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Xavi and the Qatar question

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

Nor is it a time for unquestioning fealty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Analysis, Thoughts28 Comments

Barcelona’s Top 10 Most Influential Players

This is a guest post by Isaiah. You can follow him on Twitter as @rockofthune.

It is never really possible to nail down the most important or influential moments of a team, but with Xavi departing and Carles Puyol already gone, it seems like it’s time for one of those listicles we all love so much. Here are the ground rules for my Top 10 Most Influential Barça players countdown:

First, this is not a recitation of trophies won or goals scored. Lionel Messi doesn’t get top billing (spoiler) simply because he’s the greatest player in the world and maybe the greatest player the world has ever known. This is about importance to the club and to its future (relative to a particular player’s career); this list could change in 20 years when Xavi calls me on the phone from on top of his pile of trophies and says “So now that we’ve won 8 tripletes in a row thanks to my bionic legs, can I move up a spot or two?” and I’ll answer something along the lines of “How did you get this number would you like to get a drink sometime can I marry you,” before I pass out from lack of oxygen. But when I wake up, I’ll edit this post.

Second, there is more to influence than the 11 men on the field, but this is focused on players, not on coaches or on boardroom shenanigans. Another spoiler: Núñez and Laporta aren’t on the list because they weren’t players despite their outsized importance and influence on the development of the club (for positive or negative).

Thirdly, Players can have and have had political affiliations and off-the-field activities that have dramatically changed the course of Barça history. All of that was taken into account, though it made surprisingly little difference in the end.

Finally, this is not a scientific list. There is no real quantitative analysis that went into this, merely a lot of lists of players and quick culling. The method behind the madness is simple: Quick! Choose 1 of Jeffren, Maradona, Zubizaretta, Samuel Eto’o, and Guillermo Amor! Now do that again 8,000 times for different pairings and eventually just try to work Bojan into the list (and fail—spoiler). I do feel like I might be missing one or two players from the Dream Team, but guys like Koeman, Laudrup, and Txiki never stood out to me as era-defining or even team-defining players. There were others that stood in those shoes. Or maybe you simply disagree. That is okay too.

And so:

Honorable Mentions:

Oleguer Presas i Renom – I desperately wanted to start this list off with Oleguer, but it was not to be. There are simply too many players out there whose roles within the team overshadowed his, despite his influence on my personal development as a fan and (occasional) commentator. His politics were a big deal in Catalunya and while his stature was never that of a demigod of football whose thoughts were scavenged by the masses, he was never short of an opinion and always in touch with the left wing political consciousness. He was never going to go out and win a trophy single-handedly, but he was always able to make strong, analytical points about modernity, football, and Spain. He wore the estelada when he celebrated and kept the Catalan in Mes que un club. It’s also hard to say that he wasn’t a defining member of the 2003-2008 squad. I bemoaned him as terrible, but I loved him as a squad player, read his articles, and learned about what it means to be a Catalan and cule. I think a lot of others did too, even if they don’t recognize that or value his contributions. I was genuinely sad to see him go, even as I welcomed it from a sporting perspective.

Diego Maradona – It is impossible to overstate the influence Maradona had and continues to have on a large swaths of the game. His gifts as a player, however, were not on full display at Barcelona. He made just 58 appearances over 2 seasons for the team, with only 36 of those coming in the league. Yes, he moved from Boca Juniors for a then-world-record transfer fee, yes he won the Copa del Rey, and yes he was applauded at the Bernabeu by Madrid fans, but he was sidelined for long stretches by hepatitis and during his recovery from Andoni Goikoetxea’s vicious tackle. The team never won the league with Maradona.

Andoni Zubizaretta – Though he would one day become the fall guy for the board, there was a time when Zubi was the only player that the board trusted. Of all the first team players, only Zubi survived the 1988 Hesperia Mutiny against the Núñez board and became part of the Dream Team that won the 1992 European Cup. But he doesn’t make the cut simply because you won’t get the answer “Zubi” when you ask who was the most influential Barça player of the early 1990s. He’s currently 9th on the all-time list, but not quite there.

Ronaldo – Yes, he was blisteringly fast, incredibly good, and scored 47 goals in 49 appearances, but The Real Ronaldo was too fleeting an existence in blaugrana to have been so influential. His true influence on the club was his time spent in Italy and in that white jersey in the capital, but that isn’t nearly enough to get him on the list. Had he stayed, he may have become a club legend, but as it is, he is only another “what if” from the Núñez era.

The Actual List:

10. Carles PuyolCapi. A warrior king whose demonic screams rendered all before him weak and shaking. The man who brought the best out of Gerard Pique and created what, from the outside, seemed an unholy alliance of old and new, but was really a fantastic partnership. It is possible that one day Pique himself will supplant his mentor and friend from this list, but there are few out there in cule land that would think such a thing were ever possible. It’s not just the ludicrous hair or the hard running that defined Puyol, it was his sense of duty and his adherence to his own doctrine of constant vigilance. He yelled at Thiago for dancing, he snapped at Pique for celebrating, he demanded perfection and accepted nothing short of it in himself either. There were times when you could facepalm at his physical blunderings, when you could point out that he was all heart and no talent, but then he would piroutte in midfield and bullet a header in from a thousand miles out. He raised 3 Champions League trophies as captain and was crowned La Liga champion 6 times. But of course, that’s not entirely true because Puyol, asked Eric Abidal to raise the Champions League trophy in his stead as an act of kindness and honor toward a friend who had recently returned from liver cancer. Puyol was a light in the darkness even when there is no darkness; he kissed the badge and captain’s armband and everyone believed him and wanted to be him. I still do.

9. Luis Figo – Barcelona’s He Who Shall Not Be Named was at the top of his game when he made his controversial move from Catalunya to the capital. Whatever they say about scorned women, it is far more true of football fans. The fury is still raging from that massive move, but it might not have been so bad had the record transfer fee been spent on players who were transcendent or at least were not Marc Overmars. Whatever the Dutchman’s abilities, which were considerable, he was never going to live up to Figo’s reputation and the sense of loss; the morbo that flowed freely from that point on and it continues to flow in rivers. Figo’s return to the Camp Nou was described by The Telegraph as “he had offended not only a club but a culture”. A pig’s head and all the coins in the world were thrown at Figo and little has happened since to make me think it wouldn’t happen again if Figo showed up suddenly on the field during a clasico. He was a player that all the other players looked up to and trusted, he was the lynchpin of a dynamic offense, and he won the Ballon d’Or on the back of his performances for Barcelona. It’s just that he accepted it in a white shirt.

8. Joan Gamper – He not only founded the club, he also led its front line for 4 years, scoring over a hundred goals in the process. In a way, ranking him 8th is an insult and a compliment. His playing days are basically lost in the founding history and certainly his largest influence was as a president that saved the club from folding, but he was a major force in creating an institution that survived beyond its infancy and creating a Catalan club at that. He changed his name from Hans Kamper, after all.

7. Ronaldinho – The bucktoothed wonder didn’t make winners out of Barcelona, he transformed a team from runners up into indefatigable champions. He did (and does) outrageous things with a football (and many without one, I’m sure). With a smile and a flim-flam, he won all of our hearts and used that camaraderie to push a new and incredible style on the team. What had been a team incapable of putting that finishing touch on European campaigns became an all-consuming juggernaut. And all it took was adding Ronaldinho to the mix and, eventually, taking him out of it. He may have ended up a negative influence in the locker room (Hi, Giovani dos Santos!), but he was also a mentor to some decent chaps (Hola, Lionel Messi!) and he made the continued success of the team possible, even after he had departed. He also took the team to new heights in terms of branding, something that we now understand as ubiquitous and necessary, but what was then something of a new fangled deal and certainly something Barcelona was behind the times on.

6. Xavi – Given that this is being written at the time of his impending departure, it would be easy to wax too poetic and shove Xavi to the top spot of the list. I’m sure I could make the case for it. He has appeared for Barça more than any other player (he has 170 more appearances than second place Puyol—170!) and should end his career with 766 total appearances, 504 of them in the league. More than just his ironman status, he has been the principle engine of the team for a dozen years. He was an unused substitute in the 2006 Champions League final (a match that Oleguer started), but since then he has lit on up the night on a regular basis for club and country. He has won enough that the eulogies of his career cannot possibly be long enough, emotional enough, or well-written enough to truly do him justice. Yet there is also a significant question as to his legacy: he was the best, but is the position he occupied essentially gone from football? The team’s humbling by Bayern Munich in 2013 was not just a two match losing streak, it was also an eye-opening pair of slaps to the face: tiki-taka was no longer the dominant force in world football and Xavi was no longer the player he was in 2008. Still, Xavi remains hugely influential as a home-grown player and a reference for any midfielder who wishes to excel at the game. His influence not only on those players attempting to play his position—Thiago, Iniesta, Rafinha, Cazorla, Silva, Mata, etc—but on those who played near him—Busquets, Messi, Yaya, Eto’o, Villa, Dani Alves, Torres, etc—was massive while he also led them to trophies, a rare double quality that sets Xavi apart from so many others.

5. Ladislao Kubala – The guy who did it all on the field—4 leagues titles from 1951 to 1959 as well as 5 Copa del Generalisimo (the precursor of the Copa del Rey) over that same period—also created a side story of talent and power in a Spain dominated by Real Madrid. He was the ranking member of a mega squad that included (the original) Luis Suarez, Evaristo, Czibor, and Kocsis. Kubala is credited with recruiting the final two in that list because they were fellow Hungarians. Failure to include Kubala ended up costing the great Helenio Herrera his job, which is influence enough to get someone at least on the list, but Kubala’s legacy includes knocking Real Madrid out of the European Cup in 1961, a first for anyone and a huge step for FC Barcelona. He was also an insane freekick taker at a time when balls weren’t necessarily quite as brilliantly round and full of specially designed bladders and it is part of his romantic legacy that Kubala could do what modern players can do with far inferior equipment.

4. Lionel Messi – The craziest thing about Lionel Messi is that despite where he sits on this list, his trajectory is up. At times he has felt more like a carefully crafted war machine than a living, breathing human, as if he was rolled out of a marketing department where they dialed back the personality setting on their new creation to 0. He sprang leaks (and mixed metaphors) in his armor for a few years, but has rebounded physically as well as emotionally, having opened up more on social media and through his celebrations on the field. He has tattoos and kids. He smiles and doesn’t have a mullet. He still seems somewhat distant, as if he is so good that he is alone atop a mountain, looking down on the rest of our earthly attempts at playing this game. His brilliance allows many of his teammates to shine indirectly, but his brilliance also causes discomfort when the question of his eventual physical deterioration comes up. His legacy is far from defined, but were he to leave at this instant, he would be missed in ways so huge they can’t really be enumerated; it would not just be an alteration of how the team played, but how the club itself was run, managed, and who the squad contained. Eventually we will cross this bridge, but for now Messi allows the team to play as it wishes to play: fast, slow, furious, calm, possession-obsessed, on the counter. His goal tallies are monumental and his trophy cabinet impossibly crowded, but it’s what he’s done off the field that is truly remarkable: he has managed to fulfill the expectations of over-expectant crowds, club presidents, and marketers without seeming to strain at all. Pressure is the water to his duck feathers. He has a shy smile that he flashes, but he is a sculpted brand and he is also sure to keep it that way. His influence on world football is undeniable and his influence on the club that nurtured him and brought him to fame and fortune is also immense. And it is ever growing.

3. Josep Samitier – the big man himself, Samitier was not only an outstanding player, he was a phenomenal force within the club despite defecting to Real Madrid when he had blowups with club management. As a player he was part of the team that moved from the Catalan league to La Liga, winning the very first title in the process. Admittedly, this is where this list gets a little fuzzy between the stated ideas of no coaches or presidents since the bulk of Samitier’s influence is from his coaching (when he won the team’s second Liga title) and scouting days (when he brought in some schlump named Ladislao Kubala). It’s hard to overstate his legacy, given that it all seemed to start with him and grow from there. Yet he is also one of the club’s most complicated figures, having been allegedly snuggly with members of the Franco regime, even appearing in pro-Franco propaganda films (alongside Kubala, it should be noted).

2. Pep Guardiola – The hometown kid that made it from ballboy to champion of everything ever and always, Pep has a special place in every cule’s heart. He was once the gangly question mark in the center of midfield, then the fulcrum of a dream team, and finally the player who sacrificed everything for his team. He set the bar at Impossible and then surpassed it. He took passing it out of the back from thing the Dutch do to thing every Catalan can’t get enough of. He made theater and football one and the same, combining politics and sport in an emotional and studied way, but he kept it all high brow, even when he took to cursing in press conferences. His competitiveness knows no bounds, nor does his obsession. He will be remembered more for his stewardship as a manager than as his leadership as a player, but it was Pep that cemented the Barça style as a player.

1a. Alfredo di Stefano may very well be as influential as any Barça player given what his lack of signing did to Barça, but he’s off the official list simply because he never made an appearance for the first team. That he went somewhere else (through shady backroom dealings or not) meant that Barcelona was deprived not just of a major talent, but of a once-in-a-generation genius who grew into the greatest player alive and took Real Madrid to the top of the European world. It took Barcelona nearly 60 years to fling off the second fiddle role it was forced to play after di Stefano’s move. That is some serious influence.

1. Johan Cruyff – There is a before and an after. There is pre-Cruyff and post-Cruyff. There is night and there is day. There is some degree of myth to this, of course, and some degree of “Hey, what about Rinus Michels?” but Cruyff stands amidst all of that and calmy, egotistically demands that he be counted first amongst all. He has been for years the “And there’s Cruyff” that comes after “Pele and Maradona”, but neither of those players were ever anywhere near as influential on the sport itself, even as they played. Pele was brilliant, Maradona was insane (and brilliant), and Cruyff was the chessmaster forever failing to win against Deep Blue because his king kept getting accidentally knocked over at the crucial moment. One way to sum up Cruyff’s influence at FCB is this: for as much as there’s talk of Cruyff’s playing days, he only played 5 seasons for Barça. 5 seasons and he was gone, off to the Los Angeles Aztecs (!) after scoring just 48 goals. That’s fewer than 10 per season; Pedro wouldn’t even take that goal return right now. But he arrived at Barcelona in a time of internal shift, as well as during an international shift. Catenaccio was giving way to totaalvoetbal and Spain was about to give way to democracy (Cruyff transferred in 1972 and Franco died in 1975). In his first season, Cruyff was part of the 5-0 at the Bernabeu. When his son was born, Cruyff named him Jordi, a Catalan name, something that is hard to overlook if you’re thinking about the father’s legacy. Everything else, everything that arrived later, is Cruyff in one way or another; Cruyff the manager is part of his legacy, but he was transformative as a player as well, shifting the focus of the team from La Liga to Europe, where he had already achieved major success, though he never won a continental trophy with Barça.

In the end, it was Cruyff who made the club “modern” in a way it had never been before. It always used to rain in Spain, according to every youtube clip ever, but once Cruyff arrived, scored his impossible goal, and disappeared into the crazy twilight of his crazy career, the skies cleared and there was no looking back. It became about style, it became about winning the right way. And the club has never returned to anything else.

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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

Don’t kill your idols, but don’t let them blind you either

Pep Guardiola doesn’t care about you.

Lionel Messi doesn’t care about you.

The people and players whom you revere, who consume so much of your waking moments and cause you to argue and take after complete strangers, don’t care about you.

If Bayern Munich score a goal against Barca tomorrow, Guardiola isn’t going to weep into a Barça binky. He is going to do what any opposition coach would do, which is exult and cheer with his players, then resume the task of trying to rip culer hearts out.

On Twitter, someone called me “stupid” because I said that I don’t care about Guardiola. That reaction made me think about the cult of personality, what it does and how often it impedes being able to see the game clearly. Last week, there was an excellent Miguel Delaney piece that had Mourinho praising Messi, and saying a number of things that verged on fanboying. He said in effect what culers and Messi fans say: “Messi changes everything.”

In some parts of the culerverse those statements were interpreted as a dig at Guardiola, that Mourinho was saying that any team with Messi can win, then blew his own horn by saying that he was able to stop Messi. What a vile, mean-spirited little man.
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Posted in Thoughts49 Comments

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

pedro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

enrique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

xavi

Posted in La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts75 Comments

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”

messi

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.

enrique

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.

team

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

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