Questions, questions, so many questions when the answers are simple. What do we see?
At the end of a match when you have to ask, “Did Ter Stegen have a save today,” things are rarely as they seem. After an absurd first half of football in which keeper Kepa was like a paperhanger in a tornado and Barça could have scored a few more than the two goals tallied, everyone was giddy. For good reason.
Messi was being Messi — except when he wasn’t as he (shudder!) shimmied after his goal, allegedly for missing mate and mate conoisseur Luis Suarez. Dembele continued to show signs of his skyrocketing assimilation rate. His movement, pace, ball control and football IQ are growing by leaps and bounds from match to match. There were more than a few moments where he had multiple options, and chose the correct one. Seeing a 20-year-old who wasn’t raised in the bosom of La Masia playing with that kind of calm and control brings a smile.
Alba is, on form, the best LB in the world right now, at both ends of the pitch, from assists to defensive interventions. Rakitic and Paulinho did exactly what they were supposed to, as both had excellent matches, the former in a key spot as he subbed for a wounded Busquets.
Hot on the heels of the beautiful buildup to the first goal against Chelsea, comes this display. It’s easy to wonder about systems and implementation, but the Barça attack needs a proper winger. Is it coincidence that the attack gained fluidity and danger when Dembele entered the picture? Messi was so giddy after that Chelsea goal because he understands that a deft, flashy winger who is also a goal threat will liberate him. Look at his goal against Athletic as he moved into vacated space, taking advantage of a defense distracted both by Paulinho’s run and Dembele’s slash, having already been set up by a remarkable pass from Sergi Roberto.
That goal was easy for Messi, who only had to pick his spot as the pass from Dembele was precisely placed and weighted. Bang. It all seemed so easy. So what was up with that second half, everyone wondered, which brings us back to the original notion about supporters wondering whether Ter Stegen had to make a save.
There are a number of ways to look at the second half. One is a bigger, more talented boxer, way ahead on points, deciding to finish out the rest of the fight by letting the lesser boxer chase him, then just putting a glove on his head to hold him at bay when things get a little too close to a punch being landed. Or the “Three Little Pigs” story, as they sit in the house of brick, listening to the Big Bad Wolf blow away outside.
Athletic came out in the second half with fire and vigor, running, pressing, hustling like a team trying to overturn a two-goal disadvantage. What should Barça have done, knowing that every last scrap of energy would be essential from this point onward, with most of the players leaving for internationals, only to return to a match every three days? Tried to play like the first half when the team didn’t have to, or just let Athletic run around? The team quite wisely chose the latter. Yes, some defensive interventions were required. Yes, Athletic had some attacks that a better team would have done more with. But Athletic wasn’t that better team, and Barça knew it. So they conserved and saw out a win that seemed difficult only if you count possession, hustle and effort as statistics. Athletic played their hearts out in the second half. For nothing.
Pragmatism is a weird thing in a world of theory and idealism. Playing football the way Barça played in the first half is hard, not only in terms of technical skill. It also requires effort, the constant pass and move, give, move and receive, and run. So much running. With a two-goal lead, it’s easier to sit tight, rely on the foundation and play for the occasional counter, or stroke the ball around to run time and relieve a bit of the pressure being applied by an opponent. But that is hard to watch, because we’re used to seeing the team play full matches, work for every second, continue to strive to perfect the theory of football as an ideal.
We as supporters are closely attuned to that ideal because we have seen football at its mamximized Cruijffian aegis. So what the hell is this crap we had to suffer through yesterday.
Never has a Barça team more challenged our perceptions at the nexus of action and effect. One of the worst stats for me is completed dribbles, because what does it mean? That a dribble against an opponent was completed. To what effect? What if you complete the dribble, then take a stupid shot or clunk the pass to a teammate. Of what value is that dribble? The action of an opponent running with the ball, passing it around and even moving it into the Barça box, fills us with anxiety. I was sitting at home on the edge of my seat, anticipating Athletic scoring a goal because of how conditioned I am by the way Barça used to play. The announcing team of Phil Schoen and Ray Hudson were anticipating the same thing. Athletic was working so hard, running, pressing, challenging, fouling, making runs, trying passes.
Meanwhile, anything that got close enough to trouble Ter Stegen was either kicked away or intercepted and fed to a Barça player, as defenders performed passing drills with their keeper. It’s weird. Truly weird. In bicycle racing, there are moments during a race where a rider attacks and the rest of the pack knows nothing is going to come of it so they roll along. The escaping rider builds a lead, and people are wondering if that rider will win, but the group knows, understands what is reality.
In football, having the ball and making passes isn’t an attack. It’s just possession, which can often lead to an attack. An attack isn’t a goal scoring threat. A shot isn’t necessarily a shot on target. A shot on target isn’t necessarily a goal scoring chance. The perception of them comes in how we react, based on expectation and what our minds want to see, based on what we have been conditioned to see. If Valverde was a philosopher, he would probably be Kant as he sat there with supporters, watching a opponent with the ball and asking them, “Now forget what your mind is telling you is happening. What do you REALLY see?”