“First one’s free, sucka.” says the drug dealer who mutters, “You’ll be back,” under their breath as the customer leaves.
Anyone who has seen live Barça understands this feeling. It’s a drug, an adrenaline rush that you almost can’t believe as you are experiencing it, that buzz that begins during the warmup as players display skills we can only imagine possessing. During the match it’s a dizzying roar of magic, the “POOM!” of a foot striking the ball that we are accustomed to during live football is replaced by something more quiet when the Barça players strike the ball with boot, as if they are playing a different game.
You need it. You want it. No sooner has one fix ebbed, than you find yourself looking for ways to get the next one, an itch that can only be scratched one way: witnessing the wonder in person.
Busquets takes a pass on the sidelines as two opposing players hurtle toward him, and you worry because you’re a fool, because you don’t understand the haircut that hides the eyes in the back of his head as he calmly influence peddles a pass to a teammate, who strolls along as if magic didn’t just happen.
Hot on the heels of a live viewing of the Spanish SuperCopa second leg, it’s difficult not to walk away with the idea that Barça plays a different game. TV doesn’t prepare you for the experience. Live is drastically, radically different. The arc of a pass, the curl of an ankle as foot strikes ball, the subtleties of movement. TV can’t provide the vantage point of a seat in the stands, can’t match the three-dimensional purity of witnessing the best at manipulating a wee sphere do what they do.
And at the end of everything, of a whirlwind of motion and elegance, a look at the upcoming Barça season has to begin with a simple statement: This is the best Barça team that I have ever seen.
The persistent, consistent doubt about the coaching skill of Luis Enrique has its echoes of Phil Jackson. Both inherited the greatest player in the game. Both had to assemble a cast around that player to work with the skills of a transcendent athlete. People say that their greatest skill is getting egos to work together, and the leave the coaching genius talk for others — Pat Riley during the Jackson days, Pep Guardiola for Luis Enrique.
As their teams keep winning, continue adapting in a game that wants to do everything to stop them, both coaches kept changing, kept winning and people kept doubting. Guardiola has taken over a new team at Manchester City, and social media fills with coos and gushes as people who used to coo and gush over Bayern now oooh, and aaah when City plays. Guardiola has the genius reputation. Luis Enrique is just a coach.
When his Barça dismantled Guardiola’s Bayern, a host of reasons were given, just as they were when Jackson destroyed Riley’s teams. This player was off, that player made an error, tactical naivete allowed Barça to take advantage of an error of genius, and a flawed juggernaut led by a mere coach got lucky in a way, and because it has the best player in the game, and a front three capable of individual brilliance, the rest is history.
I have seen every iteration of Barça live, from Rijkaard to Guardiola to Vilanova to Enrique. We talk of systems, of innovations and ways of playing, of technicians and tactics. Sometimes we need to ignore team building if it doesn’t suit a notion. But when Luis Enrique took over Barça, just as Guardiola did he brought with him a batch of transfers that kick-started a side. Memory is faint, but Rijkaard’s Barça didn’t exactly suck. It was a machine waiting to hit the reset button, that needed a coach who would re-instill that urge, that energy and harness it tactically.
Both Guardiola and Luis Enrique won the Treble in their first season, by turbocharging an existing engine with fresh blood, energy and ideas. Yet Luis Enrique had what was denied Guardiola: the chance to do it again.
Guardiola’s transfer cravings were rebuffed by a Sandro Rosell board that was preaching austerity, while Luis Enrique is almost getting his every craving fulfilled. This summer, he has redesigned a team that needed it. Not only was it aging, but its star player was in the process of adapting his game, just as opponents were adapting to the way the team played. A coach has to see all of this, has to make plans and bring in the right players if those bodies aren’t to be found in the B team.
This summer, Luis Enrique didn’t just make the team younger and set it up for the future. He removed the ability to disrupt the attack by ganging up on Busquets. He resolved the complexity of losing the wonderful, irreplaceable Dani Alves. He made the left back position the deepest it has ever been, and created a versatile midfield that is relearning how to work with Lionel Messi.
Luis Enrique took a team that wasn’t supposed to be able to beat Atleti and, by adapting its attack to bypass an opponent’s key tactic, dismantled a strong, impressive side. During the match, people stuck in the past wondered about the midfield and its demise, almost neglecting to comment on what they were seeing in reality, a coach who took a team and adapted so that it could destroy.
Coming into this season, Barça had weaknesses, most notably age and depth. Those have not only been addressed in the summer window, but some of the most coveted players in Europe have been added, along with surprises. The net result is the best Barça team that I have seen. It can play possession, making those midfield, pam-pam triangles that the cognoscenti crave. It can attack up the wings in keeping with the contemporary way. It can do all three at once, boasting the dynamic range that lulls an opponent with lovely possession football, then a bomb over the top finds a streaking forward.
All of which leads to the obvious question: If this is the best Barça team ever, how will it perform this season? The year started with silver, now how will it end?
Veterans here know of culer paranoia, anticipations of alien abductions, injury plagues and the like. It’s everything possible to downplay the team’s chances because that is The Way. Veterans here also know of my reluctance of predict silver, and not only because so many things can happen during a season. It’s almost become a talisman, a superstition like the player who hops over the sideline as he enters the pitch. No silver one year, and the team won a treble. No silver the next, and the team did the double.
Barça’s opponents have strengthened as well. RM brought back Morata, fixing a significant hole in their attack, particularly as much of that team’s difficulty was mental. Zidane has resolved that. Atleti’s problem has been scoring goals, so they addressed that need by adding Nico Gaitan and Kevin Gameiro. Some think that the Liga has returned to the big two but not from this seat.
Having said that, this Barça team is stunning. It’s deep and versatile and just as importantly, it’s hungry, as if the double left it with unfinished business. Everyone returned early from vacation, ready to get to work as if they understand the potential of what they are a part of. Competition from young, talented faces makes veterans dig a little deeper. Anyone who doesn’t think that Denis Suarez had as much to do with the Arda Turan revival as full adaptation is kidding themselves. But the best team in the world last season got better, and is seemingly even hungrier.
What kind of fool would predict no silver for a group such as that? A superstitious one. That’s who. In consideration of the zillion things that all have to happen for a team to win one trophy, never mind three, only a madman would predict silver for their club. Ever. In Liga, Atleti’s augmentation could be just the trick to produce the goals they struggle to produce against Barça. Morata could be that missing link, now that Ronaldo is seeing a diminution of his impressive physical skills. Guardiola is molding City into somehing impressive, as is Mourinho at Manchester United.
This doesn’t even take into account injuries, and the other things that can derail a season. Depth acquired in the market is one solution, but a string of injuries can lay low even the most well-stocked team. So, with feet held to the fire, I’m sticking with my traditional silverless prognostication, even in full acknowledgement that this team, rolling into this season, is fantastic, the best Blaugrana army ever, in my opinion.