Barça 3, Alaves 1, aka “Letting go”

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.

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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

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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.

13 Comments

  1. ChaoticReaper
    May 28, 2017

    Lucho leaving is the best news we’ve gotten since the treble. 3 CDR, 2 Liga, 1 UCL looks good on paper but if penaldo wins 2 UCL, 1 Liga, and 2 Ballon Dor, 1 Euro, 1 Confed Cup then this will be looked down as a dark time for Messi thanks to bad coach

    • georgjorge
      May 28, 2017

      I think letting go a bit with regards to Ronaldo might do you good. Is Lucho now even responsible for the Ballon D’Or (largely a popularity contest) or the failures of the national coaches of Argentina to win trophies? Should he have prevented Ronaldo from winning the Euro somehow? Is football, a game of 11 vs 11, more than just Messi vs Ronaldo?

      • ChaoticReaper
        May 28, 2017

        Back in the day Pep Guardiola used to destroy Real Madrid so hard they would be distraught and fail the entire season + international campaigns.

    • Messiah10
      May 29, 2017

      It may bother Messi to see Oil Can celebrate winning the league this year, but it would bother any athlete who misses by inches against a rival. Messi doesn’t care about CR. He knows he’s better. He knows he has been for several years. I don’t care about trophy hauls as a measuring stick of greatness. Your argument is essentially saying that Messi isn’t and can’t ever be the GOAT bc he hasn’t won anything with the national team. Neither did George Best or Cruyff or Eusebio. One individual cannot win alone. One coach cannot make injuries go away or the board to make buys he wants. We have no idea what happened behind the scenes. We like to think we do, but it’s only conjecture & speculation. I’ve stopped wasting my life on hating CR. I don’t like him. Fair enough. I know in my heart he doesn’t even come close to Messi. I don’t need trophies or individual honors to prove that.

  2. georgjorge
    May 28, 2017

    A very beautiful article, Kxevin. Letting go, a homage to the new Messi, and a farewell to Luis Enrique, all tied up very nicely.

    I wonder how the team will look come the beginning of next season.

  3. Mishti
    May 28, 2017

    Wonderful article, Kevin, thanks a lot.

    “I thought I’d be rewarded
    For such a lonely choice
    And surely she would answer
    To such a very hopeless voice”

    I guess, not. But I doubt Luis Enrique gives a hoot.

    Newsflash: Helenio Herrera, of Catenaccio fame, was twice the coach of Football Club Barcelona.

    The club existed before Messi, before Cruijff, and will endure after every last member of the ‘golden generation’ retires. One day it might even be the seedbed for the next footballing ‘revolution’.

    There are so many different kinds of fans out there. For some, it’s the club. For some others, it is a preferred style of play. For some, it is just a single player. To each his own. For me, a football club does not exist to become a shrine to a player. It does not exist to stagnate or fossilize itself into self-parody of some ‘way of playing’. As a fan of the game first and foremost, for me the value of a football club as an institution partly lies in how it contributes to the ongoing evolution and development of the game as a whole. Of course, the emotional attachment I have might be characterized as tribal in nature. But then football is a tribalistic game, and we are tribal animals.

    I enjoyed the season, feel proud of the team, the players, the coach. They did what they could in what is after all a very human endeavour, and sometimes excelled while coming up short at other times. Gracias, Lucho. Nothing but respect from me.

    And oh, Aleix Vidal’s cameo was the highlight of the match for me, to the extent that I almost teared up. The ultimate comeback kid. Fought hard to convince his coach for a place in the team, shortly after achieving it suffered another setback, fought his way from that just in time to play in the very last game of the season. I will be rooting for him to stay and grow with the team next season.

  4. FinallyCrushingBuses
    May 28, 2017

    I’ll miss Lucho’s “suit and sneakers” combo..

  5. rmyii
    May 29, 2017

    When did this space become a full frontal assault on kxevin and his exquisite prose? I am a clue, My son is a cule (since birth) and ive been lurking since Kevin and Isaiah were doing their thing on the offside. I have been moved to respond. I am of this team and for this team until my last breath.

    The vitriol and anger towards LE, and this blog, is ridiculous. Was he the world beater we wanted? No, but he was the trainer we needed at the time. 3-2-1 in three seasons is good enough for me. I remember when we used to finish the season with no hardware. I guess you can say I have perspective. You young bucks need to learn that this game giveth and taketh away. Doesn’t matter who our front three is. my favorite line when people ask why we lost is, “the other team gets paid too. ”
    Let’s hope for a great off season and those we’ve added and those we will add incorporate into this fabulous collection that we currently call our team. Let’s also hope Valverde or whoever our new trainer is continues the tradition. Visca Barcelona. Visca Cataluyna.

    • May 29, 2017

      Welcome to the speaking part of the space. More voices, particularly those with the kind of perspective that you bring, are always welcome. Whatever motivated you to speak up, I’m really happy it did. A space is only as strong as its contributors and the ideas that they bring. My pieces only start the conversation.

      Man! The Offside! That goes way back. It bummed me out that when that server was taken over, the new owners purged all the back content. There was some really fun stuff over there, and things that would have beeni interesting to read in hindsight.

      Anyhow, thanks again for joining the speaking part of the family and again, “welcome,” even though you’ve been here a while.

  6. Davour
    May 29, 2017

    Thanks, Kxevin – an eloquent way to end the season. Today we’ll here about the new coach and the speculative debate will commence – which is fine, except for that it is too based on preconceived notions that it are destructive. Let’s at least try to be like children and amaze at the possibilities. It is supposed to be fun, this game. I for one will take a break from the madness over summer and come back refreshed, hoping for, rather than expecting, a wonderful season. Coach? Welcome, whoever you are.

    Thanks again for keeping this space going with thoughtful articles, and thanks to those commenters here who try to contribute and argue their point of view, rather than ventilating their anger. Have a fabulous summer!

  7. Kd
    May 29, 2017

    Thank you Kxevin!! U have kept the sane discussions going here but the more I read, the more I am amazed by the depth and the breadth of knowledge you have across the various walks of life. Your poem made me remember another one by Lord Alfred Tennyson, and I would like to quote 4 lines from it I feel are relevant.
    “Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
    For those that here we see no more;
    Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
    Ring in redress to all mankind.”
    Thank you Luis Enrique, I loved your tenacity as a player and I loved the way you stood up to all the dissenting voices. He has been his own man. And I respect that!!

  8. Messiah10
    May 29, 2017

    I think it was time for a change. I’m happy for LE that HE decided. Just as Pep did. Something I admire about both is that neither of them give a toss. LE’s disdain for the media merry go round of the same questions week in week out and the blatant use or misuse of facts, quotes, rumours, & lies by them to sell papers is what makes me hold him in high regard. He did it his way and could careless what you, I, or anyone else thinks. Bravo to 3 great seasons. Thank you for your service, again, to our club.

  9. americanCule
    May 29, 2017

    Today is Memorial Day in the United States, the day on which our country formally remembers those who have given their lives in her service. Perhaps it is fitting that we bid farewell to Barça’s 2016-2017 season on this day. It is certainly fitting that we bid farewell to Luis Enrique on this day. It is more than fitting for this day of remembrance to include Barça in our minds, for us to consider what has come before and to anticipate what the future holds.

    The parallel is not exact, and I would never have the disrespect to precisely equate the reasons for Memorial Day with what we lose at Barça this summer or how Barça has been blessed over the years (both in this season and in those prior). But Memorial Day is a time to reflect on those who went before and what they did for us, giving something unquantifiable to our country, and helping to make it into what it has become. Thus for our Guardiola memories, but our understanding of those contributions must be tempered by the knowledge that Barça has changed since, in many ways unquantifiably so. My point is that just as soldiers have given something to this country in the promise of a future and yet might not recognize that future were they to visit it, so too evolution and change have worked at Barça and made a future after the Guardiola memories, and simply because that future is different should not necessarily mean it is a bad future.

    Mayhap it truly is the proper time for Lucho to say gràcies i adéu. I think it much more likely that the continual pressure – from the press and the fan(atic)s for whom different always means bad – hastened the arrival of the proper time. But regardless of the proper time, Lucho departs with a silverware drawer far from empty. He departs having given no small measure of his soul to us – on the pitch, on the bench, at the press conference table, and in all the myriad places and situations which we never see. If all that is to be discounted, then at the very least the elusiveness of beauty which Kxevin treats so well has descended upon the Enrique years several times. There has been beautiful football – jogo bonito – at its most magnificent, many times during the last three years, at times more beautiful than during Pep’s tenure. If even that deserves no recognition, then we are truly lost. If simply keeping the Guardiola Years Flag waving, to the detriment or derision of all other sources of beauty, is what defines an adherent, then I prefer to think that the Club deserves better from us.

    This blog is an outpost for critical thought, for recognizing the faults and for placing them in perspective. I greatly appreciate the writing here, and the opinions, and the approach. Thus this comment on this day of remembrance, and thus my eternal thanks – to Enrique just as much as to Pep on a day like this, to Gomes and Vidal and Roberto just as much as to Neymar, and to Messi just as much as…well no one features higher in my thanks and appreciation more than he does. Watching him go from sniper to general on the battlefield this season has been an honor of which we will tell our wide-eyed grandchildren, and they will tell theirs “my grandparents saw Messi play”.

    As supporters of a Club – a group, a community, an ideal, that club is everything. For all of us – those for whom the 2008-2009 season is the only recognizable Barça, those to whom Messi can do no wrong, those who are sad to see Lucho go, and those who will always look to Barça’s future, Tennyson’s words carry a bright promise for what what is yet to come:

    Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
    We are not now that strength which in old days
    Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
    One equal temper of heroic hearts,
    Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
    To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

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