Shrinking violets and wanting it more

In the last seven minutes, the crucial time of that pivotal, now-historic Champions League match, Paris St-Germain completed four passes.

Four.

In an ESPN dissection of the match, all four commentators talked about fear. Most interesting however was a satellite visitor, Gabrielle Marcotti, who took issue with the contention made by the studio crew that PSG had pedigreed performers who had Been There before. And as you perused their XI, that idea made sense. Let’s compare:

Trapp
Meunier
Marquinhos
Thiago Silva
Kurzawa
Matuidi
Rabiot
Moura
Verratti
Draxler
Cavani

These players have been around for mostly uncontested league championships, but never big European stages on the successful side, mostly because every time they get deep into Champions League, there is Barça. Now let’s look at the Barça XI:

Ter Stegen
Mascherano
Pique
Umtiti
Busquets
Iniesta
Rafinha
Rakitic
Messi
Neymar
Suarez

Every last one of those players has Been There, either with Champions League winners or international successes. The two newest additions, Umtiti and Ter Stegen, are clearly alien life forms with ice water instead of blood, so we have to exclude them from the experiment. But note that as France drove deep into the Euro championships last summer, Umtiti had a spot in Les Bleus’ XI. They’re calm. Massive match day, and Rafinha is sliding down the railing like a child at play.

The sports cliche about a team “wanting it more” is real. But what does it mean, that idea of “wanting it more?” Is it as simple as bearing down harder, concentrating more and calming down when everything is at stake? We can safely presume that both teams “want it” just as much, PSG probably even more than Barça because they have never tasted the fruits of major European success. Yet when it came down to it, in those crucial last seven minutes, a team spearheaded by a player who has Been There almost since birth in Neymar, put the knife in. PSG was just standing there, waiting to die and Barça put them out of their misery.

Recall the recent post about what happens at times of stress and unexpected success to an athlete when that person is placed in the crucible. A post mentioned in that piece, on one of the epic “chokes” by a tennis player, Jana Novotna, talked of basic skill set facility deserting an athlete as the pressure ramps up. They do everything right until the pressure is too much to bear — and suddenly everything is wrong.

Two years after her epic Wimbledon collapse, Novotna was at the French Open in the third round, leading a 19-yaer-old phenom by 5-0 and 0-40 in the decisive third set. Novotna went on to lose that last set 8-6 in a stupefying collapse. There is a scene in an American film, “The Color of Money,” in which the young pool shark describes the mood as he is beating a more seasoned player. “It just keeps getting worse and worse,” he coos from behind a smirk. This is what a collapse feels like. NFL receivers get alligator arms, the elegant wrist snap of a basketball shooter becomes a shotputer’s lob. A footballer isn’t sure what to do, so they do nothing, or decide what to do too late.

Continuing the Novotna parallel, the 4-0 was like her winning set against Steffi Graf. The more storied player isn’t conforming to the norm and the underdog is playing with a vigor and looseness attendant to having nothing to lose. Then, at some point, the impossible becomes reality and two players, two teams, face a moment.

Here is a video of three key PSG starters, Verratti, Draxler and Matuidi, discussing the upcoming second leg against Barça, over pizza. Matuidi says, “We’re gonna have to hold firm. I’m calling it. The first 20 minutes, it’s going to be tough, Marco, don’t you think? The pitch is huuuuuge!” Later, the PSG group admits to being fine with losing, as long as they advance to the next round.

But most interesting is the language, which underscores the Marcotti point.

“The pitch is so big.”
“Bigger than in Paris?”
“Yes, you never reach the end.”
“When Neymar will have the ball and sneak in, you’re always one on one.”
“But I think we will make it this year.”

What we get is fear, and doubt as well as nervousness about the skills of the Barça players. In “I think we will make it this year,” there’s also that acknowledgement of past failure, of Barça being a significant hurdle for PSG. Draxler talks about having been on the receiving end of a comeback vs Real Madrid, how his team had a 2-0 lead and at the Bernabeu, suddenly it was 3-0. Draxler says, “I think the coach and the team were afraid, because we didn’t attack.”

Look at what PSG did on Wednesday at the Camp Nou. Yes, 4-0 is a massive lead, but Unai Emery chose to have his players work a tactic that denied space to the two key Barça danger men, rather than attacking as PSG did at home, compressing space and pressing to put Barça on the back foot and off its game. But because PSG sat back, the first two Barça goals came from nothing more than possession and opportunity. Luck is luck, but luck is also made by being in the right place at the right time. Being on the front foot, Suarez was in the box to capitalize on stanky PSG defending. Then Iniesta was in the position to work is miraculous alchemy and, with a deft back heel, conjure an own goal from nothing. The third goal had PSG tottering, ready to collapse, then Cavani scored and bedlam erupted, even if the moment didn’t call for it.

After the Cavani goal, PSG reacted as if the match was over. In theory it should have been. Did concentration lapse? Would Di Maria have scored that breakaway at home, or with greater concentration? He went down, clutching his ankle as he missed the shot. A psychologist might suggest he was looking for a way out. There was a half-hour left when Cavani scored, yet PSG celebrated as if it was the 93rd minute. It was the relief of an underdog at having escaped reality, rather than the acknowledgement of a superior team that there was still work to be done. Compare the PSG reaction to Barça’s after scoring goals. Each player ran into the net, picked up the ball and ran back to get into position. More work to be done. Barça wasn’t interested in a good showing, or an honor goal. The team believed that it could come all the way back, rather than victory with honor.

What’s more, everyone in football said that if any team in football could do it, Barça is the only team that could. During the pizza conversation, Matuidi talks about being eliminated by Chelsea on a late goal. Verratti says that he thinks it is all mental, and he’s right.

When you corner a mouse, it scurries about to find a way out. When you corner a raccoon, it rears up on its hind legs and comes at you. Both animals want the same thing: a way out. The raccoon decides to attack. It could be said to want it more.

“Want” is a weird thing. During our cycling workout sessions, one former teammate was fond of saying, “You gotta want it.” What he meant was that when you are deep in the pain cave, there is an effort chasm between “This hurts like hell,” and fatigue-induced muscular failure. People who confuse the two and stop when they can do more work, don’t want it enough. A great player never stops, because failure isn’t part of the psychic makeup of great players. Neymar stroked in that free kick, nailed that penalty shot, planed that perfect pass to Sergi Roberto after telling the midfielder that he was going to score, because Neymar has been the man since he was a child. Team after team including his national team, the pressure has been enough to crush a lesser player. Neymar thrived. He’s used to it.

Mascherano played his best match of the season because he’s used to it. Busquets was brilliant because he’s used to it. The winning goal came after Ter Stegen won a ball in midfield and was fouled by Verratti, who panicked — unless there are folks who believe that the keeper taking a ball in midfield in dangerous. There is a lot to be said for having been there. When your sole template is failure, as it is for PSG vs Barça, does it becomes something easier to accept? It’s your fate, your role in the drama. It isn’t that the other team wants it more as much that you want it less. Active vs passive. The fourth member of that pizza quartet was Meunier, the starting fullback, who got rinsed by Neymar. Four of the key PSG players were talking about losing at the Camp Nou, about whether 5-1 would be okay. As Verratti said, it’s mental.

It isn’t that PSG didn’t want to win. Psychology suggests, however, that wanting to win and having the mental and physiological capacity to do so are two different things. Did the talk about Neymar’s 1v1 skills play on Meunier when Neymar faced up against him and took off like a rocket, drawing that first penalty? You wonder. On a broader question, it’s fear vs bravery. But sometimes, it’s as simple as applying pressure and letting psychology do its own thing. Let’s hear from Chanda Rubin, the beneficiary of that massive Novotna collapse at the French Open, from the New York Times story after the 1995 match.

“I think just about everybody watched that (Wimbledon) final, and it was pretty painful to see,” Rubin said of the 4-1 lead that evaporated against Graf. “I started thinking about that a little bit during the match and, of course, before the match, I just wanted to stay mentally tough and keep fighting, no matter what the score.”

Recently, Rob Gronknowski, a member of the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots, a team that pulled off an impossible comeback in the championship game, came to visit Barça. Ugh. Silly photo op, many snarled. But was it? Finally, here’s Rakitic after the historic remuntada was complete.

“Hard result to lose four zero in Paris but it’s football. We saw it some weeks ago in Super Bowl to see what is possible in different sports. It’s really crazy to say this is Barcelona and I think the best team in the world and we want to keep dreaming.”

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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.

6 Comments

  1. dl
    March 9, 2017

    Yes, in the end it can be reasonably reduced to ‘it’s mental’. The same team (more or less) walked off the field in paris having lost 0-4. It was a more or less unrecognizable barca on that night, a complete mental collapse. We saw the shoe on the other foot yesterday, so as much as we might revel in the team’s reflected glory, we know that they are as human as the rest and the result could well have been different. But that’s football, eh? Brilliant.

  2. Víctor
    March 9, 2017

    It was mental and physical… PSG believed that it was already over with the 3-1 (and honestly, I thought it as well) and they took it for granted… once they saw that Barca scored 2 goals… they were already too tired to stop that last one.

    That first goal announced everything… Barca wanted that comeback badly and was determined to do everything to make it true. Yes, it was a lucky goal but the entire team was bent on doing whatever necessary to make that comeback happen.

    Dunno, maybe LE is going to reconsider leaving the club…

  3. SoccerMom
    March 9, 2017

    Erstwhile blogger, longtime lurker … Had to come back home to celebrate with the BaFooBers. God, it’s good to get Hlebbed again!

    I remember the whiplash win at Stamford Bridge and the heart-rending “dejar el piel” at Camp Nou, but this match was no mere “remuntada”. “Remontada” (come-back) is a participle in Romance languages, an “-ed” word in English. It’s not a future possibility, but a concluded action, a statement of fact.

    Even after Paris, after a jolly, arm-in-arm – and well-deserved – skip towards the stands for fan feels, it was over. It was over as soon as PSG stepped on the first tender blade of perfect pitch and the lights glared and the fans roared a will made audible. In that moment, that “hey, cool!” hope shriveled to the most terrific opponent of all: self doubt.

    To win a championship, a team needs talent, effort and luck. Talent is inherent. Effort is conscious. Luck is someone else’s problem. If you can’t count on all three, you bolster your bench with strategy. Defense is strategy. Substitutes are strategy. Counter-attacks are strategy.

    To lose a championship, the only thing you need is self-doubt. A modest “yeah, but still …” will do. A humble shrug before a reporter’s “What if …?” The faintest whisper of “mon dieu” when you see your French legions overrun by Catalan culés, herded, thinned and corraled into a faraway crevice. Even if you stay positive, even if you preface your affirmations with, “Now, if I were a betting man …”., you lose. Betting men lose. A betting man will always lose, because he treats nonexistence (i.e., the future) as reality (i.e., the present). The betting man is delusional (fun fact: de < DE, "down, out, away"; -lusion < LUDO, "I play") because he plays to lose.

    Last week, PSG had hope. Last match, they played to lose.

    Barcelona didn't play to lose. They didn't play to win. They didn't play at all. They knew they had won before they strode out to the thunderous congratulatory applause of their fans, the victorious waving of a thousand senyeras. Their come-back was a came-back, a preterite action, a statement of historical fact. They didn't "try hard" or "want it" badly. They already had it. Talent and effort aren't promises in future competitions. They're not revelations in this or that match. They're mathematical proofs. Not even Lady Luck at her most aloof will walk away from a man holding a full house of Barcelona. She may be a tramp, but she's no fool.

    So yesterday's victory wasn't an all-out attack, an otherworldly effort or a miracle from Montjuic Olympus. It was simply Barcelona making truth manifest. When the team lined up in first formation, their posture, their stare, their very stillness didn't belie "We believe." They informed: "We win." When PSG attained possession, Barça didn't "recover". They corrected: "That's mine." When Barca fouled, they didn't protest: "Not me". They pressed: "Play ball". When Barca was fouled, they didn't argue: "Yellow card." They got up: "Let's go." When PSG scored, they didn't "respond". They stated: "Six-one".

    Yesterday's game didn't prove how great a team Barcelona is, or how big a victory this was, or how much the odds of a successful season have increased. It simply revealed – to my remorse, for being brave enough to forgo hope for belief, but too cowardly to disregard belief before knowledge – and to my delight, for the tormented, exhilarating, harrowing every-second of the 94 + minutes of it, how miserably small we narrow our frame of vision when we can be wondering in awe at the sky.

    Six – *&^%%$#@ – one.

    • rocherto
      March 10, 2017

      Yes!!!
      Soccermom good to see you still lurking like so many of us. Of course I am a long time lurker very seldom commentor. I was watching the game like so many of us with the attitude of “you will have to earn it PSG!!.” I thought I saw the best game of the season over the weekend and was satisfied. I was going to sit down and graciously watch this game…
      That did not happen…
      The first goal gave me goosebumps!!! I haven’t had that happen in a long time. Throughout all the ups and downs of the match it came down to the final minutes. My wife (and FCB fan by default) works from home and her office shares a space with where I watch the games. When Neymar scored that goal she asked if she should not make any calls? (She knew the potential for profanities being spoken was very high.) I must say that I refrained for the most part until that final moment.

      6 – $*%&@ing-1 !!!!!!!

    • Miguel
      March 11, 2017

      “We had doubt because even as we love the team, even as we know the players, we can’t see them as teammates can, haven’t looked into their eyes and taken the measure of a man and decided that not only was he with me as teammate, but I was with him, that everyone was together, united in a single goal of being the absolute best for each other. ”

      Well said, Kxev.

      Sometimes we’re not able to be our best selves when someone else needs it, and that’s okay. The amount of minutes Messi’s played this season -these past 10 seasons- of course he wouldn’t be able to. And Neymar said, “that’s okay.” Sometimes it takes a 4-0 walloping to reset, correct, sober up and to set up the right tactics to get everyone to be their best selves they can be for each other. I’m sorry, for Lucho’s sake, that it took his job to get that to seep in, but that’s the only thing that could have ever happened. I don’t agree that this win was always theirs, but it certainly is now, as is La Orejona. There’s no stopping this team when its players are set up to play for one another and they believe in each other, and I’m excited to be here again to see that happen.

  4. Dar_vincy
    March 10, 2017

    The fascinating thing about belief is that the byproduct carries an air of unpredictability. From all indications and comments from the football globe, no one truly believed it would be possible. After Neymar netted the PK to make it 5-1, I still felt it was a little too late and it would be shameful to be eliminated, again, after all the diligence exhibited. At that point, I felt allowing myself to hope for a surprise goal at the death was going to yield nothing more than heartache. After finding myself in a similar situation over the years – with disappointments being the end result – as a defence mechanism, I resolved to be non-committal towards hoping for the kind of miracle we experienced on Wednesday. That match has reignited in me the need to reconsider my position and the will to never let go till the last try.
    Meanwhile, was wondering if this comeback would have been possible under Pep. I thought of how our possessive style then would have favored a sturdily defensive PSG side. I don’t think we would have penetrated much considering our strict allegiance to our style then. Anyways, glad we progressed.

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