Football is fun, mostly because it can teach us so much about things, like a crafty old veteran who hunkers down to explain everything that we missed about what we thought we had just watched.
One of the things that football teaches us is that expectations are illogical. As people crowed about Messi popping off the bench to bang in a brace for Argentina, and Neymar popping in four for Brazil against Japan and wondering how many they would score against Eibar, only a few cautioned that friendlies aren’t reality, and space given by a 3/4ths speed friendly opponent can evaporate when the match Matters.
Eibar rolled into the Camp Nou, a newly promoted side who sat in the top 10 of the Liga standings, ready to do battle for the point it arrived with, but willing to take three if fortune smiled upon its eleven warriors. And this wasn’t no stinkin’ friendly.
And while there were chances, as the team whose most expensive, record signing was roughly the same price as the cars that Barça’s sponsor doled out to its glamor boys, held its own through dogged determination, lunges and effort. When all that failed, they had Xabi Irueta. And spirit. The first half ended with Barça having enjoyed 80 percent possession, but with no goals to show for it, but it wasn’t the international break, even as people rushed to claim that excuse.
Eibar was playing its collective asses off. The problem with such a thing is that you run out of ass if you keep playing it off and your opponent, stocked with players who always have just a little more magic in the tank, is laying in wait.
Barça’s first goal didn’t come because Eibar was tired. It came because of an absurd bit of magic that really is a testament to the quality of Eibar’s collective that it took a goal like the one crafted by Xavi and Messi to finally, after more than an hour of play, beat them. Xavi will always tell you that the run dictates the pass, that he is only as good as the movement in front of him. But when that movement wasn’t there, he took it upon himself to demonstrate as he laid a ball to Messi, then moved into the space vacated by a defense that said “Hey! It’s him! And he has the ball!”
Messi just slid the ball through to Xavi, who fittingly, passed the ball into the net. It was goal that looked easy, but was a thing of such speed and precision that it took your breath away. It has to be that good, because Eibar wasn’t making mistakes, playing precisely the kind of disciplined football that thwarts Barça precisely because of the stagnant sort of forward play that makes players have to hold the ball too long, that doesn’t demand the pass through incisive movement. So Xavi had to do it himself.
The second goal as well was a thing of beauty, an even more remarkable feat as Barça, finally clear about the quality of the opponent that it faced, elevated. The goal sounds easy: Alves passed to Neymar who hit it into the back of the net. But if you look at the pass from Alves, which has to be weighted precisely so, and the movement of Neymar, who slides back a bit to make his space, a move that probably, in the first half when the defenders have fresher legs, is followed by his markers. But not this time.
But the bar was already raised so when Alves plopped in that perfect pass and Neymar moved into it, swinging his shooting leg, it was the kind of sweet perfection that saw Neymar hitting the ball exactly so, creating a rocket that left the Eibar keeper helpless, even as he kinda guessed right as to the trajectory of the shot. Like a game of basketball HORSE that requires increasingly difficult shots, Eibar was forcing delightful, top-quality goals. That the best was yet to come was kinda crazy, when you considered what had already transpired.
Neymar was absurd in today’s match, part of the “Shouldn’t Have” brigade. We didn’t need a Brazilian show pony with funny hair, Robinho II, a selfish prat who would do stepovers and dive. Some cautioned, saying players should never be judged, that his talent was real. This season, Neymar is showing exactly why Sandro Rosell wallowed through a shit trench to land him. Because it isn’t just goals. It’s speed of play, associative play, effort, a willingness to fight and a desire to win that subsumes everything.
When a player wants to win, he doesn’t really care who scores, as long as someone does. If that someone is him, cool. If not, okay. But did we win? Yes, there are a great many professionals who have that quality. What Barça has, however, is two players, both among the best in the world, who have that quality. And sometimes, desire+quality=absurdity.
So it was that when Messi worked a play with Neymar, who was ringed by defenders yet laid off the perfect pass for Messi, becoming in effect a pillow-soft wall that enabled Messi to have to think about nothing except the crazy angle he would be required to hit to somehow guide that ball into the back of the net.
And that’s what happened. Great players make sport look easy, and we have no frame of reference. People who play football can understand something of what it must have taken, but without the stupefying skill set that lets you even think to try something like that, an essential component of the evaluative template is missing. So your mind watches, and in effect says something like, “!!!” Because that’s all there is.
This week, the footballing world marked the 10th anniversary of Lionel Messi at FC Barcelona. And a lot of it was weird and kinda maudlin, “I remember when he was good,” and the like. After that goal today, and many of the runs before that, people acted like they hadn’t just spent days piling dirt atop a box that contained a player’s legend.
Messi is still That Messi. Is there the same childlike joy, that “Wheeeee!” factor? Nope. Not as much. There can’t be. Defenses used to let him run around like an unfettered colt because who knew that when he started kicking up his heels, it would result in 90 goals in a calendar year? Messi picked up 2 defenders. Then 3. Then 4. These days, he’s fronted by as many as 5 defenders, would-be spoilsports who, if they can’t stop him legally, will kick a chunk out of him. How in the hell much magic can you create in a world like that?
It’s why when Messi scores these days, they are often wonder goals, because how in the hell else are you going to beat 5 men plus the goalkeeper? It was fitting that Messi’s goal was the most beautiful of the three, because it answered a question that so many inadvertently raised this past week about a player who isn’t performing as many feats of magic, because he can’t. But that same player is, in his own way, becoming even more decisive in a football match. He isn’t the player that he was because he’s in a different world. That he is also a potentially better player right now is rather odd to contemplate.
Run Pedro, run!
Is there a more maligned starter than Pedro right now, a player who, like Seydou Keita, you have to watch to fully understand. But you not only have to watch him. You also have to ask yourself a question: Who is going to do that?
Years back, when Keita was taking a lot of stick for “not doing anything,” I spent an entire match just watching Keita and what he did. Turns out he did a lot, even as he did a lot that you didn’t notice. The complexity with Pedro is not only that he does a lot you don’t notice, but that he used to do a lot that we DID notice, which is scoring goals.
In just the first 20 minutes of the match, Pedro sprinted to the middle from his right-hand phone booth to retain possession. Then he burst his lungs on an unrewarded run. Then he did it again. And again. He held up play twice to keep possession, facilitating Alves. He made more runs, created space with movement, gets back on defense and forward on offense. He made a bad pass, then sprinted over to fight an Eibar player for the ball and break up their attack. He fought for possession, kept it, made a run and created space for Messi during a Messi/Neymar high-wire act.
All in the first 20 minutes.
I get it. Pedro doesn’t score goals any more. The danger in football is that we reduce a player to the thing that he does, which in the case of Pedro isn’t entirely accurate. He’s the Thierry Henry of the Canary Islands, in that Henry did so much for the side, but because he wasn’t scoring goals as people expected, he wasn’t pulling his weight. Meanwhile Guardiola kept playing him, just as Enrique keeps playing Pedro because when all is said and done, somebody has to do the work. So deep into the second half when Messi is standing around, waiting to come to life when the ball comes to him, Pedro is sprinting from the right to left side, to help defend an Eibar attack.
Why? Because somebody has to.
So what happened to Pedro? Where are the goals? This compilation of Pedro goals is an interesting one, because it makes the answer to that question clear: They’re in space. Every last one of the 44 goals that Pedro knocks in during the 3-minutes of video have the same things in common: running space and shooting space. He doesn’t have to beat a defender, or work to find shooting space. He just has to line up the shot and finish.
In the new reality, Pedro doesn’t have space because Barça doesn’t have space. Gone are the days when you could get behind a defense with a well-timed burst, which used to be his stock in trade. Because defenses are packed back, the one thing that can make him go is … well … gone.
The other difficulty for Pedro is that he is stationed on the right, as a winger, a player whose job is complicated in that he is the right winger in name alone. Dani Alves is the functional right winger, which makes Pedro’s job more defensive than almost any attacker you can think of. It also means that when he gets the ball, instead of it landing at his feet on the run in the box, he is getting it in a place where he has to beat a couple of defenders, then make something happen. That is Messi territory, which makes it no wonder his goals have dried up.
And no, this isn’t to defend Pedro, but it is to attempt to explain Pedro. He isn’t terrible, no more than any of the other maligned Barça players are. What he is these days, is a player who is being forced to do something that doesn’t match his skill set, because bigger, brighter players are occupying that team space. So Pedro is That Guy, the one who does all that other stuff. He will help celebrate the goals, and Enrique will pull him aside and say “Nice work,” even if he doesn’t say “Excellent match,” because that, these days, is Pedro’s job, and that’s why he starts, even when names such as Munir and Sandro make supporter lips vibrate.
As Munir found out when he started a match, it’s different when the defense hasn’t been chasing the likes of Pedro around all day. When Pedro can do nothing else, he runs. And he fights. Pedro isn’t starting because everyone else sucks, or he has compromising images that he is blackmailing Enrique with.
He’s that guy, the one who does the stuff.
Triumph of the Unwanteds
During a Twitter chat while today’s match was on, someone “said” to me, in this case about Sergi Roberto, “It’s cos he’s never going to be the best player in the world and apparently Barça shouldn’t have anyone of whom that can be said.” And that’s exactly right.
But again, football teaches us the folly of haste. Javier Mascherano was supposed to be a no-passing card magnet. Today, he started at the DM slot and was brilliant, no less brilliant than he usually is at CB, mostly because a Barça CB is a glorified DM. Yes, the DM has someone behind him in case he errs, but in the high-risk manner of Barça’s defending style, that isn’t always true. So the question is, was Mascherano perceived to have had a better match because people have it in their heads that he isn’t a CB? Interesting, right?
Jeremy Mathieu is a chain-smoking old man, overpriced at 20m, so thank heavens he gave 3m toward his own transfer. But he was still overpriced at the 17m it actually cost the club. Um … okay.
Claudio Bravo. ZubiZa was stupid for signing him. Memo Ochoa was available on a free. Keylor Navas would have been so much better. Sure he has clean sheets, only because he doesn’t have to do anything. Okay. Gotcha.
Sergi Roberto came off after coming out the worst in a collision with an Eibar player, and Ray Hudson, who was calling the match on my U.S. television feed, had very kind words to say about his play, and they were accurate. His first 10 minutes had the stank but then he grew into the match. He isn’t Andres Iniesta, and is never going to be. What he is, however, is that player that teams need: won’t make wrong decisions, will be in the right spot and will work his butt off. If the world of lofty standards that are culer expectations, is there really room for that?
Next Saturday is the Classic. It is also, like in years past, a match before which RM is playing like a horde of marauding Visigoths, whose giant sandals are going to stomp the terra and grind the bones of Sprites to make their bread. Well, maybe. Or maybe not. In the overall scheme of things, the Ajax match on Tuesday is more important to the team’s overall aspirations than the win next Saturday, because the work that the team put in today against a tough, resolute opponent built in the necessary breathing room.
And like today, next Saturday is going to be loads of fun because man, that’s what this game is all about.