BeIN Sports announcer Ray Hudson can infuriate many. Of late, he has been talking, match after match, about the football that Barcelona has been — or more correctly — not been playing. In the second half he was making the point about what he had been discussing, exemplified in the play of Barcelona, playing Barcelona football.
In a piece for The Athletic on Carles Aleñá, I wrote that what makes his game wonderful is that he does the right thing, reliably, possession after possession. But that isn’t just Aleñá. That is also Barcelona football.
The first half of the Sevilla match was crap. Legitimate crap. People took after their favorite scapegoats, from Rakitic to Umtiti to Valverde. But the team wasn’t playing Barcelona football. Every action was wrong, because it was risky, lazy and taken without a sense of what the team needs.
Messi made a poor decision with a pass that led directly to a Sevilla break that caught the entire defense out. Yes, Umtiti was back from a long-term injury, but it takes quite an aze-grinding to lay it at his feet. The slow midfield was outstripped, fullbacks were nowhere to be seen. It was a brilliant counterattacking goal from Sevilla that deserves full applause. It also took advantage of every weakness that Barcelona has.
Pep Guardiola said of his teams, “We are crap without the ball.” This is still true. The second goal came from a poor Ter Stegen long pass aimed at Coutinho, that should never have been made. Coutinho determined that he wasn’t going to be able to get to the pass, said “Screw it,” and stopped. No sprinting after it, no extra effort. Sevilla took the pass, again took advantage of a cattywompus Barcelona defense, and scored.
What made that second goal so appalling was that it came after a sequence of uncharacteristic actions. First Pique hoofed a ball out when he should have controlled it, then played out from the back. Then Ter Stegen tried a risky pass for Coutinho, when he should have played it out from the back, calmly and without risk.
People think of Barcelona football as this beautiful thing, a scalpel-like evisceration of an opponent via a zillion passes. But that is an effect of the root cause, which is right action at the right time. In that first half, pass after pass, time after time, balls were forced into places they didn’t belong, risks were taken, the team wasn’t playing as a collective. It was a group of individuals, deciding that once their job was finished, it was somebody else’s job. That team deservedly went into the half down 2-1.
But Barcelona is better than that, and there was a glimpse of that in the first half via the Messi goal, a striking volley that came from the right action, an on-the-dime pass from Rakitic. Right effort, right control, right placement, at the right time. It was, as it turns out, a harbinger.
There will be much made of Messi bailing out his team single-handedly. That didn’t happen. Barcelona got to where it is this season by playing Barcelona football, by making correct decisions that placed the team in a position for its greatest player to be decisive. In the first half and in recent matches, the team had gotten away from that. Everybody was slumping, everybody was pressing and few were doing the the right things at the right times. They were putting out for themselves more than for the shirt.
In the second half, whether it was Valverde giving the team a verbal bashing, or the players themselves seeing what anyone with eyes could see, things were different. Radically different. You could see it at the first possession, when Barcelona got the ball in their end, and played it out. Risky passes, sure, but not for a Barcelona team that thrives on that kind of football. And they attacked. Ter Stegen laid off a sensible pass on the ground. Nothing risky for a midfielder for a glory-craving keeper, but rather the right ball, to move his team up the pitch.
Messi was less risky with the ball, spaces were shorter, lines tighter. Right actions were taken repeatedly, including by Ernesto Valverde, who brought on substitutions that again changed the match. Whatever the reasons for Sergi Roberto on for Semedo, it worked. It was Masia smarts and right actions, time and again. But it also worked because the team was playing properly, so nobody was at risk. It was an effect of an overall alteration. Barcelona football.
Another ballsy move from Valverde was to bring on Dembele for Vidal. Many scoffed, saying it was risky, saying that Vidal was having a good match. Then Dembele started doing Dembele things, and that was that. The talk stopped. Dembele made Sevilla have to defend differently, have to worry about a player running past them time and again to create danger, as he did. That counter can’t be as pell-mell, because the back door is now open. He fought through challenges, outsprinted defenders and wreaked havoc, even as he also missed what on any other day would have been a sure goal for him.
The one player who doesn’t understand barcelona football is Coutinho. He was poor. Not as poor, but poor. He doesn’t understand what to do with teh ball in the Barcelona context. He’s a high-risk player in a belt-and-suspenders world. And when Valverde brought on Aleñá for Coutinho, things really clicked into place.
Messi equalized from a sequence of right actions, Rakitic with the right ball to Dembele, who played the exact right ball to Messi, who drifted into space. Nobody dribbled, or thought about shooting, or thought about taking anything except a proper action. They set it up for Messi, who was decisive. With his right foot, a weak-foot golazo.
Sevilla looked significantly less dangerous in the second half, and many wondered why. Barcelona has possession in the first half, just as in the second, but the possession was different. The first uncharacteristic action came almost 20 minutes into the second half, when Alba tried a header instead of playing the ball to feet and starting the attack. The subsequent Sevilla assault underscored the irresponsibility of Alba’s action.
Then it was back to business as usual. Intelligent possession, and right actions. The winning goal that marked a hat trick for Messi, again came from a right action. Aleñá received a pass at the outer edge of the Sevilla box, moved and spanked a shot off the run, that deflected to Messi, who made no mistake. Suddenly it was 2-3 and Sevilla looked to not have a way back, because the match had changed. Barcelona was playing football, and it was beautiful.
The fourth goal was another example, simply enough Aleñá to Messi to Suarez, who chipped home for a goal that will hopefully shake him out of the slump he was in. But every pass was right, considerate. In the first half, passes were bailouts, stuffed at teammates who were in dangerous positions. In the second, passes were logical examples of football that valued possession, passing and movement. There were more open men because everything was being played as it should have been.
This match is even more remarkable because Sevilla played an exemplary first half, and Barça was crap. It was one half of football played the right way, that put Sevilla to the sword, and it was a delight to watch.
Too often, this team has played individual football. Runs, dribbles, risky passes into space. But the team is at its best playing as a team, playing smart, connected football. Possession is everybody’s job, keeping in attack, regaining it in defense, putting out for the shirt. Team football.
To call this win satisfying would be an understatement. It was the action of a championship football club who remembered how to play and played that way. It seems simple, like doing the right thing with the ball every time you get it. But as recent matches have shown, the logical thing doesn’t always happen in the way that it should. But when it does, it’s beautiful.