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.