This was it.
All that work, all those missed chances, and this was it.
Alexander Isak bore down on Ter Stegen, who was bracing to make himself big, and facing a quandary. Charge Isak, and maybe get dribbled down. Or chipped. Barça was hanging on to a 2-1 lead against a resurgent, rampant La Real, and this was it.
Then suddenly, from out of nowhere, the smallest person on the pitch, Pedri, came steaming in to block Isak, slamming into the upright from the momentum. It was one of the most beautiful things we have seen in a while, up there in the blaugrana pantheon of Puyol blocking a shot with his face, or Abidal heading the ground to get the ball away from his box. Plays of full committment are rare in football. Matches are long, bodies are fragile, seasons are interminable. Pedri didn’t care.
Stories coming out of the FC Barcelona camp lately have been less than flattering, a rogue’s gallery of “If true … ” iconography. Players not speaking to each other. Players not liking a recent first team addition because of “attitude.” Koeman upbraiding that same player for being a “leaker.” Opponents saying that after a victory, they didn’t hear any chatter or exultation from the home team after a huge win. And we’re reminded that being a team is more than wearing the same shirt.
After a desultory saunter against a relegation candidate, needing a late golazo from — who else? — Messi to grab the win, the team found itself in a weird place. It won a football match. And because of a tight Liga table, three points could either vault a team up the table, or find it closer to last than first. Wins, even ugly, lackluster ones against an opponent that should have been obliterated, are weird things. They can reinforce the notion that, “Hey, maybe we do suck.” Or they can spark a “This feels good. Let’s do it some more.” In a game as much psychological as physical, that wee difference in worldview is nonetheless significant. And the league leaders in Real Sociedad were coming to town.
FC Barcelona responded by playing some of its best football of the season over a sustained period, and not against a tactically naive team willingly putting its neck on the chopping block, or a group punching above its meager weight in European competition. The league leaders were diminished by key absences, but it isn’t like the Barça injury list doesn’t also include its defensive talisman and a pair of essential wide players.
And yet, there was a press, there was energy and drive, there was Griezmann not being afraid of the ball, and Messi having willing playmates rather than supplicants looking to be rescued. And were it not for slack finishing, the match would have functionally been over at the half. There was also, quite tellingly, a fightback after conceding an early goal, almost like Barça suddenly, after a key win on the weekend, was a team with something to fight for, with something to prove. And they fought.
After the victory, a close-run thing that shouldn’t have been, Jordi Alba spoke of togetherness. More telling, Messi’s Instagram page, social media being the place to go to divine the thoughts and attitudes of players, simply posted the team, the entire team, celebrating a goal. They were powerful statements, but neither of them spoke as loudly as a wisp of a thing not much bigger than the upright he bounced off of, giving everything for his team.
Pedri is special. It’s weird to talk about a player in terms of things that aren’t quantifiable. He’s a delight on the ball, has touch, elusiveness, the ability to think ahead, to see and create space. He thrives in the half spaces left by defensive-minded opponents, and wants to play with Messi as a teammate. But Pedri is special because he’s a made player, a player who has skill, but also has work ethic. Over the summer, people talked about how small he was, how young he was, figured he would spend another season on loan to get some meat on those bones and some nous in his game. He had other plans, which made Koeman have other plans.
“Look. That 17-year-old mid is going in,” we said. And Pedri played like a product of La Masia. But more crucially, he worked his ass off, endearing himself to Koeman by being what American football commentators call “lunchbucket players,” athletes who always put in an honest day’s work. No slacking, no slouching. Mind, Pedri had been having a brilliant match even before saving the day by giving up his body, but there was no more symbolic moment for the player, for the team, than that.
After the match, he said he felt good, because the team won. And that was all. That was enough. In all of the questions, the querying about why Koeman isn’t playing Riqui Puig more, it was difficult to imagine the Catalan genius with the ball at his feet hurling himself into a challenge when you know you’re going to run into the upright. But there weren’t many players on the pitch that you could imagine making that kind of determined stand. Pedri is more than talent. It’s moments like this that make you curse overused cliches such as “heart,” but the kid has it. And at 18, he’s a kid, even if he’s 18 going on 30.
He plays football like a wise veteran, like he’s seen the match before. He isn’t fast, but he’s almost always in position, in attack and defense. He works his tail off every second he’s on the pitch, like a player not blessed with otherworldly talent so has to distinguish himself by putting out. “Look at that kid work.”
But it wasn’t just Pedri today. Koeman showed confidence in Mingueza and Araujo, starting them in a HUGE match against the league leaders, a gutsy move that also was the right one. They strode out from the back, playing like Barça CBs, so more like DMs in closing down play before anything bad could happen. Barça has a core of young players: Dest, Pedri, Puig, Araujo, De Jong, Trincao, Mingueza, Dembele, Fati, Alenya, Firpo, players that can form the nucleus of a really good squad in the hands of the right manager. Even those of us still not convinced that Koeman is that manager, must laud him for the chances he is giving young players. Alenya came on, a crucial sub at a crucial time in the match, as did Trincao who, it must be said, fluffed his lines on yet another day.
De Jong didn’t. After Koeman said that he wanted to see more from the Dutch midfielder moving forward, working like a younger, more expensive Paulinho, De Jong did just that and had one of his best matches in the colors. It wasn’t just Pedri putting out in this crucial match. Everybody put out, even if some put out more than others.
And it’s two wins in a row now for Barça, who find themselves in fifth place in the league. What else has the team found is the larger question. It’s a group not as good as its expensive roster, but better than its detractors assert. But if this is a team that found a heart, that said, “Look at that kid go,” as Pedri pranged off the post, this Barça could yet make this an entertaining season.