It’s the pressure. The unrelenting pressure. At some point over 90 minutes, at any number of points, the pressure will become too much. This is the fundamental difficulty with playing against Barça.
Pressure is a crazy thing, the effect that it has upon mortals. It turns potential greats into has-beens, elevates good to great, serves as an oh, so public mortar and pestle that grinds away at the psyche. It sometimes leads to late goals for Barça mostly because opponents just can’t take it any longer. Barça comes at you in many ways, illustrated by a trio of matches from the Alaves loss to the Celtic hammering to the Leganes beatdown. All three had pressure in varying degrees, and opponents that had equally varying degrees of success in managing it.
Luis Enrique opted for a much-talked-about 3-4-3 as a formation against Leganes, and tactics critters stuffed Twitter in the wake of this not-often-seen beast. My interest in the formation isn’t tactical, but rather fun related. The ambush is a time-worn battle tactic, lulling an opponent into a space and then springing the trap. Luis Enrique’s formation presents space at the back and at the flanks, space that is alluring to an opponent, particularly when your right-sided midfielder (looking at you, Rafinha) is laggardly about helping out the right back.
But what all of that alluring space does is not only invite attack — it also creates danger. Playing Barça is usually an opponent huddling in its own box, kicking away everything that moves. This rarely works any longer, but the result is often a 1-0 or 2-1 loss, rather than a scoreline more gaudy. And coaches, temporarily forgetting math, console themselves even as a loss, whether 7-0 or 1-0 is the same three points. Leganes came out to play. Whether it was their game plan all along, or something improvised in the face of seduction only they know. But boy, did it make for a fun match.
The first three Barça goals looked pretty much the same, with only the goal scorer being different. A break with Messi, Suarez and Neymar brought a goal for each member of the trident, each goal a tap-in, each goal a direct consequence of playing through the space both created and allowed by the formation. Leganes will, in a moment of full honesty, admit they got sucked in. But it’s just so tempting. Mascherano was being tormented by his aggressor all day, leading to a general consensus that he had the stank. But part of what makes that particular formation work is the mids doing donkey work. Rafinha, as previously noted, was laggardly in that duty. The good part about that was that Leganes got sucked in deeper, leading to a elegant long pass that found the three most dangerous attackers in football running free.
In football, many a great scoring chance is ruined through selfishness. Players want glory, something that makes them tactically stupid. The forward, rushing toward goal, sees his teammate running alongside him. He sees the pass that should happen, probably even sees the teammate tapping home for the goal. But. Maybe in training that week he scored a golazo from distance. Maybe he’s flush with confidence. Maybe, maybe, maybe. And what happens is that a sure goal becomes a blast over the bar, or a great save as the keeper guesses right.
The pain in the ass of Messi, Suarez and Neymar is that they are unselfish, almost to a fault. A keeper can’t play them to do what the vast majority of players will do, which is go for glory. Even as we fall to the floor during match viewings, whimpering “Why didn’t you shoot,” from between hands pressed over tear-stained faces, they continue their mutual admiration society. Sometimes this leads to goals, such as one against Celtic, where people say, “The keeper should have done better.” Perhaps. But what do you do, when three players are running at you, all willing to pass as much as shoot? You stand there, because either way, you’re screwed. At least if you stand there you don’t get Boatenged.
Purity and goodness
There were a few narratives that came out of the match in the 20/20 world of Barça Twitter. Once we dismiss the tactical stuff, the two most interesting threads to me were the idea of a “good” match, and Neymar. Barça went into the locker room with a 3-0 lead, and quite often seen on Barça Twitter was “Well, it wasn’t a good match, but … ”
Goodness is one of those oddities with roots in narrative and history. Since the glory days of annus Guardiolus, the usual culer desire for truth and beauty has become exacerbated. A 44-pass goal with a buildup that begins in the parking lot will be much more lauded than a mere blast from distance. Ugh. Anyone can do that, even players in the Premiership. The first half was open, wild and loads of fun. 99.999 percent of football fanbases would have been giddy with a 0-3 lead at an away ground that should have been difficult. But the quest for purity, clad in shimmering white samite, is the goal. Beautiful play and a beautiful result.
Systems and coaches are often discussed, but mentality might go down in history as the most effective change that Luis Enrique has wrought at Barça, followed closely by the related quality of adaptability. Barça doesn’t care how it kills you. The team has become agnostic in that way. One post-match dissection used a phrase, “once Barça resigned itself to the long ball.” But I don’t think resignation is the correct view. Frankly, you wonder if that even occurs to the players, or if they just say, Get ’em. Doesn’t matter how.” Whatever happens this season, this team is stupefying in its versatility and zeal for destruction. Note the Suarez run for the first goal, shrugging off defenders and challenges, interested in nothing more than bulling his way into open space, then passing to an open teammate. It was brilliant, even as it makes you wonder about how easily he goes down after contact at times.
Like the honey badger of football, Barça doesn’t give a damn. It’s that philosophical malleability that makes the team so difficult to play. In a world set up to stop 20-pass Barça come a group of fiends more interested in the “Wheeee!” factor than anything else. Messi is quite fond of the diagonal rainbow. It’s very effective and, when the recipient is Neymar, that simple pass accelerates play becuase Neymar controls and runs at a defense so fast that there isn’t time for much of anything except a hearty round of “Oh, SHIT!” Into that chaos run Messi and Suarez.
Reassuringly, substitute Paco Alcacer was also putting himself in excellent position to capitalize on that chaos, beginning the process of killing the idea that chaos is personnel-specific. Even the Rafinha golazo, a magnificent strike and a capper for a delightful, confident performance by the midfielder, was a consequence of chaos. The attack came charging at Leganes, and as the players retreated, setting up for what seemed to be the inevitable pass to Messi, Rafinha had acres of space to scop and blast. So he did. Golazo.
Rafinha was the — this time unfortunate — star of another moment as Neymar, temper boiling over, shoved Rafinha’s hand away in an effort to keep Neymar on the pitch not only vs Leganes, but Atleti midweek as the player could easily have talked and reacted his way into a red card. Was it calculated? Was Neymar in control? It’s a question worth asking, even as a more pertinent one reared its head again, post-match, of Neymar’s style of play, the flicks and tricks.
Michael Laudrup, analyzing the match on air, in effect said that Neymar brings that stuff on himself by being in a way unsporting. The bullshit meter is pegged. After the match, Barça Twitter was rife with discussion about Neymar and his play, and the appropriateness of his gamesmanship. I reckon in the here and now, people would just want to shoot Ronaldinho. Just because the Brazilian trickster emasculated opponents with a smile on his face doesn’t make his showmanship any more acceptable to the leather-boot crowd.
What’s interesting about Neymar is that when an opponent doesn’t kick him, the tricks stay in the basket. Kick him, and he will attempt — and usually succeed — in humiliating you. Atleti chafed at Neymar’s winding them up with tricks and flicks, after having spent 90 minutes kicking chunks out of him. If you don’t want a sombrero, don’t go hat shopping.
Neymar is a player of the modern era, of the in-your-face dunk, daps, PlayStation and video games that include goal celebrations. “Messi gets kicked and doesn’t react” is not only inaccurate (look at how often he nutmegs or dribbles an assailant), but misguided. Messi is Messi. Neymar is Neymar. Iniesta is Iniesta. Supporters can’t scoff at Ibrahimovic’s “schoolboys” comment then argue for behavior that fits said template. Neymar is in your face, and hopefully he always will be. He can sometimes get wound up by an oppoent, leading to an incident that, at Leganes, led to a free kick goal for the opponent.
But Neymar learning to control those reactions is different from whether he does or doesn’t “deserve” to get kicked. No player deserves to get kicked (well, maybe Fabregas). To bring a “man’s man” attitude as Laudrup did and suggest, however tacitly, that kicking him is okay but his tricks aren’t is stupid. You search for a suitable modifier, but “stupid” is best.
Neymar is Neymar.
Luis Suarez plays with a barely repressed rage that has led to a series of regrettable incidents in his career. Like a lobotomized Randle McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a calm, happy Suarez wouldn’t be the same player. We laud that edge. Neymar has a similar edge that comes with the player. Would Neymar, raised at La Masia, deal with butchers via the calm equanimity of Iniesta or Messi? For sure. But would he be the same player?
Next up is the season’s first huge test as Atleti comes to the Camp Nou on Wednesday. Both teams are coming off gaudy wins, both groups are coming into form. Atleti has never been better equipped to play Barça as an equal, but will they? Barça, in the incessant pressure that it applies to opponents, has become Atleti-like in that quality. The first matchup of the two systems should be remarkable.