Summer in football land is a time for letting go, a time for new hope in the transfer window, for saying goodbye to players beloved and otherwise, a time for renewal in a way that springtime is for the rest of the world.
Barça is, of course, no different, particularly this year, when we say hello and goodbye. Hello to a renewed acquaintance in the Copa del Rey trophy, a piece of silver that is more like a tin pot in the eyes of many segments of a fanbase more accustomed to larger, shinier things.
We say goodbye to coaches. Luis Enrique led his warriors onto the field of battle for the last time. As well, his assistant Unzue has been announced as Celta head coach, and will take the familiar supporting cast with him
We say goodbye to players, rumor has it, some with hard hearts, some mixed emotions, some sadness as at such a fraught time.
Probably most importantly, it’s time to say goodbye to things, familiar things that have been long gone even as we won’t let them go. Time to say goodbye to notions of positional play and the rigidity of thinking that spawns in some, time to say goodbye to ideas of football that the game and opponents have moved on from. And it’s time to say goodbye to our idea of Messi from years ago, that rumbling, tumbling ball of goals, and say hello to what is to my view the best Messi we have ever seen.
Alaves was stuck in the past, thinking of Messi is a goalscorer. They didn’t understand that if you want to have the best shot at winning a match against Barça, there are a great many options. You can wait for them to get snoozy and lax, you can play the match of your life as a team or maybe luck will be on your side, granting you glory.
But if you want to guarantee that you are going to lose a match against Barça, there’s only one thing you need to do: vex Lionel Messi.
Alaves had the right approach in making the Copa del Rey final a physical, dsypeptic affair. But what most teams who adopt that strategy do is kick everyone except Messi. There’s a reason. Messi took over the match yesterday, doing so with fire in his eyes and rage in his mien. He leapt to Neymar’s defense after his cohort was poleaxed, and got in the faces of Alaves players who were, of course, playing to their match plan without understanding that — well — you don’t kick everybody. You leave that little one be, lest you make him angry.
The argument for this being the best Messi ever, previous bucketloads of goals aside, is that he is becoming a complete player and devastating attacking force who can kill you in so many ways. Michael Jordan wasn’t “Jordan” as the guy driving the lane and dunking. He was the guy who assisted, got steals and rebounds, could stick a fadeaway jumper as easily as a drive of the lane, even adding the 3-point shot to his game. Adaptation to stimulus made him unstoppoable.
Even as people snarl about the fool who would essentially make Messi a midfielder, it is from that position that he has gone from influencing the game by scoring goals to dominating it by wreaking havoc with goals, passes and movement — by, when he chooses, becoming unplayable because predicting him is impossible, like Jordan.
On Barça’s first goal Messi slid in from midfield in that typical, “Nothing to see here” manner, working an exquisite give-and-go with Neymar capped in a finish that for any other player would be a season highlight. For Messi it was just another goal. So many goals this season have come from him moving forward from midfield as he evolves into a true 10, because his sense of the game and movement are so intelligent. Standing around just outside the box makes it easier for teams to mark him than i fhe has a running start. And because he strikes the ball so well on the move and without lift, all of the ways that teams play a goalscorer have to go out the window.
It’s also a goal that needed Neymar, because when Messi slid the ball to the Brazilian in space, Alaves had to respect that move. Messi’s little jink to find a sliver of space took advantage of his ability to cut and move and the pass from Neymar was perfect, settling so that Messi didn’t have to control it.
The second goal found Neymar and Messi teaming with Andre Gomes (yes, the goal was offside) as Neymar dribbled, danced and nutmegged a defender to find Messi in space, again just trotting along all by his lonesome, again the beneficiary of intelligent movement from deep. He slid a pass to Andre Gomes who made no mistake with his cross, and Neymar slotted home.
This third goal beggars description. Maybe bonkers is the best way to describe it, or a picture of the inside of a supercollider. Messi received the ball on the right sideline, faced by two defenders who were closing. He quickly split the pair with a diagonal run, shrugging off a bit of contact even as one of the Alaves players tried to grab him. He got into the box, paused then accelerated to his left, dragging defenders with him.
Paco Alcacer has seen this happen in training and knew what to do — slide into the space that has just been cleared by Messi, because the ball is going to get to him, somehow. Messi provided a wee spank with the inside of his foot for Alcacer, who drilled home. Old Messi takes the shot. New Messi destroys in one of many ways.
Three very different goals, all slathered with the influence of an amazing player on an odd day. A club legend had his last match as coach. Another club legend might have had his last match as a player as Mascherano went out with a clash of heads and down with a knee injury. And yet another club legend burnished his status in having a hand in the three goals necessary for his team to win yet another trophy. And as the celebrations went on, Messi sat with Mascherano, and the two titans talked and laughed, sharing a private moment while others celebrated their final trophy under Luis Enrique.
Burdens are a difficult thing to carry. Luis Enrique carried his braced by a chip on his shoulder, striding through a fanbase that ranged from understanding to clueless. People clamored for “beautiful football,” forgetting that the team did play beautiful football, for people whose minds and expectations have moved on. The past is a joyous place because everything is perfect. We already know what has happened. Understanding change is more complex, and we often react by despising the person who brings it to us.
The team’s most recent treble might have been the least popular comprehensive sporting glory in the history of athletics. “We won everything! Booo! It wasn’t done the right way.” Everything in many quarters of the fanbase in the virtual world dissolved into rancor, bile and waiting for the team to not win everything so that keepers of the flame can crow “I told you so!” from the rooftops. People didn’t understand why, from seats in front of keyboards and monitors flecked with venom, why the Camp Nou denizens would sing the name of a coach who was so terrible, the worst coach to ever win nine trophies in three seasons, a treble and a double.
“I can’t wait to enjoy watching Barça play again,” they sighed, not understanding that beauty was there. Looking at Monet, Picasso, Albright and Richter all bring beauty, but in different forms. Declaring that a Richter isn’t beautiful because “well, look at this Monet” isn’t understanding the malleable, ever-changing nature of beauty.
Beautiful football and a goal can come from 32 flawlessly executed passes and midfield-donimant play. Beautiful football and a goal can also come from a single, flawlessly executed pass to an attacker, who seeks beauty with control and execution.
Luis Enrique and his team had some stanky, ugly matches. They also had some exquisite moments featuring magnificent football. We wanted a 9, and got one in Luis Suarez, who plays a particular way. Expecting him to stand around while the team passes the ball around doesn’t show a clear understanding of his intrinsic value. He scored some beautiful, flat-out magnificent goals from a team that changed the way that it played to meet a particular set of stresses. Beauty is, as always, in the eye of the beholder but never has a successful team been so covered in misery.
There are some who will say “Good riddance” to Luis Enrique. But even as his time at the club is up and should be, more because of circumstance and evolution, from this chair there is respect, admiration and heartfelt thanks for a legit club legend who fought as hard for the team from the bench as he did on the pitch as a player.
He has helped to leave behind a trophy case that is fuller than when he arrived, left behind players who under his watch have improved. Maybe he was, in his heart and mind, proud of the display from Andre Gomes against Alaves. Maybe he wanted to scream, “This, THIS is what I have been trying to get from him, what I have been waiting for.” But he said nothing except farewell. No gloating, even making nice with his bete noire, reporters who covered Barça.
Like us, he will wonder about a few bounces of an inflated sphere and the effect they had on life, fate and perception, will wonder what might have been had an opponent held back on a tackle, had one of his players’ feet not been so firmly planted. Aleix Vidal returned from his horror injury, two months early, to face the team against which he suffered it. It was a delightful moment greeted with pretty much the same silence in the world of cyber Barça as Gomes’ fluffing his feathers.
The concept of beauty is ephemeral and everywhere. It’s lustrous tresses and thick braids, dark and light, short and tall. We sought beauty of a certain kind from a lion who had no intention of hewing to expectation, a fighter whose playing career should have made it clear what kind of a coach he was going to be, the particular kind of beauty he was going to essay. And now, at the end of it all, those whose hearts aren’t hard can say, “Gracies, Mister, gracies per tot,” and try to understand what he wanted to do, what he tried to do and from time to time, got right.
Leonard Cohen, in “I Came So Far for Beauty,” might have written an apt depiction of the time of Luis Enrique. Some of it is excerpted here:
I came so far for beauty
I left so much behind
My patience and my family
My masterpiece unsigned
I thought I’d be rewarded
For such a lonely choice
And surely she would answer
To such a very hopeless voice
And men to do my bidding
And broken bones to teach
The value of my pardon
The shadow of my reach
I came so far for beauty
I left so much behind
My patience and my family
My masterpiece unsigned