Getafe even sounds like a land of myth, a place where dreams go to die, crashing on jagged rocks before being consumed by trolls.
As Barcelona rolled into a snakepit of a match, the first one after days of indolence, danger beckoned — a banana peel that threatened to slip the team into the “Uh, oh!” abyss. Getafe even practiced behind closed doors, working on something extra special for those fancy-pants Catalans and their football. What was it? The Kraken at CB? A 1-0-9 formation as players locked hands in the box, chanting “Si se puede?”
When the match finally started, it turned out to be an intelligent combination of smart defending and a few extra kicks, disrupting attacks with tactical fouls and physical play, pretty much the usual tactic against a team of technical tacticians. There was even worry as Getafe found the ease of getting at the Barcelona defense, and danger averted when a goal was ruled out.
Though it all, Barça was playing like a team just back from vacation, stroking the ball around as they talked about what Caga Tio had left for their families under the tree as Getafe huffed and puffed. Barça was second to every 50/50 ball, and it was beginning to feel like one of those matches. Maybe Getafe did have the Kraken, as nothing was allowed to happen past a certain point until suddenly, everything was different.
A ball pranged into the air off the head of a Getafe defender. looking to be another effort that the alert Getafe defenders would clear. And then Messi decided to do something absurd. On the surface, it was just another Messi goal, a taste of the magical leavened with a healthy dose of the absurd. But when you couple the speed with which it all happened, the goal was elevated to the stupendous.
Messi saw exactly where the ball was going to land and took off with that odd, rolling gait of his. The keeper saw the danger and charged. As Messi arrived at the ball first he did a single-motion control and pass for himself, sliding it between the legs of the onrushing keeper who went in an instant from an assured athlete to a man doomed to watch his fate. Still on the dead run, Messi strode onto the ball and slipped it at an acute angle into the far corner.
The picture of dejection immediately after the goal was fascinating. Getafe’s keeper gesticulated, empty hands making entreaties to the skies as one of his defenders, who just missed everything, just stood for a second in the corner of the goal like a student wearing a dunce cap, schooled by an otherworldly footballing being.
Not long thereafter Messi (again) saw a pass that nobody playing the game could see, a pass that was a simple ball but one predicated on movement, not only of four Getafe defenders but of his erratic Uruguayan strike partner Luis Suarez, who missed. Of course, because that is the way of things for a player who makes the easy seem difficult and the impossible a piece of cake. But sadly for Getafe and its proud warriors, the pink-clad Catalans were awake.
Jordi Alba scurried onto a pass to feed Pique, who decided that the best place to hit his shot was the best place for the keeper to parry it, and parry it he did. Then Suarez pushed a shot just wide as all of that closed-doors work done by Getafe was for naught in the face of a team that was fully awake, playing faster than anyone could plan for, faster than anyone could deal with. The score was 0-1, but the sense was that it wouldn’t be for very long.
And then, off a set piece pass that Messi floated into the box, Vidal battled for a header that pranged into the Madrid sky, seemingly cleared by a Getafe defender. But where many players would see the chance to win the ball and reset the offense, Suarez saw the glint of genius. He strode forward, catching the ball with a perfect strike off the volley, a rocket that lit up the side of the goal. The keeper got fingers to it, but nothing was stopping that shot.
Just like that it was 0-2, and Getafe was finished.
There is a notion that has become legend, born of the days of passing perfection and 48 elegant wee balls that culminated in an eminently logical goal, that individual brilliance is somehow bad. Goals scored by individual brilliance fly in the face of the kind of systemic football that proper Barça supporters revere. “Pah. Individual goals.” The complexity with that way of thinking is that everything Barça did back then had its roots in individual brilliance. Hew to the illusion that any eleven players in the hands of Guardiola could have played at his team did all you like, but the individual brilliance of a once-in-a-lifetime crew is what made all of that work.
What is that system without Xavi playing into the future, without Iniesta conjuring magic, without Messi, without defenders who were the best in the game, backed by a keeper who played like a midfielder? Individual brilliance is a footballing constant. In this day and age of the cult of coaching, we have somehow fallen astray of the idea that the best players propel the best teams. A coach might have great ideas but at some point those ideas are as good as the players executing them. Paco Jemez had wonderful ideas, but never had the player quality to execute them. So he is a cult favorite, an unemployed swashbuckler spoken of with reverence by football cognoscenti.
You can’t run a race without horses. The Messi goal, the Suarez strike were no less born of individual excellence than a 24-pass move that, at its terminus, requires the kind of elegant wriggling that not just any player can do. Messi scores those goals, makes those moves because he’s an amazing player. Suarez scores those goals, does those things because he’s an amazing player. Same for Dembele, and on down the list. Logic is one thing. Execution is another. Don’t scoff at individual brilliance. It’s what makes a great team go, and we should be thankful for it, celebrate it at every turn.
The Messi goal reduced me to dolphin sounds, little squeals made in fevered anticipation of the replay to confirm that what you just saw was in fact what you just saw and holy crap. The Suarez goal made us curse at our screens in the wake of that thunderbolt, as we wondered why he will push a ball on the doorstep wide, then make like a conjurer to score some thing from the heavens. Individual brilliance is why we watch the game, those moments, those runs, those shots, those passes. Guardiola is doing an amazing job at Manchester City. Guardiola also has a whopper of a roster. When people say of such coaches, “Hmph, could they do it with Stoke,” it is the grumble of the grouser, who rails against a celebrity coach getting another action-packed roster and making magic. OF COURSE he couldn’t do it at Stoke, which isn’t the point.
With every great team, from Manchester City to Barça, the point is to enjoy the show, the moments when great players decide matches by doing extraordinary things. Sport elevates us because of this magic, and it’s glorious.
— You should be excited at how quickly Dembele is assimilating. He is playing with more calm, making more and more of the right decisions, using his two-footed grace and pace to raise hell with opponents. He’s tracking back, defending better and better with every outing as well. Yes, he loses balls. Every attacker does. Get over it.
— Getafe got its goal attacking Jordi Alba’s side. Roma figured that out last year as well. More opponents will. Watch for that developing story line as Valverde has another problem to solve.
— Arthur was delightful, even as you wished for more ambition. It will come over time, and the calm and control he brings are, for now, wonderful. But you aren’t wrong for wanting more.
— Rakitic. Whoa. If you don’t understand why he is essential for Valverde after watching Getafe, you never will. And that’s okay.