Barça 5, Real Sociedad 2, aka “Embracing imperfection”

What if everything we know about watching and evaluating football is wrong? What if the avatars, the pursuits of flawless glory to which we hold the teams that we love are illusory, like polka-dotted unicorns?

Barça has dispatched a series of opponents over the past couple of weeks, as usual for the team it seems, hitting a nadir in the away Liga match at the Anoeta, then coming back into form. Each and every opponent has come with an excuse.

— “Las Palmas wasn’t playing that well.”
— “Eibar isn’t that good a team.”
— “A win against La Real? It wasn’t in La Liga. The curse is still there.”

And now today, we’re going to kibbutz about the flaws of the team because of some standard, like old flames who gain beauty in the burnished glow of time.

What was interesting about today’s match? It depends on who you ask. From this seat, it seems that football is back. In specific, the joy of the game seems to have returned. The group isn’t playing while flinching, isn’t worrying about losing possession and what that might mean. After the 3-1 win over Athletic in the Copa, the team seemed to turn the corner, seemed to understand that it can play football and win, that it can play its natural game without worrying, as long as everyone does what they are supposed to do.

Barça isn’t perfect. It never was, even at the halcyon moments of the Guardiola era, and it never will be. The first Champions League against Manchester United has gained glory, because it’s easy to forget how different a match it would have been had Ronaldo brought his shooting boots, before Eto’o did something crazy against the run of play.

In the second United Champions League vanquishing, the football was exquisite, but it was flawed. There were missed passes, periods of play off the back foot, a United goal off of, of all things, a set piece.

Juventus doesn’t really have a great deal of glory attached to it, because Luis Enrique was at the helm of the club, but again, the scoreline belied how complex that match was. Nothing, nowhere has been perfect.

What if the team was perfect? What if every time Messi touched the ball, a goal resulted. If every time Suarez bulled his way into the box, a goal resulted, if the team scored with metronomic precision, every last time it touched the ball, free of the sort of struggle that makes for sports heroism. How much fun would matches be? The heroism of sport is in the struggle. The games are supposed to be flawed.

Against La Real, cruising on the heels of a 0-1 away win with a precious away goal, La Real was battling, and Barça was just finding its way into a contentious, cantankerous match. Then, suddenly, Umtiti made like a wall and the ball was on its way to the other end in a series of single touches before Denis Suarez, nobody’s idea of the first Suarez that would score today, curled another lovely strike into the same corner of the net as his rocket against Eibar.

It was a handful of seconds of beauty plucked from minutes of running around, of battling, of getting fouled and in between all that, stroking the ball around.

The second goal came after a crazy sequence of play in which the Barça defense was breached, a CB then the keeper coming up with some craziness to keep La Real from equalizing. From the ensuing restart, it was Umtiti to Suarez to a streaking Neymar, who was fouled in the box. Messi slammed home the penalty for 2-0, and match over.

There is a certain supporter who will blanch at that second goal, who will suggest that it wasn’t Barça football, ask where the midfield was, where things such as control and la pausa were. Before and after that goal were imperfection — misplaced passes, some handbags, some aggravation as the La Real player thought they could fight their way into the match, unsettle a Barça team that was interested in playing the game its own way.

Umtiti laid a ball out for Gomes, that the Portuguese midfielder should have taken in. He didn’t, and the defense wasa unprepared for what happened, just as every Barça defense has been in a similar situation, since the high line cmae into being. Any time a mid loses the ball in the position in which Gomes lost it — there are Busquets and Iniesta reruns of pretty much the same situation — a goal is pretty likely because the Barça back line presses.

Pique was caught up, Mascherano was caught up, Umtiti was caught up and Cillessen stood there, fraught with uncertainty, waiting to die. Obligingly, the La Real attacker did him in. The look on his face spoke volumes. It said, “Ter Stegen would have charged that ball.” The hanging heads of the center backs told another story in a chain of errors that led to a goal.

But even while the supporters were debating whose fault that goal really was, Barça was scoring at the other end, as Messi made some more of that bizarre alchemy that happens when the ball is at his feet and he is feeling full of mischief. He fed Luis Suarez, who smoked home. In less than a minute, the match went from being in play to being over.

The defense lapsed again, deciding that there wasn’t any way that a player would be able to hit a header from there into … shoot. And it was 3-2. Then Barça scored two more times, lovely goals based in movement and dynamic football of the type deemed incorrect these days, and the final score was 5-2.

In the crucible of Barça Twitter, many said that it wasn’t a good match, as if we even know what a good match is. The team played a fantastic match against Eibar, but that wasn’t the right opponent. It played brilliantly against Real Madrid for 89 minutes, but the result dictated a different view of the match. Barça has a standard — one that is malleable, ever-shifting and impossible to ever reach.

The coach says that his team played fantastically, and supporters scoff, saying, “Hmph! What else would he say,” before laying out a litany of match flaws, imperfections that doomed a match such as a 0-4 thrashing of the tenth-place team in the league, a match played on a sod-covered tabletop, to this mess of an outing against an opponent that wasn’t very good.

What are we looking for? What does this team have to achieve for us to be truly happy with what it does? Can we ever be? “Messi got a hat trick, but he gave away a dozen balls.” “Neymar tried a silly dribble. What the hell is his problem?” If you think of a day at work where you traipse from the office, bog certain that you did absolutely nothing wrong, colleagues and your boss could sit you down and tell you exactly how you messed up. Because even as we chase perfection, we never achieve it.

Should we, therefore, embrace imperfection when we watch football? No, right? If we don’t hold the team to the highest possible standard of the most flawless play, a 5-0 win with 100% possession and a 100% pass completion record in which the passing maps looked like the school figures made by competing ice skaters, we are letting them down, letting ourselves down and settling for less.

Is that true? Or are we just sucking away at our ability to enjoy a match, to enjoy the moments of success that enbroider their stamp upon a quilt of overall flaws. Every time Barça wins, it makes me giddy. It matters not if it is Hercules or Atleti. Is a win a win? Nope. Some wins, the team plays better than others. In some, the team got lucky, or got the benefit of a few calls here or there. But the record book doesn’t have an asterisk next to those matches. The team doesn’t get fewer points because of its flawed wins, because every win is flawed. Life is flawed.

What’s happening, right before our eyes, is a team coming into focus. Vidal has redeemed himself. Turan is a destroyer who is moving with the kind of style and aggression that made the team grab him from Atleti. Mascherano detstroyed everything in front of him today, even as people picked at his performance because he isn’t Busquets. But he isn’t supposed to be. He’s a world-class DM who played like one today in a substitute’s role for an injured incumbent.

Barça obliterated La Real without Iniesta and Busquets, two players who are essential for “Barça football,” and never really hit top gear in doing so. That is remarkable, and a joy to watch, even as it is flawed as can be.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. I really can’t believe there are Barca supporters who wouldn’t call this at least a rather good game from the team. Very composed performance in the first half, and in the second half when they were throwing men forward and doing some very nice combination play the team instantly punished them with counterattacks and a lot of goals. And it was La Real this time, a strong team that wanted to win.

    Good to brilliant performances from everyone around, though the offensive contributions from Gomes and the defensive contributions from Suarez Minor (who was great in the opposing half) still need some improvement. Sergi Roberto playing better than in his last games, maybe he’s gotten over his bad patch.

    If someone isn’t content because it isn’t “Barca football” anymore, the first goal should make them content. A series of passes from left to right side until suddenly there is a player one-on-one with the keeper. The run from Neymar for the penalty was also great, thankfully he didn’t slow down the play on this one. And overall, it’s very good to see goalscoring duties being distributed not only among the MSN but to midfielders as well.

  2. Im very happy about the victory especially against them!! We need to continue this way. Lucho should start using arda more in Neymars place, dont get me wrong Neymar is amazing but goals are important and Arda seems to score in every game he starts at in that position!! The same apllies to Vidal, Lucho should start him more or at least substitute him in more often. Onward to Betis!! Visca el Barca!

  3. I’m glad to have a solid replacement for Neymar in case of injury or for giving him a (sulking) rest when a game is already won, but I wouldn’t dream of starting him over Neymar. First, because as Kxevin has been preaching Neymar brings so much more to the team than his goals (assists, drawing out two to three defenders whenever he has the ball, forcing fouls that are punished with cards). Second, if you look at Turan’s goals most of them came at a time when the opponent was already two or three goals down, when it is still not easy to score but definitely easier than when the game is wide open (which is when Neymar forced the penalty for the decisive goal yesterday).

    I like Turan, I like having someone who can play well, defensively and offensively, in midfield while also putting in a good shift on the left wing when needed. I want him to stay at Barca and get playing time. But Neymar – as wasteful as he currently is in front of goal – is something else entirely.

    1. Was a reply to untoxgsd by the way.

      I agree on Vidal, I was always surprised when he didn’t play for such a long time because he had some good things to bring to the team.

      That’s a great thing about this team – versatility. We could play Vidal on the right and Sergi Roberto in midfield if needed, Turan on the left wing and Neymar instead of Luis Suarez (when he’s out) in the middle, and so on. No more having to play Iniesta at left wing, which is as pearls before swine (if that saying has any meaning in English).

    2. Dont get me wrong, I definetly want Ney to start in the hard games were we need a player to carry the ball and be able to dribble through a couple of players. He’s irreplacable, im jusy saying that Arda should be used as a starter in that position in relatively easy games were Neymar should get much needed rest or sub him off when the game is more or less in the bag!

    3. Neymar is not a player who will accept that role.
      He is a star, on and off the pitch, and he needs to play as much as possible.
      Otherwise how will he show his qualities game after game?

  4. Many positives from the game, and as it was at Anoeta, we again showed some balls when it was needed. Just so the others to realize that we are not just some fancy players who dance around and are afraid of some more manly football. And half of that RS team needs some kicks now and then.
    Anyway, great game, some beautiful things, some great performances, and some minor negatives. But i liked Masch as DM, he was a master last night. Just showed what he can bring for us when Busi is not around.
    It looks like we are switching to another gear and it’s great timing for it. Let’s hope it continues.

    1. Not what I would have preferred, but I don*t think Celta are much worse than Atleti right now (and they can rest players in the league since they are comfortably mid-table). So only one out of three would have been a relatively easy match-up, and I say “relatively” because we actually lost to that easy team at the start of the league.

    2. It’s not that i think Celta would have been easier, just i don;t like it if the tie goes beyond football. All the tension of previous seasons.
      It will disrupt the feng shui condition in which we are at the moment. 🙂

  5. The next month is going to be brutal, if that isnt an understatement. I hope Don Andres and Busi get fit quick. If there’s any silver lining it’s that neither PSG nor Atletico seem as strong as last year.

  6. The schedule is absolutely savage coming up:

    1/29 Betis A
    2/1 Atleti A
    2/5 Athletic
    2/7 Atleti
    2/11 Alaves A
    2/14 PSG A
    2/19 Leganes A
    2/26 Atleti

    Weren’t we just saying that January was a brutal month? My heavens!

    1. That looks… tough. Might be one of those season-defining stretches. If get out of this alive, we’re in a good position to challenge on all fronts! And yes, rotation seems to be paying off; the mids must run a lot to offer defensive cover and press these days with less possession, but none of the mids should be overworked, really, at this stage. Busi was in the danger zone, but not now. Nudge Gomes back on the right track, and we have plenty of good options!

      And how can the schedule leave only two days between Athletic and Atleti! Hoping for a good first away leg…

  7. Many grumbled about Luis Enrique, rotation and his determination to work in new transfers. This coming stretch could prove why that was important. And the Vidal renaissance is not to be underestimated. He’s devastating with his pace on that wing.

    And the injury luck. Busquets, Rafinha and Iniesta will be fresh for the stretch run, when you know that if they were available, they would have been playing some of these past matches. So yeah, some bad luck that has turned out good.

    1. Lucho or whoever should actually work with SR and AV on their defensive duties, from which the team will benefit a lot.
      Going forward they are great, but they need to be more brutal as defenders. I think that it’s something that can be practiced.

  8. Being out with an injury is never a rest period .
    There’s no strategy , Enrique is lost. Messi playing centrally is the PROBLEM.
    We’ll lose points this month and with it the league .
    And Macherano was just invisible.

    1. Yes, we will probably lose points this month. It would be too much to ask to win all eight games in one month. But that would be the case with any players, under any coach.

      I would have to know more about why you think there’s no strategy or Messi playing centrally is the problem. But I don’t think a team can win their last four games as convincingly as Barca did just now against La Real (twice), Las Palmas and Bilbao, mostly without their best midfielder and defender, with no strategy.

  9. Yeah , that’s a bit harsh for me. It’s difficult to know what strategy you can have when you have Messi in your side . He does what he wants, goes where he wants and he destroys the opposition on a regular basis. You can’t ask for much more than that. Will it still work against the top sides ? Don’t know. I’d rather we had a better midfield to be able to withstand harder presses than we’ve had over the last while but it’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out with Ini and Busi back.

    No, injuries aren’t really a rest but they do rekindle your batteries and appetite for the game big time and that’s important. I often feel that far too much is made of physical tiredness these days. If you’re playing well and winning in your twenties you feel invulnerable and just want it to go on. What you’re maybe not so aware of is the mental toll of getting up for a game then coming down then up again so quickly.

    With regard to the game I didn’t think we played 5-2 well but it was an accomplished performance nonetheless. Messi is in his best form of the last two seasons for me. How can you even see that pass to Suarezminor’s for the last goal, never mind weight it just right to slip past the defenders and right into his path ? Btw, I didn’t think young Suarez had a great game but boy, he’s exactly what we need coming late into the box. In the last three or four games we’ve had a lot more bodies in their box at vital times. That’s one of the reasons Suarez major is playing so well.

    The other one who never seems to get a mention is Alba. The running he gets through these days is crazy. If I can suggest a small correction to the episode before our second goal it isn’t a CB who stops it with a sliding tackle, it’s Alba, who has just sprinted forty yards ( again) to make the tackle. Really, have a look at a highlights vid on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. Great piece of defending and it wasn’t the only one . He’s busting a gut to get back from that wide, advanced position every game and deserves some recognition for it.

    With regard to their goals it’ll not come as a surprise that I thought both were avoidable, the first more so. Can’t agree with the assessment that Pique did anything wrong. He wasn’t caught up the field. We had seven not counting the goalkeeper goalside when we lost the ball. For once, we were actually in our correct positions ! No, Gomes shouldn’t have lost the ball ( don’t think I’m being too harsh when I say that he didn’t have a great game for me actually) but that didn’t cost the goal. Your defence is there for occasions like this. When the turnover happens, Pique is in perfect position marking his man, Masche has dropped into CB and is marking his man, Umtiti has recognised the need to get back a little more central and is making his way there. Yes, he’s a little too deep but not disastrous. No danger.

    What happened next defies belief for me. We go from in control and goalside of our men to a lost cause in one movement and for me it’s all down to Masche. He’s the one marking the scorer and for no reason at all sprints out just as the ball is about to be hit leaving his man in the clear and played on by the horrified Umtiti. What was he thinking about? We had everything under control. His man wasn’t going anywhere with him goalside of him, he couldn’t see behind him to know if he was last man back so you don’t leave your post without knowing that for sure yet out he comes. Horrible, horrible defending which is a pity as I would have said he had a decent game at DM . His passing was good, he didn’t take chances, made a few good tackles and looked quite confident there. No, he’s never gonna be your playmaker and I wouldn’t like to see him pressed hard there but it’s a bit harsh to say he was poor in that position. Not gonna talk about the keeper’s role in it as he’ll be feeling bad enough having broken cardinal rule number one re coming out then stopping. Silly.

    Their second goal was a pinpoint pass so kudos to them. I’m just gonna say it’s the second or third time in the last three matches that Umtiti has got himself underneath a cross. Some work to be done there, young sir, but only to be expected and he still excites me in that position. He was cool in possession at times when I was less so in front of my iPad.

    So, a string of decent results for us and that’ll do confidence no harm, particularly of the youngsters, although I’m praying the top guns are back for the horrendous schedule Kxevin outlines above. Btw, I’m not sure why anyone thinks we don’t enjoy our games. I thoroughly enjoy them all, win or lose, actually. The day of a Barca match is a highlight of the week for me. However, with caring comes pressure which I also feel and sometimes frustration and occasionally anger at stupid refereeing decisions or mistakes we make.

    That’s what makes football so exciting. You’re living it. There would be no joy without the whole package – and that includes sitting down calmly the next day to rewatch and see why we played well or not and enjoy the little moments again. I played Suarez major’s first time flick on for our first over and over again just to make sure he hadn’t sneeked a look for young Suarez’ run first and he didn’t. That was what made that goal for me. I replay most of Messi’s passes just because I can’t believe them. If you stop the video a second before he hits it quite often you still have no idea where it can be going. Unbelievable.

    Anyway, I’m hacked off today at Sky not showing the Granada game for some reason so am reduced to watching Arsenal at the moment. Looking forward to tomorrow and a couple of Neymar goals !

    1. You too?! I was hurling invective at BeIN for giving me Malaga/Osasuna rerun instead of Villarreal/Granada, the live match. Reckon something happened, but some people were able to watch it.

      — Messi being more central is the new reality. You’d better believe he wouldn’t be playing there if he didn’t understand why he was playing there, and the necessity of him playing there. You have a Neymar and Suarez precisely so that you can expand Messi’s influence.

      — Luis Enrique has his team fit and in excellent mental condition. Not sure how that signifies anything about him losing it, particularly coming off a treble and a double, but I understand that the whole “Lucho Out” thing is trendy right now.

      “Mascherano invisible?” He was a defensive highlight reel So will just let that one sit.

      Is Barça going to drop points this month? I will be stunned if they don’t. That is a savage schedule. But I expect everyone else to drop points as well. And we’ll see at the end of the season where everything is. RM have that match in hand, and I expect them to handle Valencia so I think of them as being, in effect, 5 points ahead. If Barça is within three points by the time of the away Classic, they will defeat RM and go on to win the Liga.

      More interesting to me is the interest that Unzue has been taking in not only Barça B, but he even took in some Juvenil A matches. There is a growing rumor that Luis Enrique will leave, and Unzue will assume the reins. Best possible outcome for me.

      — I like your goal analysis, JIm, but I reckon Umtiti was horrified at what Gomes did with his pass. From that point on the back line was pretty much screwed. Cillessen’s face spoke volumes after that goal. If Ter Stegen is in goal, that one doesn’t happen.

  10. Barca’s strategy is in part a certain air of invincibility we weild.
    The fear we commanded . Even when we were down by a goal there was no panic because a comeback was almost certain.
    The assurance, That feeling is long gone now.
    Enrique’s first year, before anoeta , we were playing excellent football with bad results . One could feel it just a matter of time. Then everything came together at atleti 3-1 .
    Truth be told , we aren’t playing good football this season .

    Messi on the right draws out the defence , neymar scores more Suarez thrives better.
    That was the anoeta lesson.

  11. In Masch’s defense, though there is no need for that because he was at his best , he was injured before the goal they scored.
    Just have a look at him while the others were celebrating Messi’s goal from the penalty spot.
    He even didnt bother to go after their player when they scored.

  12. The past years, there’s been talk of how to replace what Xavi brought to the pitch, as if that was possible. I think we have found a replacement for Xavi.

    I’m not talking about Messi, Iniesta or Busquets, or about Denis Suarez. The new playmaker at Barca is disguised as a goalkeeper, and as an added bonus he makes some pretty good saves. Jokes aside: the distribution and calmness from Ter Stegen does remind me a bit of Xavi, and it’s hard to find a goalkeeper with more touches and better accuracy out there.

    On the first half: Why are these guys in the lower half of the table again? They show strong defending and pretty good combination play. Too little movement in possession on our side, but with Barca so good in second halves recently I’m confident we will take the points today.

    1. I can’t believe how poor we are at the moment. It really looks awful from, well, more or less everyone. Mess and Neymar rarely get to touch the ball; Suarez shouldn’t touch the ball…

    2. Wow, can’t believe how wrong I was. Second half even more dominated by Betis, clear penalty not given for Neymar notwithstanding.

  13. Yeah, not worried at the moment. Our control when receiving the ball is pretty poor resulting in vital seconds being lost in moving forward but you have to feel Messi is just getting his sights sorted before the sniper pass ( sorry, been watching Shooter on Netflix – what a heap of ….. )

    Only worry for me is Pique’s booking. Watch them line up to go down every time they’re near him, especially that blonde guy. That was why Pique had to let Rubén Castro past him on the sideline just before half time.

  14. We cant be poorer than this. They had to score in order to start playing. Absolutely clueless today.

    1. I was ok with the first half, where many things went right but Barca was kept in check by a great performance from Betis. Second half nothing came together except for the last few minutes (thanks again, Messi, by the way).

      Man of the match? Pique. Was caught out once when he got the yellow card, but otherwise saved us from going down more goals many times. Also strong as always in playing out the back. I also thought the defense and Ter Stegen did well overall, under constant pressure with little to no effective help from Suarez Minor and Arda Turan.

  15. We were terrible today! Why did they have to score in order for us to play well? Were was Rakitic today? Surely not on the pitch! I understand that opponents need to find a way to compete against us and they have by pressing, its obvious by now! Given that shouldnt Lucho find alternative ways of playing the ball from the back? It’s the same story in every single game!

    No comment about la liga referees, I think they cant get any worst. Considering though the way we played we didn’t deserve a win, no way!

  16. When playing poorly one ought to finish their chances better.

    What a waste of chances Messi created today. Messi was sub par. By his standards. But he laid on chances galore.

    What does the wee man has to do? Score himself? Then set him up.

    Wat a worrying time to drop our level. Absolute shit

  17. This was not Mathieu’s fault by any means, but has LE not understood that he must play Umtiti when possible? We obviously cannot not win without him #MVP. But so many poor displays today, it was physically painful to watch misplaced passes and poor first touches. It seems possible life without both Busi and Iniesta was propaganda. Rakitic’s season is incredibly poor, Digne very shaky, Denis has a long way to go and Arda’s first half promise was a lie. Suarez back to slump, despite fine goal.

    Our CM-WB-combos do not work at all (Arda-Digne, Denis-Vidal, with Ivan supposedly helping out). No control, plenty misunderstandings and nervous play.

    It seems the Messi and Neymar are dragged into this shit, too – Messi becomes lethargic and Neymar tries to dribble the entire team.

    Too bad.

    1. CBs did ok, though, despite not excelling; Ter Stegen pretty strong display, too; don’t know what happened on the goal, but he sure made amends with that 1-on-1.

  18. So, that’s how you judge the team? They win 5-2: the team is the “greatest” of the “greatest” we are on the way for another treble.

    1-1 draw: the team is terrible… LE should have done this or that… we aren’t winning anything like this…

    Give the team a little break, dudes. They are also human after all. And don’t forget that two important players are injured. There’s a lot of La Liga that has yet to be played and the main rivals are also starting to drop points… not to mention that they already lost one possible trophy…

  19. What a genius plan!Rotation in Liga and play the starters in Cup games!Because we must win fucking CDR!What a genius plan!Now play Iniesta against Atletiko,a knock and he is out again for liga and CL!But who cares,we have Denis,the new Iniesta!Lol!And Mathieu and Digne with all that talent!We had the chance to buy Theo Hernandez the summer for 10m but instead we have the great Digne!Btw we can blame 30y old Leo and Suarez,they play every game,no rest but the young Neymar cant finish easy chances in such tight games,but yeah he is tracking back,what a Hero!We dont want goals Ney,if u track back u are a legend!So mad with that shit,so mad with fucking Cup that make the team suffer,so mad with the fucking 4-3-3 we play without a RW so mad with all!Yep the summer we must get rid of dead meat and buy the best young talents around.Dani Ceballos,Theo Hernandez,Malang Sarr,A young number 9,Ousmane Dembele.Mathieu,Turan,Macherano,Rakitic out.

  20. All the teams know that if they press us high our system is:Ter Stegen to Pique,Pique to TS,TS to Umtiti,Umtiti to Alba,Alba to Umtiti,Umtiti to TS,TS long ball to Suarez!Midfield?What midfield?

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