There was a time when people who watch the game, and this team would have suggested that Tata Martino’s coaching job will go down in Barça history as the most underrated. But Ernesto Valverde is in with a shout. Consider what happened yesterday:
— Barça is walking a group that many thought spelled doom when it was drawn
— Dembele’s coach deemed him ready to start, and what a display
— Malcom’s coach deemed him ready for match time, and he almost scored the winner
— The team played the kind of football so many believe it can’t play and won’t play because it is coached by a donkey
You can say what you want about Valverde, but he got it right against Inter. Again. And had his team not been so wasteful in front of goal, the group would already be won.
When Messi went down with that arm injury, one that still angers me because it was so unnecessary, a byproduct of the kinds of thoughtless, chippy fouls that are part of football, people looked at the schedule and thought all was lost. Had they not been a mess in front of goal against Inter the team would have run the table in the absence of the greatest player in football. Messi was in the stands last night, as his coach correctly determined this would be the kind of physical, dyspeptic match that might test his icon’s arm in all the wrong ways. And he watched his team sparkle, controlling the match and coming away with a result that only Interistas will think was fair.
Their goal came out of nothing. The ball was bundled into the box, Busquets tried to clear it, stabbing at it with a lunge, and the deflection allowed it to fall to Icardi, the invisible man, who buried it. This rotten luck made even worse because of what, for me, is the best moment of the season so far.
Malcom making the bench should have indicated that Dembele was likely to start, in thinking about the like-for-like substitution potential, which is exactly what happened. Malcom came in and picked up where Dembele left off, keeping Inter pressed back with the threat provided by his pace and ball skills. Then he got the ball in the box, faked, dribbled, faked, left a pair of Inter players sprawling, and smoked it home. It was a fantastic goal. Even more fantastic was the way the entire team swarmed Malcom, who ran off by himself not to celebrate, but to have a good, quick cry before being enveloped by his teammates, who celebrated with him as though they had all scored.
There was something of a firestorm around Malcom, who was transfer-napped from Roma for 40m, and whose fate has suffered more turns than the life of the rake in a telenovela. He came, was deemed as silly because Dembele, and he is going to take playing time from Dembele and does that mean the club will sell Dembele, and who is this guy, anyhow? Then came the, “Hey, he’s pretty good, why isn’t he playing more,” to “Valverde just hates Malcom. What a ridiculous coach.”
Meanwhile, Malcom was working. Hard. A rumor came out that he was going to leave the club in January, and the player himself debunked it, going on Instagram to reiterate his desire to stay at Barça and work toward his dreams. In the Copa match, a messy, disjointed affair, he had moments, but did too much of the headless chicken thing. But you could see signs, enough signs that he made the bench against Inter. And then, because Dembele was working, Valverde figured that Malcom would work, and in he went. And he did work. And wow.
The kind of incremental progress that a coaching staff sees, we don’t see. After the match, Busquets talked about Malcom, and about how he deserved more playing time. And people filled in the blanks, making it retroactive instead of on current form because there is a peculiar kind of myopia attendant to being a supporter. We see what we want to see, rather than what is. As Coutinho whacked ball after ball off the shins of Inter players, his zeal for the shot was exceeded only by the unlikelihood of any of those shots getting past a defender’s shin pad. Many said that he had a great match. Others said he was crap. The difference, as always, was somewhere in the middle.
Barça with Messi is relentless. Barça without Messi has also been relentless, but in a different way, a more effortful way. With Messi, you give him the ball and the pressure builds. Just having him on the pitch builds pressure because at any moment, he can ruin an opponent’s day.
Without Messi, the press is relentless. In the Guardiola days, there was talk of a clock being put on opponent possession. Nobody talks about that now, but there is a determination to close down and convert possession that isn’t seen when Messi is in the lineup. It’s almost like having the cheat code makes things more relaxed. “Just wait ’til we get the ball back,” rather than “They have the ball. Let’s take it back.” The difference is noteworthy, because the press, and the active participation of Luis Suarez in that press, is a significant reason for the team’s gaudy record in the absence of its talisman.
For much if the match, Inter wasn’t allowed to play. Ter Stegen had to make no saves, and the goal they got was against the run of play, created from a late-match scramble. Control of the match, even when Arthur exited for Vidal, was impressive, even as that loss of control was the genesis of the Inter goal. That’s life in the big city. But Valverde adapted the way the team plays in the absence of Messi to grand effect, whether we like or admit that or not.
Suarez is due for very special mention. He has always come off as a classic player, a battler from another era who should be wearing black boots and a retro kit. His assuming the role of classic 9, with all that role entails, has been transformative for him and the team. But part of the space he is stomping the terra on is Messi’s World. How everything changes when the Argentine genius returns to the lineup will be interesting to note, as well as the fallout. One player will return to life before the injury, but who?
Dembele started, and was the best Dembele we have seen this season. He sprinted, tracked back, was fully involved, made space in attack, helped control possession and almost beat the keeper. It was remarkable, even if the talk of the match in the wake of his appearance was that he still lost balls, showed a marked decrease in stamina and “Well, he was better, but still not good enough.” Again, because it’s impossible to dislodge a narrative once it takes hold. So many supporters will only see the worst of Dembele, no matter how he performs. MD had an appreciation piece that, while noting that he lost 10 of 18 balls against Rayo, was nonetheless decisive as he scored a goal and delivered a key pass. As with everything about this club, the truth about Dembele is somewhere in the middle.
But if Dembele had cost what, say, Malcom cost, there wouldn’t be the same dissatisfaction with his performances (unless he cost what Malcom cost, but was 29 years old and from China). The Frenchman’s price tag is a burden, one that supporters are hanging around his neck. But this is a burdensome club. Valverde is carrying the burden of Roma. Sergi Roberto is carrying a light burden that absolves his defensive frailties, which have been taken advantage of by consecutive opponents. Raktic is presently, now that he is playing like a midfielder liberated, carrying the burden of silence, as people choose not to say anything rather than commenting on the high quality of his play. The team is carrying the burden of Messi, and people who assert it would be a mid-table Liga side were it not for the presence of the greatest player to play the game. Burdens everywhere, and for the team, a unit, none of it matters. The cohesion and sense of the whole is pure and wonderful, and there has been no clearer manifestation of that unity in recent memory than how everyone, from subs to starters, reacted to Malcom’s goal.
We sit in judgment, with opinions on players. To the team, the players scoffed at and spurned by supporters are teammates. Douglas was a teammate. So was Paulinho, so too, Malcom. It’s all in. So when someone who has been working and getting better notches a huge Champions league goal, there is unbridled joy from the team. The match was excellent, the play lustrous. But there was no more beautiful thing than the team, showing its togetherness as part of a celebration for a goal by a player who needed something good to happen for him. The Barça Way doesn’t just involve the football.