Girona 0, Barça 3, aka “Team you want or the team you have?”

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?

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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.

3 Comments

  1. Davour
    September 24, 2017

    Thanks for the article. I was surprised at the amount of criticism against the team after the win (and before). I saw a team trying to find a way to win, players not all accustomed to each other, and an overall sense of calm (emanating from the excellent CBs), as the team was trying things out. Paulinho does not always now what to do yet, nor does Rakitic as DM, Vidal was a bit all over the place, and L Suarez… well. Trial and error with enough quality to get the win in the process.

    Sergi had a good game this time around. And ter Stegen, man – he is really coming into his own this year. I have been a little hesitant in some regards, but he is making a silly doubter out of me. Hat’s off.

  2. Mishti
    September 24, 2017

    Thanks. Kevin. Sentiments shared.

    My one small and happy observation: we seem to have (perhaps predictably under EV), become better in defending in and around our box, and against set pieces. There were sustained bits of pressure in the last 20-30 minutes of the game around our crowded box, and in past seasons I’d be almost betting on some unmarked opposition player being able to get to the ball and score. Didn’t happen. And watching Getafe score no less than four headed/set-piece goals against Villareal today made me wonder how we got away without conceding one. It seems one long-standing prayer of mine is being answered at last- let us not concede idiotic goals. Trust me, this is going to be vital when the going inevitably gets tougher.

  3. Jim
    September 26, 2017

    Just settling down to watch me some CL but it’s a bit quiet in here so I thought I’d shove down a few thoughts.

    First of all, the game itself was nothing to write home about but another win. That’s important but not as pleasing on the eye I suppose. It also matters that our midfield couldn’t chuck the ball about at pace because that becalmed Messi. If he’s marked we need to get them moving and keep them moving. We didn’t really do that and made it easier to contain him. One thing I would suggest though is that if we’re to lift anything this year we will have to rely on Messi to produce the goods. The rest can help, particularly in moving the ball enough to upset their defence, but he’s the important one.

    I’m not particularly impressed by a couple of own goals but we’ll leave that aside other than to say Suarez’ finish for the third was excellent. You won’t hear much about that though. ( he’s only scored 80 odd goals in his first 100 Liga matches after all with 40 or so assists !) Those are phenomenal figures. Second best total over 100 games ever and just watch the slagging he gets here week after week. Anyway, the figures speak for themselves and can’t really be argued with so we’ll leave that.

    Loved Mathieu’s presser where he basically laid into the press and team management. Not sure what they did as, even I, one of his biggest admirers as a. CB, reckon it’s probably time for him to move on. Mind you, for me, Masche should have been gone first but that’s another story. Mathieu also laid into the accounts of the Juventus game and the blame apportioned to him. He quite rightly laid the blame ( almost) where it should have been; in the rest of the defence. Not sure why he singled out Pique and Masche though. We’re either of them playing ? I thought it was him and Umtiti at the back ? Maybe just using them as general examples rather than mention Ini and Neymar whose fault between them the first goal was. Anyway, tasty stuff from the big man who obviously doesn’t give a toss.

    Any word on the censure vote ? It seems to have dropped out of sight at the moment.
    I suppose it’s hard to rack up signatures when the team are playing well or is it something else ? I’ve also just been listening to Messrs Trump and Rajoy talking in the rose garden. There’s trouble coming with the independence vote no matter which side you’re on. Next thing you know you’ll have a violent group springing up. Sigh….

    Just watched Ramos handball one off the line. This could be good. A really open game. I’d advise having a look. Bugger, forget that. 1-0 Madrid. Hate to say it but great goal from Bale.

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