Archive | Messi

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

xavi

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

Patience.

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

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

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

Lesson learned.

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

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

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

toss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

enrique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

group

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, 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”

team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Campions.

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

The Coach, The Player, The Enemy and The Treble, among other things…

Some of my thoughts of the last nine days for you to chew on. Click here for Kxevin’s latest.

1. The Coach (A)

Pep this, Pep that. Thank heavens I don’t have to listen to any of it anymore. I got especially tired of reading about people writing about being fed up with people talking about Pep. Even more so because I don’t even know that many people that keep talking about Pep in the first place. It will have been three years soon, and our victory over Pep has finally exorcised the deity. As he had gotten his tactics right on his return to Catalonia, regardless of what scoreboard journalism heads will tell you, culers got their priorities right. He might as well have been any other coach on the night, for the Camp Nou only cared about Barça. Nevertheless, Pep’s culer credentials, in case they could ever be in doubt, remained intact. Messi is the best player in the world? Check. Barça the best team? Double check. Now go win the final.

Of course there is that pesky detail of the distant coach who is no longer on speaking terms with the superstar he helped guide into greatness. Marca reported that after the semi Pep entered the dressing room to congratulate and to hug each player, including Messi.

2. The Coach (B)

He must be doing something right. Apart from that we can safely assume that Luis Enrique Martínez García knows more about football than us (minus Euler, of course, that goes without saying), Enrique sure has received his generous share of criticism this season. For a football manager that is on the doorstep of a treble, no less.

Barcelona Football Blog writers, among whom yours truly, have staunchly defended his rotation policy against early criticism. Nevertheless, to the sensible, plenty of technical decisions have seemed nonsensical. Not preparing Matthieu to start as a left back in the Bernabeu? Rakitic and Rafinha together in midfield against Celta Da Vigo? No Messi or Neymar at the Anoeta? Mascherano subbed on for Dani Alves during the Málaga home loss? Repeating the Mascherano / Busquets double pivote against Valencia?

Yet, here we are, alive and kicking balls into the back of a whole lot of nets. Of course there is that pesky detail of the distant coach who does not get on with his stars. Marca reported that after the semi Lucho entered the dressing room to congratulate and to hug each player, including Messi.

3. The Player (A)

The best in the world, according to Coach(A) and Coach (B) and anyone who has any sense. A popular narrative is that Lionel Messi needed that January bust up with Luis Enrique before, in, around and after Anoeta. It has also been said that the gauntlet thrown down by he of the sun tan during his Golden Balls acceptance speech have motivated the Flea to its core. This might both be true and especially the latter. They say that since then he is “back.” Hogwash. Unless they mean “back” from scoring three consecutive hat-tricks from November 22 to December 7. You know, one month before he came “back.”

Narratives be damned. Leo Messi has been playing a complete game since the season started: scoring, assisting, dribbling and defending. Yes, defending. He might not be the exact same player who ran through entire defenses during his prime, and some even wondered if the days would ever return when he would leave a defender on his butt before chipping a wonderfully delicate lob over an onrushing goalkeeper. Ha… ha… ha.

4. The Enemy (A)

Twitter and sports outlets, especially Spanish ones, have told you that Real M*drid really sucked this week. In my opinion they were very unlucky against Valencia (which makes us, the good guys, lucky by extension – ying, yang, we don’t exist in isolation) and they were this far from blowing Juventus out of the water in the first half at the Bernabeu.

Not that it matters one bit. I’ll enjoy watching them burn over the next couple of weeks. Can Ancelotti raise his eyebrow high enough to see the axe coming down on his neck? I wonder whether president Florentino Perez will make the smart move and hire Klopp – if he wants to come, that is – or whether he will usher in the Zidane era. I am not sure if Zizou has the chops to actually create an era, but I do know that, despite the ridicule we smear on their team like doodoo on sprinkly white toilet paper, they will again be a club to be reckoned with next season.

5. The Second Half

Hats off to Bayern for never giving up. Both their effort and their actual play should be stuff of legends, as they reduced what is the best team in the world on form to blindly booting balls out of the defence for 45 minutes. Without Robben, Alaba and Ribery. But of course, with Müller, Lahm, Schweinsteiger and Lewandowski. The fact that the blaugrana turned down the intensity button by half a notch does not take away from Bayern’s performance which, incidentally, may have saved their coach’s job. It also shows how important Luis Suarez has become to our team.

6. The Trident

Messi, Suarez and Neymar look really happy to play together and genuinely don’t seem to care who puts the ball into the net, as long as the ball goes into the net. Suarez passed to Neymar for Barça’s first goal in Germany from an awesome position because the Brazilian was in a really awesome position. In the dying minutes of the second leg Neymar broke free and could have scored a hat-trick which would have firmly established his reputation as an elite player in Europe. There wasn’t any good reason for passing the ball. He denied himself a Champions League semi-final hat-trick to try and give his friend a goal. Incredible as it may sound, the Trident might just get us the Treble. And the joy that they receive from not just playing together, but playing for each other is a big reason why.

7. The Enemy (B)

No, not the enemy. Our Opponent. We “only” have three enemies: Real M*drid, Esp*nyol and whichever team Mourinho coaches. Juventus have done an excellent job at eliminating our Enemy from the Champions League and are now, like us, in contention for the Treble. They know we are the favorites, but they have a very united squad and a coach who has played us various times while at his previous club. They are under no obligation to attack us and we should not expect an open game. As is often the case, an early goal can turn the final into an easy affair. If none is forthcoming or if, God forbid, they score first, expect to go through hell.

8. The Player (B)

There’s a picture of Pedro (remember Pedro?) in which he celebrates one of the goals scored in the Camp Nou against Bayern Munich. Here’s a man in the prime of his life who, after previously scoring in a CL semi final, a CL final and a Club World Cup final and after winning the World Cup and European Cup with his national selection has not only lost his spot as starter, but has hardly gotten any minutes as a sub this second half of the season. Nevertheless, when one of the star forwards that have relegated him to a bit part and who can’t stomach getting subbed even ten minutes before the final whistle scores a goal, Pedro jumps up and down the sideline with clenched fists and an expression on his face that would make William Wallace flinch. Praise be lavished upon the stars that shine, but it’s the ones that don’t that make a squad.

9. The Treble

Four games left. Three victories to an unprecedented second treble. We can afford to drop points at the Calderón, after which it is three games in three weeks. If there was ever a “business end” of the season, this is surely it. How will Luis Enrique keep his players concentrated during this final stretch? Or should he do the opposite? If we win the league, will he call for a three day booze fest to make sure the players blow off steam? Will the manager rotate, even if we don’t beat Atletico? Will the same eleven start the Copa final as the Champions League final? Will the trident? What about Suarez’s hamstring? We were at this point of the season six years ago and, incredibly, two years after six years ago, too. The first time it felt that we might never get here again. I’m not sure how it feels now. If you are a culer, rejoice. For we are truly blessed.

the player

Posted in Barcelona, Champions League, Messi, Thoughts48 Comments

It’s almost over, for better or worse

As a culer, I am struggling to get my mind around all of this. Truly.

This is a season that has rocketed past. It seems like only last week we were wondering about buying Luis Suarez, and him having to miss the first half of the season, would Neymar blossom like all second-year attackers at Barça, would Messi be fit, how will yet another new coach fare.

And now it’s almost over.

I always find that each season is like a weird romance. You don’t fall in love all over again, but you do renew your vows in a spiritual sense as things happen that make you rediscover the team that you love. Sometimes it’s failure. Other times it’s humanity. Still other times it’s a sort of magic, a close-but-no-cigar glory that resonates as vividly as the victory parades, ecstatic multitudes and confetti raining from the skies as if the Gods themselves are weeping Blaugrana tears of joy. Does any culer with tenure not remember the Rivaldo Chilena that got Barça into Europe? A Barça team finishing in fourth place and just making it into Europe today would be assassinated, not celebrated. But that magical day wasn’t all THAT long ago, in football time.

A football season is an improbable journey in a world that doesn’t suffer fools or failure. Games are low-scoring affairs, where a 4-4 scoreline would be considered bonkers. Chances come and go and goals are rare. There are wins and losses against hated rivals, inexplicable performances and moments that threaten to concuss us from clapping hands to heads.

We come here, or head for social media to discuss the team and how it is doing. There are favored and unfavored players, tactics and things galore to work out. We do this from armchairs, sofas, home offices and living rooms and even as none of it matters, it matters to us as we solve the team’s problems with a few hundred keystrokes.

What has happened this season so far is an absurd sort of extravagance that confounds even those who claim to have known better. Some idiots predicted that the team would go silverless this season, based on logic in a game that spits in the face of that pretender. It made sense at the time, with so many questions lingering from an ohsoclose season of fast starts, beauty, failure and heartbreak. Eight new faces and a new coaching staff ladles on uncertainty like syrup, and in the face of uncertainty our default setting tends to be reserve.

Then came clean sheets, moments and arguments, balls that fell exactly in the right places, moments that were engineered by strokes of genius most of all by a diminutive colossus who, when his former coach expressed joy that he was back, said, “I never left.” In many ways, the matter-of-fact delight of the season finds its encapsulation in a very simple comment. After a move so complete, delightful and unpredictable that it felled a giant defensive back and sparked dozens of Internet memes, media critters asked Messi how the move happened. “He expected me to go left, so I went right.” How easy it sounds, as easily as the goals seem to come during match after match, against team after team.

And now, with things almost at an end, four matches left in a potential history-making (again) season, there are many questions that people will ask, having to do with tactics, perceived deficiencies in the team and its approach, all kinds of things that don’t, and can’t really get at the reality of this year and how crazy it all is. Transfers, transfer bans, court cases, hearings and lawyer fees. A resigned president and jettisoned technical director and finally, elections were called. Anybody who says that they expected all of this is a liar. You can’t ever expect this. When this kind of sporting success happened with Guardiola, curiously enough, it began (once again) with calls for a coach’s head early in the season. Nothing was learned from that episode, just as nothing will be learned from the most current iteration of “Wait just a second, there.”

Even Fate has conspired to have things fall into place for this team, laying down a Sevilla/Valencia gantlet for its eternal rival that let some men wearing Senyera shirts put the ball firmly in a Catalan club’s court. As if that wasn’t enough, then a former academy player put the knife into his ex-homies, sparing the universe the gibbering, completely bonkers windup attendant to a Classic Champions League final. And in the Copa del Rey, Atleti dispatched its capitol city rivals then fell prey to the second and third of its losses this season against Barca. Crazy times, people … crazy times. Act like there was a plan all you like, but there can’t be. You just go through one match at a time, and hope. Even when you know your players are better, luck is still required. Is Malaga really capable of holding Barça scoreless in not one, but two matches? Apparently, yes.

But this is not the time for gloating, or inferiority complexes. Just take each match as its own moment, and enjoy the ride.

Winning doesn’t come all that often, despite the expectations of anticipatory fan bases. Just read a story about RM and the Perez presidencies guaranteeing not much more than failure on the big stage, and it’s interesting. Also interesting is that discomfiting as it is, the Barça and RM clubs and fan bases have never been more similar than right now, right down to Galactico signings. Impatience, nervous leaders who throw people under the bus, a demand for immediate success or out you go. Even now, rumors are building that Ancelotti will be gone in the summer, which will make a coach a year, just like us. Will Enrique stay? If he doesn’t win big silver, it will be hard for him to survive an election, particularly if a new president comes in. And that will be another coach, another year for us.

It’s why it’s all so difficult to get cranky about. Winning is wonderful. Some care a lot about how the results come. I’m not that picky, because winning is in and of itself, some magical stuff. Long ball, counter, last-minute ugly goal, a couple of headers, whatever. Just win, because there just aren’t that many opportunities to. So there will be fighting, and squabbling and “I told you sos,” whether Barça win the treble or log a pair of draws while RM win out, fall prey to the Juve bus and get kicked off the pitch by Athletic Club. But something wonderful has happened this season, and I intend to enjoy the hell out of it. Every second, every silly bit and goofball picture from training, all of it.

Because right now, this is what we have. This is all that we have.

Posted in Messi, Thoughts9 Comments

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

neygoal

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

The second half.

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

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

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

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

Standing on the precipice, aka “Winning is impossible, and yet … “

Today, on this extraordinary day, it’s worth considering the absurdity of what we are about to witness.

Because sport is absurd, a hope and a prayer, a crazy quilt of luck, dreams and things happening the exact right way. You can’t say it’s impossible because it happens every week. But it’s close.

At the beginning of a season, a group of athletes gather to place themselves in the hands of coaches. And it all begins without a clue, because athletics is also hope. There are theories and training notions. You have to take it as faith, the ultimate act of faith that if you do this, that will happen. And it’s excruciating because nothing presses on an athlete like the passage of time. Seconds become minutes become hours become days, weeks, a whole season, and it’s painful. So the trust in the people who are running things has to be absolute.

Pep Guardiola didn’t just win because he had the best players. He didn’t always. His teams won because he was able to get complete and total buy-in from a group of extraordinary players. That buy-in, that psychic submission, is a crucial part of sport. It’s what every coach craves. A former training partner of mine had a favorite saying: “You have to want it.” That means it’s the things that we as spectators never see, the other side of the happy, grinning athletes in the images that the team releases. Being an athlete is about hope, and pain.

A man who rides with me asked me one day, how I go fast. All I could say to him was what my friend says: “You have to want it.” He sees me going fast. He doesn’t see me vomiting into a trash bin, or weeping into a towel because the training hurts so much. Nobody sees that, but it’s easy to understand if you’ve been there. So when this group of men on the Barça first team place themselves in the hands of other men it has to be fully, or don’t bother. Time and history are waiting. They can’t ask why, they can’t hesitate. In the speculation about what might or might not have happened after that day at Anoeta, I often say that something happened that gave Enrique that buy in. Without that buy in there is no point because that hope, that absolute commitment becomes impossible.

Sport is also belief and lack of thought. If a player thinks about flying into a tackle, about putting his face down where a foot wearing a spiked shoe is, why would he? Why would anyone in their right mind?

Sport is automations, the rote behavior built in training that leads to mindless execution in a game where there is no time to think. Back when people wanted Enrique’s head on a platter and some called for patience, that something was happening, it was simply because sport can never be judged quickly. My pre-season as a racing cyclist starts in October, and runs until April I know the things that I have to do. I know that if I do them, fitness will come. At the end of that fitness is … something or other. That’s pre-season. Racing is still another two months away, a period where you round off the edges, make efforts to understand what you need to improve and then, finally, I race. I can no more say that my season is going to be crap based on the first races of the season than I can say I am going to be King of Siam. Because as a season progresses, a body responds in different ways. Sometimes it breaks down, other times it gets stronger.

So when people were declaring Barça’s season lost it was panic rather than logic because a season happens over the long term, at the terminus of months and months of absurdly hard work and faith. You don’t know if the men running things are doing it the right way. You don’t know if you will plant a foot wrong during an exercise, land the wrong way and end your career. People always wonder why athletes don’t seem that smart, but it’s because you can’t be. A track cycling friend who was one of the fastest riders I have ever seen, didn’t make it. A coach told him once, “You’re too smart to be a sprinter!” What that meant was that instead of just doing it, this rider wanted to know why. Full buy in never came, so complete success never came.

It’s worth thinking about what athletes must do when a new coach comes in. This is a man who can potentially waste a so, so precious year of your life, time and effort that you can’t get back. Ask a great athlete if they’d rather finish 2nd or 10th, and most would say 10th because 2nd means it was a little something that you didn’t do that kept you from ultimate success. Tenth is just “Well, we lived to race again.” Second is anguish because if you don’t win, well …

Yes, there is European football and the money that comes with it, etc, and another shot on the biggest club football stage, but no. Athletes know. They know when they are good enough, when they have hope. During a telecast of the Paris-Roubaix bicycle race in the ‘90s, a rider named Theo de Rooy was talking about working on the team and a moment came when he said, essentially, “I know that I am not good enough to win, so I have to work for the team.” It was then and still is now a moment that brings tears to my eyes. The pain in his face, in his eyes was clearly visible, that reality no athlete wants to face: I am not good enough to win.

Because you want to win while you can, you treat everything with suspicion because you have to, even as you don’t have that luxury. Nutrition, performance monitoring, new systems of play. It is up to the coach to convince the players that he has the correct formula, that at the end of this arc that is a season of work, and training, and eating right, and sleeping right, and preventive maintenance and properly planned rest days, we will win. And the athlete has to believe, or he screws himself.

Sometimes, more talented players have less diligence, less buy in because talent can bridge a gap. Mascherano enters the pitch always turned on because intensity, unrelenting focus is his edge. Puyol wasn’t a great center back because he had gobs of talent. He was a great center back in part because he always played with that athlete’s awareness that this moment is everything, the embodiment of the adage, “there is no tomorrow.” It is in many ways the ultimate manifestation of the Buddhist saying, “Be here now.” This tackle is It. Then the next tackle is It. At the end of a series of single moments embraced in full, something good might happen. Puyol played with abandon because that was how he had to play, giving everything to each and every moment. Messi has the luxury of picking and choosing because he has been blessed with transcendent talent. He can decide, “Today I will give everything.” It is on the days he plays like Puyol that footballing sonnets are written about him and the wonder of it all. And yet the days on which he decides to play, really play, for 5 or 10 minutes are extraordinary as well because that is talent.

When a striker misses a shot, supporters slam hands to heads or fall to the floor and social media fills with anguished, “What! How!” You rarely see such emanations from athlete accounts because they understand exactly how. They understand the stupid physics of a foot striking a ball, how a dollop of moisture in the wrong place makes the shot not as true, makes the ball slip off the foot at an odd angle. They understand how fatigue makes you lean back instead of over, how striking the ball the exact right way at the exact right time is black art that the best make look automatic. They understand because they have been there.

And so we come to today, when nearing the end of a long season of hopes, dreams and effort, of belief and doing everything exactly right, FC Barcelona stands on the precipice of something extraordinary: victory.

When players celebrate a win it’s with something extra, something shared in the countless hours of suffering and effort. That celebration is a sigh of relief that some crazy thing didn’t happen to undo it all – injury, moment of blind luck, referee error. Winning is better than sex, better than almost any feeling that an athlete can experience. As supporters we can celebrate, we can leap around, we can exult, but we can’t understand. In many ways that’s good because if we well and truly understood, it would probably leave us afraid to watch games, afraid to check results, afraid to do anything except wonder how in the hell these men do it, week after week much less do it well enough to beat another team.

It’s wonderful, and extraordinary and at times impossible. An announcer for BeIN, Dre Cordero, Tweeted that it boggled his mind how Barca supporters could take something so extraordinary as a Treble, and reshape it into an expectation. Winning something, anything is magical. Visca!

Posted in Champions League, Messi, Thoughts72 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.

header

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Messi, Thoughts84 Comments

Barça 3, Bayern Munich 0, aka “Team excellence”

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Of all the narratives leading into this extraordinary match of football, the one that only a few dared to utter was the simplest one: FC Barcelona is the best team in Europe on form right now, so they would be favored.

It was a weird thing to say, as most of the pre-match buzz was about the Bayern coach, Pep Guardiola, and his homecoming, his genius, his devising some sort of a way to make his Bayern team capable of snookering the best footballing side in Europe. Football writers who should know better said they believed Bayern were favorites, because of a belief in the coaching quality of Guardiola.

As a consequence, very little of the pre-match talk was about Luis Enrique and what he has done this season, for a number of very simple reasons, most having to do with tenure. Enrique bounced around leagues, from Roma to Celta to Barça, while his bench counterpart was a certified Barça legend who is working on becoming a certified Bayern legend. It’s easy to see, given what people persist in saying about Enrique and his charges — that it is the charges who are getting it done while a coach is along for the ride — where the focus would be.

When Enrique said that this wasn’t about Guardiola, or Thiago or any sort of homecoming but Barça vs Bayern, he exuded a pragmatism, the same stolid, verging on dull matter-of-factness that has permeated his team. And when it came time for that group of players to take the pitch, it was just football. No narratives, no genius coaches, no midfielders who spark contentious debates. It was just football, again of the sort that doesn’t really concern itself with the opponent.

Bayern could have been anyone, except for the fact that they tried to play toe-to-toe with Barça, even employing a three-man back line before Guardiola, sparked by chance after chance, decided it was time to return to tradition, to stop taking the risks that threatened to end the tie by halftime.

It was a frenetic match of football, end-to-end action as two teams contended for a shot at the ultimate prize. The odd thing was that Bayern was considered the strongest, most cohesive team, that Barça was this collection of dudes, fronted by three of the best attackers in the world, so yeah. But Barça, on a beautiful, electric night at the Camp Nou, showed that it was not only a group of talented individuals, but a team. They fought, they backstopped each other, they did everything right to ensure that the collective would, in its own pragmatic way, achieve success.

The 3-0 scoreline, even though the goals came late, was reflective of the quality that Barça displayed in this match. Bayern has injuries, missing the likes of Frank Ribery, Arjen Robben and Javi Martinez, to name a few. It says a lot of the quality of its coach that many still had them as favorites in this tie, one that isn’t over yet even as Barça have one foot in the final.

And as the teams squared off, two dynamic midfields anchored by a press and crazy-high back line, they at times seemed mirror imagoes of each other, until a curious thing happened: Barça used its individual skills to become even more effective as a team. A midfield runner was greeted by a pressing Rakitic and Busquets or Alves. If he managed to get through that, the frazzled player suddenly came face to face with Pique or Mascherano, and the ball was prised loose. It was relentless, and effective.

Barça is widely thought to be the drama and flair of its front three, but it is just as much Busquets sticking out a telescopic leg to disrupt a pass, or Mascherano coming in to dispossess an opponent in a way that makes that player think twice about taking on No. 14. It’s Pique backstopping his mates and Ter Stegen making the right pass with an uncanny flair. It was about Raktic being omnipresent, about showing exactly why he was the midfielder that Enrique wanted, amid all the “Kroos, Isco, stupid board,” stuff that flew about.

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Bayern didn’t have zero shots on goal because of individual brilliance. It was because it came up against a better team. Its coach might not be a genius but he is a pragmatist, who understands how to build a nasty collective in his own image. Simeone has a cult of personality in Atleti, and the perception of what Enrique has built at Barça is quite different, really, because so many people still don’t believe that he has built anything.

Until today. It took a glittering display such as today’s to make Enrique’s name rain from the Camp Nou rafters, to make culers who not that long ago were blasting #luchoout hashtagged indictments in social media are now believing that maybe, just maybe, he has something to do with that wonderful things that are going on at FC Barcelona’s football team. But the nastiest part of it is that he has built a team, the best group in Europe, who also have the best player in the game, possibly in history, as part of that team.

Messi scored a dazzling brace today, and they were wonderful goals. But for me, when Messi put Xabi Alonso on his butt with a tackle that was ajudged to be a foul, when he slid through the ankles of Phillip Lahm in an attempt to get the ball is when it was clear that Barça was not going to be beaten on this day.

Messi scores goals. But today he worked for and was part of the team. Not his team, but Enrique’s team. He did grunt work, played passes for teammates, tackled, tracked back and ran like a man possessed, like a man with memories of sitting on the bench and watching his friends and teammates get demolished by a rampant Bayern. And today, Messi was having none of it, on offense or defense. Messi is never, ever more dangerous than when he functions as a hard-working part of the Barça team collective. When he does that, Barça is devastating and impossible to stop.

Pep Guardiola was right, ultimately, when he said that Messi couldn’t be stopped, even as he almost certainly hoped that he was wrong, that there was a way to stop the greatest player in the game. And he came out with a high line, a defensive approach that people hailed as genius, and daring, but that he himself saw as something bonkers that needed to stop before Suarez started putting the ball in the net.

The first half ended 0-0 and there was anxiety about the missed chances. Before the match I was calm, and said as much, because of my belief that Barça is the best team in the world. When the goals didn’t come I said that they would, because the Bayern players would lose that half step that found them able to intercept passes and get in passing lanes, an edge that would be dulled. And so it happened. A brace for Messi and one more for Neymar.

Much will be made of Bayern’s injuries, of the missing players who made them, in the minds of many, this unstoppable European juggernaut. But I want to state, for the record, that this day was about the FC Barcelona football team. It’s about the coach who has forged them. People suggest that Dani Alves is playing better because of his contract being up, rather than because of the tactical adaptation that shrinks his sphere of influence, allowing him to be in better position to do his job, while allowing Rakitic to be a true box-to-box midfielder.

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Alves harassed, dispossessed and made Thiago look ordinary, after Busquets took him on a midfield merry-go-round. And it isn’t that Thiago is ordinary. He is a wonderful player who had the great misfortune to come up against an unstoppable team today.

Was there something extra in the hearts and minds of the Barça players? They wouldn’t be human if they didn’t feel those kinds of things. The man who led many of those players to unparalleled glory was standing on the opponent sideline. A player who was a scourge at RM is now a scourge at Bayern. A friend and former teammate is in the Bayern midfield. The Barça players might be pragmatists, but they aren’t robots, even as they calmly dispatched what they knew to be an inferior opponent.

Manuel Neuer was spectacular in goal for Bayern, so it required special goals to beat him. And that team unleashed its genius, who rendered the world incapable of doing much of anything except muttering expletives, eyes agog. It took special goals to beat Neuer today, as all Ter Stegen had to do pretty much was stand around and cheer.

A great many culers wanted Barça to beat Bayern because it would exorcise the demons of Guardiola, to get the supporters thinking about the future rather than comparing everything to the past. And in the wake of the match there is some Guardiola revisionism going on, and people are saying things about a Barça legend. And that’s wrong. Guardiola said that he came to win, and you have to respect that. He trailed the teams and other personnel onto the pitch and quietly took his seat on the visitors’ bench, so as not to be a distraction on a day that should be about the teams.

And it was. Gloriously, it was, just as Enrique said in his pre-match presser, Barça vs Bayern. The two teams slugged it out in the first half but then only one of those teams could call upon a player who is capable of doing what Messi did against Bayern Munich. And he was, as his coach said, unstoppable. But Messi isn’t unstoppable because he scores goals. And I would bet my house that Guardiola meant, when he said — TWICE — before this match that Messi was unstoppable, that this performance was exactly what he meant. Because as a team player, Messi is pure. He just wants to win.

Messi doesn’t get mad because he didn’t score. He gets made because he didn’t win. He had words with his coach over a foul that should have been called in a practice scrimmage. Like Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan, who wanted to win everything — golf, cards, pickup matches, practice scrimmages — Messi wants to win, and he wants to win all the time. That means that he will do anything to make that happen.

What Guardiola meant, and feared, is that when you take a great player who is also at times a team player of unsurpassed quality and work rate, your team is doomed. The Messi goals were spectacular, but I will leave others to do them justice with verbiage. I can’t, really. It would just consist of me banging on my keyboard and uttering squealing noises. And even if I had the words to make a superhuman performance on a colossal stage make some sort of linguistic sense, those goals weren’t the most striking part of Messi’s game for me even as they were decisive in the match.

For me those goals were inevitable because Messi was a towering part of a titanic team. And it’s hard to imagine something more beautiful, more extraordinary than that.

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Posted in Champions League, Messi, Neymar, Review, Thoughts78 Comments

Cordoba 0, Barça 8, aka “Footballing extravagance”

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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