Our entire lives are a series of moments, strung together like individual film segments. Run the projector, and life happens.
The same is true for athletics. On the same day, a pair of fascinating matches played out, with two very different outcomes for culers. Barça beat Atleti. Again. In the other, Villarreal raced to a 2-0 lead at home over Real Madrid, then succumbed to three second-half goals to lose, amid controversy. Just as Atleti coach Diego Simeone said that Barça didn’t deserve to win, Escriba, the Villarreal coach, was a bit more resigned, saying that once the penalty happened, his players lost concentration and that was it.
Both matches came down to players who have been there, doing what they do. It’s hard to know what a transfer is going to do when signed for a big club. Life at Barça scarred Bojan Krkic, while Samuel Umtitl thrives in that crucible. Witness the match-winning goal, when a defender was in the Atleti box. He held the ball for what seemed like an eternity, waiting for the right opportunity, then fed the right player. Bang.
Think about the preternatural calm that must have required. Umtiti is a defender.
Villarreal, on the other hand, got out to their lead, then seemed to not remember how they got there. There was a brilliant study of the legendary Jana Novotna collapse in the 1993 Wimbledon singles final. She had Steffi Graf down, in the third set, 4-1 and serving for the game. She lost. A psychologist looked at what happened, and had some theories about performance under a stressful, hostile situation. It’s worth your time.
We see it in matches all the time, where a minnow gets a lead against a big club, then panicks. They stop playing in the way that got them there. From the study:
One reason may be due to Novotna cognitively appraising the game as a threat. She was exhibiting a negative mental approach to pressure and therefore there were no physiological improvements to enhance her performance. The Theory of Challenge and Threat States (TCTSA; Jones, Meijen, McCarthy & Sheffield 2009) is sport specific and provides us with an explanation of why athletes evaluate sporting scenarios as either a challenge or a threat; This theory supports the commonly held belief that some individuals will rise to the demands of competition and perform well, while some will wilt and perform poorly. The principles of challenge and threat have implications for Novotna’s performance; if Novotna’s threat appraisal of her situation produced negative emotions, these negative emotions could have caused harm to her performing (Skinner & Brewer 2004).
In other words, athletes stare unusual success in the face and flinch. Or they face failure and become more determined. Both things happened in both matches on Sunday.
Barça nailed a scrappy goal that was the result of some lustrous play. It was a shame that the end result was a couple of caroms and Rafinha, who was turned into a human carom in the Atleti box, being in the right place at the right time to stroke home. And there was much rejoicing.
When Atleti equalized, thanks to an excellently worked set piece that was the consequence of a boneheaded play by Sergio Busquets, you could almost see Barça bear down. At Chez Williams, confidence that a goal would come was high, and so it did, coming from a pair of unlikely but most likely feet, Lionel Messi.
Messi didn’t have the best match, but he was focused and deadly when an opportunity came late. Recall the idea that some individuals will rise to the demands of competition. That notion is clutch, and no player in world football is more clutch than Messi. You can see him tracking the play, watching the ball and how the Atleti defenders reacted to it, and ghosting into the space occupied by their lack of attention to the one player on the pitch you want to keep track of when the match is on the line.
While everybody was focused on the ball, there Messi was. The ball went to him and he struck, his initial effort parried by the keeper but his control and focus were such that he immediately was on the rebound to smite home. It was a remmarkable play, considering that he was far from his best but, for that essential sequence, he was at his stratosperic best. And that was that.
There was tension in the culerverse, but no real chance for Atleti to come back because they were playing against athletes who have not only Been There, but are used to being there and performing at a high level. The rest of the match played out.
Compare that with Villarreal, facing a team filled with players who have Been There as well, and needing to maintain the “unconscious” performance level to an extent necessary to finish off the better team. They couldn’t, falling apart collectively all for the same reasons: that fear of a positive being turned into a negative, fear of an outcome that makes the likelihood of said outcome much more likely. Messi doens’t worry about failure. That’s a lot of why he’s Messi. Real Madrid played better even as Villarreal played (comparatively) worse. That is taking advantage of a moment of doubt.
It isn’t just the bounces going the right way, though such a thing can psychologically buoy a struggling team. As an example, look at Barça’s play after that first goal, how the players had a bit more in their step. Suddenly, bounces that had been going the wrong way seemingly all season, were going the right way. Luck is on our side. Let’s do this. Psychology is strong.
Barça and Real Madrid won for the same reasons, even as they won in different ways. Both teams have players who can not only perform at a high level, but do so when there is everything to play for. That is unusual, and why top teams are thus and weaker teams are thus. It’s decisions on the ball. In another match earlier the same day, Tottenham Hotspur vs Stoke, both teams got counterattack breaks. The Stoke player held the ball a fraction of a beat too long, allowing the defender to block the cross for the tap-in goal. The Spurs player released the ball at the exact right time.
All of this psychological mumbo-jumbo threatens to overshadow that this was a massive win for Barça, accomplished in an interesting way: tactically. The midfield flood has been a problem for Barça all season. Luis Enrique opted for a 3-4-3 in attack, that shifted to a 4-4-2 in defense. There were security difficulties in the transitional phase, in part because Atleti is really freakin’ good, but also because it’s hard to teach old dogs that have learned a certain way since youth, new tricks. But the team got it done well enough to secure the result.
The other fascinating thing was that substitutions made the difference. Andres Iniesta made me a bit sad today as he shuffled around the pitch, a player who is clearly not 100 percent fit. Balls that he would customarily trot after and control, he let roll past him then he would take the return pass and do what he does. His influence and effectiveness were about as low as I have ever seen them. The Rakitic sub for him was no surprise, just as the Rakitic effect was no surprise.
Industry returned to the Barça midfield, and the biggest beneficiaries were Rafinha and Busquets, both of whom could play their games, knowing that Rakitic had their backs. Just as taking him off this season has resulted in a loss of match cotnrol, putting him on brought match control. The other odd, late change was Andre Gomes, who was in effect playing at RB.
Barça still wasn’t/isn’t firing on all cylinders. Suarez for too much of the match had the team playing with ten men. Sergi Roberto seemed uncertain at key moments, and the deficiency of Iniesta meant that everyone on that right side had a hard time. The result was that Ter Stegen turned in an MOTM performance as a player who seems to be growing by leaps and bounds, particularly in reading the match. And Neymar verged on unplayable, leaving Atleti with no choice but to rotate their fouls to stop him. Even then he was a catalyzing influence in both goals, and a constant source of aggression on the offensive end, while at the defensive end he at times functioned as the Barça LB. His performance was stunning and essential, particularly as his cohorts didn’t bring their “A” games, especially Suarez, who decided that having the goal and keeper at his mercy was insufficient, and pushed his shot way wide.
The psychological effect of this win was immense. The league was considered lost, even if the players paid lip service to the idea of it not being so. Suddenly it’s back in play, because luck is back on their side, even as teams make luck by taking action, then being in a right position to capitalize on that action. It’s the same way with, even as conspiracy theorists hold for about suspcious refereeing decisions, calls made in matches.
There is a notion that Barça gets jacked on penalty calls, while Real Madrid gets the benefit. But for a long time, before Neymar, Barça was never in a position to force play to the extent necessary to earn a penalty, while RM always was. The Alaves match would have been a draw had Neymar not forced the action. Likewise, the way RM attacks means that they will have action going on in the opponent box, creating opportunities and possibilities. Sell a soft foul, whack a pass at a hand. Why not take advantage of a group of officials who, at best, are poor. Neymar does that, so does Suarez. And suddenly Barça is winning penalties, even as they are getting rooked on other calls, more because of garden-variety incompetence than anything overt and conspiratorial. Ask Alaves, Granada or Osasuna who gets screwed by refs. The supporters of every club believe they get screwed by the big two, which tells us something about the psychology of success.
Is whining about officials for the vanquished? What of the victors, who are ready to take advantage of that psychological edge brought about by good fortune?
In the last two matches, many things have happened. Barça won a key penalty, converted by Messi, and the bounces went their way in a match they could have lost. A psychological edge doesn’t need to be very large for a team to find itself buoyed. Was this Atleti win the start of something big? Where could it lead? For now, it was a crucial win and a sniff of the rarefied air of being top of the table, even for but a few hours. Where else it goes will be a trip worth signing up for.