If you haven’t played “Whack-A-Mole,” you should. It’s a hilarious carnival game in which you stand over a board with an array of holes in it. You have a mallet. The objective is to hit the mole as it pops up out of one of the holes before you die laughing. You always lose.
Assessing this Barça team has become like a footballing variant as standards move. Rakitic isn’t creative, why is he playing? Well, he played well, and could work, but not without Arthur. Semedo isn’t good. Well he was good, but Sergi Roberto is smarter. Dembele needs time to develop. Valverde is too boring.
The hot takes flow from the world of social media, Madame Defarge knitting the names of potential victims into her creation as the tumbrels roll past, filled with players looking to escape the guillotine of public and press scorn.
And another Barça coach ages before our eyes.
Alaves came into the Camp Nou looking for what it came with: a point. Over the course of a season, a point stolen from a potentially slumbering colossus still drunk from World Cup excesses can be a boon as a weaker team seeks a comfortable spot mid-table. Barça looked to be ripe for the plucking as everybody came rolling in from World Cup and extended vacations, while other teams were working, training, plotting, getting ready.
Abelardo, an excellent coach, set his team up to defend, in banks of five. The “none shall pass” intent was clear. To oppose it, Valverde came out with Ter Stegen, Semedo, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Sergi Roberto, Messi, Dembele and Suarez, to battle the low blocks that have been the traditional bane of the Barça existence.
In the first half, the match should have been over, but for poor finishing and wayward passes. Messi delivered beauty, Dembele frolicked in the half spaces between defenders, making room with pace, dribbling and guile. Suarez rumbled around like a creative wrecking ball as Sergi Roberto and Semedo took turns overlapping on the right. Even drawn up to defend, it took everything Alaves had plus some errors to keep Barça off the scoreboard.
Messi off the crossbar on a free kick. Dembele misplayed a couple of passes, one that would have sent Messi in alone on the keeper, the other for Suarez in the box. Dembele shot right at the keeper once, tried to bend a shot into the far corner the other time, both in the box. Suarez had an incredible miss from almost the doorstep. Gone were the days where Malaga could set up like this and be confident of a 0-0 scoreline as they watched Barça pass the ball around. This team is dynamic, plays more quickly without Iniesta and moves better as a unit, almost as if linked by rods instead of the motions of a leather sphere.
The challenge as we assess this team is to understand what we are seeing and why, rather than what we want to see and aren’t seeing. The difference is important. Football is. There are objective and subjetive things. After the match, BeIN analyst Phil Schoen said that when Arthur subbed on, the team looked almost Barça like. There is an expectation from the team forged in a way of play that was magical, but that also required compliant opponents.
In the here and now, there doesn’t seem to be a single way of playing, a “Barça way.” Valverde, with his summer acquisitions, seems to have decided to build a team that can play any different number of ways. The first half was movement, seeking to exploit spaces and playing quickly. The second half, when Coutinho came on, was ball at feet and creating to move defenders, then capitalizing on those spaces. Messi moved around — wing, forward, midfielder — and wreaked havoc from wherever he was on the pitch, not caring whether he kills with a pass or a goal.
What we saw was a team and a coach that shifted gears at halftime, because it had the capabilities to do so. Last season in the fist match, the subs were Digne, Aleix Vidal and Denis. This year, the subs were Coutinho, Arturo Vidal and Arthur. Yikes. Last season, the bench was crickets, failures and Denis. This year it included Vidal, Rafinha, Malcom, Coutinho, all players capable of changing a match on their own. Today, they were tasked with capitalizing upon a slight lead, and helping to put Alaves to the sword.
Messi, with his “Champioons Leauge or bust” speech at the Gamper, has piled a ton of pressure onto his teammates. Messi, with his play, said, “I’m ready. What about you all?” His first goal of the season, after his first woodwork of the season, was sublime, a free kick that he earned, that he rolled under the wall. An Alaves player was seen shrugging, as if to say, “What are we supposed to do with that, coach?”
Everybody in the stadium expected him to go over the wall. The distance was perfect, and he had already dialed in that corner with a first-half effort that spanked off the underside and just bounced out. This would be the one. He strode up, and hit a daisycutter of a shot that slid though the space that was just created by a leaping Alaves defender. It fooled everyone as the keeper dove ineffectually and again, Messi combined genius and technique to score the 6,000th goal for FC Barcelona in the club’s storied history.
Because of the unique way that he strikes the ball, with almost zero backlift off a normal stride, he can do anything on the ball and it all looks the same. Chip, lob, blast, curler. It was a genius goal that relieved a ton of pressure for a team that knew the first goal it scored would be the only one that it needed. Alaves ended the match with zero shots on goal, and no saves from Ter Stegen. The closest he came was when an Alaves counter required him to dash off his line, capture the breakaway pass with a deft touch, control with the softest of lobs, then move the ball to a midfielder.
After the match, people who aren’t really invested in the team not being as good as it in fact is, sat in the BeIN studios and shook their heads at how good the team was today, and it wasn’t even in form, or firing on anything like all cylinders. If you looked at what was there, it was something remarkable — a team of superstars and captains, playing as a single unit, capable of playing differently dependent upon who was on the pitch at the time. Coutinho scored a goal that was inevitable, yet defenders could do nothing about it as he cut right, then curled into the far corner. Messi scored a late goal with the final kick of the game, a goal that was a lot like his goal against Nigeria in the World Cup: it was so fast and made to look to easy that you didn’t understand how difficult it was until you saw it in slow motion, and got our mind around it.
Messi had a match today that would have been a career day for a lot of players, from the passes, to the free kick, to the dribbles and creativity. He scored a brace, electrified every time he touched the ball, and looked ready to lay waste to everything in his path this season. For Messi, it was just another day at the office. He is so good that it doesn’t register just HOW good he is. Ray Hudson said, during the match, it seems that every time Messi has the ball at his feet, he is experimenting with football. It is impossible to assess him because there aren’t parameters. Goals were this objective thing, numbers that allowed people to say that this or that player was as good, and have debates about it. Completed dribbles was another stat trotted out, so that the likes of Adama Traore or Eden Hazard can be on the same graph as Messi. But the man is in a class of his own.
What is exciting about this season is that if the team comes together properly, the entire project will be in a class of its own. During the match, Dembele had a run begging. He got the ball, started sprinting while surveying the pitch. But unlike last season, this season he saw nothing was on, so he stopped the ball to wait. It was a joyous sign of growth for a player with an up side bigger than his massive fee, and a player who would be treated a lot differently had he come from La Masia, or cost what, say, Malcom cost. Instead, he’s a potential 140m flop instead of a remarkable young talent who will need time to give of his best.
Semedo is markedly improved this season. Valverde substituted him not becasue of anything the player did, but because he wanted to make a tactical variation, and that required Sergi Roberto taking his massive footballing brain to the right of the pitch, so that Coutinho could do his thing on the left. People saw what they wanted to see with a player who, like Dembele, isn’t fully accepted and might never be. So shortcomings were found in Semedo’s game, and the substitution was proof of those shortcomings. More Whack-A-Mole.
It is worth saying again that Barça faced a team set up in low blocks, two banks of five, a team that ran, scraped, sacrificed and played its hearts out, a team that last season would have gotten a result, and won 3-0. Perfect? No. Far from it. Effective? Ah, that dirty word for a team that has to be more than effective, that has to spark sonnets and football orgasms every time it plays, or … meh.
If you looked, this was orgasmic at times, the way Alaves was toyed with. On a different day, this would have been a 6 or 7-0 laugher, instead of a squeaky bum 3-0 win. As you read in this space early last season about something special being brewed by Valverde of a team that went on to do a domestic double, come within a goal of making Liga history and a goal of almost certainly going on to win Champions League, know that this team is better. A LOT better, with a much higher ceiling. Will it get there? No idea. But it is going to be lots of fun to watch, if we allow.