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

mathieu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The big one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take what you need, need what you take

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rakitic

Imagine being Ivan Rakitic.

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

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

Imagine being Ivan Rakitic.

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

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

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

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

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

messi

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

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

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

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

City didn’t have a chance.

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

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

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

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

neymar

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

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

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

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

enrique

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

Guardiola returns. “Booooo!”, aka “When a friend becomes an enemy”

Pep Guardiola is, for many culers, coming home today.

After all, the coach who led FC Barcelona is returning, to sonnets of praise and rose-strewn paths. Those times were wonderful – Coldplay, weeping, trophies and victory parades – and the memories will always remain. Silver!

The complexity with the incestuous world of football, where today’s star player is tomorrow’s bitter rival is what to do when something like this happens.

To my view, Pep Guardiola is an enemy scout, seeking the best way to destroy Barça, should it come to that. I would sit his ass behind a post somewhere in the 400 section. Whether this makes me a myopic, spiteful little git or culer to the bone depends on worldview. But I will vehemently resist anything that wants to hurt my club and its team, from ill-intentioned presidents to former coaches who now head Bayernsliga juggernauts. If Messi leaves Barça for a rival and I am at a match at which he plays, I will boo, and wish him the finest in complete and utter failure.

And that’s the complexity in a game that lauds loyalty while it necessitates migration. A player starts with a club, reaches the point where he has to consider moving to that next level. This might mean leaving the club he has grown up with, because not every club has a cradle-to-retirement structure such as Barça. And that is where the weird part comes in on so many levels, because football reveres its stars in a way that hardly any other sport does. But migration is the qualm-inducing reality of that reverence as it forces supporters to come to terms with feelings best left unvisited. Rivals must be vanquished, and our heroes must triumph.

On the pitch, supporters have different ways of managing that. Some support the club, viewing players as agents of that entity. Others are fans of players, and remain that way no matter where the player goes. Others still become supporters of a club because of a player, and switch clubs with the player. That rivalry expands to club allegiance. When Chelsea supporters were caught on video committing a racist act against a black man on a Paris Metro platform, it was easy for other club supporters to snuffle indignantly. Players misbehave, and supporters smugly assert that “our” players are better than that. When they aren’t, other complex moments rear their heads as players and coaches shuttle to and fro.

When Luis Suarez was being convicted of racist speak and having Chiellini for a mid-match snack, culers scoffed and jibed. “Oh, the excesses! What a maniac!” Then he transferred to Barça, and “Anyone deserves a second chance” became the phrase of the day. Luis Figo went from hero to pig’s head target. And now Pep Guardiola, the man who said something like “Sheeit! Hit me in the head with a hammer,” when asked if he would consider returning to FC Barcelona, is coming back to take notes on the best way to destroy my team.

I can’t get excited about that. Sorry.

It’s like when players score against their former team, and there is some sort of goofy protocol that dictates a player not celebrating. What the hell is THAT about? It’s one thing to be a Sultan of Sulk like Balotelli, who doesn’t celebrate goals because that’s his job. “The mailman doesn’t celebrate delivering the mail!” I can appreciate that logic a lot more than I can appreciate the “I won’t celebrate out of respect for the supporters.” You just scored a goal! Do you think that not celebrating is going to somehow salve the wound?

When Danny Welbeck scored against Manchester United, the team that jettisoned him because he, in effect, didn’t score enough, that United was correct in that decision is immaterial. He scored a goal, a goal that put paid to United’s FA Cup dreams, and he celebrated. He celebrated like a player who was giddy with the joy of scoring the potential game winner in a big match that could lead his team to silverware. As you placate one group of supporters, what about the ones for the team you now play for? Welbeck grinned, and strutted and enjoyed the moment, protocol be damned.

I like that.

Coaches and players come and go, as they should. When someone is with a club or team they are fully deserving of all the support that fans can give. But when that person decides to leave, especially to a direct rival who was, not that long ago, responsible for inflicting one the most grievous wounds to a club, a team and its supporters, what is the correct course of action? It is here that respect and support butt heads. You’re a crazy culer if you don’t respect and admire the hell out of Pep Guardiola for what he did for Barça. You’re probably even too crazy to form words, preferring to communicate by throwing spoons and grunting.

But in the here and now, he wants to hurt your team.

Football loves the gesture. A player is fouled, and writhes in agony until sacred water from a magic bottle is dribbled onto his grievous injury and like the miracles of Lourdes, praise be! He lives! Opposing players are given ovations for a match well played. Liga opponents cheer Andres Iniesta as he comes off, in respect for the World Cup-winning goal that he scored for Spain.

I’m a churl. When people go, they’re gone. But I also read things given to me such as birthday cards, say “Thank you” and then bin them. Moving on. When I was at the Champions League match that featured Samuel Eto’o in an Inter shirt, I booed the hell out of him. I booed until I felt short of breath, dealt with the dizziness and booed some more. Damn right. He’s the enemy. He kicked ass and took names while at Barça. When he now wants to do the same for a rival, scorn it is. I respect his accomplishments in the colors, but when he dons the tunic of the enemy my respect remains as my rancor builds. I think that makes me a supporter who is all in, rather than some fickle fiend who doth not respect his history.

It also fits my worldview of players and coaches as agents who are there to help the club that I love have success. I am no longer interested in them when they leave. Doesn’t mean Keita, for example, isn’t still Keiteeeee when I watch those moments when he stomped the terra while clad in blaugrana, or that he isn’t an all-around cool dude. But my heart is so full of Barça that I don’t have room for players and coaches, particularly ones who want to break my heart.

So when the camera pans to Guardiola at today’s match, sitting in the stands to make mental notes on how to make me and all culers sad, forgive my lack of swooniness and “Oh, Pep!” moments. He is an enemy combatant who my rock-hard little heart will view as such.

Posted in Champions League, Thoughts31 Comments

Eibar 0, Barça 2, aka “An acceptance of active stasis”

sr

Football is funny, because it likes nothing more than to confound us, to giggle at vehement prognostications and assertions that issue forth from bile-flecked keyboards.

This season has been something of an object lesson in that, no matter its eventual outcome. From notions that Messi is past it, to Pique being a worthless playboy and Enrique being a prat who needs to be fired, to his team not having a snowball’s chance in hell of beating Atleti to the latest, that Sergi Roberto is just a pile of hair and a smile.

Vidal Sassoon started today, in a spot that many speculated he might, in the hole that is usually occupied by Sergio Busquets. That he had an excellent match, including the most passes on the team (91) and a stellar completion rate on those passes (82 of them) was a surprise to many. But it’s just par for the course, when you think about it.

Yes, it was Eibar. As Sergi Roberto himself said, he always seems to play against Eibar and he wishes that Barça played them more often. But the thing about playing in the position that he occupied today is that it is opponent proof in many ways, because that position often operates independently and irrespectively of what an opponent does.

That position dictates tempo, picks out that first ball that starts an attack after taking the pass from a CB and serves as a relief valve. Though that player can be subject to direct pressure as he moves up the pitch, a tactic employed by some opponents against Busquets, as he sits there in the hole, the job is the thing and Sergi Roberto performed it quite well today. There were even some who liked his performance better than Mascherano’s in that same position, though there are certainly a different set of skills that Mascherano brings to the table, along with gobs of destructive force.

When we usually see SR, he’s in one of the more advanced midfield positions, the danger zones in which his skill set: physicality, picking out a nice forward pass come under all kinds of pressure from opponents and expectation. Anybody who fills that role should be named He Isn’t Xavi Dammit. Because when they aren’t, for who is, they are almost immediately deemed a failure. That even includes Rakitic, who continued his streak of excellent play today.

rak

Enrique won’t get credit for the squad management that allowed a tactical and player shift, but putting SR in the hole means that suddenly he has time and a broader view of the pitch, two of the things that can benefit a ‘tweener like him. It took an injury to a key player and a particular set of difficulties — Mascherano being one yellow away from suspension — to create the set of circumstances that resulted in his opportunity, a moment that should give culers pause and reflection.

A player is rarely as terrible as legend makes him out to be, mostly because the people whose job it is to make those kinds of decisions aren’t stupid, but also because the bar is absurdly high, almost jaw-droppingly so. Someone can sub for Xavi, a reference at his position, or Busquets, hailed by many as the best DM in the world. Or maybe Iniesta, Mr. Big Goal. So as SR stepped into the spotlight for his command performance, it was a role that was easy to enjoy as long as you had nothing invested in its outcome, i.e. “He sucks and that’s that.”

This was also true of the team’s performance today, a delicious bit of pragmatism that impressed, again if you let the expectations relax just a bit. This was never, ever going to be glittering football, nor should it have been. Teams have standards, and those standards exist despite the pragmatism of coaches and players. The blessing and the curse of Pep Guardiola is, frankly, those standards. The team played exactly the same beautiful way, and rarely relented, rarely played just good enough to win. Guardiola drove them, harried them and always, always demanded of their best. It’s the stuff that makes for legend coaches and storied team. But it’s also a psychological deep fryer that will eventually produce toast.

Enrique seems to have given the team carte blanche to be good enough, to understand that with the players that it has (large roster that is actually limited at the top, against top teams as is true of most squads) care must be taken if his charges are going to survive the pressure cooker that is this season, one on the perpetual brink.

In a rather surprising development, prompted by a Tweet from someone that really put it into perspective, I have come to accept Walking Messi as a reality of a complex situation. He wants to play all the time, and no coach wants to be the one to risk the wrath of Angry Messi. But much more than my objections to that is a reality that this year’s Barça and its pragmatism have shaped for me, broadening my view to encompass being good enough. This year’s team seems to have one standard: winning. All the rest is theory, semantics and gilded legend.

This fascinates as you watch a match such as Eibar, or Rayo last week, and see the social media hue and cry about things not being pretty and “this half sucks,” etc. But the match was exactly as it needed to be: a few moments of elevation to bring about a desired result, then enough effort to bring the result home.

The first goal, even if you allow that it wasn’t a penalty except in the technical letter of the law, came after one of those sequences of elevated play, a remarkable exchange of passes that found a heretofore staunch Eibar defense suddenly flummoxed and out of position. And Messi took the resultant penalty like a player who now understands that penalties matter. It was a rocket of a shot and an unstoppable PK from a player who until that point had missed 5 of his last 11 penalties.

We can even allow ourselves to giggle at the reality that Messi became pichichi on a penalty, a way of scoring that seems to be disdained by culers who nickname his rival for best in the game Penaldo. That Messi’s second goal came off a submarine header is just him trolling the football universe. Lost in the ruckus over that goal will be the flawless corner from Rakitic, a rainbow that wound up exactly where it had to be as Messi trailed the box ruckus to head home.

And then Barça resumed playing like a team that has not one, but two “season-defining” matches in the space of a week. Eibar hit the crossbar on a shot that really should have resulted in a goal, and Barça kept a clean sheet. Would Enrique have been vexed at the 1-2 scoreline? Probably not as much as culers who have unassailable standards that often butt heads with a shifting reality. Walking Messi is okay but Pragmatic Barça isn’t. Yet both are necessary realities for an ambitious team as once again, good enough to win is fine and dandy.

messi

HolycrapXavi!

When Xavi subbed in for Rakitic, who was pulled with the mid-week clash against City in mind, that was his 750th appearance for Barça. You sit, you think, you try to do math and you struggle with that kind of bonkers reality that a player has played 750 matches for the club that he loves. It’s remarkable.

Even more admirable is that even after those 750 matches, Xavi comes in, straps on the captain’s armband and does What Xavi Does. It’s even hard to explain what that is. Simply enough it’s passing and tempo control. But because Xavi had made it so much more and performs it at a level that will never be matched by any other player, it’s something that you don’t need to explain. It just happens.

It’s like That Run Messi made today. That run, like the way Xavi plays, is an inexplicable reaction to a set of circumstances, rooted in an extraordinary skill set that makes the exceptional just another day’s work.

That’s Xavi, and that’s awesome. Happy 750th, Maestro.

"I don't need that diagram. I AM that diagram."

“I don’t need that diagram. I AM that diagram.”

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts50 Comments

Twisting in the wind, aka “Love, respect and legends”

rsoalves

When a player outlives his usefulness, it’s brutal. And nasty. An exceptionally useful part of a championship team is not any longer and a club has to manage what to do.

And that’s just the club. Supporters also come in to add many additional layers of nasty to the aging process.

There are three kinds of old players:

— Legends, of whom supporters deny any frailty. A 5-minute run of good play against an easy opponent brings the “See? Told you he still has it.”
— Undesirables, who nobody really wanted anyhow so there’s just an odd sort of indifference about that player’s continued presence.
— Damn Shames, players who should be legends but aren’t, and are treated shabbily by club and supporters.

Xavi is an example of a Legend, while Thierry Henry was the most recent example of an Undesirable. Unfortunately, Dani Alves is a Damn Shame.

At present, Alves is dangling in the wind. Barça apparently don’t want him, even though Enrique is on the record as saying he would like to keep him another year. Rumors fly about hither and yon about potential destinations, and many culers bemoan the fact that he’s still with the club even though he is still playing RB better than any other choices available. Every error is a capital crime, every good play a “Hmph! It’s about time!” moment. Jibes about crosses abound and too damned many culers can’t wait for the day that Alves leaves the club, so that someone “better” can take his slot..

For me, Dani Alves is a legend. This status isn’t because he came up through La Masia, or scored eleventy bajillion goals. He’s a legend because he has been an integral part of an excellent football club for an inordinately long time, and gives his absolute best each and every time that he pulls on the shirt. When a player does the best that he can, a coach doesn’t have the right … can’t, really … ask for anything more. “Best” in 2015 might not be the same as the “best” of 2008, but it is what it is.

Dani Alves deserves better than what he’s getting, from club and supporters. Seydou Keita was allowed to leave on a free so that he could have his pick of destinations. That was a lovely gesture that showed how much respect Guardiola had for the player. Meanwhile, rumors about Alves abound, gossip that forced him to take to Instagram to deny. And the rumors are present in part because as far as anyone knows, Barça has done nothing. And that sucks. Don’t leave him hanging. Not cool.

It’s business. Sure it is. But even in business there should be some humanity for a player who has done nothing except play the best that he could, match in and match out, rarely injured or even seemingly tired. Dani Alves, just running from endline to endline. He isn’t the best Dani Alves. But for a time, a LONG time he was, though underappreciated by too many culers, the best right back in the world. He was so good that he was overlooked almost because of that absurd quality. He made it look so effortless and simple, patrolling that side with a ease and grace that made him indispensable to Messi, Busquets AND Puyol.

He became trendy when he began to decline, like that performer whose absolute best work is in the past winning a major award. He became an automatic starter for the Selecao, a long-overdue honor that had as much to do with the quality of and comfort with Maicon as anything else. Detractors focused on his crosses, bits of ambition which even at their best were never paragons of accurate effectiveness. So what. A favorite Alves moment – the match escapes me – was when a loose ball was banged toward the sideline. Most players would have let it go out for the throw. Alves ran it down, turned and started a play that resulted in a goal. Effort. Always effort.

If someone wants to point out that a player isn’t what he once was, cool. But if that player has done what legends do for their teams, respect is still due. Xavi isn’t what he once was, but if the heavens don’t part and angels sing every time you type his name, there is something wrong with your worldview. Iniesta is no longer Ghostface Killah, but he’s still Andres MFing Iniesta. The game and time don’t care, but teams and the people who love them should.

Players sacrifice for the team. We begrudge them coach-approved trips to various places, vacations and the like but we forget how much they sacrifice. Yes, they are richly compensated for their efforts, but they sacrifice. When fathers are at family events, players are at training. Pregancies? They might be able to flit away by quick plane flight for the birth. It isn’t a normal life, and will never be for as long as they are doing what they do.

All that sacrifice, all that playing hurt, and limping around after matches, and recovering from injuries and dealing with stuff that, like Puyol, will affect the quality of the rest of a player’s life and at the end of it all is usually indifference and scorn. And that ain’t right.

“It’s ridiculous that the team still has to rely on Alves. Stupid board.” Okay. Find somebody, even now, who could be dropped in and be a big improvement over Alves. Danilo? Maybe. Eventually. Possibly. Lots of other names are out there, but there are none who do what Alves, when he was rockin’ it, did. So when it came time to think about players, and transfers, the first thing teams do is look at what they have from the context of can that person be improved upon, and how much of a row would it cause with supporters if that person was deemed “surplus to requirements.”

That’s the difficulty of having a collection of icons. For a period, FC Barcelona played the best football that anyone has ever seen. This wasn’t magic. It was hard work in the hands of an excellent coach and a top-quality group of players, every last one of whom would be considered the best or among the best at his position. As people sit, snuffle and deem this or that inadequate, hurl bricks at effigies of sporting directors past and present, the thing worth considering is, simply enough, who in the hell do you replace legends with?

Victor Valdes
Dani Alves
Gerard Pique
Carles Puyol
Eric Abidal
Xavi
Iniesta
Busquets
Eto’o
Henry
Messi

This game hangs onto old players like favored sweatshirts, except when that old player becomes somehow unfavored. Then he is deemed irredeemable, a mess who should have been gone eons ago so what the hell. But the rush to replace icons makes us forget just how brilliant the players whose heads on the block were. If you go down the above XI, is there a player of whom culers would NOT say, “There will never be another … “ Pique for now, but if he keeps on playing the way that he is these days, add him to the roster.

How easy is it to replace a player, and what is the price of an effort to do so? Name a right back that in the upcoming Classic you would be more comfortable with than Alves. Pique is excellent, but there is only one Puyol. The defense hasn’t been the same since Abidal took ill and then left. Xaviniesta isn’t any longer, Henry and Eto’o are long gone. Valdes blew his knee out, left on a free. There will be a time, very soon, when the only players left from the Treble side will be Messi, Busquets and Pique. And that will be weird, but it will also be what happens in the game.

The fate of Alves is unknown, but it should have been decided by now. There shouldn’t be stories about “The club will consider his future soon.” For me, that just isn’t how you treat a legend.

Posted in Thoughts, Transfers/Transfer Rumors48 Comments

The value of history

Spend too much time looking back, and you stumble over the present. But sometimes, history can be useful as a reminder.

This season has seemed like one endless squabble. Enrique out. Give him time. The team has lost its way. What is that way. Pedro, Messi, Suarez, Neymar, Mascherano, this and that as a group of supporters becomes the equivalent of a series of armed factions, doing battle with bandwidth and rhetoric.

Still sitting on the home DVR were the last four Liga matches of last season: Villarreal, Getafe, Elche and Atleti. Firing up Villarreal brought everything flooding back, that minute of silence before the match, sitting in a sparsely-peopled Globe Pub in Chicago a weeping mass; the joy at the crazy win helped by a pair of Villarreal own goals, the feeling that maybe, just maybe, the team that had been through so much was about to catch a break.

Then the injury-time equalizer from Getafe, the scoreless draw at Elche and even then, hope against Atleti that was dashed.

And that’s just on the pitch. Off it was injuries, squabbles, a team that knew long before any of us did the real condition of its Mister, a miscarriage, two months off for Messi to get his head right and then the biggest blow of all. Each and every time this team and its supporters got to feeling like it was okay to stick a head above the parapet to catch a ray of sunlight, something came along to hit us in the face.

It’s easy to reduce football to theory, to players who didn’t do what they should have, dammit, led by a coach who didn’t do what he should have, dammit. In reading things from the aftermath of Vilanova/Villarreal, I came across this image, and was floored. There can be no purer distillation of last season, as the strongest among us was laid low like Mahler’s hero of Symphony No. 6 and that last, cruel hammer blow of fate.

This season was business as usual. How quickly everyone forgot in the race to mark people as a failure of just how difficult it all was, how impossible it must have been for humans to do what they do. Teams have players, collections of professionals who gather for ambition or money. Barça has a collective bonded by roots, many of whom almost grew up together as they came through the ranks at the club, familiar teammates managed by familiar faces. Family.

And within a family, so much heartache.

So this year, as normal business resumed and this person, that person or the other person was deemed inadequate and the wars resumed, watching those matches and their bit of history reminded me of those days, and how much joy there should be in these days. If that makes me a cheerleader, I will take my pom-pons and wave them until I drop, but something really fun and interesting is happening this season as a team is adapting to the rigors of time and its opposition. A new coach is making something happen in a season not hamstrung by injuries and tragedy, and you know what? That is worth enjoying. Further, it’s worth enjoying even if Barça comes up short in all three competitions.

At the simplest level, it’s nice to watch a match and not want to cry. But on so many other levels, from players who are smiling again as they play a game that should be fun to the luck of a big signing coming right at the exact time the team needs him. As we wonder why Messi is so wonderful again, maybe it’s simply because his heart isn’t aching. Maybe the players are better because they can do what they do without having to look over their shoulders, wondering what else is going to happen. In our rush to deify players, we often forget that they are as human as we are.

It would be foolhardy to place all this in the hands of fate, to suggest that maybe somewhere there is a closed blaugrana ledger as some life force has decided that there has been enough suffering for this group. Nor is that the point. The reminder of history for me is much simpler: the sun is out again. We see it in the beam of Messi’s smile after his goals, in the unfettered joy of Neymar kicking up his heels. We see it as Enrique exults on the sidelines, we even see it in a club president, relaxed enough on a pretty day to be caught nodding off in the late stages of a 6-1 thrashing. And all I can say is that it’s okay to enjoy it. It’s okay to let a little smile creep in. Because no matter what happens this season, win or lose, it has been worse, and we managed.

Posted in Messi, Thoughts89 Comments

Barça 6, Rayo 1, aka “Top of table on a perfect day”

suarez

When RM lost yesterday, gifting Barça with a glorious opportunity to go top of table, it was almost charming the way many culers were still worried.

Pessimism is indeed part of the culer mindset. Barça can be 10 points ahead with two matches left, and culers would say, “Well, the Liga is considering that win is worth 6 points. We could still lose this!

But it’s Rayo, at the Camp Nou. After the story about the worldview of Rayo’s coach, the wonderful Paco Jemez, this past week, the only real question was the final score. Because under Jemez Rayo plays their style, an open, attacking game of football that is always playing to win. Jemez is no more interested in a draw than any good coach would be, and really doesn’t find much difference between a 1-0 loss and a 7-0 loss.

This was always, always going to be a win and so it was, at a canter rather than a gallop. Messi didn’t even play, really, and got a hat trick, even getting a do-over on a penalty that again raises a question about whether he should be the man taking them. Put another way, it’s the 85th minute of a Champions League knockout tie in the deciding leg and Barça get a penalty. How confident are culers, really and truly, with Messi stepping to the spot.

But even before the Messi penalty do-over the match was already 2-0 and done because Rayo, particularly given their scoring record against Barça and the simple quality gap between the two teams coupled with that team’s style of play … this match was a gimme that was graciously accepted.

Much more interesting to me, opponent and death wishes notwithstanding, is what a simple golazo does to a player. Since Luis Suarez notched that bicycle kick he has been unstoppable. The first goal that he scored today was stupefying because of the execution, but also the speed of thought combined with the execution. He pounced on a ball from Xavi and did an outside of the foot finish into the top corner.

It’s a goal that before the bicycle, Suarez doesn’t have the confidence to even attempt, let alone make. But it was a pure striker’s goal, just like his tally against Manchester City in Champions League.

My beyond-the-pitch views on whether Suarez should have been signed have not changed. But these views don’t make me blind to the reality that it has not been since Samuel Eto’o that Barça has had a striker of this quality. And it hasn’t been since that same Eto’o stomped the terra with Messi and Henry that we have had a front three with as much firepower and creativity.

Even more interesting is that Pedro is Pedro when it comes to scoring, a once-confident player who is now a coach’s dream for all that other stuff that he does, and Messi was still singing lullabies to Thiago in his head. This made the attack essentially Suarez, and he still notched that goal. He ran, pressed, passed, assisted, tried to assist when he shouldn’t have, then scored another goal that was quite a bit more difficult than it was made to look. He was my MOTM by a country mile today, Messi’s mostly sleepwalking hat trick notwithstanding, and can be summed up in a simple phrase: Suarez changes everything.

Cannibals on the loose!

Eto’o was wonderful. What made him wonderful was that he was a little bonkers, so you really didn’t know what to expect from him. His genius was either that or madness as he moved wayyy over there to set up a feint that would find him over here, in perfect position to lace home a shot or capitalize on a rebound opportunity. But he moved constantly, which made it almost impossible to play him.

What that movement also did was unsettle a defense, which made the lives of other attackers easier because defenders were always worried about that crazy dude running around behind them. Suarez brings back that kind of crazy. He even scores goals like Eto’o. On his second, he worked play, held himself onside then burst free at the exact right moment to be able to slot home. He created a goal by working a play with Jordi Alba, taking a pass in the box, controlling and holding the ball long enough to find shooting space then smoked a hard, low shot at the keeper. He didn’t score but did create a rebound chance that Messi tapped home.

Confidence is a weird thing. Before the bicycle, Suarez was associative almost to a fault, looking for the pass in the same ultimately frustrating way that Neymar did when he first arrived. It’s almost as if a player wants to prove that they fit into a Barça team whose reputation has been built on unselfish play and beautiful passing. And that need to blend leads to a seeming sublimation of self. We also saw it in Alexis Sanchez, who was most himself when Messi was out and he and Neymar could roam free.

After the goal, Suarez seemed to say to himself “Hey, wait … that’s right. I can do this stuff.” Since then he has been scoring for fun. But more than scoring, he has been influencing the match in ways that give him an indirectly direct effect on the scoreline, even more than before the bicycle. His role in that first goal against Villarreal is a perfect example as he burst into space and made the exact right pass to Messi. Think about how many other players — Pedro is one — who would have gone for the safe pass to a closer teammate, or held the ball up and then passed it back to midfield. Instead, Suarez went for the high-risk ball to Messi because he could see the potential in that pass.

What makes excellent players so isn’t talent, though that is certainly part of it. When Tiger Woods was himself, he hit shots that didn’t occur to anyone else. It wasn’t that other players didn’t have the talent to make those shots. They didn’t have the audacity to even consider them. That’s the difference.

messi

One year the Chicago Blackhawks played the Edmonton Oilers in the playoffs, during the Gretzky days. Gretzky was rolling up the wing on the break, and a Hawks defenseman had him cold. But Gretzky already knew. He stopped, pivoted and flicked the hockey equivalent of a backheel to a streaking teammate, who slotted the goal home. The pass took an unusual amount of skill, but it mostly required the belief that such a thing existed in your skill set.

Phil Schoen described the situation very well when he noted during a recent match that people were expecting Liverpool Suarez to show up, but Uruguay Suarez showed up instead. At Liverpool he was everything, and had to play that way. For his national team he has players that require a different, more associative all-pitch approach that in the context of a Barça in which everyone does everything, makes him potentially devastating.

Now what?

Barça is top of table. As Mascherano said after the match today, all 3 top teams are going to drop more points, and the Liga won’t be decided until late. He’s correct. Being top of table with 12 matches to go is immaterial. Counting chickens before they are hatched is foolhardy, so the bleating of culers after the Malaga defeat about a Liga being lost when it wasn’t even won, should make you giggle more than anything else. The entorno is happy right now, but don’t forget that at the beginning of the season and well into it, RM was the best team that anyone had ever seen, every bit as good as the great Guardiola sides.

Now, having dropped 5 points in the last 2 matches, RM is anything but. But now the tables are turned and people are overblowing Barça, daring to talk about a league title. Mascherano is right in that it isn’t over until it’s over. One thing that is reassuring is that for yet another match, Barça displayed the kind of level-headed pragmatism that points to a well-coached team.

Xavi and Iniesta were excellent today, which would come as no surprise in a match tailor-made for their skill sets and physical gifts. Xavi picked that assist to Suarez as only he can, and Iniesta was, as Ray Hudson described him in match commentary, “like smoke through a key hole.” Rayo is always the cure for what ails. No physicality, no pressing midfield, no attacking mids directly in an effort to starve the beast of food. Everything today was exactly as it was supposed to be.

iniesta

During the Rayo match particularly in the first half, there were mutterings about goals left on the table, Barça not playing well, etc, etc. From the seat in my man cave, no reason for any stress was in view. It was 1-0, Rayo was about as likely to score as I was and Barça was in second gear. Again, it’s worth asking about the gallon jug of effort that teams and players have, a jug that has to be metered out over the duration of a season in which a team is active in three competitions. Barça could have gone all out, ripped and ran and scored 4 or 5 goals by the half, but why? Rayo wasn’t going anywhere.

Given another, less-willing opponent with less pride, who might turtle up and go for the point that they arrived with creates a different picture. But Rayo was a practice scrimmage in the Catalan sun. Why not relax and save the effort for when it was really needed? I was at the Gamper match in which Eto’o suffered a severe injury while trying to ice the cake of a 5-0 Milan thrashing. My first thought … well, my second was “Well, that was stupid.”

There is a time to go all out and a time to relax and take what an opponent gives you. In many ways, that has been the operating mode for Barça this season, and not only on this lovely Sunday. The team is top of the table, a feat worked by taking what opponents have given. What’s next is a dozen matches, all finals really, when you consider that RM has the talent to go on a 12-match winning streak, just as Barça does.

It is pressure and how a team and its players manage it that makes a champion.

team

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts35 Comments

Messi by the numbers, aka “Is there a way to evaluate sunshine?”

Y’all cray.

As a trained journalist who has been working with words for the better part of three decades, sometimes eloquence fails and you just have to fall back on what even the least-trained wordsmith can relate to.

Y’all cray.

Someone ran the numbers on Messi, his goals and assists, and determined that the net result, if you remove those tallies and assists, is 2 points in the standings. So Barça would be 4 points behind RM instead of 2, and in the same spots in Copa and Champions League.

In reaction to this, one BritPress outlet came flying in with a headline about “hat tricks and only 2 points,” and this stuff makes me giggle. Information and metrics about the game have never been more available to the average supporter than they are right now. Want to know how a player scores when it’s above 60 degrees F while shooting with his right leg? Voila. Want a breakdown of penalty conversions by game minute? Okay. But that isn’t all.

Vernacular that used to be the sole province of the tactics nerd, formations and positional breakdowns, have become part of everyday conversation. Ten years ago would you have been able to see, much less take part in a discussion about the false 9 and its benefits in a 4-4-3 that shifts to a 5-5-1? Nope. And you would have rolled your eyes if you had because really, what does that matter?

In these different times when there has to be a reason for everything, I always go back to childhood, when we asked our parents question after question – “Why is the sky blue,” “Why do dogs have fur,” “Where do babies come from,” “How come my tummy makes noise when I’m hungry?” At at some point our parents reverted to, “Because.”

To call people who would somehow endeavor to diminish the accomplishments of Messi as metrics-addled fools isn’t the point as much as the futility of trying to reduce what players do to numbers. Some were muttering about the number of touches that Ter Stegen had against Villarreal as being something like the approach of the apocalypse, but why? If Barça is playing in a more relaxed/reactive way, as long as none of those touches is taking the ball out of his own net, just take the time to marvel at his passing skills.

Messi is on the pitch. Even when he doesn’t score or assist, Messi is on the pitch. Walking, running, Messi is on the pitch. We can discuss precisely what he does while on the pitch if we like, but the influence of the best player in the game starts with being on the pitch. There is no metric for the “Holy shit!” factor that ensues when Messi gets the ball, even if he doesn’t do anything with it. Defenses shift, CBs get that curious tightening in the chest that a sudden blast of adrenaline does for you.

And Messi hasn’t even done anything yet.

Can a metric evaluate space gained by a lesser player because of the presence of a greater one, or the goal that comes just from influence, standing there attended to by 2 or 3 opposing defenders, allowing a teammate to pop free? No. Such a metric doesn’t exist because it’s unquantifiable, that sort of influence. A Messi/Munir/Pedro front line is a lot scarier than a Neymar/Munir/Pedro front line, Neymar’s gifts notwithstanding. Because great players are capable of a moment of genius that extends their influence far beyond anything that they might or might not do on the pitch.

We rely on numbers and statistics for so much, but they fail us when it comes to breaking down excellence. In Xavi’s best year, he had 6 goals and 18 assists. Those numbers can in no way shape or form define his influence in shaping every match in which he played for club and country. If a pass splits the defense in a way that makes the pass another player makes for the assist as easy as pie, how do you measure that? Key passes? Not really. There is no way.

Iniesta doesn’t score goals. He never has. He doesn’t really assist goals in a number commensurate with how often he has the ball. But he’s there. And because he’s there, so is danger. I mentioned in the Villarreal post before this one how different things are with Suarez scoring. It’s more than the goals. It’s the way that he influences the match even when he doesn’t have the ball. He runs and defenders move. He drags defenders around like luggage.

I like stats as much as the next guy (note: That’s a lie, actually.), and objectivity notwithstanding, I wish that, more often, we sat back and simply said, “Look at that.” It’s reveling in the beauty of a game that is always filled with countless moments of joy, from nutmegs and elasticos to runs and shimmies. We can do equations later.

Posted in Messi, Thoughts56 Comments

Villarreal 1, Barça 3, aka “Whaddaya know … a final!”

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Well, ain’t that just a kick in the teeth?

There are so many eminently logical reasons for the predictions that this season’s Barça team wouldn’t do well. But just as with upsets in sport, the theory all falls by the wayside when the kicking begins. And this match is interesting for the simple fact that it isn’t all that interesting. And that’s good.

It is almost impossible to overstate how lucky Barça is to have three attacking players of the quality of Messi, Neymar and Suarez playing for it at the same time. When people illustrate the complexities that face lesser teams, not only in the Liga but in football in general, a vicious world of the haves and have nots, they need only find an image of Messi, Neymar and Suarez celebrating.

Is it unfair? Good question. There is some extraordinary, star-kissed luck in that the best player in the game, and one of the best in history, was raised by and at Barça. Transferring Messi would be, and is, impossible. So you make him. But if you think about the teams that can afford almost 60m for Neymar and then 82m for Suarez, it’s a small list. And we’re on it. This is worth considering the next time culers snuffle indignantly at Flo Flo flinging money at yet another expensive bauble.

But in that fiscal madness exists some great fortune. The other day I was listening to “Mode to John” by the McCoy Tyner Band, from an album titled “Tender Moments” that is anything but tender. Jazz players used to call them “cutting contests,” when great players would knock heads, trading riffs, throwing down notes and solos to not only knock down the other musicians, but elevate them. This song features a spectacular band throwing down, each member elevated by the presence of the other. You don’t have to play as well when your trumpet player isn’t Lee Morgan.

In the wonderful James Brown documentary “Mr. Dynamite,” the back story of the incendiary Tami Show “Night Train” performance came out. The bassist and drummer said to each other, “Let’s see if they can keep up with us.” And when the song started, they hit it. Hard and fast. And you know what? James Brown could keep up, even if not all of the band could.

At Barça something similar exists, which has been alluded to in the past, the idea of “can you handle this?” Iniesta sees a hole and smokes the pass so that it can get through that hole. Can you deal with the ball that is coming at you? In many ways it’s an on-pitch cutting contest as great players make demand after demand of each other. “Can you handle it?” Our luck is in having such a group of players on the same team, at the same time.

The situation is such that Ivan Rakitic, who was by miles one of the best mids in La Liga last season, can be questioned for his quality, for not being up to the Barça stuff. It boggles the mind to consider that culers are lucky enough to have hitched emotional wagons to that group. And we’re lucky because Messi, Suarez and Neymar all have that rare thing, that baseline that is so high that even an ordinary match still makes them a formidable player. Moments of genius become things of wonder.

That first goal, that came less than 10 minutes into the match and decided the tie, was three long passes: one from the back to Suarez, who ran onto it then lofted one to Messi, who made a bit of space then dropped a rainbow at the feet of Neymar, who almost on the dead run executed a deft rainbow of a shot that nestled into the back of the net.

If you’re an opponent, what you want to say is something like, “Asshole!”

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It isn’t because of the goal. Lots of players on lots of teams score goals. It was the mazy, crazy, high-wire precision of the goal and how casual it looked as great players each asked the other, “What can you do?” The finish almost looked like Neymar just walked the ball in, but consider what it takes for Messi to, over a distance and with defenders surrounding a player, deduce how fast Neymar is running, whether a defender will be fast enough to get there and therefore, how far in front of Neymar the ball needs to be to be run onto. This doesn’t even take into account putting the right spin on the ball so that it sits there for Neymar to deal with.

The pass from Suarez. He had to control a long ball spanked at him in a way that didn’t make it possible for the defender to deal with it, see Messi in enough time and hit the ball hard enough to have it fall at Messi’s feet in a way that made it controllable.

It’s all fundamentally absurd when you really, really think about it. It’s also why I giggle at people who snark about “individual brilliance” as though it was something to be discounted as part of the team’s success, a flaw that is relied upon instead of marching sprites. Are you kidding me? We should be giddy with rapture that we live in a world where such magic is possible, and that we support a team whose players are capable of it. It isn’t a failing, but a celebration. We should put on a funny little hat, run around the room and dance a jig when stuff like that happens, because it’s rare. It might not seem so because we have players who can produce magic with such regularity, but goals such as that are special, special, moments in this beautiful game of ours.

In that moment, the time that it took 3 passes to fly through the air, the tie was over. Because Villarreal went from having to win 2-0, to needing to score 4 goals against this Barça. And it was at that point that our players became human.

Let’s say you have a job to do, something like loading 100 boxes into a truck in 9 hours. You hit a roll, you’re feeling great and those boxes are flying into the truck. You look up, two hours in and 91 boxes are already done. With 7 hours to go, what is going to happen? “Let’s go get drunk, boys! We have time!” Complacency is natural and human. I will guarantee you that every one of the 11 players on the pitch for Barça said, “Well, we can’t go get drunk, but we have 80 minutes to kill somehow.”

The task, at that point, became how to deliver a professional win. On Barça Twitter, the talking started about “playing like crap,” and “wake up,” and “sloppy, Villarreal is going to score.” They did, and so what? Jonathan Dos Santos will never score another goal like that in his playing career. If that is the kind of goal that it takes for Villarreal to score, it IS time to go get drunk.

People carped that they had chances, forgetting how easily our attackers found their way behind their back line. Chances went both ways. The unremarkable nature of that match was what was so lovely about it.

Before the match, there was talk that Barça needs to learn to put its foot on an opponent’s throat. That early goal did it.

When I started bicycle racing, I was like a colt unbound. I would win by 4, 6, 8 bike lengths. I got a coach, who came to watch me race for the first time. I raced, and won, and my coach said, “Stupid! Don’t waste energy. You only need to win by enough to be clear.” I always think about that when supporters castigate a team for being ahead by 2 goals, and wanting 6 goals. The tie is decided. Time to save energy for an away match in mere days, and other matches to come. Relaxation is allowed when the task is finished.

When Messi strolls about, people scream at those who wonder why, “He is resting within the match. He knows what he is doing.” So did the team yesterday. They, and Villarreal knew that Neymar’s goal ended that as a contest. Villarreal made a great show of it, but the fact that they started getting rough and petulant early made their views on the proceedings clear.

Some culers only relaxed in the aftermath of Pina’s deserved red card. I relaxed right after that Neymar goal and switched to “Don’t get anyone injured mode.” I figured Villarreal would win 2-1 going in, so the Dos Santos goal didn’t bother me. The Busquets injury did.

Irrespective of how you feel about the player, and there are some preternaturally stupid keyboard jockeys out there, polluting comments spaces with notions that Busquets somehow deserved that for being a cheat, that was a horror moment. It came, from as near as I can tell from watching and rewatching it, just one of those moments in a match in which something can go horribly wrong as two players go for the same ball. The good news is that Busquets will be out 4 weeks at the most, even as the bad news is that Barça is potentially without an essential player for the home Classic.

That bridge will be crossed when it comes, but for now, let’s just be pleased that Busquets didn’t suffer a more severe injury, and return to a match that wasn’t really much of one and the questions that it leaves us with.

Were naysayers silly?

I was one of them, and good question. I don’t think that people were counting on Messi on the right being so successful or the player cooperating with it so unreservedly. Nor was anyone figuring that Neymar would make the leap that he has this season, or that Suarez would come online so quickly. A team that gets a new coach, new philosophy and 8 new faces in the dressing room will usually need a season to acclimate, even more when a key part of the attack missed almost the entire first half of the season.

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It’s difficult to find even the most fervent culer who believed that the team would come together with the effectiveness to be competitive for a Treble. Few even believed that this team could beat Atleti. So what can I say? We were wrong. Silver isn’t in the cupboard yet, but this team has gone farther than I ever presumed it would.

Suarez is scoring. Now what?

This is the weird one. It usually takes a forward at Barça a year to bed in. Phil Schoen very astutely noted that everyone was expecting the Liverpool Suarez (the man) rather than the Uruguay Suarez (an active, integrative force that also scores goals). That difference is significant. If his scoring continues, it is a significant complexity for opponents. Before it was Neymar and Messi, and Suarez couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Even more significantly, most of his goals have been first-touch goals, which are usually unstoppable. Yikes.

For opponents, a confident striker moves differently than one who is having difficulties finishing. He seeks the spaces that vex defenses and becomes more of a threat. The sound that you just barely heard after Suarez scored yesterday, a pure striker’s goal, was dozens of clipboards being destroyed as coaches wondered, “NOW what?”

Injury situation?

A great many things go into keeping a top-flight football team injury free. Luck is part of it, as evinced by the Busquets situation yesterday. If he is slower, faster and same for the Villarreal player, nothing happens.

Fatigue plays a big part of it, which makes it high time to wonder if the rotation that was so vexing at the beginning of the season is paying dividends right now. Even Adriano is fit and ready for battle. There have been the usual minor prangs, but nothing significant. Which brings me to the last thing worth wondering about …

What of Enrique?

Anybody who isn’t already inclined to give him credit isn’t going to start now. But from my view, crises real or imaginary aside, it’s high time that his work with this team is acknowledged. No, the team isn’t scoring goals or winning matches in the “pure Barça way” that many crave. But I can’t be the only one surprised that the team is still in contention for the Treble.

Now, even mentioning that word is kinda absurd. It was a lightning bolt out of the blue when it happened in 08-09. Expecting it, or even discussing it with a straight face is kinda crazy. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen, even to a supporter still nursing a hangover from the last time that it happened. There are a great many twists and turns left in this season. Barça has a task that is as simple to say as it is impossible to consider: win out and win the Liga.

Barça has the most difficult remaining schedule in the Liga, including the Classic and Atleti away. The Sevilla and Espanyol matches are also away. And a pitfall can come in a surprising spot (Malaga at home … NOT La Real away).

The eventual fate of this team will be fun to watch. But its coach has it playing a style of football that is in many ways better equipped for success in context of the way the game is being played at present (packed, pressing midfields and high back lines). If that is blasphemy, so be it. To my view, that’s the case.

Holy crap, Busquets!

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This team will probably have to meet two big rivals in RM and City without a player who is, for many, almost as essential as Messi. What are the options?

— Mascherano: A very different kind of approach that would require a more 10-like role from Messi. The team overall would be less rhythmic, more risky and dynamic.

— Rakitic: An interesting option. He has the skills, and would probably result in a Xavi/Iniesta/Rakitic midfield that would necessitate Mascherano as that back line fireman.

— Rafinha: Don’t discount this possibility. His range, strength on the ball and ability to distribute makes this worth considering.

What isn’t worth considering is Sergi Samper, even as there have been mutterings of that sort in Barça Twitter. But the B team needs him, and Enrique will be loath to essay that kind of experimentation in the meat of the season. He’s a man who is, in effect, playing for his job with elections coming in the summer. The best way, after all, to make yourself fireproof is with a silver shield.

Posted in Analysis, Copa del Rey, Injuries, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts15 Comments

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