Football is lived match to match, and this has never been more true than with this current Barça side.
In considering the match with Dortmund, my prediction was for a 2-1 win. That it was 3-1 didn’t surprise me. Dortmund was ill-equipped to trouble Barça to any significant degree, because the things that they need to do to be successful open up the pitch for the most dangerous player in the history of the game. That is exactly what happened, and Messi put on a masterclass, picking another significant European night to be unplayable. He assisted twice and scored once, pushed poked and prodded, made runs and served as the perfect talisman for a team that needed that precise thing.
The win was fun to watch, and might have led people to think that something has changed, that a corner has been turned. That would be a mistake.
That this team can execute a team that removes its shirt and puts its neck on the cutting block isn’t all that impressive. Betis did the same, and got tonked. The problems that have plagued this team all season didn’t go away just because a compliant opponent strolled unwittingly into the Camp Nou. There still wasn’t structure, there still wasn’t a way of playing, there still wasn’t any evidence of a system that isn’t, “Will Messi take over the match or nah?”
This means that the team is still susceptible to a smart, quick opponent who sits deep and dares them to break it down with passing and movement. The team is still susceptible to turnovers because of a slow midfield. The team is still susceptible to a single smart pass breaking its press. The team still has incompatible CB pairings that don’t work that well with roaming FBs, so danger is always present when an attacking opponent breaks the plane of the midfield.
Some spoke of Griezmann and Messi finally establishing a connection. It’s been one match. No, they haven’t. Not yet. A connection is repeatable and sustained. Xavi and Iniesta had a connection. Neymar and Messi had a connection. Griezmann and Messi had a good half of football in a story that is still being told.
Lest we get too gloomy, there were many good things about the Dortmund match, even as there was also a stone-cold bummer as well. Valverde opted for the early tactic of (again) putting the ball at Dembele’s feet and letting him drive the attack. It’s like he caught up with the emails in which someone sent him a YouTube clip of Dembele at Dortmund, and a light bulb came on. Dembele rewarded that confidence by being stable on the ball, considerate in attack and as careful with the ball as he has been in some time. He was playing well right until he went up to contest an aerial ball, landed awkwardly and collapsed in chagrin and tears.
Dembele can’t catch a break. It’s shameful the supporters who somehow act as though he wants to be injured, that the injuries are his fault. A player who missed ten total matches between Rennes and Dortmund is clearly durable. What has happened at Barça is something for the physicos and technical staff to sort, but something has changed, aside from the injury dominoes that can plague a talented player. Injuries changed Rafinha’s career, and threaten to change Dembele’s.
But even as the supporters snarling was bad, Sergi Roberto going over to talk to him, console and commiserate was awesome, as were the signs of support from everyone as he went off, including Valverde. Pros understand and fear awful in a way that supporters don’t, because supporters have nothing at stake except bragging rights. Pros understand that Dembele could be any of them. Managers understand it because they have all seen careers wrecked by injury, by bad luck of the kind that lets a player perform a task that has been performed thousands of times before, but this time, that one time, is different. And everything changes.
Sometimes the injury leads to a series of others. Other times, as with Victor Valdes, the injury is of sufficient severity that a player’s career is essentially over. Either way, pros get it, even as others sit in judgment. It’s a shame, the luck that has plagued Dembele. His stint was exciting and foretold a bright future in a system that understands and accommodates his skill set.
Junior Firpo had his best outing in the colors, far and away. Slick, fast, smooth and dynamic, he was controlled on defense and an almost constant danger in attack. We can hope this is a sign of something more to come. It’s also a sign of what happens when a player gets reliable playing time that allows them to understand how best to work with teammates, to understand how to play.
Untiti looked fit and effective, one of the standout performers, and he did so out of position, on the right. His way of playing: proactive, comfortable with the ball at his feet and disinclined to dally in possession, is exactly what that back line needs. It’s no coincidence that the team has played out of the back most effectively in the matches that Umtiti has featured.
And Messi. The temptation is to overlook what he did, because he has done it countless times. As rumors swirl that he is going to win yet another Ballon d’Or, a trophy for the best player in the game that is awarded in error any time Messi doesn’t win it, his performance on a spotlight night in a match that his team had to win, was … you don’t want to use astonishing because astonishing is his routine. Dare we say, it was “Messi.”
Messi is 32 years old, an age when players at the top level of football are being fitted for a gold watch, firmly in their dotage. Applause is polite, appreciative of past exploits more than in honor of current ones. But at 32, Messi is still routinely unplayable. Then on certain nights, he decides to raise his game yet another level. That he can seemingly do this at will is something that we don’t appreciate enough. How can you play an athlete who can do everything? He can dribble you. Play him for that, and he can pass for the assist. Foul him, and he can score from a dead ball. His performance was, in a career filled with stunning outings, stunning.
But this team still has problems, woes that Atletico de Madrid is perfectly placed to expose. Conveniently, the next match is at the fortress of Atleti, the Wanda, and it will answer a lot of questions about just what this Barça team is made of. Dortmund’s half-assed press will be replaced by a real, indefatigable one. Scurrying mids will be replaced by Thomas Partey, a one-man wrecking crew. A pair of fast, creative forwards will test the fullbacks and back line, probing for weaknesses and creating danger.
This away match is crucial, and will answer a lot of questions. Great teams, like great players, can suddenly click into focus. But right now, Dortmund was a one-off, a glitter bomb win sullied by a lack of concentration in the second half and a substitute who subtracted via his addition in Arturo Vidal. It’s also worth asking whether an aged team can effectively perform as it needs to, with the necessary physical and mental focus and exertion, for a full 90. They took their foot off the gas and Dortmund got gobs of possession and a goal out of that lapse, which I think gives people an opportunity to draw conclusions from that match that aren’t fully accurate.
Barça won that match. It wasn’t deceptive, and really wasn’t as close as the score indicated. A 3-2 final score (Ter Stegen’s salvation prevented that) wouldn’t have properly reflected proceedings.
But it was also one match, and so many questions still remain about a team that is the same messy group, the same clunky, directionless bunch that is a work in progress.