Archive | Analysis

Barça 2, Depor 2, aka “What have we learned?”

xavi

It has been about Xavi all along. This whole season, the twists and turns, everything we have learned and experienced, from Enrique convincing him to stay to his coming to terms with his new role and executing it flawlessly has been about the Maestro teaching all of us, from the newest culer to the most wizened denizen of the entorno, something wonderful.

Patience.

So many things make so much sense when we try to reason them out.

At the beginning of this season, my reasons that Barça wasn’t going to win any silver this season, but would be ready to rock and roll next season made perfect sense. New coach, new system, new things to learn, a big batch of new players to integrate into an unforgiving system as well as having a key part of that system essentially unavailable for the first half of the season. It just didn’t make sense to believe that team would win silver.

Couple that with major rivals who had improved in the summer, who were loaded and ready for bear and there was just no rational way to believe that the team, as it sat before the start of the season, was going to win stuff.

Lesson learned.

That team, the one that a great many supporters believed was not up to it, poorly run and had lost its way, took part in a glorious celebration of the Liga championship today, at home, on a day that made everyone happy. Xavi got to ride off into the figurative sunset having hoisted the trophy. Depor never stopped fighting, and earned the draw that allowed them to avoid the drop, fans got a party. It was a day on which everybody won, even tissue manufacturers as culers needed piles of them to soak up the tears.

In a sport where change is necessary and turnover almost guaranteed, it boggles the mind to think of a player battling for the same club for his entire career, essentially. Yes, Xavi is headed for Qatar to perform his duties there, but it isn’t the same. It isn’t putting on the Blaugrana and striding into battle, or clashing for his national team. And there was Xavi, more than 700 matches and more than a decade in the colors, shedding tears as he waved goodbye (for now).

To cap the lessons of the day and season, how fitting was it that a player who was struggling in the face of more fashionable midfielders back in the day, overcame all of that to become the reference. It was the value of patience, of not rushing to judgment, of keeping the view on the long picture. The game came to Xavi, and Xavi owned it.

toss

Patience is something that was in very short supply this season, one that has turned out pretty wonderful by any standard. And it isn’t a news flash to state that this was an exceptionally difficult season to be a supporter of FC Barcelona. It was nasty, divisive and angry, savage and impatient as a group chafed when something magical somehow came to be considered some sort of birthright.

The team wasn’t playing right, nor with the right players. Formations were wrong, what it was doing was wrong, the results were a sham, an empty triumph as they weren’t achieved in the right way. A fanbase spent the season at each others throats in an odd sort of Crusades.

The Guardiola Treble season was this thing that rushed past before anyone really had the chance to figure out what was happening. The team kept winning, kept doing wonderful things on a football pitch and suddenly, soci cards with 6 cups on it were being mailed out. “Huh? What?”

This season, when the team has the chance to make history again by performing a feat that few teams have ever achieved, never mind achieving twice, we’ve all been too busy fighting each other to fully enjoy it. And it’s a shame. Winning is the most wonderful thing that an athlete can do, and the most wonderful thing that a group of supporters can have the opportunity to witness. And at the risk of being branded a fool who only cares about results, winning is wonderful however it happens.

That is so easy to forget as a once-in-a-lifetime group of players led by a wee Argentine genius makes us forget just how hard winning is. Last year, even with a temp coach, a pile of injuries and enough psychological trauma to have any normal human sitting in a corner blubbering, this amazing team came with 5 goals of being in for a shout at a treble. Again. Five goals.

The coach who got them so close is all but forgotten. He came up short, had stupid BBQs when he should have been running the players hard, etc, his achievements washed away in a blizzard of misunderstanding. With so much talk about how the board is wasting the careers and time of great players by not giving the team all of the tools that it needs to succeed, it sometimes feels like we, as supporters, are wasting time fighting and staking out space.

“If you want to win like that, go ahead … ”

I want to win, and I don’t give two shits how. It’s hard to explain how happy winning the Liga made me. It’s silly when you consider how the exploits of a group of athletes brings so much joy and despair in equal measures, but that’s sport. It was a triumph that came in the face of a world being against the team that I love. Not just rivals, but many of its own supporters.

No, this isn’t telling anyone how to support a club, or calling anyone out for being insufficiently culer, or any of the other stuff that warring factions have hurled at each other this season of staring into a nonexistent abyss. It’s more an observation, and a plea that has roots in a personal observation.

My wife and I don’t fight. It isn’t that we don’t have conflict, or don’t believe in fighting. We just don’t believe in wasting even a second of time doing anything other than loving each other as much as we can, of recognizing that the time you waste is gone forever. We have always been that way, even when younger. We don’t, as humans, have time to waste. The ticking of seconds brings all of us inevitably closer to the end of our lives.

That realization tends to make me seem rather silly to some folks, as I leap up from my office chair in the mid-afternoon and shout, “Shake break!” It’s an occasional ritual where I go to get a chocolate milkshake. Why? Because it makes me happy. I rearrange my days so that I can ride the train home with my wife. Why? Because it makes me happy. Life should be filled with as much joy as it can possibly be, and sport is part of that joy.

enrique

Hell, in many ways a goal that is scrabbled out in the 93rd minute from a broken play against a parked opponent brings even more joy than a 7-0 destruction. That sense of having overcome adversity is magical, and unifying. You hug a complete stranger and dance around the room for no other reason other than your joy needs to have a bulwark of humanity to splash against. It’s more fun watching matches with the Chicago Penya because of that, because of the shared experience of loving Barça.

At the end of a Liga season during which so, so much has been found wanting, I learned a lot, and not just how happy being wrong can make me. Most of what I learned was patience. New signings arrived, and were deemed inadequate before they had even had the Camp Nou presentation. Rakitic wasn’t Kroos. Bravo wasn’t Keylor Navas. Mathieu was a year too late and overpriced, as we could have gotten him for less last season. Rafinha isn’t Thiago, and why did they have to sell him. Vermaelen is a waste of money, Douglas a corrupt payoff to Traffic. Ter Stegen might be fine later, but he’s young and error-prone, just you wait. Suarez was the only signing that anyone liked.

Patience lets things unfold, patience waits before making a judgment. What if Xavi had thrown up his hands, and skulked away from Barça in failure? What of the joys we would have missed? The career of Xavi is one long, glorious paean to patience, and not just in persevering at the club that he loved. The way he plays is patient, from the constant looks around even when he doesn’t have the ball so that when he does have it, he can extend time and be patient, because he already knows how the world is around him. It’s the first touch that caresses the ball with absolute certainty, extending time because of all the things he has to worry about, knowing where the ball is isn’t one of them.

Patience, always patience. Pep Guardiola didn’t receive much notice or belief when he said that Enrique would do great, would do better than he did, even. And why should he, really? People who don’t know, know better and I was one of those people. You wonder if Guardiola looked at what the team had and what it acquired, understood how Rakitic was going to develop, what Bravo had, the look in Messi’s eye and what Enrique did at Celta, and knew in that way that people with vision understand. Was the wonder of this season’s Messi forged in that painful, longing look he gave the World Cup trophy? Dunno.

Guardiola was patient as the Barça coach, as he is now as the Bayern coach. It takes time to build a system, to create the automatic acts being performed by the right people. Many believe the 2011 Barça squad was better than the Treble-winning side because that team was the epitome of this, an organism functioning at its highest level. Treble Barça was a lightning strike, but that double-winning Barça was a rollercoaster ride of constant beauty as momentum swept a delirious fanbase along.

But it took time to build that juggernaut. And patience.

In two weeks’ time this season will, for better or worse, be over. And I can honestly say that I have enjoyed every second of it, every goal, every win. It has been a season not stalked by tragedy and heartache. But more than all of that, I have learned a lot from people who are smarter that me, people who are even more patient than me, not only because that’s what we’re supposed to do. We are supposed to cling to joy even as we understand that joy, by its very nature, is fleeting.

But if there was one thing I could change about this season that has been joyful almost from the first clean sheet to the title celebration today, it would be the anger, the joyless quality that permeated so much of this year. The team triumphed because at some point in time the players realized that the entire team, from coaching staff and equipment manager to players, were all in it together. They might agree or disagree, but if the boat was going to reach its destination, everybody was going to have to pull on the same oars, just as hard. Xavi helped forge that bond, even as your mind says “Of COURSE he did.”

Xavi is leaving because he feels that it is the right time, and not athletically. He has been, in every way, Capita this season, in preparing the team for his absence. They are together. That unity has been the most exquisite thing about this club, even when it leads to things that make us scream, like players foregoing shots to pass to a teammate. I don’t know if this team will win the treble this season. But I know that great players united can’t be defeated. They might lose a match, but they will never be defeated. You get the feeling Thomas Vermaelen is going to get a lot of hugs and SMS messages after his almost heartbreaking quote, “I won the Liga title but I don’t feel like it’s mine. These players aren’t just the best in the world but excellent people.”

And as culers, we should strive to reach the same heights as the players we so enjoy, and in many cases, revere. Because that makes the beautiful game even more so, and who doesn’t love beauty.

group

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts7 Comments

Xavi and the Qatar question

This isn’t a time for ranting, or moral high horses.

Nor is it a time for unquestioning fealty.

This is a time to discuss, to understand the Xavi decision and his destination even as it is a discussion that should be prefaced with “It really isn’t any of our damned business.”

In many ways it is symmetrical that Xavi leaves, controversially for some, for a cush gig in Qatar. He is blaugrana to the core and just like the club made a deal for its shirt with an entity that many supporters would rather it not, so did Xavi. That statement can stand aside from the all of the avarice, rancor and mistrust connected to the board. And when an inquiring culer wonders why, the obvious answer might be that Xavi took one for the team.

The idea of “taking one for the team” is an odd thing and make no mistake about it, if there is a shard of truth to rumors, Xavi took one for the only team more important to him than Barça: his family and its future. As the ultimate team player, this makes sense. We will never know if Barça made the deal with Qatar because that entity had the most money and the club had needs. We will never know if the board held its nose and dove in, or something else. We can’t know, even as we can castigate for that decision. It isn’t a stain on the shirt because it is Qatar. It’s a stain on the shirt because it is selling a chunk of the club’s soul. Does it nibble at the illusion that it isn’t all for money in ways that other prostitutes justify their decisions in mirrors an hour or day later? You bet. It was the stuff of romance, the “unsullied” shirt front. Even when there was no “Qatar Foundation,” there was the Nike swoosh.

But only the most gullible would suggest that there are not complexities with Qatar these days, related to its World Cup bid. Xavi going to play for Al Sadd isn’t the thing that makes eyebrows rise. Being the World Cup ambassador is something different. The aspects of the Qatar 2022 World Cup bid — the human rights abuses which have been well documented amid allegations of bribery and a corrupted process, make you wonder about that part of Xavi’s deal. No, sports and politics shouldn’t mix. But the 2022 WC problems aren’t politics. These are the occurrences of documented things that shouldn’t be going on, and Xavi is an athlete choosing to align himself with those things, directly or indirectly, for money.

I don’t know how and what Xavi thought about that process, whether there were heartfelt conversations around a table at the family home where the greater good was considered to outweigh any sorts of moral complications. The romantic in me wants to believe that, wants to believe that Xavi understands how complex this is, even if you don’t think politics belongs in sport. Because people are dying to create a World Cup in Qatar. Actually dying. One organization estimates that more than 4000 migrant workers will die by the time the first match kicks off in Qatar. A very recent Amnesty International report finds that despite the lip service being paid to improving migrant worker conditions, precious little is being done.

One website ran an intemperate screed that excoriated Xavi for his decision, using hyperbolic words such as “besmirching,” etc. But it just isn’t that easy, the decisions that people make. As an athlete, with the futures of the people you love at stake, what do you do? Athlete and idol, genius on and off the pitch with unwavering views on everything, Xavi is his own man. He is also the greatest footballer I have ever seen. And we need to put that into perspective for the people who scream “Fool! How can you watch Messi and say that! Stupid!”

Messi is a goalscorer who is growing into a great footballer. Xavi swears that Iniesta is a better footballer than he is, because Xavi understands. A footballer doesn’t just play in a game … he owns it, controls it even when he isn’t doing something to directly manage it. Messi at times drops in like a divine being, sprinkles stardust then jets off to wherever he goes when he’s being Taxicab Messi.

When Xavi plays football, he becomes football — the living, breathing embodiment of full involvement. The goal that he scored in the legendary manita is a goal that few players could have scored. The vision, the touch, the control and presence of mind were all otherworldly. He made it look so easy, but it really is one of the best goals you will ever have the pleasure of witnessing.

When an athlete … a genius athlete, makes a decision that causes us to wonder, it’s only natural to consider not only the decision but our own reaction. What would we do in that person’s shoes is one of the crucial questions. Holding the moral high ground in some situations is easy because it’s theoretical. “I would NEVER do such a thing. That’s disgusting.” It’s easy to answer questions that we will never be asked. That reality shades every last aspect of any move an athlete makes that might be questioned on non-sporting grounds. A player gets in a bar fight because some eejit prodded, pressed and goaded. “He should have shown restraint.” Easy to say.

This means that those of us who are bothered by the Xavi decision have precious little more than a theoretical leg to stand on. The hyperbolic ranting is over the top, and doesn’t treat the question, the situation, with the nuance that it deserves. Athletes are not role models. We don’t pay them to be role models, even as they are idolized and reap the benefits of that idolatry. Perhaps the broader question is whether being in the public eye in that way should be accompanied by an attendant awareness that “Hey, people look up to me.” Maybe.

Or maybe as private citizens, what athletes do is their business and theirs alone. Does it really matter to anyone who Tiger Woods messes around with, or how often? And if he was still hitting golf balls like he used to, would any of his peccadilloes really matter? Xavi is a Barça legend, a club icon who deserves the right to decide his future. But the question is the question: How do we come to grips with the decisions that our heroes make? To not discuss them is as incorrect as stomping around and hurling brickbats from staked-out high ground.

Xavi choosing to become an ambassador to the Qatar World Cup doesn’t mean that he endorses the appalling working conditions and tragic deaths any more than Guardiola did with his Qatar WC work, any more than buying an iPhone means that anyone is okay with the deaths that occurred at Chinese factories. But what does it mean? Maybe the ultimate value of asking the questions is that the process helps us come to grips with our own realities in crucial ways. You can’t say “I wouldn’t do what Xavi did.” You aren’t Xavi. This doesn’t mean you can’t be bothered by his decision, wonder what you might do in his place and hope that thinking about that will guide you in the next quandary that you might need to resolve.

Posted in Analysis, Thoughts35 Comments

The man, the Maestro, the “Inevitable Xavi”

xavi

Death is a part of life.

This is also true of the mini-deaths that typify a legend leaving a club. When Xavi leaves FC Barcelona it will feel weird. Ray Hudson once termed him “The Inevitable Xavi.” He is a magnificent player who, even when many (including me, in full disclosure) were ready to put him out to pasture, current Barça coach Luis Enrique begged him to stay.

At the time people thought that it was something romantic, a charming nod to a great player in his swan song, a nice way for a new coach to get in good with a squad. But the Inevitable Xavi also turned out to be essential, and Enrique knew that. When he was voted captain by player accolade, succeeding our great Capita in Carles Puyol, it was a gesture symbolic of so many things.

This post comes before Thursday, before the scheduled presser in which rumor has it that Xavi is going to announce his departure from Barça. The timing is deliberate because this is an appreciation rather than a valedictory, words that would be as true whether Xavi decided to stay or go.

Xavi is the key to everything great that has happened for both Barça and Spain during the recent heydays of both teams. With his ascendancy as the best midfielder in the world and for me, the best that the game has ever seen, came magic. He doesn’t score goals, he doesn’t produce assists, yet he controls a game in a way that no other player, including Messi, does.

In a poetic fit I once referred to what Xavi does as “influence peddling,” but that is in fact what it is. He uses the ball, little feints and movements to influence a defense, to sell it on the idea that one thing is coming when another is. Dani Alves said that “Xavi plays to the future.” He seems to know, and he never forgets.

Barça had a “One On One” video series in which two players would square off to test each other’s knowledge of key facts and figures. Xavi was stupefying in his memory for detail of games long gone, passes made and goals scored. It makes sense, really, when you consider a player for whom nothing goes unnoticed. So many attribute it to magic, some strange alchemy that finds a great player somehow knowing what to do. But it’s hard work.

Xavi has always run more, passed more, touched more than any player on the pitch. His essential quality is such that Enrique recognized the absolute necessity of Xavi for what he was trying to build this season. It wasn’t a gesture. It was the life blood of the squad. A Capita isn’t just an armband. It’s a spirit, an intermediary, the ultimate grownup. The Capita intercedes with a referee in a heated match. He deals with new players in a way that indoctrinates them into the team. He deals with locker-room squabbles and other complexities. This season Xavi has had to do all of that, while accepting a diminished role that has nonetheless allowed him to be as essential as ever.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be brought up on the Barcelona ethos. Which has taught me the value of being part of a team. ‘Today for you, tomorrow for me.’ Those qualities are essential for life in general.”

El Pais came out with a story that Xavi got in Messi’s face in the wake of the Enrique altercation, calling him out in a way that sent a very clear message. “Stop f—— around” doesn’t get any clearer than that. The results are also clear, as is the role of a Capita. Xavi restores order. On and off the pitch, it’s what Xavi does. From the pam pam pam pam of an exquisite series of passes that seems to always have Xavi at its nexus, to the calm that descends over the home crowd when No. 6 steps to the touchline.

xavi1

It seems impossible, almost unfathomable to believe that there was a time that Xavi was considering leaving the club because big, strong midfielders were in vogue.

Xavi started at La Masia at age 11, and has been Blaugrana ever since. His first-team debut was against Mallorca in 1998. Since then he has played more than 700 matches for his club, a stunning number. He has never bragged about his tenure, has never waved the astonishing number of trophies that he has been a part of as a player in anyone’s face because as the ultimate team player, he understands the value, the essential quality of a team. When he got on Messi, he allegedly mentioned the Ballon d’Or, using an individual rivalry and accolade to focus a player on the most important thing for Xavi: the team. It is always and forever about the team with Xavi, and it always will be.

He isn’t fast, he isn’t strong, he isn’t big. But with the ball at his feet, he becomes an unassailable force, this … thing that destroys all. The run dictates the pass, but in his heyday you almost got the sense that Xavi was playing mind tricks, sending thought waves to runners and defenders to perform certain actions, so abnormal was the unerring consistency of his performances.

The idea of a one-team player is an anachronism in this day and age of massive contracts and migratory superstars. If the rumor is true, that Xavi is leaving for a fat payday or three in Qatar, nobody should begrudge him that. Xavi has given so much, so completely of himself for Barça that he deserves to do whatever he wants. It will certainly feel odd seeing him in another shirt, and I won’t begin to question the motivations for his move because they aren’t my business. What I can say is that any, every and all culers, new and old, bandwagoners or tenured cranks, owe Xavi a debt of gratitude bigger than any of us can possibly repay.

And in the lustrous symmetry of football, Xavi retired from international football in the wake of failure. Spain was whisked from the competition like last week’s waste, as much an indictment of him and the beauty that he brings to the game as the team and the way that it played, the breaks of the game.

That makes it all the more beautiful now that Xavi could, potentially, leave his boyhood club and the only club that he has known, with the ultimate footballing prize, a Treble. I believe that the greats should leave on top, even as they never really know when the top is. Michael Jordan left the game of basketball (the first time) after having stuck the shot that gave his team the championship, the last shot of the game and the decisive one. Boys scribbling in notebooks or tapping away on touchscreens would throw up their hands in struggling to imagine a more perfect moment.

xavi2

He ruined it by coming back. Sugar Ray Leonard retired a champion, then, seduced by the limelight, returned a shadow of himself. We see it all the time in sports. When Xavi chose to stay, many wondered why, what the value was. There was mostly the sentiment, a rootless thing that finds people wanting to cling to the familiar without really knowing what they were hanging onto. “Xavi is staying is all I know.”

Enrique reached some sort of an agreement with Xavi, that he would be comfortable with being his best less often, rather than less than his extraordinary self more frequently. Xavi was comfortable with that, and became the Closer. In baseball, there is a pitcher whose job it is to close out a win, to finish the job. He comes in, strikes out the last batters and the team goes home. The New York Yankees had a closer, the best the game has ever seen, in Mariano Rivera. Season after season, long past the point when he still should have been able to bamboozle younger, stronger, quicker, better trained hitters, Rivera was lining them up and putting them down.

The first time that Enrique brought Xavi on this season as a closer, as he restored order from seeming chaos, his role became clear. Even as people clamored for more Xavi, bellowed that he wasn’t past it, see, Xavi and Enrique knew what his role was. Xavi thrived in that diminished but essential role. The game is placed in the hands of the closer. It is a huge task. Fail, and the team suffers. Fail, and people will look at you.

“We gave you the ball. What happened?”

Xavi thrived in his role as the closer, outdone only by an errant Pique pass at Sevilla, almost flawless in shutting down a match and allowing Barça to pam! pam! its way to the final whistle. It is in this role that Xavi might have performed one of his greatest acts, demonstrating once and for all that he is the ultimate team player. He never clamored for more playing time, you never saw quotes in the press about him being ready for more. He just played. Spun and deked, faked and influenced, this season as always, the inevitable Xavi.

I don’t like when culers mention the Treble as if it is some birthright, something this team is owed. It is a magical thing, an accomplishment that requires luck as much as skill, an elaborate, year-long construct of domninoes falling perfectly, every time. It’s impossible when you really think about it.

But when you consider Xavi and how he embodies the spirit of the team, that selfless quality that makes him do everything from talking to teammates on the bench to instruct them before they enter, to tamping down aggrieved superstars to making yet another perfect pass, that ultimate team accolade would be a flawless way to send him off.

xavi3

Posted in Analysis94 Comments

FC Barcelona is Messi’s team, aka “The littlest giant takes full control”

FC Barcelona is Messi’s team.

For years, such things have been intimated, really since Pep Guardiola decided to unleash Messi as a false 9, but they have always felt premature. Scoring the most goals and influencing matches with brilliance doesn’t mean that it’s your team, nor does being the most talented among the captains.

This season is the very first season in which it can be truly and fully said that this is Messi’s team, as the boy genius who has seemed perpetually young even in his mid-20s, became a man. It isn’t just the hardness around his face, that chiseled edge that speaks as much to maturity as fitness. From this chair, four things happened that made the adulthood of Lionel Messi as clear as can be, and truly stamped his authority on Barça:

The right wing

When Messi exploded into vibrant, fantasy football life, it was from the right. This was of necessity as much as anything else, because Barça had Eto’o and Henry running around. But from false 9 days on, Messi became a beast of the center of the pitch, able to make his runs and score his goals from a space that gave him full access to both angles. Coaches tried to play Messi on the right before, once the false 9 goal blizzards began, and it didn’t go well. This season, there he was on the right, and he gave everything. No pouting, no sulking, match after match. Media types and supporters called Enrique a fool for doing this, for taking his best player away from where he could do the most damage, and neither he nor Messi cared, because they understood what was going on.

When it first started, some called it a launch pad rather than a prison, but Messi playing on the right and happily doing so was more than that. It was an important step in the full and complete maturation of a footballer. It was important that Messi play on the right because that was what the team needed. It shifted the attack, opened up the pitch for the likes of Neymar, Sandro, Munir and eventually Suarez, it created a positional fluidity that found all three attackers popping up anywhere. People considered Messi position on the right and suggested that he would be able to score more goals from the right, having only a fullback to beat, etc, etc. But it wasn’t about goals – it was about influencing the match in a decisive way.

It has always been considered that scoring goals is the most effective way that Messi can help Barca. His dynamic, match-changing play from the right wing put the lie to that notion. Messi embraced the right because he knew. He wasn’t ready to embrace it when Martino tried it, but he also knew that the team didn’t have the pieces for him to thrive on the right. Enrique did. But even more than that, it was the first sign that Barça’s best player was interested in being a full and complete team player.

Giving Neymar some

Barça was playing Sevilla, and won a free kick. It was automatic, the presumption that Messi was going to take the ensuing free kick because aside from the occasional moment of deference to Xavi. Messi takes all of the Barça free kicks and penalties. He and Neymar chatted briefly, then Messi stepped back. Neymar hoofed it, and golazo. Logically as a left-footed player, it made sense for Messi to let a right-footer take that shot. It opened up the option for the curler into the near corner, thus enhancing the possibility of a Barça goal. But Barca has gotten free kicks in similar positions before, and Neymar has never been allowed to take one, until now. Messi understands that if a group of attackers is going to truly and fully equal, small gestures are important. Neymar knows that he isn’t as good a free kick taker as Messi. So does Messi. But a leader does this.

Then in May, during a shellacking of Cordoba in which Neymar was having one of those “ass over teakettle” matches, in which he just couldn’t seem to hit the broad side of a barn. And then, PENALTY! Everybody knew, once again, that Messi was going to take it. But again, Messi and Neymar chatted briefly, and Neymar stepped to the spot. Goal! Neymar got a goal, got a very positive feeling from what could have been a psychological mess of a match for him, and quite possibly got the mental boost that made him the player who helped put Bayern to the sword.

The free kick and the penalty kick being handed over by Messi were huge. Only the Sevilla free kick mattered for the final scoreline, and whether you want to call it deference or benevolence, the effect was massive.

Those Atleti goals

Atletico rolled into the Camp Nou, the team that Barça had not, in try after try the previous season, been able to beat. They attacked with a flooded midfield, and the answer was really a simple one even as it was one that ran counter to everything that culers had come to believe in: bypass the midfield. It made perfect sense, because if an opponent creates a danger zone, why not just go around or over it? But years of institutional arrogance, for lack of a better descriptive, demanded that Barça work its magic, set up triangles of sprites and work its way toward a logical, lovely goal. But when Messi charged at Atleti, they didn’t know what hit them. He was in the box so quickly, faked that defender out of his boots so adroitly that panic set in. In past years, Messi would have taken that shot. Atleti was playing him to take the shot. So when he slid that ball across the box to Suarez that eventually became a tap-in for Neymar, Atleti was stunned and on the back heels.

But it was the second goal that was all the more stunning, because it had been some time since any of us had seen Messi with the kind of determination and pace that seemed almost violent. He chested the ball down on the dead run so that it landed in front of him, in stride. What you see in Messi’s wake is four Atleti players all running in from the midfield that had been abandoned by Barça, a futile chase in an effort to stop what was inevitable. Messi ran at the defense and cut toward the center, his usual stomping ground. The defense played Messi for the shot, because what else would you do. It’s Messi, in the box. But without even breaking stride Messi slotted a lovely diagonal for Suarez, who bashed home.

Both of those goals were essentially created by Messi. In the past, those might have been “Oooooh!” runs that sparked the “So close” posts in social media as Messi tried some shot from a crazy angle that was parried by the keeper. But by making that extra pass, chances became sure things. Messi was more interested in putting the knife in. More importantly, he had the trust and confidence to know that Neymar wasn’t going to miss.

Messi the protector

Late in the championship-cliinching match, Atleti, and in particular Diego Godin, had gotten just about enough of Neymar, who had been winding them up as usual in the match, gamesmanship for him but personal for them. Godin snapped, and wanted to have at Neymar. Who was it that got in Godin’s face and pushed him away from Neymar? Messi. In the past during rows such as this, Messi was always standing off in midfield somewhere, looking at the fools who want to do stuff other than score goals and make magic. Even when Messi was fouled as the catalyst for such a scrum, he was always at a dignified reserve. Not today, not this year, not against his team. He took Godin away, then took Neymar aside to keep him from doing something that could potentially create an opportunity for Atleti. And subsequently, he stood, face-to-face with another Atleti player, jawing and not even considering backing down.

Badass Messi has always been the player on the pitch, on the attack, who does magical things to beat a team. Badass Messi has never before been the player who sticks his chest in to defend his team, in their house. At the end of a season that cemented this Barca as Messi’s team, those actions from the smallest player on the pitch made clear what so many had been saying for years: this is Messi’s team.

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts26 Comments

Atletico de Madrid 0, Barça 1, aka “Campions”

team

In 08-09 Barça won a Liga that became a Treble, and nobody expected it.

Then Barça won a Liga and pretty much everybody expected it.

Then again Barça won a Liga that was tainted by Champions League failure and the departure of a player whose exit was laid at the feet of that record points total.

This season Barça has won a Liga and again there are complexities with a team that is in many ways the antithesis of the Barça that so many fell in love with during the Guardiola years. This team works its collective asses off. Winning a league championship isn’t a match or two, or getting a team hot streak at the right time. Winning a Liga is about time in the trenches, about digging matches out in Valencia and battling lesser teams buoyed by their home crowd. It’s about finding goals where there are none, about week in and week out, finding a way to win when such a thing seems illogical.

All of those things come from consistency and hard work, on the training pitch and during matches. Today, Barça won the Liga by not only winning the match that it had to, but returning the favor of Atleti coming into the Camp Nou and needing a draw to secure the Liga crown. They got that draw, and celebrated on the field of the vanquished. Even as today’s victory, for the symmetrical reasons embodied in the adage “Turnabout is fair play” was something particularly special, you wonder if the players really thought about that during the match, if they took extra motivation from that.

In many ways the ultimate characterization of this Barça isn’t just sweat and vigor, but how willing the most talented goalscorer in the game moved to the right wing, became the best passer in the game, just did what was necessary.

This Barça is as pragmatic a group of show ponies as any of us are likely to witness any time soon. This group has, all season, done enough. Today was another 1-0 victory, and a victory that showed off all of the parts of the team. Messi scored the goal, but Bravo made the saves to keep Atleti out. The team kept the ball, and finally frustrated Atleti to the point of froth. Pedro made the layoff that set up Messi for the goal, Mascherano spent the entire match saying “No” to Fernando Torres, telling “El Nino” to come back when he’s all grown up and Pique was the resurrected monster he has been for the better part of this season.

The challenge, when writing about this team, will be to search for the easy answer. People have done this all season, right from the beginning of things as the team was, week after week, match after match, castigated for not living up to some standard. This player out, that player out, this transfer was stupid, that transfer was stupid, #luchoout, they will never beat Atleti.

A football team is a sum of its parts. From the rotation to the subs to the lineup that seemed as if its coach didn’t have a clue about he wanted as a world sat in armchairs or at desks and judged, Barça became the sum of its parts, a thing that could rely on many different ways to dispatch an opponent. Counters, set pieces, golazos from distance and intricate crazy quilts of elegance all resulted in goals this season. So the sum of Barça’s parts is a championship team, something that feels as weird to type as it does to bat around in your head.

Because according to too many, it wasn’t supposed to happen. And that includes me. RM was, at the start of the season, the best team that anyone had seen since the Guardiola sides. The Liga was, according to some, going to be over by midway, a fascinating thing that, like the various crises Barça has gone through this season, didn’t have a basis in reality. It was almost like wins that didn’t come the right way were being treated as losses, and as the team stayed close to RM in the standings, finally capitalizing on some slip-ups to take the reins, people didn’t know what to do so the focus changed from psychic management of the inexplicable, to attempts to explain the inexplicable.

So many were so ready, so willing to say “Hmph. Told you so,” that when that option was no longer available it sparked a new set of evaluative challenges.

“Well, Messi did it.” “Individual brilliance.” “They are playing essentially coachless, in spite of Enrique.” The leaps of faith to make such things accurate would necessitate ignoring the improvements that were coming, and coming fast, from set piece facility on both ends of the pitch to midfield fluency of a different sort. And then, when Barça beat RM in the “wrong” way to solidify a lead in the standings, the situation was even more complex.

The summit of Mt. A-HA! was Anoeta, and the “crisis.” Messi wasn’t speaking to Enrique. Enrique wasn’t speaking to Messi. When Mathieu said that something had happened on the training ground, rather than taking that statement for what it was — don’t forget it was all because Messi and Enrique came to words over a foul that Messi wanted called in a practice match — it became the confirmation of a rift. And an off-form match by the team became something more sinister, the Crisis of Catalunya.

In many ways it was a relief to some when Barça dropping points at Sevilla, because the evidence returned, the grasping at the signs that something was broken instead of two moments of professionals not doing their work as they should have, and leaving it at that. Because this has been a season of doubt, a poisonous entorno in which so many have looked for reasons why the team would not, rather than why it would.

And through it all, this team didn’t care. I really don’t know if this team has cared all season about what anyone has said, anywhere. And as social media has whipped up semantic firestorms and various “A-HA!” moments happened the team kept working, kept building something wonderful, something that would enable it to be called Champions.

Crucial matches are always called “finals,” as in “this week there are two finals.” But we underestimate the pressure, the incessant pressure of a Liga in which every match is a final, in which the smallest slip-up could give your high-powered, eternal rival just enough of an edge to bolt the lock on championship hopes and dreams. Atleti didn’t come up short this season for lack of effort or conviction. People can reduce it to them losing Costa and Courtois all they like. But the reality, or part of it, is that when Atleti won the Liga crown it became a big team, and got the effort previously reserved for Barça and RM. It was draining, and pressure-packed and conspired to show the frailties of a group, from a thrown boot to Diego Godin wanting to fight Neymar on the pitch as the latter smiled and winked. It didn’t matter to him as it was all part of the game, part of what you do.

Pragmatic. Wind them up and they are a mess. Flick the ball, do a nutmeg or two and they become more concerned with fouling you than stopping what your teammates are trying to do. It makes perfect sense, as inelegant as it is, but that, too, has been Barça this season, a team forged in the nasty, hard-working, square jawed visage of its coach, a leader that really hasn’t been accepted as one by people who should know better.

Even in the wake of Barça dispatching Bayern, exorcising another demon that pressed hard upon the things this team was trying to build, the aftermath was about Guardiola and what he did wrong, rather than Enrique and what he did right. And he just sat in pressers and said “It’s about the next match.” All season has been about the next match because with enough of these, you become the champion.

Today’s “next match” was typical of the season, really, irrespective of the opponent. Barça played in the manner necessary to win. Today, it kept the ball, defended when necessary and relied on some saves by its keeper, another person who wasn’t good enough, until he was. And then, suddenly, an exquisite passage of play capped by a sterling finish resulted in a goal. And then the team returned to the task of being grounded, of demonstrating one of the most important things in this season’s championship run: a defense.

If you want to win, first you have to not concede. 1-0 might be a fraught scoreline, but except for the two Bravo parries, Atleti really didn’t look like scoring from open play, and because Barça has become so solid in set piece defending, they really had no available option to score. So the 1-goal win accompanied by a clean sheet got it done.

Rakitic and Pedro worked like dogs today, both typical really of the perception of this team, as so many culers found themselves wishing that both players were someone else, as they were judged to be “not Barça standard.” But as they fought, and clawed, and ran and battled you began to wonder if this Barça, the one that is now champion of La Liga, didn’t have a different standard.

You could accuse Luis Enrique of a lot of things as a player, but shirking work wasn’t one of them. So why should it be a shock that his team would be fit, physically and psychologically strong and ready to put an opponent down at the slightest moment of weakness. Football is as much about work as it is about beauty. The mistake so many made was in not recognizing the work that was being put in by this Barça in the hands of its coach.

Rakitic said, “We wouldn’t be here without Enrique,” and the quote was pretty much ignored, because “Pah! What else would he say?” But in examining the totality of this season, an arc whose apex has terminated in a celebration on the field of the vanquished, it was clear from the start that something wonderful was coming together. And now it has.

Last season, Atleti was the single-handed barrier to Barça’s ambition. They stared that demon in the eyes and were found wanting. Last year Barça never beat Atleti, and the price was the Liga and Champions League advancement. This season, Barça beat Atleti four times. Every time the two teams met, Barça won. It was a team that came of age right before our eyes, the right combination of superstar firepower and people willing to do the work. It won today as a key member of that attacking trident, Luis Suarez, sat on the bench to completely heal a tweaked muscle.

And it still won. It didn’t just win because it had Messi. It won because it had everybody. When I look back at this wonderful season, that is the most beautiful thing about it, that everybody had a hand in the team’s success from B teamers shuttling back and forth to extravagantly compensated superstars. Even the greatest star on its studded roster stepped back to revel in being part of a team, to make his personal exploits subordinate to collective success.

This team, this beautiful, unified team that didn’t care what anyone said or did, or how much doubt was piled upon it, has won La Liga. And this group, which has for so long been compared to other groups, found the ultimate satisfaction in achieving the ultimate success in its own, beautiful way.

Campions.

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts22 Comments

Bayern Munich 3, Barça 2 (3-5 agg.), aka “Wait … there was a second half?”

neygoal

In the wake of a match that leaves bloggers struggling with a suitable subject, culers come through for us all:

The second half.

In many ways, the return leg of the tie with Bayern Munich was a complex one for Barça supporters, because it represented so many conflicting feelings:

— Romance vs pragmatism
— The coach we have vs the coach so many still pine over
— A rival that gave us a beating, and a “need” to return the favor
— A fan base’s need for bragging and affirmation

There is so much analysis, so much worrying, so much talking about the now-legendary Second Half, which really does deserve upper case letters, such is its immediate legend status among culers. But let’s dispense with that good stuff, so that we can get to the bad and the worrying.
Continue Reading

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts120 Comments

Analyzing the analysis, aka “When smart can be dumb”

For all of its data and analysis, football is kinda dumb in how it evaluates itself.

On Wednesday, for 77 minutes of an enthralling match of football, Bayern Munich had it right. Then things fell apart. The match is, therefore, judged by those 13 minutes rather than the previous 77, something akin to a man declaring his life a failure because he did everything right, then was struck by lightning.

“Bayern should have been down by at least 3 goals,” scream people, but not really. If every excellent chance was converted, Suarez and Neymar would have scored, as would have Lewandowski. The match would have been 2-1 and Guardiola would have been a genius instead of an exceptional coach whose whole everything is being called into question because of 13 minutes. And no, not the Alves “chance.” Neuer isn’t some Segunda keeper. That one didn’t have a chance of being converted.

Recall the ending of the Super Bowl in American football, and the Seattle Seahawks going for a pass at the goal line, needing less than a yard to seal the game. A defensive player jumped the route to make the interception and in less than a second, that team’s coach went from genius to idiot. “You have the best running back in the game, you dummy!”

But the reason that – and not only in both footballs – analysis fails is because of humans. Players make plays. Pete Carroll called a play that works 99 times out of 100. Hand the ball to Marshawn Lynch, and what if he fumbles? What if a defender puts his helmet right on the ball and forces it loose? A probability isn’t a certainty. So rolling into the 78th minute of a tight encounter in which it had found its sea legs as a team, Bayern had every expectation that the last 13 minutes would proceed as the previous 77 did. There was no indication of anything otherwise. Messi was being wonderful, but he had been wonderful the whole match so far and the score was still 0-0.

Humans destroy analysis because players make plays. That Patriots defensive back isn’t some all-Universe player. He just had a moment. What makes a successful play a “careless turnover” is quite often a human, performing at a suddenly higher (or lower) level. We see it in tennis, where one player raises his or her game to demand a response from an opponent. We see great goals, great saves, moments in which a player’s performance curve suddenly ascends to the stratosphere. Nobody knows why, but it’s that lack of knowledge that renders so much analysis pointless.

In the hindsight of 20/20, Guardiola was a fool, a doomed fool for trying a back 3 for the first 15 minutes of the match. But it worked. We know that it worked because of the result, right? Bayern didn’t concede. Less intelligent folks like me said that Bayern can play a back 3 because the keeper, Neuer, functions as a CB, complete with playing a high line. But he’s a CB who can use his hands. Does this mean that Bayern in function had 4 at the back, and those stupefying saves made by Neuer were in fact normal byproducts of a system working as it was meant? If you rely on a forward to score goals, why wouldn’t you rely on a keeper to do what he does, and make that part of your game plan? Good question.

The answer is of course “No” because of the result, and the fact that Guardiola switched to a more conventional 4-man back line. That is proof! People will debate forever whether it was a planned tactic or a concession to marauding Sprites, but it happened. Is it an example of data and analysis that react to a result rather than the reality of what happened? But what IS reality except a result? How to analyze what happened? Did Messi win the match, as the prevailing worldview goes, or did he take advantage of conditions to make a difference? The match had to be there to be won, which makes it more of a team effort than you might deduce from breathless commentary in the wake of the event.

Lionel Messi ran less than everybody on the pitch except for the two keepers, statistics show. Coaches, studio analysts and pundits point to how much a player ran as a measure of his goodness. More equals better, a higher work rate that puts someone in the pantheon of the gods. And yet, how to analyze the Messi distance covered stat in the face of a player whose actions helped to decide the match and possibly the tie, converting things from balanced on a knife edge to done and dusted.

We always discuss running Messi vs Taxicab Messi, as he decides to rest his legs during matches, to take breaks. But in the Bayern match Messi was tracking attackers, tackling and making defensive plays. Could he have been running less because of the pressing and high lines that both teams employed? You don’t have to track an attacker very far if your back line is playing at midfield, nor do you have very far to travel if you are part of a midfield press that makes every possession a gauntlet of kicking boots.

The statistic of distance covered stands by itself, even if it needs context to make sense. Where football gets dumb is when it applies data in an effort to quantify the unquantifiable.

The late, unlamented Castrol Index began life as The Answer, an objective way to punch in a bunch of data and determine which player was playing the best at any given time. It didn’t work, because players make plays. It couldn’t work, because a match could be 0-0 for 77 minutes, then suddenly a few players could decide to raise their game to a level that makes their actions decisive.

So much analysis is partisan nattering, or a conclusion in search of supporting data. Football making objective efforts to quantify it is like pumping laughing gas into a mathematicians conference. At the end of it all, a bunch of really smart people are laying on the floor, laughing and saying “Wheeee!” You can’t account for Messi doing what he did.

In his Friday presser, Luis Enrique said that the Anoeta loss was just part of the stuff that happens in a season. He might have added that Barça dropping points at Anoeta in the first match after an international break is as likely as a sunrise, but that should have gone without saying. But it was another moment in which analysis failed and is still failing as the Paul Bunyanesque qualities of that match continue to grow. It is the crisis that birthed a football team, the negative result that sparked a call for elections, etc, etc. It doesn’t matter what kind of logic anyone attempts to bring to the proceedings. It comes down to the result, which defines everything. Enrique was a dummy for not starting Messi, etc. To make him that way, you have to ignore their ineffectiveness in the second half against a defense that should have been more tired, and more vulnerable. You have to ignore that the defense made an error that resulted in the La Real goal. It is crucial that you ignore so much to make the analysis match the expectation and outcome.

Another example is the Sevilla draw that could have been a win. The result changed the reality, which was that Barça had that match in control. Two moments, just two, changed everything including subsequent analysis. If the match was in less control, Pique probably doesn’t even try that pass. A lesser team probably makes a bad decision that bails out Pique. Maybe a fresher Busquets gets to Reyes just in time. Maybe a lot of stuff. But what happened was players made plays and those plays changed the outcome, and thus the narrative.

The reason that I so enjoy reading Sid Lowe match reports and blog posts is because they are always, unfailingly, human. Even his match reports brim with humanity. He stays clear of tactics, analysis and the kind of stuff that is complex and fraught, easily skewed by the tyranny of results.

Predictably in the wake of the Bayern match, the debate that is always present in football these days, like a bass continuo of subjectivity, resumed: Messi vs Ronaldo, and who is better. The Messi camp is on one side, the Ronaldo camp is on the other. Each side has “proof” that their player is the “better” one, and lord knows why those idiots on the other side can’t see logic.

You might as well debate a sunrise vs a moonrise. If you were to put it down to a single word, Messi is magical while Ronaldo is effective. There is the Messi goal that reduced Jerome Boateng to an Internet meme, vs the Ronaldo header across the goal vs Sevilla. Both goals were physical feats. Messi was delicate and incisive. Ronaldo was physical and dominant. Yet you would swap the modifiers and still be correct. Which players is better? Depends on who you support, and it is impossible to resolve. Go outside and bang your head against a brick wall. It will be more effective.

Each side has analysis and statistics that say why their player is better. It’s goals, you see. No, it’s dribbles and passes. No, he helps his team win. No, HE helps his team win and makes his teammates better. More physical vs smarter, blablablabla, ad infinitum. And it gets worse when grownups in the form of some media outlets try to get involved. Because it is then that partisan bickering becomes … analysis. Incomplete and flawed to be certain, but analysis nonetheless.

Football has to raise its game when thinking of, and analyzing itself. The easy answer screams at us. Boateng had been having a really good match until Messi made him look foolish. The players made to look foolish by Messi would comprise a Who’s Who of world-class defenders. But what of Boateng’s match? More interestingly, who was MOTM for Barça, Messi or Alves?

Messi. Duh. He accounted for the goals. But it’s another way in which football fails, in accounting for things that did NOT happen. Neuer made the Ballon d’Or finalists list, but nobody in their right mind suggested that the keeper had a chance in hell, because it’s the goals that go IN, rather than the goals that don’t. You can’t really tally what a keeper does in the same way that you can tally what an attacker does. “Look. X number of goals.” History and analysis doesn’t care about tap-ins vs solo runs or brilliant golazos. And yet a keeper is mostly as good as his defense. Put Thibaut Courtois or Neuer at Granada and is anyone talking about them as the best keepers in the world?

When someone suggests that Dani Alves might warrant a consideration for MOTM, you might as well suggest that they put a roman candle up their butt and light it. But he was everywhere. Passes, interceptions, steals, play after play. He made the interception that led to the first goal, He almost scored himself. Time after time he was magnificent, and could subjectively said to have had a greater effect on the match than Messi. But it isn’t until you watch this video that you realize how phenomenal his match was.

Football fails in that it can’t quantify negative effect. Everything that Bayern tried around Alves, didn’t work. He outdueled Muller for headers, dispossessed Bernat and undressed Thiago. His key play on the goal took into account an opponent tendency. 99 out of 100 times, the player walks that ball out of the back and passes to a teammate to start an attack. That time Alves planned, and pounced. It was an astonishing play made all the more amazing by the fact that he didn’t foul. He just faced his man up and took the ball.

Analysis can be wonderful. Michael Cox, aka Zonal Marking, does a brilliant job of making the game make sense. When ex-players turn their eye to the game and just look at it, bereft of any preconceived notions or results-based tyranny, wonderful things happen. An ESPN studio analyst, Stuart Holden, said that Barça had a 75% chance of winning that first leg. His fellow analysts argued, but couldn’t really pin down why they weren’t as confident. Guardiola? That’s part of it. A statement made during the match broadcast as simple as “Barça is less perfect, but better” makes so much sense. Where things get messy is when analysis tries to be truly objective, or where analysis has its roots in the result rather than what actually happened. And like a great player, you hope that football can collectively raise its game in that regard.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Messi, Thoughts84 Comments

Cordoba 0, Barça 8, aka “Footballing extravagance”

messney

FC Barcelona has, in its last two matches, put up 14 goals.

Those 14 goals have been scored in a variety of ways, from pretty triangles suitable to sate the most devoted purist to over-the-top bombs that make the Premiership devotees say, “Now THAT is football!”

Barça was supposed to put Getafe and Cordoba to the sword, so the wins sit rather squarely in that “Duh!” category reserved for things that are obvious.

What is more worthy of note in the two hammerings is the football. Against Getafe, Barça scored 6 goals that were unstoppable, six of the prettiest goals that a lucky supporter would ever have the pleasure of seeing in a single match. Those goals also continued a trend of Barça playing automatic football, a style that doesn’t care who the opponent is. “If A, then B.”

Some observers call it “automations,” which is similar to automatic. You know your teammates, what they are going to do, can do and are expected to do. Demands are made: Can you handle this pass? Can you finish? Opponents are reduced to frustrated entities relegated to the sidelines as groups of grown men celebrate yet again.

The Getafe goals weren’t just unstoppable. They were high degree of difficulty goals, one-touch volleys off a perfect pass, top-corner-far-side blasts, as if Barça’s attackers were playing a game of Horse. Some noted that this same Getafe team reduced Barça to a 2-2 draw and goalless futility the last two outings, but this is a very, very different FC Barcelona team that teams are seeing now and a very different team than the one that started the season. A collection of talented individuals has been forged into a unified force.

In many ways, the Cordoba match made that even more clear. For the bulk of the first half Cordoba was resolute, a relegation-bound side that was determined to give its home supporters something to cheer about. And there was the sense that it was going to be one of those days as Neymar missed a gimme, Messi cored the Cordoba defense then plopped a poor finish right at the keeper. Then Neymar hit the post.

In the past, this match would have dissolved into a miasma, a weak-minded collective embracing of “Jeez, what will happen next?” This Barça, however, is completely uninterested in such things. More importantly, part of that team forging included building in the ability to score in many different ways. Here is a crazy statistic: Barça lead Europe in headed goals in the Top 5 leagues in 2015. That’s worth thinking about for a second as you plop, stunned, into your chair.

In the past the at-times-stultifying perfection of the single path to goal, a way due as much to the failure of the Ibrahimovic experiment as anything else, meant that the only answer Barça had against a team like Cordoba was to keep chipping at the lock, keep playing exquisite triangles and elegant passes until the defense tired and a crack appeared. If that didn’t happen, it was a 0-0 draw and a celebrating opponent.

Today, right about the time that you could see the Cordoba players huffing and puffing in the stifling heat, hitching up their shorts to get a breeze somewhere, anywhere on their hard-working legs, something wonderful happened: Luis Suarez took a pass and held the ball, surveying his options, biding time. A little run into the box sparked Cordoba defenders into action, whereupon Suarez fed the ball to Messi, standing in space just outside the Cordoba box. Rakitic, one of the “other guys” who can thrive when playing with three danger men, made the run and Messi’s pass was in the exact right spot for him to tee it up and almost rip the back of the Cordoba net out.

"What you just did? Do that again."

“What you just did? Do that again.”

It was a goal created by the team’s two best goal scorers, both of whom were more than happy to pass if that was what it took to put the ball into the back of the net.

But aside from the goal, something more wonderful happened as Barça changed tack, going from a passing team that probed for openings to a direct side looking to take advantage of slivers of space. This change came just as many of us noted that Barça, by playing in that deliberate, logical manner that found the ball at the center of the Cordoba defense, was making it easy for the defense. And because team football isn’t just 47 passes and a perfect goal, the collective started playing a different kind of football, on the fly.

A team is a unit that disdains individual glory for the sake of the whole. It’s a military worldview that hews to the tribe mentality of sports, but it’s also fitting. If everyone doesn’t do his job, the team isn’t as good as it can be. Suarez passes because that is the option. Messi passes because that is the option. And when Rakitic roofed that goal, that was it for Cordoba.

The second goal came at the worst time possible for a home team hanging on against a superior opponent: just before the half. This, too, was the kind of goal that we haven’t seen lately. Route one football? Okay, maybe. But more importantly there was an improvisational adaptability on display, helped by a player who changes not only game plans, but the available skill sets of Barça players. The Iniesta pass to Suarez was remarkable, even more so than the delicate touch that Suarez took to prod it past the keeper, a one-touch goal of which we have been seeing so many of this season.

Barça celebrate goals as a team. Neymar is the only player who will (occasionally) celebrate by himself a bit, before joining in with the team. Usually the player who provided the pass is the one first acknowledged in the scrum of delight, as it should be. Barça also play as a team. A thing remarked upon by many during and after the Getafe match was how the goal scorer seemed to provide the assist for the next goal scorer, a “first me, then you” mentality that points to true unselfishness.

Leading that team charge is the best player in the game, Messi. As much bile as I heap upon this board, we should give credit where it’s due for the acquisition of Neymar and Suarez. When Messi called them out for not giving him a competitive team to be part of, hundreds of millions were spent to rectify that situation. And Messi, almost with a visible sigh of relief, is happy to share the wealth, happy to not have to carry the team on his back for it to have success. With that flourishing team dynamic almost comes uncertainty for opponents.

In the past, when Messi got that pass from Suarez, he would have ran at goal. No question. Defenses were comfortable because they could mass at the center and play for that lone possibility. Now, nobody knows. Earlier in the match, Messi eviscerated the Cordoba defense, then plopped a weak shot at the keeper. With that fresh in their minds, the “Holy crap!” hesitation was evident as Messi got the ball. But he passed to Rakitic, and that was that. He’s playing with players who, if not equals, who he trusts to be able to deliver.

When Neymar and Messi went for a loose ball in front of the open net. Messi got there just a fraction before Neymar, and the wake of the goal was characterized by both players, hugging inside the Cordoba net. Later, when Neymar earned a penalty, Messi let him take the shot. Suarez, who was on a hat trick, made the pass in an effort to set up a teammate for a goal. Individual statistics aren’t a casualty of this team play. It almost seems as if the players don’t really care about those individual accomplishments. Messi is battling Ronaldo for pichichi, something you wonder if his fans care about more than he does, as he and Neymar shared a giggle before Messi handed off the PK duty. Suarez’s passes were as delightful as his goals.

suarez

There is a similarity to the Rijkaard teams in this Barça, even as so many hold them up to the Guardiola avatar. Ronaldinho was the frontman for that squad, a buck-toothed genius who reveled in getting people the ball, taking more joy in an assist than a goal of his own. That quality was infectious as the team pinged the ball around in a possession-based attacking style led by a player who seemed to make passes on a dare. “Bet you can’t.” Bang.

Iniesta has always been capable of the sort of pass that led to his first (a stunning stat) Liga assist this season. But he hasn’t had a player to play them to. Suarez is the kind of player, playing the kind of game that makes you wonder what might have happened had Barça gotten a proper 9 before now. In all the talk of False 9 and systems, they were all tactics rooted in the failure at Barça of a grand experiment that started brightly, then dissolved into a late-night, half priced poaching by AC Milan.

As people snark and snarl about what this or that coach might have done, it’s more important to celebrate the wonder of this group of players, who are still in contention for the Treble. But it is just as important, as people worry about Barça somehow “bottling it,” to admit once again that this has already been a wonderful season. Even if nothing is won, if the team loses at Atleti and falls in the Liga, loses in the semis to Bayern then has its fate sealed on a fluke late goal by Athletic Club, the temptation would be to let those results dictate the story.

But, when the team and its coach stood accused of playing the wrong way while winning, the accusers said that results didn’t matter. What was true then is true now, as we celebrate a group of players who are arriving as a united force far ahead of schedule. Sometimes it isn’t the destination, but rather the journey. Celebrate and enjoy, no matter what.

team

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts13 Comments

Resolving Thiago, aka “It’s just business”

Thiago Alcantara.

As the midfielder strolls onto the Camp Nou pitch next week clad in a Bayern Munich shirt, it’s safe to say that the culer world will erupt. Should the player do anything decisive, the rumbles will rupture social media and the space-time continuum. The mind strains to think of a more polarizing transfer than this one, for so many reasons. And it will probably be forever thus, for no rational reason.

When people draw sides in the Thiago matter, it’s pretty much “Traitor! You took advantage of the club!” or “That stupid board screwed up and sold a gem for a pittance.” Neither is entirely accurate even as both are true. The player did take advantage of a situation that he engineered, and the club did screw up, and sell him for below market value. But it isn’t that simple.

At my day job we, like every other company in the market, have a difficult time retaining talented young employees. If anyone reading this is talented and young, you probably know exactly what’s going on. Offers. More offers. It isn’t that the gifted young’uns aren’t being treated and paid well, but rather that they are in extremely high demand. If you are young and talented, companies will make promises and throw gobs of money at you. And they should, just as you should weigh those offers in the context of your future and your ambition. Duh.

Is it logical to be any more or less bothered by a young writer leaving than Thiago? Sport breeds passion, and passion ain’t always calm and rational. Throw in a board that nobody likes, a president nobody likes, a season that nobody liked and it’s pretty easy for taint to spread. Thiago left for a better job. That is his right and frankly, obligation.

He isn’t a traitor, nor a mercenary. He is just a worker who wants what is best for himself. In one situation he had a team with a midfield that was stuffed with icons in Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi. Fabregas was also there. There was board instability, an ill coach and a team that didn’t know which way from up, that might have even needed some rebuilding, which delays the trophy acquisition process for a hungry young player.

On the other side of the scales he had a beloved coach who had just taken over a juggernaut poised for world domination, a coach who said to him, “Come here and play for me.” A starting role and more money beckoned, as well. Certainty over uncertainty. What athlete in his right mind wouldn’t choose this?

“He doesn’t love the club” is nonsense. We see players and coaches leave a club and sit at a press conference, weeping like a baby with a full diaper. They love their club but they love themselves more, and need to make the decision that is best for No. 1. That isn’t avarice. That’s common sense.

On the other side of the ledger, all the talk about Thiago being upset over playing time, not starting more, being played less than Xavi, a player that people now throw themselves at the feet of, weeping, isn’t supported by logic, either. You don’t make life decisions in a fit of pique. Thiago isn’t that silly, nor are his advisers. He knew what his path to the XI was at Barça, and that surely factored into his decision.

And forget about the board choosing to sell him or forcing the sale, because those don’t stand up to the test of logic, either. “Hey, I got a GREAT idea! Let’s sell the brightest midfield talent to come out of La Masia since Iniesta to a major European rival, for a below-market price. Genius, right?” This has become part of the Legend of ZubiZa, as well as he and his team being stupid enough to negotiate a playing time clause for an irreplaceable gem. Would they have transferred Thiago had they had a choice? Of course not.

Some culers will say that Thiago negotiated a low buyout in exchange for other considerations, then took advantage of the club. That isn’t logical, either. Every negotiation is a risk. Does anyone think that, had the team played him enough to activate his higher buyout clause, there wouldn’t have been an unhappy player and Maxinho saying stuff to the press? Is the difference between 25 and 40m, for a club that churns a half-billion in revenue, worth dealing with for that? Xavi wasn’t going anywhere. Neither was Iniesta. Fabregas’ situation was still unknown, but Xavi and Iniesta STILL weren’t going anywhere, and Alexis Sanchez was also capering about in that worldview. It’s still a regular spot in the XI at a better team in Bayern vs sharing time. (Yes, those players are all different but in the same pot. Is it Total Football or not?)

The club wouldn’t have acceded to the contract stipulation had it not been fully aware of the possibility of losing the player to a buyout activation. If a club wants to make sure a player stays, a buyout clause is attached to him that removes doubt because a clause can always be negotiated down if necessary. It was a calculated risk that didn’t pay off for the club, as much from a P.R. sense as a market value one.

“Thiago was easily worth 50m.” No, he wasn’t. Not to Barça. It’s also worth asking whether Bayern would have paid 50m for him. No idea. Situations dictate a player’s price as much as the market does. How much would Thiago have gone for at auction? Considerably more than 25m, which doesn’t make that price a terrible one. Yes, board members saying that the transfer was good business rankles, but the challenge is always to step back from the passion, filter out the noise and ask questions.

One might be “What is love?” The follow-up would be whether players “love” teams in the same way in the here and now? Not likely. Not if he’s young and talented. It’s easy to love Almeria if you’re a journeyman. For a player like Thiago, there is too much money in the game. It was Alexis Sanchez’s dream to play for Barça, his promise to a dying relative. “Wait … how much?” There is a reason that all of the club legends, the one-team players are old dudes, and it isn’t just a chronological accident. Players such as Maldini, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi are unique, and not only in playing ability.

They are tied to their club in a way that makes that relationship special. I can no more see Messi, with prime playing time left in his legs, wearing the shirt of another club than I could imagine Puyol doing so. Taking late-career paydays is a very different thing. Those players love the club, grew up in the club, owe what they are to the club. The young, modern player often has a different view of his talent and obligation to a club.

“I played for them, gave them my all, now it’s time to move on.” And that’s a fair decision.

Thiago did what he had to do for the sake of his own ambition and development. So did the club. 25m for a talented youth player isn’t horrible business. Zlatan Ibrahimovic for 24m, in installments is horrible business. The prices of other players in the market are often cited, but they have zero bearing on Thiago’s situation, because a buyout is what a buyout is. When the clause is activated, that is the number. Bayern paid it and Thiago left.

To be sure, there is a fiscal cost and a sporting cost. When Xavi leaves, who will inherit the mantle of the greatest midfielder to ever play the game? Will the club have to buy a player, and if so, will that player cost more than it would have cost to keep Thiago, who it must be said is immensely talented, but isn’t Xavi, who is a once in a lifetime player. Too many questions.

Still other questions. Would the presence of Thiago have hastened the departure of Xavi? Thiago was the future, Xavi is the present. How would that have gone over? No idea, but worth considering. Kick Xavi to the curb, or take a risk on Thiago? Yikes. And imagine the muttering and grumbling in some quarters had Thiago been sitting on our bench for a year, rehabbing from various injuries while making the money it would have taken to keep him. Imagine lots of things.

Logic dictates that situations develop as they will. The club got a good amount of money and cruises on. Thiago got a better job, and cruises on. All the rest strikes me as rhetoric by people with a point to prove in an inflamed situation, exacerbated by idiocy such as “Sergi Roberto is just as good.”

When a talented young writer leaves for a better job, journalists celebrate with drinks, say “Congratulations,” and move on. Because that is life. No real reason for football to not be as complete a part of life as any other employment situation.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Thoughts, Transfers/Transfer Rumors79 Comments

Espanyol 0, Barça 2, aka “Fully operational Death Star?”

messi

As an athlete, you structure a training plan. It begins with an ambition. Then comes the structure of what you need to reach that goal. Then you implement the plan. Usain Bolt doesn’t start his season running 9-second 100 meter dashes. So when FC Barcelona, under its new coach Luis Enrique, started the season clearly building something, why wasn’t the long view taken, why wasn’t the necessary time granted?

Rewards have been coming thick and fast from this football team, against Sevilla, Valencia, Manchester City, PSG and today, probably in its fullest flower so far, the Catalan derby against Espanyol.

I have knocked heads in debate with people who have said that Enrique’s Barça, even when playing well, has been not exactly right because there wasn’t the required positional play, the kind of player and ball movement that makes an opponent and what they do immaterial. My contention has been that you have to account for the opponent, blablabla.

I have never felt more wrong than today’s match against Espanyol, as Barça played theoretical football. To be sure, it was against a mid-table side in Liga, a side who even with the match of its life probably wasn’t going to get much more than a draw, but nonetheless … for the first time this season, Barça played sustained “To hell with you” football.

During the heyday of the exceptional San Francisco 49ers teams in American football, their coach, Bill Walsh, had a certain number of plays that he would start the game with, and he never deviated from those plays. His belief was if we execute these plays as we should, the people on the other side of the ball don’t matter.

As a positional ideal, Barça football uses spatial control to be successful. Whether the opponent is RM, or Sevilla or Espanyol or Almeria, if you take the ball and strike it so to this player who does exactly this in this way, something good will happen. The opponent reacts to you and what your players do with the ball and how they move. Properly implemented, positional football is as indefensible as the two Barça goals were, even as the second was “sullied” with a bit of individual excellence from Messi.

There were runs into space, pinpoint passes that accounted for the run of a teammate and one-touch grace under pressure, confidence rooted in belief built on the training pitch that a teammate is going to be where you put the ball. For the first goal, Suarez dummied a pass that he had an 80% probability of scoring from, because Neymar had a 100% probability of scoring. That was an extraordinary thing, a little tribute to our late Mister on the anniversary day of his passing, a man in Tito Vilanova who always emphasized team football and the whole being stronger than the individual. In a fitting bookend for this match, it also occurred on the birthday of Johan Cruijff, who brought a total footballing idea to Barça, an ideal on vivid display today.

What makes that Suarez dummy even more extravagant is that he is an 81m signing who was brought to Barça to score goals. He has been The Man wherever he has gone. At Liverpool, there is no question that he takes that ball, and the shot. At Barça, he dummies it for Neymar. When we think about the work that has gone into building an excellent football team by the coach and his staff, it isn’t just the movement and passing, the Xs and Os that define match theory. It’s the psychology of being part of a team: making the extra pass, trusting a teammate, building the belief that if you build it, they will come.

neysua

In no player has that transformation been more noticeable and electrifying than in Messi, who essentially played as a 10 today. Think back to the days when Messi had to score 70+ goals in a season, because that was what his team needed. Flash-forward to now, when he can decide what his team needs because he has players such as Neymar and Suarez, who are fully capable of allowing him to play as a 10, delivering otherworldly passes hither and yon. His cross-pitch bomb to set up the first goal wasn’t even his best of the day as he created chances out of nothing, putting a ball into a spot because of the confidence that he has teammates of sufficient quality to not only know what he is planning, but be there to execute the plan.

Espanyol is a good football team that was rendered helpless today as the two goals that they shipped could have easily, were it not for crap finishing by Neymar, been 4 or 5. A ball was spanked full speed to Suarez who just flicked it, one touch for Neymar who was in stride because he knew what was going to happen. That he skied the finish isn’t as important as what happened, as the fruits of the labors of the team and its coaching staff were on full display today. Espanyol didn’t even get a shot on goal until almost the 80th minute.

At the beginning of the season, with the rotations, and experimentation with different ways of attacking, and pragmatism and the gradual building of a program, even those who demanded that Enrique be given time to build his team, could not have foreseen what he was building. It’s easy to wonder what the “Lucho Out!” crew is thinking now, that Barça is playing the best football in Europe, but that isn’t what matters here.

What matters is that a team, a group of players have the capability of doing something that few teams have the capacity to do, which is make football theory into reality. “Okay. Neymar, you start running, because Iniesta is going to hit a pass to Suarez, who will be holding off two defenders, here. Luis, you will flick the ball on … now, a one-touch play is crucial here, or Neymar will be offide. Make sure your flick lands right at Neymar’s feet. Got it? Okay.”

It was exquisite play that, it bears repeating, makes an opponent irrelevant. The second goal was some sort of Druid ritual in the Espanyol box that resulted in a pass falling to Messi. Any other player in world football, receiving a ball at the far post, almost on a path parallel with the goal mouth, decides to reset the attack. Messi shot, and scored. The worst part about that goal is that he does that kind of stuff so regularly we don’t even flinch any longer, never mind falling off our chairs and muttering gibberish.

But as much as the goal, notice the buildup. A long pass is played for Suarez, who is surveying his options as the ball comes to him. He moves toward the box, still looking for options. And there is Iniesta. Suarez pings it to Iniesta, who uses his first touch to pop the pass up so that his next ball will be above the busy feet of the Espanyol defenders, then volleys a ball back to Suarez, who volleys a lob over for Messi. But because the keeper is charging out at him, Messi can’t just slot it home. He has to control the ball in a way that keeps it right on his feet, or the keeper will smother it, then hit a shot across the face of goal with just enough curve to get in, but not so much that a defender can clear it.

iniesta

On video, in real time, it’s just a Barça goal. But to think about and accurately describe what had to happen elevates into something that must make an opponent say, “You guys are assholes. No really.”

Barça has played the kind of football that it played today before during this season, but in fits and starts. More heartening for culers is that the sustained duration of this quality of play is building. Our culer paranoia is reduced to, “Oh crap, they made three straight passes! Doooom!”

Unlike the Sevilla match, even when sent down to 10 men thanks to a stupid Jordi Alba and a preternaturally inept Lahoz, Barça remained in control. Alves was excellent, Mascherano continues to laugh at the people who have to keep making semantic castells of contentions against his presence on the pitch. Suarez was omnipresent and almost always dangerous, and it’s safe to say that Neymar’s slump is over, even as he needs to concentrate in front of goal. He could easily have had a hat trick today, and against a top European side you won’t get many chances to score.

This wasn’t a perfect match for Barça, but such things are impossible. But it might have been the best match that the team has played this season because of the football, and the moment. If this team wants to win the Liga, every league match is a final, as there is no breathing room. Espanyol came into the match on a streak of excellent football, with clean sheets in 5 of its last 7 home matches. They were owned today, by a team whose playing style didn’t care who they were.

Barça did this under the pressure of the knowledge that there is absolutely no margin for error. It is extraordinary to think that the team is a bad Pique pass away from being able to win out the season. It is also extraordinary the way that this team has come into shape as a training and building plan has paid off. From Pique to Iniesta to a still-evolving Messi, this team is playing football at its finest. Even more correctly, it is playing Barça football.

"Hey! Hey! Pretty good, huh?"

“Hey! Hey! Pretty good, huh?”

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts58 Comments

It’s the big one! Barça v Bayern, and why the Blaugrana will advance

It’s boxing day.

Not the traditional kind, but my gloves are on. Why? Because of the Champions League draw in which Barça drew Bayern Munich and culer boots began to tremble in fear.

If Bayern advances against Barça, fair on them, but I don’t think that they are going to, the magic elf that is coaching them notwithstanding. I have my reasons, that boil down to something more than “Because Barça is the best team in the world right now.” So let’s get to it.

Messi

Why does it always come down to Messi? Because he is the best player on the planet. But it’s a bit more complex than that because he is also a whimsical force of nature who can alter a match whenever he decides. Atleti discovered this in the 3-1 Camp Nou loss that wasn’t as close as the scoreline indicated. Atleti flooded the midfield, deciding to contest the battle on Barça’s traditional battleground. But from that first attack in which Messi took the ball and ran, pell-mell at the Atleti defense in a way that left it completely devoid of any and all options was when his real power as a player became clear for many.

It has always been true that people assumed that Messi could be stopped in a traditional sense. Foul him, put 4 defenders on him, etc. In the past that has certainly been the case. This season, as he has embraced a true leadership role in doing whatever he thinks needs to happen to help his team win (given carte blanche to do so by his coach), it is increasingly true that the only person who can stop Messi is Messi. Some matches he is unstoppable, other matches he is closer to “normal.”

But I think it is ultimately the player’s choice of which Messi shows up. Messi also knows that he has a limited number of matches at that level in his tank. I would argue for more rest for him to ensure that he has even more matches of that level in his tank, so that he doesn’t have to shuffle around against Almeria, but that ship has sailed. Messi is going to play every match that he isn’t injured or suspended, and that’s that. So it is up to the player to pick and choose which matches That Messi is going to show up.

As pertinent to matters is that Bayern don’t have a player like that, a player who can decide that “Today will be the day that I will win this match for my team by being unplayable.” Robben is an exceptional player, but you know what you are going to get. Ribery isn’t what he once was but even at his best, he wasn’t the kind of player who made the other 21 players on the pitch irrelevant. Yes, Bayern have a fine system and an excellent coach. But sometimes, when you have two teams who are close to equals – and make no mistake, that situation exists here – one player can turn the tie.

Barça has that player in Messi. (I know. I hate him, blablabla. But still.)

The new (old) Barça

Henry/Eto’o/Messi is now Neymar/Suarez/Messi. What are the differences between then and now? In the past, the attacking trident was being fed by a fully in-prime Xaviniesta, and it was amazing. In the present, Xaviniesta is diminished by time, so Enrique has had to devise a different system to work within and around opponents, while still getting the ball to the right players at the right time.

What hasn’t changed is that the front three is not only potent as hell, but the best attacking trident in world football, each capable of individually deciding a match. Suarez isn’t as blindingly fast or as capable of the constant, crazy movement that Eto’o was, but in place of that he brings an array of passing and shotmaking that Eto’o didn’t offer. Henry was Henry. But Neymar, with his array of skills, is a combination of Iniesta and Henry. He can score and create, make space from nothing or drive to the goal himself. And Messi is Messi.

The Barça midfield isn’t the metronomic force that it was back when a world wasn’t ready for what it was about to see. Some of that is a consequence of time, some how opponents are lining up to face the team, in a way that can disrupt a precision attack. The versatility that has been added in the form of Ivan Rakitic is not to be underestimated. He is more than Dani Alves’ babysitter. His movement and intelligence of movement leaves him more often than not, in the right place at the right time. Alves has benefited from this, as has Busquets.

As the players have said, Barça isn’t playing all that differently from how it always has, despite the necessity of people to believe that it is. But the team has added wrinkles and adaptations that I believe make it better equipped to manage against a top-quality European opponent.

The power of memory

In that now famous, epoch-defining 7-0 aggregate loss to Bayern, that distracted, injured, coach-less mess of a team that lacked its best player went down to an opponent that was allowed its way on the pitch. This time, it’s different. There is a coach, the team is fit, focused and in form. There is no sadness, no tragedy or illness of beloved colleagues – just a fit, nasty bunch of players that has delivered against big opponents all but two times this season. And those two times were in the balance, lest we forget. Against RM, imagine how different the match would have been had Neymar and then Messi notched chances that they usually score. Against PSG at Parc Des Princes, the last half-hour of that match has PSG cowering in front of its own net. Only a couple of off finishes and a heroic Marquinhos intervention against Alba prevented that loss from becoming a draw or even a win.

Players remember humiliations, and the core of this Barca team was there for the 7-0. I can assure you that it hurts, even today. Ugly losses always do, and players always crave chances to avenge a beating. Our team has its chance, and rest assured they are relishing and anticipating it.

And I, for one, hope that the Camp Nou gives Guardiola the greeting that a rival coach should get in a Champions League semi-final home leg. Save the respectful applause stuff for later. I don’t expect a blizzard of flying pig heads, but if my Barcelona-based culers make things all nice and cuddly, I will be disappointed. This should be a hostile, away crowd, no matter who coaches them and who is on their roster. The players will need that edge, that buzz. For anyone who has ever been in the stands for a Classic as the RM players take to the pitch for warmups, if a home team can’t hear … nay, FEEL that ire and get pumped to give those folks a beatdown, that team isn’t human.

History

This history, this karma is the reason this tie is happening, the “ex” factor. Guardiola is the most successful coach in Barça history, and culers still get misty-eyed when his name comes up. Even those like me who don’t, still have the deepest respect for what he did while at the club. He is a brilliant, innovative coach who has an intangible in that many culers believe that much of the reason that he isn’t still at the club, despite what Guardiola has said, is the board. That makes the relationship kinda odd, because the board sucks, so an enemy of my enemy is a friend, right? Well, not quite exactly fully. But that history, those memories of victory parades and dominance will make the feelings of that home leg very odd for many.

I don’t know the “real” reason Guardiola left. Only he, his friends and family do. But I know he left in circumstances that were complex. In many ways he’s like the ex that just moved on. You still love them. They cooked, cleaned and the house always smelled like peppermint, except on waffle days. That’s what you remember. And it’s wonderful, right? Good.

And then there is Thiago. Many workplaces have challenges retaining young, talented employees, who are in demand. They leave for better jobs, and as much as employers gnash teeth and rend garments, the person is gone, nonetheless. Football is different from the real world in that you often get recompense for losing an employee in the form of millions of Euros, which leaves a fan base to debate whether the fee was sufficient/board was stupid/etc, etc.

Irrespective of the real reasons, which are as murky as the ultimate reasons for Guardiola leaving, Thiaga Alcantara left for a better job. Guile, a mean ol’ board, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, a coach who didn’t cherish and play him enough, ambition, who the hell knows. But he activated his buyout clause that was low because of a negotiated contract stipulation, and left for a big European rival. And you know what? I would do the exact same thing in his situation. At Barça you have tradition, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and a Neymar running around. At your potential new job, you have a beloved former coach (at both key levels) who is saying “I want him and only him,” and that team is a European juggernaut. You get a raise, primo status and you start, without question. I wouldn’t be able to pack my bags fast enough.

But that complex history makes both the Thiago and Guardiola situations fraught for so many culers. Both are the “ones that got away,” history that will make this tie pulsate with even more of that “morbo,” a word traditionally reserved for Spain-on-Spain encounters.

What about weaknesses?

Every team has weaknesses. If the front three don’t add their work rates to the defensive side of things, Barca is going to be in trouble. Robben is big, fast and strong and will vex Jordi Alba to a level that he hasn’t yet seen this season. Lucas Moura in the away PSG group stage leg might have been as close as he’s come. It will be a challenge. Might Enrique opt for a big, fast, physical LB presence and slide Mathieu over there? Possible, but unlikely. Even though the performance of Mathieu in the away Classic has grown (or more correctly, diminished) in its folkloric status, it isn’t like Enrique to disturb the balance of his gala XI, except in cases of injury or substitution. So Alba will have a hard time, which means that Neymar will have a hard time because it will be up to him to buttress the defensive efforts against Robben.

On the right, Messi and Rakitic are going to have to help against Ribery, who is more than capable of dealing killer blows. In the cases of Messi and Neymar, this will detract from their offensive efforts of necessity, but a 2-1 win is better than a 4-2 loss. It will be more important to not concede goals, as it is without question that Barça will score.

Suarez is a potential weakness even as he is also a point of unquestioned strength. This is as deep into the Champions League as he has ever been, even as he has seen big stages before in international competition. At those moments we have ignominy in a handball and an Italian meal. We also have a pair of spectacular goals against England. As the stakes mount, so does the pressure. A player will either crack, thrive or implode. Suarez has demonstrated that he is capable of the last two. Let’s hope that he isn’t capable of the first, or it will be a very long pair of matches against Bayern.

Barça should be working on finishing, because Neuer isn’t going to allow that many chances. He is the best keeper in the game, without question. But because he also functions as an outfield player, he has the opportunity to influence play in a way that a more traditional keeper doesn’t offer. So he might well be the one tackling Neymar at a key moment of a match, or stonewalling Suarez outside the box should his first touch get a bit loose.

Last season’s defense would have worried me a lot more – even as its weakness was exaggerated – than this season’s, which is demonstrating the hard work that Enrique and his coaching staff have put in.

Finally

Bayern is a formidable opponent. Even Enrique has said that Guardiola is the best coach in the game right now, even though Mourinho might argue with that (imagine that!). The strength of their team isn’t a series of transcendent talents even as they have exceptionally talented players. But they offer a depth of quality that is enviable, a depth that has served them well in this year’s European campaign.

But they are not unbeatable, not supermen. As Guardiola said, if they make the kinds of errors that they made against Porto, the tie will be over at the end of the first leg. That 3-1 away loss was cold water in the face for Bayern. Against Barça it would be a death sentence, and Guardiola knows that. He will be devising a way to neutralize Messi, Neymar and Suarez while ensuring that the flank play of Alves and Alba won’t be a problem. In the new Enrique system, the biggest passing numbers have moved from midfielders to the fullbacks, particularly Alba. This means that if Robben isn’t defending as well as he attacks, Alba will be giving Bayern almost as much trouble as Robben will, so the Dutchman had better be on his toes.

Without question, Barça will be the most formidable challenge that Bayern has faced. Last season they ran up against RM and got their clocks cleaned. That RM wasn’t as good as this Barça. The individual brilliance that has been scoffed at by purist culers this season might be the exact trick that will be required to get Barça over the edge. A system can be coached against, simulated and accounted for. A bit of crazy brilliance can’t be managed. Ancelotti had everything right except that Suarez match winner. Because you can’t control crazy.

I think that Barça will advance, but it will be tight. The first leg being at the Camp Nou is less of a disadvantage for Barça, who will be playing the same whether at home or at the Allianz. Away goals are obviously crucial and potentially tie-deciding. I think the away leg will be the decider. Though scorelines are always impossible to predict, I see a low-scoring draw at the Camp Nou and a Barça win at the Allianz, with Neymar and Suarez being more decisive than Messi.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Goodbyes, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts29 Comments

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

iniesta

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.

messi

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.

neyalves

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.

stegen

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts75 Comments

Page 1 of 912345...Last »

Readers Online




Barca Shop