What an alleyfight Barça had against its Catalan neighbors in a row that felt very different from the other Catalan derby, vs Espanyol.
Girona played it physical, taking advantage of a ref who was not only disinclined to call everything, but was never going to. If every play, every contact is a foul, what do you call and how does it disrupt proceedings for a person whose job is in part to keep the match flowing, while ajudicating it in a reasonably fair manner.
As a team, Girona understood that as long as they were fouling Barça, which they did with abandon, it would be difficult to play the kind of football that would surely result in their destruction. So they kicked, and grabbed, and took advantage of the fact that it would be impossible for the ref to call everything.
And yet this match was something of a milestone, and a minor coming of age for Valverde’s side, all a reaction to a tactic used by Girona.
Messi was man-marked, which is something you don’t see every day. But he wasn’t only man marked. Girona told a player to stay with Messi, go where he goes, devote himself to nothing other than making sure that Messi doesn’t kill his team. After picking up an early(ish) yellow, speculation was what would happen to the player, his team and how would Messi react to that personally impersonal torment.
Pique. He scowled, he let Rakitic know a pass was late in arriving, he gesticulated and showed his irritation in uncharacteristic ways. It was a smart and dumb tactic by Girona, because atop their physical approach, it removed a man and men from the overall team strategy as the goal to keep Messi from beating them became paramount.
Girona, in effect, fell for the hype — Barça is a one-man team. Then the team killed them. Two of the three goals were own goals, but also the end product of intelligent attacks and the subsequent chaos in the Girona box. But Messi didn’t do it — Sergi Roberto did it, Jordi Alba did it, Ivan Rakitic did it, Paulinho did it, Luis Suarez eventually did it. Ter Stegen made a double save, Mascherano had his usual magical interventions.
The match was, in the wake of the victory, reduced to narrative and theory. Barça played poorly, needed Busquets to restore order, what about when they play “real” competition. But there are a great many things that you have ignore when you start grasping at those straws.
— Barça played poorly. You try doing what you do while being kicked and grabbed constantly. Kill that notion.
— Busquets was needed for Barça to “play football.” The sub was made late in the second half, when the score was already 0-2 and Girona didn’t have a chance in hell of coming back. Busquets was inserted to instill a bit of calm.
— “Real” competition, a notion that ignores Barça having lost the title not by performances against the top teams in La Liga, against who they were exceptional. The Liga was lost against the Alaveses, and Gironas, teams that allowed the group’s focus to drop, for a scrappy, battling opponent to spit in the face of the big team.
This season, so far, Barça has passed every type of those tests, something significant to note. It got it done in various ways: playing them off the pitch, scrapping out a late win, putting hard shots in the box and letting something good happen. And so far, the team is perfect, even as it hasn’t played the kind of opponent that people “worry” about.
Barça getting back to the task of taking the gimmes should be exciting because it shows a mentality change, one that is significant and has been mentioned before. Barça is back, even as pundits and supporters keep shifting the markers.
“Messi will have to save them,” one narrative goes. Against Girona, Messi was effectively taken out of the match, and the team won. And the team won because of a way of playing football, epitomized in smart, hard-working display put on by my MOTM candidate in Sergi Roberto. That the team didn’t play well isn’t always material to the result. Sometimes, it’s okay that the team didn’t play well and won, which is something we forget in the quest for footballing perfection, for the rose-colored flawlessness of a time gone by. That Barça won’t return because it never existed. So what do we have now? A team. They didn’t need Messi to save them. They got it done themselves. This is good, and Messi is the kind of player who will be happy about his mates not needing him to dispatch an irritable neighbor.
What pundits, observers and supporters will need to come to grips with is the team that they have, the team that Valverde is building. That team goes about playing the game in many different ways, and winning matches in very different ways. It is its own team, and goes about the game in its own way. It isn’t a continuation of Guardiola, or Luis Enrique, or any other coach. It’s a team that should be considered in its own manner and in its own context.
FC Barcelona plays attacking, possession football. When we talk about a way, a Cruijffian doctrine, that is it. Every team under every coach since Rijkaard has done that. This one, under Valverde, is also doing it. The tactics are a bit different, as is a coach’s wont and necessity in response to the personnel that he has to call upon. What isn’t going to change is that fundamental notion of how Barça plays football, even as people change the way they view the football being played by that team.
That is, in many ways, unfortunate because it robs the joy from results. We assess matches as these abstractions, the luxury of the victor. We sit in judgment of the style because the result is, even as we deny such things, assured. Barça doesn’t lose that often. It doesn’t even drop points that often. That is what makes it so extraordinary when those things happen, what makes this team and group of players special.
It was a group that found a way to win a hard, nasty, physical match without being bailed out by the best player in the game in Messi, or the worst (according to so many) in Paulinho. It won by playing intelligent football that took advantage of luck, chaos and ultimately, superiority. And that team sits atop the league table, seven points above a team that so many began the season ceding a treble to.
There are many ways to look at that seeming anomaly. We can choose the one that we prefer, that suits our needs. And many will shift that marker. “Wait for a ‘real’ team.” If Barça beats that team, it will be, “the season is long,” or “they got that one, but the next ‘real’ team plays differently. We’ll see then.”
There is also a much simpler way to look at those anomalies: three points, a perfect record top of the table. The route to a good place can pass through mud, crappy neighborhoods and beauty. The destination matters. And if Barça is still there at the end of the season, will anything else materially matter?