This isn’t a review. That lovely task of dissecting a hiding falls to Euler, for reasons not worth discussing here. But I do want to weigh in on an exquisite spectacle of football.
For this past weekend’s newspaper, I wrote a piece that looked at four performers: Luis Miguel, Robin Trower, Coliseum and Marduk. Respectively, Latin ballads, blues-rock, punk(ish) and black metal. The musing was about how each of the four sounded exactly like music of that type was supposed to sound, sonic archetypes, if you will. There was beauty, logic and rightness aplenty there.
After watching us win in the Champions League final, again I was struck by that same notion, the sheer rightness of it.
There have been scoffers and naysayers, people who say that United didn’t play its best match, that Ferguson got the selection wrong, that we were allowed too much space, etc, etc. And yet, the simple reality is that match happened exactly as it was supposed to happen. This is a rare, extraordinary time for a rare, extraordinary side that does exactly what it does, against opponents who ultimately have no answer for it.
This isn’t about a system, or La Masia graduates, or a coach who might or might not be overrated. This was about things being exactly right, about the right players meshing in a way that is musical, against an opponent who was in no way poor, or at all undeserving of its presence on that most massive of stages. Any side in the world would have had pretty much the same thing happen, because when you show up to play football, yesterday was exactly how it was supposed to look.
And I don’t just mean us. I mean both sides. United rolled out man-style. Witness the sheer effort of Park Ji-Sung as he ran around, their Pepe-like destroyer only without the actual physical destruction. Wayne Rooney was manly, and finished the one chance that his side had at goal, a majestic strike from a buildup that was fitting to the occasion. Van der Sar went out with style, like a 40-year-old keeper who could keep playing if he likes, but is ending on his own terms.
It was a night of unalloyed rightness. All four goals were of surpassing quality, the effort was sincere, both teams played their best. And the outcome was just as it was supposed to be.
The first half was rather fraught for me, because we were on the back foot for the first 10 or so minutes, then tentatively working our way into it. The goal came, then theirs came after it, too soon for me, but in plenty of time to let people think that this was going to be a classic, a slugfest between two titanic sides. Then Guardiola said whatever he said at the interval, and the symphony began.
I don’t know what history is going to say about the second half of that match, that began with us assaulting their end of the pitch, and ended with us simply parrying away a series of increasingly futile efforts, but I know what I have to say about it: It’s exactly as it should have been in its inexorable beauty.
Saying that this club got what it deserved will sound arrogant, but that isn’t how it’s meant. When a puzzle goes together, when a portable navigation system puts you exactly where you need to be, it just makes sense. All season with but a few exceptions, this club has done precisely what it does, when it’s supposed to, when it needs to. And it has done this, even against opponents who know exactly what it was going to do. It’s like a dominant baseball pitcher who only has a fastball.
“Here it comes. Can you hit it or not?”
The path was followed, its architecture laid out by ambition, collective and individual: a wee forward trying to excise World Cup futility from his brain; a coach with the drive and passion of a man who always wants the best from his charges; a captain wounded; scorn and allegations; a defender who man defended the ultimate challenger and won …. the stories were too numerous and too compelling for this to come out any other way, if you believe in any notion of karma at all.
And on the footballing side, again, it’s the logic of it all. Like that mythical pitcher with the unhittable fastball, you know it’s coming, and you can’t do anything about it. As Messi, Xavi and Iniesta danced among the trees yesterday and improbably, came out with the ball as they always do, it all made sense. Because it isn’t just physical pressure, or talent. It’s psychological pressure. Here it comes again. The match starts, and you’re daisy-fresh, and you get in front of the balls, and cut off the runs just in the nick of time, and make sliding tackles that are excellent.
But the same stuff keeps happening, and eventually you run out of answers. The legs get a little heavy, and those damned midgets just keep coming at you. You lunge instead of running, just miss and it’s another goal. The mightiest mite finds a bit of space due to a simple, tiny mental lapse and in that moment he dances laterally and smites a shot off the dead run — a shot hit with no windup, no advance warning, hit with the power and accuracy of a more mortal player who huffs, puffs, drags his leg back, sizes up the opening and strikes. And it’s a goal.
That’s the real problem, the immense challenge of playing against a side that only a for-real hater would deny a place in history. It’s a club side that is stacked with talent, quality that knows its place, that knows exactly what to do. But more than that, it’s a side with selfless talent that understands the math of it all. If A, then B. If I make the run, Xavi will find me. I don’t have to wave my arms, or yell at him if he doesn’t find me. He knows, I know, it will happen because it’s supposed to. Because it all makes sense. It isn’t confidence that’s at the root of this soul-crushing psychological pressure. The one amazing thing that Guardiola has instilled in this side, is that difficult-to-define quality of faith.
You wake up to photograph the sunrise, and you know it will be in the east. Because it is. It’s how it’s always been. Ray Ray calls our playmaker The Inevitable Xavi, as if he is, and always will be. This club has an unshakable faith that it is doing the right thing, and that if it keeps doing the right thing the holes will open, the goals will come and matches will be won. So they keep making the runs, the passes, the movement off the ball, the pressing that demands the ball back when the opponent has it.
Some people say that the way we play is boring, that all we do is knock the ball around. They yearn for the slash of the long ball and a strong, talented forward taking it and making magic, or the set piece dynamically executed. Making 25 passes that wend their way inexorably up the pitch? Where’s the fun in that? Math isn’t fun. It’s just math. 2+2 always equals 4. But if you ask people who love math, there is the solution, and the problem. Not all problems have the same solution, even as the rigor of the process is the same. The beauty is in the action, the path to the solution.
So it is with this club. It might be passing the ball into the net, it might be strikes from outside the box, it might be a set piece. It doesn’t really matter how. What matters is that it was, and is exactly as it is supposed to be.