It is a safe bet that none of the people bandying about words such as “crisis” will realize how boring and excessive — not to mention misused — that word is.
Every season brings a “crisis” of some sort. This latest came when Barça dropped points in consecutive matches, which makes you wonder how many of these supporters would go through life as supporters of an ordinary team, where losses and dropped points are almost routine, as a mid-table position or vaunted European slot are the stuff of dreams.
Just last season, the tantalizing possibility of an undefeated season was disgusting because of how it was achieved. Paulinho. Ugh. But it didn’t take long for that to become the standard. Barça lost? In October? Dooooom.
Cue Champions League, the salve for any crisis, in this case a blissfully naive Tottenham Hotspur who, buoyed by home fans and playing on a Wembley that must have recently hosted either a tractor pull or marathon tennis tournament such was the state of the pitch, played precisely the kind of match sure to end any crisis.
The Champions League is such that people lose their minds when they enter that tournament. First PSV, then Spurs played a match of champions, a team that doesn’t cower on the rocks in a low block, playing off the counter but rather ventures forth like brave, foolish soldiers, coming home on rather than with their shields yet again. Two group stage matches, four goals scored by Barça in matches that could have ended in identical scorelines if not for a couple of defensive errors against Tottenham.
Huzzahs cascaded from the skies at the end of the crisis, and the return of joyful football. All it took was a naive opponent with a coach that thought they could play with the best team in world football. On the down side, Liga returns over the weekend, where teams aren’t proud, don’t mind reducing 90 minutes to a joyless slog through a defender-crammed final third. Attacks peek their heads out like paranoid meerkats, popping up when advantageous but otherwise, staying in their holes.
The British footballing world, a mostly myopic lot that must spend a lot of time running into walls and stuff, hailed Messi’s performance as genius, one for the ages, blablabla. It’s like they don’t watch him on a weekly basis as if they did, they would be more secure in their assessment, would understand that what helped to dismantle Spurs was a good Messi performance. Any culer has seen Messi better, even if we haven’t seen Messi work that hard in some time. And yes, that hard work muted some of his brilliance, a tradeoff that his coach probably gladly accepted as the Barça captain hurled down yet another gauntlet. He was everywhere, running, passing, sprinting, pressing, scoring. Like the roller coasters with the signs that read “You must be THIS big to enter this ride,” Messi said, “Here’s how good you have to be, here is how much I want this. Catch up.”
Valverde was called an ass for resting Messi against Athletic Bilbao, or at least trying to. But the Messi that we saw yesterday is the result. We won’t see that Messi all the time, probably not again until the next big match, when he and his coach work to decide what is best for him. If that is a rest against a Liga or Copa opponent, maybe this time, with his outing against Spurs in mind, panic and recrimination won’t be the … haha, never mind.
Against Tottenham, Messi’s teammates were as sharp and focused as he was, playing the kind of football that we all knew they could play, even without a willing opponent. Before the match, there was lots of talk about formations as potential cures, lots of talk about dropping this or that player. Valverde decided to drop Ousmane Dembele, a sound decisions given the intensity and physicality of the Tottenham press, and gave Arthur his second start.
After the match, there was lots of talk about formations doing the trick, and whether a crisis that doesn’t really exist was over. But when Messi works that hard, when Suarez runs that hard and Coutinho is that disciplined as part of a midfield that decided “Hey, maybe possession is useful,” when Alba and Semedo contribute to that overall worldview, the result is a delight. Ball and players move, there is always a place to put the ball, always a recipient for the next pass. It was aggressive and intelligent and people who aren’t football nerds and haven’t seen Arthur before were crowing about his midfield controller role. People who knew his game nodded in the knowledge that he could do to a Premiership side what he did to sides in Brazil, what he did to Girona in La Liga before.
Arthur worked so well because everyone else also did. If Alba is off somewhere making like a winger and Arthur has the ball, he’s stranded. If Busquets is needing to cover massive swaths of the midfield, again stranding Arthur with his suddenly useless bauble. Possession football works when ball and players have something to do. Arthur was a delight to watch in every way, spinning, dishing, controlling, working in tandem with Busquets. It brought back memories of days gone by, when the foolishness of mortal man conspired to make capering sprites the order of the day.
Make no mistake, this was a really fun win to watch, even as the issues that bedevil the team and the coach trying to solve them still exist. It’s still too easy to get at the Barça back line, the team is still an elite defensive fullback away from being unbeatable, there still isn’t a gala XI and hopefully will never be. Rather, there should be a best XI for a particular opponent. Dembele sat because given the ease of attacking the Barça back line, which teams are doing via a long pass over the midfield, imagine Dembele making like Caga Tio with the ball and unleashing Son and Kane. Pique and Lenglet were fabulous yesterday, but the fewer the opportunities, the better a CB can look. And Lenglet made one of his few errors on the second Tottenham goal when he didn’t close down on the man taking the shot.
Joys were abundant in this win that should have been a romp, but a favorite moment was on the second Messi goal. After having struck the same post not once but twice, he stroked a shot at that same low corner of the same goal yet again. But during that shot, he stared at the shot and seemingly at the post as he would a rowdy defender, daring it to do what it just did for a third time. That didn’t happen. So much fun.
Another fun, fun moment was the Rakitic goal, which only those without a sense of the glorious would call a shot. It was more like a smite. Rakitic hit that ball with every fiber of his being, clouting that thing so hard it cleaned the Wembley “grass” from his cleats. And after the hilarious gift of the first goal, in which Lloris seemed to decide to go on walkabout, the second Barça goal was a declaration, one coming at the terminus of delightful team play, a great chance spurned and Coutinho scrambling to keep the ball alive so that his teammate could try to knock the air out of it. Lloris offered a rueful shake of his head, similar to the one his coach offered after the French keeper’s mirthful gaffe on the first Barça goal. It seemed to say, “These men, this team, the way they play is too much.”
Where their keeper scrambled about, Ter Stegen casually reached back to deal with a deflected shot attempt, something that he made look far less difficult than it was. And when he calmly, smoothly, almost in a single motion chested a ball down and stroked a half-volley to Alba, you could almost condense the match as an exhibit to those keeper moments — Lloris running, scrambling, picking the ball out of the back of his net and looking bummed. Ter Stegen plucked the ball from the back of his net like it was a once-annual hangnail. Ew. Glad that’s over with.
It was all too much, this footballing display from a team. Crisis? Nope. It was fun to see (again) so many Prem-centric pundits discover Messi again. Tottenham coach Pochettino credited Messi for his team’s destruction because that was easy. Yes, Messi had a pair of goals and was omnipresent. But what made this performance so wonderful is that it was a team performance. Pique was sharp, Lenglet showed why the club grabbed him, as did Arthur. Busquets was amazing, like Messi showing the value of rest. Semedo played one of his better matches, more confident, less nervous and jumpy. Coutinho and Alba were disciplined, each playing with a sense of the whole rather than scrambling. Barça was a team attacking and defending with eleven. When people talked about the return of a joyous team, the return of the kind of football that made us giddy with the possibilities every time possession was retained, most notable was this: Barça was a team. It played like one, and won like one.