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Eat, Pray, Support

Here is a Bayern preview courtesy of Peter, who often holds forth in the comments, section. I couldn’t have said it better, myself.

“The pitch is very, very wet in places, particularly in the centre circle. There’s been no rain in Munich all day, just an over-zealous groundsman with a new sprinkler to play with. Pedro is the latest, but not the last, to slide over.”
“Could Bayern have over-watered their pitch to obstruct Barca’s passing game?”
“This pitch is very very splashy. Cheeky Germans.”
“The pitch at the Allianz Arena has been perfectly prepared for a water-polo match.”
“On a pitch that showed signs of being heavily watered…”
BBC Live commentary and report,
2012-13 Champions League semi-final,
23.04.2013 Allianz Arena, Munchen.

I’ve often wondered why we culers are such a pessimistic bunch overall. Maybe it’s because of some superstition that whenever we aren’t our humble selves but instead voice our jubilation and certainty of victory the way other fans tend to do, some sort of capricious deity clad in boots and shorts slaps us down to show us the error of our ways. Maybe it’s because we realize that victory, draw and defeat are all sides of the same coin, that in the grand ledger of history you can draw and lose, lose and win, draw and win, win and win or even win the encounter, but lose overall. Some victories are exacted at such a price as to render further triumphs impossible. Maybe we know that whatever goes around, comes around.

Two years ago, on a pitch deliberately converted to a swimming pool, facing a group of injured and exhausted players led by a manager who was fighting his (eventually lost) battle against disease, Bayern defeated Barcelona. Helped by a lenient ref, who overlooked Barça players being kicked into submission, who overlooked fouls and offsides, Bayern inflicted the most terrible defeat on Barça. It was humiliation, a stomping on the fallen, a merciless and pitiless one-sided encounter. And Europe cheered. Europe cheered and applauded, because the hated Catalan team was finally brought down in a convincing way. The wounded pride of English, Italian, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and Dutch champions was finally avenged, finally the hated “UEFAlona” was beaten to a pulp. And even if it was by the feet of another, that proxy victory tasted sweet.

Two years later, this defeat remains as a bitter memory, a shackle that seems to belittle every success, magnify every adversity, a scarecrow and bogeyman to frighten culers when they get too uppity. The size of that elimination, like the number of “200-proof penalties” that Ovrebo didn’t give against Barça, has grown exponentially and blown up like a balloon during those two years, to the extent that there are people who watched the match and swear that Barcelona lost the away leg 7-0. We cannot forget, and even if we did, ill-wishers basking in the misery would conveniently remind us. It became for many the ultimate sneer, the best riposte. Don’t get too uppity cule, lest you get another deserved beating. Favourite Barcelonista soft drink, the “Seven Up”. “You had your 15 minutes of glory, now put on that pointy hat, go stand in the corner and be ashamed of yourself.”

And in a leap of misguided objectivity or sheer blindness of which I too was part, many of us embraced the hostile narrative that labeled the season a failure based on that single result. It didn’t matter that La Liga was won with a record-setting points total, distance to the second-placed team and goals by a single player. It didn’t matter that Barcelona had set such a tempo that after just four months of competition the “Special” coach of the greatest rival said “La Liga is lost.” This is the reason, for the most part, why the best player in the world did not get the recognition he deserved and instead the title went to the guy who scored four against Sweden.

That season didn’t become the season of “La Remuntada”, when Barça completed a feat statistically impossible in the Champions League. That season should’ve been the final legacy of the man whose name the training pitch of the first team bears. And we forgot that. We became entitled, expecting and demanding not just titles, but trounces. Our pride and bragging rights were censured.

It was even more difficult last season, but in a way I think and hope, it was an act of exorcism. La Liga was lost at Camp Nou by the same thuggish, relentless team that stopped Barça in the quarter-finals, and Camp Nou had to applaud them. We had to shed our pride and entitlement, like a sweaty shirt that feels uncomfortable. We drank the bitter cup of defeat but I think and I hope, even though the entorno and the weekly crises constantly try to prove me wrong, that we learned not that we should be ashamed of ourselves, but that we should learn to appreciate the taste of victory and never take it for granted.

So we come to this. Fate, whim of the football gods, Providence, Destiny, I don’t know, but there are so many threads, so many histories intertwined together in this semi-final. When you check the stats, Bayern and Barça right now cannot be any more equal, even getting down to the general coloring of the shirts, abbreviations, possession … Both teams have Germans, Spanish, and Braziliian players. Both teams play attacking football, both like building from the back and there is extensive usage of flanks and bombing fullbacks, players playing or being capable of playing in more than one position, a defensive midfielder playing as a CB, a ball-carrying DM who drops back between CBs to receive and bring the ball forward, wide CBs. The list can go on. In a way, Bayern is like a distorted mirror of Barcelona.

This is where the similarities end, however – Bayern’s coach is considered innovative, an artist constantly looking for the next great idea, for the next way to squeeze talent from a group of VERY talented players. His schemes have been as varied as his lineups. If you check encounters from this season, Bayern have employed six different schemes in the Champions League and ten (TEN!!!) schemes in Bundesliga. Luis Enrique, on the other hand, has generally stuck to a 4-3-3, and whenever he didn’t, fans and media saw it as a mark of being clueless.

Bayern operate with a very high line, keeping the players in one single block, which facilitates both passing and pressing. Skillful passers are vital, because they mean penetration. A difficult or bold pass can catch the opposing defense napping and that destabilizing first pass opens other lanes as the opponent scrambles for a response. That single joined block of lines also means that the team can defend together by passing the ball and keeping it away from the opponent. This system is not without deficiencies, of course.

As we very well know by now after watching countless matches in which the opponent drops back and forms another block that rejects possession of the ball, while the ball is passed around, that system has its deficiencies. It needs alternatives and modifications. In Guardiola’s case those are not modifications, but perhaps refusing to be bound by the system if that would mean not using the full potential of the players. What am I talking about? Aerial play.

Bayern have more than their fair share of tall, physical players. There are 11 outfield players of Bayern who are six feet (1.83m) or taller and four who are 1.9m or taller. In Barça that count is six and two, respectively. What this means when facing Bayern is that they can create lots of danger in the box and that even the presence of tall players can mean that a shorter player can ghost in unmarked and score (Thiago’s first goal was from such a header).

Bayern’s height also allows them to create second-ball danger, claiming a cross or a lobbed ball, which lets them direct it towards where a waiting striker will be. For Boateng’s goal against Porto, Lahm took a very short corner (less than a meter) to Thiago, who launched the ball on a very steep trajectory, landing it precisely on jumping Badstuber’s head to be guided to where Boateng was going to rise. The scheme involved change of direction and took ruthless advantage of Bayern’s height. This is more visible in the Champions League, where Bayern has scored six headers from 30 goals, whereas in Bundesliga that count is 11 from 77. Lewandowski has scored two, Boateng, Thiago, Rode and Badstuber have scored one each – and apart from Thiago they are all defenders.

As said earlier, Bayern rely on flank play a lot, utilizing Ribery and Robben, but also Lahm, Bernat, Rafinha and the young player Weiser. Against Porto, who lacked their starting fullbacks and were using a CB and backup players, Bayern had full control of the flanks and created lots of danger from that area. Their game was meticulously prepared and created space by misdirection and switch of direction of the play. For Thiago’s goal Gotze brought the ball to the goal line, then brought it back and left it for Bernat while he moved back, confusing the Porto defenders. The result was that three Porto players were around Gotze, not knowing which player they were to mark and marking neither, while the CBs of Porto were focused by the ball movement and not marking Thiago, who ghosted between the two from behind their back.

The result was that the two key players in that play, Bernat and Thiago, were left completely free to act. The second goal, as said, resulted from height advantage and switch of play, the ball going left towards the far post, then right towards the near, where Boateng waited. Porto left space on the flanks, and Bayern exploited it with Lahm, who mostly unopposed started launching crosses. Players getting the ball in the center switched it immediately towards the wings, from where it could be returned.

Bayern also employ quite a lot of cutbacks, which is another form of switch of direction. Basically the wide attacker races towards the goal line, then cuts back towards the zone in front of goal. False runs on the far post drag defenders, which means that when the cutback comes, there is often a free striker coming from the second line to receive that pass and shoot unopposed. Those penetrations are more successful with Robben and Ribery, but with Lahm, Gotze, Rafinha and Bernat Bayern have lots of backup potential.

However, those are schemes designed to overload a stubborn opponent. The usual way in which Bayern overcome opponents is by fast-paced pass and movement, the positional play, juego de posición for which Pep’s Barça was known. Against Barça I believe that Bayern will try to use another Pep tactic, pressing, asphyxiating pressing of the midfield to force turnovers and probably take advantage of space in Barça’s half. It may require numerical superiority in midfield, because apart from contesting the ball, Bayern will need to shut down the channels left and right, where the trios Alba-Iniesta-Neymar and Alves-Rakitic-Messi operate.

How can Bayern be defeated then? One weakness of the high line and solid block is that it leaves lots of space behind the defense. On occasion Bayern has played so high, that there is no way to set up an offside trap. When Wolfsburg defeated Bayern 4-1, it was through counters, and for one of those goals the Bayern defense was ten meters in the Wolfsburg half, which meant that when De Bruyne got the ball almost at the centerline, he was on side and was uncatchable. Another way, which Porto showed, is through pressure to create forced errors and turnovers against Bayern defenders. For that to happen the whole team has to defend and press, so that there are few passing options and the ball-carrier can be attacked from multiple directions. This is one reason why Barça’s defenders need to be proficient with the ball, so that they can pass under pressure and build up from the back. This is also why Pep is using Javi Martinez as a CB whenever he can.

A key thing to consider will be stamina. If either or both teams decide to press, they will need rested legs. In that aspect Bayern have it a bit more difficult overall. Since last international break the missing starters meant that Guardiola had to employ often the same players in different positions. The German Cup matches against Bayer and Borussia were both decided after penalties, which meant additional minutes and fatigue accumulated.

Lahm has played 669 minutes including the full game vs Dortmund, but he was rested against Bayer on Saturday. Bernat has played 645 minutes, including 120 vs Dortmund and 120 vs Bayer, and he rested against Bayer. Rafinha has played 760 (120 Dortmund and 120 Bayer), Dante 660, Boateng 642 and Benatia 272. From the midfielders Xabi has played 584 including the two full 120 matches, Thiago has played 473 minutes after coming back from his long injury, Schweinsteiger 312, Gotze 654 and Muller 702 minutes. Lewandowski has played more than anybody else, 780 minutes. Pep Guardiola rested all his undisputed starters against Bayer in the weekend, and that may give us a clue as to who will play today. Boateng, Bernat, Alonso, Lewandowski and Muller all missed the game, whereas Benatia and Thiago were subbed in for Javi Martinez and Lahm after just over an hour.

In comparison, Luis Enrique’s fitness and rotation regimen lets Barça come in the game with a bit fresher legs both in terms since International break and overall. From the players who aren’t Messi, Neymar and Suarez, Alves has played the most, 672 minutes. Alba has 414, Pique 630, Masche 510 and Bartra 180. Mathieu was discarded from the squad due to Achilles tendon discomfort, but were he available, he would’ve played with 430 minutes in his legs. In midfield the situation is eye-raising. Only Busquets has more than 500 minutes, 640. Rakitic has 450, Xavi 390, Iniesta 408. It is only in attack where Bayern are fresher, with Messi having played 810 minutes, Neymar 794 and Suarez 757. Furthermore, the whole of the “Gala XI” played a full game in the scorching heat of Cordoba. That could’ve caused fatigue, even though in the second half of that game, as in quite a few before, Barça lowered the tempo and emulated Messi, walking mostly, with a few jogs and the occasional sprint when it was necessary.

Before I give you my lineup, we should remember that the match is 180 minutes, Bayern have nothing else to play for, and Guardiola plays much better at home – this season Bayern drew 0-0 against Shakhtar before winning 7-0 at home, lost 1-3 away to Porto before they defeated them 6-1 at Allianz Arena. A lot would depend on the form of the players, but I believe Pep will still come out with his best eleven. Javi Martinez has played a single 63-minute game, but at the same time he was the undisputed starter for Guardiola. Guardiola will need a mobile defence capable of playing the ball and bringing it forward, and for that both Alonso and Martinez would be great. I also believe that Lahm may return to the RB spot with Thiago or Weiser in front of him. The midfield in this case would consist of Thiago, Muller, Scweinsteiger and Gotze, not necessarily in that order. Thiago and Gotze would be providing both creativity and stamina in a midfield that needs to block the trios Alba-Iniesta-Neymar on the left and Alves-Rakitic-Messi on the right. Javi Martinez in defence would provide the ball-carrier that is Alonso currently, letting Alonso the task of marking and pressing Busquets and the rest of the Barça midfielders.

Possible lineup: Neuer; Lahm, Boateng, Javi Martinez, Bernat; Alonso; Thiago, Muller, Schweinsteiger, Gotze; Lewandowski.

Now that I have bored you to tears, if you have even managed to reach the end of this post, there is something I’d like to share, which may piss off a lot of you, and something to ask you.

Sport fans sometimes are illogical. Espanyol fans stand up and applaud as rival player Iniesta is being substituted, then boo and whistle as the greatest Spanish (Espanyol, geddit? :D ) midfielder walks on the pitch. As I typed this, Bayern’s coach, who as if by some cruel joke of fate looked exactly like a slightly aged Barça Legend Pep Guardiola, was in the press room of FC Barcelona explaining in accentless Catalan that Bayern will have to wrestle possession from Barça. He wants to win.

The Bayern midfielder bearing the name of Xavi’s heir-apparent Thiago Alcantara, he’s coming to win. They are the coach and player of Barça’s rival, men who will do their utmost to defeat Barça. They will not step on the Camp Nou pitch to give hugs, but to try and direct that defeat. Pep Guardiola is the great Barcelona coach that brought us lots of joy. He is to be respected for his Barça legacy. But that Pep Guardiola lives outside the walls of Camp Nou, outside the invisible walls marked by white lines, that separate two worlds – the football world and the outside world. On the green carpet inside, Pep Guardiola is not present. Instead, there is the heir of Jupp Heynckes, who was coach of Bayern back in 2012-13. Thiago is not present, there is the successor of Kroos. In the football world on that green carpet, those two are to be defeated.

Today is the 6th of May. In my distant land of Bulgaria today is the day of St. George. In Catalunya he is known as St. Jordi and his symbol, the red cross on white field is on the shield of Barça. Six years ago on this day Iniesta scored in added time against Chelsea.

So, my culer brothers and sisters, eat, eat a hearty meal because we will need the energy required. Do your pre-game rituals as you always do. Don the shirts and the shawls and the hats. Prepare the flags, so that you can be recognized.

Pray, pray with all your hearts like the countless culers who have probably visited Les Corts to pray for victory.
But above all …

Support. Support as you have never before, support our team till your great voices go hoarse. Support not just for yourselves, but for those who are no longer with us. It’s time.

Here we go.

Posted in Champions League, Preview, Thoughts74 Comments

Cordoba 0, Barça 8, aka “Footballing extravagance”

messney

FC Barcelona has, in its last two matches, put up 14 goals.

Those 14 goals have been scored in a variety of ways, from pretty triangles suitable to sate the most devoted purist to over-the-top bombs that make the Premiership devotees say, “Now THAT is football!”

Barça was supposed to put Getafe and Cordoba to the sword, so the wins sit rather squarely in that “Duh!” category reserved for things that are obvious.

What is more worthy of note in the two hammerings is the football. Against Getafe, Barça scored 6 goals that were unstoppable, six of the prettiest goals that a lucky supporter would ever have the pleasure of seeing in a single match. Those goals also continued a trend of Barça playing automatic football, a style that doesn’t care who the opponent is. “If A, then B.”

Some observers call it “automations,” which is similar to automatic. You know your teammates, what they are going to do, can do and are expected to do. Demands are made: Can you handle this pass? Can you finish? Opponents are reduced to frustrated entities relegated to the sidelines as groups of grown men celebrate yet again.

The Getafe goals weren’t just unstoppable. They were high degree of difficulty goals, one-touch volleys off a perfect pass, top-corner-far-side blasts, as if Barça’s attackers were playing a game of Horse. Some noted that this same Getafe team reduced Barça to a 2-2 draw and goalless futility the last two outings, but this is a very, very different FC Barcelona team that teams are seeing now and a very different team than the one that started the season. A collection of talented individuals has been forged into a unified force.

In many ways, the Cordoba match made that even more clear. For the bulk of the first half Cordoba was resolute, a relegation-bound side that was determined to give its home supporters something to cheer about. And there was the sense that it was going to be one of those days as Neymar missed a gimme, Messi cored the Cordoba defense then plopped a poor finish right at the keeper. Then Neymar hit the post.

In the past, this match would have dissolved into a miasma, a weak-minded collective embracing of “Jeez, what will happen next?” This Barça, however, is completely uninterested in such things. More importantly, part of that team forging included building in the ability to score in many different ways. Here is a crazy statistic: Barça lead Europe in headed goals in the Top 5 leagues in 2015. That’s worth thinking about for a second as you plop, stunned, into your chair.

In the past the at-times-stultifying perfection of the single path to goal, a way due as much to the failure of the Ibrahimovic experiment as anything else, meant that the only answer Barça had against a team like Cordoba was to keep chipping at the lock, keep playing exquisite triangles and elegant passes until the defense tired and a crack appeared. If that didn’t happen, it was a 0-0 draw and a celebrating opponent.

Today, right about the time that you could see the Cordoba players huffing and puffing in the stifling heat, hitching up their shorts to get a breeze somewhere, anywhere on their hard-working legs, something wonderful happened: Luis Suarez took a pass and held the ball, surveying his options, biding time. A little run into the box sparked Cordoba defenders into action, whereupon Suarez fed the ball to Messi, standing in space just outside the Cordoba box. Rakitic, one of the “other guys” who can thrive when playing with three danger men, made the run and Messi’s pass was in the exact right spot for him to tee it up and almost rip the back of the Cordoba net out.

"What you just did? Do that again."

“What you just did? Do that again.”

It was a goal created by the team’s two best goal scorers, both of whom were more than happy to pass if that was what it took to put the ball into the back of the net.

But aside from the goal, something more wonderful happened as Barça changed tack, going from a passing team that probed for openings to a direct side looking to take advantage of slivers of space. This change came just as many of us noted that Barça, by playing in that deliberate, logical manner that found the ball at the center of the Cordoba defense, was making it easy for the defense. And because team football isn’t just 47 passes and a perfect goal, the collective started playing a different kind of football, on the fly.

A team is a unit that disdains individual glory for the sake of the whole. It’s a military worldview that hews to the tribe mentality of sports, but it’s also fitting. If everyone doesn’t do his job, the team isn’t as good as it can be. Suarez passes because that is the option. Messi passes because that is the option. And when Rakitic roofed that goal, that was it for Cordoba.

The second goal came at the worst time possible for a home team hanging on against a superior opponent: just before the half. This, too, was the kind of goal that we haven’t seen lately. Route one football? Okay, maybe. But more importantly there was an improvisational adaptability on display, helped by a player who changes not only game plans, but the available skill sets of Barça players. The Iniesta pass to Suarez was remarkable, even more so than the delicate touch that Suarez took to prod it past the keeper, a one-touch goal of which we have been seeing so many of this season.

Barça celebrate goals as a team. Neymar is the only player who will (occasionally) celebrate by himself a bit, before joining in with the team. Usually the player who provided the pass is the one first acknowledged in the scrum of delight, as it should be. Barça also play as a team. A thing remarked upon by many during and after the Getafe match was how the goal scorer seemed to provide the assist for the next goal scorer, a “first me, then you” mentality that points to true unselfishness.

Leading that team charge is the best player in the game, Messi. As much bile as I heap upon this board, we should give credit where it’s due for the acquisition of Neymar and Suarez. When Messi called them out for not giving him a competitive team to be part of, hundreds of millions were spent to rectify that situation. And Messi, almost with a visible sigh of relief, is happy to share the wealth, happy to not have to carry the team on his back for it to have success. With that flourishing team dynamic almost comes uncertainty for opponents.

In the past, when Messi got that pass from Suarez, he would have ran at goal. No question. Defenses were comfortable because they could mass at the center and play for that lone possibility. Now, nobody knows. Earlier in the match, Messi eviscerated the Cordoba defense, then plopped a weak shot at the keeper. With that fresh in their minds, the “Holy crap!” hesitation was evident as Messi got the ball. But he passed to Rakitic, and that was that. He’s playing with players who, if not equals, who he trusts to be able to deliver.

When Neymar and Messi went for a loose ball in front of the open net. Messi got there just a fraction before Neymar, and the wake of the goal was characterized by both players, hugging inside the Cordoba net. Later, when Neymar earned a penalty, Messi let him take the shot. Suarez, who was on a hat trick, made the pass in an effort to set up a teammate for a goal. Individual statistics aren’t a casualty of this team play. It almost seems as if the players don’t really care about those individual accomplishments. Messi is battling Ronaldo for pichichi, something you wonder if his fans care about more than he does, as he and Neymar shared a giggle before Messi handed off the PK duty. Suarez’s passes were as delightful as his goals.

suarez

There is a similarity to the Rijkaard teams in this Barça, even as so many hold them up to the Guardiola avatar. Ronaldinho was the frontman for that squad, a buck-toothed genius who reveled in getting people the ball, taking more joy in an assist than a goal of his own. That quality was infectious as the team pinged the ball around in a possession-based attacking style led by a player who seemed to make passes on a dare. “Bet you can’t.” Bang.

Iniesta has always been capable of the sort of pass that led to his first (a stunning stat) Liga assist this season. But he hasn’t had a player to play them to. Suarez is the kind of player, playing the kind of game that makes you wonder what might have happened had Barça gotten a proper 9 before now. In all the talk of False 9 and systems, they were all tactics rooted in the failure at Barça of a grand experiment that started brightly, then dissolved into a late-night, half priced poaching by AC Milan.

As people snark and snarl about what this or that coach might have done, it’s more important to celebrate the wonder of this group of players, who are still in contention for the Treble. But it is just as important, as people worry about Barça somehow “bottling it,” to admit once again that this has already been a wonderful season. Even if nothing is won, if the team loses at Atleti and falls in the Liga, loses in the semis to Bayern then has its fate sealed on a fluke late goal by Athletic Club, the temptation would be to let those results dictate the story.

But, when the team and its coach stood accused of playing the wrong way while winning, the accusers said that results didn’t matter. What was true then is true now, as we celebrate a group of players who are arriving as a united force far ahead of schedule. Sometimes it isn’t the destination, but rather the journey. Celebrate and enjoy, no matter what.

team

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts13 Comments

Resolving Thiago, aka “It’s just business”

Thiago Alcantara.

As the midfielder strolls onto the Camp Nou pitch next week clad in a Bayern Munich shirt, it’s safe to say that the culer world will erupt. Should the player do anything decisive, the rumbles will rupture social media and the space-time continuum. The mind strains to think of a more polarizing transfer than this one, for so many reasons. And it will probably be forever thus, for no rational reason.

When people draw sides in the Thiago matter, it’s pretty much “Traitor! You took advantage of the club!” or “That stupid board screwed up and sold a gem for a pittance.” Neither is entirely accurate even as both are true. The player did take advantage of a situation that he engineered, and the club did screw up, and sell him for below market value. But it isn’t that simple.

At my day job we, like every other company in the market, have a difficult time retaining talented young employees. If anyone reading this is talented and young, you probably know exactly what’s going on. Offers. More offers. It isn’t that the gifted young’uns aren’t being treated and paid well, but rather that they are in extremely high demand. If you are young and talented, companies will make promises and throw gobs of money at you. And they should, just as you should weigh those offers in the context of your future and your ambition. Duh.

Is it logical to be any more or less bothered by a young writer leaving than Thiago? Sport breeds passion, and passion ain’t always calm and rational. Throw in a board that nobody likes, a president nobody likes, a season that nobody liked and it’s pretty easy for taint to spread. Thiago left for a better job. That is his right and frankly, obligation.

He isn’t a traitor, nor a mercenary. He is just a worker who wants what is best for himself. In one situation he had a team with a midfield that was stuffed with icons in Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi. Fabregas was also there. There was board instability, an ill coach and a team that didn’t know which way from up, that might have even needed some rebuilding, which delays the trophy acquisition process for a hungry young player.

On the other side of the scales he had a beloved coach who had just taken over a juggernaut poised for world domination, a coach who said to him, “Come here and play for me.” A starting role and more money beckoned, as well. Certainty over uncertainty. What athlete in his right mind wouldn’t choose this?

“He doesn’t love the club” is nonsense. We see players and coaches leave a club and sit at a press conference, weeping like a baby with a full diaper. They love their club but they love themselves more, and need to make the decision that is best for No. 1. That isn’t avarice. That’s common sense.

On the other side of the ledger, all the talk about Thiago being upset over playing time, not starting more, being played less than Xavi, a player that people now throw themselves at the feet of, weeping, isn’t supported by logic, either. You don’t make life decisions in a fit of pique. Thiago isn’t that silly, nor are his advisers. He knew what his path to the XI was at Barça, and that surely factored into his decision.

And forget about the board choosing to sell him or forcing the sale, because those don’t stand up to the test of logic, either. “Hey, I got a GREAT idea! Let’s sell the brightest midfield talent to come out of La Masia since Iniesta to a major European rival, for a below-market price. Genius, right?” This has become part of the Legend of ZubiZa, as well as he and his team being stupid enough to negotiate a playing time clause for an irreplaceable gem. Would they have transferred Thiago had they had a choice? Of course not.

Some culers will say that Thiago negotiated a low buyout in exchange for other considerations, then took advantage of the club. That isn’t logical, either. Every negotiation is a risk. Does anyone think that, had the team played him enough to activate his higher buyout clause, there wouldn’t have been an unhappy player and Maxinho saying stuff to the press? Is the difference between 25 and 40m, for a club that churns a half-billion in revenue, worth dealing with for that? Xavi wasn’t going anywhere. Neither was Iniesta. Fabregas’ situation was still unknown, but Xavi and Iniesta STILL weren’t going anywhere, and Alexis Sanchez was also capering about in that worldview. It’s still a regular spot in the XI at a better team in Bayern vs sharing time. (Yes, those players are all different but in the same pot. Is it Total Football or not?)

The club wouldn’t have acceded to the contract stipulation had it not been fully aware of the possibility of losing the player to a buyout activation. If a club wants to make sure a player stays, a buyout clause is attached to him that removes doubt because a clause can always be negotiated down if necessary. It was a calculated risk that didn’t pay off for the club, as much from a P.R. sense as a market value one.

“Thiago was easily worth 50m.” No, he wasn’t. Not to Barça. It’s also worth asking whether Bayern would have paid 50m for him. No idea. Situations dictate a player’s price as much as the market does. How much would Thiago have gone for at auction? Considerably more than 25m, which doesn’t make that price a terrible one. Yes, board members saying that the transfer was good business rankles, but the challenge is always to step back from the passion, filter out the noise and ask questions.

One might be “What is love?” The follow-up would be whether players “love” teams in the same way in the here and now? Not likely. Not if he’s young and talented. It’s easy to love Almeria if you’re a journeyman. For a player like Thiago, there is too much money in the game. It was Alexis Sanchez’s dream to play for Barça, his promise to a dying relative. “Wait … how much?” There is a reason that all of the club legends, the one-team players are old dudes, and it isn’t just a chronological accident. Players such as Maldini, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi are unique, and not only in playing ability.

They are tied to their club in a way that makes that relationship special. I can no more see Messi, with prime playing time left in his legs, wearing the shirt of another club than I could imagine Puyol doing so. Taking late-career paydays is a very different thing. Those players love the club, grew up in the club, owe what they are to the club. The young, modern player often has a different view of his talent and obligation to a club.

“I played for them, gave them my all, now it’s time to move on.” And that’s a fair decision.

Thiago did what he had to do for the sake of his own ambition and development. So did the club. 25m for a talented youth player isn’t horrible business. Zlatan Ibrahimovic for 24m, in installments is horrible business. The prices of other players in the market are often cited, but they have zero bearing on Thiago’s situation, because a buyout is what a buyout is. When the clause is activated, that is the number. Bayern paid it and Thiago left.

To be sure, there is a fiscal cost and a sporting cost. When Xavi leaves, who will inherit the mantle of the greatest midfielder to ever play the game? Will the club have to buy a player, and if so, will that player cost more than it would have cost to keep Thiago, who it must be said is immensely talented, but isn’t Xavi, who is a once in a lifetime player. Too many questions.

Still other questions. Would the presence of Thiago have hastened the departure of Xavi? Thiago was the future, Xavi is the present. How would that have gone over? No idea, but worth considering. Kick Xavi to the curb, or take a risk on Thiago? Yikes. And imagine the muttering and grumbling in some quarters had Thiago been sitting on our bench for a year, rehabbing from various injuries while making the money it would have taken to keep him. Imagine lots of things.

Logic dictates that situations develop as they will. The club got a good amount of money and cruises on. Thiago got a better job, and cruises on. All the rest strikes me as rhetoric by people with a point to prove in an inflamed situation, exacerbated by idiocy such as “Sergi Roberto is just as good.”

When a talented young writer leaves for a better job, journalists celebrate with drinks, say “Congratulations,” and move on. Because that is life. No real reason for football to not be as complete a part of life as any other employment situation.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Thoughts, Transfers/Transfer Rumors79 Comments

Joy and Giddiness: Getafe and the General Brilliance of Barça

Another day, another guest post from Isaiah. When it rains, it pours. You can find him on Twitter as @rockofthune.

There’s no space, I think. There’s no space, I repeat, maybe out loud, maybe still in my head. I’m not sure. There’s no spa—and the ball is wedged in like some spherical needle, finding that miniscule void that I swear wasn’t there, but I guess I just didn’t see it. And then on on replays I swear never it existed. What is this unfathomable magic?

I’ve played this silly game of ours for a few years now; nothing special, just a bunch of intramural seasons, a few glorified intramural matches after graduating, and and a lot of pick up. Most of my teammates were and are far better than I am. I learn a lot from them, including how to understand spacing, how to see passing lanes, and which bars are the best for post game drinks. I’m routinely envious of footskills, which I have few of, always jealous of the ambidextrous, and constantly bamboozled when I’m stuck on defense. So I’m no stranger to just closing my eyes and thinking “talent” whenever something magnificent happens on the field.

And yet—there was no space. This is the joy and the wonder that this game and this team, my team, our team, can evoke. I remember the absolute glee that came with witnessing Ronaldinho’s standing toe poke against Chelsea, the stares I gave the TV when Messi made the supernatural look simple, or the giddy sputtering when, more recently, Iniesta being a kind grandpa to PSG: “Lovely afternoon, fellow footballers, how about I just mosey on over here with the ball? Oh! Cheeky monkey! Stop trying to take the ball from me, though I admire your efforts, they appear to be real. Anyone care for a casual pass and goal? Take care, everyone, I hope you have a lovely evening, especially you, Mr. Luiz, though I recommend you work on your positioning.

From Rivaldo to Ronaldinho to Messi (with a fair few others mixed in), I’ve watched a surprising number of goals that made the hairs on my neck stand on end. That’s quite a thing, really, to experience on a regular basis. There are goals like the Iniestazo or anything against Madrid that are more guttural, more like primal screams than celebrations, more like vocalized manifestations of the bitter fear that has fallen out of my fandom. Instead, these goals, the ones that are sometimes mundane, or sometimes brilliant, bring joy. The kind that’s a smile and a high five; the kind where, if you’re alone on your couch watching a stream at odd hours, you just sit back and look away from the screen after you’ve seen it, like “wow, hi world out there, you missed that.” A secret smile to yourself that comes back from time to time when you’re in a boring meeting, on the subway, or in the 60th minute of basically every Barça game ever when there’s that crazy lull and you’re trying to wile away the time until the squad wakes up again.

I have a routine now, with games. If it’s late and my daughter is asleep, I have to be quiet, which is hard when a goal rips the “WOOOO” right out of my throat, but generally, I just wiggle in my seat and pump my arms and my wife extends a hand for as many high fives as are necessary to get me through my fit of happiness. The first PSG knockout match had about a thousand. And then there was Getafe.

Oh my.

I was interested in the tactics, the formations, the general game for just under 9 minutes. Then Bartra stepped up, fired a sizzling pass to Suarez, and that was that for the game. Whatever we think about how games develop, if there was a narrative to that game, it wasn’t “another final” like Sport continues to call everything from actual matches to tweets about the latest Barça gear on offer. There was no pressure on display, no relief at the first goal, which was taken with such nonchalance that I thought for a moment that maybe the whistle had gone and he hadn’t really hit it. Or that the “panenka” I was watching was at least far less dramatic than El Loco Abreu’s match winner against Ghana. I giggled, which I’m not accustomed to doing at penalties. I pumped my fist afterwards, sure, but that doesn’t erase the existence of that primary reaction.

The second goal was brilliant in so many ways. I don’t know what I would have thought had I seen it live, because the stream I was watching died and I had to pull up another one only to see the team celebrating and to hear the commentator basically vocally ripping his own clothes off and jumping in a lake. But the goal that summed up the game for me was this one:

The goal itself is good, but the celebration is even better. The team’s reactions were not relief or clenched-fist chest pounds, they were amazement at the brilliance and quality from their captain. Adriano’s huge grin, Rafinha’s disbelieving hug, Neymar’s Lambeau Leap, Messi’s “Ha! Isn’t that fun? That’s why I do it so much!” look, and Xavi’s own smirk of self congratulations as he headed back to his own half for the restart. This is a team having fun, not a team pushing the limits of their bodies to achieve sporting success. Certainly they are doing that too, but it’s so much easier when you’re doing it with friends.

I didn’t see this coming and I’m elated. I don’t know that I made any specific predictions prior to the season, but thinking back to the state of the team and my own negativity toward the Suarez deal and the transfer ban, I think I would have said no titles or at most La Liga. I didn’t expect to be in the semifinals of the Champions League or the Copa final; I didn’t expect to see Abidal strolling through NYC, feeling up cars for some reason; and I didn’t expect to be having this much fun.

It’s not only that I’ve lost my fear, it’s that I’ve gained back a measure of joy alongside the team. Maybe it’s not the ability to thread a pass through nonexistent spaces, but instead the delight that they take at doing what they do that is the real unfathomable magic. If you didn’t watch that video embedded above to the very end, go back and do it. Watch Munir and Alba. That’s not a set of players worried about playing time or first team contracts. Sometimes it feels forced when a team celebrates, but this is just kids out for a day at the stadium.

And it’s infectious. I hope you’ve caught it too.

Posted in Thoughts18 Comments

Belief and belonging, without fear: Bayern thoughts

This is a guest post by Isaiah, BFB founding father and one damn fine writer. He is @rockofthune on Twitter.

With the speed of a hand pulling a plastic ball out of a hopper, the world seemed to flip upside down. A growing sense of bravado, a feeling of skill and power cultivated over the course of months, was all blown to smithereens in an instant, turned into sweaty-palmed quaking. It was Bayern Munich and we are all going to die. There was much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. They say dogs can smell fear, that they become more aggressive at its scent; if dogs could smell #fcblive they would have gone mad with blood lust.

When I received the texts saying we had drawn Bayern, I realized that I’m no longer afraid.

I’ve worn Barça hats throughout the last decade or so (interchanged randomly with Kansas Jayhawks hats and once a surprisingly long-lasting Nike Total 90 hat that I got for free somewhere and found comfortable) and on game days I often don a home or away jersey, depending on where the team is playing. Today I even wore a Barça jacket because of the slight chill in the air. I also babble endlessly about formations, tactics, and individual matchups while my wife zones out or simply leaves the room. I get shout outs for my team affiliations from random strangers and I get to smugly sneer at the backs of those who wear Real Madrid shirts. I refer to the club as “we” and my wife knows to walk with a lighter tread when they lose (especially when it’s Kansas in the tournament).

There was a time, not all that long ago, in fact, that I would have been terrified. It would have been a secret fearfulness, hidden behind anger and chest-pounding; fear would have driven me to write a preview focusing on minutiae and using war-imagery instead of, you know, having talent. But the “we” I often use for my favorite sports teams is just a default setting in my brain for wanting to belong and belonging is something that I do thanks to the part about watching and enjoying, not the part about crowing to others foolish enough to fail to join my cool crowd of winners. The flip side of that is, of course, the tears and anguish when I am shown, by dint of my team losing, that I am no longer part of the cool crowd of winners. Now I am the own who should be ashamed to wear my Barça gear in public until the next season. Or some such. There is spillover into the pre-match hype, the corporate-sponsored Champions League draws; fear grows ever greater.

Going in to the Barça-Espanyol match there was the knowledge that a loss would in all likelihood see Real Madrid take the top spot in La Liga and probably the title at the end of the season. A draw could result in that doomsday scenario where the top 2 were tied on points and Real Madrid’s extra goal at home would mean Barça lost—again!—thanks to a worse head-to-head record. A visit to Sport produced a headline to the effect of “Holy Monkeys, Batman, Win or Go Home!” A visit to EMD provided “adlfuweofiuasdlfjadfs”. Marca had something about celebrities disrobing on social media. This, after a day of fraught Barça Twitter chatter about how we’re all going to die when Pep Guardiola strides into the Camp Nou in his open-sided trousers, was enough to crush any knowledgeable fan.

But I am not afraid. I shouted with joy and consternation throughout the Espanyol match, depending on the particular details of the moment. But I also read a series of Sandra Boynton books to my daughter—Hippos Go Beserk really is the best—and it was actually really fun. I paused during Oh My, Oh My, Oh Dinosaurs right at my favorite line (“Dinosaurs crammed in an elevator”–you parents know what I’m talking about) to pass judgment on Mateu Lahoz’s farcical decision to send off Jordi Alba. And I walked out with 10 minutes to go because my wife had finished preparing dinner. Sure, I raced back to check as soon as the meal was over, but I wasn’t afraid.

That’s the difference between me now and me during the Rijkaard years: I’m not afraid of losing. If we lose, I’ll be sad because I’m a competitive so-and-so, but I’m not afraid. Losing happens. Sometimes a lot if you stick around long enough. When I first began watching this team play, they were hardly the world beaters they are today. They lost and they kind of lost often. Then they won sometimes and that was great too. And when they kept winning and winning and stopped losing basically ever, fear that they could lose started to creep in. It was around every corner, every match was do-or-die. What if Madrid could claim to be better than us because we didn’t crush, say, Hercules or Celta Vigo? What if the guy who sits down the hall behind his Real Madrid-adorned cubicle wall gets to stop by and annoyingly click his wedding ring on his coffee cup while asking how the weekend went? I want to do that to him.

Now I don’t worry about that, though I still wonder who would marry a madridista. Now I read up on the team in my spare time and I don’t wake up before big games with my heart in my throat. I still shout obscenities at TVs during games (some habits never die) and I would probably never visit Mateu Lahoz’s optometrist, but for now I’m a happier fan and I don’t even have the vitriol I had during that one insane run of Clasicos that basically killed everyone in the world, even if they’d never heard of Jose Mourinho’s stupid face.

I belong because this is my team. I belong whether we win or lose. I belong because this is a team that matters to me, personally. But now I am not afraid. And it is wonderful.

Posted in Champions League, Thoughts36 Comments

Espanyol 0, Barça 2, aka “Fully operational Death Star?”

messi

As an athlete, you structure a training plan. It begins with an ambition. Then comes the structure of what you need to reach that goal. Then you implement the plan. Usain Bolt doesn’t start his season running 9-second 100 meter dashes. So when FC Barcelona, under its new coach Luis Enrique, started the season clearly building something, why wasn’t the long view taken, why wasn’t the necessary time granted?

Rewards have been coming thick and fast from this football team, against Sevilla, Valencia, Manchester City, PSG and today, probably in its fullest flower so far, the Catalan derby against Espanyol.

I have knocked heads in debate with people who have said that Enrique’s Barça, even when playing well, has been not exactly right because there wasn’t the required positional play, the kind of player and ball movement that makes an opponent and what they do immaterial. My contention has been that you have to account for the opponent, blablabla.

I have never felt more wrong than today’s match against Espanyol, as Barça played theoretical football. To be sure, it was against a mid-table side in Liga, a side who even with the match of its life probably wasn’t going to get much more than a draw, but nonetheless … for the first time this season, Barça played sustained “To hell with you” football.

During the heyday of the exceptional San Francisco 49ers teams in American football, their coach, Bill Walsh, had a certain number of plays that he would start the game with, and he never deviated from those plays. His belief was if we execute these plays as we should, the people on the other side of the ball don’t matter.

As a positional ideal, Barça football uses spatial control to be successful. Whether the opponent is RM, or Sevilla or Espanyol or Almeria, if you take the ball and strike it so to this player who does exactly this in this way, something good will happen. The opponent reacts to you and what your players do with the ball and how they move. Properly implemented, positional football is as indefensible as the two Barça goals were, even as the second was “sullied” with a bit of individual excellence from Messi.

There were runs into space, pinpoint passes that accounted for the run of a teammate and one-touch grace under pressure, confidence rooted in belief built on the training pitch that a teammate is going to be where you put the ball. For the first goal, Suarez dummied a pass that he had an 80% probability of scoring from, because Neymar had a 100% probability of scoring. That was an extraordinary thing, a little tribute to our late Mister on the anniversary day of his passing, a man in Tito Vilanova who always emphasized team football and the whole being stronger than the individual. In a fitting bookend for this match, it also occurred on the birthday of Johan Cruijff, who brought a total footballing idea to Barça, an ideal on vivid display today.

What makes that Suarez dummy even more extravagant is that he is an 81m signing who was brought to Barça to score goals. He has been The Man wherever he has gone. At Liverpool, there is no question that he takes that ball, and the shot. At Barça, he dummies it for Neymar. When we think about the work that has gone into building an excellent football team by the coach and his staff, it isn’t just the movement and passing, the Xs and Os that define match theory. It’s the psychology of being part of a team: making the extra pass, trusting a teammate, building the belief that if you build it, they will come.

neysua

In no player has that transformation been more noticeable and electrifying than in Messi, who essentially played as a 10 today. Think back to the days when Messi had to score 70+ goals in a season, because that was what his team needed. Flash-forward to now, when he can decide what his team needs because he has players such as Neymar and Suarez, who are fully capable of allowing him to play as a 10, delivering otherworldly passes hither and yon. His cross-pitch bomb to set up the first goal wasn’t even his best of the day as he created chances out of nothing, putting a ball into a spot because of the confidence that he has teammates of sufficient quality to not only know what he is planning, but be there to execute the plan.

Espanyol is a good football team that was rendered helpless today as the two goals that they shipped could have easily, were it not for crap finishing by Neymar, been 4 or 5. A ball was spanked full speed to Suarez who just flicked it, one touch for Neymar who was in stride because he knew what was going to happen. That he skied the finish isn’t as important as what happened, as the fruits of the labors of the team and its coaching staff were on full display today. Espanyol didn’t even get a shot on goal until almost the 80th minute.

At the beginning of the season, with the rotations, and experimentation with different ways of attacking, and pragmatism and the gradual building of a program, even those who demanded that Enrique be given time to build his team, could not have foreseen what he was building. It’s easy to wonder what the “Lucho Out!” crew is thinking now, that Barça is playing the best football in Europe, but that isn’t what matters here.

What matters is that a team, a group of players have the capability of doing something that few teams have the capacity to do, which is make football theory into reality. “Okay. Neymar, you start running, because Iniesta is going to hit a pass to Suarez, who will be holding off two defenders, here. Luis, you will flick the ball on … now, a one-touch play is crucial here, or Neymar will be offide. Make sure your flick lands right at Neymar’s feet. Got it? Okay.”

It was exquisite play that, it bears repeating, makes an opponent irrelevant. The second goal was some sort of Druid ritual in the Espanyol box that resulted in a pass falling to Messi. Any other player in world football, receiving a ball at the far post, almost on a path parallel with the goal mouth, decides to reset the attack. Messi shot, and scored. The worst part about that goal is that he does that kind of stuff so regularly we don’t even flinch any longer, never mind falling off our chairs and muttering gibberish.

But as much as the goal, notice the buildup. A long pass is played for Suarez, who is surveying his options as the ball comes to him. He moves toward the box, still looking for options. And there is Iniesta. Suarez pings it to Iniesta, who uses his first touch to pop the pass up so that his next ball will be above the busy feet of the Espanyol defenders, then volleys a ball back to Suarez, who volleys a lob over for Messi. But because the keeper is charging out at him, Messi can’t just slot it home. He has to control the ball in a way that keeps it right on his feet, or the keeper will smother it, then hit a shot across the face of goal with just enough curve to get in, but not so much that a defender can clear it.

iniesta

On video, in real time, it’s just a Barça goal. But to think about and accurately describe what had to happen elevates into something that must make an opponent say, “You guys are assholes. No really.”

Barça has played the kind of football that it played today before during this season, but in fits and starts. More heartening for culers is that the sustained duration of this quality of play is building. Our culer paranoia is reduced to, “Oh crap, they made three straight passes! Doooom!”

Unlike the Sevilla match, even when sent down to 10 men thanks to a stupid Jordi Alba and a preternaturally inept Lahoz, Barça remained in control. Alves was excellent, Mascherano continues to laugh at the people who have to keep making semantic castells of contentions against his presence on the pitch. Suarez was omnipresent and almost always dangerous, and it’s safe to say that Neymar’s slump is over, even as he needs to concentrate in front of goal. He could easily have had a hat trick today, and against a top European side you won’t get many chances to score.

This wasn’t a perfect match for Barça, but such things are impossible. But it might have been the best match that the team has played this season because of the football, and the moment. If this team wants to win the Liga, every league match is a final, as there is no breathing room. Espanyol came into the match on a streak of excellent football, with clean sheets in 5 of its last 7 home matches. They were owned today, by a team whose playing style didn’t care who they were.

Barça did this under the pressure of the knowledge that there is absolutely no margin for error. It is extraordinary to think that the team is a bad Pique pass away from being able to win out the season. It is also extraordinary the way that this team has come into shape as a training and building plan has paid off. From Pique to Iniesta to a still-evolving Messi, this team is playing football at its finest. Even more correctly, it is playing Barça football.

"Hey! Hey! Pretty good, huh?"

“Hey! Hey! Pretty good, huh?”

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts58 Comments

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

It’s boxing day.

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

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

Messi

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

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

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

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

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

The new (old) Barça

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

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

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

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

The power of memory

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

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

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

History

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

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

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

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

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

What about weaknesses?

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

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

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

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

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

Finally

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

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

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

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

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Goodbyes, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts29 Comments

The Crusades of football opinion

Drama.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The team has something to prove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PSG didn’t show up …

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

What’s the fun in that?

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

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

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Barça is ahead of schedule

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

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

So what happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

enrique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mascherano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are many ways to interpret that statement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts128 Comments

The dimmer switch of opinion

“He’s the greatest!”
“He’s NOT the greatest!”

Being a football fan is being exposed to reactions like an on/off switch in a world that often requires a volume knob. Maybe the player, coach or technical director is neither the best nor the worst. Maybe he just is.

No, your manager, your star player, your icon sucks because he is human. He sucks because he is subject to the frailties that humans suffer: mental errors, a failing body, aging, crafty opponents, teams who want nothing more than to get something, anything against him.

But most of all, he sucks because we as supporters understand so little about what really happens on and (more importantly) off the pitch. We think we understand what we think we know, and rush to judgment often based on little more than ignorance and a hunch. “He can’t be like that, I know him too well.” Sorry, but for all we know Xavi dresses like Genghis Khan in his private life, and worships Satan. It isn’t possible for anyone to be as good as their devoted supporters believe.

So much that we see about a team we support, the players we slavishly follow is artifice. Laurence Fishburne can’t fly off a building. That’s Morpheus, a character he played in a movie. The players, the coaches aren’t pretending to be what they appear to be. But they are controlling, crafting and creating something for us. What is so beautiful about a player like Messi is that he just wants to play, just wants the ball. But if you think that some of the negative stuff that is ascribed to him can’t have happened because “He would never do that,” if you rush to his defense based on nothing more than a sheepish grin and a love of the game, reconsider.

We don’t know. We can’t know. But that very simple statement will cause someone to think, “He hates Messi.”

Something strange has happened to our game. Before there was Twitter and a world that moved at the speed of a voice with thousands of followers, things seemed more measured. There was a volume knob rather than an on/off switch. “Greatest ever!” “Sucks!” In between those two poles is a chasm of thoughtful discourse that gets plowed over like a tank rolling through a daisy patch.

It’s now, it’s immediate, it’s a need for a right now reaction. When the Bayern physio resigned Thursday, nobody knew why. That didn’t stop people from knowing exactly why. Some asked questions, and were called haters. Others seemed to criticize Guardiola and were excoriated for being blasphemers rather than for people who committed the simple error of a rush to judgment based on incomplete data. Reasons are essential. Barça drew because Enrique made the wrong subs. It isn’t the goal conceded through an error but the goal not scored that is the culprit. And here are tactical diagrams to prove it!

Like Barça, Bayern is a roiling cauldron of a fanbase, a team that comes with an expectation set that is even more oppressive than that of the Liga big two because there is only the big one in the Bundesliga. Sport, MD, AS and Marca all combined to go wacky on a single team. The most money, the biggest stars, the brightest transfers and two seasons ago, the most desirable coach in the game. Put all that stuff in a pot and you have the makings of a stew called crazytown.

When something happens, when anything that isn’t supposed to happen happens, it all begins. Culers understand this because we live and perpetrate it. In November, Enrique was a dead duck. It was criminal that the board didn’t fire him. He was arrogant, hated the press and treated them like crap. Probably treated his players the same way. Lucho out, with vehemence, aggression and extreme prejudice. Woe betide the person who said that we didn’t know yet, that we should give it time.

But football is old, wise and patient. It knows even when we don’t, and there are so many things that we are never, ever going to know. Enrique and Messi were on the outs. Lucho out! Just a training match row over a call? No! Never! How real was the crisis that the team faced after the inevitability of dropping points after an international break away to La Real? It depends on who you ask, but the simple thing is that we have absolutely no idea.

In many ways what the 24-hour news cycle, fueled by social media has done is create unmeetable expectations, a hunger that fuels extremism. A fanbase hears that a respected physio has resigned, a Vine of a manager reacting to something gets out and before you know it, lines are drawn and villains created.

What made Sir Alex Ferguson so extraordinary is that for decades, in a tempest of a league, he remained at or near the top. If you look at the Premiership champions list over the last two decades plus, United won 13 of 22 times. That is stupefying. What makes it even more incredible is that money and talent came to the Prem. Chelsea had a turn, then United resumed. Arsenal had a glorious year, then United returned. City got a couple, then United returned. And when Ferguson left, United stopped winning titles.

This is so astonishing not because of what United is and what it accomplished, but because that just doesn’t happen in this day and age. Strong squads, weak squads, injuries and clunky transfer decisions and United kept winning, defying the odds of everything that makes a manager suddenly suck. A couple of key injuries can reduce a contending squad to a Europa league aspirant. Through it all, Ferguson kept on winning. Guardiola amassed a crazy pile of titles during his Barcelona tenure, but time caught up to him, and he moved on to Bayern. Mourinho strikes sparks in the places he goes, but never stays long enough to establish a record, a tenure that makes a colossus. Wenger has stayed, but hasn’t won in a matter attendant to his status.

This all happens as men in short pants scurry about in a sea of expectations. Bayern lost 3-1 to a Porto team that played out of its mind, and capitalized on a couple of defensive errors. Sound familiar, culers, in that world where a draw is a loss?

The simple reality is that sustained excellence of the type that sees off challenger after challenger, that allows a single coach to keep winning and winning at the same club, is as impossible as supporters having a clue what is going on. The whole game has become like the transfer rumor business. “X player is coming for Y million. Talks are ongoing.” X player’s representative says that “Nothing is happening.” Supporters who are against the transfer say, “See? There?” Supporters who are for the transfer say, “But what else would they say?” Nobody knows and everybody knows.

In this space we have seen posts that there is no real right, no real knowledge until something actually happens. Suarez to Barça popped up and many including me called it crazy, based on what? Nothing at all, not even anything purporting to be logic. Wild-eyed supposition? Sure, why not? A doctor resigns, and sides are drawn. “Pep is right, Bayern’s injury record is ridiculous.” “Bayern started having a lot of injuries when Pep took over. His fault!”

The arguments fly, based on nothing more than like or dislike, because we don’t know and nobody will ever say for sure. So we chase logic and answers like the powder-faced fiends in Mack Sennett silent shorts. “It’s over there!” “No! Wait! Over there!” And the people who know don’t say, and don’t show.

Step back, sit tight. Because if this Bayern medicos business hasn’t taught the game something, it’s doubtful we will ever learn – not only about the value of knowledge, but about moderating a worldview. It isn’t what we like, it’s what we know. Not knowing should give us pause, rather than making us charge into a battle armored in little more than supporter-forged confirmation bias.

Posted in Analysis, Thoughts33 Comments

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

messney

This team.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

xavi

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

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

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

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

team

Posted in Champions League, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts77 Comments

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