Barça 6, Eibar 1, aka “The Dude abides”

“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.

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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.

24 Comments

  1. Davour
    September 20, 2017

    Oh, the Dude… one of my favourite films ever. Now I imagine Messi, lying on a rug in his home, listening to footballs being hit cleanly, net rustling, crowd cheering. Lovely.

    Obviously, the whole conversation about Paulinho was lost in the turbulent summer debates – and lacked nuance and real purpose. If he plays like he did during the second half, he will not only bring goals, but be of overall use. It was lovely to see how Messi sensed that the Brazilian was coming into his own, and consequently trusted him. Contrast that to how he saw Deulofeu on the wing, but chose to dribble three defenders (almost made it, too) instead…

    Again, signs are promising; EV seems to be an intellectual, a thinker, who hopefully will have a more diverse arsenal compared to LE, who had trouble reinventing his approach in a way that cannot be reduced to MSN.

    • georgjorge
      September 20, 2017

      Thanks for that Lebowski image, Davour. But if Iniesta could fit the role of Donny, who is going to be Walter, now that Ibrahimovic isn’t there any more?

      • xris
        September 21, 2017

        I would nominate Alba but as he IS too small for the role my vote goes to Pique.

        • Davour
          September 21, 2017

          Yes, or Luis S – he looks the dominant type! Bartomeu is obviously the BIG Lebowski, and Albert Soler as Brandt?

          Another obvious character is of course CR as the antagonist, “Jesus” – but watching his display yesterday, I’m less sure… should he keep this up, the Balloon Door will be even more farcical than it already is! I almost felt sorry for him, to be honest.

          Oh, how the tide can turn; let’s enjoy it for now. Carpe Momentum!

          • georgjorge
            September 22, 2017

            CR as Jesus – why has no one ever seen this very obvious connection? Wait for the next Clásico, when CR is going to strut around in front of Messi threatening to f*** him, and Messi just standing there with an air of disbelief. Football NEEDS this so badly!

  2. PPos
    September 20, 2017

    Lmao! The late goals are over for Madrid. The fire sale of Morata and James and the bad form of bale and Ronaldo have reared its results.

    • georgjorge
      September 20, 2017

      Didn’t see that game, but this season RM seem to have found the best way to end any talks of their dominance and Barca’s crisis really fast. Only two wins from five games, incredible.

  3. Lionel Richie
    September 21, 2017

    My Friend’s Message:
    WTF?! Now Paulinho and Messi are going to be best buds? I think Messi has a Brazilian fetish.

    My Reply:
    Messi’s insane start to the season & goal tally is so indicative of how much he compromised the past 4 years to ensure that Suarez and Neymar felt equally important. He has quite literally held himself back for the good of the team and its dynamic.

    The ultimate team player – How many times have we seen him gifting delicious through balls and lobs and laying them on a platter for Suarez and Neymar especially, to tap in? How many times have we seen Leo let Njr take penalties when he was having an off game just to cheer him up & boost his confidence even though being on a Pichichi race himself with cristine.

    People have a misconception that when you go to Barcelona, you have to play second fiddle to Leo. But the truth is when you go there, you have the best player ever willing to adapt his game to accommodate you. Think about that for a second.

    Reports surfaced from Barcelona that when Neymore told his teammates he was going to leave, Messi told him that if he stayed, he’d personally see to it that Njr wins the ballon d’or by focusing on solely setting him up. Note that this is the best player ever, with his own personal ambitions, saying this to a kid with misplaced priorities.

    So, to reply to your statement.. Messi doesn’t have a Brazilian fetish.
    He has a TEAM fetish. Anything that helps the team.

    • Dar_vincy
      September 22, 2017

      I couldn’t agree more with your comment, Lionel. Been thinking the same thing to myself for some time, and I can’t help but admire the magnitude of his sacrifice for the collective. Beyond that though, it does seem EV’s keenness to play him more centrally has greatly accounted for his stupendous goal-scoring form; not to mention that he spends more time around the box now than far from it.

  4. Ron
    September 21, 2017

    That Big Lebowski CR7 Jesus comparision has me in splits hahahaha! It’s weirdly spot on….
    Madrids insane luck with late goals seems to be finally running out ! It’s a welcome change from the constant last gasp undeserved winners they had last season..

    Messi now has more goals in la liga this season than Madrid have points !
    He’s also had his best start to any la liga season in his entire career at the ripe age of 30!! Are we spoilt fans or what???

    Deulo Denis and Paulinho are turning it on, hope that form continues over to the end of the season as I have a funny feeling we are going to be needing them to be in top form if we are to win the big ones this season.

  5. September 21, 2017

    I dont want to get excited about EE now. Its too early and what if they get good after Feb, like they did when Zidane took over.
    I only want the team to improve, to not get tired and keep this rhythm and momentum upto Apr/may

  6. squeen
    September 21, 2017

    Not to be too much of a downer, a 6-1 victory is great, but it bothered me how often Deulofeu and Digne lost the ball—killing promising attacks with poor judgment. Perhaps when you are up 4-5 goals, you take more risks, I don’t know….

    I do want these guys to succeed—I’m not biased against them, but I hated to admit to myself that there seemed to be a quality drop-off compared to the rest of the squad from those two. A skilled player keeps the ball even when pressured.

    Just me?

    • georgjorge
      September 22, 2017

      I also don’t think Digne will suceed at Barcelona. I don’t see any signs of improvement after more than one season at the club.

      As for Deulofeu, I have a lot of hope because it’s his first season. Messi also loses the ball a fair amount of time because he tries to go forward almost always. I’m happy with Deulofeu losing the ball more often than, say, Iniesta, he has the skill and the pace to create a lof of chances and needs to take risks. His decision making is strange though, he seemed to make the wrong decision (pass, dribble or shoot) far too often last game. But I think he will learn because he seems eager to.

  7. PPos
    September 22, 2017

    Give them time. Deulofeu is only 23, and Digne is 24.
    Looks like Valverde doesn’t trust Paco Alcacer at all. There’s rumors that he might be gone in January. Poor Paco, he just didn’t take his chances. I would want Timo Werner to come in. He’s young. He’s extremely fast and knows how to finish. It would give our attack a certain pace that Suarez just doesn’t have.

    • georgjorge
      September 22, 2017

      I agree on Paco. With Paulinho available as another target man in the box if needed, I don’t see Paco getting many minutes. He tried everything and worked hard, but couldn’t score in the few games where Suarez wasn’t available. Very little time to play his way into the first team, I fear.

  8. Ron
    September 22, 2017

    What do you all feel about Sergi Roberto being played as a backup RB in our squad ?
    Is it a temporary thing ? or Is that were Valverde is planning to make him play for the rest of his career?

    • PPos
      September 23, 2017

      I think its foolish. Sergi Roberto is NOT a RB. It’s one of the remaining sins of the LE era. He really did a number on the boy by playing him there.

  9. September 23, 2017

    Luis Enrique kept Sergi Roberto in the team. Before being played at RB, Sergi Roberto was the sub of Rakitic, sometimes the sub of Busquets and never the sub of Iniesta.
    It was Luis Enrique who saw that Sergi Roberto could be used, and the lad accumulated minutes, experience, sweet and sour moments and made him Sergi Roberto of the 95th minute.

    Without Luis Enrique Roberto would’ve been gone this summer at best, because Rakitic did (and mostly still does) everything a bit better. But now Sergi Roberto can actually fight for a spot. He’s no longer the rookie with the boyish grin and the boyish haircut and charm.
    He is the assassin, the blue-eyed cheerfully grinning dispatcher, who put the silver nail in the coffin of PSG and then ran the longest, the hardest, riding the challenges of the white shirts through the Bernabeu pitch to enable Gomes and Messi.

    • squeen
      September 23, 2017

      We may not have won much, but damn!, last season had some thrilling moments. Thanks for the poetic reminder..

  10. Jim
    September 23, 2017

    Team for tonight : Ter Stegen; Roberto, Mascherano, Umtiti, Alba; Paulinho, Rakitic, Iniesta; Vidal, Suárez, Messi

    Wow ! What’s going on here ? Roberto or Vidal at back ? Vidal up front ??? 4-4-2 ? Iniesta playing just in behind Messi and Suarez ?

    Have to say I’m edgy about the defence although if we play two DMs in front of them that should be enough to deal with tonight’s opponents. If our fringes can’t handle this they should be on their way. Talking of which it looks like Valverde REALLY doesn’t fancy Gomes – so he maybe has a decent eye on him.

    Still baffled why Iniesta hasn’t had a decent rest with CL coming up.

    • georgjorge
      September 23, 2017

      Probably the standard formation with some heavy rotation: Sergi Roberto at rightback, Rakitic as Busquets-stand-in, Vidal as right winger with a somewhat lopsided attacking formation. Though if the last games are an indication, most positions will be very interchangeable during the game.

  11. georgjorge
    September 23, 2017

    Very scrappy game, helped by the referee not inclined to show any cards for repeated shirt-pulling and the linesman raising the flag at the slightest thought of offside. The team is rusty as well, heavy rotation and saving some strength for midweek.

    Another nice example of the system producing the goals. Messi is being harassed and shadowed at every turn, so our leftback and right winger score. Luckily, Suarez does as well, he really needed that!

  12. PPos
    September 23, 2017

    Man that’s game should have been named living offside. How many did the team rack up? It was crazy

    • Davour
      September 24, 2017

      Some sloppy positioning, but also slow reaction from mids; perhaps not used to playing it deep TO Messi (it’s usually his job).

      But we’ll take the win. Team looked solid enough, despite underwhelming play (dependency on Busi obvious). And I am sure EV has reasons for resting Semedo, as well as playing Iniesta (two main objections I have heard). It is plain as day that Andrés did not enjoy last season and did not feel important. Perhaps this is necessary, to get him ticking and to get the team ticking. Semedo might be eased into the team, he might have a demanding style of play (sprint) or SR simply needs minutes he can’t get in mid at the moment.

      I must say I have faith in EV; he seems like a smart guy with a good tactical awareness. So far, so great, really.

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