it’s easy to forget in a world filled with information, that we don’t really know all that much. This is particularly true when it comes to the closed circle of team sports.
For the outside world, it has been a complex week for FC Barcelona, from wondering about the status of Ivan Rakitic, to wondering about the eventual transfer destination of Aleix Vidal and why Andre Gomes is a waste of money. Board members were saying silly things about Messi, and the #luchoout hashtag was trending on Twitter.
It would have been easy for a coach to assuage concerns about Rakitic by including him in the XI, to make press statements. But it’s no surprise that Luis Enrique isn’t interested in any of that stuff. But perhaps Luis Suarez summed it up after the hiding of a very good Las Palmas team, when he said:
“The movie is done by you in the media. Messi knows what he wants. And the club does, too. The president said it.”
A even lovelier summation of just how much we know was the absolute glee that greeted a late goal scored by Aleix Vidal, off a top-class assist from Paco Alcacer. The bench and teammates were as elated with that goal as Alcacer was, which speaks eloquently about team spirit, and just how little we know. After the match, Luis Enrique said, “He proved his coach wrong,” before waxing rhapsodic about how well Vidal played today — and for the third outing in a row, it must be said.
BeIN commentators were going on about Rakitic being in the doghouse, while Luis Enrique subbed on the Croatian midfielder around the 70th minute, and he played with the verve and energy of a player who appreciated the rest he has been given by a coach who now has the luxury of being able to provide such things.
The team knows what it knows, the coaches know what they know, and all we know is what we can speculate or what certain media outlets, who are mostly also outsiders, toss our way. It’s easy to forget this, even as matches such as today’s remind us of that. Here was the XI today:
Ter Stegen, Vidal, Mascherano, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Gomes, Rafinha, Turan, Messi, Suarez
It was a wonderful rotation XI that, theoretically, would allow ball control, pressing and attacking danger. And this was a tricky match. Las Palmas was sitting eighth in the table, and coming off a run of fantastic football based in possession and incisive passing. Barça got in their face and stayed in their face, as that XI did exactly what it was supposed to do. That the first half didn’t end 5 or 6-0 was only because of the Barça Bottling Company as chance after chance was spurned.
A month ago, a more fragile Barça would probably have found a way to screw something up and let Las Palmas get an equalizer. Today, they just kept attacking, kept playing off the front foot, kept closing Las Palmas down. Over the “poor” period for Barça, many have said, this space included, that the team isn’t doing a lot of things differently, but they were playing like a team waiting for something bad to happen rather than making bad things happen to its opponents.
The close-run Copa match against Athletic was, as some thought, just what the team needed. The group was fast, aggressive and on the front rather than the back foot. It played Barça football as it had been all along, but played it in the aggressive way that makes that kind of football impossible to resist as every player was full of industry. And in many ways this was the match of the failures. Turan was excellent, and would have been MOTM for me had it not been for Busquets, who was stupendous today. Vidal had his third fine outing, and Alcacer was full of movement and potential danger. Gomes was, in a midfield with Busquets, full of style and effort, and really could have had a brace by halftime.
All four players had been written off by parts of a fanbase that still doesn’t fully comprehend how difficult it is to fit in at the best team in the world, a team that thinks, plays and moves so fast because its spine has been doing it forever, since youth player days. Imagine being a new Harlem Globetrotter and wondering what the hell you are supposed to do with all of this?
The other problem with new transfers is, frankly, hero worship. Messi, Iniesta, Busquets, Pique, internationals, World Cup winners and players who are as accustomed to victory parades as most players are to waking up. It’s intimidating, and takes time. So even as it’s easy to label someone who doesn’t assimilate immediately a failure, an argument is to be made for a season in the colors. It helped Turan, and Vidal is coming around quickly. Gomes is coming around faster than expected and the result is a Barça team with the potential that its coach spoke of when he said at the start of the season that this was the best team he has ever had.
Look at Messi’s face in this picture, how happy he is. Barça destroyed Las Palmas with the likes of Pique, Rakitic, Iniesta and Neymar sitting on the bench. Sergi Roberto and Pique weren’t even in the squad. Neither was Suarez Minor, which set tongues wagging. But Barça was a team. The players didn’t matter, the system did. The group attacked with a nasty, pressing 4-4-2 that didn’t allow Las Palmas to build anything. Legs were fresh and so were minds. The rotation that has been going on all season, even to the grumbling of a fanbase, is ready to pay dividends. Luis Enrique has a full, complete squad as his disposal.
Luis Suarez seems to have shaken off his slump by playing naturally again, moving and shooting more and thinking less. His first goal was exceptional, another first-time strike golazo in consecutive matches. No extra touches, just him doing what he used to do when he was the most fearsome striker in the game instead of a grumbling, tumbling shadow of himself.
But it wasn’t the goals. It was the overall play, the movement off the ball, the way passes always had somewhere to go, a teammate always making himself available, the way help always came to close down the Las Palmas attack before it had a chance to perform. The mind strains to think of a single moment of real danger posed by the opponent, but the moments of danger posed by Barça were countless, many of them coming from the feet of a player who was as the center — however unwittingly — of a great deal of this week’s nonsense. He fought, clattered, scampered and refused to dive. He scored an ugly goal and created moments of sheer beauty.
Even in the echoes of a board member saying that Messi’s success was teammate dependent, here was Messi saying “I’m still me, even with a bunch of different guys.’ Because that bunch of different guys is still part of the best team in the world.
It would have been easy for Luis Enrique to sit at his presser, smile and say, “What did I tell y’all?” Instead he praised a player who was presumed lost, saying that player proved him wrong. He never said that player also rewarded the faith that his mamager had in him, the manager who made clear that as soon as the player started coming correct, he would play. As soon as that started happening, Vidal was back in the squad. He is moving differently, playing differently, like a player who is trying to prove something rather than how he was previously, like a player who was bought to be the right back, who was wondering what this tousle-haired kid was doing with his job.
When was the last time you heard a coach say “I was wrong?”
Barça hasn’t played a better match this season, even as we can hope they will moving forward. But even if they maintain the level they displayed today, there isn’t a team in football that will be able to beat them. Sometimes, it takes things to remind a team, near misses that result in dropped points to remind of the value of that little extra, that bounce in the step, that swagger. Instead of saying “Oh, crap,” that you should be making opponents say “Oh, crap.”
Confidence? Swagger? Yes, and yes. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe we should, instead of looking a gift horse of a football team in the mouth, just enjoy the hell out of it while we have it, while the best player in the history of the game is still performing the impossible, while superstars are sitting on the bench, having a laugh while their teammates destroy one of the better teams in La Liga.
A week full of stupid crap might have been just what the doctor ordered for a football team that has, for the entire season, been flirting with being a quality unit.