It wasn’t long ago that things would have happened today, and Barça would have dropped points. That was then, and this is now.
Now is Barça rolling into the house of a top 10 Liga side, a cramped space with a pitch more sand than grass, suffering a key injury within the first tem minutes of the match and winning 0-4. Now is a midfielder unappreciated by too much of his team’s fanbase, slotting neatly into the injured player’s role with aplomb.
Rakitic made himself available for Ter Stegen in the same spaces as Busquets, did the same things with the ball, playing the position in the way that is most effective for the team in a team victory.
Now is the starting keeper having 56 passes and many a glorious moment, including one where with an attacker bearing down on him, he calmly chested a ball down, played it to feet and out from the back.
Now is a magnificent player deciding that today was going to be a passing day because his position and the team’s tactics demanded it. So he dropped diamond after diamond at the feet of teammates — Suarez, Neymar, Turan, Suarez — passes that were apparently so far beyond belief that his teammates didn’t know what to do with them. To have a passing display such as that not end with an assist is positively Xaviesque. But Messi was stupefying today, and his goal was a wonder of control and delicacy.
Now is an oft-maligned left winger who, despite the view of him when he arrived, has become the ultimate team player, one who has become an exceptionally hard worker on defense, helping the incumbent LB hold down the left side, even to the detriment of his offense. The focus is on Neymar’s goal scoring rather than marveling at how his game has developed, from associative play and movement to defending. Yes, Neymar scored today, but notice his defensive work against Eibar, a match many (including me) picked as a difficult one for Barça.
Now is a player who, when his midfield presence was announced in the Barça XI, evoked groans of agony because consensus, one formed without sufficient evidence to support it, that he was poor in midfield. Then Arda Turan proceeded to boss it in midfield on attack and defense, working selflessly to ensure that his team not only could attack with style and verve, but keep the clean sheet.
Now is a coach who, even as so many in the Barça fanbase want that Bielsa disciple who is coaching Sevilla to come as fast as he can, took the absence of an essential player, and made tactical changes that allowed his team to continue mostly unimpeded. Eibar came out like a house afire, and Barça was always going to have to weather an early storm. The team did, calmly, even as many noted that they were being pinned in their own end. They were at times, but to little effect except consternation. And the moment Eibar flagged, that team put the knife in. And that was that. When an opponent is pressing, get the ball to the forwards rather than spending time making curlicues in midfield, waiting to get kicked.
Now is people who observed that, against a better team with better strikers, Barça might have been in trouble, in an odd kind of creative trauma that needs something to happen that didn’t happen. Eibar was the opponent. Barça kept a clean sheet against that opponent, as that was the team they were scheduled to play.
Now is the continued rediscovery of Aleix Vidal, who entered the match for Sergi Roberto and immediately made a case for his presence on the pitch with pace and improved defense. He also got his second assist in as many matches. When there is a pressing opponent, having an FB with pace who can make that overlapping run to get behind the press will always create trouble. Vidal is fast shaping into a difference maker at the precise time the team needs him.
Now is a lineup that included an LCB who played as an RCB today, and an ancient Frenchman who many think is terrible, but is actually quite a fine professional. And the antique Frenchman played his butt off in doing his job, while the new RCB played with style and vigor, passing, winning headers, pretty much doing the same stuff that he does on the left side. There was a particularly lovely play as, with a defender on his back, battling for the ball, he had to use the deftest of touches to not have an own goal as the outcome. He did. It wasn’t remarked upon by many, but it was a brilliant play by a still relatively new player. Both CBs, Jeremy Mathieu and Samuel Umtiti, were key to their team winning today, with emphasis.
The first goal came from a broken play, and a ball that found the foot of a summer addition who must have wondered what was up when the greatest player ever cleared space as if to say, “Do it, kid.” And Denis Suarez did, smoking a low, hard, direct shot that eluded the Eiber keeper and took the wind out of their sails. It was a brilliant strike from distance and a perfectly timed goal. It was also enough to win.
The second goal was this amazing bit of footballing extravagance as Luis Suarez stroked a flawless pass over distance that took advantage of a run that he already knew Messi was going to make. The pass was so perfect that Messi just had to caress it into the net, just in front of the charging keeper. A too-long pass is caught by the keeper. A too-short one gives Messi too much to do. This pass allowed no time to think, no time to do what mortal players might, which is to try controlling it, rounding the keeper and most likely losing the ball. Messi’s supreme confidence argued for just slotting home off the first touch.
The third goal was a nasty, brutish thing that came from grit and hustle, rather than beauty. Suarez attacked a defender in space, forcing the turnover as he bulled the ball loose, before smashing it home on the near side. It wasn’t 44 perfect passes or anything elegant. It was smash-and-grab, and it was brilliant.
The fourth goal, well into injury time, was the classic Neymar sprint onto a perfect pass, then calmly slot home.
All four goals were exceptional, and all had the distinction of not being “Barça goals” in that traditional sense, which makes them all the more noteworthy and makes the team all the more dangerous.
This wasn’t a match that will inspire poetry, but a team doesn’t get that many of those over the arc of its useful lifetime. But there is much to be learned in looking at Leicester City, a team who hoisted the Premiership trophy last season and will be lucky to escape relegation this season. From last season to this one, opponents studied them and figured out how to play against them. And Leicester City returned to earth.
Since 2008 opponents have been studying and adapting to Barça and the way that it plays. And since 2008 the team has been adapting its own ways of approaching things and has remained the best team in club football, even if it hasn’t always won the trophies to prove it. It’s hard enough to get to the top much less staying there because you always get everyone’s best game. Eibar played well enough to beat most of the teams in Liga, and better than I have seen them play at any point in this season. And they lost at home 0-4.
In many ways, watching this team put Eibar to the sword was satisfying in a way that prettier, sonnet-inspiring matches aren’t, because the team had stuff to overcome. This wasn’t Rayo, standing around watching Barça dance on ice and score a seven or eight goals. This was a proud, nasty, aggressive opponent who got in the team’s face, who forced changes and adaptations and that got its ass whipped.
Eibar was an odd match that seemed more fraught than it was as the opponents didn’t use space properly, just as Barça changed the way it played, slotting longer passes over space to players already on the move, with Messi in midfield as the architect of destruction rather than the finisher. Barça is more adaptible now than it has ever been before, in the faces of opponents who do nothing but assess how to derail that train and get a result. And it’s impressive, even if it isn’t always pretty.