Imagine being — if rumor is true — Ernesto Valverde, watching Barça prance and dance against Las Palmas yesterday in a potentially tricky away romp that barely saw the team get out of third gear, without two key members of the XI and the best player in history not at his mercurial best.
Luis Suarez was razor-sharp and Neymar, a player many supporters can’t wait to see the back of for some inexplicable reason, had a direct hand in all four goals, including an absurd chip over distance for Suarez, who made no mistake.
It seems ridiculous in many ways that a team this good might only win the Copa. And the easy thing is to sit back and snarl because things aren’t going exactly to plan for Barça which, these days, means the team isn’t going to win the treble. More difficult is to recognize that we love a team that is capable of some astonishing football and a team that, despite the dire predictions, has a core of young talent that will be fascinating to watch develop even as the next coach must oversee the easing into the golden years, the remnants of the best home-grown collection of football talent that the game has ever seen.
We got just a glimpse — well, more than a glimpse of that future as Las Palmas was dismantled amid somewhat controversial circumstances as makeshift right back Lucas Digne took down Prince Boateng. The referee, Gonzalez Gonzales, decided upon a yellow rather than strict adherence to the rulebook, which would have called for a straight red as Digne was last man.
What is interesting about this situation is how it typifies the in many ways the snakebit season Barça has had to manage. Digne was playing right back because Vidal was injured, Sergi Roberto was suspended and because Gerard Pique was out with a stomach ailment, the man who probably would have played RB, Javier Mascherano, had to play CB. Of course Mascherano was injured during pre-game warmups, necessitating a start for Marlon Santos, just called up from the B team. Later in the match when Digne was subbed to rush off and buy his lottery ticket, Andre Gomes was called on to play RB.
It’s been that kind of a season.
The first goal was lustrous, and a couple of things will be forgotten about that shouldn’t be. The first was the delicate, supremely confident dance that Marlon had to do in order to feed Busquets, who then had to do his own dance to get the ball to Iniesta. And he didn’t just have to do a dance. He also had to execute a perfectly weighted backheel pass to a teammate. From there, the Maestro fed Suarez — as suddenly in form as he was out — and watched the result like a chef in the kitchen who already knows the dish is going to turn out perfect. Suarez slid the pass to Neymar. Done. It was 0-1 via an astonishing goal that not only got from one to the other with alacrity, but also managed to demonstrate supreme skill with every touch of the ball. It was a stupefying goal.
Barça isn’t hard to play for because of the many things that people cite. It isn’t any particular system. Rather it’s the fact that everything happens so quickly. Busquets made a play under pressure that almost any other midfielder extant would have played back to the keeper or a CB. He did something that should in reality be impossible, and fed Iniesta, who had a nanosecond to do what he did with the ball. It required perfect control and vision as well the ability to slot a ball over distance. Wait a fraction of a moment and Suarez is offside, leaving Barça to continue to struggle with Las Palmas. Everything has to happen in your mind so that by the time the ball gets to your foot the only thing left is a reflex action.
Umtiti can sparkle not only because he is good, but because the way that he played at Lyon prepped him for his role at Barça. But even he has moments where his mind doesn’t work at Barça speed. Some players can accelerate their brains, others can’t. That, more than ability, is a success definer at Barça — can you keep up? Compare the alacrity with which Paco Alcacer is moving now to his first appearances. Notice how differently Gomes moves now. All of that takes time.
Most footballers are reactive, because actions force a reaction to them. The best footballers are always ahead of the game, always know what is going to happen because their skills are so high that it frees their mind to play the match a few moves in advance. By the time a player reacts at Barça, it’s too late. The hole for the pass is gone, the attacker is now offside, the defender has regained his balance. It’s the biggest reason a transfer can’t be adequately evaluated until a second season. It takes time to learn to play the game that quickly.
The second goal was Ronaldinhoesque, as Neymar was on the sideline, seemingly under the control of a pair of defenders, who are playing Neymar to make the run. But Neymar has already seen Suarez, perfectly positioned between his attending pair of defenders, and understands that if he can get the pass to him, a goal will result. But every move will have to be perfectly timed. Neymar unleashed a pass of astonishing quality. Lemos was running with Suarez, and had cover. Had the pass not been perfect, he would have made the interception. But it was, so he got to stand there and watch Suarez slot home. Javi Varas rushed out to smother Suarez, expecting a bit of loose control, expecting the finish to not be as sublime. Wrong. The pass was such that Suarez just one-timed it.
On the third goal, the moving parts required to have that Rakitic pass plop where Neymar could get to it, that Neymar already had the presence of mind to see how Varas was playing him and try the header across the face of goal to the far post. We just struggle to understand, sometimes, how this stuff happens and how necessary it is that it happen.
The fourth goal would have been a favorite had that first goal not happened, a goal that is also in many ways symbolic of future Barça, a high-speed thing that, even as many anticipate the team being handed over to Neymar as playmaker and showrunner, was symbolic of the fact that this has already happened in many ways. A pass over distance finds Alba in full-speed stride as he runs onto the ball, with Neymar running at full speed because he already knows what is possible. Alba slots to Neymar who doesn’t slow down and, with the deftest of touches, slides the ball past a charging keeper into the far corner.
There was no time for anything in this perpetual motion gem of a goal. If anyone pauses, everything is done. No goal. It was a goal reminiscent of the type we see Neymar generate with Brazil, high-speed joga bonito that leaves a team helpless. Future Barça.
Many will assert that the goals, not being born of 32 perfect wee passes from perfectly positioned players, aren’t Barça goals. But which Barça? As a team evolves to face the new set of challenges that pop up to potentially thwarts its ambition, the way that it plays will of necessity become malleable.
But a future is also based in youth. At the end of the match, Barça ended with a passel of young talents on the pitch, even as many scream about Barça not having young talent: Gomes, Alcacer, Neymar, Denis Suarez, Umtiti, Marlon. The last two, in particular Marlon, sparkled. The Barça B defender, in addition to key plays and interceptions, had 82 passes, more than any other player in the XI. But they weren’t just passes. They were Barça passes, that take advantage of time and space to create an imbalance that can be leveraged into danger.
The last time we saw Marlon with the XI, he wasn’t the player that he was yesterday. He was stronger, smoother, calmer on and off the ball, reading play like a CB trained in the Barça system and reacting accordingly. He was in places where a freshly called-up CB shouldn’t have been. Young players make mistakes, don’t fully understand how play is developing and where they are supposed to be. And Marlon will have those moments where he won’t. But not yesterday. Against Las Palmas he and Umtiti were like a badass boy band where every song is titled, “No,” except for the “None Shall Pass” B side.
Yes, Las Palmas got a goal. Yes, people sought to blame someone or another. But the simple fact is that it was an excellent goal of the type we customarily see against Barça and that work in our favor, usually — goals of a high quality involving a sequence beyond the customary capability of an opponent. So they get one, and that’s that. Some will view those goals as an indictment of the defense, but what they really are is part of the game and the risks attendant to playing a high line with CBs that function more like DMs while fullbacks are pushed up in attack. The future will continue to feature those kinds of goals. Sorry.
But at the end of a match where people were disappointed because the impossible — Sevilla beating Real Madrid at the Bernabeu — didn’t happen, the observant could be buoyed by something wonderful happening. We got to see a little peek at the future, and it’s bright.