Barça dispatched Alaves is one of the “Duh” results of the Liga campaign.
But for those wanting delightful symbolism in a match, it’s difficult to think of a better one as you look for things to talk about, things that make this season as it is going so far, make sense. Messi saved the day, and Carles Aleñá started, both worth unpacking at length.
Alaves showed up, which was about as much as anyone was expecting. So when a defensive error set up a perfect strike for Antoine Griezmann, who made no mistake as he rifled home before the 15th minute, people were expecting a beatdown. What they got instead was a clunky, messy thing of a match, chaotic and shambling as Alaves strove to make it into something respectable.
Yet when Arturo Vidal found himself at an oblique angle in the Alaves box with the ball at his feet, he smote a lovely goal and at the half, it was 2-0, home team and everyone was excited, even if the signs that had been there all season, weaknesses exploited by other teams but that Alaves didn’t quite have the motivational force to, were still present. It was a result that obscured flaws, as the BeIN match commentator, Gary Bailey, wondered what the issue was that supporters had with Valverde.
Being able to quibble about a team being up 2-0 as if style points were the only thing at issue, is certainly a luxury that culers would be foolish not to admit the reality of. Yet the problems are there nonetheless in a stagnant offense that relies on individual quality, huge gaps beteween running players, and chaos. Chaos often works because players such as Suarez and Messi can take advantage of an opponent having the vapors of uncertainty. But apprehensive supporters can be forgiven for wondering what might happen when a better team comes to visit, say one like Real Madrid, who outplayed Barça, taking advantage of the very weaknesses that concern supporters so.
It was a messy 2-0 that soon became a 2-1, for all of the reasons that worry. Alaves had acres of space to play on the right wing, and all day to place an accurate cross, which was met on the fly by an attacker who waltzed through the Barça midfield to head home on the dead run. Aleñá made his apologies to his teammates for dropping off the run when he should have tracked the man, but to lay that goal at the feet of one person was, as it most always is, in error.
What wasn’t in error was the way that Alaves, buoyed by that bonus goal, played after scoring. Barça was pinned back in its own end, parrying away effort after effort as suddenly, “It’s Alaves” morphed into “Holy crap, it’s Alaves!” Passes went astray, Busquets being particularly wasteful, and Barça suddenly couldn’t play, a structureless shambles.
And then came Messi. The astonishing mite of a man, who again was having one of those digital matches where he was either on or off, decided his team needed a lift. He took a pass, dribbled, ran, cut left and, bracketed by five Alaves defenders, unleashed a shot off the run that almost certainly made Diego Simeone cover his eyes. Again. It was a similar goal to his match winner against Atleti, a crazy thing against the run of play, smote into a wee window that only a genius can see. The ball nestled home, and Messi strolled away like this goal was an ordinary thing.
To him, it was. His golazo was one that any host of more mortal players would have done a lap around the stadium, happily accepting the yellow card for having shed his shirt in jubilation. Yet that wasn’t even the best goal Messi scored in the month, never mind a longer span of time. The goal came at a perfect time for his team, whicih wasn’t in any real danger of losing to Alaves, but a draw sure would have smeared egg on blaugrana faces, a draw that seemed a lot more likely than a stroll to a win that was less convincing than the scoreline indicated. And then, as almost always, came Messi to bail out his team, his coach and their blushes.
The fourth goal was a penalty, a bon bon of a gift from Caga Tio’s wooden bum as glittering as Messi giving Suarez a holiday gift in the goal he notched. MSG scored, the headline writers had their thing, and it was an easy win that was only easy on the scoreboard, something typical of this season that has been, and will continue to be, fraught. A match came down to a moment, again. It came down to That Man, again. Supporters breathed a sign of relief, again. And an opponent went away wondering what might have been, again. Like Real Madrid, and Atleti, and La Real, and so many teams this season on the wrong end of a result, buoyed by the time they spent battering an aged colossus.
Yet one of the youngest among them, Carles Aleñá, started the match to yield another bit of tasty symbolism. Bailey, on the mic for BeIN, said as the match drew to a close that the Masia gem hadn’t shown him very much, which was fascinating because Aleñá showed us everything, including what has been missing from the team and its approach to playing.
The way that he plays the game is the way that it is taught from the moment a kid steps onto a pitch at the tyke training ground. Take, give, receive, repeat. That Masia player won’t be the flashy one, won’t be the one who does the stuff that makes people oooh and aaaah, but just watch him. To watch Aleñá is to watch La Masia and what it does. His body is always shaped to receive the pass, his slight crouch making him stable and balanced on his feet, able to take contact from a defender, or move to a space where he can safely deliver the ball to a teammate. He doesn’t make runs, unless the ball needs to be shuttled to safety between the lines, and he moves as if symbiotically attached to the nearest teammate, who never has to wonder about having a place to put the ball. Aleñá was a delight to watch, and something of an anachronism.
What made the great Guardiola teams so magical was that every player on the team did that, because they not only worked it in training, but the spine of the team was raised in the same Masia proving ground. They all knew what to do, how to move, the rhythmic sound of take, give, receive, repeat, of making the correct decision on the ball, of not taking risk because possession is paramount and the ball is everything. If you don’t have it, you can’t win, so you keep it.
To some, Carles Aleñá didn’t show all that much. To those of us who know what it means to play midifield for FC Barcelona, who understand the selfless skill set that allows a player trained at the club to excel by vanishing, the squat Catalan was a joy because he was an anomaly, a throwback. The XI used to be stuffed with players like him, but recent transfer decisions has changed that. It’s players like Vidal, a bear with the car keys when the ball is at his feet. It’s Rakitic, it’s Dembele, it’s Suarez who more often than not has concrete feet, it’s players who don’t understand how important the ball is, who don’t understand how to commune with it. Busquets spanked a pass to Messi while the Argentine was in a thicket of Alaves players, knowing Messi was going to be albe to control it, and move it on. That’s special, and not every player has it.
Watch Aleñá take the ball and move like he already knows where it’s going, because he does. Passes are short and simple, and even after he releases the ball he is moving to a space that will allow him to receive it back. After the match, Valverde said that he was counting on Vidal and Aleñá, two less alike players than if one was painted bright purple. Whether the technical staff echoes the manager’s confidence remains to be seen, but for this match, against a brave but doomed opponent, Aleñá showed us the beauty of seeming nothing. Take, give, receive, repeat. The shame is that he is something of an anomaly in this team when he should be the norm. When people ask what supporters don’t like about this team and how it plays, it is this. The structure, the pam, pam, pam, the sound, the power of simplicity and structure are gone
Messi saved his team from being victimized by what it lacked, what it has lost. And Aleñá so vividly reminded us of those very things, while providing hope for a bright future, of football instead of running, of logic instead of chaos, of the grace of simplicity.