Boy, does it feel good to get back to doing what we do best, and that’s kicking ass and taking names. We rolled into Racing with a lot of questions swirling around the side, questions capable of distracting a lesser team. But no less than 3 minutes into the match, the Xavi-Iniesta-Messi combination had our Man of the Match off to the races again, to see if he can top last season’s gaudy goal total.
And suddenly, it was all like it used to be.
I could watch this match again and again, because Pep Guardiola rolled out with Valdes, Alves, Pique, Abidal, Maxwell, Keita, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Villa. More important than who he rolled out with, was what he rolled out with: A new look Barca. Make no mistake, it was the same tika-taka, but with intent, particularly once Villa decided to actually become part of the offense rather than stand around, waiting for the ball. Iniesta was drifting back to bring the ball forward, thus saving Messi from long runs. He also relieved the defense of the burden of bringing it out in the face of an attack-minded Racing side.
It was also an “it takes a village” midfield, as Xavi was as subdued as I have ever seen him during a match, and not just because his Achilles tendon was bothering him. Keita and Busquets were deputized to help him maintain possession, and Messi’s passing skills, developed during this summer’s World Cup, were on full display.
Last season, a team could flood the midfield and play aggressively against Xavi, fouling him if necessary. This season, with Iniesta as not only an attacker but a safety valve, Messi as an attacking midfielder rather than a full-on forward and Busquets playing the Guardiola role, that tactic is not going to work, particularly if Keita and Busquets continue to mine their rich vein of form.
And this season, the width is back! Villa’s movement off the ball and his tendency to drift to the left means that defenses are lopsided again. This gives more space for Messi, and with Iniesta pushing up into the attack, it makes us so much more difficult to play.
Crucially, this wasn’t just a match, this was a message: No matter who we roll out with, we are ready. Even in the second half, when Xavi was watching from the bench in street clothes, we reduced Racing to chasing the ball, maintaining possession for what seemed like hours, with the metronomic precision of pass-offer-receive. It was brilliant, and a delightful way to start the season. Messi did more with less effort, the side showed that, unlike last season, it can play perfectly well without Xavi and Villa notched his first official goal for the club, sending him off to the races, as well.
But because things didn’t start out as smoothly as we’d hoped, the early goal from Messi was crucial, as Iniesta broke him loose with a perfectly weighted ball. He outfought the defender and lofted a cheeky chip over the charging keeper, and that was that. Barely 3 minutes in, we had an early lead, which gave one David Villa a chance to get himself sorted.
His first efforts were offside, foul, lost ball, offside, etc, etc. And when he wasn’t running foul of an overzealous sideline official with an offside flag, he was static, not yet realizing that you have to become a cog within our attack at both ends of the pitch. Once he got a clue, he was marvelous, working give-and-gos with Messi, battling for possession and making things happen. And when he scored our third, off a flawless cross from Alves, the thrashing was complete.
From then on, it was just a question of playing keepaway, which we did to perfection.
The other remarkable thing, which can, we hope, augur well for the future, is that Iniesta’s force field seems to have come down as he scored an absolute delight of a goal that will take one hell of a strike to be outrun for goal of the season. Messi and Villa worked a play, and the resultant Villa cross was punched away by Racing’s keeper. Iniesta ghosted over and, with perfect form, struck off the volley over the keeper. Frankly, I was stunned, more because I, like everyone else, assumed that the force field was still up.
It was also a goal that came from pressing, and effort. Messi worked himself into a position that forced the keeper to make the punch, rather than catching and distributing. And Iniesta was pushed up, because we were determined to attack, and not cede any possession that we didn’t have to, to Racing. So he was in the perfect spot for his golazo. And once we notched that second goal, it was all over but the shouting, even though there was still a bit of drama, courtesy of Valdes.
After a bad bit of interplay between Busquets and Alves, Racing were off on the attack. Maxwell initially tried to take the professional foul on the sideline. When that didn’t work, he had to chase, and caught the attacker in the box. He did indeed brush him, but no way should have have been a penalty. Yet the attacker got the call. At 2-1, it’s a very different, and much more fraught match. So up stepped Tchite to take the penalty. He struck it well, and Valdes, who has clearly been working out with Pinto, flashed out to parry it away. And that was that, the last real threat that Racing offered us. They did have shots, including a couple of excellent chances, but Valdes was more than up to the task.
The other thing worth noting about this year’s group is its versatility. Our starting LB played CB, the LB for this match slid into midfield when a mid came in, and said mid played LB. A CB brings the ball up the pitch to start the attack, and a ghost plays DM. This is just crazy, and exciting.
Team: 8. There were some lapses but overall, a very fine performance against a club willing to chip, fight and scratch. Racing attackers were unleashed at full gallop through the midfield a little too easily. A better club will take more advantage of those, but it’s early days.
Guardiola: 8. I liked his substitutions in this match, and the precautionary moves with Xavi and Puyol not only keep them fresh, they introduce doubt rolling into the FIFA break. Nice! His experiement with Abidal at CB seems to be bearing fruit, as well.
Valdes: 10. A contender for Man of the Match, since his penalty stop made things very different, but Messi was just too good today. He is brimming with confidence, and looks to be talking to the defense more, which was a weakness of his last season.
Alves: 7. His defense is much improved this season, though he was often too casual with the ball, losing it as a result in a dangerous spot. His passing and running are, as always, marvelous, and what an assist on the Villa goal. Pressure from Maxwell and Adriano has him raising his game.
Pique: 6. Came into the match very nicely, but could have cost us on more than one occasion. It took him a while to comprehend that because he is slow, he has to compensate for it with superior positioning. Once that happened, he was excellent.
Abidal: 9. Wait a minute. The man who can’t play CB gets a higher score than our starting CB? You betcha. Dude was full-on beast, and another example of what having to play your way into the lineup will do for you. He had one funky clearance that Pique got on him about, but was omnipresent and spectacular.
Maxwell: 6. Attacks flowed a little too smoothly up his side of the pitch, and though Valdes bailed him out and it wasn’t a penalty, it was a risky play given that the official was an idiot today. And his offense didn’t really make up for the defensive lapses.
Busquets: 9. Were it not for a Bad Busi moment or two, he’d have grabbed a perfect score. His possession and distribution were extraordinary today. He has matured so much over the summer, and the way he slid so elegantly into the Xavi role alongside Keita was wonderful. He’s a destroyer, but also a creator. And rather than destroying with the tackle, he’s just where the ball is, before the ball gets there. It’s crazy, but so cool to watch.
Keita: 9. A little loose with possession at times, but he was hovering very close to his second 10 of the season. What a match from a versatile, aggressive and energetic player. His passing game has improved to the extent that he and Busquets can form a very effective Xavi possession clone.
Xavi: 7. I wanted to see him impose himself more on this match, though his passing eye is clearly as unerring as ever. Perhaps it was the knock that he picked up.
Iniesta: 6. He took time to work into the match, and was essentially invisible, aside from his golazo for most of the first half. When he assumed the Xavi role, his first touches were uncertain on too many occasions, losing possession for us in a dangerous part of the pitch. But holy crap, what a goal! He made the amazing look easy.
Messi: 10. Perfection for our Man of the Match, from his finding Villa with perfect passes, to battling for balls that other players had given up on to his incessant work rate, this was a marvel of a match. I would rather Messi play a match such as this one, than score 4 goals as a less-effective player. Everyone was involved thanks to him, and where before he would continue his run, now he might stop to make the pass. Seems impossible, but he’s better this year.
Villa: 6. Too static for too long. He will learn to hold those runs for that beat necessary for Xavi to survey, then pass. Once he opened up and became part of the offense, he was exceptional, and what a well-taken goal. So much of goalscoring is making the run to be in the spot. He made himself available to Alves, knowing that Alves could get the ball there. And the header across the goal was beautiful, as was his interplay with Messi.
Pedro! (for Xavi): 5. Continues to display the maturity that I have mentioned before, along with an improved sense of reading the match. But he wasn’t as effective as he usually is. With the attack-minded Iniesta, I wonder if P! will be part of our best lineup.
Krkic (for Villa): 1. The Kid was worthless today. When he wasn’t in the wrong spot, he was giving the ball away, or having it taken away by a defender. I like that Guardiola subbed him in during a match that was under control. But he has to do better. This is supposed to be his season, and the path to playing time will never be more clear for him.
Adriano (for Iniesta): 7. I love what this guy does. Recall the attack in which he ran to the corner line. You could see him looking up, repeatedly surveying the pitch so that his cross would in fact be effective, rather than what most players do, which is to create space and just throw an aimless cross in. He also has pace galore, and will be difficult to keep off the pitch.
This wasn’t as dominating a performance as our SuperCopa dismantling of Sevilla, but it was more impressive, because Racing’s tactics didn’t play right into our hands. We had to win this match, and did so at a caper. And EE dropped points, which is the perfect way to start this season. And with that, a bit of joy.