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Barça 2, Paris St.-Germain 0 (5-1 agg.), aka “Of COURSE it was”

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FC Barcelona is one of the best football clubs in the world.

FC Barcelona started the season as one of the best football clubs in the world.

That it handled teams such as Manchester City and now PSG with ease, really should have come as no surprise to supporters of one of the best football clubs in the world.

The display was dazzling today, for a number of reasons as Barça reached its seventh Champions League final four in eight seasons, a stat that is kind of absurd when you really think about it. Is Barça one of the four best teams in the world? Right now and on form, Barça might be the best team in the world. There are a number of reasons why talent is combining with psychology to fuel that assessment. Here are a few:

The team has something to prove

This has been a nasty season, as the entorno has been particularly savage. As a very fine journalist, Lee Roden, wrote today, “Journalists often speak of managers losing the dressing room – this manager has lost the press.” In many ways this sums up a significant amount of the coverage that we have been seeing, the mostly manufactured hysteria that has come to define this season.

One fun example for me is the alleged Messi/Enrique row, and its extent. It was a training match disagreement that became something more, a deeper evil. Many believed that Mathieu admitted Armageddon was brewing when he said, in effect, “Yeah, something happened.” There was a meeting with the captains, Messi and Enrique, sources said. About what? Hmmm … Messi playing on the right and accepting it for the betterment of the team? Maybe. Naaaaah. To clear the air so that he didn’t demand to be sold from under the oppressive yoke of Lucho the Knife? Certainly a more interesting interpretation.

When Guardiola had difficulties with Ibrahimovic, then as now, the Swedish striker is just a big baby who didn’t know or want to learn how to fit in at Barça. It’s on him. Things are different now and it’s Messi, so it’s all on Enrique as a coach becomes a supplicant.

My view is every bit as much an interpretation of events as any other, so what is truth? Has Enrique had difficulties getting his charges to understand what and how he does things? Yes. Every new manager does. It is part of the deal when a new face comes in with a new group of assistants and a new way of doing things. But to my view, because Enrique lost the media, he lost control of the narrative, so many things that were just part of a team coming together became an indictment of his stewardship. Maybe. Maybe not. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, after all. Okay. But sometimes, where there’s smoke, there’s incense.

Fight after fight, story after story, indictment after indictment. First clues came as players said, “We really aren’t playing any differently.” Later clues came as the team fought when it didn’t have to, fought in ways that showed a nasty, fit, cohesive unit. Thank you, entorno, for being more crap than usual. The net effect on the team has been to, some can only speculate, close ranks not against, but WITH its coach. It isn’t working with a truce forged with Enrique. The commitment is too complete, too strong, the assimilation of systems and ways of playing too complete and ongoing to suggest such a thing. I am not a particularly trained observer, and that’s easy to see.

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This team has faced doubt all season. Nothing makes an athlete want to prove something like doubt. Each and every hurdle that this team has faced has been cleared. They won’t beat Atleti. They did. Three times. City will be hard. No, it wasn’t. PSG beat us 3-2. I’m worried. The second half of that match should have put all worries to bed. The “crisis” at Anoeta.

It’s taking on the character of its coach. It’s a nasty, hard-edged bunch that in effect says, “Screw you.” And that’s good. Keep on doubting, keep on questioning. It seems that in this case, the entorno is working.

PSG came into this return leg and got its butts handed to it. Dani Alves defended, the YouTube sensation got a brace, even Iniesta dusted off the stardust boots and sparkled. There was even (shudder!) an actual midfield. After the match, Enrique said that it wasn’t perfect, and he was right. He was also right in saying that a perfect match doesn’t exist. In baseball, a perfect game is no baserunners of any kind. No walks, no hits, no nothing. No possibility of scoring. In football, a perfect game would probably emcompass something around 80 percent possession and no shots on goal for an opponent who wasn’t even allowed to cross its own halfway line.

Barça wasn’t perfect. But it was extraordinary today, a team with something to prove. Let’s hope that chip stays on the shoulder.

PSG didn’t show up …

… and what’s more, why should they? That team came into Camp Nou down three away goals, and having to win the match 3-0 to advance, or some permutation of away goals sufficient to give it hope. Professionals say one thing in pressers, but they know. So the “There’s hope” stuff from PSG players was because nobody wants to hear the players they support sit in front of a microphone and say “Sheeeeit, did you SEE what they did to us in our house? What makes you think we can beat these guys and have them not score any goals? Come ON, man!”

What’s the fun in that?

Even as you risk the “Aha!” exulting of culers, it’s worth noting that PSG didn’t give its fullest effort. They walked when they should have showed urgency, trotted when they should have run. There was the occasional petulant foul but really, this tie was over from the opening whistle, and was really over after the unstoppable Iniesta moment that was finished with style by Neymar, who added a second just because somebody wearing a PSG shirt must have kicked his puppy at some point in life.

PSG is fighting with Lyon for a Ligue 1 title, against opponents who aren’t as inclined to roll over as they once were, and are figuring out ways to challenge them. So the option becomes a Quixotic quest, or saving the powder for winnable encounters. PSG chose correctly, even as their choice was part of why Barça looked so unruffled. With matches such as this one, once Neymar scored you wonder why the teams didn’t just gather at the center line, agree on a place to have dinner to catch up, and leave.

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Barça is ahead of schedule

Many folks who are now (in some cases, happily) eating their words picked Barça to finish silverless this season, a prognosis that is looking less and less likely. The reasons were logical and clear: new coach, new staff, new system, an 81m transfer that will miss the first half of the season, a resurgent Liga and main rivals in the now Big Three.

Further, Champions League usually catches a team out, quality and integration-wise, and the smart money was looking for RM and Atleti to be in the Copa to win it.

So what happened?

For starters, Suarez became part of the team a lot more quickly than I suspect even his most devoted fans believed. Barça is a difficult team for an attacker to get accustomed to. What the big brains weren’t counting on was Enrique adapting the system to make Suarez work within it, in many ways simplifying things even as the core was retained. Watching Barça matches this season again brings passages of counterattacking, slash-and-burn football and passing intricacy resulting in team goals.

What Suarez brought at the beginning was assists. As his scoring picked up it became more difficult to find a Barça attacker to shut down and suddenly, the attacking trio of he, Messi and Neymar look dead certain to eclipse the gaudy, 100-goal record of Messi/Henry/Eto’o, which is remarkable. Everyone knew that Suarez had work rate and finishing abilities. But something of a surprise was his speed of adaptability. It was also unexpected for many.

Messi immediately grew comfortable with playing on the right. Perhaps in the past, coaches didn’t explain clearly enough what was intended for him over there, that it was a launching pad rather than a prison. Enrique did, and Messi is adding a unique sort of attacking width. A lot of focus is paid to the times that he decides to move to the middle and become a playmaker. But on the right, working with Alves, contributing to the press and having only two players to beat instead of a whole back line has resulted in a resurgent Messi, along with superhuman goal totals.

Neymar has exploded this season, not only scoring goals but being decisive in matches. In the past, his tricks and flicks have been showy but rarely enough to make a team change to deal with him. At about the midpoint of last season, he started getting fouled not because he was being “disrespectful,” but from a tactical sense. Stop Neymar and you can slow Barça down because of the way he accelerates play. Associative play and playmaking were always expected from Neymar. But as the goals pile up, it’s clear that he is benefiting from the presence of an active Messi and a hyperactive Suarez.

For all the talk about possession without control, Barça is indeed controlling matches. Heat maps show the team clustered from midfield in, which means that except for isolated forays, opponents are bottled up. Rare occurrences such as Sevilla for a crucial stretch and Valencia in the first half put the lie to a general sense of calm that is part of the approach of this team. It isn’t the same short passing game, which isn’t to say that control isn’t attendant to those possession percentages in the mid-60s.

Defense, particularly on set pieces, has been the most significant reason for the team’s resurgence. Enrique was running a meritocracy that found Pique out, and made him resolve to win his place back. To do that he had to become one of the best CBs in the world again. That the player accepted and accomplished that challenge points to a maturity that many presumed he didn’t have. The benefit to the defense is not only in open play. Pique is essential in defending set pieces, a weakness turned into a strength by the coaching staff. In the past, an opponent would get a set piece and a collective “Uh, oh …” would issue from the culerverse. Not so this season.

Defense wins championships. It’s a cliche that is also accurate, because it starts with the opponent not scoring. Given the attack on offer, it’s pretty difficult to imagine Barça not scoring in too many matches, even as there will be aberrations.

Embracing this Barça has been a challenge for everyone, because it is different in many ways. Gone is the romance, replaced by at times a dull sort of pragmatism. It is effective, but when Barça wins a match and the goals are set pieces, it’s a strange thing. Some culers have simply decided to accept, rather than embrace this Barça, and that is okay, too, because what is by now rather easy to accept is that FC Barcelona is one of the best teams in the world, and is looking built to stay that way.

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Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts0 Comments

Barça 2, Valencia 0, “A fraught, “easy” win”

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A clean sheet and two goals as the home team strolled to a comfortable w …

Not so fast. This is a match with a scoreline that will in no way reflect how complex things were, making it almost a reverse of the Sevilla match in which the scoreline wasn’t reflective of how much Barça was in control.

It will also be considered for many an Enrique vindication and an example of the learning process that a coach goes through as he comes to grips with the immense task of controlling a world-class side. That Enrique has a capacity for learning is as without question as the unwillingness of too many to allow him the opportunity to get a handle on things.

Last week at Sevilla he made some controversial changes. Leaving aside the glaring errors that had more to do with the final result than anything Enrique did with his lineup, the focus of the culerverse is such that often the obvious is ignored for the more, shall we say, subtle. Pique cocked up the pass but the larger story was that Neymar was subbed off, as the one player capable of making Sevilla play more honest and press less because of the danger he represented in running behind their defense as they pushed forward.

Xavi was also controversial because he came on as Sevilla had decided that flooding the midfield with a pressing batch of as many as 8 players would be the way forward as on the key error, Busquets was stranded high and dry with one shot to influence that play. He just missed the ball, Reyes danced past him and that was that.

This week against Valencia, Enrique played a (shudder!) double pivot with Busquets and Mascherano, something that was a topic of discussion during the match, and deemed a failure by some because of the spirited Valencia display in that first half.

Yet what people fail to consider is what might have happened had Iniesta been in there instead of Mascherano, a player who, it is worth considering, might have made a difference against Sevilla last week. People also find it easy to lay failure at the feet of the aberration, but Adriano in effect had Barça playing with 10. Valencia decided the war would be fought in the midfield and after picking themselves up off the canvas in the wake of an absolutely stunning early Suarez goal, they set about grabbing the match by the scruff of the neck.

To say that they put Barça on the back foot would be an understatement, and they did it — as did Sevilla — in a way that demonstrated the necessity for change. If you have a midfield-based system and somebody presses the hell out of it, not allowing a clean pass, cutting off passing angles and contesting not only the passer but the receiver, what is a team to do besides evolve? People can have semantic daisy chains and chalkboard dissertations all they like, but Sevilla and Valencia showed exactly why Guardiola, Vilanova, Martino and now Enrique were experimenting with adaptations of the system that worked so well against a world that was unprepared for it.

And it wasn’t just Xavi, as once again the difference between running him out against fresh, pressing players vs tired ones late in a match became clear. It was the whole team, as well as a fundamental plank of the Barça attack going awry when Pique picked today of all days to have a poor match, falling prey to that unreliable beast called form. From a penalty to another wayward pass that almost resulted in a Valencia goal, this just wasn’t his day, even as he also turned in key interventions in the air and on the ground.

But because the defenders are key for attack starting at Barça by playing the right ball out of the back, this also makes that part of the Way subject to attack by a pressing opponent, particularly when the back line becomes the Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight.

Despite all that, the biggest part of the problem was the passive defending that reared its head for some inexplicable reason, as Barça cowered on the rocks of its own box like a Segunda side being stalked by a Primera predator in an early-round Copa match. Guardiola said that “we are crap without the ball.” The secret is that most teams are crap without the ball. Give an opponent enough shots at you, and one of them will probably work. It was only luck (a post and poor finishing) that allowed Barça to take its 1-0 lead into the locker room, making halftime a fraught time for culers.

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And then — and the veracity of this will depend on your view of the Barça coach — Enrique changed the match with a series of subs. The first was a sub and a tactical change: Rakitic came on for Adriano, Mascherano moved to the back line and Mathieu became the left back.

These three changes yielded a completely different match because the right side gained the defensive solidity that Rakitic brings when he is on the pitch as a true box-to-box midfielder (rather than the non-Xaviniesta that many scorn him for being). He worked with Alves and others a number of times to dispossess, slow down and break up Valencia attacks, regaining possession. He also helped control possession with runs and passes, and picked up a key yellow card to stop a Valencia break that was leading to a golden scoring chance.

Mathieu at LB didn’t just mean that we now had a functioning FB on that side. It meant that we had, in effect, a giant Alba out there, an LB who can get up the pitch with speed to lead a break, make the right cross and defend with facility. No looping balls over the top of his big ass, either. On three occasions he sparked breaks, and crosses that resulted in corners for Barça, putting Valencia on the back foot and giving them another thing to worry about, which they didn’t have in the first half as Adriano functionally did nothing.

Mascherano to the back line gave Pique what he needs when he isn’t being a boss: a fireman. Puyol ran around and put out fires when he stomped the terra for Barça. Was he a great CB? In the traditional sense, some might quibble even as in the fullest sense, nobody would argue for a microsecond about his greatness. But his greatest attribute for me was an essential rightness. Right spot, right pass, right intervention, right tackle. Mascherano, despite the assertion of many that he doesn’t have any real business playing CB, brings many of those Puyol-like qualities to the back line.

His fitness for being in the XI was being debated as he was making play after play, one described by Phil Schoen as a clearance “off the S on his chest.” More than that, Mascherano also brought some more Puyol to the dance as he brought the ball up to disarm the Valencia press, rather than passing it up.

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Enrique got the moves right which meant that where Valencia enjoyed the run of things in the first half, that team was now facing a complete Barça, with attackers on the right and left as well as a solid center that was as willing to battle for the ball as the flank players were. And there was also danger from all three directions. Distances were compressed, which meant that there were fewer spaces for Valencia defenders to chase balls, and the Enrique version of match control took full shape.

After a mess of a first half fraught with danger and complexity, the second was something of a assertive stroll through the woods in a match bracketed by goals in its first and last minutes.

That first goal was magnificent, and as sumptuous a warp-speed bit of football as you are likely to see this season. From the back line to Busquets to Messi to Suarez to the back of the net, each player dwelling on the ball for a fraction of a moment. The ball from Busquets to Messi was about as flawless a pass are you are going to see in football this season because it gave Messi all the time in the world. He didn’t even have to slow down, and he didn’t dally as he fed Suarez. The striker’s finish was unstoppable because he took it first time rather than controlling and waiting for Diego Alves to get set. Again, it’s the quality of the pass for him from Messi.

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The second goal was a consequence of Valencia (my hands keep wanting to type Sevilla) pressing for the late equalizer, and Messi getting behind the defense on a bust-out.

Another player who showed a capacity for learning is Claudio Bravo, who is as much in the running for MOTM as Mascherano. Guess who didn’t fist any balls away this week, coming at the world with palms out? Pique gives up the penalty and Enrique turned away in disgust, which turned to delight when Bravo made the save. And he didn’t just make the save. He caught it. Yes, it was a crap penalty, but lots of crap penalties go in if the keeper guesses wrong. Bravo nailed it, and two other immense saves today.

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Speculation about whether he is the right man for the job has long since dissipated even as he understands that he is a place holder for a young, talented German named Ter Stegen.

As I write this, it is with no idea if the points gap at the end of the Liga round is going to be 2 or 4 for Barça, but it doesn’t matter, because the only people this team need depend on share a locker room. This week, a Mathieu quote made news as he said, “Luis Enrique is a special person. He doesn’t talk a lot with us. We know what to do, but we don’t know what he thinks.”

There are many ways to interpret that statement:

“He isn’t cuddly. We don’t know if he likes horror movies or action films, but we know what he wants us to do on the pitch.”

“He tells us what we need to know to get the job done.”

“He doesn’t talk to the players. Told you his man-management skills sucked.”

The way that a culer chooses to interpret that Mathieu quote will of course depend on worldview, even as the results that the team is having this year as well as the way that the team is going about getting those results, points to a clear, communicative coach both on the pitch and in the locker room. It’s been said before, but set pieces and defending aren’t individual brilliance but work in a system.

Getting results is about clarity of vision, respect and execution. All three were on view today at the Camp Nou, and the result was a fraught-but-effective 2-0 win that keeps the slim Liga lead. And the team has to depend on itself to see this out. As with any other talented group, it’s hard to imagine they would want it any other way.

P.S. 400 goals for Messi. Holy crap. He’s only 27.

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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts126 Comments

The dimmer switch of opinion

“He’s the greatest!”
“He’s NOT the greatest!”

Being a football fan is being exposed to reactions like an on/off switch in a world that often requires a volume knob. Maybe the player, coach or technical director is neither the best nor the worst. Maybe he just is.

No, your manager, your star player, your icon sucks because he is human. He sucks because he is subject to the frailties that humans suffer: mental errors, a failing body, aging, crafty opponents, teams who want nothing more than to get something, anything against him.

But most of all, he sucks because we as supporters understand so little about what really happens on and (more importantly) off the pitch. We think we understand what we think we know, and rush to judgment often based on little more than ignorance and a hunch. “He can’t be like that, I know him too well.” Sorry, but for all we know Xavi dresses like Genghis Khan in his private life, and worships Satan. It isn’t possible for anyone to be as good as their devoted supporters believe.

So much that we see about a team we support, the players we slavishly follow is artifice. Laurence Fishburne can’t fly off a building. That’s Morpheus, a character he played in a movie. The players, the coaches aren’t pretending to be what they appear to be. But they are controlling, crafting and creating something for us. What is so beautiful about a player like Messi is that he just wants to play, just wants the ball. But if you think that some of the negative stuff that is ascribed to him can’t have happened because “He would never do that,” if you rush to his defense based on nothing more than a sheepish grin and a love of the game, reconsider.

We don’t know. We can’t know. But that very simple statement will cause someone to think, “He hates Messi.”

Something strange has happened to our game. Before there was Twitter and a world that moved at the speed of a voice with thousands of followers, things seemed more measured. There was a volume knob rather than an on/off switch. “Greatest ever!” “Sucks!” In between those two poles is a chasm of thoughtful discourse that gets plowed over like a tank rolling through a daisy patch.

It’s now, it’s immediate, it’s a need for a right now reaction. When the Bayern physio resigned Thursday, nobody knew why. That didn’t stop people from knowing exactly why. Some asked questions, and were called haters. Others seemed to criticize Guardiola and were excoriated for being blasphemers rather than for people who committed the simple error of a rush to judgment based on incomplete data. Reasons are essential. Barça drew because Enrique made the wrong subs. It isn’t the goal conceded through an error but the goal not scored that is the culprit. And here are tactical diagrams to prove it!

Like Barça, Bayern is a roiling cauldron of a fanbase, a team that comes with an expectation set that is even more oppressive than that of the Liga big two because there is only the big one in the Bundesliga. Sport, MD, AS and Marca all combined to go wacky on a single team. The most money, the biggest stars, the brightest transfers and two seasons ago, the most desirable coach in the game. Put all that stuff in a pot and you have the makings of a stew called crazytown.

When something happens, when anything that isn’t supposed to happen happens, it all begins. Culers understand this because we live and perpetrate it. In November, Enrique was a dead duck. It was criminal that the board didn’t fire him. He was arrogant, hated the press and treated them like crap. Probably treated his players the same way. Lucho out, with vehemence, aggression and extreme prejudice. Woe betide the person who said that we didn’t know yet, that we should give it time.

But football is old, wise and patient. It knows even when we don’t, and there are so many things that we are never, ever going to know. Enrique and Messi were on the outs. Lucho out! Just a training match row over a call? No! Never! How real was the crisis that the team faced after the inevitability of dropping points after an international break away to La Real? It depends on who you ask, but the simple thing is that we have absolutely no idea.

In many ways what the 24-hour news cycle, fueled by social media has done is create unmeetable expectations, a hunger that fuels extremism. A fanbase hears that a respected physio has resigned, a Vine of a manager reacting to something gets out and before you know it, lines are drawn and villains created.

What made Sir Alex Ferguson so extraordinary is that for decades, in a tempest of a league, he remained at or near the top. If you look at the Premiership champions list over the last two decades plus, United won 13 of 22 times. That is stupefying. What makes it even more incredible is that money and talent came to the Prem. Chelsea had a turn, then United resumed. Arsenal had a glorious year, then United returned. City got a couple, then United returned. And when Ferguson left, United stopped winning titles.

This is so astonishing not because of what United is and what it accomplished, but because that just doesn’t happen in this day and age. Strong squads, weak squads, injuries and clunky transfer decisions and United kept winning, defying the odds of everything that makes a manager suddenly suck. A couple of key injuries can reduce a contending squad to a Europa league aspirant. Through it all, Ferguson kept on winning. Guardiola amassed a crazy pile of titles during his Barcelona tenure, but time caught up to him, and he moved on to Bayern. Mourinho strikes sparks in the places he goes, but never stays long enough to establish a record, a tenure that makes a colossus. Wenger has stayed, but hasn’t won in a matter attendant to his status.

This all happens as men in short pants scurry about in a sea of expectations. Bayern lost 3-1 to a Porto team that played out of its mind, and capitalized on a couple of defensive errors. Sound familiar, culers, in that world where a draw is a loss?

The simple reality is that sustained excellence of the type that sees off challenger after challenger, that allows a single coach to keep winning and winning at the same club, is as impossible as supporters having a clue what is going on. The whole game has become like the transfer rumor business. “X player is coming for Y million. Talks are ongoing.” X player’s representative says that “Nothing is happening.” Supporters who are against the transfer say, “See? There?” Supporters who are for the transfer say, “But what else would they say?” Nobody knows and everybody knows.

In this space we have seen posts that there is no real right, no real knowledge until something actually happens. Suarez to Barça popped up and many including me called it crazy, based on what? Nothing at all, not even anything purporting to be logic. Wild-eyed supposition? Sure, why not? A doctor resigns, and sides are drawn. “Pep is right, Bayern’s injury record is ridiculous.” “Bayern started having a lot of injuries when Pep took over. His fault!”

The arguments fly, based on nothing more than like or dislike, because we don’t know and nobody will ever say for sure. So we chase logic and answers like the powder-faced fiends in Mack Sennett silent shorts. “It’s over there!” “No! Wait! Over there!” And the people who know don’t say, and don’t show.

Step back, sit tight. Because if this Bayern medicos business hasn’t taught the game something, it’s doubtful we will ever learn – not only about the value of knowledge, but about moderating a worldview. It isn’t what we like, it’s what we know. Not knowing should give us pause, rather than making us charge into a battle armored in little more than supporter-forged confirmation bias.

Posted in Analysis, Thoughts33 Comments

Sevilla 2, Barça, aka “Moments change a lot”

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Everything in sport comes down to a moment, sometimes less. Races are lost in hundredths of a second, a moment’s hesitation allows an opponent to get free. A moment is nothing, but sometimes it’s everything.

Barça’s draw to Sevilla came down to a trio of moments, all of which went Sevilla’s way: a Suarez miss, a Bravo misplay and a Pique giveaway. Another time, those plays go differently. Against a lesser opponent, the counterattacks don’t have the precision that Sevilla’s did. But on this day, these three moments were decisive.

More fascinating is that the moments and the resultant mistakes all have roots in how an exceptionally talented player is, which will directly affect the decision that he makes.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts115 Comments

Believing the unbelievable as the countdown begins

Fate owes us.

At the end of what seems an interminable cycle of fear, loathing and heartache, that damsel has some blaugrana debts to pay.

The notion of a team or group of supporters being “due” is an odd one, but for the record and from this chair, Fate owes the hell out of us. And as the team heads for Sevilla tomorrow, 4 points in the Liga lead with 8 matches to go, the Pollyanna in me just refuses to believe that Fate intends to be that cruel.

It has been quite a travail being a culer these past seasons. And whether Job and his trials, Sisyphus and his quest or any other figure of legend you can think of in an analogous fashion, it ain’t been easy. Let’s exclude the difficulties of the board’s own making and just manage things such as illness, death, personal tragedies befalling players and injuries galore. This stuff all combines to leave a culer wondering just when in the hell our beloved club is going to catch a break.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts58 Comments

History, Barça and you, aka “Respect the past, but don’t let it hobble”

My wife says that I am like a dog. Not in the Messi sense, but in the almost complete lack of history. It’s like when you go out the check the mail, come back and your dog does a happy dance: “You’re HOME! I didn’t think you were EVER coming back! This is the best day ever!”

That lack of history in many ways makes life happy, and complex. Its obvious roots are in the “be here now” worldview that shapes my life path, the lack of a desire to carry the burdens of the past around. But in a more practical sense a lack of history is, in theory, liberating. It also makes me rather ill-equipped to properly assess many aspects of FC Barcelona, in a way.

Does history provide context, or does it hamstring? Can a respect for history veer into a reverence that blinds? This question is in many ways at the core of the debate that culers are having about the direction of the team right now.
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Posted in Analysis, Thoughts83 Comments

Celta 0, Barça 1, aka “Sprites troll the world”

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FC Barcelona kept a clean sheet, and its lone goal came from a set piece.

We should pause a moment to let that sink in …

FC Barcelona kept a clean sheet, and its lone goal came from a set piece.

No matter how many times you repeat that, the absurdity of the statement won’t be in any way ameliorated. And it must be said that in some quarters, that statement is wrong. Barça doesn’t win matches like that. Excellent defending, a few last-ditch challenges and a set piece? Ugh. Can we give the win back?

Thankfully, no. And on a day that RM dropped 9 goals on an exceptionally compliant and distracted Granada, people kept talking about that match, and would it affect Barça, and was it on the players’ minds, blabla, etcetc. My guess is no. Because unlike Granada, Celta Vigo was a real team and they were at home. It was also the first match after the international break, a match in which Barça usually play like twice-filtered dung.

So what happened? Essentially, the same as La Real, the crisis inducer. Messi didn’t play the first half, and a defender headed in a goal. Only it was into the opponent’s net rather than our own, so instead of losing 1-0, Barça won 0-1. Everything else was the same: rampant opponent, poor play, a team that couldn’t string two passes together, an elevated game in the second half. But the difference between a win and a loss is just a few bounces of the ball sometimes.

After the match of course, Barça Twitter lit up with all the ways in which the team could have lost today. Here, various things were discussed, reasons why the team didn’t play up to its usual standard. Fact of the matter is that the team did play up (or down) to its usual post-internationals standard, so the reason for surprise is difficult to fathom. Anybody who wasn’t expecting a mess of a match just hasn’t been paying very much attention. And that’s okay, because this has been a season of shifting expectations and desires.

In the aftermatch picking over the carcass, a memory of an early bicycle race comes to mind, and a crazy situation that prompted me to say, “I almost crashed!” A more seasoned racer said, “You either crash or you don’t. There’s no such thing as an almost crash.” Same with dropped points. It either happens or it doesn’t, and we can breathe a sign of relief or not. Easy when you think about it, particularly in light of the reality that all three of the Liga podium are going to drop points this season. It’s unavoidable, given the fixture congestion.

What’s more interesting to me is how the team won this match. Essentially, Celta came out playing like a house afire, and Barça was awful. Social media would point to various culprits but really, except for Pique, Mathieu and Bravo, everybody was poor. Messi set up shop in the middle of the field, which left Rafinha wondering exactly what his job was. Alves was … if anyone has any ideas, please send them my way. Iniesta was giving away balls like Caga Tio, only nobody was hitting him upside the head.

But when the first half ended 0-0 after that Celta onslaught, smart money said that Barça was going to win because they couldn’t play any worse, and Celta couldn’t play any better. That’s what happened: Barça raised its game, and Celta came down to earth a bit. More interestingly, Barça was again the fitter team, finding its collective legs as Celta’s players were flagging, amid growing frustration that manifested itself in a red card for a Celta player for throwing something or other at Busquets.

This wasn’t only the second time that Barça have driven an opponent to throwing something. It was a symbol of what this team has become: a massive pain in the ass.

Earlier this season I said, even as people giggled at me and questioned my sanity or whether it was even a good thing, that Barça was taking on the character of its coach. It was becoming a tough, hard-edged, pugnacious bunch that would take a blow, stick its chin out and fight back. Today’s match, just like the Classic, was an example of a tough, fit, resilient team that can not only outplay, but outwait its opponent, taking advantage of a moment of weakness to gain an advantage.

The Suarez goal in the classic can be scoffed at as the old, evil individual brilliance. But the Mathieu goal in the Classic and today for the match winner, is just another example of what Enrique has been doing with this football team, because set piece goals happen on the training pitch. Last season, culers bemoaned the fact that opponents were scoring set piece goals, but Barça had not a chance. This season, Barça is scoring set piece goals, and not conceding them. This is a good thing. So is the fight in the team.

There is still talk of Enrique not being close to the players, etc, whatever in the hell that means. But they don’t have to gather around the campfire and have milk and cookies. They have to work together and respect each other enough to give of their best. That is this Barça. No sane culer should really give two craps that the team isn’t blasting Coldplay in the locker room, watching “Gladiator” videos and getting hugs from a weeping coach. That was the past. In the present, this team is a nasty bunch. It fights, tactical fouls and gets under the opponent’s skin. Arda Turan didn’t try out for the boot throwing Olympic team because he was a happy lad, just as Orellana didn’t sidearm a bit of fauna at Busquets out of barely controlled delight. Both players were pissed, and Barça was the reason. Again, this is good.

Change has been coming for a while, the kind of change that used to spark wistful sighs and talk of a tougher team, as some opponent bullied our wee ones. Well, they’re tough. And that’s cool. Celta had chances, and those chances were dealt with. Barça had chances, that were mostly screwed up until Mathieu’s most excellent use of his noggin that was, by the by, a very difficult goal. And the team won. It sounds simple, and it kinda was simple even as the match seemed fraught to many, because that’s what matches do.

But whatever you feel about the win and the way that it was obtained, assessments that will line up culers on either side of a divide, the hope is that we can all agree on one thing: Barça is badass, and that’s good.

"I'm so bad, I don't even have to close my fly!"

“I’m so bad, I don’t even have to close my fly!”

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Tactics, Thoughts132 Comments

The rest of the season, aka “Dancing the sardana through a minefield”

So. The Classic win was immense, leaving Barça with a 4-point lead in the Liga standings and culers with much rejoicing. But here’s why you shouldn’t be planning that victory parade yet.

The rest of the season for Barça is a nasty collection of collisions. Let’s have a look, and compare to the RM run in later.

5 April, away to Celta
8 April, home for Almeria
11 April, away to Sevilla
15 April, away to PSG in Champions League
19 April, home for Valencia
21 April, home for PSG in Champions League
26 April, away to Espanyol
29 April, home for Getafe
3 May, away to Cordoba
10 May, home for La Real (we owe them one)
17 May, away to Atleti
24 May, hope for Depor
30 May, Copa final

If, and that’s a significant if, given the fixture congestion, Barça get past PSG, the semi-finals are 5-6 May and 12-13 May, putting them before La Real and Atleti.

Many declared the week that just finished, with City in Champions League and then the Classic as season-defining. No. The season-defining stretch is the two weeks from Celta to Valencia. In a dream world, Barça would get through those 5 matches without dropping points. If that happens, expect me to sprout wings and be able to save money on airfare by flying myself to Barcelona for elections this summer.

Celta will be right after international break, and Sevilla will be in their house, where they are unbeaten this season. Get past them and there’s a resurgent Valencia and of course, PSG waiting. RM has a comparative cake walk.

5 April, home for Granada
8 April, away to Rayo
12 April, home for Eibar
14 April, away to Atleti in Champions League
18 or 19 April, home for Malaga
22 April, home for Atleti in Champions League
25 April, away to Celta
28 April, home for Almeria
2 May, away to Sevilla
9 May, home for Valencia
16 May, away to Espanyol
23 May, home for Getafe

The days of the Liga “gimme” are gone, but I don’t think any culer would rather be looking at Granada, Rayo, Eibar and Malaga in league, than Celta, Almeria, Sevilla and Valencia. I’m sure that conspiracy theorists will be having a field day, but picking lineups that can get the job done while preserving key players for key matches is going to be a nightmare for Enrique. The news that Thomas Vermaelen trained with the squad today is of pretty much zero help, because in a system that bases its magic on its three forwards, you kinda need those dudes all the time.

Messi wants to play all the time anyhow. Suarez is actually benefiting from his ban that essentially makes him a half-season player this year. Neymar is the worry point, because his game doesn’t allow him to rest within matches as Messi’s does. He’s either going fast or he’s ineffective. An effective system that incorporates Pedro will need to be devised, and look for Xavi and Rafinha to play increasing roles as the season progresses.

The only consolation for culers will be that RM is going to drop points as well, but we shouldn’t forget that 8 matches ago, Barça was 4 points down to RM in the standings, and people were saying the Liga was lost. So, moderation in everything with the operative phrase of one match at a time. Personally, I will be feeling better about things if Barça can manage to survive the 4-match stretch from Sevilla to Espanyol. With 5 days rest before “traveling” to Espanyol, that should be a less fraught encounter.

What will happen? If I knew that I would put some money down on something or other. I have some ideas, though:

Wins against Almeria and Celta, though the latter will require some energy, leading to …
A draw against Sevilla in their house
Away draw at PSG
Home win against Valencia
Home win against PSG
Win at Espanyol, but it will be close, fraught and nasssssty
Win at Cordoba
Win against La Real (could be a draw if the Champions League semis happen.)
Loss to Atleti
Win to close out the season against Depor

You math majors will see that if RM runs the table for the 10 remaining matches, and assuming a win vs La Real rather than a draw, that would make RM Liga champions by virtue of the head-to-head goal differential at the tiebreaker. But if they run the table they would, frankly, have accomplished something extraordinary. So are you worried yet? Don’t be. One match at a time and as usual, speculation, caveats and quibbles are welcome.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, La Liga, Thoughts40 Comments

Barça aesthetics: The judges have decided to give it a 2

enrique

After the cheering stops … no sooner have the echoes of the exultant roars of the very last goal dissipated than the ripping at the carcass begins.

Cruijff likes the result, but didn’t like the football. Various post-match recaps describe Barça as more RM-like than RM. Another says that this Classic put the knife well and fully into tika taka, and assuredly killing off that phrase wouldn’t be at all bad. On Revista the topic is the RM resurgence, how they look like a good team again with Luka Modric back.

Which side of the 2-1 scoreline was Barça on, and has it really come down to theoretical football? In the wake of everyone and their mamas talking tactics and formations, it seems that Barça didn’t really play football before 2008. In those Dark Ages the team stomped around the pitch like mastodons, working off cave drawings instead of actual formations.

In the wake of a Classic that Barça won to go 4 points ahead of RM, hunks are being flayed from the team’s hide from all quarters. It doesn’t even matter that the beast isn’t wounded, or damaged in any way. It COULD have been and WILL be.
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Posted in Analysis, Champions League, La Liga, Thoughts33 Comments

Classic tactics, and just how important IS the midfield today?

Mere hours away now, as that weird feeling starts to build. For me, the left corner of my mouth begins to twitch involuntarily, a stress reaction. So let’s think about some stuff, to take our minds off.

A great many things were different when these two teams last squared off. RM was the best team that anyone had ever seen except for maybe Guardiola’s Barça. Ronaldo was BdO rampant and Kroos was daisy-fresh.

On the Barça side of the aisle there was much uncertainty. Suarez started, even though he was nothing approximating match fit or confident, and Enrique was still figuring out the parts that he had to work with.

My, how times change. Time to look at some key battlegrounds for this one, and try to suss what might happen.
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Posted in Analysis, El Clasico, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts60 Comments

El Clasico: the biggest, most meaningful match that doesn’t matter that much

The big one.

It’s almost time for the biggest match of the season that doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as people think it surely must, the Classic, Barça v RM, top of table vs second place.

You can ladle on all kinds of stuff, Messi/Ronaldo, Bale/Neymar, midfield vs midfield now that Modric is back, that flank battleground that tipped things in their favor as Marcelo ran rampant. TV stations are filling up hours and hours of coverage and supporters of both sides are worried sick, creating all sorts of ways that their team will lose, they all assert publicly as in their own fevered imaginations they are creating victory scenarios.

History needs this match — big, nasty and undiluted by the incessant frequency of recent seasons, when the two Liga giants seemed to be knocking heads every other week. How in the hell is anyone supposed to get ramped up to face a team in the Most Giantest Match EVAR, when just last month you faced that same team in … well … the BIGGEST MATCH EVAH!

This season, fate has conspired to return hyperbole to normal. Two Classics, home and away, unsullied by Copa or Champions League meetings, as it should be for two opponents made bedfellows by history, rancor and shared excellence.

At the beginning of the match, Barça will be sitting with a 1-point lead in the standings over RM, a lead that culers are worried about because they have already forgotten how they deemed their team a downright mess, a crisis-laden lot that would be lucky to finish third in the Liga. That’s in the past. In the present is a Liga that is in the balance, a Liga never won that was declared lost time and time again after an Anoeta assault followed by Malaga madness.

And so it will be again should Barça lose on Sunday.

But the reason that this match doesn’t really matter as much as so many people suggest is that it’s just another match in the standings. This isn’t like the Super Bowl of American football, a hype-fest in which gibbering loons slather a Roman-numeraled gladiator fest with mammoth piles of excess. The Classic is a regular-season match that history and animus makes into something more than it actually is.

Win or lose, both of the main title contenders (but don’t be shocked if Atleti makes that late-season run) will drop points this season. The Classic isn’t going to decide the Liga. The Mestalla is, the Sanchez Pichuan is, a host of other little grounds have the potential to upset the apple cart of expectations. Sevilla has not lost at home this season. Valencia is sitting and plotting, resurgent and rampant under its coach, Laurence Fishburne. There is worry at every weekend, disaster potential made all the more acute by Champions League quarterfinal matches that throw a Wednesday match in before a Saturday match.

The Classic is the big one. Let’s understand that. But it’s the big one for reasons that really have precious little to do with a mere 3 points in the standings. In the past, the situation of the Liga truly was minnows vs giants. When Barça and RM faced off in a world in which draws were the new losses, scoreboard stasis was the only hope that lesser sides had. The Classic WAS the league. Win that, and the lead, standings permitting, would be sufficient to make the victor’s supporters ready to plan victory parade routes.

These days, the Liga isn’t interested in rolling over and showing its belly. Some of this is due to giants hobbled a bit by form and aging superstars. Some of it is the talent assembly line that is Liga academies creating home-grown troublemakers. Pressure, form, injuries, rotation all combine to make the Liga more a gauntlet to be run than a procession to be enjoyed. It’s not only a lot more fun, but in many ways it robs the Classic of its league-deciding import even as the historic aspects of the match remain, and those are sufficient to made us giddy with anticipation.

Just look at the roster, man! Any team would be thrilled to have even one of the names that will be sitting on the bench for either side in this match, never mind the starting XIs. These are the best of the best, players who combine to make an everyday XI seem a fantasy football league where you got the cheat code and an unlimited budget in Football Manager. How can two groups of players of that quality meet, and that match NOT mean everything in the world.

The Classic is a victim of its own hype, and the supporters of each team fall prey to that inflation. It’s 3 points in the standings. Win the Classic and lose the Liga? It’s very possible as each combatant has three or four matches that could prove its undoing, even after this clash that will decide the fate of the world.

So should you worry about the outcome of this match? Well, hell yes, you should. It’s Them, the eternal rival, the Aging Peacock and the Cafeteria Lady, buttressed by the return of the Accountant and He Who Hits No One. RM is a very dangerous football team, made all the more so for having strengths that play to Barça weaknesses, multiple threats that can all scrabble at the lock of a defense that defends more by influence than actual defending.

But you should worry because you hate like fiery Hell to lose to that team, rather than because it will mean winning or losing the Liga, because it won’t. Win or lose, it won’t. Win, and Barça is 4 points to the good, with visits looming to Atleti, Sevilla and Valencia, not to mention the Catalan Derby. If RM win, Valencia is coming to town, not to mention that visit to Sevilla or a faceoff against traditional bogey team, Getafe.

I will bust out my luckiest kit, scream until I am hoarse and fall from things. But it will be because I hate the opponent. Not because I think winning or losing this match will be truly decisive.

What will happen?

It’s hard to say. On paper you have to favor RM, who was sitting at home watching Barça run around and press like crazy Sprites on Wednesday. Around the 40th minute is when that reality might start to creep in, and around the 70th minute is when the advantage might show for the fresher team.

When these teams first met, Barça was still this embryonic force fraught with uncertainty. Neymar scored early, then he and Messi missed bang-on excellent chances that had the potential to make that match a very, very different affair. That’s easy to forget, even as the Potential Game dooms us to speculative Hades. The 3-1 loss was closer and more interesting than the scoreline indicated.

For this match, form is an interesting thing. Some suggest that they are trending down while Barça is trending up. That remains to be seen. What isn’t in doubt is that the two most important players for each side are the secondary superstars, Bale and Neymar. If either has an exceptional match, I suspect his team will win. Jordi Alba will have to be at his Yaya-felling best, and Neymar will have to develop the swagger that he had in the early season, and edge that saw him scoring almost for fun.

Neymar will be Barça’s key player. Messi will be big match Messi. Count on that. The real question will be the effect that Neymar can have on the RM defense that still doesn’t quite know how to deal with his disruptive effect. If he has a good match and scores a goal, it’s easy to see a 3-1 Barça win. If his recent scoring form holds, things become a lot more complex.

An added problem is that the wide-open Barça attack will have to be reined in to keep from playing into RM’s hands. Want to play run-and-gun football? Whee! Let’s do this. The beauty of our team being able to play many different styles is that it will need to shift gears and keep the damn football. This won’t be easy against their midfield, which will feature a fresh Modric just back from injury, and a rested Kroos, not to mention the constant threat of Isco. Culers who discount their threat do so at their own peril.

I love this match, even as it fills my gut with bile and my heart with fear. Rationally, it’s only three stinkin’ points. But the Classic is ruled by irrationality, and that’s what makes it so beautiful, so compelling as a sporting event.

Posted in Analysis, El Clasico, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts21 Comments

Take what you need, need what you take

In my day job at the Chicago Tribune I often work with our film critic, whom I tease with some regularity about his “job.” “You go to movies and interpret what you saw. That ain’t no job. That’s Saturday night.”

He takes it in good humor because he’s a super-nice guy, and he knows I’m kidding. But I got to thinking about interpretation and seeing what we see when a spate of “We still kinda suck” broke out like a brush fire, in Barça Twitter.

Interpretation is fascinating, because of the different experiences that people bring to a situation. You go to dinner and order a steak, with a salad and steak fries. It comes. You eat it, pay your bill, pat your tummy like a sated bear and drive home.

At the table next to you is a dining critic, who orders the exact same dish. He eats it, and in the weekend paper is a piece about the low-grade dog food that caused you to coo in contentment.

Both perspectives are perfectly valid. In a way, we return to the notion of subjectivity always being right, no matter the view. More interesting to explore is the idea of need, as in what do people need from a thing such as Barça. At its basest level, it’s validation. We follow this team and it wins, therefore we are better than you.

Adding layers of complexity to this is the Internet, with its blogs, comment spaces and social media, where suddenly people who until now were limited to haranguing friends with their views on Messi and how Barça is playing, have a forum. It’s fun, but it’s also the profoundest nonsense that too many take entirely too seriously. The professional journalists are working. Everybody else is just wanking.

But that forum also gives us a textbook example of expectation and how it affects what we see. Take as a for instance, when Barça dismantled Atleti at the Camp Nou. Atleti packed the midfield, ready to do battle there on the traditional battleground upon which football matches are won or lost. The midfield. Like the high ground of war textbooks, to win it is to win everything.

Barça bypassed the midfield. Or did it? Necessity or talented happenstance? Dependent upon what you wanted to see, it was tactical nous that outsmarted an opponent by simply bypassing the midfield, or you sighed into your martini at how Enrique has forsaken the midfield, the thing upon which Barça football is based.

It all depends on what you need from the team. Was Pep Guardiola a genius, or a good-but-lucky coach who parachuted into a team that was primed and ready to explode, a coach who couldn’t continue to get results as his team aged and opponents caught on? What do you need? In a recent poll, 16% of respondents thought that selling Messi was a good idea. So is it that 84% of people want to keep Messi, or 16% are crazy? What do you need from the Messi situation?

To be a football supporter is in many ways a prescription for perpetual unhappiness. A win is never just a win, a loss is never just a loss. Right or wrong ways are always part of the debate, again based on what someone wants to see. There is no right or wrong. When the dining critic says that the meal that you just had sucks, it doesn’t invalidate your perceived quality of said meal, or the satisfaction derived from ingesting it. It’s just another view of the same event. Back when I reviewed concerts, my favorite huffy response began, “I don’t know what show you saw, but … ”

“We won, but they got at our defense way too easily. The keeper had to make three saves. If he doesn’t do that, the match probably has a different outcome. We could easily have lost.”

An attacker is on a break and at the last instant Mascherano wins the ball with a slide tackle. One announcer will say, “Brilliant intervention by Mascherano, to win the ball and stop the attack.” Another announcer will say, “Yet another rash challenge where he dived in at the last. That could have been a penalty.” Funniest of all is that both assessments are right and wrong. They are subjective assessments of a reality. Only Mascherano knows what his intention was, and he ain’t talking about it.

There is a need to have Barça be something, represent something. When Tata Martino’s side beat Rayo 4-0 but lost possession, it was as if the scoreline didn’t matter, as something fundamentally off had occurred: Barça didn’t win possession. It is still, to my view, the absolutely apogee of football navel-gazing taken to its most absurd conclusion, and simultaneously the most flawless example of need-based analysis. But that need had a great many layers, all rooted in an extraordinary stretch of football by an excellent team that won everything.

The biggest flaw of Martino for many is that he wasn’t Pep Guardiola. He didn’t play the Guardiola way because he wasn’t Pep Guardiola. He saw the necessity for playing a different way and tried it, but he wasn’t … you know. So the Rayo match was a win that became a loss because of the need that people have to get something from a situation, so the situation is shaped to meet the need.

Xavi is correct when he says that Barça is neither as good as people say, or as bad as they say. Gary Neville, who has seen and played just a couple of football matches during his time, wrote a piece for the Telegraph that was more of an ode, a sonnet to the beauty of the way Barça played against City. Just the day before a Daily Mail columnist, Jeff Powell, wrote a column that in effect called Messi a flat-track bully beating up on a crap City, a never-will-be who hasn’t won a World Cup and isn’t even as good as Cristiano Ronaldo.

Two very different views of the same match, making it important that we think as much about what we need to see as what we actually “saw.” When Messi nutmegged James Milner, what did it mean except that Messi isn’t getting a holiday card from Milner? Interesting question.

So when people hold forth — including, and especially me — with views on what happened at a Barça match and what they think they might have seen, read it, but whistle the Bullshit Song while you do because again, reality is the scoreline. Everything else is interpretation.

Like legal action against the club, “Hey, wait, this team ain’t all that good” pops up right at the times when supporters are most happy and euphoric, linguistic cold water in giddy faces. “Stop that, fools. Things are far from being that good. Don’t believe results.” There is talk of the Treble, talk of a win on Sunday meaning the league, views that meet a need, in this case anticipation of a good event.

You go on a job interview and you think it went really well. You have your office picked out, and wonder how your first day will be. You’re negotiating salary in your mind, and mapping out the best transportation route to your new place of business. Then one week becomes two and you wonder if they somehow lost your phone number. You call, and hear that the position has been filled. And that’s that. Anticipation of a good event led to misunderstanding what actually happened. Maybe your dazzling answers to interview questions doomed you as too glib. Maybe your resolute, business-like quality was interpreted as being dour and sullen, making you a poor fit to be part of that group.

You will never know, but the need leads to an interpretation of a situation. The players are winning in spite of Enrique, or Enrique has created a situation in which the team can play a new, more dynamic way. Take what you need, just don’t misinterpret that acquisition as something other than what it is: your needs being met.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts15 Comments

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