Barça 5, Celta 0, aka “Statements and interpretations”

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.

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Written by:

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.

18 Comments

  1. Mishti
    March 4, 2017

    Nice post, Kevin. Although I’d say tactics and formation did have their roles to play. The 3-4-3/4-4-2 fluid formation seems to have worked so far in solving some compactness issues. There is now a right flank, much needed width, and most importantly Busquets has the structure around him that he needs. But you are right, the height that this performance reached cannot really be reduced to these things. The movements were phenomenal. Everybody everywhere, total football. Cannot happen without the ultimate level of concentration and commitment from each and every player. Some light bulbs seem to have been switched on in the players’ minds. Belief, swagger, focus back on. Nothing embodied it better than Neymar’s chip. The casual audacity with which he pulled it off. For most of this season, he’d neither have the confidence or the sharpness to even attempt it. Today he did, and it worked. Messi was fully engaged for the whole 90 minutes. Yeah, like you I wonder whether we are going to see something of this level again any time soon. But I have a sense that the fight is back.

    As far as masterpieces go, there are many different ways to paint one. Today’s was a masterpiece painted by a Luis Enrique team at its best. Not a Pep team, not a Rijkaard or a Cruyff team. Different brushstrokes, different colors. Could very well be a testimonial match to the outgoing coach. But there are still fights to be fought. Cheers to the boys.

  2. RT
    March 4, 2017

    Thank you very much for this wonderful article Kevin. This was joy, pure joy. I was there, at the Camp Nou for the first time. I feel really, really lucky.

  3. untoxgsd
    March 5, 2017

    Excellent post Kxevin, thank you once again, i wake up every morning with great anticipation to read your post game analysis.
    The thing I dont get is how they can play bad like they did with Leganes or PSG and then turn it around the next week with Atleti, Sporting and Celta.
    This goes to show how mentality as well as fatigue can play a huge role. Nothing changed (except Gomes) but the team was ticking like never before last night, i mean those combinations, the fast paced passes the counters, Messi!!! Everything was a work of art.
    It was a performance that if paired with the PSG game we’ll have a miracle in our hands. He’re to hoping ( fingers crossed)

  4. Rami
    March 5, 2017

    @Jim, This is a response to jim from a comment he made in the previous article.

    Your views on LE and what he brought to the table, Is something that i completely disagree with, From the seasons 2012-2014, We won 1 out of 6 major trophies, With LE at the helm In seasons 2014-2016, We won 5 out of 6 major trophies.
    That’s a massive leap, And it was made possible in how he changed the template and the dynamics of the team that was previously midfield oriented (The pillars being Xavi, Iniesta and messi), A template that became exposed, it’s main pillars aging, A template clearly dying judging by the two seasons before LE came,.
    And transformed it to a template that was oriented around the new stars, Luis suarez, Neymar and messi, With the midfield becoming a supporting cast, And all behold we conquered Europe again, And it wouldn’t have been possible with out his active management in creating such a system that allowed the MSN to shine, In the same way guardiola allowed Xavi, Iniesta and messi to take control.

    LE did build a project, And who ever comes next, Will recognize again that the main strength of this squad is the MSN, And will again create a system that will allows them to reach their full potential, In essence, Building over on what LE laid out in the previous years.

    As for your comment about the stress of LE job isn’t any greater than many others, Is something that i disagree with you again, And this time with much greater passion.
    Here we have pep guardiola and luis enrique, Two established and Successful coaches who made their mark and history, Leave the club due to ‘fatigue’ within 3-4 years!, It’s not a coincidence, And it’s essential to highlight that these two already established their success, Our intuition says that they should be more relaxed, Have more room to breath, Their success should be buy them patience and tolerance from the fans But no, It made no difference, Because the environment of barca, Is demanding, Relentless and toxic.

    • Jim
      March 5, 2017

      Well, that was enjoyable last night. Best game of the season and I would argue not as unlike Pep’s team as has been suggested. For me, Pep’s team was about constant player movement, quick ball movement changing the direction of attack constantly and a heavy press. I saw a lot of that last night and it was good to see. It is a mistake to characterise Pep’s team as passing for the sake of it. It was passing until the gaps opened up. Our problem latterly was the lack of movement up front which meant the mids were unwilling to risk losing possession in fruitless through balls to no one.

      Good to hear your views, Rami. I can see why you feel the way you do and different views make any discussion forum better.

      To me, the purchase of Suarez, despite the constant barbs from some regarding his performances, was the final missing piece of the jigsaw. Not sure if you were here at the end of Pep’s tenure but it was painful to watch at times. We struggled to get anyone into the box, what with false nines and other tactical tweaks. We bought Villa, a brilliant striker and played him out wide to suit Messi who didn’t even fill his position in the middle. Suarez, when he arrived, ended all that and I said at the time of his purchase that the front three would now be unstoppable ( not the most way out prophecy ever ! ) So it proved that first season. Not only were they the best forward line in the world they had the advantage of being new to other teams. No surprise to me we won the lot. That’s not just hindsight. When you put a midfield of Busi, Iniesta and Xavi ( Rakitic) together with MSN if you don’t win the lot you should probably be doing something else. I saw no great tactical plans nor were any needed.

      Towards the end of LE’s first season I noticed that we were trying to bypass the midfield and get the ball forward quickly at any cost. I said then that it was something we needed to keep our eye on and the next season it became more prominent. Messi started to drop back to fill the gap in creativity with some considerable success but the midfield was noticeably weaker. This season it has become worse again, imo, and for me that is down to LE and the purchases he has made or not made. The front three are still devastating but if we can’t get them the ball it doesn’t matter. That’s part of some people’s issue with Suarez. It is ridiculous to regularly criticise someone who has as many goals and assists as he has but it seems that he’s not working enough because often we can’t get that far up the park and unlike Messi and Neymar he can’t come back to get the ball.

      So, yes, I think LE has made a large mistake by ignoring the midfield and the growing weakness has now come to the stage where, belatedly, he has had to push an extra player into midfield. I’ve no problem with that and in fact think this could help Iniesta immensely, just that it took him to the last two games to address it when it was obvious to most of the known world. If he built a project it wasn’t particularly one that was obvious to me. I’m pretty sure you could have paid my granny a king’s ransom to tell the team to hoof the ball forward asap to the front three and watch the results. Just my opinion but I’ve not heard anyone outline what LE did different to that which merits admiration.

      None of this means I didn’t appreciate or enjoy the trophies or most of the play but likewise it wasn’t a team which was as attractive to watch for me personally . I’ve not been calling for LE to go but likewise I’m not as upset as some.

      With regard to the stress of the job we can agree to differ . For me, they are two large egos who don’t like to be questioned and who take the “my way or the highway” approach. These people seldom last very long at anything and don’t take well to criticism. I loved Pep’s team but I’m under no illusions that he didn’t have his faults. Neither was/is good at handling the press but even allowing for that where exactly is the pressure coming from ? The need to win ? With the best team in the world? Exactly how is that harder than the expectation surrounding keeping a team out of relegation ? How is that harder or different than facing 32 kids in a classroom for peanuts? You’re not short of parents who feel they could do a better job there either ! Are they moaning about the hours they put in ? A lot of people could do that. Neither was sacked. Both were given encouragement to continue. I understand that the job is stressful but more than many others ? I don’t think so.

      There isn’t a toxic atmosphere around Barca. There is social media which is fluff and the normal moaning of fans who expect improvement every year. My hometown team has one of the smallest home attendances in our league, is outperforming every year for the last five or so yet in the pub last week my friends were trying to tell me they should be finishing above last year’s performance. It’s the nature of the game and it’s still just opinions which for me keep the game interesting.

      On another and I reckon important note, what do we make about Messi’s phone call after scoring? I’m assuming nobody believes the story put out so what was that all about ?

      • Rami
        March 5, 2017

        Yes there is a toxic atmosphere, And what i’m about so lay-out next, Isn’t social media fluff, But a real-world, On pitch, Evidence of my claim, And you yourself may remember this:

        29th of September of 2015, We’re facing bayer leverkusen in camp nou, Three months before that the team presented a historic treble to a stadium full of spectators in grand celebration, It’s an accomplishment that very few club achieved,
        So the match begins and our team has a really bad start, And the first half ends 1-0 against us, And do you want to guess what happened when the second half began?
        Whistles!!
        Let that sink in for a bit, The same players and the same coach who just a few months ago presented a treble to the spectators, Only bought for themselves 60 minutes of inconvenience and patience from their fans, 60 MINUTES!!!
        My jaw dropped when i saw that, And it’s not normal, And i’ll be glad if you can find a similar incident that happened to a top club in a major league, I still remember post match pique and suarez (i think) also puzzled about the whistles, And this wasn’t the only time where the camp nou gave unwarranted whistles, But it’s this specific incident that best highlights my point.

        This environment of constant and relentless pressure to live up to the highest of standards that are in many cases not possible to achieve physically or mentally for the players or their coach.
        If i was in luis enrique’s position, I would’ve run off on the spot, It’s just demoralizing when you witness this, What’s the point of even trying i would say, Cudos to him and pep guadiola for staying this long.

  5. Davour
    March 5, 2017

    Just like the failure against PSG, as well as the lacklustre play this season, this magnificent event is not down to one single explanation. But as Mishti notes above, formation seems to have something to do with the players seeing new openings, perhaps inspired by something different. However, for this particular game I believe the level of success was partly down to us reaping the benefits of the formation, without really suffering the downsides (as we did against AM, often exposing the wing). Instead the width provided space, Messi had a clear position where his movement expose his teammates, etc etc. But above all, as Kxevin points out: the players moved, they ran. Messi was so eager to play, he dropped to the backline to start play – not because he had to, it seemed, but because he wanted to. He tracked back, he pressed – more integral to the team at large. There were many sequences of brilliance during the game, but one has remained, particularly – I can’t remember the time, but the movement ended with Iniesta somewhat overhitting the final pass to Suarez. This moment just struck as a good example of Barca working out. There was so much movement from everyone, options, intentions, speed – people wanting to be part, not waiting for the ball, or for someone else (Messi/Neymar) doing it on their own.

    Though this game will not be replicated, hopefully the approach will be.

    • Mishti
      March 5, 2017

      Great point about the vulnerable wings. As you you and Kevin both note, I too am not sure we still have an answer to pacy and tricky wingers (as much a personnel issue as anything). Nor have we seen the system play out against tight, aggressive, physical marking focused on the front three, which has been part of the play book of many a team this season, including PSG. I thought Celta’s approach of man-marking all over the pitch backfired, strecthed them out and afforded Messi and Ney a whole lot of space. So in a way they played into our hands. Going forward, better teams will not afford our key players that much space. This all-hands-on-deck, constantly-shifting-focal-point-of-attack fluidity might be the answer, if drilled into resilience and we maintain the energy and focus required. In game shifts between 3-at-the-back and 4-at-the-back is actually very tricky, and if the team pulls it off against a quality opponent and high press, I will be mightily impressed.

  6. PPos
    March 5, 2017

    Apparently Di María might not make it to the game on Wednesday. That plays into our favor. PSG has been very irregular this season the first leg was an anomaly. What we are going to need is to score extremely fast and to shoot all the time, because corners will give us an edge. Pique and Umtiti are gonna step up. I know it. Messi again has that fire in his eyes that makes him so dangerous. It comes out when he gets kicked or fouled, you guys know what I’m talking about. I believe in this team, always, if we don’t pull it off, so be it but I know we will die standing up. We are not f@&$!ng Arsenal. We aren’t weak mentally with a specialist in failure of a coach ( those rumors of Arsene taking over my club can go away ) Barça has been making history for the last 10 years. We can pull it off once again. I know it. If MSN clicks and the way Rakitic, Busi and Rafinha have been playing, we can do it. We finally have some pegada from the midfield. Rakitic is an expert shooter. He needs to shoot more so does Rafinha. It’s not over until the final whistle blows. Gomes can stay in the bench where he belongs and hopefully our next coach sells him to make room for Verrati

  7. Problem
    March 5, 2017

    I do believe you’re being a bit too dismissive of the “fancy 3-4-3’s” that are clearly being employed much more visibly by the team in the last few weeks, and I think it’s paying dividends by allowing players help each other out much more as well as discovering a lot more space on offense. Sure, it’s not just as simple as a change in formation and voila, Barça averages like 5 goals per match again or whatever, but I think a much more aggressive incorporation of a 3-4-3 (which sometimes turns into a 4-4-2, particularly evident in defense) has been huge for Barcelona in their recent matches, including this one.

  8. luisthebeast
    March 5, 2017

    Ok lets be realists.The best ever Barca could nt make a comeback against a 10 man Inter and a 10 man Chelsea.When we did it?Against an 11 man Milan with Tito.
    Lets see other teams that wanted comebacks.Bayern of Pep era.3 times and they failed.
    Madrid?Against Wolfsburg.They failed against Dortmund,Juventus.
    If we do it it will be the biggest achievement in our CL history.Can we do it?

  9. Jim, I think I second you on almost everything you say.

    I would still say that I feel bad for LE and must congratulate him on his decision to leave at the right time. Pep’s team was unstoppable in their 3rd season and they were good even for the 4th season, except for the penalty miss of Messi againt Chelsea. plus RM got very nice calls like this year, haha. In 11/12 Pep still did something unheard of in football, to keep the legacy for the 4th season, by playing beautiful, even if we didnt win big.
    LE keeps the tradition of going down in the 3rd season. so no complaints.
    But definitely in the last 2 match, we are clearly seeing tactical influences – a fluid 3-4-3 and 442, which has really helped out midfield in big big ways. If we even win the domestic double, its a big win for LE.
    The space between the 3 lines is much less now and that has brought back a lot of things and most notably, its the form of Busquets and Messi! (also Umtiti)

    The midfield control is helping Umtiti to be an even better attack minded CB, I guess

    Messi because, with those large space between our lines and being forced to come very deep for some creation, Messi too was suffering. Its after long time we seem him make those kinds of real good accelerating runs ending up in goal or assist,. I could suggest that the quality of Busquets have relieved him. When Busi makes an assist to Leo in the middle of the park, we can always expect something special, eh?
    With 343 and 442, Busi is not overloaded and is relaxed!

    I would love to see both Rakitic and Sergi Roberto starting in the midfield against PSG, please LE, please.

    • Davour
      March 6, 2017

      It is weird, but for the first time is ages (ever?) it is a valid (if sad) argument to claim Iniesta should not be a starter for this game. It’s either him or Rakitic, and considering the attacking-minded premise or the 343, Rakitic is needed (also, he had a great game against Celta). Iniesta should be a super-sub for a potential second half onslaught or need for more control.

      This one will not be a about control in the traditional Barca sense, I think. All-in.

      • Jim
        March 6, 2017

        I look at it slightly differently, Davour. I see the extra midfielder as relieving Iniesta of some of his defensive duties and allowing him to be the player he should be – assuming he is fully fit which I still doubt. There is nobody in midfield near him in terms of going past opponents in dangerous areas or picking out a dangerous pass. Let the other three defend and let Iniesta show us what he can do. If we can’t defend with three defensive mids in front of a decent defence we shouldn’t even be playing in the Sunday league. Rakitic had a good game for him in the last one but against an opponent who allowed us more space than they should have and even that wasn’t even half of what Ini can give us if fit. We have to score four and Messi won’t get anywhere near the space he did in the last game, nor Neymar. We can’t do without another threat up front or picking out the passes.

        However, he still doesn’t look fit to me and if he were I think he’d have been on earlier. Besides, it would be in keeping with LE to play more physical players. Being honest, I expect a thrill for part of the game as we threaten to do it but ultimately suffer disappointment – a bit like my Scotland team actually 🙂

      • Rami
        March 6, 2017

        Iniesta is essential.
        The key to PSG, Is to avoid losing possession as much as possible, Especially in midfield, That’s the best way to protect us from conceding a goal, And for that you need players that:

        – Capable of holding the ball under pressure.
        -Accurate with their passes
        -Smart in movement and positioning when trying to open up options for a teammate

        Iniesta ticks all of these boxes beautifully, Giving him up for a player with more physical presence and work-rate while sacrificing more loss of possession of the ball is a bad deal all around,

        • TITO
          March 7, 2017

          You guys realize that Iniesta that you want is not the Iniesta of today? At least not lately.

  10. TITO
    March 6, 2017

    D Maria, Veratti and Motta are not playing which ain’t bad at all for us.

  11. If Iniesta is fit, of course he must start. The greatest attacking midfielder in the world, no doubt about it.
    If not, midfield should be Alba, Busi, Rakitic, Sergi, with Iniesta coming up sometime in the second half may be.

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