In the wake of a stroll through yet another neighborhood execution, a match that deludes by its scoreline, people in the roiling cauldron of Barça Twitter popped in afterward, noting that with all of the ranting going on, they would have thought the team lost.
That is the misery of execution, a world in which there is no allowance made for humanity, no acceptance for simple execution, no appreciation of any shard of joy. It’s the joyless slog through a season for a group of athletes who have become an icon of perpetual dissatisfaction for a cadre of supporters who look at a football club through the rose-colored spectacles of a former beloved. Time and distance make everything lovelier.
And people are not entertained.
The complexities abound, as the team has the greatest individual dribbler and goal scorer in the game, yet Madame Defarge, sitting as the tumbrels roll past soon to be filled with the head of another coach, detests individual brilliance. Except when it comes to Messi. Everything is expected to be logical progression of the ball up the pitch, with 44 passes ending in a flawless goal that is walked into the net.
Except when Messi goes on an amazing slalom run, an assassin looking for destruction. Then and only then is individual brilliance lauded, appreciated for the glorious thing that it is, rather than a crutch for a weak, flawed football team that yet again, committed the cardinal sin of winning in an imperfect way.
The two goals scored were delightful, one coming off a destruction of a hard-working Girona defense, curls and elegance parried before the ball fell to Nelson Semedo, Mr. Doesn’t Get Forward Enough, who now has a goal to add to his assist this season. It was a brilliant strike, smoked into the lower corner, and the keeper didn’t have a chance.
The other goal came from a exquisite, telepathic pass dictated by Jordi Alba’s run, hewing to the ideal of the run dictating the pass. Messi , with that rolling gait of his, appeaned in space like an avenging angel and Alba dutifully slotted to him, and Messi slotted home.
In between those goals, Messi laid an exquisite path into the path of a darting Coutinho, who fluffed his lines. Then he fed Suarez, who fluffed his lines. Twice. Then Coutinho decided the best thing to do as yet another perfect ball found him in space, is to think. Then think some more, until a trailing defender plucked the ball away. With anything like good finishing, this match is a romp, but would still have been a flawed, imperfect thing.
Messi played passes that mortal players can’t even see, which is remarkable, and an expression of the glory of individual brilliance and how it helps team execution, as with the great Guardiola teams.
There were flaws, such as the repeated stranding of Nelson Semedo on the right flank, ball after ball coming to him with nobody boming to help. Coutinho was still a mess, lacking confidence, tentative and uncertain. Suarez played well until it came time to do what he does, which is score goals. Then he was wearing cinderblocks for boots.
Barça was open and dynamic, as the team has been all seaason, with few making the correlation that maybe, just maybe, that style of play might have something to do with Messi enjoying a logic-defying season as a player who thrives in chaos. If you consider that second goal as an idealized goal for this team, it isn’t 44 passes. It’s three. Is there shame in that? Yes, if you latch your footballing notions to a bygone era, when the game was different and opponents had a different worldview.
In consideration of the Barcelona XI, you had: Messi, who is Messi. Luis Suarez, who needs service, who runs and rumbles around, creating danger and chaos. Then there is Coutinho, a psychological mess but who is also about as well-equipped to play the regimented style so many crave as he is to be an astronaut.
In midfield you had Busquets, diminished but still brilliant, Arturo Vidal, another player about as equipped to play a controlled posssession game as to split an atom, and an out-of-position Rakitic.
In the desire for a certain way of playing, it’s necessary to ignore a lot, most notably personnel. Rakitic and Semedo were Luis Enrique transfers, a man craving a vertical style. Arturo Vidal is a Valverde transfer, that midfield worker who understands that certain key players in the positional football glory are diminished. Messi used to be a tiger that was part of the press. What is he now? Busquets is still telepathic, but less able to act upon his premonitions.
Ah. “If they played in the right way, they could play with the right personnel.” If you consider the passing flawlessness (which really wasn’t) without considering the press, enabled by hungry players in their prime, you’re missing half the picture. That press didn’t allow the ball to get into the Barcelona end. The other part of that picture missing is the long outlet passes that would feed Thierry Henry and Eto’o, things we forget out of convenience and adherence to notions, like the way that ex-boyfriend’s socks smelled as he trolled around the house, or the way that girlfriend would put dishes in the sink with food still on them.
“Those were beautiful times,” as we recall strolls in the park, shared laughs, great dates and those silly moments that couples share.
Yes, this Barcelona team needs structure and control, and it got that when Arthur was inserted into the lineup. But even then, after that inclusion, the same reality exists. This Barcelona team doesn’t want to waste time, and why should it? Messi, running in the open field, created by a sleek pass out of the back, gobbled up space until he noticed a running Coutinho, and fed him. Coutinho missed, but it was an amazing chance created. And there isn’t anything wrong with that.
Girona wasn’t in this match. They created shots, called Ter Stegen into action. But their two best chances, one saved by Ter Stegen, the other by an alert Pique, who figured on the rebound and set up shop on the line to parry the ball away. “Yeah, but those goals would be scored by a better team.” Count those, but don’t count the bollixed finishes by Coutinho and Suarez and again, you’re missing stuff.
Here’s something else that we’re missing: Any eleven players playing the “right way” wouldn’t have done what those great Guardiola teams did. Those were some of the greatest players in history, in their prime. Xavi? No replacement. What nutjob figured Coutinho could replace Iniesta? There is no replacement for Iniesta. Messi, Busquets, Suarez all in their footballing old age, so what now?
Football is what is. Scoreline, tactics, manner of play. Those adapt based on opponents, based on capability of the players on a team. This is a jumble of players, but it astounds how anyone could look at this lineup, this roster and expect controlled, possession football. Players are carrying the ball instead of the ball doing the work. That is what is.
The match against Girona was as relaxing as could be. Boring? Far from it, unless you label “boring” something that doesn’t hew to your view of what football played by Barcelona is supposed to be. If that is the case, this Barcelona team is going to be boring for perpetuity, week after week a flawed, miserable exploration of footballing ugliness.
But today’s match was fun, in the context of what was — players and their capabilities — and the result was a fair one. The team continues its five-point lead atop the Liga table, and moved another step closer to continuing La Liga as the Barcelona Invitational Tournament. But those are results, and results only matter to trophies, scorelines, records, player legends and coach jobs.