Character is something that is often talked about in athletics, but rarely seen. Supporters don’t often have it, and they view their team having it as this consolation prize, this thing that consoles in the wake of a negative result.
But character is an essential component for a championshp team, and was on display most notably after the match, from four different participants in the dazzler of a 90 minutes.
Luis Enrique said that the loss was all on him, that it was easy to second-guess an XI in hindsight. This obviously played into the hands of the people who, before the match, took issue with his XI of Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Mathieu, Alba, Busquets, Rafinha, Turan, Neymar, Suarez and Gomes. Those people were wrong.
Pique said that the way that Ter Stegen plays helps the team vastly more than it hurts, and he will keep on playing the same way, as he should.
Busquets acknowledged that the way he played against Celta, continuing a stretch of poor, poor form, cost the team many goals.
Ter Stegen said that his error cost the team the victory (note the confidence — not draw, but victory), and apologized to his teammates and supporters.
Negative results for big teams are often blizzards of recrimination. Coaches say their players made errors. Superstars say that the supporting cast didn’t live up to their end of the bargain. Supporters take after this player or that player as pounds of flesh are tacked to walls of shame with rusty spikes.
Barça displayed character by owning the result, admitting culpability and moving on, because that’s what champions do. If the players don’t take ownership of their performance, don’t accept what happened, give the opponent credit and focus on the next match, it’s difficult to believe that such athletes will have the necessary mettle to do what it takes to become champions.
Barça also displayed character and fighting spirit in staring a 3-0 halftime deficing in the eye and coming out like lions. They had two goals and were spoiling for a third when the Ter Stegen error came. Then they got a third goal and were spoiling for a fourth. Neymar headed just wide, then Pique headed just wide as Celta was forced to most cower in their end, hoofing balls away and rolling about on the pitch to kill time.
Last season, Barça lost 4-1 to Celta in pretty much the same way, as a quick opponent capitalized on errors of possession and banged home goals. This most recent outing almost seemed like a rerun, except for the fightback, the majestic effort in which a champion finally, at long last, decided to play like one.
The match started brilliantly for Barça, with engaging passages of quicksilver play that put the Celta defenders in danger time and again, until the first goal that was against the run of play, born of two players who should be better, who usually are better, combining to damage their team.
— This goal was shared between Ter Stegen and Busquets. The initial pass from the keeper was off, but the midfielder wasn’t fully focused, so the ball took him by surprise. Rather than sliding over as he usually does, to deftly control and dish, he had to make a desperate attempt to control it. The ball fell to a Celta player who wasted no time. There was still one last chance to stop that goal, but Jordi Alba was badly done for pace for the second time in a week. Alba without pace is essentially short Adriano, and you wonder how long it will take Digne to assume that slot.
— The second goal had its genesis in more Suarez ineptitude, losing the ball and not really giving much of a damn after he did. The long pass was lofted, and Busquets’ header brought to mind his early days, back when his favorite poem was “I shot a header into the air / Where it fell / I knew not where.” He might as well have been trying to assist Aspas, so perfect was his effort.
— On the third goal, one that once again started with lost possession and a springboard Celta attack, Busquets was lazy about covering the man with the ball, who was in his area. Compounding the matter is that Ter Stegen picked a hell of a time to get Bravoitis, choosing to stay rooted to his line when, at a different time he is sweeping the pass away. The other error he makes is not calling off Mathieu, who is forced to make a lunge rather than Ter Stegen, who was already moving forward, making the play.
— The fourth goal was just the pride that goeth before a fall, a horrific display that was the goal that broke the camel’s back, so to speak.
After starting so brightly, then giving up three goals in about eleven minutes, Barça seemed stunned and on their heels, and a host of reasons started peppering the Barçaverse, from bad lineup, to missing Messi, to blaming various players. But as with Alaves, not everybody came to play. Neymar was razor-sharp, as knife-edged as Suarez was dull. Last season when Messi was out, these two players stepped up their games to lead the team on a scoring binge. This season, Suarez has been poor, a lumbering shadow of himself, making bad decisions on the ball, trying to do too much as struggling players often do. He had Barça in effect playing with ten.
But that wonderful second half, the insertion of Iniesta for Rafinha brought about wonderful changes. It’s easy to lay the comeback at the feet of, as Ray Hudson has dubbed him, the Pale Assassin. One pass sparked a penalty that Neymar converted. Another assisted Pique in a lovely headed goal. Still another almost created danger. What’s easy to overlook is that Barça was once again playing like the best team in the world, with movement dictating passes, creating space and more importantly, creating danger. Character is what a champion displays as egg is wiped from face and an opponent made to understand how things truly are, that errors can be overcome.
The big two used to have margin for error, but the quality of play has improved on La Liga. Eibar took advantage of RM to grab a 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu. Alaves took points from Atleti and Barça, Las Palmas held RM, Celta Vigo beat Barça. Perfection is something unattainable, but the cost of an error is high as lesser teams can pounce, with the quality to make goals from blunders. Every Celta goal came from a Barça error, which is something that the players all understand. Even when you can’t be perfect, you can at least not screw up. They failed at that mission, and Celta took full advantage. Yet the beauty of today’s match was in the character of the team.
Luis Enrique’s current method of letting ball movement work with space came up short for a while as the Barça players stagnated, creating islands easily isolated and attacked as players were too fond of the ball, dribbling and losing it time and again instead of batting it to a teammate. Balls were played directly to Barça feet, feet that didn’t move to receive the pass, preferring to stand there and make it easy for a pressing Celta defender. Everything that the team could do wrong, it did, and still almost grabbed a result because of something that has been instilled in this group.
It has been said before that this is Luis Enrique’s team, that they have been infused with the character and fighting spirit that embodied their coach during his playing days. The wins don’t require anything except quality. But this loss, even as it triggered a meltdown in the world of Barça social media, was something to admire. The team came up short but man, was it savage, using immense quality to convert Celta from giddy lion tamers to worried defenders, suddenly unable to control or track passes, where once they were picking them off at will. Luis Enrique didn’t just make the subs that turned the match. We can only imagine his halftime talk.
Character isn’t a consolation price, like an attendance award that you get when you didn’t win. Character is something that defines a team, a trait that we saw in the wake of the Anoeta loss of Luis Enrique’s first season. Barça came out of that match angry and raring to go.
The team is lucky, really, coming out of the gate stumbling a bit due to injuries and a group working to wrap its heads around a new system. Barça is, remarkably, only two points off top of the table even after such a clunky start.
Teams win and teams lose. As four different members of the team stepped up to take blame for the defeat, supporters were melting down and blaiming everyone. It wasn’t rotation, it wasn’t the absence of Messi or any one thing. It was, rather, a bunch of things, a castell of mistakes conspiring to undo a team against an opponent fully equipped to take advantage of those errors.
But that opponent also forced a great team to display fighting spirit and character. Whether Celta has awakened a beast remains to be seen, but there is one thing to say: character becomes an athlete, so much so that you don’t really mind the loss. You as a supporter can move on as the players do and have, finding joy in the thriling comeback and a diaplay of the hearts of lions.