As Barça prepares to undertake the second half of the 2016-17 season, it’s a safe bet that the team will be focusing on two months, January and February as a season-defining stretch. Let’s look at the run:
1/5: Away to Athletic Bilbao in Copa
1/8: Away to Villarreal
1/11: Athletic Bilbao in Copa
1/14: Las Palmas
1/18: Copa (if advances to next round)
1/22: Away to Eibar
1/25: Copa return leg (potential)
1/29: Away to Betis
2/4: Athletic Bilbao
2/12: Away to Alaves
2/14: Away to PSG
2/26: Away to Atleti
Yikes. Note that January brings a match every 3-4 days for the team. The biggest danger, as with last year, will be fatigue. The luck of this thing is that the next international break is at the end of March, with Champions League QFs (if Barça get there) not starting until an April 12 first leg. Recall the zombies walking around against Atleti in last season’s Champions League decider and breathe a sigh of relief.
That doesn’t mean that this fixture congestion over the coming weeks doesn’t present a number of dilemmas, thanks to transfer complexities. In the “for want of a nail” category, because Aleix Vidal didn’t work out to full satisfaction, Sergi Roberto is now the starting RB. Becuase of this, the ideal performer in as the Busquets sub is otherwise occupied. Meanwhile, Paco Alcacer is still working away at the process of assimilation, but because of that process, there is no effective sub for Luis Suarez. Key players still have no real sub, which is in part a consequence of their exceptionally high quality. That quality is scant consolation when stars are being worn down to a nubbin.
Andre Gomes can do some subbing for Busquets, as his assimilation is much farther along than Alcacer’s. Another up side is that Arda Turan has been exceptional on the left side when Neymar is absent. These two things give Luis Enrique a number of tactical flexibilities, something helped by having, for the first time in a long time, a mostly fit squad of outfield players now that Mathieu has returned to training with the group. (Only Cillessen, the Renegade Jogger, is absent.) Every body will be needed, because the only thing that has beaten Barça this year has been physical flatness. We saw it against Alaves, and again against Celta Vigo and Real Sociedad.
Schedules such as this are the reason that big clubs hoard players. Luis Enrique, potentially, has a pair of (almost) completely different XIs at his disposal:
Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Suarez, Neymar, Messi
Cillessen/Masip, Vidal, Mascherano, Mathieu, Digne, Gomes, Rafinha, Suarez Minor, Turan, Alcacer, ???
The rotation won’t be as complete but Luis Enrique is going to have to somehow buy time for his key players, assuming no respite provided by a dead rubber Copa return leg, which is about as likely as Milan Pique sleeping with a Real Madrid binky. So smart rotation and a coach fully in charge of his club will be essential. In other words, superstars will have to understand when to sit and when to self manage. Subs will have to understand their role and, frankly, step the hell up. There would be no better time than now for Alcacer, the hard-luck man of the squad who could with more luck have as many goals as Neymar, to start banging in goals instead of seeing yet another spectacular series of stops from yet another keeper. Any deep, serious struggle with an opponent has the potential for a knock-on effect later in that brutal period.
Only a maniac would believe that Barça could run the table during such an intense string of fixtures. Danger matches are Villarreal and Eibar away as well as that first Copa quarterfinal, the first match back from holiday away to a savage San Mames. And don’t forget Alaves, which comes a mere two days before the PSG Champions League away leg.
There are a great many questions about the Barça team, a group that divides opinion. In the treble season it was clear that there was a meanness instilled in the group, a holdover from its coach’s psychology. Is that savagery still there, or does success extinguish a flame? We have seen evidence of the latter this season against Alaves, La Real, Manchester City in the second half of the away Champions League tie.
But we have also seen that fire burning bright in the Celta Vigo fightback, at Valencia and at Sevilla. More importantly, we have seen it at home against Real Madrid, in a match that Barça should have won. We can talk about tactics and midfields until we are blue in the face, but the players will have to get it done, pretty or not. Eight weeks isn’t that long. A genius can rehab his knee in that time. But also, a team can establish how the rest of its season is going to go.
The Barça break has been good because in lieu of new Barça to watch, the man cave has been ringing with old Barça, hour after hour, minutes galore of Messi and asking myself, along with the rest of the world, “How does he do it?”
Every great has a physical advantage. Not many people know that Michael Jordan had the second-biggest hands in NBA history, bettered only with Wilt Chamberlain. At 7-foot-1, Chamberlain had 11.5 inch hands. At 6-foot-6, Jordan had 11.4 inch hands. That’s crazy. What that meant is that he always had control of the basketball because of those paws.
It is often stated that Ronaldo is more physically gifted than Messi because he runs like a gazelle and can jump higher. What people aren’t considering is the biggest advantage that Messi has, the thing that as near as I can tell, makes him unplayable (entering the realm of speculation now, so stand back):
Hips don’t lie.
The hip is a silly thing when you really think about it. It’s a ball, resting in a cup, balanced atop this flimsy latticework of bones. If you stop to consider it, it’s a wonder we can walk erect past the age of 19. But more than the hips, at issue here is a collection of muscles and tendons, about 17 of them. Even more specifically in this case, look at the adductor group and its party of five as of most interest. With Messi and Ronaldo, you have a V versus a tree — that is, the classic physical shape with broad shoulders tapering to the slim lower body, and someone built a lot like a mailing tube, at pretty much the same circumference all the way down. Further, look at the length of their strides and how open Ronaldo’s hips are compared to Messi.
Hips provide the base for an athlete. It’s the reason Right Ronaldo was such an exceptional scorer and space maker. Same for Luis Suarez. It’s the reason Neymar has to rely upon guile instead of strength, because of that comparative lack of a base. In sport, particularly power sports, coaches always talk about a “base.” This is what they mean. And the way Messi plays football makes it a power sport for him. In that vein, which should be prefaced by saying it’s nothing more than speculation as nobody has done a scientific analysis of this — I would bet my house that Messi has the strongest hips in the game, maybe even in the history of the game, even in the context of most athletes having weak hips. I would bet that Messi’s hips are also tight, and that part of his preparation focuses on keeping his hips loose and open.
The biggest advantage hip power gives Messi is the ability to do anything he wants with no lift. If you look at the goal from distance that he scored against Manchester City in Champions League at Camp Nou, he just strode through the ball. To be able to generate that kind of pace from no backlift is astonishing — verging on freakish. His passes are the same, as are most of his goals. It’s like he is running and the ball catapults off his foot while in stride. Compare that to Ronaldo, who does the more classic windup where the stride lengthens to provide a base for the force necessary to explode through the ball.
When a defender watches an attacker the shooter winds up, so there is a tell — a hitch in the stride, a lengthening of the stride, a pause to plant the foot — that lets the defender know a shot or a pass is coming. Messi shoots in the same motion, passes in the sme motion as he runs, which makes it impossible to know what he is going to do. The goal he scored against AC Milan in the famed Camp Nou remuntada in Champions League again, was struck with no backlift. He was surrounded by four players, but they were all essentially frozen because nobody knew if he was going to shoot or keep running, until … bang.
Messi has a history of hip and groin problems, which makes sense. His hips are a fulcrum, a lever, a battering ram and a base for propulsion. If you watch him run, he doesn’t stride as much as roll from the hips, with short, choppy strides that always keep him balanced. But it’s also easy to see how that running style can result in hip and groin injuries if the athlete isn’t careful. We always think that Messi runs less to preserve his energy, and keep his fast-twitch muscles from getting injured more often. But what if he’s protecting his hips?