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Did this season, this Messi, begin with a simple look?

trophy

A look. A lot of things begin with a look. A friend had an Aussie named Jazz, and if another dog looked at Jazz and held eye contact, it was on.

An award-winning portrait captured Lionel Messi during the World Cup final ceremonies, looking at the championship Cup trophy. In his face you can see longing, a bit of anger and more than a bit of determination. Fast-forward to the current Barça season, when people who observed Messi early on, said that he was “connected.” It’s not all that difficult to wonder if a season as the ultimate team leader and undisputed best player in football was born from that moment of global failure.

As with the famed “Messi es un perro” article, like my friend’s Aussie, if you cross Messi, it’s on. Foul him, and you can expect a dribble. Attack Neymar, and watch him rush to his teammate’s defense. He is as likely to eviscerate you with a header pass as a mazy slalom solo goal, and he has mastered the diagonal rainbow to a rushing Jordi Alba or Neymar. Messi’s focus this season has been preternatural and complete. He’s an indispensable part of Barça, and an immense ingredient to the team’s success, even as you can and should take issue with those who lay it all at his feet.

Messi is disarming. You watch him score goals such as the one that he did against Athletic, and you can’t process it. He does things that ordinary players don’t even have the ability to consider. In thinking about Lionel Messi, when contemplating he and what he does, you have to think of the many great athletes who came before him, players who defined a game in ways that leave it forever changed. Those greats weren’t just great because of performance. They were great because their regard for boundaries was meaningless because their skill set gave them a different set of restrictions. When Tiger Woods hit some of the shots that he tried, in his prime. When Michael Jordan drove to the basket against the Lakers in the NBA championship, switched hands in mid-air to avoid the defense, then made the layup. Great players have a different set of tools.

When Messi was making the move that made Jerome Boateng fall over, or dancing around the Athletic defense as though they were stationary training pylons, he isn’t thinking, “I’m doing something great.” He’s thinking, “The goal is that way.”

In the wake of moments such as the Messi goal, people ask great players what they were thinking, what was the rationale for the move. Inevitably, those players are almost struck dumb and the world is amazed by the simplicity of the response. Jordan didn’t do that move for posterity, he did it because he had to score that basket and the first path was blocked. Messi took advantage of Boateng expecting him to go left. Woods had to get to the green in one stroke. It’s simple, when you think about it. “Well, this has to happen.” It’s just that the brains of great players work differently.

At an Indianapolis Formula One race I had the pleasure of watching Michael Schumacher, who had to run a series of laps at qualifying effort to consolidate a strategy. To watch him hit the same corner apex at the same spot, so flawlessly that a sheet piece of white paper would have been perfectly blackened by the end of that stint, was a marvel. A friend who races cars turned to me and said, after about the seventh or eighth lap, “That’s impossible.” The greats have extra stuff. They see their world differently. It isn’t that other players can’t see the passes or runs that come so naturally to Messi. They don’t even have the same kind of eyes.

Messi, therefore, dominates discussion in a way that is correct, with caveats. When Jose Mourinho waxed rhapsodic about Messi, saying that he is the eternal difference maker, the response to that is “Well, duh!” Having a player like that changes everything. Messi is like a nuclear deterrent, except the other nation has only conventional weapons. All you can do is hope that he isn’t all THAT interested in your destruction. You gaze carefully, cautiously at his visage as you shake hands pre-match, hoping that you don’t see Messi murderface. If you do, just turn around and walk back to the locker room, first asking the ref if you really have to go through the full 90 minutes.

His influence is so outsized, so astonishing that it’s easy to forget what Barça is like without Messi, in part because Messi always plays. Every match, every big match, every borderline meaningless match, Messi plays. He’s like a utility, really, a wonderful everyday service that you take for granted. Think about opening the tap and having fresh, clean, drinkable water come out. Are you KIDDING me? That’s Messi, an astounding thing that has become almost commonplace. It takes goals like the Athletic effort to make people remember. “Oh, yeah. He isn’t from this planet.” But his omnipresent brilliance can also tend to make people overrate him and underrate his team. Jose Mourinho said that Arsenal could win a Champions League with Messi, an assertion that is absurd even as you can agree with his belief that Messi is the ultimate difference maker. Plop Messi into that Arsenal XI and he’s still playing with players who aren’t at that absolute level.

In 2014, Messi tore his hamstring on 10 November in a 4-1 win over Betis. He returned to action on 8 January as a sub in a Copa match vs Getafe. During that period, Barça didn’t exactly suck. If you look at this season, the Messi-less XI would be Bravo, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Suarez, Neymar, Pedro. That team would beat most teams on the planet. What Messi does for a side is add a level of the capricious, the impossible, the pass or run that come out of nowhere to facilitate a goal scoring foray. He also freaks everyone the hell out. He gets the ball, and defenders just think, “!!!!!!!!!”

But as tantalizing as it is to think of Messi as essential, and credit Barça’s success to Messi, both worldviews are erroneous, assertions rooted in his omnipresence. It’s easy to say that Barça wouldn’t be in the Champions League final without Messi because the notion doesn’t enter the realm of the possible. He’s there. He’s always there. He had a hand in all the goals that built the insurmountable lead. It’s Messi, always Messi, a player whose durability and endurance is as amazing as his output.

People who coach him have the same problem that Phil Jackson had when he had Michael Jordan. “You have Jordan. Duh.” Then Jackson went to the Lakers, and it was “You have Kobe and Shaq. Duh.” There is no answer for the superstar, nor is there consideration for the difficulty of properly utilizing the superstar. Like Messi, Jordan wanted to play all the time. Pickup games, practice games, street ball, Jordan always wanted to play, and win. He got angry when subbed just as Messi does. And just like Messi, he was capable of taking over a game on both ends of the pitch. Defend, make the steal, lead the break, feed the guard, dunk the ball. And like Messi, when Jordan wasn’t there, during his baseball foray, the Bulls didn’t win, which proves that he is essential, right? Well, maybe.

Of Messi, Enrique said, “Messi is the best in the world, probably in history, but his environment is extremely beneficial for him.”

It’s easy to pooh-pooh that as a coach sticking up for himself and his team, both of which are buttressed by the best player in history. But it’s a fair ask to wonder how many defenders Messi would be running at if the forwards were Pedro and Munir instead of Neymar and Suarez.

Pedro plays on the left wing, like Neymar, but that’s where the similarities end. Munir moves constantly and intelligently, just like Suarez. That is where the similarities end. Pedro and/or Munir aren’t going to kill you by themselves, like Neymar or Suarez will if given a sliver of space. Because defenses have to account for their presence, Messi gets space, more space than when he was playing in a more tactically limited system, with Pedro and Sanchez. Teams reacted differently to the Neymar/Sanchez combo, the preferred duo when Messi was out because there wasn’t one man to key on. Sanchez thrived as did Neymar, because defenses relaxed. There was more playing space, and the goals still came. With the return of Messi the middle got congested again as opponents set up to stop him and only him, again as with Jordan, where Chicago Bulls opponents said, “If John Paxson and Scottie Pippen can beat us, go right ahead.”

What is unlike Jordan is that Messi has never played on a mediocre team. He didn’t have to prop up any Granville Waiters, Luc Longleys or Bobby Hansens. Messi’s trophyless seasons were more attributable to underachievement by top players than low-quality teammates. Messi made his debut in a side with Ronaldinho, and was there when Guardiola’s Barca hit its imperious stride. Put Messi on, say, Levante and feel free to speculate about what might happen.

None of this means that Enrique’s comment or this post intends to diminish Messi. That is impossible. Nor is it the equivalent of “Well, let’s see him do it on a rainy winter night in Stoke.” That’s stupid, because a swan doesn’t have to wallow in the mud to prove that it is a swan. Beauty is its own standard. So is sporting excellence. And in a weird way, just as the effect of Messi is overrated by some, the effect of his presence is in a strange way, underrated. Put Messi on the pitch with his leg in a cast, and he will still occupy defenders. Because you never know. That’s what genius does. So Barça can win matches even when Messi isn’t fully present or off form, because he’s there. He is that anomaly that makes everything around him better, more glittery, like a human disco ball.

Chiellini has said that Messi wouldn’t score goals like his Copa goal vs Athletic in Serie A, which is an absurd statement by a player who should know better, not because of the potential for winding up, but because unless Serie A is being played by non-humans, the statement is invalid. Messi didn’t score that goal because of crap defending or poor keeping. Messi scored that goal because he became a living, breathing cheat code. He made Jerome Boateng fell over, THEN beat the best keeper in the world. There is a video of Messi owning great players. And while you can certainly quibble about the ultimate “great” qualities of some of the players in the video, you can’t argue with the fact that Messi is facing off against the best players in world football, and making them resemble pub league dilettantes.

As this Champions League final winds up and the match progresses all eyes will be on Messi, awaiting magic, that next moment that will suck the breath out of a stadium. But what makes Messi great is what he does in between those moments, the way he makes his teammates better — in the way, this season, he is doing everything better. Is it a consequence of Messi that we are seeing the best Messi ever, or is Enrique right in giving his surroundings some of the credit? Give Sandro a pass that Suarez controls easily, and what happens? Without Neymar making space or having the skill to play at the same hyper-speed as Messi, what happens?

But even beyond all that, this is a leaner, meaner, more complete Messi who, at 27 years of age, can still improve. He is more determined, more captain-like, more willing to do anything to help his team achieve the ultimate success. And after what seems an eternity ago, as the best player in the world stared at the ultimate prize in football, don’t you wonder if the genesis for this season, for This Messi, took shape right then and there.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts18 Comments

Acceptable levels of violence?

In the wake of the 1-3 Copa victory by FC Barcelona, it seems that only two things happened: a stupefying Messi goal, and a Neymar flick. The reactions are, of course rather different. It’s the latter one that interests me in this post.

Football has long had a black leather-booted code of Things You Don’t Do. When Neymar came to Barça with his collection of tricks and flicks, it was forgotten that Ronaldinho made a name for himself doing such things, because this was different. Why is a good question, but the evidence didn’t take long to manifest itself.

After tormenting Celtic, Neymar found running space with a flicked ball past a defender. Scott Brown resolved the issue by shoving Neymar down, and throwing a kick his way for good measure. It earned a justly deserved red card, but the post-match reaction was more interesting, as too much of football rushed to Brown’s defense.

“Neymar shouldn’t have shown them up.” “He’s a diver. He deserved it.”

When Neymar wound up Atleti, who also reacted with violence, it was again Neymar’s fault.

Gabi had words after the match about Neymar’s behavior, labeling it “irritating,” and the black-booted code said “Yeah!” The assortment of kicks and fouls, an ankle gushing blood from the studs of an Atleti player as a result of one clash, were immaterial. Disrespect was the question, here, and Neymar had it coming. If you can’t stand the heat, don’t try flicks in the kitchen.

In the latest incident, late in the match vs Athletic in the Copa final, he tried a sombrero to escape a tight sideline situation. It failed, and Athletic defenders responded with violence. The black-booted code again.

A great many culers have, of course, said the effect of “Well, he shouldn’t do that in that situation. What does he expect?” And again, the violence is tacitly condoned. A MARCA story quotes Enrique, with interesting bits in bold:

The Barça manager fully understood the Athletic players’ anger after Neymar’s show of unnecessary, fancy football: “In Spain such things are not taken kindly and if I were an Athletic player I would have behaved in much the same way or even worse, but we have to understand that these things are normal in Brazil. We will try to make him understand.”

Now, a lot can be read into that quote, which is the problem. An opponent defender could read it as carte blanche to kick Neymar. “Hell, even his coach doesn’t like it. Get him!” And the number of fouls on one of the most-fouled players in La Liga will grow in number and violence. And why not? He has it coming, with his hair, his Instagram, his … Brazilian stuff.

The black-booted code doesn’t mind a slaloming run that leaves prone defenders in its wake, doesn’t mind a bit of on the ground humiliation from Xavi/Messi/Iniesta humiliation (note the Iniesta flick over the head of the RM defender). Iniesta’s favorite La Croqueta is okay, because the ball stays on the ground? Or is that also “disrespect?”

At what point does football look in the mirror and admit its problems with certain types of players? Back in the day, the careers of players like Diego Maradona were shortened by violence. “If he’s going to have that skill, how else am I going to have a chance. I have to chop him down to my level.” It’s a distressing tendency in the game that has never gone away, and is all the more apparent with Neymar and the way that he plays the game.

He gets fouled a lot because he has the ball a lot. He also gets fouled a lot because he takes on defenders. Would people prefer that he stand on the left and bat the ball back to midfield, unless a clear path to goal — one that doesn’t involve any disrespect — presents itself? And if he doesn’t do that, is the violence okay?

Fouls as a consequence of play are one thing. Fouls because a player is blinded by the red mist are something else entirely. I can’t speak strongly enough about the reprehensibility of the reaction to this latest Neymar incident and to all of them, really. Nobody has that kind of crap coming. Ever. Whenever Iniesta got kicked and chopped down because that was the only to stop him, that isn’t acceptable.

I suppose in the here and now if Barça were to sign Ronaldinho as he was, it would be okay to kick him. “Hey, he shouldn’t do that stuff.” Just because he was smiling when he did it as he successfully perpetrated the notion that he played the game with a childlike joy and flair isn’t a valid reason. Ronaldinho was a thug. All great players are. They want to destroy their opponent. That’s what makes them great. Iniesta is nicer than Ronaldo, but he is no less nasty and desirous of victory. Messi will cut your throat if you block his path to goal. He’s supposed to. It’s what great players do. Destroy, win that psychological battle.

So kick them, which might make them tentative, might make them think, and then a defender gets that little bit of edge back. And the black-booted code says that’s okay, even more so if the player tries some sort of silly, unnecessary flick or trick. Bang the ball off the defender and take the throw, like a man. Or you will be kicked, and it will be okay because you had it coming.

You don’t have to like Neymar to find the violence that tracks him disgusting. You don’t have to like Neymar to not like the comments of his coach after the match, even if you allow for the nuance that maybe, just maybe, Enrique was suggesting that as a hard-nosed player himself, he would have had the same reaction, but that doesn’t condone what happened. Maybe he forgot to say that. Maybe the “he will understand” means that he should just expect to get kicked when he tries that stuff, because that’s the way of the world. Dunno.

What I do know is this: Violence shortens careers. Imagine how close Messi came to something very serious when Ujfalusi decided his ankle was fair game. And don’t come at me with “The two situations are different.” No, they aren’t. Both instances are, at their base, a defender reacting to superior skill with violence. “Try and get past me, will you?”

Fouls are part of the game, even tactical ones. There are retaliatory fouls as well, a “you got ours, so we will get one of yours.” Lots of violence, and it’s all okay. No, attackers shouldn’t be allowed to prance about unfettered. But kicking them because of their skill shouldn’t be okay, nor should wanting to fight because a tenet of the black boot code has been violated. Atleti kicked Iniesta off the pitch last season, and somehow that was okay. It’s never okay. There shouldn’t be some burly dude wearing black boots saying, “He don’t like it uppem, eh? Man’s game!” Would it have been okay for Boateng to clean Messi’s clock after that Bayern goal? No? Of course not.

Then why is it okay for people to display violence against Neymar because he tried a flick?

Posted in Copa del Rey, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts53 Comments

Knowledge is power, aka “The secret of my success”

Anyone looking to understand the success of this FC Barcelona season really only need pay attention to about two minutes of the Copa final to understand, even in a match filled with such moments.

At 0-1 down, Athletic began to play with more urgency. They pressed, they got the ball into the Barça end. But just when the announcer said Athletic was getting into it Barça pressed back, bullying Athletic back into their end. They then pressed the ball free, played a series of exquisite one touches and it was 0-2.

Barça plays football that seems almost telepathic. Other teams train as hard, work on possession and all of the same stuff that Barça does in its trainings. Other teams work on fitness, do all of the same things. There is talk of triangles, but every team in top-flight club football will manifest triangles at some point. So what is it about the automatic behaviors, the knowledge of self and teammates that makes these things, when applied by Barça, unstoppable? Knowledge is power, naturally. But in the right hands, knowledge is unstoppable. Yet part of knowledge is belief.

When Barça went out in the Champions League semis to Chelsea in part thanks to appalling finishing, I noted in my match review that Chelsea was defending so well and so physically, they made panic set in. Calm players became rushed because a challenge was always expected. Time was pressing.

Strong teams put a timer on you that is as much psychological as real. When Messi scored a goal like he did, Athletic worried about when it would happen again. You are facing a team that is fitter, runs more, moves better, is more technically skilled and completely unselfish. It’s also a team whose default setting is to keep the ball. You forget that the goal was a bolt out of blue. The guy who is struck by lightning, instead of thinking “TWICE in a lifetime? Sheeeit,” heads for home when the skies cloud over. It’s suddenly all that he can think about.

Athletic is stressed, Barça is calm, considered and understanding of the necessity of possession. Neymar takes a pass, feints, surveys and seeing nothing, passes back to Busquets for the reset. And it starts again. The sequence I refer to at the beginning of this post is an extraordinary thing, that bears an in-depth dissection.

34:27: Mikel Rico worked the ball loose from Alves. They made some passes, applied a bit of pressure.

34:44 A brilliant bit of influence play from Busquets forces Athletic to pass back into their end. When that happens the Barça back four is sprinting forward as is the entire team. They already know. The ball is where they want it now, in the opponent half.

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More crucially, Athletic players are walking or trotting while Barça players are running. And it isn’t even halftime.

The Athletic keeper punts it long. Alves controls and at 34:52, not even 30 seconds after Athletic had life, Barça was back on the attack.

35:55 The ball is in the back of the Athletic net.

One of the keys to that goal happened about 40 seconds before the goal was scored. Jordi Alba was on the sideline, being charged by a pair of Athletic defenders. Neymar runs in to provide an option and as quickly as he gets the pass taps it to Iniesta, who is already off and running into a gaping hole on the Athletic wing. Panic.

“Always options,” said the matchcaster, which is exactly the point. Then as now, it is crucial to always have a safe haven for the ball. Pam! Pam! Pam! A trio of Alves, Rakitic and Messi ping-ponged the ball into the box. When Rakitic played the pass to Suarez, you can see Messi looking at the linesman in case there is an offside flag. He knows. Rakitic, when the pass is slid to Neymar, is already celebrating. He knows.

Pity the Athletic keeper. Messi, Suarez, Rakitic and Neymar are running at you, and your defenders are mostly behind them.

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Craig Burley, the ESPN color commentator, said “In terms of football, in terms of soccer, in terms of quality, it doesn’t get much better than what we’ve been seeing.

“And that’s the thing about this Barcelona front three they’re full of big egos, they’re full of quality, they’re full of stars, but they’re unselfish. They’re team players, and that’s why it works.”

Suarez looked up and fed Neymar for the sure thing. Neymar made a remarkable run in and across the box, looking to pass all the time. For the second goal, Suarez could have taken the shot with a reasonable degree of confidence but the keeper was facing him, waiting. You never know. Slide the ball to Neymar, and you DO know. Rakitic also had the open net. He saw Neymar coming, and he knew. Everyone knows.

When Pep Guardiola assumed the reins at Barça he famously said “Run, you bastards, run!” It is not known what Enrique said, but a safe bet is that it was “Play as a TEAM, and we will win.” It’s a batch of the best players in the game, sacrificing for each other and the team. No idea how you beat that.

Every player has a tendency. A striker in the box can be played to shoot, because that’s what strikers do. With Barça, the other two superstars are bursting their lungs to get into position, to provide options and suddenly the defenders have no idea. Messi, Suarez, Neymar … um … Sacrifice is an extraordinary thing. The run, the extra pass. Everybody is, suddenly, Xavi.

At the opening of the second half, Messi is smiling and laughing. He knows. The confetti was ready, the families were on hand, the banners were ready. Yes, teams plan celebrations all the time, then have to put the things in storage for a time, possibly forever. Did Athletic have their celebration stuff all ready? Good question, but as they lined up to face a nasty footballing side at the peak of its powers, you have to wonder.

What’s worrying for opponents is that Busquets is 26. Messi is 27. Neymar is 23. Rakitic is 27. Suarez is 28. Pique is 28. There are more years of this, assuming none of the odd things happen that derail dynasties. In the past, if Messi took a knock, then what? Now, Pedro comes on, Neymar moves central and there’s also Suarez. Business as usual, without the absurd bits of genius from the greatest player in the game. That Messi goal was crazy, but it’s easy to forget about the chances created before and after that goal.

Always options, always on the move. Working. In the 52nd minute with a 0-2 lead, Inkesta and Busquets combine to steal the ball from an Athletic midfielder who swore he had more time. His head goes down to look the pass in. He looks up and Busquets is in the way. He dribbles and Iniesta reaches in with a boot to take the ball and start the other way. It’s a little thing that sows stress and confusion. What do you do when you have no time? More crucially, you have no time but your opponent seems to have all the time in the world.

Athletic have a set piece at 55 minutes. Rakitic takes the ball just outside the Barça box, and hoofing it never occurs to him. Instead he slides a perfectly weighted pass to Neymar, who rolls it to Busquets and keeps running because he knows that Busquets is going to flick the ball to him in stride. And the attack can resume, the relentless task of destruction.

What makes this team extraordinary, as Graham Hunter so correctly notes in his excellent Copa post-match, is that it is a team. It’s facile and lazy to reduce this season of success to Messi, even as Messi changes everything. As Hunter puts it:

“Yet the thing that deserves emphasis is that this Barcelona team does not and cannot win by Messi alone. He is the lead violinist; he is the soaring solo soprano voice, true. But the orchestra must also be in tune. They have been working hard. They have been sharing the concept of “we want it all, we want it all” until it becomes a mantra.

That was sufficient today. Barcelona’s mega talent mixed with 10 months of utter dedication. They had a target, it was the treble, and because they worked like Trojans, it’s now in sight.

It would be unseemly, unbecoming to assume victory in Berlin. Juventus is an excellent footballing side that has been working on nothing except ways to stop Barça, because it isn’t enough to stop Messi any longer. Because he is the best player alive who inspires sonnets of rapture, it’s easy to forget that Barça is absolutely loaded with talent. Just because they play with Messi all the time doesn’t mean they can’t play without him.

Athletic is a very good football team. Barça isn’t strolling matches because its opponents are in some way inferior. Popular is the act of futility that transplants Barça into the Premiership, to suggest that they wouldn’t have it as easy, that somehow the talent would be diminished because of location. And this argument is being made by coaches of teams who will be watching the Champions League final on TV. RM, City, PSG, Bayern, Atleti — these are championship teams that have all been dispatched in various ways by Barça this season.

For me, this has happened because a coach got an extraordinary group of players to forge itself into a unit — a complete unit with one thing at the forefront: winning. It doesn’t matter who scores the goal, who blocks the shot, who gets the assist as long as Barça gets the full points. A great team that also understands sacrifice will be pretty tough to beat.

Posted in Analysis, Copa del Rey, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts7 Comments

Athletic Club 1, Barça 3, aka “Paid in full”

messi

Paid in full.

You wonder if somewhere there isn’t a cosmic ledger marked “paid in full,” as the cosmos finally determined that a team, a club and the people who love it had suffered enough.

On a lustrous Saturday when confetti rained down at the Camp Nou as Barça celebrated taking another step toward repeating an unprecedented accomplishment again, or something like that, my mind turned to the past, the days that I contemplated this team and wrote about it through a veil of tears, those times when I wondered whether the unspeakable joys of the Treble and follow-up successes had a price in pain.

I thought of Puyol, and Valdes, and Abidal, and the Iniestas struggling with their loss. I thought of the biggest loss of all in the team’s devoted Mister, now and forever. I thought of trying to sustain a moment of silence and wondering if sobs were cheating, and Mascherano laid low with grief.

I thought of all that pain, and those professionals trying to work their way through it. I thought of a fan base riven by the standards and demands of the past, of distrust of something new, of hashtags and snarling rips at new signings, crises and entornos, and it’s now all summed up in three very simple words:

Paid in full.

In the here and now, there is only joy. That cosmic ledger is wiped clean. For me, the Champions League final doesn’t matter. Yes, I would be overjoyed if the team won it, but today’s match was so symbolic of what this team has had to endure and how it has come out of the other side of the fire, that for me there is only joy.

team

When Luis Suarez came to FC Barcelona, hard hearts including mine were vehemently, vociferously against the move. Whether irony or symmetry, a second chance has helped deliver something joyful to an emotionally battered club. The “Wheeee!” with which Neymar plays became the battle cry of a team that wasn’t interested in anything that anyone had to say about anything that it did. It didn’t care for bleating about possession stats, or candles lit at altars of The Way. It didn’t care that it scored all of its goals in a match off set pieces, it didn’t care that counterattack goals worked or individual brilliance, that beautiful thing turned into something ugly by misguided pundits, was necessary at times.

This team only cared about one thing: coming together in a way that would find it a powerful, nasty, at times brutish fist that was also capable of unspeakable beauty.

At the beginning of the match today, someone at the Chicago Penya asked me what I thought and I said “a 3-1 win.” And it was weird to think that, because being culer is to embrace uncertainty and a sense of impending doom. I programmed enough recording time for extra time and a penalty shootout onto my home DVR, because that’s culer. But then there was the confidence, the belief in a team that has truly done something extraordinary this season in rising like a phoenix from its own ashes.

It was an exquisite, controlled display from a team that at one time was considered incapable of either quality. It was a goal of jaw-dropping brilliance, a goal that every time I watch it I still find it unbelievable, a goal that is pointless to describe, because you can’t. It isn’t that you don’t have the words. There are always words. What our language lacks is the capability of capturing the emotion of seeing something unspeakably brilliant. It’s almost like light bulbs explode in your brain as you try to process it, that weird silence right before you scream in delight.

Maybe it’s that absence of sound, motion or anything, when the only thing filling your brain is flashes and exclamation points that is the best way to describe the feeling of that Messi goal, one that I believe is the best one that he has yet scored.

There is of course the legendary Getafe goal. But with that goal, he was Messi, a young talent with running space. He wasn’t the player that teams devised an entire system around stopping. The Athletic defenders did everything right. Everything. Men were where they were supposed to be, the keeper set up so that the only available shot was something impossible. None of it worked. Nobody scoffed at individual brilliance then, fittingly, nor should we ever. Individual brilliance is something to be cherished, marveled at and captured in any way that we can. It doesn’t happen often, and that Messi goal was the epitome of the beauty of individual brilliance.

That shot going in typified this season in many ways, as the impossible happened once again. A season that was considered lost in winter is soaring toward a blissful apogee in summer. It was even a season of wishes granted, as Xavi said that he wanted to lift a trophy with Iniesta again. It’s everything all at once, beautifully.

xavi

Athletic Bilbao played an excellent football match today, about the best that they could offer. But Barça, at this point in time, is a collection of many players who are the best in the world at their position, playing at the peak of their powers, buttressed by peak fitness and tactics that suit their strengths. They are playing with verve and confidence, solid at the back and irrepressible at the front.

This team is also nasty, like its coach was as a player, a group that is not interested in taking prisoners even as it is pragmatic, working only hard enough to ensure that the job is done, because energy must be conserved for the next task. Give a Barça player a hard foul and you can expect to get cleared out at some point, by someone. Because that, too, is this Barça.

This team drives opponents to distraction. Arda Turan threw his boot in rage. Today, after Neymar tried a sombrero to get out of a tight sideline pickle, the Athletic players detonated and a row was on. From that point on any chance they had of finding some miracle to get a scrambled goal or two and a glimpse of hope was gone. Neymar wound up yet another opponent who ended up focused on the wrong thing as time and the match dwindled.

Enrique said that if he was an Athletic player, he would have had the same reaction, a statement that many viewed as being critical of Neymar’s move. But from this chair it was a professional’s admission that no professional likes to be owned like that. It makes them angry. Duh. But the ensuing row also meant that Barça had won the psychological war as well as the physical and ball skills one. It was a complete victory over a proud opponent, a 3-1 win that seemed a much larger margin, so complete was the control of this Copa del Rey final.

So many writers speak of this Enrique team being so very different from the Guardiola teams, but for me, even as points of comparison are invalid because both teams played Barça football with their own tactical variations, the teams are more alike than anyone will care to admit, because that sort of thing isn’t fashionable. But both teams controlled matches and opponents, both teams scored goals in a variety of ways, both teams had a dynamite front three that used its skills to destroy.

This isn’t saying that Enrique is as good a coach as Guardiola, or any of the stuff that will have villagers scurrying around with their pitchforks and torches, something that has been all the rage in this divisive, too-often nasty season. It is instead an observation that the past Treble-winning side and this potential Treble-winning side share similarities both physical and psychological.

Football is about highs and lows, about fan bases that believe they are owed some joy, that winning is something that is due after a certain period. But that isn’t true. Fate doesn’t care about any team or player. It only seems that way. A team can lose and keep on losing, just as a team can win and keep on winning.

But when the kind of heartache that has buffeted this club takes up what seemed at the time to be permanent residence, the kind of joy and beauty represented by unstoppable goals and victory celebrations is something that is to be cherished. These are great players, doing great things. And it is wonderful, for a change, to have our tears be those of joy.

confetti

Posted in Analysis, Copa del Rey, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts18 Comments

Deulofeu isn’t making it. Whose fault?

Gerard Deulofeu. It’s difficult to think of a more talented player to come out of La Masia in recent years, but there is also a problem, outlined here in the very good Sid Lowe column about Unai Emery. It’s worth exploring his complexities a bit in a quote from Emery about Deulofeu:

“He has incredible qualities but lacks others. Put him out there, one on one and … pfff,” Emery says, blowing out his cheeks in admiration. “But make him play football with team-mates, on a big pitch, and it’s hard. He doesn’t have the maturity or capacity for sacrifice yet. I told him: ‘There are players here who aspire to a contract like yours, men with less talent but more hunger. Iborra, Carriço, Vitolo. They know what it costs. You haven’t experienced that. When you do, you’ll grow. I hope you get that. If not here, somewhere else.’”

This isn’t the first time that Emery had some words for Deulofeu directly. Earlier in the season when left out of a match squad, Deulofeu Tweeted “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” In response, Emery posted, “You can have the wood of a champion, but you have to shape that wood with effort, work and humility.”

When Luis Enrique took the decision to send Deulofeu off on loan (again) it was one that didn’t sit will with many culers, and it still doesn’t. The question of course, is whose responsibility is the shaping of a footballer, and what is the obligation of a first team as it pertains to a young talent?

A player is born in La Masia, where he develops the habits that are expected to take him through becoming a full-fledged professional. Those wondering about those habits, you can see them in players such as Iniesta, Messi, Xavi and Pedro. It’s work, it’s being a professional with all that the word entails.

Deulofeu is a more complex case. When he was sent on loan to Everton it was with an eye toward developing him under a coach known for getting the best out of young players. After a year in which he suffered an injury, he still hadn’t cracked the Everton XI though he was viewed as an impact sub, and returned to Barca when many felt that another year at Everton would have been better for him.

He did some of the pre-season with the first team, then the rumor popped up that he would be leaving on loan for unspecified reasons. When a player goes on loan, the motivations are many: the team wants to get the player consistent playing time, which isn’t going to happen if he stays; it’s a shop window for interested clubs; the player isn’t going to make it at his home club and it’s a chance to get him out of the pressure cooker.

In the case of Deulofeu he went to Sevilla, got playing time then suddenly stopped being included in match squads. Aside from unspecified buzz about attitude problems, nobody really knew what happened. The Emery Tweet was really the first word from the coach on what the situation might be. His comments in the Lowe piece made things even clearer. Deulofeu is not doing what he needs to do to succeed.

There are many reactions to that. Some believe that Deulofeu is a young player, with talent that requires special treatment and nurturing. That is the job of the club and its first team. He should have been kept at Barcelona this season so that he could learn from real professionals, betters who he understands the necessity of deference.

Another view is that as a professional footballer, his career is on him. He knows what he has to do because two different coaches have told him, and it’s up to him to do it. I’m somewhere in the middle of the two camps. I also wonder if Deulofeu had stayed, where and how often was he going to play? Could he have been another attacker for Enrique, or were his liabilities on the other parts of the pitch too significant?

Let’s not forget that Deulofeu came up in a broken home so to speak, under the aegis of Eusebio. That team was a mess, even as it was a successful mess until the doors came off and Eusebio was sacked. Deulofeu, because he was an immense talent, could do what he wanted. Like an adorable puppy who becomes a big dog that poops in the house, he didn’t learn things such as judgment, working within a team’s system (did B really have one?) and acquiring skill sets such as tracking back and doing the necessary donkey work, things that endear a talented player to a coach.

Then he went to Everton where he was showing signs of progress, then got injured, etc. When he returned to Barça, Enrique pretty much said “Holy crap!” and shipped him off to Sevilla, where Emery said “Wheeee,” and then “Holy crap!” And that’s where he is now.

Two different coaches have said to him, “This is what you need to do.” So at what point does a player have the responsibility for making his own way? We see it all the time when supporters are talking about a player who they feel is getting screwed, and deserves playing time. But playing time is earned by making it impossible for your coach to NOT play you. Pedro isn’t at Barça because he’s nice to puppies. He’s there because he does exactly what a coach tells him to, to the maximum effort. Neymar is tracking back like a demon these days, and covered the most distance for Barça in the Champions League tie with Bayern Munich. And don’t forget that he came to Barça as a YouTube show pony. He learned quickly, because he had to. To be sure, being on a team with examples such as Puyol, Mascherano, Xavi and Iniesta helped, and there was also Messi to show him how it was done.

True, Neymar wasn’t some Masia graduate struggling to find a place on the squad. But he was going to be a star without doing what he did. He understood from the examples set by veterans. Neymar came to Barça when he was 21, same age as Deulofeu is now. Is there anything to be learned from comparing the two players, or is Bojan Krkic, a Masia graduate who was promoted when he shouldn’t have been, a more correct analog? It’s easy to forget the “Boy of a Thousand Goals,” who is now the man of a few goals at Stoke, recovering from a serious injury. When Krkic forced his promotion, a lot had to happen for him to make it at Barça. It didn’t, and he went on perpetual loan, where coaches said some of the same things they are saying about Deulofeu, to eventually land in Stoke.

Deulofeu’s talent is without question. He has pace, a wicked shot and when inclined, is able to pick out the right pass. But he also doesn’t track back much, can be selfish and his decision making is suspect. Is this a nature vs nurture question? Had Deulofeu come up in a better B system under a coach such as Enrique or Guardiola, would he have become a better professional? As we all know, players react to praise differently. Some say, “Yeah, whatever … don’t believe you,” and resume working their butts off. Others begin to think, “Hey, everybody says this, so … “ And an entitled youth player is born.

The other complexity for the Deulofeu situation is that at the first team there is no time for young players. The team has to win or the world ends. People point to the recent examples of Pedro and Busquets, but both were players who were very close to being ready to play in a high-flying, hard charging team. Enrique came in having to deal with the pressure of needing to win. Pressure from the board, from the team, from himself, the supporters and the entorno. The calm, nurturing environment necessary to bring a young player along didn’t exist and was never going to this season, to the fault of no one.

Given that situation, however, sending Deulofeu on loan was, for me, the correct decision. He wasn’t going to get the playing time that he needed to develop, so Sevilla was worth a shot as Emery is excellent at getting a lot from young players. He got his shot, and didn’t take it. Emery has all but said that Deulofeu will not be back with Sevilla next season. Is there fault? At this point, you have to say that, mitigating circumstances aside, it’s on the player. Deulofeu knew what he had to do, and didn’t do it.

What’s next? He’s 21 and talented as hell. He will get another shot at Barça, but it will probably be his last shot. We never heard it said explicityly, though Enrique intimated that Deulofeu was lacking key qualities. Emery made that very clear. From this point on, the rest is up to Deulofeu.

Posted in Analysis, Thoughts73 Comments

More on Lists

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

There have been some great comments regarding my list of most influential Barcelona players and I wanted to respond to several of them at some length, so I felt that that warranted an actual post rather than one off replies in the comments section. I won’t be addressing these to individuals because of the longer form of these responses, but you know who you are and I appreciate your feedback and thoughts.

So:

Samuel Eto’o: It crossed my mind to include Samuel Eto’o as at least an honorable mention given his prominent status as both a major goalscorer for the club as well as the guy who shouted “Madrid, cabron, saluda al campeon!” from on top of a boss while celebrating the 2006 Champions League final victory (in which he scored the tying goal; he then scored the winning goal in the final in Rome 3 years later). That’s pretty influential, sure, but with only 10 spots, you have to cull someone at some point. And sure, I could have added him to honorable mentions, but I didn’t simply because he is one of about half a dozen players I consider about equal in their influence. In fact, I actually did have Samuel Eto’o as an honorable mention, but I was running out of time to write the thing and if I started adding players like Samu—who, for the record, I loved and still love in spite of his move to Chelsea—I was also going to have to add players like Rivaldo and Romario. And those are just fairly recent strikers. I briefly mentioned Laudrup, Koeman, and Txiki and it would be hard to argue that Eto’o’s goals were more influential than Koeman’s goal in the 1992 Cup final that brought the whole Dream Team thing to its climax and cemented the standard view of Barcelona as a team of style and results.

Furthermore, while I wanted to include Samu, it didn’t make sense in the greater thematic approach I took to Honorable Mentions:

1. Oleguer: not as talented as many of his teammates (to put it kindly), but he was the defining voice of a generation of Barcelona fans;

2. Maradona: One of the all-time greats that couldn’t be included on the list simply because of his lack of time with the club. As opposed to (original) Ronaldo, Maradona wasn’t really “one that got away” but was rather “one that failed to mesh with the club and then also got into the most insane fight in club history and was basically totally nuts.”

3. Zubizaretta: A major player, but one who did not define a generation in the same way as others on his team; like Oleguer in a lot of ways, but without the politics.

4. Ronaldo: The one that got away.

The honorable mentions list was not meant to be comprehensive, which is why it was Honorable Mentions. Perhaps I should have noted that, but I didn’t, so some questions about it are understandable. It was more that there simply wasn’t enough room to discuss all the players I wanted to discuss or thought merited mention. I was also trying to highlight multiple generations of teams; without looking, I’m pretty sure that none of those 4 played together, so that was a factor as well.

A full list of “honorable mentions” would be a mind-boggling endeavor, so I cut it down. I didn’t even mention Tello, after all.

Luis Figo: There was mention that he should have been dropped for someone like Eto’o, but his inclusion is one that I will defend for a long time. Whatever Samu’s positives, he was never the focal point of a Barcelona team, he was never The Sacred Son, and he certainly was never Judas to an entire generation of fans. Figo was all of those things and it is hard to overstate how much it hurt and what kind of a mark it left on the club when Madrid paid his buyout clause. The differences between someone like Luis Figo and Javier Saviola are fairly massive, for instance. Figo was so influential that I’m surprised that I put him at #9 and not higher. Only the fact that his influence was somewhat of a negative can account for why he was so low. That and my love of the other players, possibly.

Which brings us to…Ronaldinho: my first draft had Ronaldinho tied for 3rd. I dropped him to 7th after some serious revisions and the decision that Messi was too good to be in the 8th spot where he was originally or the 7th spot where he moved after I dropped Oleguer from the very first draft, swapped in Figo, and dropped Gamper from 6th to 8th. Luck would have it that Xavi got #6. But Ronnie really was massively influential. He defined a team, created the modern Barcelona brand, and drew hundreds of thousands of fans to the team. He was not just a World Cup winner, he was that samba guy, that free spirit, that laughing clown who made you the butt of the joke. The arguments for other players, however, seemed to simply overshadow his; specifically, it struck me as hard to accept that Messi could be both the greatest player of all time as well as less influential on a club than a player who won trophies but flamed out after 5 years. Statistically, Ronaldinho was very good (94 goals in 207 appearances), but he only won 3 trophies with the club (2 La Liga and 1 CL) so while he did launch the current brand, he did not sustain or further that brand like Messi has, like Xavi has (who won a World Cup during his tenure and changed how a huge number of people saw midfielders and the club itself).

Another player who deserves mention is Ronald Koeman, but he, like Eto’o, was only the most visible face of a greater whole during important games; they both scored decisive goals, but were not indispensable in a lot of ways. Koeman was, possibly, more important to his teams than Eto’o was to his—FCB did go on to win the Champions League just 2 years after Eto’o left the club, while Koeman continued to win trophies on a domestic level—but I don’t think it could be argued that Koeman was more important to his teams than any of the others on my list were.

Someone who, in my estimation, was indispensable was Guardiola. He may never have played a truly exception role statistically, but there’s a reason that Cruyff trusted him to be the lynchpin of his system and, more tellingly, the next series of coaches also trusted him to do the same for their teams. He wasn’t a flash in the pan: he played for 10 years and won 6 La Liga titles, 2 Copa del Reys, a CL, and a Cup Winner’s Cup. That is no small haul in a decade. Beyond that, though, Guardiola was not only the player at the center of the solidified “Barça system,” he was also a political and social revelation for Barcelona and Catalunya as a whole. You do not inspire Xavi and Iniesta without something to offer the greater Barça universe and I stand by my #2 ranking.

It is interesting that no one mentioned Iniesta‘s exclusion from this list. He was mentioned only in passing in Xavi’s write up.

It was very hard to rate players I never saw play. So here’s a quick ranking of my favorite players that I have seen, with no commentary:

10. Dani Alves

9. Victor Valdes

8. Rivaldo

7. Yaya Toure

6. Samuel Eto’o

5. Carles Puyol

4. Andres Iniesta

3. Ronaldinho

2. Lionel Messi

1. Xavi

And man does that leave out some good ones, especially from the Rivaldo era.

Posted in Thoughts10 Comments

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

xavi

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

Patience.

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

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

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

Lesson learned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

enrique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

group

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts15 Comments

Xavi and the Qatar question

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

Nor is it a time for unquestioning fealty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Analysis, Thoughts37 Comments

Barcelona’s Top 10 Most Influential Players

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so:

Honorable Mentions:

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

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

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

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

The Actual List:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Thoughts22 Comments

FC Barcelona is Messi’s team, aka “The littlest giant takes full control”

FC Barcelona is Messi’s team.

For years, such things have been intimated, really since Pep Guardiola decided to unleash Messi as a false 9, but they have always felt premature. Scoring the most goals and influencing matches with brilliance doesn’t mean that it’s your team, nor does being the most talented among the captains.

This season is the very first season in which it can be truly and fully said that this is Messi’s team, as the boy genius who has seemed perpetually young even in his mid-20s, became a man. It isn’t just the hardness around his face, that chiseled edge that speaks as much to maturity as fitness. From this chair, four things happened that made the adulthood of Lionel Messi as clear as can be, and truly stamped his authority on Barça:

The right wing

When Messi exploded into vibrant, fantasy football life, it was from the right. This was of necessity as much as anything else, because Barça had Eto’o and Henry running around. But from false 9 days on, Messi became a beast of the center of the pitch, able to make his runs and score his goals from a space that gave him full access to both angles. Coaches tried to play Messi on the right before, once the false 9 goal blizzards began, and it didn’t go well. This season, there he was on the right, and he gave everything. No pouting, no sulking, match after match. Media types and supporters called Enrique a fool for doing this, for taking his best player away from where he could do the most damage, and neither he nor Messi cared, because they understood what was going on.

When it first started, some called it a launch pad rather than a prison, but Messi playing on the right and happily doing so was more than that. It was an important step in the full and complete maturation of a footballer. It was important that Messi play on the right because that was what the team needed. It shifted the attack, opened up the pitch for the likes of Neymar, Sandro, Munir and eventually Suarez, it created a positional fluidity that found all three attackers popping up anywhere. People considered Messi position on the right and suggested that he would be able to score more goals from the right, having only a fullback to beat, etc, etc. But it wasn’t about goals – it was about influencing the match in a decisive way.

It has always been considered that scoring goals is the most effective way that Messi can help Barca. His dynamic, match-changing play from the right wing put the lie to that notion. Messi embraced the right because he knew. He wasn’t ready to embrace it when Martino tried it, but he also knew that the team didn’t have the pieces for him to thrive on the right. Enrique did. But even more than that, it was the first sign that Barça’s best player was interested in being a full and complete team player.

Giving Neymar some

Barça was playing Sevilla, and won a free kick. It was automatic, the presumption that Messi was going to take the ensuing free kick because aside from the occasional moment of deference to Xavi. Messi takes all of the Barça free kicks and penalties. He and Neymar chatted briefly, then Messi stepped back. Neymar hoofed it, and golazo. Logically as a left-footed player, it made sense for Messi to let a right-footer take that shot. It opened up the option for the curler into the near corner, thus enhancing the possibility of a Barça goal. But Barca has gotten free kicks in similar positions before, and Neymar has never been allowed to take one, until now. Messi understands that if a group of attackers is going to truly and fully equal, small gestures are important. Neymar knows that he isn’t as good a free kick taker as Messi. So does Messi. But a leader does this.

Then in May, during a shellacking of Cordoba in which Neymar was having one of those “ass over teakettle” matches, in which he just couldn’t seem to hit the broad side of a barn. And then, PENALTY! Everybody knew, once again, that Messi was going to take it. But again, Messi and Neymar chatted briefly, and Neymar stepped to the spot. Goal! Neymar got a goal, got a very positive feeling from what could have been a psychological mess of a match for him, and quite possibly got the mental boost that made him the player who helped put Bayern to the sword.

The free kick and the penalty kick being handed over by Messi were huge. Only the Sevilla free kick mattered for the final scoreline, and whether you want to call it deference or benevolence, the effect was massive.

Those Atleti goals

Atletico rolled into the Camp Nou, the team that Barça had not, in try after try the previous season, been able to beat. They attacked with a flooded midfield, and the answer was really a simple one even as it was one that ran counter to everything that culers had come to believe in: bypass the midfield. It made perfect sense, because if an opponent creates a danger zone, why not just go around or over it? But years of institutional arrogance, for lack of a better descriptive, demanded that Barça work its magic, set up triangles of sprites and work its way toward a logical, lovely goal. But when Messi charged at Atleti, they didn’t know what hit them. He was in the box so quickly, faked that defender out of his boots so adroitly that panic set in. In past years, Messi would have taken that shot. Atleti was playing him to take the shot. So when he slid that ball across the box to Suarez that eventually became a tap-in for Neymar, Atleti was stunned and on the back heels.

But it was the second goal that was all the more stunning, because it had been some time since any of us had seen Messi with the kind of determination and pace that seemed almost violent. He chested the ball down on the dead run so that it landed in front of him, in stride. What you see in Messi’s wake is four Atleti players all running in from the midfield that had been abandoned by Barça, a futile chase in an effort to stop what was inevitable. Messi ran at the defense and cut toward the center, his usual stomping ground. The defense played Messi for the shot, because what else would you do. It’s Messi, in the box. But without even breaking stride Messi slotted a lovely diagonal for Suarez, who bashed home.

Both of those goals were essentially created by Messi. In the past, those might have been “Oooooh!” runs that sparked the “So close” posts in social media as Messi tried some shot from a crazy angle that was parried by the keeper. But by making that extra pass, chances became sure things. Messi was more interested in putting the knife in. More importantly, he had the trust and confidence to know that Neymar wasn’t going to miss.

Messi the protector

Late in the championship-cliinching match, Atleti, and in particular Diego Godin, had gotten just about enough of Neymar, who had been winding them up as usual in the match, gamesmanship for him but personal for them. Godin snapped, and wanted to have at Neymar. Who was it that got in Godin’s face and pushed him away from Neymar? Messi. In the past during rows such as this, Messi was always standing off in midfield somewhere, looking at the fools who want to do stuff other than score goals and make magic. Even when Messi was fouled as the catalyst for such a scrum, he was always at a dignified reserve. Not today, not this year, not against his team. He took Godin away, then took Neymar aside to keep him from doing something that could potentially create an opportunity for Atleti. And subsequently, he stood, face-to-face with another Atleti player, jawing and not even considering backing down.

Badass Messi has always been the player on the pitch, on the attack, who does magical things to beat a team. Badass Messi has never before been the player who sticks his chest in to defend his team, in their house. At the end of a season that cemented this Barca as Messi’s team, those actions from the smallest player on the pitch made clear what so many had been saying for years: this is Messi’s team.

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts26 Comments

Atletico de Madrid 0, Barça 1, aka “Campions”

team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Campions.

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

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

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

1. The Coach (A)

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

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

2. The Coach (B)

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

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

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

3. The Player (A)

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

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

4. The Enemy (A)

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

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

5. The Second Half

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

6. The Trident

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

7. The Enemy (B)

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

8. The Player (B)

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

9. The Treble

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

the player

Posted in Barcelona, Champions League, Messi, Thoughts48 Comments

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