For neutrals, what a match. For me, it required a change of clothing and some heart rate settling.
In one of the tactical Classics in recent memory, a bit of an irony given that it was contested by two teams whose coaches are widely considered to not really be coaches, two teams fought like lions and emerged with an equal hunk of the carcass.
On Barça Twitter, recriminations and cries for various scalps are ongoing. But here’s what happened from this chair in a world as subjective as evaluating anything artistic:
Luis Enrique knew that his talismanic midfielder, Andres Iniesta, had about 30 minutes in his still-recovering legs. So he played the entire match based on that notion. The midfield was Busquets, Gomes and Rakitic, in effect three of the same kinds of players, almost 3 DMs if you really think about it.
Rakitic was dispatched to assist Sergi Roberto in dealing with Marcelo and Ronaldo. Gomes was in to make wall passes, and not screw up in possession, gifting RM with counter opportunities.
Busquets was dispatched to be magnificent. And he was. In every facet of the game.
The program worked, almost. The first half ended scoreless, and it’s safe to say that both coaches would have been happy with that, for different reasons. Zidane played his lineup like a coach happy with getting a tie. Luis Enrique played his like a coach waiting to play his whip hand. The second would have it all to play for, and it couldn’t have worked out more flawlessly for Luis Enrique and Barça.
A foul at the outer edge of the area brought a brilliant cross that was nodded home by, of all players, Luis Suarez. After spending the entire match fighting, and glowering and officiating in absentia, his bullet header past Keylor Navas sent the Camp Nou into a frenzy of relief. It was 1-0 Barça, and it was shortly after that when Iniesta started warming up as the home supporters screamed his name.
At about the 60-minute mark, he came on, and Barça was transformed as the Luis Enrique plans all made sense. Barça had the lead, and football of the type that many have been craving was back, orchestrated by a man in his twilight, but still nonpareil. Until that moment, Luka Modric had been exemplary for Real Madrid. Iniesta came on, and everything was forgotten as he darted, ghosted, flicked and turned.
Barça acted like a team liberated, as everyone could return to their familiar roles, from Busquets to Messi to Neymar to Suarez, and it was all going so well, until an unfortunate foul by Arda Turan, that set up a set piece.
There is more crazy irony in two teams who sparkle in open play, finding stalemate from a pair of set pieces. Real Madrid’s was as beautifully worked as Barça’s, as they flooded the right side with a trio of players before Sergio Ramos (who else?) headed home for the late, late equalizer. But even then, it took some crazy ping-pong right on their doorstep to keep Barça from a late, late winner, and it wasn’t until that ball was cleared to midfield that everyone, on both sides as well as neutrals, could breathe again.
Barça got so much right, and a number of key things wrong. When Rakitic came off Marcelo went into the ascendancy, causing all manner of difficulties for Sergi Roberto. It was a Marcelo run and cross that led to the sequence of play that ultimately resulted in the goal, even as Arda Turan made a stupid, stupid foul at that part of the pitch, that late in the match. Turan also had the temerity to then get into it with an RM player, making the throat cutting gesture as he glowered. But Barça got its throat cut instead.
Looking at the key set piece, thanks to a screen grab from AllasFCB on Twitter, the three best aerial players are all marking Vasquez, leaving Mascherano to deal with a trio that included Ramos. The outcome was inevitable.
After the match came a very interesting Luis Enrique quote:
“It is very easy to give orders for set pieces, from where the coach is sat, but those who need to defend them are the players”
Now, we know what he meant, which is that coaches can only diagram stuff, but the players have to play the matches. But many will interpret it as having thrown his players under the bus, a la when Mourinho said after a match, “my players let me down.” The Luis Enrique quote left the wrong taste at the end of a day that will be viewed as a failure by many, even when it shouldn’t be.
Meanwhile, another glitch came as Rakitic was subbed, which meant that Sergi Roberto was suddenly the babe in the woods that many feared he would be, and it cost the team.
But even after all of that, football comes down to doing what you need to do to win, which was part of Luis Enrique’s point. A coach can do everything except do it for his players. Earlier in the day, Manchester City lost when Kevin De Bruyne missed a gaping net, pranging the ball off the crosbar and over. It was an astonishing miss. Instead of putting City up 2-0, Chelsea came right back to equalize and finally win.
Against Real Madrid, Neymar made a remarkable run, left his defenders for dead and, with the goal essentially at his mercy, went for the top far corner while leaning back, and put the ball over the goal. Yes, it was a difficult shot, blablabla, but the best players in the game score those goals. If he is shooting with proper form, if any one of a hundred things happen, it’s 2-0 and the match is over and done.
Then, later, Iniesta found Messi with a pass that on its own deserves a spot in whatever hall of fame is reserved for otherworldly moments from spectacular players. It even seemed to surprise Messi a bit, who fumbled a bit with his first touch, and just as culers everywhere leapt to their feet to celebrate, for Messi is as reliable as death and taxes when on the doorstep, an already committed keeper sprawled at his feet, Messi screwed the strike wide of the far post.
Given the form that Luis Suarez was in, who would have thought that of the trident, he would be the only one to bury his chance today? The misses of Neymar and Messi weren’t only bad, but crucial because they gave Real Madrid life, just as City’s miss enlivened Chelsea.
Scapegoating is always the most natural reaction after a “negative” result, and the entorno isn’t disappointing. Turan is a culprit, so is Luis Enrique. But only a few are having the temerity to suggest that if the two best attackers in the world had done their jobs, it wouldn’t have mattered what Arda Turan did late in the match. A sub is only a failure after a number of other people fail, setting the potential for that incorrect sub being an issue. Garbage in, garbage out.
Neymar scores, and Turan doesn’t matter. Messi scores, and Turan doesn’t matter. Defend the set piece properly, and Turan doesn’t matter. Scapegoating rarely works, even as it always satisfies, even in its illogical nature.
Luis Enrique almost got it right today. History will record that he didn’t, that almost only counts with horseshoes and hand grenades. The “results don’t matter” crowd will be unconsoled to find that for them, results DO indeed matter, for Barça played exquisite football once Iniesta came on, precisely the kind of football that so many have been clamoring for. But still, Lucho Out, the club is a disaster, everybody is stupid except the ones who prophesied doom.
Some even say that Messi had a poor match, without understanding his role today, which changed once Iniesta entered, which was why he was suddenly so attack-minded late. Messi had a very good, influential match today. Look at his touches and interventions as he ran and defended like crazy, shifted pressure and created when he could. Messi’s match quality isn’t defined by how many goals he scores, but rather what he does to help his team win.
He had a much better match than Neymar, who spent the first half slipping and sliding around before finding more stability and quality in the second half, becoming the play accelerant that is his usual role. And Suarez, his goal aside, was poor. The vaunted Trident, that is supposed to be laying waste to opposition defenses, was mostly stagnant thanks to the ineffectiveness of a key piece.
But even at the end of all that, there are many positives to be taken from this match. The shame is that the Classic had to come right after Anoeta, because Barça would have beaten any other team today. It played much better as a collective even before Iniesta entered the match, and had the looks of a team that is looking to turn a corner.
The perception of Barça won’t allow positives to come from this match, but they are there if you look for them, particularly as regards overall play, which improved immeasurably from the desultory outings against Malaga, and at Anoeta. The team drew when so many predicted that it would lose today, and in reality it should have won, but that’s football.
At the end of the match, things were exactly as they were at the beginning, with Barça looking at a six-point gap to the top of the table. But anyone who really watched that match through anything except a curtain of gloom, can come away a little more light-hearted at the signs that maybe, just maybe, the corner might have been turned and that, win or lose, the team can get back to playing the way that we all know it can.