So we’ve read quite a lot about how Barca’s play is like the music of the late, great jazz legend Thelonious Monk. Spare a couple of minutes for this video, then we’ll begin.
Here’s what I meant when I initially raised the analogy, borne out by yesterday’s thrashing of an under-manned Bilbao side.
Monk raised the game of jazz by being brave, unconventional and yes, a little crazy. He had a very different bag of tricks to work with, one that made the traditional structure of jazz suddenly insufficient.
Now look at the moments that were on display last night, as Barca grabbed its first silver of the season, the Spanish SuperCopa:
–Yaya Toure taking a ball, faking out two defenders, tiptoeing along the end line and lacing a cross in to Keita.
–Messi lofting a pass in to Ibrahimovic that he took off his chest, in effect setting himself up for a ninja-style shot.
–The first goal that pinged from Xavi to Ibrahimovic (back heel) to Messi, all at full speed.
–Henry, suddenly materialized on the right wing, pulling a pacey move and lofting a perfect cross-box pass to Ibrahimovic, who pipped in a one-touch cross.
There were more, but these are the ones that stood out for me, moments that, as great as we were last season, give us the potential to redefine the game’s expectations. Some might say that Bilbao turned out with a side that had the Europa League in mind, resting its best players. Perhaps. But as usual, you have to have the ball to beat us, and we weren’t at all interested in relinquishing possession. And if we keep the ball, eventually, you will die. It’s just that simple.
Guardiola rolled out a starting lineup of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Maxwell, The Yaya, Keita, Xavi, Messi, Henry, Ibrahimovic. This is almost the season starting lineup, though the first choice XI will swap Abidal and Iniesta for Maxwell and Keita. And again, the band gains virtuosity. The music becomes even more compelling, thanks to players who understand the system, and perform to perfection.
For me, this wasn’t as much a match of individual moments as a collective display of elegance. People yell, “Why doesn’t Txiki B. sign some players?!” And I think of one Monk recording session of the tune “Brilliant Corners.” Bassist Oscar Pettiford was a killer jazz bassist of sterling reputation. He was driven to pantomime playing the bass during this number, so difficult was the tune and so high the expectations. Many names have come up, and almost all have been rejected by Guardiola, because he understands the ensemble that he has, that it’s almost better off using a canterano, who at least understands how Barca is supposed to play, than someone not quite up to the Olympian standards of the club.
And after watching last night, can you blame him? The game was all grace, style and movement, players dancing about like striped fireflies in service of one thing: Putting that spherical thing into the back of the net.
With Ibrahimovic and Maxwell dancing around, suddenly Henry has someone to play football with, and he looked rejuvenated in his movement and effort, being denied scoring only by an excellent keeper performance. You can watch Henry’s movement, how his head is always up, how he always has ball control and is looking to pass as much as he’s looking to shoot. Now he has Ibrahimovic, a player who is, really, a bigger, stronger Henry. He has pace, ability to position himself and play with his back to goal, a pillow-soft first touch and a quick shot that goes with tremendous shotmaking inventiveness.
This year, the left side of our attack is as potent as the right side, which wasn’t the case last season. And the band gets just a little better, the possibilities get a little broader. Alves can start throwing in high crosses, as he did to Ibrahimovic, because now there’s a player in there who can hold his position and get off a strong header. Set pieces gain potency, because Henry, Ibrahimovic, Pique, The Yaya and “Air” Capitan all bum rush the net.
And the music gets a little sweeter.
A little crazy? Is The Yaya the best defensive mid in the world? Possibly. I am hard-pressed to think of a better one. A little crazy? Okay, let’s take him and run him alongside Xavi, an attacking midfielder who is the size of a galaxy, and see what happens. Magic. So go ahead and man-mark Xavi. He just dishes to The House, and it’s off to the races.
And the goals come. The first came off a little piece of brilliance, a three-man interplay in which Xavi intercepted a clearance, controlling and one-touching to Ibrahimovic in the same, elegant motion. Ibrahimovic controlled and back-heeled into a space that Messi could run into, a perfectly weighted ball that allowed Messi to take it on the dead run. He stopped….and started suddenly, leaving his defender for dead and flicking in a sharp angled shot that beat the keeper. And that was that.
Hector will analyze this goal later, so I won’t. But I will say that having the control and passing ability of Ibrahimovic spearheading our attack means that there is one more player to get Messi the ball on the dead run, where he is most dangerous.
The second goal came from a penalty that shouldn’t have been, but the breaks of the game go your way when you are on top of the world. Alves went down as though he were poleaxed. Yes, it was a dive. Messi converted the penalty, and it was 2-0.
The third goal came from an appalling clearance, upon which Krkic pounced like a cat on a wounded canary, dribbled the keeper and walked the ball into the net. It was cheeky, elegant, arrogant and full of the exuberance of youth. As a sub, Krkic was bouncing off the walls when the Bilbao players were tired, and he took full advantage of them, helping our constant, constant pressure.
I could go on and on about a team, an orchestra that makes music that is unfettered by the possibilities that limit ordinary bands. “Why not” becomes the standard mode of operation as the band tries chord changes and melodies that don’t seem to work, that other bands wouldn’t even try. Sometimes they will work, other times the notes will all be flat. But they will always be a joy to watch.
And with that,
The Team: 8. They aren’t clicking yet. You can see it, passes that are a little bit off, movement that isn’t quite in sync. When this team clicks, when everyone gets full fitness and starts firing on all cylinders, watch out. Most importantly, the effort was constant.
Guardiola: 8. Made all the right subs, started the right (though something of a no-brainer) XI, and has clearly had them working on set pieces.
Valdes: Incomplete. I don’t know what else to do. He didn’t have anything at all to do, except cheer and try to stay loose. One save. The rest of the night, he stood around with the best seat in the house. I know it seems weird giving our starting keeper an incomplete for having played a full match, but you kinda have to do something to get rated.
Alves: 6. His passes will get better, but his energy is difficult to fault, as our Brazilian Hummingbird flitted about unfettered by any real offensive threat from Bilbao. I didn’t like the dive. ‘Nuff said.
Pique: 7. Center back or sweeper, take your pick. I think that Marquez’ personal rehab program has just been accelerated by the sight of Piquenbauer in the box, taking a shot that was easily stopped, but sent a clear message: Everybody on this club can score, so watch out.
Puyol: 7. His rocket of a header deserved a better fate. And when he just misses scoring he just runs back down to the other end, ready to do the real job that he came for, which is to wreck anything that comes near him.
Maxwell: 6. People have good things to say about him, and they should. He’s a left-sided Alves. But had Bilbao come out ready to attack, we would have been wanting Abidal’s pace. But Maxwell is a gorgeous player, a bargain at the price. His passing, movement and control are already very good. Wait until he learns the system.
The Yaya: 8. Guardiola said it best in calling him a “force of nature.” Attacking the box, racing back to break up any counters, locking down the midfield like a metronome controls a band’s pace. He is a better player than last season, which is amazing to realize, because he was great last year.
Keita: 7. Not quite as good as The Yaya, but almost there. He, too, has improved from last season, bringing defense and offense to the table in equal measure. His big body is easy to find, and he can grumble at The Yaya for blocking his shot on goal, that was going in.
Xavi: 8. Bilbao worked hard to control him and still he excelled, using teammates for the little, space-creating pass as he laid on pin-point pass after pass. He is a study in industry and knowing when to dish. He rarely gets hit or fouled, although this year might be different than last in that regard.
Henry: 7. He’s going to have a hell of a season, is all I have to say. His work rate from last year is undiminished, and he was another one who should have had a goal. His passing game is so underrated.
Ibrahmovic: 6. There are still times, and there will be, where he’s not on the same page as his teammates. But think about the luxury of having a strike who can bring the ball up, pass it and keep moving. Movement is what makes us unplayable, when we are at our best, and now we have another high-wire daredevil who can conjure match-changing skills on the dead run.
Messi: 8. An exceptional match from Argy Bargy, who could easily have had four goals. But they will come. His roofed penalty kick was a thing of beauty, and is it just me, or is he moving even better this season, and with a lot more confidence.
Krkic (for Ibrahimovic): 6. He can be a match-changer in this role of high-energy, box-charging sub. He will never score an easier, or more difficult goal than the one he walked into the net. Because he took the ball in stride, dribbled the keeper and nudged into the net. Showboat. And that’s okay. Just keep scoring.
Pedro! (for Henry): incomplete. Ran around some, broke a bit of a sweat, and off you go.
Busquets (for Pique): incomplete. Came out, made a few plays, but was difficult to evaluate. Though he came on for someone, at that point his role became facilitation of ball possession.
What’s my view after yesterday’s match? Excited at the possibilities and pragmatic. Not every match will go as expected, sometimes the players sometimes have notes that fall short of the moment. And that’s okay, because rest assured, they will try.