up to something approaching his level, using his gifts to make the game a little bit easier for everyone he plays with. Selfless. Neymar has a music single coming out, but it will be impossible for him to sing a song any more lustrous than he did on the night.
Few who are familiar with the team and its players would be surprised by the Celtic result. To take it a step further, it’s difficult to imagine a team in Europe who would have been able to withstand the display put on by Barça tonight. The final scoreline might not have been as gaudy, but this was a team that wanted to send a message, wanted to wipe the egg off its faces after laying one on the weekend against Alaves, a display that brought to mind another word, somnambulent.
The first goal came three minutes into the match, as Messi, almost on a dare, laced a high, hard shot across goal into the far corner. Announcers will say “Well, Celtic gave him too much space,” but look at the movement of the players and ball, how Messi explodes into action, making the air almost ripple with the violence of his movement. On this night, the ball and the players were moving with alacrity, a pace that made it difficult not only to keep up with them, but to do anything except pretty much watch as they destroyed.
There were tactical differences of course, as Luis Enrique opted for an XI of Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Andre Comes, Rakitic, Suarez, Neymar, Messi. The odd inclusion was Gomes, until it was clear what the intent was.
Alaves was allowed to come out of its end with the ball, Barça choosing to defend in a reactive rather than preventive sense, almost as if daring Alaves to do something with the ball. Against Celtic, the entire team moved up the pitch, not just positionally but aggressively.
Having Ter Stegen in the nets meant that the team, rather than on the weekend when Cillessen played a safe pass to a defender, who played to a midfielder, who brought it up to begin the attack, the action was beginning aroung midfield. The players were being creative, using lines and angles to attack, as once again the run dictated the pass. Suarez sprinted where Alcacer walked. Sergi Roberto was wholly uninterested in losing any physical duels, shouldering, winning headers and putting his right side on lockdown. This allowed Rakitic and Busquets the freedom to not only be creative but create. Busquets found an analog in Gomes, who at times occupied the pivot and he and Busquets traded roles.
An excellent post-match analysis over at EUMD, described the team as being like water flowing around rocks. Whether due to training cycles or some other malaise such as complacency, Barça was dead from top to bottom against Alaves. Compare that with the pressing, marauding group that rarely let Celtic out of its own end, never mind getting any significant efforts at the Barça goal. Celtic had two real attacks, a rush that resulted in a penalty that was saved by Ter Stegen, and an offside goal. Other than that, they spent almost the entire match watching a team that wanted to send a message.
There was a lot of talk after the Alaves match about rotation, lessons and what the team did wrong. The message that the players seemed to want to send is that the only they did wrong was not having the energy to play Barça football, a game where ball and players move too quickly to be managed. The second goal was the pinnacle of this approach as Messi and Neymar passed and moved, a two-man game executed by the two best players in the world, daring each other to keep it going until Messi walked the ball into the Celtic net. It was a perfect, and perfectly devastating goal that made the scoreline 2-0. It might as well have been 20-0 the way Barça was playing on the night.
To be sure, Alaves played an excellent match, but they didn’t get this Barça. They got players who walked and trotted, who didn’t press or close down space, whose stationary movement dictated nothing at all except the ability to make life easy for the defense. Runs were solo forays at a ready coterie of defenders rather than, as Celtic coach Brendan Rodgers said, Barça beating you up with the ball.
That same pam-pam-pam-pam of a boxer in rhythm, beating a tattoo onto the body of his hapless opponent, also describes the sound a football makes as it moves between the feet of players. On the weekend, there were pauses in the beat, but not against Celtic. it will be easy to say that the personnel made the difference, and an argument can certainly be made that great players executing the game at their highest level will be significantly more difficult to deal with than a rotation XI.
However Messi, Neymar, Suarez and Iniesta were all on the pitch for about a half-hour against Alaves, and could do nothing much more than stumble around like their teammates. Yet against Celtic, as Iniesta scored with a fortissimo smash into the roof of the net, the payoff of yet another sequence of high-speed football, it almost seemed a rebuke to the players who oozed about the pitch on the weekend, an apology to supporters, a statement that this, THIS is how we play Barça football.
It has been discussed before, the idea that when Barça is executing at its highest level, the opponent is irrelevant. It was the same level that hung a 0-4 on Real Madrid, and kicked Sevilla in the teeth during the Spanish SuperCopa. It is the same level that makes the world a bit concerned that if this team finds the form that its personnel are striving for, nobody will be able to play with it.
After that second goal, during which Celtic had to watch two players conspire to bring about the ultimate indignity of walking a ball into their net. shoulders slumped. The players didn’t really accept their fate, because proud athletes never do, but it was clear that their opponent was at a different level.
People always talk about triangles when discussing the heyday of positional football, and you wondered if thsoe people notices the interlinked sequence of three of them, Sergi Roberto to Busquets to Rakitic to Messi to Gomes to Messi to Alba to Neymar to Suarez, the ball moving as players slid about to meet it, one-touching their way up and down the pitch.
Here is a difficult thing to consider: That the players who comprise the core of the XI are so good at their black art tnat real depth is impossible, that rotation will yield a stew that is edible, palatable, but not the succulent explosion of flavors created by the main chef. What if, just as we all hailed the depth acquired this summer, an influx of players sufficient to make their coach say that this was the best team he has ever had — what if the XI is too good even for their teammates, too good for enemy and ally alike.
The football that Barça displayed against Celtic was as much the product of genius as any system. There is no shame in that. Luis Enrique will have the difficult task of making the subs approach the level of the starters, of creating an orchestra of footballers. But you wonder if, even as teammates were thinking about being part of that rush, that adrenaline akin to tightrope walking in a tornado, that one part of them wondered if they can truly be part of that. Bands working at a fever pitch have musicians who know each other, know favorite keys, know intros, know the quaver of a note that dictates the end of a solo. During open jams, excellent players sit in the audience, hiding instruments under chairs not because they aren’t good, but because they aren’t that good.
The display against Celtic defined the glittering possibilities of this team. If the group can reach the point where the second fiddle can still make beautiful music, greatness beckons.