Real Madrid 0, Barça 1, aka “New traditions”

We do a lot of things because of tradition. It’s just what you do. Worrying about playing Real Madrid is one of those things. It’s the eternal rival, two matches in less than a week, everything is a Classic, blablabla.

How do we break with tradition? You could hear it in Barça supporters in the pre-match run up, about taking action to diminish Real Madrid’s chances to win the league with this encounter, etc, etc. It’s all tradition, because Barcelona is a significantly better team than Real Madrid. It was last season, and also the year before. This season, the gap grew even more because the club shipped so many of its goals to Italy.

But it’s hard to get over tradition, so people fret and worry. Toward the end of the Copa meeting, Ramos was exhorting his teammates not to let Barcelona score six. Let’s keep it to three. For the league encounter, Ramos threw an elbow at Messi, a defiant gesture in the face of a superior opponent in the hopes it would fire up his teammates. But there is only so much that you can do.

Tradition is the reaction triggered by certain players in the wake of a positive result. When Arthur played, people talked about how “playing Barcelona football” resulted in the calm of the match, the scarcity of quality chances, more control, etc.

If Barça is playing “Barcelona football,” people aren’t talking about a CB as a candidate for MOTM. The other team rarely gets far enough for the back line to be bothered. Pique and Lenglet were immense today, and it was needed. In the prototypical “Barcelona football,” this thing we think of as having been invented circa 2008. CBs are immense for standing at the center line and passing to attackers, not taking shots in the chest and clearing danger.

Our definition of “Barcelona football” will have to adapt, because this team isn’t capable of playing that football any longer. Yes, Arthur brings something different to the side, enhances midfield control, keeps things calm. But a controller is only part of it. The press has to be there, a trap that closes down an opponent, but Barça can’t press any longer, so Pique and Lenglet have to get to work.

Traditions are weird. Traditions are also real, and you wonder about when a streak becomes a tradition. Barça has of late acquired a habit of winning at the Bernabeu. That this is linked to then being a better team than Real Madrid is only logical, but again we need to dispense with the freting about an ancient rival and looking at the matches for what they are.

One Rakitic scored the opening goal, one that almost felt like a performance after Messi’s rehearsal of missing an almost similar goal, the idea that Real Madrid was going to equalize, going to storm back, was never present. What made that a reality? Some of it is subconscious. Supporters know when they have a better team, but they don’t want to trust that, particularly when it comes to such a bitter rival as Real Madrid. So you worry and fret when they get the ball. That, too, is tradition.

Sergi Roberto started at right back, days after Vinicius Jr. got the better of a faster, more physically capable Semedo in the same position. And everyone worried, with the presumption that the matches would be the same. Valverde solved the problem by adding Arthur, which relieved Rakitic of some midfield control and command duties, so that he could help Sergi Roberto with Vinicius, and also do the work in the passing lanes on that side of the pitch to starve the Brazilian talent of supply.

This meant that much more often than in midweek, Vinicius was facing Sergi Roberto from a standstill, rather than the dead run as when he faced Semedo. And the Masia graduate was so smart at analyzing angles, and using them to keep Vinicius in control. Smart footballers take a match plan and work within it, using their skills to shine. Sergi Roberto was brilliant, and Vinicius, the one real threat that Real Madrid had in midweek, was gone. But again, Valverde saw a problem, analyzed it and solved it. The setup also helped Rakitic be much better at being what people thought Sergi Roberto was going to be on that side of the pitch when he augmented Semedo.

There was a time when this team was leaking goals, couldn’t keep a clean sheet, and people were worried. The coaching staff went to work. Busquets has more protection, the defenders are paying more attention to angles and passing lines, being more proactive instead of reactive, a difference most clearly seen in Lenglet, who has been fantastic all season, but never better than in this match.

Only the churlish will refuse to give credit to Valverde, who has made the necessary tactical changes to solidify his team. We snarl about Dembele playing on the left, but look at what it does for the defense of Jordi Alba, who can stay home without having to worry about chasing after an opponent break, as he does when given free reign of the left side.

And when Alba isn’t in position, somebody has to be. So Lenglet slides over to compensate, which means Pique has to slide over to compensate, which means at some point, somebody isn’t covered, since a slooow midfield isn’t going to be marking anyone’s fast counterattack. So make Dembele a left winger, and Alba becomes a fullback again.

Tradition for us is to question a coach who does things that we don’t like. “Dembele is better on the right, what is stupid Valverde doing?” Well, he’s helping his team become more solid in defense and attack, by giving an opponent a left and right-side threat, in Dembele and Messi. It makes perfect sense, but it all depends on how you look at it. For some, it began with the observation, “Man, Alba is killing it on defense recently.” Then you look at where and how he plays, and it makes sense.

He subbed on Arturo Vidal for Arthur, and we snarled. Then Vidal did what he does, which is work like a dog and fight for every ball, every blade of grass. And even the possession that Madrid had became more fraught, those 50/50 balls becoming a war.

Real Madrid had possession, but didn’t create any real danger with it. The players they played who at one time were the darlings of envious culers — Isco, Asensio — were vaporware in the face of a superior team, rendered either invisible or ineffective. It is difficult to overstate how much better Barça is than Real Madrid right now, but realizing that they had another gear or two to grab had the capitol club equalized should tell us a lot.

Messi wasn’t at his brilliant best in either match, even as he was influential in both. Suarez has found his form, and it’s a delight to see. He played his way out, just as his coach knew that he would. And at the end of it all, at the end of two matches, one of which was billed as a “Battle for Spain,” by a hyperbolic broadcast host, Barça is in the Copa del Rey final, and with a 12-point league over its eternal rival.

The feeling is weird, watching what we are watching with this Barcelona team. It is coming together in a different way right before our eyes. Even the 0-0 against Lyon was deceptive, slack finishing robbing the team from essentially ending that tie before the home leg. And a month that everyone was worried about, becasue worrying is part of tradition — Lyon, Sevilla, Real Madrid twice, once with a final on the line — ended up three wins and a draw.

Not that any of this will stop us finding things to worry about. Because that, too, is tradition.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.