On a Paris vacation one year, my wife and I were looking for a particular restaurant, got hopelessly lost and wound up, purely by accident on Rue Mouffetard, a half-mile stretch of gustatory overload. We had a great meal, homemade gelato and a lovely experience at the end of all the travail and crankiness.
That was a lot like the Borussia Monchengladbach Champions League outing, in which Luis Enrique started out in search of the wrong thing, got religion and a grand time was had by all. With an XI of Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Neymar, Suarez and Alcacer, it was odd that the Barça coach made a tactical decision based on individual excellence.
On paper, Neymar, Suarez and Alcacer doesn’t work, mostly because it creates imbalances elsewhere on the pitch because Neymar becomes the superstar who will shirk on the donkey work, while Suarez and Alcacer will spend the bulk of their time in the opponent box. It leaves the other eight outfield players with too much space to cover, should a turnover happen at the wrong time against a pressing, counterattacking team such as Borussia … which is exactly what happened.
Busquets ran into a vice, turned the ball over and the mess began. At the moment Mascherano makes the pass to Busquets, there aren’t any options for the gangly midfielder. Iniesta is moving away from him, Rakitic isn’t positioned well and there are three Borussia players within five yards of Busquets. They converge, and there was only one outcome. The subsequent Borussia counter had then running at a fully exposed Barça defense. Every Barça attacker is outpaced. Pique moves to cover for the dead in the water Sergi Roberto, Mascherano moves to cover the Pique space, leaving the complexity of something you just don’t consider: Jordi Alba was left for dead by his runner who calmly slots home, leaving Ter Stegen to muse about the capricious nature of a homecoming, and just whose party this was, anyhow.
It was 1-0, and the Park was going wild even as it heaved a sigh of relief, as this counter came in the wake of a blown Neymar opportunity when he stroked his shot directly at the Borussia keeper, the first blunder from him on a night filled with them. It was at this point that the XI decision went from briliant to way wrong, because that isn’t the group to chase a match against a pressing team when two of the three attackers are having nights to forget.
For 89 and a half minutes, Neymar was the precise player that his detractors revel in. He dribbled into danger and lost the ball time and again, argued his way into a yellow, misplaced passes and had the kind of match that probably made Robinho say, “Hey, don’t call him Robinho II. I never sucked that bad.” And because the unbalanced lineup had Busquets too deep thus isolating Iniesta which also isolated Neymar, the pressing Borussia players could just rush to the ball whenever Neymar got it, and dispossess him because nobody, not even Messi, can dribble multiple defenders regularly.
But that didn’t stop Suarez from trying to do the same thing whenever he got the ball, stumbling at a pair of Borussia defenders like a baby mastodon taking its first steps, losing the ball then glowering at the futility of it all while standing there, watching Borussia players capering away with their easily won prize.
Alcacer couldn’t even yell, “Hey guys, I’m open,” because he wasn’t. Because there was nobody to get him the ball, a reality that reduced him to spectator. It was a mess, and people began to predict another Alaves, and talk about how everyone underestimated this Borussia side, who were tapped to be nothing but trouble, unless you ignore the fact that most of the trouble Barça faced was of its own making.
So, like that lost-as-hell couple in Paris who decided, “To hell with that restaurant, let’s just eat here,” a change of plans brought about something wonderful. At halftime, Luis Enrique pretty quickly deduced that his “genius” program was being sabotaged by clods, so it was on to Plan B. In the 60th minute, Rafinha came on for Rakitic and Arda Turan came on for Alcacer. A lot of stuff happened with this pair of subs:
— Iniesta got a playmate
— Busquets could move up the pitch, as he wasn’t so isolated in defense thanks to Turan and Rafinha
— Borussia’s defenders had two players to track who could move with and without the ball
— Suarez had the box all to himself again, and could get a pass where he could do damage, instead of on the edge of the box
— Barça could press with all the outfield players, which blunted any Borussia ambitions
— There were two players who could move into space and score, rather than being easy to mark
— Neymar had working space
It all seems so simple when you look at it that way, but look at the result. Busquets received a pass almost at the edge of the Borussia box and fed Neymar who, rather than having to beat 2-3 defenders before he could do anything, could breathe and make something happen. He lobbed a rainbow to Turan who, rather than being the kind of attacker (Alcacer) who occupied a position and waited for the bus to come, could pass and move, running to a spot. Neymar’s inch-perfect pass dropped at Turan’s feet and suddenly it was 1-1 in a world of puppies and rainbows.
If you look at when the pass happens, the run dictated it. Neymar could see it because he wasn’t fighting to retain possession and Turan was already at full tilt running onto the ball. It was an easy, logical goal (and one that Ter Stegen probably doesn’t concede because he rushes that Neymar pass so that it never finds its target, but that’s another story) that seemed as easy as it was. It was also a satisfying goal because it came from subs, a tactical change and an embrace of the system, rather than “Hey magic men, do your stuff,” something that Barça now has the depth and quality to move away from.
Luis Enrique won’t get a lot of praise or credit for making the decisions that turned that match around. Typically, he deflected attention to his assistant, Unzue. Luis Enrique isn’t a celebrated coach, nor is he considered a genius in the way other coaches are. He’s considered a hard-working coach like the player that he was, not that he cares. His team understands, and rewards him.
It’s easy to wonder why Barça seemed so calm, even when down 1-0 away in the Champions League. It was more than “Well, it’s the group stages.” The team knew that it had enough quality to overturn the result, as 1-0 was … well … nothing. The equalizer also had the effect of psychologically damaging the Borussia side, as often happens when a team with something to play for suddenly has a bit less to battle for. That half step is all that the Barça attack needs. There were passing lanes, the Borussia players were easily dispossessed when they were loaned the ball, and Barça moved up the pitch to play from its comfortable spot, the front foot.
The second goal was, in part, the happy accident. It was a set piece that worked exactly as planned except for an off shot from Suarez, who found himself exactly as it was all drawn up by Unzue. He was unmarked just above the spot as Neymar’s pass, rather than a lofted ball into the area as Borussia expected, was a ball along the ground at a pace set up for Suarez to strike through. His one-timer was parried, then spilled by the keeper and Pique was there to mop up. It was 1-2, and Borussia was done. So was the match.
Last season in the same situation, Barça probably doesn’t pull one out of the fire because the bench was rather a different prospect. This year, an in-form Turan and a razor-sharp Rafinha were just begging for insertion. Last year, Luis Enrique seemed stubborn not because he was, but because what could he do, really? Sandro? Munir? This season he not only has the tactical nous that he had before, but the players to implement his ideas. It was as clear to him as any of us that his front three weren’t working, but you give any decision a half, because of the players you have. Suarez could be terrible for a match, sparkle for 30 seconds, score a brace, then retun to invisibility. Neymar is always capable of something extraordinary.
Neymar has been at FC Barcelona for going into four seasons. In that time he has tallied key goals, highlight reel moments, assists and has learned to track back on defense and work doggedly. He has selflessly slotted into a superstar front three and has never at any time not been deferential to its leader, Lionel Messi. Messi isn’t getting kicked as much because Neymar is getting kicked — pretty much all the time. He used to exaggerate. Now he mostly gets up and gets on with it, unless he wants to call a laggardly official’s attention to systematic abuse. He accelerates the play of Barça in a way that makes its attack much more dangerous and in the eight weeks that Messi was absent last season, Neymar became the engine that drove the squad. Without those efforts, the Liga isn’t won.
Despite all of that, too many supporters lay in wait for him like semantic thieves in the night, leaping upon any and all failures, forgetting that other players have crap matches as well. Without question, Neymar was so poor yesterday. Yet, like Messi who will be crap for most of a match, then pop up, score two goals and walk off with MOTM, Neymar was integral to both Barça goals against Borussia. Why he continues to have detractors, why he continues to have to deal with a double standard, only they know. But of the many things that make the world of Barça social media so absurd and unfathomable, the dislike of Neymar is one of the more noteworthy.
Meanwhile, Barça got some breathing room in the group, thanks to Celtic doing the lord’s work and drawing Manchester City. While no match in that group is a gimme, Barça will go into the remaining ties against Celtic and Borussia (Camp Nou) with a degree of confidence. And if City defends against Borussia as it did against Celtic, the job of winning the group will be a bit less daunting for Barça, who demonstrated the calmness and will of a champion. Just as it reassures us to see players such as Busquets, Iniesta and Neymar, it must do wonders when you’re working with them on the pitch. It’s easy to say that quality will out in the highsight of 20/20 and a come-from-behind victory, but an adage isn’t just made up. The more talented team played well enough to win. Championships are built from those kinds of bricks.