Archive | La Liga

Life isn’t like the movies … sometimes, it’s better

Sit down at a word processor and write the story of this Barça season, then shake your head. It’s crazy.

It’s always difficult to speak for everyone in a group, but these days are a pretty bizarre ride for this here culer.

And by “these days” I mean the last decade, from Ronaldinho’s samba football and Guardiola’s divine triangles to “Get em!” Enrique. What a time to be a culer, no matter when you came to the club.

It’s why it’s appalling when people want to make new fans somehow feel lesser because of when they came to the club. My interest in Barça started when the club was happy just to make Europe, much less dominate it. But that makes my joy no more or less real and valid than someone who just started following the club because they like Messi, and thought Guardiola was cool. Hell, people who are newer supporters find a lack of success even more wrenching than those who understand trophyless seasons and failure.

The culerverse is a big place.

But it’s still a bizarre ride because in this fairy tale season, a club and a team have embodied every single aspect of sport, and life. It’s still even deeper than that.

On April 27, 2014, Barça faced off against Villarreal. It was two days after the death of the club’s beloved Mister, Tito Vilanova. In a dark back room of a Chicago pub, lit only by the glow of flat-panel television sets, I sat on a bar stool and tried to hold it together during the moment of silence that preceded the match. It was impossible, just as it is impossible right now, as I type this.

And yet, in thinking about that time, staring at a laptop screen made blurry by a veil of tears and then thinking about today, comes the reminder that being culer is about everything. It’s rage, anger, mistrust, suspicion, delight, giddiness, exultation. It’s feeling betrayal as a favorite player is sold, it’s being happy when something wonderful happens to a millionaire in short pants who has no idea that you even exist. Sport consumes us because it is life, a crazy movie that lasts 90 minutes, breathless cliffhanger and love story.

I don’t care about the personal lives of the players, but you don’t have to look very hard to see magic and symbolism in the Iniestas welcoming a new child into the world in this amazing season, after the sadness of a miscarriage during a year that seemed cursed. If you were to write a story of a team and a season, this Barça and this season, and try to sell it as a book or movie, it would be rejected. “Make it more like real life, and we’ll think about it.”

Right down to Xavi lifting the Champions League trophy this has been a year of magic, culminating in making history and a club legend going out on top. This stuff is impossible to write. You wouldn’t dare. Too cheesy. The team’s last Champions League trophy was hoisted by a man who kicked cancer in the teeth, who left a note in the locker room of the stadium that hosted the final, a promissory note of greatness. And when that team’s Captain marched up to the podium, handing over the captain’s armband and letting that player hoist the trophy … “Make this story more like real life, and we’ll think about it.”

Xavi is past it. So many believed it. The line of fools has a spot reserved for me. Because Enrique knew better, he asked Xavi to stay. And when that player entered the pitch to finish what his successor in Iniesta started, to restore order and help the team that he spent his entire playing career at achieve ultimate success, the team that he almost left for fear he wouldn’t make it there …

“Make this story more like real life, and we’ll think about it.”

Belief and doubt. Even the most pessimistic among us has, deep down in their heart, hope and belief. You have to. People stomp around on Twitter, asserting that something is NEVER going to happen, but even they hope that it does. That’s the magic of it all, placing your joy in the hands of a complete stranger, then hugging a complete stranger when that joy is realized. But being culer is, in these emotional ways, no different than being a supporter of any other club. It would be wrong of us to assume otherwise, but it would also be wrong of us to feel those special moments any less, tears of joy and heartbreak. Their being universal helps us understand and explain them more easily.

Sport is life. I know people who don’t like sports, and it’s a little difficult to grasp their reasoning, because sport is life. In a match you can go from unparalleled joy to heartbreak in a few rotations of a spherical object. Great players do great things, great players fail. Journeymen have moments of divinity and become, for a few moments, superhuman. They often just as quickly return to mere mortality. It’s magic. The movies love sport because that world is bigger than real life in ways that make sane folks shake their heads. “No way. That didn’t just happen.”

It’s weird to wake up the day after something, and check to make sure it actually happened. Barça won a treble yesterday. Its supporters have a team for the ages, a team impossible to assemble so it was grown on-site, hewn from diminutive players who would have come up short elsewhere. Its superstar needed medical intervention to reach “normal” size, even as he is still physically a small man striding among giants, even as he has grown into the best player in the game, a genius who sets records and makes history with metronomic regularity.

Naaaah! Make this story more like real life, and we’ll think about it.

Posted in Champions League, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts24 Comments

Does it matter if Barça wins today?

Calm, calm, everywhere calm.

All over Barça social media is an eerie feeling on the day of an immense match: calm. People can wonder why such a thing is going on, but it’s easy for someone who has tracked the arc of this season to place a finger on it. This magnificent season is something of a surprise gift, a months-long party in which surprise guests and presents just keep showing up.

When the season started it was with a new coach and a new staff, plus eight new transfers into the team. Nobody knew how everything was going to go. Some idiots even predicted, notions with roots in logic, that this would be another silverless season, but just you wait until next year.

Things got off to a good start and the team was playing well, even if it wasn’t playing in the way many wanted it to. RM was playing out of this world football, and some pundits were declaring the season over even before it started. The season began with doubt, and wrapped doubt around it like a comfortable old blanket.

And then, something weird happened. Many trace the season turnaround to the mess at Anoeta. To my view, Anoeta was as expected as a tax bill. If you watched carefully, it was evident that the team was coming together in a way that was going to make for interesting football for the remainder of the season. The fitness was evident, the mental toughness was evident. This was a team getting ready for battle.

There has been talk of SMS messages exchanged, talks between Enrique and Messi, Xavi and Messi, the Dalai Lama and the team, who the hell knows. But when a training regimen begins to take shape and bear fruit, you see it. And it isn’t just fitness. It’s confidence. You look over and see your opponent bent over, breathing hard as you stand there, ready to go. You’re ready, you’re waiting.

When RM came back to earth due to injuries and fatigue (sound familiar, culers?), Barça was there to pounce. It seemed like this team took off like a rocket because people were too busy seeing what they wanted to see instead of what was actually there.

The team went 8-1-1 in its first 10 matches, with 9 clean sheets. Losses to PSG, RM and Celta at home got tongues wagging, because of impatience and lack of understanding. When you build a training plan, you put in the work. More often than not you will get the results, but as the plan takes shape and the program builds, there will be bumps that are expected. How an athlete deals with those bumps is what will define the success of his season.

The smart runner understands that a lost race, despite being fit and ready, doesn’t mean the season is lost and he should binge on gelato and donuts. He understands it’s a temporary glitch, and confidence in the plan is required.

In the 11 matches leading to Anoeta, Barça was 10-0-1 with 6 clean sheets, wins over Valencia at their ground and a 5-1 stonking of Sevilla. But so busy were the people extracting philosophical pounds of flesh (an irony given how vehemently the culerverse took after Ibrahimovic for labeling Guardiola “philosopher”) that many wound up missing what was going on.

Anoeta came after an extended international break, courtesy of a Jordi Alba own goal. “Why didn’t he start Messi, Suarez, etc.” ignores the fact that they entered the match in the second half against what should have been a more fatigued La Real, and couldn’t make anything happen.

But in the culerverse, it was Armageddon. The screams rang long and loud. There was insufficient patience with anything from too many supporters, no real effort to understand of what was going on. It’s understandable and inexplicable at the same time. The team was getting results, but not in the right way. More philosophy. Individual brilliance was terrible, except when Messi scored a brilliant solo goal.

It was a period that found the culerverse and the entorno at their absolute worst.

Some fools dared to say that something cool was coming, and folks should calm down. They were called idiots and defenders, and then … something cool started to happen. The gifts that had really been coming all season for those open to receiving them, started flowing and people started paying attention. Barça beat Atleti, then beat them again, eventually going 4-0 against a team that single-handedly ruined the silver rush last season. It beat RM via one of those goals that the philosophers found vile. It put on a clinic against Manchester City, playing precisely the kind of football the philosophers said it couldn’t play, and wasn’t playing. Beat Atleti to make the Copa final, beat the team of ubermen coached by the genius in Bayern Munich and suddenly, it was real.

The first treble season whooshed by in a “Wait, what just happened” rush. This potential treble season was so busy wallowing in a miasma of disbelief, squabbling and expectation that for things to have reached this point seems surprising. A different kind of “Wait, what just happened?”

So why wouldn’t some folks be calm about something so completely unexpected? Where did THAT come from? The easy answer is right over there, but you weren’t looking for it. The more difficult answer finds its notion in the traditional Buddhist saying, to “be here now.”

Football is fond of comparing, fond of ranking. Enrique Barça vs Guardiola’s. Messi vs Ronaldo. Messi vs Maradona. Barça vs Milan. This goal vs that goal. And suddenly, the world is awash in everything except the wonder of the moment. People scoff at those who say a win, ANY win, is pretty wonderful no matter how it comes. Theory is easy for the victor, but ask the vanquished about style points vs 3 points. Sport exists in the moment. It’s an athlete’s single-minded focus, it’s a supporter suddenly finding religion in the last minute of a scoreless final, it’s the reality of right here, right now.

Football will never stop comparing, even if it should. Because while we’re sitting there, wondering how the hot fudge sundae that we are having ranks against the all-time best hot fudge sundaes that we have ever had, we’re missing out on savoring one hell of a treat.

So many culers are calm because this wasn’t supposed to happen. For many, this season has been so wonderful that it doesn’t even matter much if Barça is able to beat Juventus today. I am one of those culers. This has been a magnificent roller coaster of a season that has ended in a series of magical moments, from Xavi hoisting the Liga trophy at his last Camp Nou appearance in the colors, to a record-setting front three and a diminutive genius cementing his status as best in the game. So much. So, so much that it’s easy to feel sated, besotted as joy splashes over a fanbase.

And now, here we are. Here we ALL are. No rivalries, no rancor, just a group united in its love for a team. In mere hours, it all begins. When you have doubt, when you worry, when you want to rage against the universe, remember this season and all that has come before this moment, breathe deep, and believe.

Posted in Champions League, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts31 Comments

blitzen awards, the “I’m in Barcelona, suckas!” edition.

How do you like me now?

How do you like me now?

Tapas d’Oro: Italy has it’s “Golden Tapir”, which is awarded to celebrities who have failed spectacularly or done something humiliating. In 2012, after his season in charge of Roma, it was awarded to Luis Enrique as the “worst coach of the year”. Being Lucho, he accepted it with good humour and even displayed it on his mantelpiece at home. It’s probably safe to assume that he used it as a personal motivation to improve. So we think it’s only fair that after a season where his every move was scrutinized, nitpicked, and criticized, when #LuchoOut was trending on twitter, and when he was accused of “betraying” the style, the players and the fans, that Lucho be awarded the best and most delicious tapas that Barcelona has to offer, and which he can eat from his shiny new silver bowls.

The Golden Setpiece: This award, which is modeled after Mathieu’s head, goes to Juan Carlos Unzue. Lucho’s assistant coach and BFF has worked a minor miracle with what was previously the weakest part of Barça’s game: set pieces. A former goalkeeper himself, Unzue has brought his experience to the team and drills them relentlessly in all kinds of scenarios, both in defense and attack. Cules’ usual response when the team concedes a corner is to dive behind the sofa and cover their ears, but no more! Under Unzue’s guidance the team has conceded only 7 goals from set pieces all season–half as many as last year! And this considering our defense consists of a clown, a green kid, an old man, a misplaced midfielder and a couple of shrimps. Amazing!

Miss Congeniality Award: I wasn’t in favour of signing Luis Suarez, and I still have strong reservations about him, but he has shown a perfect attitude all season, and that has earned him my respect. He has obviously worked hard on controlling himself on the pitch and gets along well with the other players in the dressing room, and I am happy to say that I have no complaints in that regard. Well done, Luis!

Wash That Man Right Out Of Our Hair Award: He’s had the Board in a lather for years, but they still haven’t managed to scrub out that troublesome Dani Alves. This could be the year, though, as the Unique One’s contract ends on June 30th and so far there is no agreement between the two parties on a renewal. One the one hand, Dani says he hasn’t been shown proper respect for everything he has done for this team (and he is right, considering the club didn’t even pretend they wanted him to renew until after the FIFA ban was confirmed in January). On the other, the conveniently leaked details of the offer the club has made seem pretty decent (if true, of course). Dani himself says he won’t make a decision until after the CL final. Will he go out in a shower of glory, or settle back into the team for a good long soak?

They Also Save Who Only Stand And Wait Award: Jordi Masip, who has not had the season he was expecting to. After a very good season with the B team, he was promoted and slotted in as our backup to the excellent Ter Stegen. Instead, he found himself dropped to 3rd choice after Luis Enrique insisted on signing Claudio Bravo. It’s a shame, because he is a very good keeper in his own right, but based on their performances there was no way he was going to bench either Ter Stegen or Bravo. He accepted his position with good grace, and was rewarded by playing two games (one in the cup, one in the league IIRC). My hope is that he will move on this summer to a team where he can play regularly. He is too good to be a backup all his life.

That Old Black Magic Award: To Thomas Vermaelen, who unselfishly sacrificed almost his entire season to serve as the team’s very own injury-laden Picture of Dorian Gray, thereby keeping the rest of the players in a remarkable state of health and fitness. Seriously, I can’t remember a season when we had so few injuries. One might be inclined to credit Lucho’s training methods, his medical staff, or his (controversial) use of player rotation, but I think we all know who is truly responsible: Voodoo Vermaelen and his little bag of pins and needles.

The Silver Bootstrap For Most Improved Performance: Last season was not Pique’s best. In fact, it would be fair to say that we hadn’t seen the best version of him for several years. And after a few diffident on-pitch performances and some questionable off-pitch behaviour, it was starting to look like 2014-2015 would be more of the same. Lucho even benched Pique for three games running in an attempt to shock him into a reaction. Well, it worked. Whether it was because of being benched or whether Shakira gave him a talking-to at home, at some point Pique gave his head a shake and determined to get back to being one of the best defenders in the world. Since some time in November Pique has been the linchpin of the best defense in the league, and turned in one phenomenal performance after another. On the pitch he oozes calm and self-confidence, along with his usual buccaneering spirit and willingness to get forward. No coach in his right mind would bench him now. Poor Bartra can barely get a look-in. So a well-deserved award to Pique for taking himself in hand, and let’s hope he continues in this form for many years to come!

participactionThe ParticipAction Award For Good Attendance: Every Canadian of a certain age will be familiar with this little pin, which was handed out to schoolchildren as part of a government fitness program. Everyone got one for participating, even if their fitness level was so poor they couldn’t even qualify for the bronze level patch. It was basically the “You tried” of Canadian junior high school gym. So this one goes to Douglas, who was sidelined for almost the entire season for reasons as diverse as “adapting to the style”, “injury”, “bought for next season, not this one”, “injury again”, or possibly even just “not being Dani Alves”. To his credit, Douglas has not complained (not spoken to the press at all, in fact), has made friends in the dressing room (he’s that guy in the picture you always think “Who’s that?” when the Brazilian players are out & about), and although his few minutes on the pitch were not exactly stellar, there has been no hint from the coaches that he has any problems in training. I still think his signing was extremely fishy and he will more than likely be loaned out this summer, but he deserves recognition for being a good team player and not letting the jokes get him down.

(Blau) Elefant In The Room Award: I think by anyone’s standard that we can all agree this has been a successful season. The team is playing spectacularly, the dressing room is healthy, and at time of writing there are two trophies to show for it, with a third as a distinct possibility. Even if Barça don’t win the treble, this is still a season to celebrate. So why are some of us feeling a bit ambivalent about the team’s success? It’s because these trophies may come with an unfortunate consequence if they help Bartomeu and the current board get reelected. All the controversies, missteps and downright criminal acts by this board may be blown away like chaff before the glorious trumpet call of victory. Worse, this board will take the credit and use it as a platform to get the members onside. After all, they appointed Lucho, didn’t they? They bought Rakitic and Suarez and Ter Stegen. How can you vote against them when they have so obviously had the best interests of the club at heart all along? We will see what happens when the elections come in July, but if FIFA delegates can resoundingly reelect Sepp Blatter in the face of the enormous scandals and criminal charges hanging over that organization, I don’t have a lot of hope that the Barça socis will do otherwise.

The Oscar Hammerstein II Memorial Birds Gotta Fly Award For Showboating: Neymar has been getting a lot of flak from the press and from opposing players for “showing off” with unnecessary little tricks and flicks. Most recently he attempted a “sombrero” over the head kick near the end of the Copa del Rey final, which incensed his opponent and led to an argument involving players from both teams. The claim is that tricks like this are offensive and disrespectful to the opponent, with the implication that the player considers himself “too good” and wants to humiliate the other. While there is certainly a level of arrogance or vanity in attempting these tricks, I think the amount of anger directed towards Neymar is out of proportion and based mostly on his personality. When Ronaldinho does things like this everyone praises the joy he takes in the game. If Neymar was messing about like this when the team was in need of a goal or someone was waiting for a vital pass, I would be first in line with a pitchfork. But trying a flick for the fun of it at the end of a game we have dominated from start to finish? Fill your boots, kid. You deserve it.

Elvis Has Left The Building Award: With 24 trophies to his name, and possibly even one more to come, Xavi is now the most decorated Spanish player of all time. After 17 years with the first team, Xavi played his last game at the Camp Nou, coming on for the second half of the CDR final. Many writers and journalists with more talent than myself have discussed his immense career and the impact he has had on the modern game, not just in Spain but around the world. I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that Xavi is the most important and influential Spanish player of all time. More than that, I would like to express my personal gratitude–I started following Barcelona because of Xavi. He’s the one who taught me that football can be a lot more than just some players running around after a ball. Every moment watching YouTube highlights set to awful emo music, every patchy stream that cuts out right before a goal, every sketchy download that might just be carrying a nasty virus–that’s all ultimately been because of Xavi, and it’s all been worth it. Thank you, Maestro, for all the beautiful football. I’m so happy you are leaving on a high note. I hope they appreciate you where you are going.

Gracies, Maki!

Gracies, Maki!

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, La Liga, Messi21 Comments

Knowledge is power, aka “The secret of my success”

Anyone looking to understand the success of this FC Barcelona season really only need pay attention to about two minutes of the Copa final to understand, even in a match filled with such moments.

At 0-1 down, Athletic began to play with more urgency. They pressed, they got the ball into the Barça end. But just when the announcer said Athletic was getting into it Barça pressed back, bullying Athletic back into their end. They then pressed the ball free, played a series of exquisite one touches and it was 0-2.

Barça plays football that seems almost telepathic. Other teams train as hard, work on possession and all of the same stuff that Barça does in its trainings. Other teams work on fitness, do all of the same things. There is talk of triangles, but every team in top-flight club football will manifest triangles at some point. So what is it about the automatic behaviors, the knowledge of self and teammates that makes these things, when applied by Barça, unstoppable? Knowledge is power, naturally. But in the right hands, knowledge is unstoppable. Yet part of knowledge is belief.

When Barça went out in the Champions League semis to Chelsea in part thanks to appalling finishing, I noted in my match review that Chelsea was defending so well and so physically, they made panic set in. Calm players became rushed because a challenge was always expected. Time was pressing.

Strong teams put a timer on you that is as much psychological as real. When Messi scored a goal like he did, Athletic worried about when it would happen again. You are facing a team that is fitter, runs more, moves better, is more technically skilled and completely unselfish. It’s also a team whose default setting is to keep the ball. You forget that the goal was a bolt out of blue. The guy who is struck by lightning, instead of thinking “TWICE in a lifetime? Sheeeit,” heads for home when the skies cloud over. It’s suddenly all that he can think about.

Athletic is stressed, Barça is calm, considered and understanding of the necessity of possession. Neymar takes a pass, feints, surveys and seeing nothing, passes back to Busquets for the reset. And it starts again. The sequence I refer to at the beginning of this post is an extraordinary thing, that bears an in-depth dissection.

34:27: Mikel Rico worked the ball loose from Alves. They made some passes, applied a bit of pressure.

34:44 A brilliant bit of influence play from Busquets forces Athletic to pass back into their end. When that happens the Barça back four is sprinting forward as is the entire team. They already know. The ball is where they want it now, in the opponent half.

running

More crucially, Athletic players are walking or trotting while Barça players are running. And it isn’t even halftime.

The Athletic keeper punts it long. Alves controls and at 34:52, not even 30 seconds after Athletic had life, Barça was back on the attack.

35:55 The ball is in the back of the Athletic net.

One of the keys to that goal happened about 40 seconds before the goal was scored. Jordi Alba was on the sideline, being charged by a pair of Athletic defenders. Neymar runs in to provide an option and as quickly as he gets the pass taps it to Iniesta, who is already off and running into a gaping hole on the Athletic wing. Panic.

“Always options,” said the matchcaster, which is exactly the point. Then as now, it is crucial to always have a safe haven for the ball. Pam! Pam! Pam! A trio of Alves, Rakitic and Messi ping-ponged the ball into the box. When Rakitic played the pass to Suarez, you can see Messi looking at the linesman in case there is an offside flag. He knows. Rakitic, when the pass is slid to Neymar, is already celebrating. He knows.

Pity the Athletic keeper. Messi, Suarez, Rakitic and Neymar are running at you, and your defenders are mostly behind them.

goal

Craig Burley, the ESPN color commentator, said “In terms of football, in terms of soccer, in terms of quality, it doesn’t get much better than what we’ve been seeing.

“And that’s the thing about this Barcelona front three they’re full of big egos, they’re full of quality, they’re full of stars, but they’re unselfish. They’re team players, and that’s why it works.”

Suarez looked up and fed Neymar for the sure thing. Neymar made a remarkable run in and across the box, looking to pass all the time. For the second goal, Suarez could have taken the shot with a reasonable degree of confidence but the keeper was facing him, waiting. You never know. Slide the ball to Neymar, and you DO know. Rakitic also had the open net. He saw Neymar coming, and he knew. Everyone knows.

When Pep Guardiola assumed the reins at Barça he famously said “Run, you bastards, run!” It is not known what Enrique said, but a safe bet is that it was “Play as a TEAM, and we will win.” It’s a batch of the best players in the game, sacrificing for each other and the team. No idea how you beat that.

Every player has a tendency. A striker in the box can be played to shoot, because that’s what strikers do. With Barça, the other two superstars are bursting their lungs to get into position, to provide options and suddenly the defenders have no idea. Messi, Suarez, Neymar … um … Sacrifice is an extraordinary thing. The run, the extra pass. Everybody is, suddenly, Xavi.

At the opening of the second half, Messi is smiling and laughing. He knows. The confetti was ready, the families were on hand, the banners were ready. Yes, teams plan celebrations all the time, then have to put the things in storage for a time, possibly forever. Did Athletic have their celebration stuff all ready? Good question, but as they lined up to face a nasty footballing side at the peak of its powers, you have to wonder.

What’s worrying for opponents is that Busquets is 26. Messi is 27. Neymar is 23. Rakitic is 27. Suarez is 28. Pique is 28. There are more years of this, assuming none of the odd things happen that derail dynasties. In the past, if Messi took a knock, then what? Now, Pedro comes on, Neymar moves central and there’s also Suarez. Business as usual, without the absurd bits of genius from the greatest player in the game. That Messi goal was crazy, but it’s easy to forget about the chances created before and after that goal.

Always options, always on the move. Working. In the 52nd minute with a 0-2 lead, Inkesta and Busquets combine to steal the ball from an Athletic midfielder who swore he had more time. His head goes down to look the pass in. He looks up and Busquets is in the way. He dribbles and Iniesta reaches in with a boot to take the ball and start the other way. It’s a little thing that sows stress and confusion. What do you do when you have no time? More crucially, you have no time but your opponent seems to have all the time in the world.

Athletic have a set piece at 55 minutes. Rakitic takes the ball just outside the Barça box, and hoofing it never occurs to him. Instead he slides a perfectly weighted pass to Neymar, who rolls it to Busquets and keeps running because he knows that Busquets is going to flick the ball to him in stride. And the attack can resume, the relentless task of destruction.

What makes this team extraordinary, as Graham Hunter so correctly notes in his excellent Copa post-match, is that it is a team. It’s facile and lazy to reduce this season of success to Messi, even as Messi changes everything. As Hunter puts it:

“Yet the thing that deserves emphasis is that this Barcelona team does not and cannot win by Messi alone. He is the lead violinist; he is the soaring solo soprano voice, true. But the orchestra must also be in tune. They have been working hard. They have been sharing the concept of “we want it all, we want it all” until it becomes a mantra.

That was sufficient today. Barcelona’s mega talent mixed with 10 months of utter dedication. They had a target, it was the treble, and because they worked like Trojans, it’s now in sight.

It would be unseemly, unbecoming to assume victory in Berlin. Juventus is an excellent footballing side that has been working on nothing except ways to stop Barça, because it isn’t enough to stop Messi any longer. Because he is the best player alive who inspires sonnets of rapture, it’s easy to forget that Barça is absolutely loaded with talent. Just because they play with Messi all the time doesn’t mean they can’t play without him.

Athletic is a very good football team. Barça isn’t strolling matches because its opponents are in some way inferior. Popular is the act of futility that transplants Barça into the Premiership, to suggest that they wouldn’t have it as easy, that somehow the talent would be diminished because of location. And this argument is being made by coaches of teams who will be watching the Champions League final on TV. RM, City, PSG, Bayern, Atleti — these are championship teams that have all been dispatched in various ways by Barça this season.

For me, this has happened because a coach got an extraordinary group of players to forge itself into a unit — a complete unit with one thing at the forefront: winning. It doesn’t matter who scores the goal, who blocks the shot, who gets the assist as long as Barça gets the full points. A great team that also understands sacrifice will be pretty tough to beat.

Posted in Analysis, Copa del Rey, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts7 Comments

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.

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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.

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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.

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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts15 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”

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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

Barça 2, Real Soceidad 0, aka “It had to be you”

pedro

It had to be you / It had to be youuuuu …

It is hard to think of a more extraordinary short stretch of time in recent Barça history: beating Bayern, beating La Real and Valencia drawing RM. Revenge in the first two cases, psychic revenge in the last as our two wins over them compare to a loss and a draw for RM.

And today, of course, dispatching the team that was the catalyst for Armageddon.

What a week. And fittingly perhaps, in a way that feels so appropriate in this crazy quilt of a season, the man who scored a magnificent golazo to seal the deal today, Mr. Maligned himself, Pedro.

It’s difficult to consider sentiment when there are still titles to be fought for, but two magnificent players might have been applauded off by the home crowd for the last time in the Camp Nou. If we are to believe rumors, Xavi and Pedro are both moving on in the summer, one to a fat payday in Qatar, the other to goals and glory in the Premiership. Both picked an excellent way to say farewell if so, Xavi with a starting stint that found him turning back the hands of time against the exact team his skills dazzle against, and Pedro coming on late, to do what he does.

There is one play in the match that typifies Xavi’s performance today. He rolled up the sideline with the ball, fouled by one La Real player, shouldered by another, fouled by yet another as through it all he not only retained possession, but at the end of his battering did what he always does: make the next pass. He didn’t complain, didn’t whine or fall down, because there was work to be done.

It was no surprise when La Real came out today with 10 behind the ball. And if there is a player in world football who you would rather have pulling the strings for your team when facing a bus, it is Xavi. He unerringly picked out pass after pass, helping created chance after chance, opportunities done and undone by beautiful football concluded by slack finishing.

The team could be forgiven for lacking that last little bit of edge that makes it so clinical. The match after a huge European date is always the one that catches the top teams out. Barça was lucky enough to have La Real at home, a date against an opponent who would be coming in with the sole ambition of taking a point. It made the match easy, and meant that the team could find its way in, seeking that little bit of quality at the right time, chipping away at the lock via attack after attack that wore down the legs of the La Real defenders.

Through it all, until he was subbed off for Iniesta (and a subsequent loss of control), was Xavi. If this was to be his last home match at the Camp Nou, this was a fitting one.

That the comfort-giving goal was scored by Pedro, for the two fans of his sitting in the corner wearing party hats, was wonderful. All this season, Pedro has been that guy. Worthless this, incapable of that. Pointing out that his job had changed, that he was doing what the team and his coach needed mattered not. Pedro sucked for too many culers because he wasn’t doing what he used to do, in very different times for a very different team.

But Pedro doesn’t care, because he understands his role. When he came on, he immediately set about doing what he does. He ran, made the right pass, facilitated control and defended like a demon. Then he capped it off with an overhead kick for the ages, because it came at a time when La Real was having possession, winding the culer doom and gloom clock ever tighter as fevered minds began to construct scenarios in which they could, and would, equalize the match.

And then came Pedro, with a staggering goal off of a deflection in the La Real box. Most overheads come from chest control, so the player is in effect, setting himself up. Pedro’s came off a defender, a less predictable ball that he nonetheless crushed, beating a keeper who was having an excellent match. The Camp Nou screamed, my Twitter timeline filled with Pedro! and for a bit of time, all of the bleating about his inadequacy and being terrible was forgotten. The pressure relief was immediate and almost explosive.

The odd thing about the match is that the typical culer pessimism felt almost rote, like a reflex action, a ghost movement performed because that is how it has always been. Because there is a control about this team that hasn’t been present for some time. The team is very level. In this space, it was noted a while ago that Barça was taking on the personality of its coach. That it has done this in a single season is a remarkable thing. But in addition to the toughness, the mental and physical drive that makes this team flush with the stuff of champions, there is an even keel to this group. Just as its coach stands on the sidelines and does his thing, so does his team. There are highs and lows, but they aren’t stratospheric nor subterranean. They are ups and downs that seem almost planned.

enrique

Recall when Enrique said that the Anoeta result was just part of the stuff that goes on in a season. That it is, isn’t the point. That he understands, said and almost seemed to account for such an occurrence is the noteworthy thing. Last season, late into a match, Barça lost its way, began to panic and players tried individual stuff to prise open an opponent. This year, it’s the system. The players keep doing what they are supposed to do, in full confidence that if they do that, results will come. That confidence comes from the coach.

Enrique has repeatedly this season lauded his players’ professionalism, a word that means more than showing up and getting the job done. It’s a mental attitude, a confidence that if I give of my best, so will the man next to me, and the man next to him. If we all do this, even if one of us might not be on form, the collective will raise us up. The assists, the passes, the generosity stems from this, the confidence that professionals have in one another. Two plus two equals four. It’s just how it is. And a player thinks, “If I make this pass, I believe this will happen, because of the player I am passing the ball to.”

It’s easy to play well when you have full confidence in the professionals you are playing with. Combine that with a coach who is working out a way that everyone can more effectively give of their best, and it isn’t all that difficult to understand why the team’s attitude is great, why it is playing exceptional, selfless football. It isn’t that everything being right dissipates adversity. It’s that attitude leads to everything being right, and the rest will follow.

The strange irony is that in a season that people have carped about individual brilliance. this has been a team effort as everyone gives for everyone. In the 89th minute of a 2-0 match at home, Mascherano came flying up from the back line to dive bomb a defensive header. Why? Because that is what you do, and there isn’t even a question of doing anything else. That’s professionalism, and that’s what this team has. And from professionalism comes confidence. So they don’t panic. They just get stuff done.

This brings us back to Pedro and Xavi, avatars of exemplary professionalism. No “Play me or I am gone,” no rumors about buyout clauses being activated, just a full commitment to the team, a thing that is returned by their teammates. In today’s match, Neymar knew that possession was worth more than any dead ball, so he raced over to the right sideline to save a ball that was going out into touch. He somehow ran the ball down, stopped it dead by standing on it, whirled away and possession continued for Barça. It was a magnificent play that depicts hunger and professionalism.

Another example is the Neymar goal, the match winning tally. He made a speculative run based on nothing more than the necessity of doing the right thing. “What if the ball comes loose?” “What if a teammate can make a play to the back post?” So when the deflection came off a La Real player, Neymar was right there, already on the move, to head home.

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Did Enrique have to say “Run, you bastards, run!” as Pep Guardiola did? Probably not. We can only guess, but it’s easy to envision him saying “If we do what we are supposed to do, we will have success.” It’s pragmatic, and logical. It’s also something that is said by every coach to his team. The difference is that Enrique might have said it to Messi, Neymar, Suarez, Busquets, Iniesta, etc, etc. They have the talent to make that bit of pragmatism real.

Both Barça goals today were “ugly” goals, tallies that didn’t come from the run of play but rather from the detritus of a defensive effort. They tried, but they couldn’t do it. Clearance attempts became goals in a scythe-like, clinical fashion. “You were sloppy, I wasn’t.”

Belief is an extravagance rooted in execution. Players from lesser teams don’t continue a run too long or delay the pass solely because they aren’t as good as the players on the top teams. It’s the doubt. Messi believes. Neymar believes. Xavi believes. As a consequence, through all of the crises real or imagined, through everything that the entorno has done and tried to do, everything in the world of 23 players comes down to one thing: the team.

What made today’s match so special was not only what transpired later in the day, but that the team did what it had to. How easy would it have been to say, “it’s going to be one of those days,” and not keep running, keep making the effort. Barça did what it had to do. That’s what a professional does. As long as you do what you have to do, what anyone else doesn’t matter. Valencia taking points from RM was a luxury, but the accompanying sighs of relief were more from supporters who want breathing room. It’s easy to get the sense that the team doesn’t really need any breathing room, that it understands what it needs to do, just as it has all season, and sees no impediment to that successful task.

What will happen with the rest of this season is still uncertain. The true culer, a pessimist to his soul, sees a Bayern remuntada, a loss to Atleti and a draw to Deportivo at home, as RM win out and take the Liga on the head-to-head tiebreaker as a four-point lead dissipates. The team doesn’t see those possibilities, because supporters can’t know, don’t see what players see. We believe in our team, but it’s nothing like the belief that professionals of the highest quality have in each other. How far that belief takes them is, as and true pro would want it, up to them.

xavi

Posted in La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts75 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

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

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

enrique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mathieu

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

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

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

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

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

mascherano

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

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

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

suarez

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

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

bravo

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

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

There are many ways to interpret that statement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

messi

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts128 Comments

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

suarez

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

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

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

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