What a crazy match.
It could have ended 4-0, 0-4 or any permutation in between. Both teams got excellent chances (even though Barça had many more), both team scuffed excellent chances. There were errors, great plays, moments of stupidity and a pair of coaches, trying to extract the maximum from their charges.
But ultimately it came down to something of a reverse of the Manchester City match. Sevilla played Barça off the pitch in the first half, just as Barça did to City, before nicking a goal against the run of play. Then, just as City did, Barça made some adjustments, came out in the second half, had a stormer and a flawed team won.
What changed? It’s here that the City analogies end because rather than Sevilla screwing up, Lionel Messi decided to get more involved. A decisive moment in the second half was when Sergi Roberto was double-teaming a Sevilla attacker on the flank of the Barça with … Messi. At that point it was game on.
Coming into this match, almost everyone except a few fools picked Barça to lose. Sevilla was home and playing great, Barça was on the road, and not. Its key players were having form difficulties, and the structural problems attendant to a system that wants to get the ball to its best players quickly means that when it comes time to control the match, to stroke it around the midfield, Barça is, of late, deficient in that quality.
Sevilla took full advantage of that. Barça could barely complete a pass in that first half as the Sevilla players ran rampant, pressing, attacking, running and flinging themselves in a pell-mell assault on the Barça goal. They got one goal and should have had another as they were every bit the team that people expected to see, and it was brilliant to watch.
Their first goal came from an exquisite pass from a rejuvenated Samir Nasri, that found Sergi Roberto on an island, uncertain what to do. He made the wrong decision, and the player’s run terminated in a lovely finish. Hearts were in mouths as precisely what many had predicted was coming to pass. Neymar was a mess, making bad passes, having bad control and just awful. Suarez missed a couple of glorious chances but was otherwise invisible. Messi was … somewhere on the pitch.
This meant that Sevilla was functionally playing with a three-man advantage in attack. The only one of the front three tracking back, albeit half-assedly, was Neymar. Barça was a team that could do absolutely nothing right, and Sevilla had them on the ropes.
Football talks of goals being against the run of play, but it would be easier to show a video of Barça’s equalizer, a sudden, violent display of players suddenly deciding to do the right thing. Suarez Minor, Neymar and Messi combined for a counterattacking goal of the highest beauty, one that not only equalized the score but got Sevilla thinking, just as City’s late first-half goal did Barça.
The end of the first half couldn’t have come soon enough for culers, even as neutrals, entralled by the proceedings, wanted to see more football. Barça was in many ways like a boxing champion saved by the bell. And if you don’t knock out the champ …
What happened in the second half was a transformation. As with City, Sevilla came out expecting the same team that they left, but things had changed. Messi was ready to play, Neymar could control passes and make runs and Luis Suarez was pressing. Suarez Minor was suddenly the Mininiesta he has so often been billed as. Spaces closed in the midfield as tactical adjustments were made, and that which could have been found on a milk carton was now in vibrant life as Barça stroked the ball around while Sevilla chased it.
Every now and again their pressure would work the ball loose, but as has been previously noted in this space, Barça has to be playing off the front foot for its system to work. Did Busquets have this wonderful, sudden form transformation, or was his more forward position on the pitch allowing him to take the ball already facing the defense, rather than receiving it with his back turned, with a pair of pressing players waiting for him?
Suarez Minor shuttled between spaces with the ball, creating lanes and openings as Barça pressed into the Sevilla end. The defensive benefit was that with more time to assess the Sevilla attacks, which were coming from their end of the pitch instead of just past midfield, danger was more easily managed, and it was a different match as Barça was decisively on top.
Even as it’s easy to credit coaching adjustments, it isn’t that simple. It never is. You can tell someone what to do, but they have to do it. The bad stuff isn’t all one person’s fault just as the good stuff isn’t all to one person’s credit. Do Barça have issues that need to be sorted out tactically? Absolutely. It’s why the team doesn’t play as it did in the first half against City and the second half against Sevilla, all the time. There are spacing and positional dilemmas to be sorted, but not in the way that people rooted in a glorious past think. Barça will need to learn to be that effective playing the way this team needs to play to be most effective.
That is a huge challenge in a season that has been, so far, beset by injuries and coming up on the second international break. Only a fool would say that Barça is playing great, but on the other side of the coin, this team isn’t a disaster, mostly because a big part of the system is getting the ball to its best players quickly, and in space. A pressing opponent leaves that space, which presents the double-edged danger of the best way to beat Barça also presenting the greatest danger for an opponent. The risk/reward factor has never, ever been more acute than it was for Sevilla’s excellent Jorge Sampaoli, who unleashed his charges today, stoked with the fire of the sun.
A writer for Goal, Ben Hayward, said simply enough, that Sevilla wasn’t going to be able to keep that up for 90 minutes. And they couldn’t. But just as crucial was Barça making the necessary adjustments to take the match back. Not only did spaces close up but players started moving, not stranding their teammates with a ball and nothing to do with it except give it back to Sevilla. One-touch football returned to create chance after chance. When a dazzling Messi run provided the setup for Luis Suarez to score the match winner, the floodgates opened and Sevilla was even more at sea than Barça was in the first half. Messi missed a couple, Neymar fluffed a couple, Suarez as well. Sevilla had their chances, but not as many and not as dangerous, except for when Ter Stegen tried to shorten all of our lives by coming out to get a corner and flapping at it like a giant sea bird dive bombing a shadow. Thanks to something or other, the open net was spurned by Sevilla and Barça resumed its task of playing like the team that many expected.
This was a great match of football, but it was also a wild, disjoined quality to it that was almost Prem like as the teams rushed from end to end, making and missing chances. It’s easy enough to ascribe the Barça win to things such as the hearts of champions, blablabla.
Yes, such things were on display. Mascherano was spectacular in the second half, as if imbued with the ghost of Carles Puyol. Umtiti spent the whole match being exceptional, except for an ill-fated run that left him with egg on his face. Players who seemed down and out were suddenly on, as if they could indeed just flip a switch.
But it’s never that simple, even as it is.
Barça has better players than Sevilla. It’s as simple as that. And if you give great players a chance to kill you, they will. Had Sevilla gotten a second goal, it would have been a different match, a different halftime, a different mood, again just as against City. But they didn’t, and the greatest player in the game decided that it was time to be decisive. That player was buttressed by teammates who seemed to be lifted by his example. Barça’s lineup is festooned with players who start for the national teams, who have won awards, trophies and individual accolades. Those players made the difference.
In the first half, great players were smacked around by a team. In the second, those great players worked as a team in a system that suited their skill sets and allowed them to be on the front foot. Seems simple. But instead of one thing, it was one of a hundred things. It’s easy to say that Barça did what it was supposed to do. But for too much of this match, the team played as though it had no idea WHAT it was supposed to do.
Because Messi, is what many will say. But that’s as facile as laying all of credit on Luis Enrique. It’s safe to say that folks got yelled at during the halftime break, even as we have no idea who was doing the yelling. But in the tunnel just before the second half, the Sevilla players were chatting, shouting among themselves and getting psyched up. The Barça players just stood there, waiting to go on, waiting to go to work.
Was that the difference?
Barça knew what it had. It just had to access it. Sevilla had to make itself believe that what it had was greater than what Barça had. Did that equalizer instill a kernel of doubt? Maybe. What is certain is the final score, that this was an amazing match of football that the best player in the game had a decisive hand in, scoring one and assisting the winner.
Football is human. We like to think it’s played by robots, that the players know what to do and why in the hell won’t they just do it? But it’s never as simple as all that, because humans have frailties, make mistakes, have moments of greatness. Of the fabric woven to create a match, something created by humans, all that we can do with their efforts is wrap ourselves in joy or sadness. This is just as true even as after the titanic battle in Sevilla, all that we are really left to say is, “What a match that was!”