Most football matches turn on moments, and the Camp Nou visit by a recovering Celta, complete with new coach and nibbling at the relegation zone, was no exception.
Messi was dispossessed just outside the Celta box, and as the attacker streaked up the pitch he was chased by Messi, keen to make up for his error in control and yes, judgment. Messi caught up, and won the ball, only to be called for a foul, also receiving a yellow card for his trouble. The free kick was stroked home, and it was 1-1, after Messi converted a penalty earned by Junior Firpo.
If this was a movie, it’s at this point that the Hero’s Theme would swell in the background, all brass, strings and major keys, percussion rumbling as a close up shows the hardening gaze of the protagonist.
Arthur won a free kick with a powerful, dynamic run, and it’s at this point that if you’re writing the script, you discard what happened next. Because it would beggar description that on the very next sequence, the craggy-jawed hero would step up to the ball and smite it home, making up for his mistake and putting his team back in the lead that he had already gifted it.
But that’s what happened.
Messi stroked a free kick so good, his fists were pumping pretty much right after it left his left foot. He knew, the stadium knew, the script writers knew, but didn’t have the courage to write something so unspeakably cheesy and predictable into the plot. Their loss.
Then came the next scene in the writers room, when the hero had another moment, another free kick. The writers didn’t know what to do, because real life, which cinema often aspires to, doesn’t really work in the way that movie magic does. In the movie it would be late in the match, and having missed a series of previous free kicks, with the match on the line, the hero would come through. The violins would swell into a triumphal march as teammates carried him off the field, and roll credits.
Assassins aren’t that interested in real life. Messi strode up to the free kick, and hit pretty much the exact same one, into almost the exact same spot. It was a combination of execution and audacity, leavened with absurd amounts of skill. The scoreline was an undeserved 3-1, and Messi had a set piece hat trick of a penalty and two free kicks. Five of his last seven free kicks have resulted in goals.
For anyone wondering how Messi might feel about the club to which he devoted his career, he wasn’t going to let them lose, so he carried them in the only way that he could. Barça was up 3-1, but the streak of minutes since the team had last scored from open play was approaching 300, and it was clear why when you watched. Spaces were still too wide between players, and nobody seemed to know what to do, so everybody held the ball a beat too long, killing runs before they started and leaving attacks at the station. Attacking play was freelancing, players running at the defense with the ball in an effort to make something happen, rather than using the ball and movement to make something happen.
Even the rare times that quick, one-touch ball movement made magic happen were treated as aberrations. And this was a Celta team just coming off a loss, with key injuries and a new manager, looking for a way out of the hole. If there was ever a match that Barça should have been able to (borrowing from Ray Hudson) fluff its footballing feathers, it was this one. But the gaudy scoreline came at the feet of a once in a lifetime player, not from quality football. Even the goal that ended the scoreless from open play streak was a clunker. Dembele took the Celta defense on a dance, and laid in a cross that nobody seemed interested in. It bounced around before falling to Busqets, who took his sweet time measuring the shot, before passing it home.
Yet what was the plan, what was the idea? How is the team playing. That Messi tackle that led to the Celta free kick saw the attacker capering through a wide-open midfield. The first man to challenge him was Messi, the man who lost the ball way back in the Celta end. The victory was worth celebrating, even as it’s also worth asking questions about whether this team has what it takes, tactically, to live up to the talent that it boasts.
Ansu Fati started and was mostly ineffective, before being subbed for Dembele, who proceeded to electrify the pitch, almost tallying a golazo with his first touch. His forward runs, the few other forward runs of Barça in attack, made it clear that great things happen when you move forward quickly. Instead it was mostly the same, interminable build toward the opponent end, easily managed, easily parried. And the questions linger.
Griezmann looked lost, a shadow of the man who drove Atleti to so many good things. Valverde suggested that he had to work the Atleti out of his system, but it’s more than that. Griezmann would have fit brilliantly into Guardiola’s Barça, brilliantly into Vilanova’s team, as well as Tata Martino’s. He is quick and smart on the ball, works half spaces and plays 1-2s as if born to do exactly that.
In the current Barça system he is moved around, left in open space to face a defense sitting back. Dribbling isn’t what he does, nor is taking on defenders. Everything that makes him one of the best attackers in the game can’t be taken advantage of by this team. Even if you leave out the fact that Barça is a difficult team in which to assimilate, Griezmann is still not being used according to his many strengths. Why isn’t he fitting in? What is there for him to fit into?
When Dembele came on for Fati, he took the ball and made stuff happen. He is another player who was acquired by a team that plays in a way that is nothing like what he needs. At Dortmund, Dembele was Neymar. He had the ball, he drove the attack. The few times he is allowed to do that at Barça, good things happen. But supporters want him to fit into the system, even there isn’t one. Dembele is a cutlass, rather than a epee. He drives defenders back and makes things happen off the run, ball at his feet, working with playmates. If you are going to make him work, you give him the ball and some gazelles to run with, or you set him up to let teammates play off him. Asking Dembele to hang out and stroke the ball around, part of a cogset that strings together 48 logical passes for an eminently logical goal is foolhardy, dooming him and the attack he’s part of to failure.
Make him made a series of short passes as part of a languid buildup, and he’s bound to screw one of them up. It’s too much. Turn him loose, let him wreck stuff. It’s what he’s best at. Let players who are good at something, be good at it. By making them into something they aren’t, you diminish them and damage the good they can do.
Highlights? Junior Firpo played like a man who deserves more playing time. He was sharp in attack and strong in defense, able to take players on 1v1 and win battles in isolation, an important thing for a fullback. He was intelligent on the ball, never doing risky things, capable of chasing the ball on a bust out, or play keepsies with midfielders. And like a lot of players on the roster, Firpo deserves better than he has gotten.
Umtiti had a strong match, his second in a row but this time on the left. The ball pinged off his foot, his proactive movement and passing a reminder of what is given up when Lenglet is in the side, his fellow countryman a better traditional defender but not a better Barça defender.
Busquets came on and changed everything, and people are saying that it’s like he is undiminished, even as he is clearly diminished. Celta didn’t take advantage of his weaknesses as a better opponent would have. His was another bright moment in a series of moments, which is what Barça now is, moments of individual excellence. It’s lovely when those moments happen to augment a cohesive team, working to sustain excellence.
But we shudder to think what might have happened in that match without Messi, without a player so brilliant that he can change everything, all off of dead balls. And that is the blessing and the curse of this team. It won, but didn’t play well. It scored goals, but not in a way that is able to duplicated by any mortal man. And on it rolls, like a clown car leaking candy, not because the passengers are tossing it to kids, but because the tank is broken, and it’s just spilling out. No plan or organization, just stuff everywhere.