There was a moment when it was Guardiola and Messi, but not in the way anyone really wanted in the here and now.
Sergi Guardiola was faced up against Lionel Messi, who had the ball at his feet and it all felt like one of those nature documentaries where you know what’s going to happen, and they black out part of the screen when the kill begins. You can imagine what Guardiola was thinking, because it’s what every player almost certainly thinks when facing up against Messi. It’s probably what gazelles think as the lion closes in.
“This is my moment. I can DO this. He won’t get me.”
And then it happens.
When Michael Jordan was in his pomp, opponents spoke of getting “posterized,” of being the one caught in the photographer’s frame when Jordan did something amazing. In the here and now there was Guardiola, who probably wasn’t aware of all that history as he faced off with the greatest player in the history of the game. He just wanted to do his best.
Yet life has a cruel inevitability at certain moments. We have to DO something but sometimes whatever we do is wrong. Keep the feet tight, play Messi not to get nutmegged, and your balance is off for when he darts left or right. Play him to cut left or right, with a sound, balanced defensive stance, and you get ‘megged. Foul him, and you give the most lethal free kick taker in the game the opportunity to do what he does. Guardiola chose. And got ‘megged.
NBA players dunk in another player’s face, then preen or shimmy. Messi doesn’t seem to care about that stuff. It’s business. Lion’s gotta eat. And what Valladolid, who rolled into the match on quite a bright run of form, discovered is that you only get so much time when a machine is clunky. Barça began the season with an injured Messi, then Dembele and Suarez, and the team had to figure out a lot of things. It was vulnerable, and opponents took advantage. Now, time is running out. The gears are meshing, Messi is rounding into form, the team is getting this whole footballing business figured out and statistically, anyhow, life has returned to normal. Barça leads the league, sits atop its Champions League group and day after day, another stat comes out about Messi having more of something than anyone else.
Against Valladolid, Messi did everything without even seeming to try all that hard. He scored, twice. He assisted, twice. One of his goals was a free kick, because why not? It was just the day after someone posted the stat that Messi has more free kick goals than entire teams, more free kick goals than Ronaldo has managed to get over the wall. The only goal against Valladolid that Messi didn’t have a hand in was his team’s first, a deflected Clement Lenglet whack that had the Frenchman looking sheepish as he celebrated.
Messi lofted a flawless pass that Arturo Vidal ran onto and directed home. He laced a ball to Ansu Fati that deserved a better fate, then laid one up for Luis Suarez that struck home. Messi had a hand in four of the five goals his team scored, and it was a day pretty much like any other. This defines the problem for Barça opponents: Messi.
Ordinary Messi can kill you. Below average Messi can kill you. Above average Messi leaves you singing sonnets of praise. In the zone Messi doesn’t even need to be discussed. No matter what, if number 10 is there, you have a problem. It leaves Barça supporters in the weird position of celebrating his exploits, yet cursing that they are necessary, that the team isn’t this flawless machine that glides to goals and championships.
The thing of it is that Barça isn’t perfect. Far from it. The team’s deficiencies, even though it is again the favorite for Champions League glory, make you woncer about its eventual fate in the crap shoot that is European football’s knockout competition. But this team is illogical, and always will be. If you watched the Valladolid match closely, broke down the parts and analyzed tactics and all that stuff, the outcome didn’t make sense. The scoreline was out of whack.
But there is Messi. Valverde started Fati, who wasn’t the sparkler he has been in previous outings. Defenders watch the videos and learn. But you keep playing him because that’s how a youmg phenom becomes an executioner. It is still entirely too easy to get at the Barça defense, a weakness in team speed and manner of play that can be exploited by a better opponent.
But there’s still Messi. People mutter and complain about how Messi had to win another match for his team, instead of revelimg in, and understanding that individual brilliance is part of why we watch the game. Great players are supposed to make a difference. If not, what’s the poimt of having them? We talk about systems, about the midfield not having this or that, and this is why Barça doesn’t look like the team everyone wants it to look like. Folks grouse about a kick-ass defensive fullback offering nothing in attack, as if the problem can be attributed to a single unfavored entity.
What made the Guardiola teams so magnificent is that all eleven players helped with every phase of the game. Forwards tracked back and defended like fullbacks. Keepers passed like mids. Center backs pressed and passed like midfielders. Fullbacks played like wingers. Every second that the oponent had the ball was seen as a personal affront to eleven men in blaugrana, and they set about making things right with an energy that bordered on mania.
Today, center backs stay home because full backs can’t be fully trusted, because a press that used to be ravenous is now nonexistent. Full backs can’t be trusted because mids are too slow to have their backs. Mids being too slow is an issue because attackers are standing and watching instead of sprinting to press. And the machine is clunky.
As Pep Guardiola said in a recent interview, if Messi ran like he did back in the day, he would be injured all the time. That is the reality for Barça now. It’s a team that is phases of the game instead of a single, ravenous organism. That makes it vulnerable. That there aren’t that many teams with the quality to take full advantage is a boon. We will sit in dread of that day because as culers, there is a weird joy in imagining the worst.
But the wreckage of Valladolid should serve to remind us of something wonderful, which is that we have something wonderful. It ain’t perfect, and most days it doesn’t have to be. What it does have to be is effective. Sergi Guardiola discovered what the world already knows, even when it seems like just another day at the office: when there is Messi, there is magic. Magic makes up for a lot, even when you don’t understand how it all woarks.