So much brilliance and so much doubt, embodied in a single moment during the 0-5 thrashing of Luis Enrique’s beloved, Sporting Gijon.
Ter Stegen came charging out of his nets to deal with a long ball. As is his wont, he grabbed the ball, but his momentum carried him out of the box, just. It was a yellow card (or should have been), and a free kick for Sporting from the top of the box.
It wasn’t a penalty, wasn’t a red card, wasn’t really even a good conversion chance, as the difficulty of getting a shot from there either up and over, or through the wall makes such efforts the equivalent of a shot from the halfway line.
But it was the thought of conceding that sparked a tizzy in the Barça world. Merely giving up a goal.
Of course, Barça sparkled in this away fixture, one in which they were expected to do exactly what they did. It was 0-2 before Sporting’s Lora got a long-overdue second yellow, then the floodgates opened. Some detractors said that they should have been able to do that when Sporting had eleven, even if reality is that Sporting should have been down to nine, thanks to a nasty, quite deliberate elbow that connected with Arda Turan.
But the team’s game didn’t change, and the quality of the goals were such that they would have happened had Sporting had eleven, because of the inevitability of Barça doing what it does. As the match progressed, Sporting went from rushing at Barça in an effort to put on a show for the home fans, then gradually moved toward their goal as legs tired and the reality of facing such a quality opponent began to tell. The strong tackles became weaker, became rash, became lunges as that last little bit of effort necesssary to get into the perfect position is gone, because you’re just so tired of chasing the damn ball all the time.
Barça scores late goals for this reason: rare is the team with enough energy to face the unrelenting pressure for the entire match. Look at the second yellow for Lora, a challenge that in the first half, he arrives with enough time to get a foul, but not a yellow. The Barça energy was high as Luis Enrique rotated for Sporting, choosing to rest a number of key players who excelled against Atleti at midweek. The XI was Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Mathieu, Digne, Busquets, Gomes, Rafinha, Neymar, Suarez, Turan.
Before the match a few of us armchair tactitians wondered about the logic of putting Turan on the right, others said if they put him on the left who would play right wing, as we all ignored the “marbles in a bowl” reality of what happens after the first football is kicked, and the pitch becomes a series of individual tactical duels rather than the numbered precision of which so many are enamored.
The first goal had its genesis in Sporting pressing, as a series of one-touch passes led to an exquisite Arda Turan rainbow for Luis Suarez, the kind of pass that from other players would have inspired sonnets of praise, plucked out by lute-strumming troubadors. It found Suarez perfectly in stride. The Uruguayan rounded the keeper, slotted home and that was that, the match winner, as there really was no way Sporting was going to score in this match.
Of all the things that Luis Enrique has done during his tenure, from building a system to helping improve every player on the team, defense is the most underrated aspect of his tenure. Conceding seems to throw everyone into a tizzy because it just doesn’t happen all that often. Barça isn’t a vault like Atleti, but it isn’t that far off, a team that while never as shaky defensively as legend had it, has improved both from open play and set pieces.
To be sure, there are occasional lapses of the types that truly defensive sides don’t have, such as against Alaves, but there was pretty much zero chance that the Suarez goal wasn’t going to be enough to win.
The 0-1 became 0-2 from a deft bit of triangulation between Neymar, Sergi Roberto and Rafinha as a flawless, Messiesque pass from Neymar found Sergi Roberto in stride, and his cross for Rafinha’s bullet header was just as flawless as the ball that he received. It was a Barça goal through and through, but this Barça, the new one that so many confuse for something other than what it is.
Luis Enrique’s system has evolved away from its first year, which was get the ball to the most dangerous dudes on the pitch, and get out of the way, the American basketball system of attacking, really. Barça now uses the ball as a lever to prise open space as the teams of Rijkaard and Guardiola did, but in different, more dynamic ways. It’s an attack that isn’t as much impatient as it is aware of the complexities of time, that if you give a defense time to get set, it will. So get the ball up the pitch as fast as possible, and make something happen.
In many ways teams still aren’t quite prepared for this, just as many supporters still haven’t moved on from the days of Guardiola and the more regimented, positional Barça attack. Atleti understands how to play Barça, but even as history will show a draw, those who watched know how easily that match could have been a Barça victory. Barça plays fast these days, even as the players aren’t faster, because of how the attack uses space and precision to shrink the pitch.
The third goal was pretty much a repeat of the second, a defense-splitting diagonal over distance from Neymar to Sergi Roberto, who delivered a perfect ball for Paco Alcacer (sub for Suarez), who continued his hard luck by smashing a rocket off the keeper/crossbar, that Neymar walked home.
Speaking of Alcacer, his movement to create the space for his blast was exceptional, and a real sign of why he should turn out to be an excellent acquisition for the team, even as the “should have kept Munir” crowd will pout and stamp their feet. Alcacer made the kind of move that Suarez would have made, which is the precise point of his presence on the team — a player who can enter and preserve the attacking attributes of that piece of the system.
That third goal, and the two that followed came from another aspect of what Luis Enrique has brought to team, which is fitness. Late goals come when you are fresher than your opponent because you have worked your tail off in training. This will lead to those “team malaise” matches, where everyone looks like they’re moving in glue, as against Alaves. It’s part of the cycle, as any athlete will tell you. But this Barça is usually just as sharp and aggressive in the 85th as in the 5th, yet another way in which the pressure becomes unbearable.
Barça’s fourth was a more “traditional” Barça tally, patient buildup leading to an easy strike but even here, the Luis Enrique touch was that more of those easy strikes are headers. Sergi Roberto banged in yet another inch-perfect assist, this time for Arda Turan, who headed home at the far post, a consequence of an attack that not only folds space, but expands it to make things difficult for a defense as the ball moves quickly from center to right to left.
The fifth goal was abusive. It’s illustrative to watch the reactions of the Sporting player as the ball pinged around them, the almost exasperated running with heads down, desperate sprinting yet again, chasing something that is always elusive. Denis Suarez fed Neymar, who made the kind of finish that he should have made against Atleti (still not over it!), a precisely angled shot that found the far corner, with pace.
During the match, Phil Schoen of BeIN sports began to voice an interesting thought before being scoffed down by Ray Hudson, his announcing counterpart: is Barça better without Messi? The answer of course is no, for how can any team be improved by the absence of the best player in the game? But does something different happen to the team, can players occupy spaces that are normally closed, as Messi can go where he wants with the ball as he dictates the attack. It isn’t better, but is it a more diverse kind of danger that revels in the Luis Enrique system more to expand the roster of potential scorers? It’s an interesting question to consider, one that some of us posed last season, when Messi was gone for eight weeks.
Even more interestingly, when Messi returned, it was to a mature team that was rolling along in high gear without him, leaving him with the task of finding a way to slot into it. One of ways that he did so was by enhancing his 10 qualities even more, choosing to augment rather than dominate. It was not only the first real sign of a mature Neymar, that injury stretch, but the first time we could see what Luis Enrique was striving to build, and is continuing to build.
Barça has a hard time of it, in many ways. It’s a team that, because of its reputation, can’t be merely really good. During the match, Schoen and Hudson kept talking about a “workmanlike” Barça, a team without the stardust and glitter of a genius. Expectations are weird. Barça is almost at the point where even victories aren’t good enough (even as they never have been). We must be dazzled. The team has made us football junkies, seeking a stronger and stronger fix. Three goals become four become five become six. It’s golazos and rainbow passes, swerving free kicks and jaw-dropping paases.
The Barça that destroyed Gijon was exquisite, a performance fueled by a sharp team that had a great match. There wasn’t a weak performance from anyone on the pitch, even as Sergi Roberto was justly deemed MOTM by many. Barça was a machine, one that even with new pieces still functioned the same. To continue the habit of citing Ramzi via Twitter, he noted that the Sporting result was Alaves, but with a few more training sessions, which is exactly right. A system should be able to bring around repeatable results as it builds. The 0-5 destruction of Sporting lacked all of the fireworks of the 0-7 Celtic beatdown or the Leganes destruction.
But it was every bit as beautiful.