Whew, right? It was nice to see Barça get back to being Barça, doing that Barça thing in that Barça way.
Not so fast.
Not all that much happened differently yesterday in the 3-1 win vs Athletic as happened in the 2-1 loss to Athletic. Which is counterintutitive because one match they won, and another match they lost. But for a team at the level of Barça, the difference between a win, loss or draw comes down to a few moments on the pitch. The loss came down to two actions. The Villarreal draw came down to one — more correctly, one by individual players. The Athletic win differed in that those few actions were performed correctly. Et voila.
One of the smarter Barça voices on Twitter, who comments here as AllasFCB, said that Barça isn’t in crisis, isn’t having any major problems. They just need to finish better, but are creating chances. This is correct. But there is a sense of crisis because losses are so rare for this football team that we don’t know how to react to them. Panic is the default setting.
After yesterday’s match, Ramzi made an astute comment on Twitter that is, along with the Allas observation, the crux of the thinking behind yesterday’s match result. It was in reponse to my observation about movement making everything better. Ramzi Tweeted:
I didn’t see any difference today than before tbh. But we won. So, I will stare with cold eyes thru that direction.
Late in yesterday’s match, when a goal could have sent Athletic through and caused a culer cataclysm, one of their players got the ball in space. Busquets moved like he was shot out of a cannon to harry and derail the budding attack before it even started. Movement. On Sunday vs Villarreal, in roughly the same position in regard to the opposing player, he stood and watched. It’s the right kind of movement that is crucial, the correct action at the correct time.
In the Barça goal that was wrongly ruled offside, things looked the same but were quite different from the last match against Athletic. If you freeze the image right before Iniesta’s pass, it’s fascinating. Iniesta is about to strike the ball as an Athletic player rushes toward him in an effort to disrupt his pass. Iniesta created that space with his movement, and the ball was spanked to him, allowing plenty of time to pick the pass. Suarez already knows what is going to happen, as does Neymar, because it’s happened a billion times before. So both begin to run into where they know the ball is going to appear, and Iniesta delivers.
Note the intelligence of Neymar’s run, taking advantage of his otherworldly first ten steps to split a pair of Athletic defenders and collect the perfectly weighted pass from Iniesta. Neymar’s run forces another defender to stop tracking Suarez and cut toward the ball. Suarez occupies that space and takes the pass from Neymar to slot home. It would have been a beautiful goal had it been allowed to stand, as it should have been. It’s a goal of the type Messi, Suarez and Neymar have created amonng themselves countless times, an action almost bordering on reflex.
But the differences are small. In previous weeks, Neymar would have to take that pass from Iniesta and face up against his defender, because Suarez is doing something else and there is nowhere to put the ball. Or the pass is delayed for a beat. Barça was back to playing reflex football off the front foot. It was a very subtle difference, like moving the tuning knob on an analog radio that fraction of an inch required to make the station snap into clear audibility.
We see it again in the first real goal scored by Barça, during which Neymar makes the same run that he has always made, darting toward the end line while looking to make the correct cross. Suarez has, of late, been hungry so he has been chasing the ball. What made him so lethal previously was how he used empty space, in the way that silence between notes is still a part of music. He ran away from Neymar and the ball, knowing that Athletic would chase the ball. The moment of realization, when the Athletic defenders saw the pass, turned and looked to see Suarez standing in space like a wolf that has shed it’s sheep’s clothing, is glorious. Neymar fed him and he struck. Didn’t pause, didn’t control the ball, didn’t think. He just hit it. Goal.
In an excellent Graham Hunter dissection of Barça, cited here by Jim, the writer speaks of complicating simple things by overthinking them. This has been going on with Barça, all the talk of identity, and midfields, and personnel, when it’s as simple as players doing their job and acting as they know that they can. It’s playing with freedom. People scream at me, “How can you say that it’s that simple, can’t you see that this coach/player/system/philosophy/identity is all wrong?” But it is, and always has been the little things, inches, not feet or yards.
Because Barça was active, almost the whole match was played on the front foot. There were little tactical changes, including the use of the long forward pass to bypass the Athletic midfield frenzy and get the ball directly to the forwards to create instability. The keepers of the Way scoffed, but it was an excellent call not because it was route one football but because it created movement in the wrong direction, which Barça could then take advantage of. An opponent press always wants to move forward, toward the ball. If you make those players move backward to chase the ball, everything is different. The keepers of the Way want Barça to set up in midfield, to pam-pam-pam its way toward goal. But if three mids are being pressed by five to six opponents, there is only so much pam-pam-pam available before someone disrupts a passing lane.
If you set it up by putting them on the back foot and then taking the clearance and working on an out of position opponent press, life is easier.
Another match key was the inclusion in the XI of Rafinha, a player who, like Umtiti, is a circuit closer. And they slipped Jordi Alba some tranquilizer in his pre-match acorn snack. As Graham Hunter noted, there was a need to keep it simple, to back off from the philosophy of aggression that made Alba force that pass instead of playing the simpler ball to the open man. Umtiti unfailingly makes himself available for the keeper when he has the ball. He sprints into open space and shapes his body to receive the pass. He can then move forward and distribute, or continue his run if the mids are covered by the press. If he loses the ball, that loss of possession isn’t the point, because the point of orientation has still been moved from the Barça end to theirs.
Messi is important for Barça. Duh. But it’s where he is that is crucial. When Rafinha plays, he is the one who shuttles the ball around so that Messi doesn’t have to drop deep to get it. It’s been said before and is worth saying again: Rafinha is irreplaceable, and a one of a kind. Rafinha also gets into the box more than any other Barça midfielder, which occupies defenders. He’s fine with having a thankless task, essentially being a ball courier who takes it from back to center, or center to front. But his presence means that Messi can have the freedom to be where he is most dangerous, instead of having to go get the ball, then ferry it to where he needs it. Again, it’s the closing of a circuit. Barça needs a seamless transition from keeper to forward in a way that no other team does, because of the possession-oriented nature of its attack. Umtiti and Rafinha are better at that than any of their positional counterparts at Barça.
Note that a flawless pass over the top from Umtiti for Neymar led to the second Barça goal, another circuit closed. It wasn’t just the run that dictated the pass, but the possibility presented by the player making the run. Neymar had a devastating match yesterday. In addition to his assist, tracking back, constant movement and scoring a goal, he was the catalyst for the Barça aggression. His deft header to Suarez created the run that led to the foul that led to another moment of Messi genius. There is a reason Neymar has been fouled more than any other player in the Liga — opponents understand his role in the team, even if so many don’t. Anybody who reduces Neymar to goals, who says that he isn’t playing well or providing value because he isn’t scoring goals, doesn’t understand Neymar or why he was purchased. Yes, goals make the world go ’round. But who says that Iniesta isn’t good because he doesn’t score goals. Nobody.
Late in the match, Neymar took a pass, cushioned it on his chest and ran toward the box where he was fouled. Once. Twice. Should have got a penalty call but got to his feet, regained control and continued his run, lacing his shot just wide of the near post. Not very many people on Twitter commented on this run, but it was absurd, stunning in its quality and almost violence.
It’s been said before that Neymar is an accelerant, but the how is rarely explored. His run on the offside goal was a burst of pace and movement, long legs that unleash hell. His dart away from goal for his assist moved the defense, and made it move quickly. Neymar is his own worst enemy when he stops to face up a defender, because it gives that player a chance. Neymar’s superpowers are his acceleration and ankles that seem to be on a mechanical pivot instead of a human joint. And his first step is explosive. If Neymar were just goals, people would play him like they used to play Messi: just stop the ball. But because you have no idea what he’s going to do, and because he’s coming at you so quickly, all you can do is kick him. Neymar’s associative play is genius. He was acquired to make everyone around him better, and he does. Iniesta’s passes have more effect when received by Neymar. Jordi Alba gets help on defense. Suarez and Messi get balls to score from. He ferries the ball from the midfield. Barça hasn’t had a left winger like that since Thierry Henry left, another player who was so much more than his goals.
Neymar broke a streak of more than a thousand minutes without having scored a goal with his penalty conversion, and boy, were people keeping track. But Neymar has been, for the most part, kicking ass during that scoreless streak, providing every bit as much value as he would by scoring goals. That observation won’t change any of the criticism that he receives, which doesn’t mean it isn’t worth making.
Messi. My heavens, Messi. It’s wrong to sum up a fine match by the best player in history in a free kick, but that was the moment. You can watch him, watching the Athletic keeper as he hops in place, staying on his toes, ready to move. Because he is shading to the far post, is Messi thinking that he is thinking Messi isn’t going to shoot for the far post? No idea, but that’s what Messi did, because Gorka was, almost imperceptibly, weighting his right foot. Messi saw that and like a moment of weakness, a tell, that was all he needed. No, he didn’t plan to bang it in off the post. The shot didn’t need to be that fine because Gorka was already beaten by his own aggressiveness, that thing that makes him such an outstanding keeper. It was brilliant. Truly, legitimately brilliant, and Messi’s third crucial free kick goal in as many matches.
People are wondering if Barça can continue its just-begun winning streak, which is a fair question. To wonder whether Barça will keep playing well, isn’t. Because they have been. Playing naturally and with freedom is the ticket.