Cliches are so for a reason. One of the hoariest is, “That why you play the games.” Cliches are also apt, which is how they come to be.
Today, the Barça XI came out and it was, safe to say, greeted with a bit of apprehension. Lucho trolling the hell out of us, y’all.
Ter Stegen, Vidal, Pique, Umtiti, Mathieu, Gomes, Turan, Rafinha, Neymar, Messi, Alcacer
In the roiling cauldron of Barça Twitter, the match was already over. In this comparatively cuddly space, there was some sideeye. Mathieu at LB, that waste of money at forward, that other failure in midfield and the non-defending RB on the other side. Dude done gave up on Liga.
Then the match started, and a great many of those dire predictions came true as Athletic came out pressing and aggressive. The Barça midfield was kinda like an El Corte Ingles for Athletic, where they can go to get a football whenever they needed one. Go see that tall cashier. Him. With the beard. He’ll give you one.
Before long they had pranged a shot off the post, then Inaki Williams somehow missed a wide-open header. To say that Barça was having a difficult time playing its football would be an understatement. Common factors in the attacks were the right side being used like shampoo instructions: “Rinse once, then repeat.” It was like Pique turned 30 and suddenly was mortal, complicated by Gomes making like Busquets country cousin, just a beat behind the city slickers as his head spun around and echoes of “Whuuuut?” peppered the Camp Nou air.
Rafinha was that cool, handsome, but not-so-reliable neighbor who pops up from time to time, usually just after you want to see him. “Hey. I’m here to … oh. You’re finished. Okay. Ciao ciao.”
Many of the midfield problems came from ye olde lassitude as time after time Ter Stegen would have the ball, only to be confronted by a sea of immobility. Athletic on the other hand was stringing passes together and pressing. There was worry until another of those cliches, against the run of play, reared its head.
The Undesirables combined for a goal. Turan jacked possession in the midfield and fed Vidal who popped a pass over to Neymar. After some prancing and dancing, Neymar found Alcacer in a bit of space, and the new transfer spanked home a squeeeeee! of a one-time finish.
It was precisely the kind of goal Alcacer was signed for. He made his own space by darting around and between Athletic defenders who were distracted by Bilbao’s Most Wanted having the ball at his feet. Alcacer then used a precision finish to bang home. The first-time finish is a dying art in football, the absence of which dooms many a would-be assist to become a CB’s stat padding. The one-time finish doesn’t don’t give a defense or a keeper time to set. Bang. Done.
Luis Enrique’s exultation on the sideline probably also had a tinge of relief. In the presser before this match, he said that he needs all of his players, that if he doesn’t rotate the team won’t have a chance in all competitions. He made good on this with his rotation XI today, buttressed by a diamond-encrusted bench.
Supporters want the best possible XI to be played at all times. Reality is that such a thing isn’t possible. The thing about big clubs is that they can buy quality players for every position, in depth. Players like Turan, Vidal, Alcacer and Gomes were starters for their former teams. They’re rotation players at Barça. That’s life at the big club.
What a coach has to do is roll out different lineups based not only on the match at hand but also upcoming matches, multiple competitions and who is in or out of form. Supporters can grumble about a lineup, but a coach isn’t supposed to care. He plays his players, and hopes they do what they are supposed to.
Supporters also ask why a club pays big money for a transfer who doesn’t play, then grumble when the transfer is played. Alcacer raised a lot of eyebrows, right up until that Suarez-like goal. Mathieu raised eyebrows at LB, until you suddenly realized that he was having a really good match. Had someone told you that Alcacer would score the winner, while Mathieu would be the most consistent defender, Messi was subbed at about the 60th minute as Suarez, Iniesta, Busquets and Alba were rested, against Athletic, the predicted final score would certainly not have been 3-0.
And in crazy, hazy game of supporter retrospect, where every chance goes in for the opponent, it shouldn’t have been. There was some providential “finishing” from Athletic, whose two best chances came before the Alcacer goal that put Barça in the driver’s seat and back in the match, and Athletic on the back foot.
The second goal was just crazy, one of those things where you don’t even say “What if,” because such possibilities don’t even occur to you. Barça had a free kick to the extreme right of the Athletic goal. Their exceptional keeper, Gorka Iraizoz, was figuring on some sort of capering sprite extravaganza. But the spriteliest of them all, the one with mischief in his heart, had other plans. He smoked a direct shot at goal that stunned Iraizoz, everybody watching and all of football. The keeper flailed at it as we do a bee flitting at our face, with about as much effectiveness.
In the wake of that magnificence it was 2-0, and time for statistics of the types that said Athletic suck on the road, and don’t score. They played better than Barça with more industry. The tale of the tape said that Barça had almost 60 percent possession and a 2-0 lead. The tale of the match made you wonder why the scoreline wasn’t reversed.
And that’s why you play the games.
Athletic gave it a little bit of a go in the second but the outcome was never in doubt. What happened? Individual brilliance, that unwelcome visitor in a world where formations and systems are supposed to carry the day rather than some genius doing something crazy because he’s a genius. Unless that genius is Messi, then he’s supposed to be a genius, because that’s what geniuses do.
Barça scraped, fought, rode some luck, got a couple of brilliant goals then Luis Enrique made a few subs that stabilized the ship, one because he had to when Lord of the Scum, Raul Garcia, needlessly shoved Rafinha into Ter Stegen just as the keeper was coming out to make a play. A blood-gushing head wound was the result and Rakitic was the solution.
This forced substitution helped Barça regain match control as suddenly there was industry in the midfield. Then at halftime Mascherano was subbed on for Pique, who was feeling a bit of a knock, and alacrity was added. Suddenly those 50/50 balls that Athletic was scooping up so comfortably in the first half were being contested and won by Mascherano in the tide of a match that turned on genius but was consolidated through effort and overall quality.
The third sub was Sergi Roberto, who played … perhaps the most pertinent answer to that came in the form of a question, as on Twitter blitzen, one of the mods in this space, asked, “So what position IS Sergi Roberto playing?” It was apt as he was everywhere.
Someone else who was everywhere was Neymar, who was MOTM and a Godzilla-like presence on the pitch on offense, defense — hell, he probably even got the snacks at halftime. He reduced Mikel San Jose to a puddle of atoms as he strolled in for what would have been one of the goals of the season had the shot gone in. Then destroyed yet another would-be Athletic defender in what would have been one of the goals of the season had the shot gone in.
Neymar had a 10/10 match without scoring a single goal, demonstrating the futility of reducing him to goals scored. Goals are a weird metric. They matter to culers, except when Ronaldo scores them, the only time that goals aren’t everything. Neymar was dominant today. He stole balls, made interceptions, led breaks, created danger, assisted. In the same week where Ronaldinho returned to Barça as a club ambassador it was only fitting that its current star Brazilian would have a Ronaldinhoesque match.
The beauty of Ronaldinho wasn’t goals, but possibilities. Every time he got the ball, as with Messi, you pay attention because something could happen. And it didn’t even matter where he got the ball. A pass, a flick, a trick, something that embodied the joy of football could happen at any moment, so you watched him all the time. Now notice Neymar, who sombreroed an Athletic defender, controlled the ball and scampered off. It wasn’t a trick as much as the key to undo a lock, the only way out of a situation.
Neymar doesn’t do his flicks with that buck-toothed grin that Ronaldinho did, so there isn’t the same reaction. His mien is more an executioner’s smirk just as the sword falls, so the reception for his endeavors is different. And he gets kicked and fouled by vexed opponents who somehow think that he isn’t playing fair, that he is supposed to keep the ball on the ground and use traditional means to escape, stuff that the defenders can deal with. Not that black magic. Against Athletic Neymar was a catalyst and a constant source of danger, verging on the unplayable. He was even part of the third goal, spanked home by Aleix Vidal just after Messi went out of the match.
We got a glimpse of the fully formed Neymar that we can hope stays at Barça, we got a team that gutted out a win after riding some luck, and a win in a must-win situation. The team’s ongoing difficulties reared their heads again, solutions brought about by personnel shifts. But this was a weird one, another example of the coach getting an XI right even if the execution was wrong, being bailed out by bits of genius then correcting his errors with substitutes. And thus comes another cliche, all’s well that ends well.