As a concept, how do you explain joy?
It’s different from happiness, though both are something that everyone seeks. And even if you can’t explain it, you know it when you feel it. You just start smiling, and this weird glow suffuses your entire being. Like happiness, joy is shared, but feels more selfless than happiness. If you really want to know what joy feels like, remember how you felt at the 83rd minute of Barça’s dead man walking outing against Osasuna in their house, when Ilaix Moriba stroked home the goal that put paid to the match.
Players often imagine their first goals, and how perfect that moment would be for them. If you’re a Barça academy player, however, can you ever imagine your first goal coming in the same stadium as your best friend, on the same end of the pitch, to seal the match in your boyhood club’s favor, via assist from Messi, who waited for you, the grin on his face almost as big as yours, to celebrate.
It was a moment that would have overshadowed even a better match, because of how picture-perfect it was. Ilaix Moriba is 18, and has been tapped for success for years. He’s the highest-paid player on Barcelona B, and when Koeman called him up for training it was right on time in his progression. But then, weird stuff started to happen, as Koeman subbed him on with a match in the balance, and he delivered. Then Koeman subbed him on again with Barça chasing a goal against Sevilla in the Copa remuntada, and he delivered. And again at Osasuna, in a must-win match to keep the team’s nascent Liga title hopes alive, on came Ilaix.
What made the Osasuna appearance even more eyebrow-raising is that Barça was in danger, nursing a one-goal lead against a team that had its share of chances, a team pressing for the equalizer that would give them a probably deserved point. Barça was a mentally and physically tired team, having only days before played 120 minutes against Sevilla in a match that salvaged the team’s best chance at silver this season. They were tired and looked it, from Messi to Mingueza, and almost certainly would have dropped points had Ter Stegen not turned in an MOTM performance to save his team. Again.
The last time Barça pulled off an improbable comeback in a cup match, it laid an egg the very next Liga match and it was downhill from there. Osasuna knew that the best way to get at Barça’s defense was, as has been the case over the years, through direct action. Long balls, arching efforts over the top that bypass the press to get directly at vulnerable centerbacks, in this case a “that’s all we got” trio of Mingueza, Umtiti and Lenglet. And it worked. This match was a crucial test for a team that has, time and again now that it has hit its stride, showed that it has something extra in the tank, something psychological that it hasn’t had for some time now. Swagger would be an overstatement, but it’s a confidence, a belief.
The difference between teams at the top of the table and teams lower in the table isn’t just talent, but execution. Think about the number of attacks by lower-table teams that fall apart at the end. The final ball goes awry, or someone makes a clunky decision. Now look at the first goal that Barça scored. Messi droped a rainbow of a pass that only he could see, with the perfect amount of weight. Alba had time to run onto it, look to the center to see if the cutback was there, then smite (yeah, strike doesn’t do that hit justice) home past the keeper.
That goal came exactly as we were wondering just how Barça was going to score, the ball oozing around the pitch, bobbling at the feet of players who looked gassed and imprecise. In a single moment, everything changed. Osasuna never quite got it right, and the couple of times that they did, Ter Stegen was more than up to the task.
Recall that the last time the team was nursing a 1-0 lead, Cadiz got an undeserved penalty for the equalizing goal. This match had that kind of feeling. Or it did until Ilaix calmly took the pass, moved the ball to make space and stroked home. Moment and execution as once again, a young player performed like a wizened veteran at a crucial time for his team. Young players are too often treated in ways that can damage their confidence. They get shoved on in the dying moments of a blowout, with orders not to screw anything up. Koeman rolled into Camp Nou saying that he was going to trust in youth players that deserved his trust, and culers called B.S. on it, mostly because they didn’t believe he was trusting the players they wanted to see play.
Just because Koeman hasn’t used Puig in the way so many would like, doesn’t mean his commitment to young players isn’t full, and not just of necessity. He’s putting those players in when matches matter, to see what they can do. If you want to see how a player will perform, that’s how you do it. Your team needs to settle a match, and could use another goal. Get in there, kid. Talents from the “no pressure, kid” world of the Barça academy system seem particularly well-equipped to manage demands. The youth teams are scrutinized and written about, players tracked as they progress, then assessed once they reach B team level. But with Koeman it isn’t just players off the assembly line. Dest and Pedri have become regulars, joining Araujo, Mingueza, Puig and now Ilaix as examples of that old saying, “and the young shall lead them.”
It wasn’t just the goal that Ilaix scored. He helped defensively, applying pressure on defense, keeping the ball moving on offense, playing football like he knew how. No pressure. If you hit a thousand topspin backhands up the line, there’s no reason the thousand and first one wouldn’t be exactly the same, even though you’re now in a Grand Slam final. Structure and preparation can make pressure a non-factor and so far, exactly none of the young players Koeman has come to rely on have showed signs of pressure, which isn’t to say they haven’t shown signs of being young players. There was some particular, almost reflexive scorn for Umtiti after the match, when Mingueza looked far more likely to be victimized by Osasuna as he was against Sevilla in a center back role. Young players will make mistakes, won’t yet know the tricks of the trade that older players do, so opponents will go at them. It isn’t blasphemy to say you’re happier seeing Mingueza (whose sister debuted for Femeni on the same day her brother started a match for the men) at fullback than centerback.
But mistakes of youth are different than mistakes of pressure. And llaix scoring that goal at that moment, was perfect, the culmination of everything Koeman has been working toward. Of course the kid was going to do it. Why wouldn’t he? The relief didn’t fully register at first, that the goal provided the breathing room, the mental respite that a team and its supporters desperately needed. But that’s what joy does. It renders everything else secondary as it washes over you like a wave. Barça winning was almost secondary to that beautiful moment, and it was so wonderful because amid all the money, and arrested former presidents, and Brimstone-scented aspirants, debt, an iconic player half out the door and all the other crap, football was pure. So pure. And it was beautiful.