Archive | Thoughts

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”

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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.

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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.

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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.

neysua

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!

busq

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

Barcelona’s Midfield: Is it black and blue or is it gold and white?

Throughout a major part of this season I kept reading the phrase “no midfield”.

In football, this phrase is a huge assumption that usually leads to your team’s destruction against any opponent capable of controlling midfield.  More importantly, if a team didn’t have midfield it would definitely suffer terrible defeats. After all, a team can win a few matches with a bad midfield (honestly no team can, but play along) but a team can’t win a series of CONSECUTIVE away matches against very tough competition with no midfield. This phrase suddenly makes no sense.

However, to some, it does. And to others, this phrase represents a bad style of play. In other words, this phrase doesn’t represent Football Club Barcelona which happens to be a club with a glorious philosophy consisting mainly of a great attacking style of play.

What is a great style of play? What is a midfield that performs well? What is a midfield that wins matches? You’re suddenly suffering from a huge headache because of all the technical terms and the midfield related mess.

Even if you ask other football fans about Barcelona’s midfield they’ll say and I quote: “It’s not dominating the game. They’re not the same.”
But if you take this same midfield, put it in the team they support and then just watch the great performances that start to happen(like Barcelona’s performances nowadays) they would not even notice that their midfield “doesn’t exist” anymore.
It just makes you wonder. Is this really about “football” or is it about a memory of a recent Barcelona everyone (even non-Barca fans) is linked to?

This sentence represents everything you need to know about the birth of the “no midfield” phrase: “Barcelona’s midfield is not the same”. This happens to be modified into “this is not Barcelona” based on the topic being discussed.

Nothing related to Barcelona forces my attention more than a statement like “this is not Barcelona”.

A few years ago our great former coach, Pep Guardiola, implemented a style of play that was extremely dependent on midfield. The ball was being passed around in midfield until one of the midfielders found a chance for a through ball or anything similar. The amount of TIME the ball stayed in midfield with players surrounding it was enormous in every match. This is not exactly the perfect description but it truly was magical. This was labeled as “Barcelona’s style of play” and the memory of it all lasts until today.

The keyword here is memory, though.

Since we’re speaking of memories let us go back to the 2005-2006 period. We had a style of play back then too. It was also known as “Barcelona’s style of play” which is pretty ironic as it had nothing to do with Pep’s team. Edmilson was not even close to Busquets in any way. Xavi hadn’t hit his best form yet and Iniesta was young. Other midfielders like Deco were playing and they didn’t exactly play the same way Xavi or Iniesta do. Actually, that 2006 midfield had nothing to do with Barcelona’s most recent famous midfield.

The ball was actually forced onto Ronaldinho’s side as much as possible so that he could create chances. Barcelona even took every chance to counterattack and did not exactly plan to slow down the rhythm even if their style of play was full of flair and ‘sexy’ passing entertainment.

Again, this could all be proven with videos of matches in 2005 or 2006. But for stat lovers, this could be proven by the number of chances Ronaldinho used to create. On paper, Ronaldinho was in front of 3 midfielders. In other words, he was labeled as a forward the entire time. Yet, he also created most chances for Samuel Eto’o and others. Ronaldinho even went back to midfield to collect the ball himself and start something out of nothing. Does this remind you of anyone?

That specific Barcelona team was very entertaining and successful. I did not have great access to articles back then to read the evaluations of this team but I don’t remember hearing the phrases “this is not Barcelona” or “this is not Barcelona’s style of play”. Why? Simply because there was no recent memory of how Barcelona “should be”. In fact, Barcelona was praised for having a great style of play taking into consideration that Ronaldinho’s individual brilliance played a huge part in it all. Finally, there was nothing wrong with that.

Now, 9 years later, we’re in 2015 and the world of football keeps wondering: what is Barcelona’s style of play? I try to stay away from answering this question because my knowledge of what previous coaches did for this team is insignificant. But what I do know is that Barcelona’s style of play has always been about attacking football and creating as much chances as possible.

I do not really care who creates chances between our midfielders and forwards because these variables change a lot in a game of football. One day you’ll witness a match in which a midfielder causes a striker’s success (Rakitic-Suarez and other examples). Another day you’ll find your forward creating chances for your other forwards. The only thing that matters is that the chances are created.

It is interesting when people say “Barcelona’s midfield doesn’t exist and they have to depend on their forwards to create chances and score”. Let’s take a look at European and world champions Real Madrid. Cristiano Ronaldo was leading the assist records a few weeks ago. Karim Benzema, who happens to be one of Real Madrid’s most crucial players, is a forward who is also a great playmaker.

What about Lucho’s current team?

What is visible from Barcelona’s “invisible” midfield *wink* is that the ball stays much less TIME in the area between the midfield line and the final third than it did during Pep’s era. The ball is immediately moved to the forwards who happen to be extremely talented and basically know how to do their own thing. This caused confusion and riot among Barcelona fans because this is not “how we operated”.

Suddenly the use of past tense is more intriguing than ever. Some clocks started ticking in 2009. Other clocks started ticking earlier.

One has the right to prefer one style of play to another. However, a phrase like “no midfield” goes beyond just Barcelona. It crushes everything football is based on to begin with. How can a club win without midfield? Forget about winning. How can a team play a few set of passes without a good midfield?
What is even the true definition of midfield? Did we, as Barcelona fans, create our own perfect image of what a midfield should be while completely disregarding reality and how much the game changes with respect to the type of players available?

So many questions I don’t have an answer for. However, there is one question I can answer: Do we have a midfield? For me, the answer is definitely yes.

As for the color of the dress, I have no clue.

Posted in Thoughts53 Comments

What’s our hurry, aka “What does a “Barça midfielder” look like?”

Harold Miner.

Now only the most die-hard fan of American basketball will remember that name. He blasted into the National Basketball Association carrying the nickname “Baby Jordan,” after the already-iconic Michael Jordan.

His NBA career lasted 4 years.

A comment in the last thread noted that Ivan Rakitic, for the commenter, has for the past two matches “looked like a Barça midfielder.” Isco is the “heir apparent” to Andres Iniesta, and we know this because there are many articles that tell us he is. Marc Bartra is like unto Puyol, and Thiago Alcantara would have been the next Xavi, had that mean ol’ board not sold him for a few shiny trinkets and a friendly or something.

Standards are a fascinating thing. The Xavi comparisons for Rakitic were cringe-worthy for so many reasons, mostly having to do with athlete iconography. Returning to the hoops analogy, the reason there is, can not and will never be another Michael Jordan (sorry, Mr. James, or do you prefer King?) is because the truly amazing athlete doesn’t come along that often. When one does, it is a stupefying amalgam of talent, drive, durability and luck. Those players are coachable, usually mean in an unrelenting way and would run over their own mothers to get to that next level.

Sebastian Vettel might win as many F1 drivers championships as Michael Schumacher, but will never be the “next Schumacher.” Football has and will bring us many “next Messi,” but does anyone honestly think such a thing will happen in any of our lifetimes? Watch the player, and answer that question. Does the fact that there is a “next Messi” more often than there is a “next Ronaldo” mean anything?

So what of the notion that an athlete becomes more valid if he is defined by an existing template or parameter? Messi and Ronaldo are two very different players. You can’t compare them, making efforts to define which is “best” doomed to adolescent bench racing. Iniesta simply is. Why the need to replace him? When the one that we have goes, let him go. Next Xavi, next Puyol, next whatever. Hell, there’s already a next Neymar even though the current Neymar is still developing into something. The Barça teams of the recent past weren’t great because of any sort of magic. They were great because they had a group of iconic players working at something close to their prime.

We snarl at the board for letting opportunities go, for not building the team in a way commensurate with the designs on excellence that we all think the Barça legacy deserves. But how, exactly, is that supposed to happen? What goes on when Puyol leaves? How do you replace a Xavi? He isn’t some aging athlete, clinging to faded glory like a life raft. He’s still one of the best midfielders in the game on his day. If he were that easy to replace, he would have been.

It’s taken Barça how many years to find an attacking trio something like the equal of Messi/Eto’o/Henry? Great teams are irreplacable. If greatness was that easy, it would happen more often. So it is with players and notions of conforming to some sort of template.

Standards are an odd thing. The Rakitic looking like a Barça midfielder statement intrigues because of the curiosity sparked by that idea. Is it an idea or a person? Does that mean Xavi? Does that mean a mixture of passing and vision? What does a Barça midfielder look like? Deco? Guardiola? Keita? Iniesta? Xavi? What are the attributes of this being? Balance, vision, passing skill, that remarkable gift to almost be able to see into the future, know what to do with the ball and exactly how to do it.

Is that a Barça midfielder of necessity, or just an excellent midfielder. After all, that description could encompass Modric, Isco, Alonso, Kroos, Scholes, Pirlo.

The shorthand that athletics uses to define can also limit. Isco isn’t the next Iniesta. Does the nomenclature make an implication by association? Yep. Like it or not, it does. And that association makes it difficult for a player to meet that standard. Even Iniesta can’t meet his own standard. How is another player supposed to?

Our game isn’t just played with speed. It’s also evaluated with speed. The age of social media and the race to be the first with an online opinion makes that speed like something even space ships can barely keep pace with. Crises come and go, player careers spark into life and then ebb in mere weeks. Just as quickly as media outlets and supporters build them up, these things are torn down. RM is the best team ever, like Guardiola’s sides. Now they’re in crisis. Now they’re back. Whoops! Hang on.

Barça is a mess. Wait, the team is … nope. Crisis! Hang on … 11 in a row. Crisis over. Nope. Lost to Malaga. Crisis is back.

That same race extends to players. As a music journalist in my day job, I always caution my writers not to use another band to describe the sound of a band. “This latest song is like Modest Mouse meets Deadmaus.” Well, what the hell does that mean? Even if you use a band that you know to be part of the average person’s lexicon, “This track reminds me of if the Beatles had written a song for Michael Jackson,” what does that mean, exactly?

So even as we understand a phrase such as Raktic is looking like a Barça midfielder, what does it mean? Can Rakitic look like a talented midfielder who is starting to develop a rapport with his teammates as his role becomes more clearly defined? That’s a mouthful, but sure. Is he a prototypical attacking midfielder? You betcha? A bargain at 18m because of the skill set that he brings to the position? Absolutely.

Let him be. Sergi Samper probably doesn’t want to look at newspapers these days. Xavi, Guardiola, blabla, etc, etc. Lord today. We have all watched him play, and see an unusually talented midfielder with grace and balance, an eye for the right pass and when to make it. He reads the game beautifully, and is still developing. So there he is. Eric Bailly had a standout match for Villarreal in defense today, and his name is already coming up in statements such as, “I would take him over Musacchio, or (insert defender name here)”

What this world we all frolic in needs, it seems, is calm. Things are what they are. After we have had a wonderful boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, pet, etc, do all subsequent ones become defined by that one? Can you imagine a guy saying to a woman he’s dating, “I’m pretty sure you’re the next Babette, but I will need more time to figure that out.” Bonkers, right?

Just asking.

Posted in Messi, Neymar, Supposition, Thoughts10 Comments

Granada 1, Barça 3, aka “Change is good”

raksua

“Why aren’t people happy with your team?”

It’s an interesting query that I had to deal with the other day on Champions League day, which is pretty the only time that a Prem-centric universe pays attention to those little guys from Spain. It was a struggle to come to grips with the answer, but finally came the distillation: the team is winning, but it isn’t winning in the right way.

What makes the above summary even more interesting is comparing the away match at Granada this year to last. Barça lost away to Granada last season, as it pranged the ball around in a half-assed tribute to a Way that used to be, patient midfield play in the form of a stylistic white flag from its then-coach, Gerardo Martino.

This year, Barça won off of the strength of three goals rooted in a dynamic brand of football. Yes, the passes came from a midfielder, but rather than the possession-based probing, the waiting for an opening and keeping the ball until one came, the pass reacted to the run of a dynamic forward, and struck.

WhoScored.com had Messi as MOTM, a selection that was as hilarious as it was myopic. Rakitic was MOTM in a walk for this watcher as he played a superb, dominant, all-pitch match. He was involved in all three goals as well as defense and possession, he was brilliant along with Suarez, even as the team wasn’t. Even more interesting is his midfielder display at a time when again, some observers of the team are suggesting that Enrique isn’t doing things in the right way.

Sergio Busquets had something very insightful to say on the matter, in a recent Guardian interview with Sid Lowe:

“ … at first under Guardiola, teams didn’t give us so much respect; they played openly. Now 95% of them wait, shut down, and counter-attack. It’s more difficult to play one-touch [so the new style] is partly a reaction to other teams. It’s a mix now. Team-mates are not as close to me, which has advantages and disadvantages. There’s more space and a lot more counter-attacks. We have players that can change the game. Messi, Neymar, Suárez … ”

Do you perform the same task in the same way irrespective of the personnel in place? Farmers don’t hitch carts to thoroughbreds. They have plowhorses for that. Change, and adaptability to change in a footballing world that reveres the past is something worth considering. The game respects the views of past greats on a game that they only see in the stands or on television. And people listen, rather than saying “But things are different now.” This is in part because there’s really no way to catch them out, but also because people want the past.

Just as old people want to be young again, culers cherish the days of the Capering Sprites and the lovely midfield triangles, elegant dissections of mostly willing opponents. It was only when those opponents decided to rise up against the oppression that complexities arose, and coaches took a shot at attempting to solve them. Tito Vilanova opened up the attack to make the game more vertical, a revolution that was interrupted by his illness.

Tata Martino came in and cranked the volume on verticalidad, a move that got him little more than scorn that reached its hilarious, absurd culmination in a 4-0 pasting of Rayo that was “bad” because the team lost the possession stats. And Martino, chastened, backed off the revolution that saw Barça roar into the break a record-setting side, and went back to plunking the ball around midfield against opponents who probably couldn’t believe their luck.

Luis Enrique came in, and didn’t give a damn what anyone said. He had a notion, wanted to not only build a Barça that was adaptable, but also build a Barça suited to the strengths of its attackers. He ignored the dogmatic ruckus raised by those who cherish the midfield elegance of bygone days because like Busquets, Enrique understands that the game has changed, that opponents are no longer willing to stand around and marvel at Xavi and Iniesta as they make curlicues. And even if they were, Xavi and Iniesta can’t make those curlicues any longer. They can no longer meet their own sepia-toned standard as time does what it does. But even beyond that, opponents force an adaptation that a team would be foolish not to undertake. It isn’t wrong to bang a ball to Neymar and let him do his thing. It’s just a different way of responding to a stimulus.

neymar

There were a few Xavi comparisons made to the Rakitic performance today on social media, comparisons that I desperately wish hadn’t been made, because Xavi isn’t the point. Xavi is a brilliant player and a true Barça legend. But he isn’t and shouldn’t be a reference because he is, like he and Capering Sprites, a wonderful one-off that culers should blow the dust off of and unveil to remind people of a more beautiful, stylistic time.

Change is always necessary in response to a stimulus, and resistance to it is illogical. Many scoffed at Enrique for adapting to opponents, suggesting that “Barça has its style, and people should adapt to us.” Opponent after opponent did, and that was the problem. Adding to that is that at this point in time, Barça has the best, most dynamic attack in world football. To misuse that attack in service of a Way would be absurd and frankly, silly.

Look at today’s first goal. Alba banged a lovely, long pass for Suarez to run onto. Suarez just banged the ball into the box, something that I wish our attackers would do more often, a speculative spear of a lash at the ball that essentially said, “Something cool could happen here.” In the ensuing consternation, a defender made the wrong play on the ball and Rakitic slammed it home. A long pass and a cross.

The second goal was even “worse,” as Raktic again worked a give-and-go with Suarez that culminated in a lobbed ball over the top for Suarez to run onto. Then he finished, as the Footy Gods wept.

Speed, pace, versatility and dynamism are never, ever bad things, even at the expense of misguided notions of identity. What did people think of the long runs and dynamic passes over distance of Ronaldinho, or the long passes out into space for Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o to run onto? What did they make of Guardiola’s defenders, banging long, attack-starting passes out of the back? It’s worth wondering again. The short, triangle-based passing game was every bit as much a reaction to a stimulus as the way that Barça plays now is. An old person’s life isn’t “wrong” because they aren’t 25 again.

Granada, at home, came out ready to fight. Ray Hudson described it as an alley fight, which was very apt. They pushed, poked, charged, fouled and tried to make life as difficult as possible for a team that was coming off a high-energy midweek display against a top-quality European opponent. It was a team that Granada suspected wouldn’t be at its best, and it wasn’t.

messi

As intricate and lovely as the system of the recent past was, complexities arose when the team wasn’t functioning at its best, as the interrelated parts didn’t mesh. At Granada today, really only Rakitic and Suarez were standouts. Xavi was invisible and most ineffective because this wasn’t his kind of match. That was the opponent’s fault, rather than anything having to do with anything that Enrique did. Messi was off. Neymar was dynamic, but not as effective as he has been in the past. And still, Barça won.

That Barça won today in that very different way was no more “wrong” than when the team Barça defeated Atleti by, in essence, playing without a midfield. These situations are just part of the game, which is different from day to day, match to match, minute to minute. Adapt or die. It has been noted before that Barça is less secure and more dangerous this season. There is something about having the ball all the time that reassures. Even if they won’t let us score, at least they won’t score.

But it’s really a question of method vs results. The bottom line for many is that a successful team is objectively doing things the right way. It is only in the subjective realm that things such as not playing the right way enters the picture. The challenge is in defining that right way, applying a model or template to the way that a set of athletes goes about its business. That’s a challenge, because a team and its coaches are always going to adapt. The triangles came about because of a personnel change. Messi as false 9 came about because of personnel change. If a team could keep on winning by playing the exact same way all time, why wouldn’t it?

At what point is the system flawed because of what it is, rather than the people tasked with executing it. And what is the sin in changing that system to adapt and potentially triumph over a new set of demands.

That, of course, depends on who you ask. Granada for example, isn’t all all pleased with the Barça adaptation.

pedro

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts26 Comments

The best league ever, and the failings of a GOAT

None of it matters.

Messi was absent from the UEFA Team of the Week, but Ronaldo was in there. So what.

Some don’t think that Messi is better than Ronaldo. So what.

The Premiership is called by many “best league in the world.” So what.

At the end of a remarkable week of football, in which Premiership teams dropped like flies in a firestorm, comes the blizzard of analysis pieces. “If it’s the best league in the world, what happened?”

The answers are simple and obvious, really. The running and industry that makes for excellent television as people sit down, ooh and aah as they watch a giant, high-def screen and tackles go flying in. The reason that Prem sides used to be better in Europe is that they had managers who understood that you have to play different ways when you go to Europe, rather than suffuse your side with the institutional arrogance attendant to being “best in the world.” Chelsea will go farther in Europe because its manager understands that a team has to play different ways in the league, as well as in Europe. It also has to play differently in the first leg at home, vs the second leg away, or vice versa.

Only a fool would give Barça the space that City allowed in that first half, and Pellegrini isn’t a fool. Is he a manager who believes in his side, to the extent of fully believing that they are equals to one of the best football clubs in the world? Yup. But that’s naïve, rather than foolish. Arsenal didn’t think that Monaco had a chance against them, and played like it. But just because Monaco is in Ligue 1 doesn’t mean they are terrible. It just means that they are in a league with a different set of requirements and standards of excellence.

Arsenal might still turn that tie, just as City might. The broader question, as people snuffle and snort about the Prem’s status, hot on the heels of a giant TV contract, is what does it matter? The Premiership exists in a vacuum. It isn’t the “best league in the world” because of any status bestowed by anyone. It’s the “best league in the world” because people became convinced that such a thing is true. You say it enough times and it becomes so. But if people already know that the Prem isn’t the best league in the world, why the surprise when its clubs get bounced from Europe? Do Prem neutrals find the “best league in the world” stuff just as seductive as Prem devotees?

If this wasn’t the case, the hand-wringing would be largely absent, replaced by a much simpler, “Duh.” Yes, we all like to pick on the rich kid, but the Prem got that status by understanding how to put on a show, marketing that league and not being run by jackasses. The language is also English. Yes, we know that given the dominance of foreigners in the Prem, language is a distinction lost to logic, but people don’t think that closely about the game. “It’s English. I speak English.” And the influential U.S. market becomes a monolingual slam dunk.

The Prem doesn’t have to be the best, people just have to think that it is, and the myopia will build. In many ways it’s like Formula One, a sport whose press is predominantly English, and whose roots are felt by many to be, even as the sport is one of the most truly international at every level.

A story came out Friday about the organizers of the British Grand Prix, which is customarily held at Silverstone, wondering what kind of championship F1 would be without Silverstone. There again, it’s a peculiar kind of myopia that comes from a status bestowed by tenure. F1 did just fine without Spa (Belgium). Why would it somehow be devalued because of the absence of Silverstone? It wouldn’t, any more than the Prem will be devalued because its teams are absent from the European stage.

The Prem is, in the U.S., on a major network in NBC. That means that any, all and everyone can see it. You don’t need cable, or a special sports tier as you do with La Liga. You can just turn on the TV, and there it is, available to people who might not even care about football. “Hey, looka those little guys go!” The matches are broadcast in crystalline HD, and miked in a way that makes “You’ll Never Walk Alone” positively spine-tingling. Meanwhile in La Liga you get vague echoes of what might be the sound of fans in a stadium.

A colleague who doesn’t give two craps about football suddenly stated talking to me about the Prem last season, when matches started being broadcast on NBC. You want marketing? That is marketing. People can snuffle all they like about the technical prowess of Spain, or the packed stadiums and screaming supporters of the Bayernsliga. Nobody cares because they can’t SEE it. It’s the same reason nobody cares about Europe and its effect on the Premiership. Liverpool won’t stop being a storied club because it got bounced out of the Europa League. Arsenal won’t stop being Arsenal because it lost to a Monaco side who will next have to have tryouts among its supporters to find a pair of CBs to rub together.

It doesn’t matter, because reality is what people believe.

The penalty of Messi

In the week’s Champions League football, Ronaldo scored a goal and Messi missed a penalty. Is making the Team of the Week as simple as that? Yep. Supporters crow about the goals that Messi scores. When someone hears that Messi dominated a match, the first question is “How many goals did he score?” “None.” “Then how did he dominate?” Goals are the currency that define greatness. It is in many ways hypocritical to crow about Messi becoming the all-time leading scorer, breaking this or that scoring record then snarl because the Ballon d’Or has been reduced to a goal scoring competition. He isn’t just goals, but the timing of the goals, the creation of the goals, all the stuff that he does in between the goals. Goals captivate, goals are the thing. So it makes sense that the most enduring image from the City match was Messi laying on his face, trying to burrow into the Etihad pitch. Why? He missed a penalty.

The two questions lingering are did that missed PK devalue the rest of his match to a degree sufficient to have him NOT make Team of the Week, and should we care? No, and no.

On an Internet where people can’t even suss whether a dress is black and blue or white and gold, how in hell are they going to parse whether a player is in fact GOAT. Many of them can barely find a picture of a goat. But the Internet has made affirmation more important than ever. It isn’t that we believe, it’s that we want others to believe. We argue, post statistics, scoff and snark. But at the end of it all, we are trying to convince someone that what we believe is “correct.” The Premiership has convinced people that it is the best league in the world, to the tune of a 5bn+ television package. That’s some convincing.

But as long as his supporters believe that Messi is the best, none of the rest of it matters. He missed a penalty that would have put the tie out of reach for City. Does that change anything? Depends on who you ask. If you believe that it does, it does. If you believe that it doesn’t then it doesn’t. The rest is a waste of bandwidth.

What’s interesting is the stat that of the 10 penalties Messi has taken after the 85th minute, he has missed half of them. Is a 50% conversion rate for penalties in the part of a match that makes converted ones potentially the most devastating an acceptable conversion rate for a player of Messi’s caliber? Here’s another question: what if Enrique suggested that Suarez start taking penalties?

When I raised that question on Twitter, the variety of responses was interesting. Some said “He’s the best, why would anyone else take them?” “It would be an insult.” But would it be? If Messi, as rumor has it, doesn’t like taking them, what’s the harm? Would it goad Messi into improving that aspect of his game? Would it pad Suarez’s goal totals now that Barca is getting penalties thanks to its altered playing style?

But there is danger afoot, Dr. Watson! A crisis even, if certain media critters are to tickle our credibility bones. “Penalties are as much mine as my PlayStation, dammit. Rip them from my sleeve-covered digits at your own peril, Asturian Man.”

The other complexity of course is how in the brimstone-scented hell can the Best Player Alive ™, the dude who bangs in massive goals at key times for his club like he’s booting a stray ball off the practice pitch, not also be an infallible demon from the spot? His lessers, the likes of Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic, who blasts rockets into various spots of the goal like he’s playing foot darts, step to the spot and you just look away, anticipating the partisan roar as a keeper dives for nothing. What the hell, Messi?

Is it as simple as a previously mentioned lack of perfection? That if he did all that AND banged the hell out of penalties, it just wouldn’t be fair. And what if he just needs something to work on? Michael Jordan wasn’t always automatic from the free throw line. Work, work and more work bred the player who, late in a basketball game, strolled to the free throw line, looked at an opponent who had been trash talking and said “This one’s for you, baby.” Jordan then closed his eyes and … swish. All net.

Are penalties a question of work, of honing that instinct just like a free throw? No, the free throw doesn’t have a multi-limbed colossus striving to outguess you, to leap to his feet in the aftermath and scream, “Yo gimme just got got, G! Hooooraw!” How is it that a player who successfully manages the audacious with a frequency that renders his merely exceptional goals mundane, pop a shot anywhere a keeper can get to it. Top corner? Sure. Corkscrew ball that curls off through the parking lot, comes in the back entrance and plops into the net? Okay. Off the post and in? Snore, but why not?

And yet, he misses. He’s missed them in friendlies, missed them with a Liga match on the line, missed them against Chelsea in Champions League. Why? Who knows. A penalty kick has never been automatic, never a guaranteed goal. But the percentage with which they are converted by mortal players hovers somewhere in the stratosphere. What’s the deal with the man who might truly go down in history as the best who ever played, for those who crave such a limiting definition.

And how wrong is someone who suggests that maybe, just maybe, a lesser being might be better equipped to grab a gimme.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts29 Comments

Manchester City 1, Barça 2, aka “Finding the divine in the everyday”

miss

The ending was perfect.

In many ways seeing Messi laying there on the Etihad pitch raging at his penalty miss, prone in the aftermath of a putback attempt, was a perfect ending to this wonderful match. Because art shouldn’t be perfect. Art, like life, should contain flaws, and Barça is life. Messy, violent, sublime life that treats us to highs and lows, spits in our faces at inopportune times and presents us with joy sufficient to almost make our hearts burst.

And like art, its artisans paint with brightly colored boots for brushes, making the most delicate hatching marks across a green canvas as they seek to create simultaneous beauty as they sow destruction.

In the wake of a loss to Malaga, a casino visit and speculation about the state of a relationship between a coach and his star player, Barça set up to face Manchester City, a team that culers suspected might not be good enough but like that thing you know you want and will probably get, but don’t want to count on it because you might jinx it, few culers really wanted to confess to being flush with confidence at the outset of this repeat matchup of last season’s Champions League.

Some of the uncertainty was because of the Malaga tie, a loss in which the team’s coach discussed his tactics after the match as if they were some sort of formula rather than one of those footballing bolts out of the blue. “But Malaga isn’t even a Champions League side,” some said as those slivers of doubt crept in.

And then, for 45 magnificent minutes, Barça delivered a display of footballing divinity that had neutrals shaking their heads in wonderment. It was a delightful team performance that was helped by some naivete on the part of City and its coach, just as Malaga was helped on the weekend by a lot of flatness from Barça. These things happen. Busquets could sip tea as he decided what perfect pass to play. Alba was everywhere. Suarez scored a pair of goals, classic striker’s goals, and should have had a third. Rakitic was every bit the player he was at Sevilla, unleashed in a system that played to his strengths and an opponent who allowed such a thing to transpire.

Pique was magnificent, Ter Stegen coolly professional, But even in the face of all that beauty, only a fool wouldn’t admit that this was Messi’s match. His fingerprints were over both goals, and he had defensive stats that would put a defender to shame. He pranced and capered, nutmegged and passed, controlled and dominated. It was a night where he seemed unfettered by mortal constraints as City players tried everything to contain him only to find Messi, somehow, almost magically, on the other side of a tackle attempt as even efforts to foul him failed.

The first goal came from a lobbed pass into the box that found Kompany unprepared, perhaps thinking that the attempt would be absurd. The ball bounced around and fell onto a patch of open pitch, seeming to stop there as if to ask the question, “Who wants this?” Suarez stopped, pounced and it was 0-1. Lucky bounce, sure. Excellent movement, absolutely. But the perfection of that pass smacked of divinity. You don’t have to be a fan of Messi to be able to appreciate how extraordinary the things are that he does, things that make his ordinary days make liars out of those who defend him no matter what.

For the second goal, Rakitic took a pass and was instantly confronted by a couple of City defenders. With discretion being the better part of valor he passed the ball to Messi, who doesn’t seem to have notions of what can or can’t be done. Five defenders confronted him as he moved through them almost like a video game, as some kid with a joystick said “Cool! The cheat code!” Then he slid a pass to Alba, who assisted Suarez.

sua

Say that Messi didn’t have a good match because he was bottled up by defenders, then put the Vine of today’s moment on repeat and tell me again how a defense can stop Messi when he doesn’t want to be stopped. His nutmeg of David Silva was pure evil, this display coming in the wake of a written piece by Paul Scholes in which he describes how impossible it is to play against Lionel Messi, who essentially brought that piece to life.

After the match people rushed to the defense and praise of Messi as they always do almost no matter how he plays, like the obligatory standing ovation that greets a symphony orchestra by a crowd that doesn’t really know how to parse what they saw so it’s easier to leap to their feet and scream “Bravo!”

But Messi doesn’t need defending. Messi doesn’t need praise. Especially not after this match. If you can watch that player have that match, then sit and suggest that he isn’t extraordinary, it doesn’t matter how much anyone says, what kind of case is made for him. You either see it, or you don’t. And if you don’t see it, how can anyone really explain it to you?

Yet even after all that, the mistake would be to reduce this match to Messi, for other Barça players were also immense, even if not otherworldly. Suarez, seemingly revved up by the English air, was everywhere, from scoring to donkey work, tracking back and winning balls. Pique made a case for his return to the defensive elite, making those times when he was being dismissed as a poker-playing playboy with a pop star wife seem such a distant memory.

And Enrique got his tactics right as much as Pellegrini got his wrong as his attackers came running at Barça as if they believed that “defensive frailty” business. That Barça will make an error or two is a given, and a sharp opponent will need to capitalize on every one of them. But those brain lapses are different from the kind of frailty that too many supporters and pundits seem to take for granted. But City didn’t just leave space. Barça took it with a display of pretty passing and movement that called to mind another era, the kind of football that Enrique detractors snarled about this team not being able to play, forgetting that Enrique has struggled and rotated and coached to build a team that can play in many different ways to beat an opponent.

enrique

Yes, history will ask whether Barça was guilty of hubris as they came out for the second half a diminished side that seemed almost surprised that City would evince the quality and effort that makes them a Premiership contender. They slowly worked their way back into the match, eventually pulling a goal back thanks to a comedy of errors as it seemed that every Barça defender had a chance to clear a ball that eventually fell to Aguero, who made no mistake as he slotted home. People gasped and suddenly paranoid culers began to mutter that perhaps, just perhaps, a 2-2 seemed more likely than a 1-3 as doubt reminded us of his residency, like that obnoxious relative who just won’t leave your guest room.

But to fret and worry and suddenly bay at the heavens would be to ignore the reality that City wasn’t in this match. The first could have ended 0-4 or 5, and only Joe Hart kept his team in the match with three excellent moments: two against Messi and one against Suarez. And yes, this tie could have, and probably should have been over, but the reality is that whether 0-2 or 1-2, away goals mean that City will still have to score twice at the Camp Nou while not conceding. I’m no oddsmaker but the possibility of that, given the necessity of the all-out kind of attack such a feat will require, strains credulity.

It’s easy to understand the doubt that creeps in. This team just lost to Malaga. Yes, it’s the same team that won 11 straight, beat Atleti three times and was on a roll, but disaster is just around the corner. We lost to Malaga! The beauty of football is that each and every match is a new beginning. A relegation candidate has a chance to beat the immense, talent-packed, monied colossus, just as an extraordinary footballing side has the potential to be, for a match or two, a week or two, a magical run of matches or few, better than its supporters expect it to be, better than the culer-described mess that it demands to be.

We are graced with one of the best football teams in the world. You need look no farther than the disappointment in a 1-2 result that wasn’t as close as the score indicated to understand that. Malaga returned home, hailed as conquering heroes. That win made their season. The win for Barça today somehow wasn’t enough. They got a goal, we should have scored more.

And yet for me, the result was almost beside the point. For a half, Barça achieved footballing divinity, making the game look easy against an opponent — a powerful, monied opponent boasting gobs of talent — who was doing everything in its power to make that game as difficult as possible. We seek beauty and elegance, seek those moments that lift us up and promise something extraordinary. It is often said that culers would rather lose with beauty than win ugly. Yet winning with moments of breathtaking beauty somehow leaves a supporter base wanting more, demanding more, somehow feeling cheated.

Ask me how I know Barça is better than even its supporters are willing to admit, and I will point to that feeling. It should have been more. That it wasn’t more isn’t the point. It’s the expectation that defines the feeling, and the beauty that makes it all so wonderful.

piqbsq

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Messi, Thoughts59 Comments

Can there be a wrong opinion, aka “To your battle stations!”

This post began life as a City Champions League preview, but got derailed by something fascinating that was overheard during an early-morning workout. So to start, here’s something to work out, kinda like a math equation:

RM beat Barça
Atleti beat RM
Barça beat Atleti
Levante beat Malaga
Barça beat Levante
Malaga beat Barça

In that crazy quilt of results, it’s only the truly bonkers who can endeavor to suss any sort of tendency or speculative notion, right? Yet people do, and are. We see it from culers in social media, and from media critters, things such as “City handed boost by Barca stumble,” or “Hmph! Barça really isn’t better than Malaga.”

The complexity with all of this is that as much as those with opposing views want to snuffle and snort, they can’t, for the simple reason that there is no such thing as a wrong opinion. Now, even as we acknowledge that nature of that simple view as the sword that sunders and renders irrelevant all Internet debate, it’s worth having a closer look.

Now, back to that workout. Some studio hosts on a radio show on Sirius (a satellite station) were debating whether an opinion can ever be wrong, no matter how absurd. One person used an example of someone contending that “Michael Jordan wasn’t very good.” The fascinating part of that was prima facie, it’s absurd, right? But as someone’s opinion, it is what it is.

“Ronaldo is better than Messi.” “Okay.”
“Messi is better than Ronaldo.” “Okay.”

“Okay” is always the correct answer because how else can you respond to a subjective assessment of a situation? There are metrics that can prove the point of both sides, and both sides will point to their preferred metric to prove that the other side is “wrong.” But there is no wrong, because it’s an opinion. So what do we debate when we discuss matches, players and tactics, should we, and what’s the point of it all? Debate.

Debate has a point, something to be gleaned from the discussion by two parties who are actually interested in what the other party has to say. That comprises about 0.000001% of Internet discourse, which is actually argument that can be reduced to the “Did so,” “Did not” battles of our childhood. As opposing sides age the contentions become more eloquent and are even buttressed with “facts,” but at their core it’s a simple set of contradictions.

Think about the last Internet debate you saw where at the end of it both parties said “Thanks, I learned something. I don’t fully agree with you, but I understand more clearly where you’re coming from.” Most go on and on and on, then end with “Let’s agree to disagree,” or accusations of stupidity, bias, etc.

We sit around and discuss eras, players, coaches, tactics and formations. I can lay out a laundry list of reasons why I believe Barça is going to advance in the tie vs Manchester City but they are all just opinions, so much hot air. A City supporter can lay out the same number of reasons why their team is going to advance. Two walls are erected and heads peer over the top, firing 140-character blasts over the parapet if on Twitter. Comments sections can get more interesting but also messier, because there is more time and space to argue. And sometimes the more we type, the more worked up we get. “I invested all that time in this comment. Let’s see someone refute THIS!”

The comments in this space are often really interesting. They bring knowledge, worldviews and opinions that are always worth listening to, for me. Yes, they sometimes get messy or personal, and I or another mod have to step in and get things back on the right track, but comments are useful and effective when properly used. Others have noted, and I agree, that this space is an anomaly in the Barca blogging world, something that should be worth appreciating. But every now and again, an argument breaks out.

The danger of arguments is that it becomes next to impossible to broaden a world or strengthen our own opinion by putting it to the test. At my office we have idea meetings, where ideas are vetted by colleagues. Good ones survive the proof stage. Bad ones are discarded. It’s the real test of “You are not your ideas,” because it’s easy for feelings to get hurt. But our staff writers and editors understand that at the core of it is a process that makes everyone and everything better. Poor ideas shouldn’t survive. Good ideas can be made better through debate, and good ideas can become great ideas. But as two people sit on opposite sides of the world, fingers poised over their keyboards or touchscreens, the unspoken tone is too often “Blablabla, I don’t care what the other person says except inasmuch as it gives me something to argue against.”

There is no real interest in the other side’s opinion. And because opinion can’t be wrong, should there be interest in the other side’s opinion? They are as right as anyone else, right down to the most seemingly absurd notions, because it’s an opinion.

Maybe, just maybe, there should be interest because there is something to be gleaned from an opposing view. As we trundle through this world, every day we should try to learn something new. Our capacity for learning is endless. Some days I learn new words or word usages. Other days I learn to think about a player or tactic in a different way. Every day, something is learned, even if you can’t directly point to that thing. My quest for knowledge makes me something of an anomaly, as well as something of a fool. I will engage anyone on social media because I am too naïve to understand that they don’t much care what I think in too many cases, that their point is to “win” an unwinnable, opinion-based argument. I’m getting better at cutting bait and agreeing to disagree, at assessing initial communications for a willingness to actually discuss something, but I still get it wrong from time to time.

Graham Hunter wrote a piece about the long pass under Guardiola and Enrique, and I had some quibbles with it that I brought up. He explained his view more clearly, and I responded that I understood, and withdrew my initial contention now that his notions were clearer. Was that the Internet version of a unicorn? More often what happens is that the other side will say, “Well, I still think you’re wrong, and here’s why … ” Or even worse, “You just love Guardiola.”

The other danger is the accusation that derails debate. Look at the question, “Have you stopped kicking your puppy yet?” There is no right way to answer, because the question presumes an answer. You can’t say “I never kicked my puppy,” because the question has already stipulated that you do. Silence is as damning an answer as a spluttering fume. Accusations derail any debate, like poison in a well.

In the previous thread, someone called me out for having something against Xavi and Iniesta and supporting Rakitic and Rafinha, based on little more than a question I raised. I withdrew, because where can that debate go? It isn’t worth continuing because of the pointlessness of any more words. Withdrawal is the sole option because with that assertion comes an elephant in the room. And no matter what is said after that, that elephant is sitting there, saying “Well, you’re just saying that because … ” It’s cheating in a way because an accusation can “win” any argument by removing the credibility of the opposing side.

Bias, lack of objectivity, blablabla, etc, etc. In a better world, we wouldn’t be wed to any of our ideas. We wouldn’t dismiss a Pedro appearance in a match because of the shot that he missed while ignoring the rest of his contribution. We wouldn’t say that Barca is doomed against City because they aren’t even as good as Malaga, any more than we would say Barca is going to beat City because Messi is the greatest. We would instead sit back, analyze what could happen and attempt, to the best of our ability, aided by spirited debate with supporters of both football clubs, come to some sort of supposition about a possibility. Then we would laugh among ourselves as the possibility did or didn’t come to pass.

I confess to being a debate nerd. I love the free exchange of ideas. Always have, and always will. When someone posted a link in the previous post to an article by Lucas Resende, the long knives came out. “He never has anything good to say about the club,” “Was he even alive when … ” etc. But that doesn’t matter, for me. What matters are the questions and the ideas raised in the link. Everything else poisons the discussion, and that’s the danger of the accusation way of dealing with a debate. It leaves no possibility of a response, because what is there to respond to.

“Have you stopped kicking your puppy yet?”

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Thoughts68 Comments

Understanding Pedro, aka “Achievement through effort”

pedro

Pedro Rodriguez Ledesma is an odd one.

Few players have been so liked by his coaches, yet so reviled by so many supporters while being misunderstood by those same supporters. Some of that is because Pedro defies traditional metrics, those objective evaluators of a player’s performance. He’s the kind of player who would require the creation of a new metric, probably called “Pain in the ass.”

Because that’s what Pedro is. A couple of nicknames have been born in this space for him, Pedro! and a more accurate one, Pedro Roadrunner. Because he just runs. It often seems that he doesn’t even quite know when, where or why he is running, only that he is, in his perpetual quest to affect the disposition of a contest involving a brightly colored, spherical object. In that particular way, Pedro is as pure as Messi, that simple, unrelenting object. Run. And then run some more.

The problem for Pedro is that for two consecutive years he notched more than 20 goals. As the arbiter of football goodness for an attacker, goals can be a millstone. They hung heavily around the necks of Thierry Henry and Alexis Sanchez, just as they now hang heavy around the heck of Pedro. Because people want goals, and don’t care where they come from. Once you score goals, you are a goalscorer. And when you don’t score those goals again, the thing becomes “return to form,” as in “scoring goals again.” Yet the thing about Pedro is that he was never about scoring goals, even while he was scoring them.

For Pedro, his goals came during the years before Barça was being figured out, as teams adjusted to the reality of an inexorable passing game. Things were still innocent, and Pedro had running room. As Barca marauded, pinging shots off keepers and into the box, Pedro was there to capitalize on any and all loose balls. There is no more Pedro like goal than the one he scored in the manita Classic. It’s a goal that comes from running, from wanting to be around the ball and executing when he gets there. Give Pedro an open shot, and he will get it on target.

As defenses reshaped their approaches against Barça, space disappeared. And as space disappeared Pedro, like most mortal attackers, saw his gaudy scoring totals drop. But the one thing he kept doing was running and working. In the recent match vs Levante, Pedro was in the Barça box, defending, then on the other end, almost forcing an error from the keeper. He was on the left and on the right, determined to influence the match through sheer omnipresence.

So it’s fascinating the comments in various forums and social media that greet his appearance, from “Barça is playing with 10,” to “Pedro? Why didn’t they sub in XXX instead?!”

And Pedro runs in, and has an effect that isn’t quantifiable but is so helpful to his teammates from Dani Alves to Busquets and Iniesta to Messi and Neymar. It isn’t just that he is always there, waiting to become a passing outlet, track back or help on the press. He also, unlike most forwards, doesn’t throw up his hands after making a number of runs and the ball doesn’t arrive, and stop making runs. He doesn’t complain, he doesn’t mutter about playing time or have his agent generate transfer rumors. The only transfer rumors that involve Pedro come from others, who wonder why he is still “settling” for being a sub at Barça when he could go to another team and become a starter.

Pedro doesn’t care.

In many ways, Pedro is the ultimate defensive sub. He helps the midfield press, rarely makes the wrong decision with the ball, prioritizing possession over anything, and can run with almost any attacker in the league. His name keeps coming up when attackers who could be converted to RB is under discussion, and Pedro has said in the past that he’d love to be more forward, but anything that will help him play more is welcome. But he’s a defender who can take a sliver of space, take a pass and convert it into a goal, as another way to think of Pedro.

Neymar tracks back, but not like an attacker dedicated to it. Messi doesn’t fully track back except in rare matches. Suarez has an excellent work rate, but they all pale in comparison to Pedro. He has scored 5 goals this season but is the only player of his kind on the roster. He became a star under Guardiola, and his role began to change under Vilanova as opponents began to adjust. Under Martino in what became a more static attack, Pedro wasn’t being used to his strengths, stuck out the wing where he had to beat defenders off the dribble, which isn’t his suit. And the “Pedro sucks” legend began.

It’s only now, with a more open, dynamic Barça that his value again surges to the fore, even as many supporters still define him by what he used to do rather than what he does. Will he stay in the colors? Good question. It’s a safe bet that no coach in his right mind would sell a player such as Pedro, because those types of players are invaluable. Might he raise his hand and want to leave? He’s 27, fast approaching the time where that jackrabbit quickness will begin to diminish. Is it time for a big fee and a big payday? Only time will tell, but you get the feeling that Pedro just loves being at Barca even if his role isn’t what it could be, loves running and loves doing exacty what he does, which is to affect matches by dint of sheer, unrelenting effort. And that ain’t bad.

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Supposition, Thoughts84 Comments

The art of the pass, aka “This one’s for kosby”

eibxav

Sometimes in a comments thread you see something that deserves to be a post. So it is with a comment from kosby:

Several amazing questions – I won’t be pretending to have answers to all of them. For me, there are two kinds of passes
1. straight to the feet/head of the receiver
2. through pass

For the first kind, almost all of the genius behind the pass comes from the one who passes the ball. The receiver just needs to be present at the spot. The person passing the ball “spots” the player and using whatever guile required passes him the ball.

For the second kind however, both the passer and the receiver need to be perfectly synchronized. This is genius at work, some consider it to be even more wondrous than dribbling ! For this, the receiver and the passer need a special connection, both need to be able to
– process the existence of a passing lane and
– the ball needs to arrive at the same point in space at the same time as the receiver does
Finding a passing lane in the midst of ten players looking to block the ball any which way, itself is a big deal. On top of that sending the ball in the right channel with the right speed at the right time takes genius. Which is why only a handful of players in any team will attempt through balls (another point why I think Barca’s squad is so awesome – Bartra who hardly gets to play these days, stole the ball from Levante and then played a delicious ball to Messi for our second goal the other night. Not a lot of teams can claim to have such talented players) And when you have 2 geniuses collaborate, they can instantly process a situation and a passing lane, a split second before the others. Mind you that’s only half the job done, after identifying the lane, you still need to be able to execute the pass. And that’s why we talk about allowing time for a player to settle into a team. That’s why when national teams play, the quality sometimes suffers – since the players haven’t played with each other as much. Possibly another reason why Spain did as well as they did, for as long, having borrowed most of its core from a single club who know each other.

“Xavi plays to the future” – one of my favorite quotes in football. When most mortals talk about passing, they talk about the next possible pass. Geniuses like Xavi/Busquets think about the pass that would lead to the next pass that would create a goal scoring chance. Its all about how you manipulate space. If you pass to someone such that they attract a defender to them, the defender just vacated an area of space that could be exploited by someone on your team. I cant explain this better since I myself am in awe of how its done.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts39 Comments

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