In the last seven minutes, the crucial time of that pivotal, now-historic Champions League match, Paris St-Germain completed four passes.
In an ESPN dissection of the match, all four commentators talked about fear. Most interesting however was a satellite visitor, Gabrielle Marcotti, who took issue with the contention made by the studio crew that PSG had pedigreed performers who had Been There before. And as you perused their XI, that idea made sense. Let’s compare:
These players have been around for mostly uncontested league championships, but never big European stages on the successful side, mostly because every time they get deep into Champions League, there is Barça. Now let’s look at the Barça XI:
Every last one of those players has Been There, either with Champions League winners or international successes. The two newest additions, Umtiti and Ter Stegen, are clearly alien life forms with ice water instead of blood, so we have to exclude them from the experiment. But note that as France drove deep into the Euro championships last summer, Umtiti had a spot in Les Bleus’ XI. They’re calm. Massive match day, and Rafinha is sliding down the railing like a child at play.
The sports cliche about a team “wanting it more” is real. But what does it mean, that idea of “wanting it more?” Is it as simple as bearing down harder, concentrating more and calming down when everything is at stake? We can safely presume that both teams “want it” just as much, PSG probably even more than Barça because they have never tasted the fruits of major European success. Yet when it came down to it, in those crucial last seven minutes, a team spearheaded by a player who has Been There almost since birth in Neymar, put the knife in. PSG was just standing there, waiting to die and Barça put them out of their misery.
Recall the recent post about what happens at times of stress and unexpected success to an athlete when that person is placed in the crucible. A post mentioned in that piece, on one of the epic “chokes” by a tennis player, Jana Novotna, talked of basic skill set facility deserting an athlete as the pressure ramps up. They do everything right until the pressure is too much to bear — and suddenly everything is wrong.
Two years after her epic Wimbledon collapse, Novotna was at the French Open in the third round, leading a 19-yaer-old phenom by 5-0 and 0-40 in the decisive third set. Novotna went on to lose that last set 8-6 in a stupefying collapse. There is a scene in an American film, “The Color of Money,” in which the young pool shark describes the mood as he is beating a more seasoned player. “It just keeps getting worse and worse,” he coos from behind a smirk. This is what a collapse feels like. NFL receivers get alligator arms, the elegant wrist snap of a basketball shooter becomes a shotputer’s lob. A footballer isn’t sure what to do, so they do nothing, or decide what to do too late.
Continuing the Novotna parallel, the 4-0 was like her winning set against Steffi Graf. The more storied player isn’t conforming to the norm and the underdog is playing with a vigor and looseness attendant to having nothing to lose. Then, at some point, the impossible becomes reality and two players, two teams, face a moment.
Here is a video of three key PSG starters, Verratti, Draxler and Matuidi, discussing the upcoming second leg against Barça, over pizza. Matuidi says, “We’re gonna have to hold firm. I’m calling it. The first 20 minutes, it’s going to be tough, Marco, don’t you think? The pitch is huuuuuge!” Later, the PSG group admits to being fine with losing, as long as they advance to the next round.
But most interesting is the language, which underscores the Marcotti point.
“The pitch is so big.”
“Bigger than in Paris?”
“Yes, you never reach the end.”
“When Neymar will have the ball and sneak in, you’re always one on one.”
“But I think we will make it this year.”
What we get is fear, and doubt as well as nervousness about the skills of the Barça players. In “I think we will make it this year,” there’s also that acknowledgement of past failure, of Barça being a significant hurdle for PSG. Draxler talks about having been on the receiving end of a comeback vs Real Madrid, how his team had a 2-0 lead and at the Bernabeu, suddenly it was 3-0. Draxler says, “I think the coach and the team were afraid, because we didn’t attack.”
Look at what PSG did on Wednesday at the Camp Nou. Yes, 4-0 is a massive lead, but Unai Emery chose to have his players work a tactic that denied space to the two key Barça danger men, rather than attacking as PSG did at home, compressing space and pressing to put Barça on the back foot and off its game. But because PSG sat back, the first two Barça goals came from nothing more than possession and opportunity. Luck is luck, but luck is also made by being in the right place at the right time. Being on the front foot, Suarez was in the box to capitalize on stanky PSG defending. Then Iniesta was in the position to work is miraculous alchemy and, with a deft back heel, conjure an own goal from nothing. The third goal had PSG tottering, ready to collapse, then Cavani scored and bedlam erupted, even if the moment didn’t call for it.
After the Cavani goal, PSG reacted as if the match was over. In theory it should have been. Did concentration lapse? Would Di Maria have scored that breakaway at home, or with greater concentration? He went down, clutching his ankle as he missed the shot. A psychologist might suggest he was looking for a way out. There was a half-hour left when Cavani scored, yet PSG celebrated as if it was the 93rd minute. It was the relief of an underdog at having escaped reality, rather than the acknowledgement of a superior team that there was still work to be done. Compare the PSG reaction to Barça’s after scoring goals. Each player ran into the net, picked up the ball and ran back to get into position. More work to be done. Barça wasn’t interested in a good showing, or an honor goal. The team believed that it could come all the way back, rather than victory with honor.
What’s more, everyone in football said that if any team in football could do it, Barça is the only team that could. During the pizza conversation, Matuidi talks about being eliminated by Chelsea on a late goal. Verratti says that he thinks it is all mental, and he’s right.
When you corner a mouse, it scurries about to find a way out. When you corner a raccoon, it rears up on its hind legs and comes at you. Both animals want the same thing: a way out. The raccoon decides to attack. It could be said to want it more.
“Want” is a weird thing. During our cycling workout sessions, one former teammate was fond of saying, “You gotta want it.” What he meant was that when you are deep in the pain cave, there is an effort chasm between “This hurts like hell,” and fatigue-induced muscular failure. People who confuse the two and stop when they can do more work, don’t want it enough. A great player never stops, because failure isn’t part of the psychic makeup of great players. Neymar stroked in that free kick, nailed that penalty shot, planed that perfect pass to Sergi Roberto after telling the midfielder that he was going to score, because Neymar has been the man since he was a child. Team after team including his national team, the pressure has been enough to crush a lesser player. Neymar thrived. He’s used to it.
Mascherano played his best match of the season because he’s used to it. Busquets was brilliant because he’s used to it. The winning goal came after Ter Stegen won a ball in midfield and was fouled by Verratti, who panicked — unless there are folks who believe that the keeper taking a ball in midfield in dangerous. There is a lot to be said for having been there. When your sole template is failure, as it is for PSG vs Barça, does it becomes something easier to accept? It’s your fate, your role in the drama. It isn’t that the other team wants it more as much that you want it less. Active vs passive. The fourth member of that pizza quartet was Meunier, the starting fullback, who got rinsed by Neymar. Four of the key PSG players were talking about losing at the Camp Nou, about whether 5-1 would be okay. As Verratti said, it’s mental.
It isn’t that PSG didn’t want to win. Psychology suggests, however, that wanting to win and having the mental and physiological capacity to do so are two different things. Did the talk about Neymar’s 1v1 skills play on Meunier when Neymar faced up against him and took off like a rocket, drawing that first penalty? You wonder. On a broader question, it’s fear vs bravery. But sometimes, it’s as simple as applying pressure and letting psychology do its own thing. Let’s hear from Chanda Rubin, the beneficiary of that massive Novotna collapse at the French Open, from the New York Times story after the 1995 match.
“I think just about everybody watched that (Wimbledon) final, and it was pretty painful to see,” Rubin said of the 4-1 lead that evaporated against Graf. “I started thinking about that a little bit during the match and, of course, before the match, I just wanted to stay mentally tough and keep fighting, no matter what the score.”
Recently, Rob Gronknowski, a member of the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots, a team that pulled off an impossible comeback in the championship game, came to visit Barça. Ugh. Silly photo op, many snarled. But was it? Finally, here’s Rakitic after the historic remuntada was complete.
“Hard result to lose four zero in Paris but it’s football. We saw it some weeks ago in Super Bowl to see what is possible in different sports. It’s really crazy to say this is Barcelona and I think the best team in the world and we want to keep dreaming.”