If you want to understand how good Barça is, understand that they took the top-of-table side in the Premiership, coached by a certified genius, and reduced them to an irritable Rayo Vallecano.
Just like Rayo City pressed, stroked the ball around, accumulated possession and made culers say “What’s wrong with us? They’re making us look at sixes and sevens.”
Then the goals came and the world returned to normal. The biggest difference is that City was determined to sweep the leg, with a series of fouls that mostly irritated except for Gerard Pique, who fell prey to a repugnant bit of butchery from David Silva.
Before the match there was some worry, because it’s Guardiola. And even though people call nonsense on the Premiership “best league” stuff, they still worry. It’s hard to get that out of your system, right? And it’s Guardiola. But the match went pretty much as expected. Is it as simple as one team beat Celtic 7-0 while the other team drew Celtic 3-3? Nope. Drawing inferences from scorelines would mean that Villarreal is better than Barça, since they hammered the Celta team that beat Barça.
But in watching both outings against Celtic, the difference is clear. Barça is evil, and inexorable. Like the Terminator, it won’t stop until you are dead. The passes keep coming, the runs continue to be made, time after time after time until you break. And you almost always break, barring a peculiar set of circumstances which aren’t repeatable all that often. Because Barça isn’t just the best team in world football. It’s also the most confident team in world football. City doesn’t have that yet, that quality that breaks your heart and will. It will take work to instill that. Talent isn’t enough. A tennis player drills, hitting thousands of topspin backhands up the line to make that shot a reflex, to make the exceptional automatic.
It’s when great players make the exceptional automatic that you wind up with a team such as Barça, who also have an absurd collection of talent even if too much of its fanbase doesn’t understand or appreciate just how extraordinary that team is.
Before the Manchester City match, Barça great Ronald Koeman said, prophetically, that you can play a perfect match, then Messi decides to do something. And it’s here that things get a little — well, a lot weird, because on the surface, this is what happened. Messi is decisive. Three words that state the obvious but carry so much meaning.
Messi scored a hat trick, one of the easiest he will ever notch, and Barça strolled to victory against the Premiership leaders, who are also favored to advance from their Champions League group. Messi decided this match on a strange day during which a … THE favored son returned to the Camp Nou once again, once again at the head of a brace of enemy combatants. And Pep Guardiola, certified genius and legitimate Barça legend, got his ass handed to him again. Some would say it came from the monster that he created, even if fully shaped is more accurate.
But it was more than Messi. Early on, Neymar undressed a City defender and danced into their box. The pass went awry, lacking the necessary precision and optimistic teammate to generate something more, but the intent was clear. This is going to happen again. And again. Barça is coming for you.
After the match, like the belief in Santa Claus, people had to find consolation in the lopsided scoreline with things such as “City won the tactical battle,” “Barça played for crap and got lucky,” “Things were close until … ”
Guardiola sounded like yet another vanquished coach in saying that things were fine until a player got sent off, the result of Claudio Bravo making an error of the forced variety. But no.
Quite frankly, City was a mess and Barça was indomitable. The game was chaotic because City charged and attacked Barça, leaving exploitable open spaces. There were times when the City press got the better of Barça, times when the vaunted building from the back was thwarted again and again by sorbet-colored hooligans. But Barça would hit the reset button and begin again, confident that this would be the time that it would work and eventually, it was.
The feeling was that the first goal came out of nowhere, but that wasn’t the case when Messi took the ball — he actually took it, emerging from a meeting of players and coming out with the ball thanks to strength and determination. And if he didn’t Boateng the fools who would dare try to stop him, he humiliated them nonetheless, dribbling Bravo and leaving his former teammate flat on his face, just another victim doomed to hear the roars of adulation as Messi did it yet again. The exceptional becomes automatic.
Barça was the better team, and not by a little. Was the seeming chaos that, or a team being adaptable and shaping to the avenues left it by an opponent until able to impose its will. People said, post-match, that the Bravo sending off changed the match. But from the Messi goal onward, when both teams were still 11v11, the tables were already turned. The City press was less effective, Barça was able to pass around their defenders. Neymar was running riot as too often City was forced to play him with a single defender because of the other dangers flitting about. Bravo’s sending off was because the match had already turned.
The worst part for opponents about Barça is that the team forces you to make choices. You can stop Suarez OR Neymar, Neymar OR Messi, Iniest … naaaah. Shut down Iniesta and Ter Stegen drops a rainbow of a pass from the back to the feet of an attacker. Press Ter Stegen and Umtiti smites a diamond ball to Iniesta. It never stops. The truest cruelty of playing FC Barcelona is that it only takes a moment. The beautiful part of the match was that Guardiola could see the evolution of the team that began in his hands. When he was coach, there was a particular set of skills that forced a particular type of play, and it was beautiful, aesthetically pure and successful.
The Barça that wrecked his team is beautiful, aesthetically malleable and successful.
At his pre-match press conference, Luis Enrique spoke of wanting possession, to play the Barça way but also having the luxury of being able to adapt his tactics to the skills of his individual players. The quality that he has to call upon provides exceptional luxury. Messi, Suarez and Neymar are impossible to play against. City did a great job of dealing with Suarez in attack, even as he influenced the match in other significant ways, of kinda sorta mostly keeping Neymar at bay, which left Messi. It’s inhuman.
It’s easy to say that it was Messi, it was individual brilliance, but City didn’t score either and Messi wasn’t playing CB or keeper. Ter Stegen was brilliant with Samuel Umtiti right behind him, buttressing other players forced to take the spotlight after the physical, verging on reckless approach of City cost Barça its back line anchor, Pique, who went out with an ankle knock after being battered by Silva.
This was after Jordi Alba aggravated his hamstring injury and had to come off early in the first half, replaed by Lucas Digne. Mathieu subbed on for Pique and suddenly the Barça back line was Mascherano, Mathieu, Umtiti and Digne.
And City still didn’t score. Ter Stegen made a brilliant save, and saves sow panic in the people whose Barça good performance is 100% possession and the keeper sitting in a chaise lounge, cheering as his teammates knock in five or so goals.
The consolation to be found by asethetes in being able to attribute the City loss to simple individual errors ignores the view that against Celta Vigo, many of those same aesthetes screamed that Luis Enriuqe screwed up and cost his team a real shot at victory. That’s the perception game, hard at work. Guardiola’s players let him down, Luis Enrique lets his players down.
It is doubtful the moment will ever come when the majority of culers admit that Luis Enrique is a brilliant coach. He isn’t sprinkled with fairy dust, doesn’t have an encylopedic knoledge of all sorts of games and miutiae. But he wouldn’t be Luis Enrique if he did. He just wants to kill, and go home. What should worry opponents is that Luis Enrique has instilled that same quality in his team, another evolution from the Guardiola magicians, whose eviscerations were more good-natured, almost theoretical. Even opponents would think, “My, that was lovely.”
This Barça’s savagings are all business. It isn’t personal nor are they at all interested in how you feel. It can be a velvet fist or a wrecking ball. Your choice, not theirs as this Barça doesn’t bend opponents to its will, but rather lets them choose the means of their own destruction. Want to sit deep? Unzue has a set piece. Want to play football? Okay. Pack the midfield and press? Watch those wings.
Many were saying that Barça didn’t play well. In that perfect universe of the diamond match. But these days, Barça never plays well. Every match is flawed in some way. But if you look at what actually happened, the injuries, the fouls, the disruptions and mayhem — and still a win at a canter. Put another way, if someone had told you before the match that Alba and Pique would be injured, Suarez would have no goals and Mathieu would be sent off against City, what would be your bet on the scoreline? That it was 4-0 isn’t beautiful, but it is magnificent.