Barça is back.
Barça never went anywhere.
Why couldn’t the team have played like this all season?
Why is the team playing like this now?
Here’s something worth noting in the wake of the exquisite footballing display put on by FC Barcelona today: it’s the same team, the same coach, the same players, the same basic formations.
Today was the best match Barça has played this season, the best match the team has played in some time in this season of extremes that has also seen Barça play the worst match the team has played in some time, against PSG.
Same coach, same players.
What’s different today? The last time that Barça put on such an astonishing footballing display at home was against this very same Celta de Vigo. Is it the opponent? What the hell happened today, and why hasn’t it been happening all season?
It’s typical of the season that a display of footballing extravagance leaves us with more questions than answers.
There are some who will say that the team, freed from the shackles of an inept coach, is once again playing with joy and fluffing its feathers.
There are some who will say that the team is showing people what it was capable of all along, in an act of defiance aimed at those who would question their Mister, who helped build the fatigue that drove him from the Barça bench.
Or maybe it was just one of those days, those outings any team is capable of, where everything goes right (unless you’re Luis Suarez). The world is a strange and wonderful place, and questioning it will just drive you crazy, but this much is certain — against Celta de Vigo, FC Barcelona played a masterpiece.
This wasn’t Barça like the Barça that people have been craving, the throwback Barça that the juego de posicion crowd has been clamoring for. There are even going to be people who will make themselves believe that this was old-school Barça. No. This was peak, 2015 Barça, when the team was beating everything that crossed its path and having fun doing it, the team that opponents had no answer for because genius flowed from every pair of boots on the pitch, a team savage in attack and staunch in defense.
This was Barça football — attacking, possession-oriented football that used the ball as a lever rather than a talisman, the destination instead of the route.
So what the hell happened?
It wasn’t formation, as Barça has lined up pretty much the same way all season. There weren’t any kinds of fancy 3-4-3s and the like. It wasn’t personnel, as Barça has played this group before. Was it a bunch of things? Let’s have a look at some of them.
Busquets was magnificent today. What happened? Let’s start with Rakitic, who had a fantastic match, including delivering the pass of the season for a stunned Rafinha, who fluffed his lines. Having the industry of Rakitic in front of him along with an intact press thanks to Rafinha and an active Messi, meant that Busquets had a limited sphere of influence. This is good. The most space Busquets has to cover, the more things he has to worry about, the less effective he is. Today, he had his central zone, and the match on a platter in front of him.
When the team lost the ball it worked to get it back, so there weren’t jailbreak counters coming at Busquets, who also benefited from moving teammates. At one moment in the second half, Ter Stegen played the ball to Busquets, who immediately played it forward. Why? He had options rooted in the movement of his temamates to provide them. The ball always had somewhere to go.
Rakitic was brilliant. What happened? He was in many ways playing like Sevilla Rakitic, a creative midfield force rather than another DM, a player thinking about attacking rather than defending first. It helped that Celta didn’t have a fast, aggressive winger to make Sergi Roberto’s life hell, which minimized the necessity of Rakitic needing to go over and help him instead of being the creative attacking mid that he is. Rakitic also plays best off the front foot, so an active, functioning Barça press meant that he was playing off the front foot, a task facilitated by Rafinha, who has those shuttle skills. He closes links from back line to midfield, midfield to attack. His range also gives Rakitic less to chase.
Messi was stupefying. He was moving with pace — quickness of foot, ball and thought. He was That Messi today, a player who hasn’t put in that many appearances this sesaon. He was active on defense, he was part of the press, which helped him not only defend, but score goals as teammates worked balls loose in positions beneficial to the wee Argentine genius. The first goal scored was vintage Messi, a player who removes options.
You know Messi is on when he scores goals that leave the opponent helpless. They know what to do, they just can’t do it. That was his first goal, a run that was so fast and violent, the shot unleashed so well placed that everyone had no choice. He was going to score, and there was nothing that the opponent could do about it.
Messi also had options, because Neymar was his usual brilliant self today, but with a broader circle of influence, frolicking as much in the center of the pitch as on the left wing. Neymar is least effective when his range is that left-sided corridor.
The defense was pressed up, able to function as proper Barça CBs, which are glorified DMs rather than back line members. Everybody was everywhere, Umtiti playing RB because Sergi Roberto was busy playing midfield because Rakitic was busy backstopping Busquets. A characteristic of poor Barça this season has been players not moving, not understanding that a team is like watch gears. If any one stops, the whole mechanism goes kerplunk. Total football isn’t just a phrase, but an attitude as each player slots into where he’s needed. Alba is busy, so Neymar plays LB. Umtiti scored a goal because the forwards were busy, and the rotation found him forward.
This was football. This was beauty.
In many ways it would be churlish and reactionary to ask, “Where was this team against PSG, or Alaves, or La Real,” or any of the times we have watched a lackluster passel of footballers stagger around like zombies. But that’s the wrong question. It’s easier to look at what was right, even as it is impossible to ask or wonder whether what we saw today will be replicatable against PSG. There’s only one Mona Lisa.
If football played at the highest level is art, are we wrong to expect players to produce something great every time out? As you walk through the Louvre, you don’t look at all of the art. Not only because you can’t but because so much of it isn’t really worth paying that much attention to. “Friend of,” “School of,” “Student of,” “Possibly attributed to.” They are nice works of art, but they aren’t masterpieces, which you don’t realize until you see a masterpiece.
A masterpiece of athletic endeavor has a number of things that come together exactly right, at exactly the right time, a symbiotic amalgam of human bodies, skills and biorhythms, form and Providence. And you get something like the match that giddy culers witnessed today.
There might not be another one like that this season, or next season. The people in the Camp Nou who were whistling and jeeing Luis Enrique, anticipating the day he would leave, were, during the Celta match, cheering him as a “Please stay” chant reverberated through the Camp Nou.
But what happens at the next poor performance, or the next match when the team has to eke out a result because there aren’t glitter bombs going off everywhere.
The sparkle of this Celta drubbing doesn’t change anything about the reality of this team, its coaching staff and this season. It is no less time for Luis Enrique to leave than it was yesterday. He is no less good or poor a coach today than he was yesterday. He hasn’t been smitten by some tactical revelation that has his players suddenly making magic. It’s the same coach, same team, same players. But today that group produced a masterpiece.
The larger hope is that this match teaches us something, that we come away understanding patience, understanding the difficulties of producing a masterpiece, of saying to artists, “Here’s your paint and canvas. Get busy.” Because it just doesn’t work like that. When we consider all that has to happen, it’s a wonder that it works at all.
Today was today, and it was magic. What did it say? That today was magic. What did it mean? That magic can happen. What’s the result? Three points and five more goals than were needed. That’s about it. The rest waits for next time, next match, next opportunity to be ordinary or extraordinary. Because just like we suck some days, players, coaches are human. It’s when humans make something wonderful that makes life joyful. Today was joy. And that’s that.