When someone asks you what a club has to do to excel, all you need to do is look at Iniesta’s face in this picture, and smile. It isn’t enough to have talent. Lots of players have talent. Nor is it enough to have talent and drive. You also need work rate, confidence and a coach that will allow you to get the best from all of this and even then, sometimes it isn’t enough.
In trying to quantify what this amazing club of ours is doing, all that we’re left with are numbers:
–Messi set a personal record by scoring two goals in 97 seconds.
–The club has won 15 straight, matching a record set in 1961 by a certain EE.
–Pedro!! has scored in 6 straight matches, the first player to do so in Liga this season.
–Messi’s first goal of the night, the team’s second, was the 400th of the Guardiola era. 400 goals!
Another day, another win, that the scoreline will make seem easy-peasy. 0-3. Yawn!
This match was intense. Crazy, seat-of-the-pants intense because Hercules played their hearts out for the match duration, an effort spoiled by one little (okay, big) thing: Talent. You either have it, or you don’t. And talent does remarkable things. It allows a midfield attacker to do a ball-stopping spin, completely hoodwinking two defenders and leaving them in the dust. It lets a human windmill find space for a shot that needed to be perfect to score, and it was. It doesn’t let a French striker get a clean shot on a ball that could have, and should have, been a goal. It’s a heavy touch that finds the ball running away from an attacker, versus a perfect touch that finds an attacker able to control and pass with one fluid motion.
Talent is brutal, and tyrannical. It’s also the reason that, despite the intensity of this game, we weren’t going to lose it. Because talent is also mean, and it never forgets. Hercules came into our house and won 2-0, a stunning result that had the newly promoted side flush with optimism this week, and why not? It was our house, and they beat us. And now they’re at home.
But it’s that talent thing again. And talent also needs luck. So the match result from that early-season failure doesn’t show the chances that we left begging, the match result doesn’t show that while we were shaking off vacation, World Cup fatigue and general clunkiness, they still had to play a perfect match to beat us. And once talent improves and becomes a cohesive force, even perfection isn’t enough, because it doesn’t take much for talent to kill you. They didn’t play any worse, but we played a lot better. It’s also important to note that their coach did us a favor by leaving Drenthe, the destabilizer, out of the side due to boneheadus excessivus.
Guardiola rolled out with the best available lineup, of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Abidal, Maxwell, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro!! and Villa. Payback was on the menu, and in the players’ minds. Because unlike at home, the side is now on form and playing otherworldly football, which scares the mess out of teams. So even when a team is down 0-1 at home, it’s still playing tight, to prevent the annhilation. A tie, a win doesn’t even enter their minds because again, talent tells you that such things are impossible. Players know. You can sometimes catch talent sleeping, but you don’t want to annoy it too much.
Hercules were smart, intense and physical, playing pretty much a replica of the Camp Nou upset: stay narrow in front of the keeper, clog the passing lanes, get your body in front of any and all shots, and vex the life out of Xavi. And after a half, let’s see where we are. And for 42 minutes it worked like a charm, in part because we were afflicted with one-touch-too-manyitis, and a curious lack of form by some key players. But Windmill came to the rescue, arms flailing.
We should take a moment to admire the growth of Pedro!!. He even looks like a man these days. And when people were accusing me of hating him because I said that he lacked tactical awareness, so he just would run around like a headless chicken with an extra set of wings, now it makes sense. Because today, Pedro!! did exactly what he had to do, which was to maintain the width that would give him space to shoot — and believe that the ball would come to him, rather than him running to the ball.
If you watch, Messi is raising hell with a full-speed run directly at the Hercules defense, and those dudes are freaking out. One defender nicks the ball away from behind, and it falls to Iniesta. His pass is blocked and the ball falls to Xavi, who knocked it to Pedro!!, and that was that. Now the ball is pinging around everywhere, and P!! is just maintaining tactical discipline, posting up on the wing, watching the ball and keeping himself onside. When Xavi slid it to him, he had the narrowest of windows through which to shoot and did so, perfectly. And unlike the Out Of Formers, Pedro!! isn’t interested in making runs, or breaking defenders down off the dribble. He just wants to put the ball into the back of the net. So he did. Bang. And there was much rejoicing.
“Hey guys, let’s make a castell!”
At 0-1 it’s a completely different match for Hercules, who lost a bit of swagger because like most teams, when one goal comes from us, you start worrying about a lot more following hot on its heels. Not only that, but to have the goal come right before the half meant that they couldn’t try too hard to get it back, and would have all halftime to think about how they were broken down like a 1,000-year-old mule.
In the second half Hercules decided to straddle the fence, playing not to get spanked at home, with the hope that they could cadge one on a break or spell of loose possession. We were below 70% possession for this match, but don’t let that stat fool you. Hercules had possession, but it was the kind of panicked, “What do I do now, coach?” stuff that never, ever leads to goals. If you can find a moment during this match where a Hercules player had the ball and we didn’t have at least two men confronting him, you’re better than I. At one point, we had 5 players around the man with the ball. The ESPN Deportes announcer was even kind enough to count them all. It was crazy, and shows that we aren’t just about offense. If you want the ball, you have to want it all the time, and you have to work constantly to get it back.
This means that defense is everyone, all over the pitch. Pedro!! defended, Iniesta was intercepting balls in our box, Xavi was stealing, everybody except Messi and Villa (yes, you heard me) were harassing and challenging every shot and every pass, and it just wears you down. You have the ball, but you aren’t in control …. you’re only down a goal but it feels like more, because of the looming threat. So when you are subbed at the 68th minute, you’re walking off the pitch, because what’s the hurry? It’s not like we have momentum or anything. Then your sub comes in, picks up two silly yellows, and is gone. And that really is that.
Messi then scored two goals in 97 seconds, the first off a moment of individual brilliance that can come from a player who, while still having a match that doesn’t live up to his immense personal standard, is still capable of. So he takes the ball, makes a quick little lateral run to move the keeper and defense, then shoots across the grain. 2-0. Then, not two minutes later, he makes a run and takes what appears to be a sac shot when he runs into a giant defender. Though hunched over in pain, he’s still following the ball, which is popping around like a pinwheel before falling to Alves, who slid a perfect ball across the box for Messi to tap in. 3-0, and a much gaudier scoreline than the match indicated. 1-0 would have been fairer, but football, like life, isn’t always fair, is it?
Team: 8. Collectively strong and focused, determined to play 90 minutes of in-your-face football. The defense and pressing knocked me out more than the offense. There was always a man in front of the ball, always a man available for an outlet or holding pass. Remarkable.
Guardiola: 7. Instilled his team with the vision and desire necessary to face down a vibrant Hercules side. A little late with the subs, I thought.
Valdes: 6. Didn’t have a lot to do, and mostly did it well with the exception of a couple of moments of panic, one where he inexplicably cleared the ball long, another where he badly missed both Abidal and Maxwell on a clearing pass, lord knows how.
Alves: 6. A fond welcome back to our Energizer Bunny, who played to a 7, but lost a point for that silly, knee-clutching dive. Yes, there will be those who will note Alves’ brilliance and say that Adriano sucks. It ain’t that simple. Alves has had first-team reps since like, forever. Adriano is a Swiss Army knife. That said, Alves demonstrated why he is the starter, with solid defense, one very well-timed yellow card and some excellent passing. There were also the “Shoot Dani, shoot!” moments, but we’ve come to expect those.
Pique: 6. Rock-solid, but not as convincing as he was against Almeria, the difference being team quality. The Hercules pressure, particularly their physical pressure, made him make some complex choices that caused complexities. Heading the ball into the air is never a good thing. And he was out of position on that excellent Trezeguet chance.
Abidal: 9. I’m going to blaspheme here, and suggest that at this point in time, were it not for the fact that he is also our best left back, Abidal is the perfect center back for Alves, because of his sideline-to-sideline range. He’s also my Man of the Match, despite the strong candidacies of Pedro!! and Xavi. Because for a long time, this match was one play away from being a draw, and every time anything even remotely threatening happened, there was Abidal. And his calmness with the ball is a wonder, whether he’s holding for a Xavi reset, or pushing it forward into the attack.
Maxwell: 8. This was Maxwell’s best match for us in a long, long time. Reps seem to be key for him. His offense was as strong as his defense today, with sequences of 1-2s, runs into the box and passing skill. Villa’s awfulness kept the left side from being a lacerating threat today.
Busquets: 8. Omnipresent. If I had to choose one word to describe his play today, that would be it. He was everywhere, up and back, midfield and beyond, just making everything so hard for any Hercules attacker who came near him. And he’s so subtle in his excellence, as he reads the match, and is where the ball is. All the freakin’ time. And he never, ever tires. It’s his offense that gets him the starting nod over Mascherano.
Xavi: 9. Spectacular today. He responded to the Hercules pressure with constant movement. He was shooting, defending, passing, and would take over metronome duties when necessary. And in the 68th minute, he completely undressed two Hercules defenders with a move that is really, really worth watching for you DVR folks. It even left the bench stunned and amazed.
“Hey! Did anybody see what just happened? What did he do?”
Iniesta: 9. Matches are won and lost in the midfield, and when you have Xaviniesta in full effect, you aren’t going to lose. Iniesta’s control has to have reached legendary status by now. If a ball is near him, he will control it and try to kill you. And as a defender, he can intercept a ball in the box and then, with his dribbling and close control, take things out of the danger zone. And you can’t take the ball from him. Not without fouling him, then play stops and we get a free kick. What a “transfer!”
Messi: 5. Messi didn’t have as bad a match as many people, even me, thought. If you watch him closely, he isn’t as dominating and all-encompassing as he has been in the past, but he was able to still have a profound effect on the match with his runs, passing and mere presence. Yes, he lost ball after ball after ball. But unlike some, who lose balls because of poor control or simply bad decisions, most of Messi’s issues arose from ambition, like that jazz trumpeter who drops a note because he’s reaching for the stratosphere. Was he in conservation mode? Yes, but he always is against teams that are charging in like crazy.
Pedro!!: 9. Were it not for Abidal’s magnificence, P!! is probably MOTM. His energy was unflagging, his effort almost always directed toward the goal. He defended, harassed in the midfield and ran at defenders just to scare them. This might have been his best all-pitch match in some time, as he was stealing balls on one end, then taking the pass in or near their box on the other. And boy, is there no mistaking his running style.
Villa: 2. Static as could be, the place where attacks went to die. Unlike Messi, who would have problems with ambition, Villa had problems with a loose first touch that allowed defenders to steal the ball, misplaced passes or runs not made. On that sharp-angled Messi shot in the first half, I’m still wondering why Villa didn’t make the run into the box after passing the ball to Messi, rather than just standing there. Another time, Villa runs into the box, stops, and points exasperatedly at the ground as if to say “Put the ball here! Here!” This even though he had three defenders around him. Yeah. Right. He had one offside call today, which speaks volumes.
Nolito (for Villa): incomplete. Still trying too hard to impress, lacks that ultimate bit of skill, as witnessed by a perfect setup from Afellay that he needed to take one touch too many on. A fourth goal was beckoning.
Keita (for Xavi): incomplete. Didn’t really do much, didn’t really have to as by the time he entered, we were in full control, they were down to 10 and it was all over but the shirt exchanging.
Afellay (for Iniesta): incomplete. Such a direct player. Really had only one moment of note, his control and laser-quick run into the box to set up Nolito. Teams are used to us taking a moment to set, or going laterally. Afellay’s directness can be disarming.
Next Liga match is Atletico, at home. Win, and we set a new record for Liga excellence. As Iniesta notes, let’s just take it one match at a time.
Hey! I’m not smiling. I’m serious. Get your renewal done. Now.