Archive | Messi

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

It’s boxing day.

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

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

Messi

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

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

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

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

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

The new (old) Barça

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

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

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

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

The power of memory

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

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

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

History

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

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

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

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

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

What about weaknesses?

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

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

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

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

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

Finally

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

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

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

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

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Goodbyes, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts19 Comments

The Crusades of football opinion

Drama.

In contemplation of the remainder of this Champions League, the only available word is … drama.

Draw Juventus, and there’s drama about the bus. Draw RM and there’s drama about more Classics (even though the CL encounters aren’t Classics, but that’s another matter). Draw Bayern and the world implodes on its axis.

In anticipation of this last possibility, people are already staking out space, ground high and low, moral and more moral, real fan vs non-real fan, donning psychic armor for the battles to come. And this is before the draw. It’s like the football Crusades as supporters hoist shields and spears aloft, rushing to ideological battle. Over what?

We love this sport. Football is passion. It’s life. But it’s also supposed to be joy, fun. I see a number 10 Ronaldinho shirt and still remember the wonder of his time at Barça, not for the goals but for the fun. The game was fun, life was fun as joy was a single booty pass away. Today, in the quests for records, piles and piles of goals and conquest, it all seems a lot less fun as the team that we love prepares to face off against the best clubs in Europe. Exciting times lay ahead, whatever the outcome.
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Posted in Champions League, Messi, Soap Box, Thoughts70 Comments

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

iniesta

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

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

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

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

The team has something to prove

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

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

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

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

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

messi

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

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

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

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

PSG didn’t show up …

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

What’s the fun in that?

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

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

neyalves

Barça is ahead of schedule

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

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

So what happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

stegen

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

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

enrique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mathieu

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

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

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

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

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

mascherano

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

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

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

suarez

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

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

bravo

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

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

There are many ways to interpret that statement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

messi

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts126 Comments

PSG 1, Barça 3, aka “This team, people!”

messney

This team.

There is speculation, nattering, punditry and all that other stuff but at the end it all comes down to this team, the players and how its supporters manage to deal with it. And for too much of this season, a lot of how supporters have dealt with this team has been like villagers with pitchforks and torches, running around looking for the monster.

This space has been ahead of the curve on things such as the team taking shape, noticing its pragmatism and that it is taking on the character of its coach, as many teams do. That isn’t a point of pride or any sort of forward thinking as much as just seeing what is there. If you find a dollar on the street, that’s all it is.

“Hmph. Some rich jerk just tosses money around. What about the poor, who could use that dollar. Hmph.”

It’s just a dollar on the street that you can choose to pick up or not.

When watching Barça, and this has been written about before here, it’s easy to get into believing what you want to see because a football team offers that possibility. A team choosing to go over the top because an opponent has flooded the midfield is said to “Not have a midfield.” Nostalgia makes things not as good as they are, and a coach is to blame. Not time, not players who are not what they once were, not the passage of time. It’s one all-powerful man.

But when the team begins to play better and better, to become what many wondered if it had the quality to become, it’s the players, doing this in spite of the coach and meanwhile, this or that player that someone doesn’t like still has deficiencies, still shouldn’t be on the pitch.

It’s all nonsense that like so many leaves on a windy fall day, are blown away because it’s always been about this team. It was, today, a group that dismantled a top European side in Paris St.-Germain, dealing them their first home defeat in European competition since 2006. That’s 33 matches, and the last 22 in all competitions. Some will say “Well, how much have they been in Europe,” “Barça was supposed to win,” “Should have been 3-0,” etc. But again, none of that is the point.

The point is this team. Xavi to Messi to Neymar to Suarez. That’s a fantasy, not a team, something so exceedingly rare as to beggar description. The best, to the best, for the best, finished by the best. That just doesn’t happen.

There have been crises, most of them imagined, this season. When some said of the Anoeta result that Barça dropping points at that place after an international break is like the sun rising, that was immaterial. Crisis. When Neymar threw a strop on the weekend over being subbed off at Sevilla, crisis as some press outlets penned hooey about the rift between Neymar and Enrique destroying the dressing room harmony. The headlines get clicks and move papers, but it’s nonsense from people who are often just about as knowledgeable about what really goes on as the average, well-informed fan.

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And still, none of it matters because of this team, an extraordinary group of athletes who continue to do what they do, which is be among the best players in the world at one of the best clubs in the world, doing what they are paid exceptional sums of money to do. In a recent interview Messi described a year during which he scored more than 40 goals as a bad one, with a lot of personal stuff to overcome.

We have a team that includes a player who thinks that 40 goals is a bad season. We have a player who starts for, and is the captain of his national team, Brazil, but is still considered a flash in the pan and a YouTube sensation by too many culers. We have a midfield peopled by a pair of linchpins who, though still brilliant if an opponent lets them have their way, are not the players they used to be. And there is a coach who has to deal with all of that, and bring it together in a way that helps the players achieve their goals.

But still, it’s the team, a team that often can’t win for losing. Today’s goal tally included a sublime bit of build-up play that culminated in a seemingly effortless goal that was in fact difficult. It also included two bits of transcendent skill, that “individual brilliance” that disappoints so many when it rears its unpopular (in some quarters) head. It’s a team where a Messi run is genius but a Neymar golazo is “individual brilliance” that isn’t the proper way to score. People talk about “right” and “wrong” ways, then someone like Thierry Henry says that “Barça is playing how it always has, and Eto’o and I used to run out behind the defense.” And it’s interesting because Henry was there, so he knows. He received and processed instruction from a Barça legend, and he knows.

But he also knows what he sees, rather that what he might want to see. And even after all that there is this wonderful team, a group that retains that status even when it is disappointing us, because it is a group that is made up of spectacular talent. And every now and again that talent coalesces in a way that makes us shake our heads in wonder, but those matches for me aren’t as magical because they are the one-offs … like finding a dollar on the street. You can’t expect that every day any more than you can expect a transcendent performance every match.

Matches such as today’s PSG takedown are more fascinating to me, more lustrous because the team wasn’t at its best, didn’t play anything like at the level of which it is capable. The beauty is in the fact that it didn’t need to, that it could roll along in second or third gear and it was enough to not completely end the tie but confront PSG with the reality that it will have to score three times at the Camp Nou and not concede once to advance. It has to do that because a team of brilliant players didn’t need to be brilliant. It won a football match by being a team and doing what a team does, which is its job.

The Sevilla match breakdown discussed those three moments that turned that match, and one of them was a Suarez miss. Compare those simple finishes to the bits of athletic extravagance that he presented today and wonder about the meltdowns that occurred after Barça dropped a couple of points on the weekend. In some ways the analogy is like a guy who can split an atom but can’t boil water for tea, but that’s part of being an athlete who is part of a team, but not just any team.

People throw up their hands when Mascherano starts a match in defense or midfield, this man who was an immense part of the reason Argentina made the World Cup final. Any world in which he isn’t good enough is one that is off kilter, one that can be assessed as this oddity that isn’t linked to reality. Maradona, when he was coaching Argentina, said that his XI is Mascherano and 10 others. Enrique made it a priority to lock him down, and play him. Vilanova played him, Guardiola played him, Martino played him even as for many culers he isn’t good enough, has shortcomings that make them consider him a liability.

Whatever. So much of thinking, writing and nattering about football is theory, an ideal universe in which everything is perfect. Athletes nurse injuries, have good and bad days just like the rest of us, have all sorts of things go on that affect their confidence. Supporters come to blogs such as this one and say that such moments of humanity are unacceptable, as the players on the team we support somehow become superhuman based on the simple act of donning a shirt.

So today as Barça misplayed passes, got a little loose in defense and dealt with all of the crises that a team has to deal with as it tries to dispatch an opponent, the beauty of today’s match was the ease it evinced. PSG at times chased shadows. And Enrique had the luxury of calling a living legend in Xavi off the bench. And it’s easy to wonder how a team that can use the best midfielder in footballing history as a sub can be in any way deficient. Human? Sure. Not meeting fullest expectation every match? Absolutely. Needing to improve and take steps toward being better? You bet. But deficient? No.

xavi

It’s difficult to think of any of the brickbats that have been hurled at this group of extraordinary athletes this season as holding any sort of water, long term. Form comes and goes, but class is permanent. Barça has class, a quality that is evident not in the hammerings of an opponent, but in the “another day at the office” matches where the reality of just how good this team is gets driven home. Neymar scored a goal today that looked so easy. “He should have scored that goal,” so many said. But notice the touch that opens up the angle, recall all the players we see, week after week, who have a heavy touch that gets smothered by the keeper, who skim the outside of the post. But in a case of the delightful seeming workmanlike, a goal was scored.

It isn’t always wonderful, isn’t always perfect but it is always exceptional in one of the meanings for the word, because there are exceptional people doing things that sometimes veer into the exceptional.

This isn’t an admonition, or a way that calls out supporters in any way. But it is an acknowledgement that something extraordinary happened today, because of this team … this wonderful team. It isn’t wonderful because of what it does, but rather because of what it is. A sunrise only seems routine, but is a truly staggering thing to contemplate.

I had the great pleasure of working with a photojournalist, John White, who photographed the sunrise every day. For decades. And for all I know he still does. When asked why, he said because every sunrise is special. So are these athletes that we watch every week. No matter how much we might see, we should never lose sight of that.

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Posted in Champions League, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts77 Comments

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

suarez

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

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

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

Believing the unbelievable as the countdown begins

Fate owes us.

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

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

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

Barça 2, RM 1, aka “A tale of two matches.”

mathieu

This is the part where the joy dissipates into a blizzard of muttering, whining and beating on unfavored whipping boys. But I am impatient with that kind of stuff, so permit me to present a wee bit of perspective at the end of a fascinating, tiring, fraught day.

As one of my favorite Twitter accounts posted, Classics are to be endured, rather than enjoyed. If you are a supporter, you don’t enjoy them. You can’t. There’s just too much in it. You fret, you scream, you pace, you sweat, the anguish is almost a palpable thing in the room. But this was an extraordinary match for so many reasons.

This was really a tale of two matches and two very different sets of tactics. Barça started out the match in the wide-open, let’s do this style that lets Messi, Neymar and Suarez do their thing. The danger in that approach, however, was multifaceted. That style of play takes a lot of energy, because there is a lot of running. Spaces are bigger, passes are longer, runs are more constant. The sharpness and awareness necessitated by this style means that if any part of the machine isn’t at all sharp, things are going to look a mess.
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Posted in El Clasico, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Tactics, Thoughts39 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

The big one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take what you need, need what you take

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barça 1, Manchester City 0 (3-1 agg.), aka “Results are results, but beauty is enduring”

rakitic

Imagine being Ivan Rakitic.

You are the best player on your team, a coveted midfielder who is chased by big clubs. You come to Barça and your aren’t even the best midfielder, never mind being the best player. You practice, you watch, and what must you think. You play a Champions League match in a knockout tie, and you make a run. As you make that run, you throw your arm up to ensure that your teammate sees you.

But that teammate is Lionel Messi. So he not only sees you, but he plops a pass to you so soft and perfect that it feels like you have forever to cushion it with your chest and calmly flick it over the onrushing opposition keeper. You have scored the opening, and eventually match-winnning goal.

Imagine being Ivan Rakitic.

We watch Messi and we marvel at him, but what must it be like to be a player who plays against him match after match, who has to wonder in his head what it must be like to play with, instead of against Messi, especially when he’s in one of those moods, where he wants to win. That Messi is a different Messi. That Messi wins a ball just outside of his own box and leads the break. That Messi runs, passes, defends, battles for possession and uses every tool in his immense bag of tricks to eviscerate the opponent.

Who wouldn’t want to play with that player? He doesn’t preen or pout. There are no on-pitch histrionics. If he gets fouled and doesn’t get the call, he gets up and resumes his business. His face doesn’t change whether he is having the match of his life, or a merely ordinary day. You wonder how that is possible, how when he is having a match such as he had today that he isn’t grinning, turning cartwheels and setting off an air horn whenever he gets the ball. “Woot! Party time!” I can’t remember a more dominant performance from a player who didn’t score. Most touches, most dribbles, most recovered balls by an attacker, most, most, most, most.

When people sit and debate who is the better player, Messi or Ronaldo, a lot of things get thrown about, but the simple reality is that Messi can dominate and completely control a match without putting a ball in the net. It happens often when he is That Messi, a newcomer to the world this season. The talk was always that Messi would, as he aged, develop into a 10 as a concession to a diminishing skill set. But nobody stopped to consider that he would do it in his prime, or that he would embrace the right side of the pitch as a launch pad rather than a jail.

People bring their own notions to the game. “Messi on the right is stupid. Enrique is a fool for not having Messi as close as possible to goal, etc, blablabla.” I, like many, like to write about football. I can even pretend that I know a wee something about tactics. But when someone whose money and ass are on the line makes a move such as putting Messi on the right, it’s probably for a reason. In this case, it has unleashed him. He isn’t running up the middle at a bank of defenders now. He has a fullback and maybe a midfielder to beat. And he has playmates in Neymar and Suarez.

Whatever people care to attribute the Messi “return,” such as it is, to, for me it’s easy as pie: he has a coach who understands, and has made him understand the potential that comes from Messi being on the right. If you are an opponent trying to figure out what to do with That Messi, it’s a problem because like his teammates, he’s abnormal in that good way.

messi

There was a passing sequence that occurred on the touch line that will never make a highlight reel as Barça played out of trouble, out of what seemed to be a Manchester City lockdown. But a flick, a backheel and a couple of one touches later, the ball was in the midfield in space, and City was scrambling yet again.

Much is made of style and manner when it comes to Barça. It is often said that the result doesn’t matter as much as the method from which the result was obtained. That is a statement that isn’t malleable. It isn’t a brickbat one time, then the silence of crickets at others. It’s a constant. This 1-0 match was a beatdown. That it could easily have been 6 or 7-0 for better finishing is, for me, immaterial. Barça played an exquisite match against a top-quality opponent in Europe, in a knockout round, and did it with style.

The result became the thing in some quarters, that the result and the match were somehow poor because there wasn’t a gaudy scoreline on the board. For me, that’s in error, as Barça was exquisite in almost completely controlling an opponent. In a Champions League knockout stage. The moment when Messi nutmegged James Milner and danced around him, leaving the opponent on hands and knees, defeated, typified this match overall. But this was having the cake and eating it, too — the result was the proper one, and the team played beautifully in achieving that result.

Manchester City started the match with 5 midfielders, and Barça still bossed the midfield. Manchester City got set pieces, things that used to be the bane of the Barça defense, but this new team is dealing with set pieces calmly and confidently, having only conceded 4 goals via set pieces (and scoring 11, which is also quite new). And this Barça wanted the ball. So when City had it, passes were contested and comfort was rare as the ball was pressed. Neymar fought for balls, Iniesta fought for balls, Jordi Alba went shoulder-to-shoulder with Toure Yaya, and the big man was felled like a giant sequoia.

City didn’t have a chance.

In the strange world of Barça Twitter, people were acting as though they did, as though that team was going to score two goals against Barça, the way it was playing tonight. On the biggest stage in European football, Barça out-everythinged Manchester City, defending Premier League champion. Outran, outfought, outpassed. Except for the penalty, a debatable call, every reasonable scoring chance that City could generate ended at the defense. And the penalty was saved by Ter Stegen. And that was that, because there was a psychological battle that ended with that deft bit of skill from Rakitic.

When Barça scored, City’s mission didn’t change. It still needed two goals. But the demeanor of the players changed. It must have felt to them like they had to score three times, like Barça could scamper about and threaten Joe Hart at will, while City had to walk a tightrope of kicking little feet with a ball that they never really felt in full possession of. It needed two goals, but City might as well have needed 10.

Method. Neymar finished for crap. But his all-pitch game brought to mind Thierry Henry when he was on the team. He ran, passed, stole, recovered, held up play and was an almost constant thorn in the side of City. If you focused on his finishing, you’d say he had a poor match. But the smart money would wager that Enrique pulled him aside and said, “Nice work. Thank you,” because Neymar put out for the colors. He was everywhere at both ends of the pitch. Again, method over results. Yes, he passed when he should have shot, and when he shot he should have done better with his shooting. But the mission that night wasn’t to score 6, but rather to not concede two.

In this, Neymar helped Barça stay on mission just as Iniesta did, in serving as a pit bull.

neymar

The Ghostface Iniesta was a spectral virtuoso who almost didn’t seem to exist on the corporeal plane as he danced with the ball. The physical aspects of his game were usually the result of an opponent saying “Enough,” and choosing Iniestabuse. Against Manchester City, time and again, he was fighting in midfield, taking balls back, shoving a foot in, at one moment putting Fernandinho on his butt and immediately rushing over to apologize. He probably sent him a fruit basket after the match with an apology card. “xoxo, Andres.”

The season until now has mostly been a focus on what this Barça is lacking compared to other, more idealized Barça teams. It is only recently that people have begun to notice what this team has, rather than what it lacks. People are beginning to evaluate this Barça in the context of a team that wants to achieve something, and they are liking what they see.

On the outside, all that we can do is speculate. Despite the vehemence of anyone’s assertion, the truly inside, in-the-know crowd is small. Everyone else is trying to read tea leaves. All that we have to go on, really, is competition and how the team comports itself, how it plays, the method that it uses to achieve a desired result. And on a night when a storied former coach was in the stands, this Barça separated itself from his Barça, even as some of the psychological characteristics, most notably the fight and hunger, were present. It was magic and magical, a team effort that for many will be lost in the fairy dust of a great player deciding to have his way with a theoretically powerful opponent.

Barça is a team on a mission. The success of that mission will depend, in the end, on so much, but mostly on the ministrations of a man who, like Rakitic, was in a very different situation last year. But this year, he’s putting the keys in the ignition and taking the wheel of a car, even as he, like us, is probably still not sure how fast this thing can go.

enrique

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts58 Comments

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