“The Dude abides.”
That legendary quote from iconic film “The Big Lebowski” is probably the best way to describe the notion of Lionel Messi right now. Every now and again, the idea that he is diminished enters the frame, and some of us fools succumb to the notion before the realization dawns. “The Dude abides.”
Teams come and go, teammates come and go, formations change and through it all, there is Messi.
In the wake of Messi’s four-goal performance against Eibar Tuesday at Camp Nou, that team’s coach Jose Luis Mendilibar said, “Barça is a great club, but they also have the best player in the world. He makes the difference.”
Ernesto Valverde, almost assuredly happy to be on Messi’s side instead of opposite him, had this to say (translation from journalist Samuel Marsden):
“I don’t know what to say about Messi. He is one of the most intelligent football players I’ve seen on a football pitch. He’s extraordinary. Today we played a different way, without Luis but Messi is the same wherever you put him.”
The Dude abides.
Barça is perfect on the season. Eibar came to town on a night when Valverde chose to rotate heavily, swapping in six new players for the lineup: Ter Stegen, Semedo, Pique, Mascherano, Digne, Busquets, Iniesta, Paulinho, D. Suarez, Messi, Deulofeu.
And Barça left a late wakeup call as Eibar pressed high, got physical and got in the home team’s faces, and supporters were once again left muttering in a world where football matches have been reduced to figure skating competitions. Style points are even more important than three points, something that has been rearing its head since the end of Pax Guardiolus, when every match was won perfectly and every goal a 4,004-pass masterpiece of team perfection. Such purity is for supporters. Were you to give players or coaches truth serum and ask them about such notions, once they stopped laughing, they would say that you win some pretty and some not as pretty, but three points are always welcome.
The first goal came from a bit of physical quality, as Nelson Semedo outran a defender to a ball that the defender was just beginning to think, “Ball! I should cl … huh?” Foul in the box, and the penalty was dispatched calmly and elegantly by Messi.
The second tally was another from That Guy, Paulinho, a towering header from a Denis Suarez corner kick. Rather than standing in the scrum and bashing about, Paulinho did what too often works against Barça moving and slamming home from a position moved into while defenders were distracted. Paulinho is still, and will probably always be a player that supporters don’t know what to do with. Our midfield avatar has become the small, elegant technician, a player who can control a pass in a tornado, has flawless control and will always make the right decision with the ball. Paulinho isn’t that player, and he is never going to be. Many are begrudging his not being what they want, rather than trying to understand what he is. That distinction matters.
Most of the time when watching Seydou Keita play at Barça, he was a wall. He took a pass and immediately returned it, got in the way of opponents as they tried to create something. He wasn’t that typical Barça mid, either, but Guardiola knew that kind of player was essential for his ambitions. Valverde, in considering his needs, wanted Paulinho. Reasons are many. As supporters mutter about “no midfield,” the difficulty with that notion is assessing why, Some of it was the decision to get the ball forward to a trio of great attackers. But some of it was that opponents turned the midfield into bumper cars, not a place for the wee or the weak.
Guardiola’s treble team had Toure Yaya and Keita, bulwarks against any possible storm brewed up by an opponent. Valdes could bash a ball forward, confident that one of those battleships would win the war for it. What Barça has lacked is that potential, that physical player who can win a long ball from the keeper and feed the technicians, cutting off a big chunk of the pitch and giving the technicians a head start. An excellent analysis from the site EUMD suggested that Paulinho was an enabler, the man whose work would allow the technicians a clear field of view. He’s also a human reset button. Bang a ball over to him, move to a new position and wait for it to come back.
He ranges from box to box, is already developing a chemistry with Messi, and makes decisive moves that help the team create chances and score goals. Yes, he cost 40m. Yes, he is 29. Yes, he came from Guangzhou Evergrande, a league that is usually where big stars go to collect that last massive payday. But he is also a player who played his way into the XI of the Seleçao, one of the favorites for the World Cup. He isn’t a Barça mid in the rigid sense that has come to define that type of player. But he is effective. Applying a particular template to him and deeming him inadequate becuase he doesn’t fit is folly. Barça has had many effective players on the roster who aren’t great, but they do the kinds of jobs that allow teammates to be great. A team needs those players as well.
Paulinho also had an effect on the third goal, scored by Denis Suarez, with one of the best dummies you will see in a long time, a move that showed exemplary pitch awareness as he was able to see the pass from Mascherano, Messi’s run and make the right decision. Messi slashed a shot at the keeper that was parried, Denis Suarez put home the rebound.
Messi is scoring goals that are easy. This is important to note. They aren’t twisting, turning feats of physicality that come at the end of a labored move. He’s running free, taking advantage of space created by the movement of teammates and the ball. Valverde understands that Messi needs to be on the move, and that Messi will almost invariably make the right decision on the move. The fourth goal was one of those as Messi took the ball on the dead run, already in a place of danger, before passing it into the net. His next goal was something similar as, again on the dead run he was found with the deftest of passes from (him again) Paulinho. Messi moving at speed in the box is next to impossible to defend against. The trick is to get him the ball at a time when he can be most effective with it. Another player, more skilled, more typically Barça, might have dribbled, might have contemplated making a move of his own. Paulinho just moved it on. Goal.
Messi’s last goal hewed to the theme of pass and move and speed. The biggest difference between the team last year and this year is that the ball doesn’t stop moving this year. With Neymar in the side, in the context of his role as creator, he needed to use his pace, dribbling and guile to create an advantage, so the ball stopped a lot. That was his game, but it also allowed defenses to set, making the job of beating them more difficult once the ball started moving again. The Luis Enrique treble Barça was scoring more goals off the run, before opponents figured out that the midfield was vestigal, used solely to get the ball to the big boys, and adjusted accordingly.
What’s important to note is that they will adjust to Valverde Ball. What the coach and team do next will determine how the rest of the season is going to go. Never forget that Tata Martino’s team set the world on fire in the first half of the season, before dissolving into a directionless bunch that seemed trapped in between worlds. The season is very young, but the signs are encouraging.