To begin at the beginning and with the obvious, Barça is a dysfunctional team. That it is still winning matches is a testament to its extraordinary qualities as a unit, its professionalism and the high individual qualities of its key players.
These qualities were what got the team past a nasty, resolute Betis side in their house today, qualities that as tacticians sit down to dissect various things and find various aspects of this team wanting, resonate. Iniesta is overhitting passes, Pique looks damaged, Suarez is mining a deep trough of the craps, there’s mess everywhere you see.
This team is two matches away from winning La Liga, and three matches away from pulling off a double, the season after winning a treble. It’s individual quality subsumed to the necessities of the whole, and it’s brilliant. Anyone who looks, who wants to see, can notice flaws. But if you look a little deeper, it’s also easy to see a remarkable future taking shape, a potential next level.
The first matches that Messi started playing deeper, complaints roiled Barça Internet. He isn’t where he’s most effective, the system is broken when Messi has to go that deep to get the ball, etc, etc.
Today, both goals came from astonishing bits of football extravagance from a deep-lying Messi. One was, yes, assisted by some Keystone Kops action on the part of a Betis defender and keeper, actions that in no way diminished the pinpoint perfection of the ball that almost sang as it nestled at the feet of Rakitic. It was an audacious pass of the type that doesn’t occur to normal players, because their minds don’t work like that. Messi looked, and acted. And a goal resulted.
The second goal came from a Messi pass that removed five Betis defenders like a coach’s eraser on a white board. Suarez slotted home because it would have been criminal had he done anything else.
Watching football is a curious thing. Many people watch it with their preconceived notions in place, so a deep-lying Messi is wrong. Because he should be scoring goals. But Barça got a striker like Suarez so that Messi didn’t have to score all the goals, a reality borne out in the team statistics that find Suarez outscoring Messi. And as Messi goes from the greatest scorer in the game’s history to potentially the greatest 10 in the game’s history, this is as it should be.
Teams change, players change, systems change, everything changes. It’s up to the folks who are watching — that’s us, y’all — to keep up. It’s easy and hard to judge Barça. We know that they aren’t working properly because they were eliminated in Champions League. The best team in the world isn’t competing for the biggest prize in European football, and that’s wrong. That they came so close only matters to us, and as we watch the semi-finals play out, wondering about the grim bad luck that placed this team at the nexus of internationals and the most difficult opponent in the draw, all we can do is shrug, say that’s life and move on.
Because there’s a revolution happening, possibly. In a previous post, the notion was raised that we don’t know anything, so our reaction is to strive to fit new pieces into existing templates rather that looking to understand what isn’t there because well — it isn’t there. Arda Turan has to be a replacement for somebody, so who is it: Iniesta? Rakitic? What if it isn’t anyone? What if the team is being reconsidered in a new context that involves something other than what we know.
The weird part about that is the Betis match reminded us of the essential qualities of Messi. Barça has matured this season. Messidependencia has ended, which isn’t to say that the influence brought to bear by the best player in history isn’t an outsized thing. The passes that he made to beat Betis in a match that his team had to win, could have been made by no other player on the pitch. He made them, and his team won. His essential qualities are such that he almost seems to exist outside the game, like this benevolent, capricious being that looks down and decides to intervene, like Olympian gods of mythology.
For those with a sense of American basketball history, the Michael Jordan analogies are endless. Toward the end of his career, while still a brilliant player, Jordan decided that he would become a scoring playmaker, something of a basketball 10. He doled out assists via crazy passes that nobody else could conceive of. He also developed a fadeaway jumper, to protect him from the ravages of driving the lane and getting bashed about.
Now look at Messi, who reserves his forays into the box, who rarely runs at gaggles of defenders, who lets young’uns such as Neymar get kicked and stomped, who passes, defends and is becoming more active in the entire game instead of reserving his magic for when he gets the ball and makes one of those runs.
What if Barça is taking shape around this new Messi, if the future of the team is happening right before our eyes, this nascent thing that as with Guardiola and the changes he wrought, we didn’t really see until it was there.
The team isn’t firing on all cylinders because the players are in a state. Physical fatigue leads to mental fatigue, and we see it in passes not made or overhit, balls held too long and runs not made. Suarez was reading the match against Betis like a book written in Sanskrit that was turned upside down. Various players are on comebacks. Jordi Alba was very good today, and Neymar as well. Even as he wasn’t the electric force that led the team when Messi was out injured, he was again decisive and dynamic. And then there was Messi.
It’s impossible to ever know what is going on with the players that we support, what kinds of knocks big and small they are carrying that they try to play through. There was speculation that Messi was injured against this team or that team. Chalk that up to another thing that we don’t know, even as we know the truth of the adage that form is temporary, class is permanent.
Barça, though dysfunctional and going through tactical shifts that are necessary, has many players who define their position. That’s good enough to, on 95% of days, get them through even if the collective isn’t up to snuff. And then there is Messi. There is no player who is discussed more than Messi, and no player who should be as beyond discussion as Messi. From the hormone treatments he received to be able to play for Barça to the constant beatings he took, from coming back early from injuries and being his team’s talisman, Messi has reached the point where there are things that shouldn’t be questioned.
“Is he washed up,” “Is he reaching the end of his career,” “Is he this, is he that?” It’s immaterial. He’s an essential part of this Barça, this beacon that lights up the game like few players have before. He will have off matches, he will have magical matches, and we can certainly make observations about that. But Messi isn’t just beyond benefit of the doubt. His devotion and dedication to the cause make him beyond discussion. Like the capricious supermodel with a clunky Ferrari, you enjoy the beauty when it shows up, and look forward to its appearance when that beauty is absent. Because that’s how life is.
The Messi vs Ronaldo debate is, in some quarters, still raging. The complexity is that there isn’t a standard for Messi. Statistics don’t really make him make sense. How do you quantify the assists that he registered against Betis? On the stat sheets, they’re assists, with a lower-case “a.” There isn’t an annex for moments of genius. And he does things like that with a regularity that makes his exceptional qualities seem almost mundane, like a utility. “Hey, look. It’s Messi. What did he just do?”
He isn’t scoring bags of goals any longer, he’s playing deeper, and it isn’t a tactical flaw. It’s a shift in a team that is happening, necessary tinkering even in the heat of a La Liga title race that will almost certainly go down to the final matchday. It’s a team that is changing, even as the people who follow it, who love it often resist those changes. And it’s a team that wins because it has spectacular individual players, even as it is also a rock-hard collective that has the best player of them all, waiting.
Barça now has an unattainable standard. It must have all of the possession, all of the goals, must concede no goals and also be beautiful to watch. On the same matchday, Atleti didn’t look all that hot against a compliant Rayo Vallecano. The starting forwards were necessary to secure a 1-0 home win, and talk in football Twitter was of the genius of Diego Simeone and getting it done no matter what.
Barça went into what is a stronghold for Betis, won 0-2 and football Twitter talked about how Barça didn’t look good, how it was something of a garbage win. In this space it is a win that was described as “frustrating,” by a team that is below standard.
To be sure, the race goes to the swift, the smart, the strong and the brave. But sometimes it goes to the bedraggled and the limping, who built up a big enough lead to be able to claw home in front or can call upon a last burst to get the job done. And those wins are just as, if not more beautiful.