Mutants mess everything up.
The great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote a “Foundation” trilogy, a history of mankind as devised by mathematical formulas that predicted the future by applying logic to people and their behavior as a mass. There would be periodic readings from a time capsule by the late creator of this formula, Hari Seldon, who would discuss what had happened, and what would happen next. He was always right.
In the third book of the trilogy a mutant, The Mule, was created, a force of evil that threw off all the math as the one variable that couldn’t be accounted for by science and logic. Pity Abelardo and his Alaves, who had the right game plan, the right piece of luck and the right moment. Everything worked right for them, right down to John Guidetti’s shanking his shot instead of hitting it cleanly, to fool a ready Ter Stegen.
They even had a second shot at the perfect breakaway, after the first two-on-one was foiled by the brilliance of Ter Stegen, and Semedo making a smart play by playing one attacker off the other, forcing the pass to be wider than the Alaves attackers would have liked. But they got it right the second time and it was 0-1 and they looked comfortable.
Everything was perfect, running according to plan. Barça was playing pretty football, all curlicues and deft passing that ran right into the Alaves wall, two banks of four and a couple of attackers playing for the break, always with men deep. No matter the pass or play, there was a defender or three in the way, time after time.
And then came the mutant. Iniesta shifted, shambled, shook, paused, ran, shook and just when it seemed that Alaves was going to successfully force him past the end line, another “almost” play, he hooked a pass that Suarez hit on the volley. It was, suddenly, 1-1. Almost 80 minutes of excellence from Alaves, almost a whole match of playing their hearts out to defend their quite well-taken goal and in a few seconds — that was that.
Their defenders lay face down on the Camp Nou pitch as bedlam erupted, their attackers’ shoulders slumped as something approaching reality began to set in. You can do everything right, and then a mutant comes along.
Not once, but twice.
Late in the match, not long after Iniesta’s mutant moment, the referee had his pick of fouls. Many are focused on Alcacer, who came back from an offside position to be scythed down by Wakaso, but another Barça player was also hammered to the turf. Free kick in a very, very, dangerous position.
On BeIN Sports, Ray Hudson, not long after the Suarez goal, talked about the match having more drama to come, about Messi having the stage set for his heroics. He stepped up to the free kick, and laced a shot at the Alaves net. It wasn’t one of his best efforts, though it was hit with pace and curl. The Alaves keeper will watch the video time and again, and wish for a pair of stronger hands as Messi’s shot hit his hand and went right through it as if the appendage in question was ephemeral.
It was 2-1, and another mutant had struck. Everything else, Abelardo accounted for. Even when Valverde made his match-altering subs of Sergi Roberto, Jordi Alba and Alcacer, the Alaves match plan worked. Alba made one of his trademark runs up the wing and slid the ball to Messi, who was bracketed by a trio of defenders. They blocked passing lanes, fouled, did everything right. But the tyranny of football is such that great players, even when they aren’t having the best of matches — and neither Iniesta nor Messi were — can get it together and make magic. Mutants do what they do, and you can’t account for it. And it was three points, when if football was truly a fair game, Alaves would have at least shared the spoils.
There will be much talk of a pair of calls, the Alcacer offside and, later in the match, the Umtiti hand ball. But first, a bit of history. In 2013, after years of handball penalty calls that verged on capricious as Liga referees reacted — ball, hand, penalty — deeming any contact a transgression, common sense kicked in. The handball rule has two components: the defender must have his hand in an unnatural position, and must deliberately make an effort to contact the ball.
The rule was always thus, but the interpretation of the rule is what matters here. When the Alaves attacker whipped his volley at goal, Umtiti was scrambling, sprinting to get into position. Because everyone alive sprints with their arms, because balance is also important, there his arms were as the defender blasted the ball at net from about two feet away from Umtiti. The referee correctly judged that neither of the conditions present for a handball penalty were present. Ball to hand. Umtiti’s arm position was natural, and he was just there as the attacker whacked the ball into him.
Curiously, after the match, a former head of Liga officials agreed with the call as did — of all entities — Marca, the traditionally Real Madrid centric publication. Both were correct, which didn’t stop the self-flagellation of people, culers, saying that Alaves got robbed, that the Alcacer foul shouldn’t have been called because he was offside — even though the ref picked one of two fouls that occurred in close order, and that Umtiti’s handball should have been a penalty.
Even if you believe that, it is also worth considering the swings and roundabouts of human error, two goals this season that should have been that weren’t (this was the same ref who didn’t see the Valencia goal), penalties that might have been called, such as when Suarez was fouled in the box by an Alaves defender. In the clamor for VAR and goal line technology, technical intervention used to help humans be less human, errors often balance out over the course of time. Alaves defender Wakaso committed at least three yellow card fouls, but was still on the pitch is another example.
The ref let the players decide the match, intervening at moments that were blatant or excessive. Alaves tactical fouled away, pushing, shoving and impeding as they planned, taking a physical approach to destabilize the footballing circus. And it worked, until the one thing that couldn’t be predicted, happened. Twice. Game. Set. Match.
Valverde started the new big-money signing in Coutinho, who again looked to the manner born. His interplay with Messi is already that of a peer, and he evinces exceptional vision and ability to get the ball to places that ordinary players don’t consider.
After the match, there was much discussion of whether he should have been played on the right. Many pointed to the final score as proof that his role on the right was in error, that Valverde screwed up. But neither goal had anything to do with anything that might or might not have happened on the right. Coutinho on the right brought a remarkable thing to that side of the pitch: creativity and chaos. Valverde knew what he was doing, and if his team hadn’t been as interested in walking the ball into the net, more might have come of the Coutinho chaos.
Coutinho is real. Many can and will argue about his price, but his quality is even better than we saw with Liverpool because of the system and associated players. Playing one-twos with Messi instead of Mane tends to elevate a player. There was also talk of Coutinho needing to “adapt.” We should hope that the team comes some of the way toward him, as it did with Neymar. The idea isn’t to take a round peg and hammer it into a square hole, but rather to work to find a round hole for that peg.
Coutinho brings something extraordinary to the right side of the pitch, a capriciousness and creativity not seen since Dani Alves was running around, frolicing with Messi. The hope is that we see more of it, not less.
Even more interesting is that as people credit the Valverde changes on the wing for the Barça comeback, Alcacer had more to do with the result than either fullback. His hard run and drawing defenders in the 9 role created striking space for Suarez, and his movement forced reaction from the Alaves defenders, leading to the Messi free kick.
Meanwhile, on a day when the only Barça players who, if you were doing match ratings, would have gotten more than a five were Coutinho, Ter Stegen and Rakitic, the team won. It had a collective off day such as groups who are in sync will have, and still found a way to win. In Madrid, a pair of teams were licking their chops after having already seen off opponents, watching as Alaves’ brave, hard-working plans were coming to fruition.
It was looking like lost points, and if not “hay Liga,” a little collar snugness where previously there was calm.
Then came those damn mutants.