For neutrals, what a match. For me, it required a change of clothing and some heart rate settling.
In one of the tactical Classics in recent memory, a bit of an irony given that it was contested by two teams whose coaches are widely considered to not really be coaches, two teams fought like lions and emerged with an equal hunk of the carcass.
On Barça Twitter, recriminations and cries for various scalps are ongoing. But here’s what happened from this chair in a world as subjective as evaluating anything artistic:
Luis Enrique knew that his talismanic midfielder, Andres Iniesta, had about 30 minutes in his still-recovering legs. So he played the entire match based on that notion. The midfield was Busquets, Gomes and Rakitic, in effect three of the same kinds of players, almost 3 DMs if you really think about it.
Rakitic was dispatched to assist Sergi Roberto in dealing with Marcelo and Ronaldo. Gomes was in to make wall passes, and not screw up in possession, gifting RM with counter opportunities.
Busquets was dispatched to be magnificent. And he was. In every facet of the game.
The program worked, almost. The first half ended scoreless, and it’s safe to say that both coaches would have been happy with that, for different reasons. Zidane played his lineup like a coach happy with getting a tie. Luis Enrique played his like a coach waiting to play his whip hand. The second would have it all to play for, and it couldn’t have worked out more flawlessly for Luis Enrique and Barça.
A foul at the outer edge of the area brought a brilliant cross that was nodded home by, of all players, Luis Suarez. After spending the entire match fighting, and glowering and officiating in absentia, his bullet header past Keylor Navas sent the Camp Nou into a frenzy of relief. It was 1-0 Barça, and it was shortly after that when Iniesta started warming up as the home supporters screamed his name.
At about the 60-minute mark, he came on, and Barça was transformed as the Luis Enrique plans all made sense. Barça had the lead, and football of the type that many have been craving was back, orchestrated by a man in his twilight, but still nonpareil. Until that moment, Luka Modric had been exemplary for Real Madrid. Iniesta came on, and everything was forgotten as he darted, ghosted, flicked and turned.
Barça acted like a team liberated, as everyone could return to their familiar roles, from Busquets to Messi to Neymar to Suarez, and it was all going so well, until an unfortunate foul by Arda Turan, that set up a set piece.
There is more crazy irony in two teams who sparkle in open play, finding stalemate from a pair of set pieces. Real Madrid’s was as beautifully worked as Barça’s, as they flooded the right side with a trio of players before Sergio Ramos (who else?) headed home for the late, late equalizer. But even then, it took some crazy ping-pong right on their doorstep to keep Barça from a late, late winner, and it wasn’t until that ball was cleared to midfield that everyone, on both sides as well as neutrals, could breathe again.
Barça got so much right, and a number of key things wrong. When Rakitic came off Marcelo went into the ascendancy, causing all manner of difficulties for Sergi Roberto. It was a Marcelo run and cross that led to the sequence of play that ultimately resulted in the goal, even as Arda Turan made a stupid, stupid foul at that part of the pitch, that late in the match. Turan also had the temerity to then get into it with an RM player, making the throat cutting gesture as he glowered. But Barça got its throat cut instead.
Looking at the key set piece, thanks to a screen grab from AllasFCB on Twitter, the three best aerial players are all marking Vasquez, leaving Mascherano to deal with a trio that included Ramos. The outcome was inevitable.
After the match came a very interesting Luis Enrique quote:
“It is very easy to give orders for set pieces, from where the coach is sat, but those who need to defend them are the players”
Now, we know what he meant, which is that coaches can only diagram stuff, but the players have to play the matches. But many will interpret it as having thrown his players under the bus, a la when Mourinho said after a match, “my players let me down.” The Luis Enrique quote left the wrong taste at the end of a day that will be viewed as a failure by many, even when it shouldn’t be.
Meanwhile, another glitch came as Rakitic was subbed, which meant that Sergi Roberto was suddenly the babe in the woods that many feared he would be, and it cost the team.
But even after all of that, football comes down to doing what you need to do to win, which was part of Luis Enrique’s point. A coach can do everything except do it for his players. Earlier in the day, Manchester City lost when Kevin De Bruyne missed a gaping net, pranging the ball off the crosbar and over. It was an astonishing miss. Instead of putting City up 2-0, Chelsea came right back to equalize and finally win.
Against Real Madrid, Neymar made a remarkable run, left his defenders for dead and, with the goal essentially at his mercy, went for the top far corner while leaning back, and put the ball over the goal. Yes, it was a difficult shot, blablabla, but the best players in the game score those goals. If he is shooting with proper form, if any one of a hundred things happen, it’s 2-0 and the match is over and done.
Then, later, Iniesta found Messi with a pass that on its own deserves a spot in whatever hall of fame is reserved for otherworldly moments from spectacular players. It even seemed to surprise Messi a bit, who fumbled a bit with his first touch, and just as culers everywhere leapt to their feet to celebrate, for Messi is as reliable as death and taxes when on the doorstep, an already committed keeper sprawled at his feet, Messi screwed the strike wide of the far post.
Given the form that Luis Suarez was in, who would have thought that of the trident, he would be the only one to bury his chance today? The misses of Neymar and Messi weren’t only bad, but crucial because they gave Real Madrid life, just as City’s miss enlivened Chelsea.
Scapegoating is always the most natural reaction after a “negative” result, and the entorno isn’t disappointing. Turan is a culprit, so is Luis Enrique. But only a few are having the temerity to suggest that if the two best attackers in the world had done their jobs, it wouldn’t have mattered what Arda Turan did late in the match. A sub is only a failure after a number of other people fail, setting the potential for that incorrect sub being an issue. Garbage in, garbage out.
Neymar scores, and Turan doesn’t matter. Messi scores, and Turan doesn’t matter. Defend the set piece properly, and Turan doesn’t matter. Scapegoating rarely works, even as it always satisfies, even in its illogical nature.
Luis Enrique almost got it right today. History will record that he didn’t, that almost only counts with horseshoes and hand grenades. The “results don’t matter” crowd will be unconsoled to find that for them, results DO indeed matter, for Barça played exquisite football once Iniesta came on, precisely the kind of football that so many have been clamoring for. But still, Lucho Out, the club is a disaster, everybody is stupid except the ones who prophesied doom.
Some even say that Messi had a poor match, without understanding his role today, which changed once Iniesta entered, which was why he was suddenly so attack-minded late. Messi had a very good, influential match today. Look at his touches and interventions as he ran and defended like crazy, shifted pressure and created when he could. Messi’s match quality isn’t defined by how many goals he scores, but rather what he does to help his team win.
He had a much better match than Neymar, who spent the first half slipping and sliding around before finding more stability and quality in the second half, becoming the play accelerant that is his usual role. And Suarez, his goal aside, was poor. The vaunted Trident, that is supposed to be laying waste to opposition defenses, was mostly stagnant thanks to the ineffectiveness of a key piece.
But even at the end of all that, there are many positives to be taken from this match. The shame is that the Classic had to come right after Anoeta, because Barça would have beaten any other team today. It played much better as a collective even before Iniesta entered the match, and had the looks of a team that is looking to turn a corner.
The perception of Barça won’t allow positives to come from this match, but they are there if you look for them, particularly as regards overall play, which improved immeasurably from the desultory outings against Malaga, and at Anoeta. The team drew when so many predicted that it would lose today, and in reality it should have won, but that’s football.
At the end of the match, things were exactly as they were at the beginning, with Barça looking at a six-point gap to the top of the table. But anyone who really watched that match through anything except a curtain of gloom, can come away a little more light-hearted at the signs that maybe, just maybe, the corner might have been turned and that, win or lose, the team can get back to playing the way that we all know it can.
It’s been a weird year. I’ve had a fair few experiences, some of which I hope have left me wiser and all of which have left me older. There’s the general idea out there that 2016 was a banner year for Horrible Things, which certainly feels true when it’s put in listicle or Wikipedia entry format, but someone out there has to be having The Best Year Ever and doesn’t know what all the fuss is about on Twitter. Beyond that, I’m sure someone crowed at the sky when Real Madrid won the Champions League in May, voted for Brexit in June, and then had a social media strop about the Catalan independence movement in July. That may feel weird to read (much less write), but I bet it’s true of at least one person.
This is a massively interconnected world and someone sitting about 8 hours on an airplane from a stadium in northern Spain can have a decently informed opinion about the inner workings of what is, despite its rather commercial image, a fairly local club. Not that I do have an informed opinion, but it’s at least theoretically possible that I do. It’s neat, insofar as I’ve run a blog about the beautiful sport I bumped into one day in high school and fell in love with almost immediately despite my relatively recent arrival on its doorstep, my physical remove from the team I follow, and the relentless intricacy of modern sporting enterprises that loop endlessly through scouting reports, sponsorship deals with various conglomerates, boardroom political shenanigans, and, if you’re lucky, actual game footage sprinkled in occasionally.
Some days I wake up and the second though I have—the first is always dedicated to finding a way to ignore my humanoid alarm clock’s remonstrations about how I’m not getting up to provide her breakfast—is what team Barça is playing or what a great set of goals that was yesterday, I can’t wait to see the highlights again. Some days I wake up and I wonder why any of us care about 22 men on a field kicking a ball around. Some days I wake up and my heart is just ready to start pounding and my blood is trying to stream through my veins fast enough to make a race horse keel over all because those 22 men are about to kick a ball around a field. Sometimes I want to close my eyes and see almost anything other than goalscoring charts and tactical formations.
Our hypothetical Brexitonian madridista is as much a product of this new world as I am and maybe he or she is at home (hopefully asleep given the time difference) not really getting into the mood yet, but knowing that tomorrow will bring something spectacular, whatever the end result. It’s the possibility that resounds in moments like that: it could all be okay tomorrow. And maybe it will be. Though maybe it’s just a game that we play, with ourselves as much as any other way. Or maybe, as we breath out, we really are just a little bit more prepared for the terrible things that happen in our world and maybe that mental space, that escape into something else, gives us the will and the willingness to do something to turn terrible into terrific.
And so, we reach tomorrow, eventually, whether we want to or not. The question, really, is whether or not we face it with fear. And I choose not to. I choose to go to sleep tonight with a normal heart rate and get up tomorrow, put on my blue and red striped shirt, my blue and red striped scarf, my blue and red striped jacket, my blue and red striped hat, and a pair of jeans, and go enjoy myself in the company of friends, without fear. I’ll also probably wear shoes and socks. And unless I planned this really poorly, blue and white striped underwear.
It’s gonna be a spectacle, if nothing else. Buckle up.
Throughout the past three years I have been asking myself questions and only now have I reached the answers. It took a close study of all the football fans around me. From Barcelona fans to rival fans, I have listened to everyone and tried to fully understand everyone. The subject was too confusing.
How could one of the club’s most successful coaches be so disregarded, disrespected, and discredited? How does it occur that a vast majority in the world considers themselves better tacticians and coaches than a professional coach who actually excelled at his job by the historic standards of football? After close observations of the iconic club’s fans and rival fans from around the world I have come to many conclusions which all circulate around one concept:
It was never about the coach.
Let me explain.
Barcelona fans will never truly accept a different style of football nor will they decide to take some time to understand it. This idea goes way back. Throughout the very successful stage of Luis Enrique’s Barcelona, I have always heard phrases like “we have no midfield”. Midfield is possibly the most complex concept in football. Yet any conversation about Barcelona’s midfield can be summarized, after hours of discussion, into: “If it doesn’t play like Pep’s midfield, it’s not a midfield”. With the wide knowledge in all of the sport that many Barcelona fans claim to have they still choose to represent what a midfield should or should not using 4 years of the Pep era as reference. They will not look at other clubs as reference because that’s against the ‘identity’ even though they use a term that supposedly applies to all of the sport: midfield.
More accurate descriptions could have been:
“I do not like how this midfield plays”.
“This midfield doesn’t circulate the ball around enough”.
“This midfield is too direct”.
Many statements could be used to describe Luis Enrique’s midfield. Liking Lucho’s midfield or not is a matter of preference. But three things are for sure:
- Lucho’s midfield wasn’t the first midfield in Barcelona history to have a more direct approach nor will it be the last. It is very likely that the next coach will give our future midfield very similar instructions if he sees fit.
- The midfield does exist. By the historic definitions of what a midfield is and what it should do, Luis Enrique’s midfield does exist. A midfield that goes around defeating everyone and winning every possible trophy does in fact exist. It does not exist in Pep obsessed universe, maybe. But Luis Enrique’s midfield served to prove that the world of football did not discover the art of midfield play in 2009.
- People who claim to be supporters of the players but not the coach ignore a simple matter:
This line of thinking is pretty disrespectful to loved players like Iniesta, Rakitic, and Busquets. These players have perfected the roles given to them. But some fans decide to completely ignore their contribution by saying that “they don’t do anything except set up our forwards”.
The disrespect towards management decisions regarding youth player selection has hit an all time high. “No midfield” wasn’t the only made up concept which emerged in Luis Enrique’s era. The concepts regarding our young players have been just as unfair. Among the countless other things fans don’t seem to respect about Luis Enrique is his decisions regarding youth players. Fans are truly trying to suggest that the club has always depended on the countless ‘world class youth players’ who have emerged throughout the years. It’s not like Xavi and Iniesta have been the only significant midfield breakthroughs since the early 2000s or anything(with the exception of Thiago of course, but even Thiago couldn’t find his spot). It’s not like no youth defender has ever come close to matching what Puyol continued to offer since the early 2000s.
The management takes years to truly find a player from the youth system who has developed enough mentally and physically to play among the game’s greats. They will continue to test players and more often than not, the players will fail. But fans nowadays have you believing that youth players succeed(by Barcelona’s definition of what success is) more often than they fail. Such a statement is historically inaccurate.
This does not indicate that all of Luis Enrique’s (or any future coach) decisions are correct. One could state that a decision like the one involving Grimaldo is wrong. But people do pretend that it is his fault that no one is truly good enough to make it. Maybe it bothers them that their made up theories about how youth players develop and succeed keep being shattered in front of their eyes so they decide to blame Luis Enrique.
In general, there is major disrespect towards any decision Luis Enrique might take. Everyone is a youth expert. Everyone claims to know how an 18 or 19 year old player has developed physically and mentally. However the man who actually coached the youth team and has been part of the club since 1996 knows nothing.
The disrespect towards a manager’s decisions has hit an all time high. This goes beyond the sport. This can apply to any profession in the world. You do not just go to a professional in a certain field, claim that you know more and that he knows nothing especially when it comes to someone who has significant experience like Luis Enrique. Criticism and displeasure in certain events or plans are necessary, expected, and welcomed by any modest professional in the world because no one is perfect. However, this same professional did not spend the past 20 or 30 years of his or her life going to work every morning for someone to tell them: “Well look, I have been following up with your career field for a while now and I would like to inform you that you know absolutely nothing and all your decisions are terrible. Now, please sit down so that I can teach you how to do your job”.
Barcelona fans can’t accept change.
With the change from Pep to Luis Enrique to the change from Xavi to Rakitic, Barcelona fans don’t fancy change. Well, humans don’t fancy change by nature. But some people make the change seem more drastic than it actually is. These are the same people who continuously display stats, graphs, tactics, heat maps, passing sequences, and write articles about how Barcelona lost its identity. You know…the 2009 identity.
I find it very odd that no one bothers to collect such information from Rijkaard’s days where you will find many similarities with Lucho’s Barcelona(much like you can also find similarities between Lucho’s Barcelona and Pep’s Barcelona). This happens because of two reasons:
- Many people didn’t even watch that Rijkaard side and thus suggest that Edmilson, Deco and all the others who came to Barcelona’s midfield have dominated the way Busquets and Xavi did.
- There are people who did actually watch Rijkaard’s team and realize that it doesn’t fit the Xavi-Busquets perfect midfield example as much and thus chose to ignore that team. In general, that Rijkaard team is never ever used as an example for how Barcelona should play. It’s like Cruyff’s 90s team was Barcelona, Pep’s team was Barcelona and everything in between and after that is just an effort. Apparently, they’re just truly insignificant efforts that are not worthy of your time or your respect.
Barcelona fans are interested in a legacy, not just a great team.
As admirable as that may be and it truly is a characteristic of a great club, it is the most impractical thing you can suggest. It is like always wanting and expecting an exception. It will eventually lose its significance and no longer be an exception to begin with. It will become just like any other expectation. “We want to win the double” is an expectation(the biggest logical expectation you can possibly have).
“We want a team that can win the treble” is an exception.
“We want a team that will leave a legacy” is an exception.
To want such an exception is admirable and exciting but this shouldn’t change the fact that it’s an exception and not getting it has a much higher probability.
Pep offered this legacy but Frank Rijkaard relatively didn’t. It doesn’t change that Frank put together one of the most exciting teams of the 2004-2007 period. Maybe the team did not provide the euphoria nor the dominance of Pep’s team but it provided several great moments and memorable success. This should be considered acceptable and it should be greatly respected.
The same applies to everything Lucho’s team has done since 2014. If the coach who is going to follow Lucho leaves a legacy that would be remarkable. However, if he doesn’t, and he creates a powerful, entertaining, and successful Barcelona side then he should be respected and all his achievements should be recognized even if he wasn’t exceptional.
Lionel Messi is the worst and best thing a coach could ask for.
Possibly one of the clearest reasons why Luis Enrique has an odd reputation is because of details more or less related to Lionel Messi.
One of the more infamous incidents took place in the beginning of 2015 when Lionel Messi didn’t show up for training and from that point on Luis Enrique was considered the villain. He was a nobody coach who seemed to have failed to find a consistent starting eleven and is now clashing with the club’s favorite son, the greatest player of all time. Luis Enrique never truly recovered from that incident in many fans’ eyes. All the success that took place from January 2015 on was apparently because Lionel Messi woke up one day and led the team to victory for the next year and a half despite evil Luis Enrique’s plan to ‘get rid of Messi’. I wish I was joking. This series of events actually took place and people were discussing it in this exact form.
In reality, Luis Enrique’s relationship with Messi later developed into something great as they were fully aware that the fate of the team was at stake. Sadly, you can’t always fix your reputation.
The reason why having Lionel Messi is the best thing in the world is very clear on the field. However, having Messi can prove to be a hassle for a coach off the field.
With the rise of Messi fanboys and fanboys in general, no one is safe. There is a need from these people to disrespect and discredit everyone involved in Messi’s career. “You are lucky to have him! You deserve nothing! You are a failure without him! Barcelona would be destroyed without Messi! Messi gave everyone at Barcelona a career!”
I could go on all day because these statements are pretty common. These people are often the most affected by the January 2015 incident.
There is a need to bash everything that surrounds Messi just to prove that he is superior. It’s silly mostly because Leo was never that type of person. Leo disagrees with all of what his fanboys might suggest. Leo has too much respect for Barcelona as a club and just wants to see his team win. This is his home.
Sadly, no one is safe from this Messi fanboy tsunami and Luis Enrique is often the first to drown.
“This song is amazing because Rihanna is in it.”
“What are you saying? Drake absolutely killed it! Rihanna was lucky to have Drake in this song”.
Why can’t we just say that the song was great? Nah…
Rival fans have had enough.
Rivals became sick of Barcelona’s success over the years. Can you blame them? Anything they’ve won, we’ve won like 3 times more on average in the past decade. I did just make that up but you get the point.
Luis Enrique has become a victim of this jealousy. Rival fans are absolutely begging to see Barcelona fail because they have had enough. The tactic is simple: Disrespect and discredit Barcelona and Luis Enrique as much as you want as long as you conclude with the fact that Messi is the greatest.
So basically, rival fans do not truly believe that Luis Enrique is the worst coach ever. Their arguments like “he has amazing players” often easily backfire considering they support clubs which sign the best players in the world year in year out. So, such an argument, when applied to them, makes them look very bad because they haven’t achieved as much as Luis Enrique.
Fact is, these rivals fans are not willing to accept that Barcelona had risen again and actually won another treble. They are not willing to accept that Luis Enrique is not as bad as they’re trying to believe. Their minds are not entertaining the thought of the nightmare of Barcelona dominance not being over yet. So, again, the tactic is simple: discredit everyone in every possible way except Lionel Messi because if you include Messi in the slander people won’t take you seriously. Maybe it’s a desperate act but when it comes to slander it’s pretty efficient.
Was it ever about Luis Enrique himself? Absolutely not.
It was about the timing of Luis Enrique’s era. It is about the evolution of Barcelona after Pep Guardiola and how everything was decided based on the definitions which Pep apparently set. It is about the people who are trying to deny the facts that are related to youth player growth and how decisions were taken regarding such youth players throughout Barcelona’s recent history. It is about the disrespect of people’s professions. It is about the eternal fear of change and the need for an exception rather than the usual high expectation. It is about how a person’s image can be destroyed in a matter of seconds and how Lionel Messi’s fanboys have created a pretty uncomfortable atmosphere for the club and how they are continuously trying to disrespect the coach and the players. It is about rivals’ hunger for success, jealousy and frustration when they realize that the greatest team in the world can become the best again in a matter of months and there is not a thing they could do about it. It is about a forgotten Frank Rijkaard whose era tells a very significant story. This is about exaggerating the bad so that it can outweigh the good while in reality the good is far ahead.
This is possibly Luis Enrique’s last season at the club and a new coach is on his way.
To Luis Enrique, I’d like to say this:
Your era might be twisted, ignored, or manipulated but I have complete faith that throughout the past 3 years you have served the club with all the possible knowledge you have and the effort you put. I apologize that during your era you had to witness people calling winning a domestic double(with some great performances) a disappointment. I apologize that at the final whistle in Berlin people wanted you out because our midfield apparently did not dominate Juve’s. You are the right man at the wrong time. You are a champion who helped champions remember their status. You represent one of the most important stages of this great club’s history and you shall forever be remembered as a club legend.
It has been a very long time since culers have entered the final stages of anticipation of the Biggest of Them All, the Classic, with more trepidation. Usually the sayings about form doesn’t matter, anything can happen, on any given day, are mere cliches. In this case, they’re true. Neither team enters this match in scintillating, inspiring form. Barça was played off the pitch by Real Sociedad, which is inspiring pessimism and rending of garments. But people forget that Real Madrid was a choke of a penalty miss away from drawing Sporting Gijon, who more than held their own. A draw would have been a fair result.
Even as it appears the teams are headed in different directions, are they really? What’s the key to this match? Real Madrid are absent Toni Kroos and Gareth Bale, a pair of essential players. The latter was the key to their Camp Nou win last season as he treated Jordi Alba like a rag doll. Barça comes into this crucial match with a rarity: a full squad. Luis Enrique will be able to choose the XI that gives the best chance to win, rather than an XI comprised of players who aren’t injured. This is huge, because if Barça is going to play its way out of whatever malaise is affecting the team, the XI will have to show the way.
We don’t know what Luis Enrique is going to do, but this is a very safe XI prediction: Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Neymar, Messi, Suarez. The only thing I would advocate for is using Umtiti instead of Mascherano.
Essentially, Umtiti IS Mascherano, just better in the air and more capable going forward. He is also calmer than Mascherano, less inclined to attempt a tackle when he can influence a play by simply being there. He’s also faster than Mascherano. It would impress me greatly if Umtiti got the start, even as Luis Enrique will always opt for veteran savvy in big matches. Plus not having Gareth Bale means that the left side of the defense gets a bit of a break, even in the face of the uncertainty that Benzema brings to the dance.
But there is a larger reason for the advocacy of Umtiti. Real Madrid is going to do what every successful opponent has done against Barça: press, and flood the midfield. The return to their side of Casemiro means that he will be tasked with Messi duties. The midfield is going to be a clogged mess, which has been a big problem in the past for Barça. Umtiti allows that running defender, a man charging with the ball to bypass presses and clogs to thread a ball or create an opening by running with the ball. It’s a link that has been missing of late, and will be important for success against the Real Madrid press, for press they will. Links between back line and attacking players will be crucial, especially as you can also look for them to try to neutralize Busquets.
The return of Iniesta is huge. The difference that Mininiesta made against La Real was significant, again because he could close those links. It made the La Real press less effective. Iniesta is capable of the same thing, obviously to a much greater degree. He can destroy a defense with a simple run, capped by a flawless pass. It isn’t an understatement to say that a lot of the current difficulties that Barça is experiencing began the day of that unfortunate challenge eight weeks ago.
Despite all of that, the key for me is Luis Suarez. If he shows up in full, Barça will win. It’s as simple as that. Why? You don’t even need fancy tactical diagrams and the like to understand what he brings to the side. If he is on form, he is unholy. He’s pressing in the midfield, running at the keeper to force a hurried clearance, helping with the first layer of the press to work the ball loose close to the opponent goal, then hustling to get on the end of the resultant ball into the box. He scores absurd goals, moves constantly and is, in effect, impossible to play.
What he also does is enables Neymar and Messi, both of whom need playmates for maximum effectiveness. The legend of Messi is huge, but he isn’t going to beat five defenders to score a goal. Has he in the past? Yes, and that’s the key to his legend. But even as he makes the extraordinary seem ordinary, to rely on him to perform the impossible is a fool’s errand. Suarez is the player most capable of capitalizing on the “Oh, shit!” that Messi creates, because it is impossible for defenders to stay calm and just do their jobs when Messi is running at them. That’s where Suarez comes in.
Neymar capers, prances and dances, but his runs into the box need a terminus. Many are saying that Neymar is doing the same stuff this season, that he isn’t growing as a player, etc, etc. Nobody says that Messi “does the same stuff” when he makes one of his runs, or arcs a lofted diagonal pass to someone’s feet. Neymar does what he does. But what he does has been less effective in the absence of Suarez, as the Trident has had only two legs for too much of this season. Further, Suarez often has Barça playing with ten men, because when he isn’t scoring goals, he’s worrying about scoring them, instead of playing his natural, all-pitch game. He hangs out nervously on the shoulder of the defense, and is usually offside more than a few times a match, because he’s pressing. He isn’t pressing in midfield because he wants to stay close to goal, as if proximity will provide him with the best opportunities, rather than taking chances as a part of the natural flow of the offense.
Suarez has been poor all season, which makes it no wonder that the Barça attack has also struggled. It strands Neymar and isolates Messi. When he is poor, he also turns the ball over, the kiss of death against Real Madrid, who can get from end to end with alacrity. Suarez has to show up for Barça to have the best chance to win.
Another key player will be Sergi Roberto. If the tousled Masia gem had more pace, he would be Zidane’s biggest worry as the wild card. But as a conseuqence of that lack of pace Sergi Roberto will have to be more conservative facing off on Ronaldo’s side, which is a shame. As we know, Ronaldo isn’t all that interested in defending, preferring to leave those chores to the professionals. There will be opportunities for Sergi Roberto to take advantage of that, particularly as Marcelo is often caught up the pitch on opponent counters. Don’t be surprised if Sergi Roberto has a key moment in the match. That weakness will be exploitable, which might be a reason Messi will shade to the right tomorrow, particularly with Iniesta back, which frees him of the midfield duties he has been performing in the Maestro’s absence.
People believe that Real Madrid are the favorites in this match, for reasons that are apparent. Barça would appear to be a mess, but looks can be deceiving. Let’s just take a quick look at how easy solutions are to be found:
— Iniesta provides the midfield control and creativity, and can also help on defense, which enables …
— Busquets, who won’t have to cover as much space or be a one-man battleship in a contested area, as opponents batter at the back line, so that …
— Pique or Umtiti can push up, providing attacking flair from the back which has been absent of late, forcing too many easily defended long balls, so …
— Messi gets the ball already in a danger spot close to the defense instead of having to run at it.
Even as Barça is on a run of dodgy form, some of that is due to personnel and underperforming substitutes. If Barça had to start Gomes in midfield tomorrow, you would find me in a corner, weeping into a store-bought binky. Instead the Iniesta/Rakitic/Busquets trident will be formidable, particularly as Rakitic is rested. A rested Rakitic is always formidable.
Final scores are always difficult, but a Barça win is easy to predict. There have been problems with form and tactics this season. But those issues are soluble with the right personnel and, frankly, an attitude adjustment. As Carlos Vela said, La Real banked on the laziness of the Barça front three. Big players show up for big matches, and it’s no understatement that the season is on the line for Barça here. Win, and it’s a one-match gap to the top in a league where anything can happen. Lose, and it’s a nine-point chasm at almost the halfway mark of the season. Luis Enrique might say that win or lose, the Liga title isn’t decided in December. But if Barça lose, he’ll just be whistling past the graveyard.
FC Barcelona drew Hercules in the Copa del Rey.
There are a number of ways to look at that. It was, again, a tale of two halves, a desultory, meandering first half and an energetic, meandering second half, enlivened by B player debuts and a rather spectacular golazo from Carles Alena. Hercules will be put to the sword at the Camp Nou return leg, and all will be right in the world, even as so much of it is wrong.
The Hercules goal was in many ways, this season in a microcosm. A cross came in that was just missed by Umtiti. One CB didn’t want to clear it at the risk of an own goal so he, in effect, dummied the cross. But the LB, Digne, thinking the CB was going to play the ball, slacked off and the free Hercules player slid the ball home inside the far post. It was an amateurish goal to give up, and I can only imagine that Luis Enrique will need blood pressure pills as he diagrams it later.
Alena equalized via a delight of a debut goal, a rocket from about 25 yards out that smoked past a stunned keeper, who was probably expecting another 44 passes before a very logical shot.
So there’s the draw. Does this particular result matter? No. Hercules will lose at the Camp Nou. But it’s the derivation of the result that is the complexity, and that is where the fun begins, as we try to explain to people who don’t fully understand the idea of a Barça crisis.
Most teams are interested in results. “Hey, we won? Yay!” At Barça, every match has layers. Did the team play the right way? Were the right players used in the right way? Was the ball used in the right way? By the by, did we win?
That’s Barça. A lot of people think it’s silly, the notion that a team stocked with many of the best players in the game at their positions, who is one win away from being in the thick of the league championship race, won its Champions League group and has a treble then a double in consecutive seasons, could be in crisis. But a rather unholy trinity of matches, first Malaga, then Real Sociedad and finally Hercules, brings clarity to the notion of “crisis.”
Few teams have as clear an identity as Barça, even as that identity has become smeared and misunderstood. It isn’t about any “mes que” ness, nor does it compress into those few Guardiola years, where a tactic has gotten misconstrued as a Way. Barça plays possession-based attacking football rooted in a positional sense, simply explained. In a deeper sense, the game is logical for Barça, or should be. There should always be a logical place for the ball to go, always an open man waiting in that logical spot to receive the ball. The run dictates the pass, and movement is the key to unlocking opponents.
That identity is what unites the Barça teams over time, from the Dream Team to Rijkaard’s marauders to Guardiola’s malleable geniuses, to Vilanova to Luis Enrique until recently. There has always been a way of playing.
When we look at Ronaldinho’s Barça tenure, what we see without looking closely is a whole bunch of “Wheee!” But it was a lot more complex than that. Ronaldinho was the trickster, but more than that he was a player of consummate skill, who could always be relied upon to deliver the ball to the exact right spot for maximum danger. In today’s terms, he was Xavi and Iniesta with a little bit of Messi. It was crazy to watch. But the structure was provided by players such as Deco, the positional logic that allowed Barça to play attacking, possession-bassed football, providing the foundation for Ronaldinho’s flights of fancy.
It was only toward the end of Rijkaard’s time, when the structure went away and Ronaldinho’s lifestyle began to take a toll on the player’s performancees, that things got funky. Whateever could go wrong, did. But things began to go bad because structure was lost.
Guardiola arrived after Rijkaard, and thought of the game much as Luis Enrique does now in the idea of getting the ball to the team’s best players. Instead of Messi, Suarez and Neymar it was Messi, Henry and Eto’o. Guardiola’s time at Barça was an arc that reached its apogee in the team that dismantled Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final. It is just about the best football match that any of us have ever seen, but it is also a perfect distillation of the way that Guardiola wanted to play football with that group of players (important distinction).
In a recent interview, Umtiti said that he loved Barça under Guardiola, but at times it got a little boring. People started having hissies, but could he have been referring to the time when Guardiola’s Barça descended into almost self-parody, when it WAS possession for possession’s sake, too much of the time?
Treble Barça under Guardiola was different than the Barça that won the double because of personnel. Henry allowed the team to hit a bust-out pass that he could run onto and do damage. As with Luis Enrique’s treble winners, the Guardiola team that won the treble was an almost perfect amalgam of calm and wild, vertical and triangular. It worked because nobody knew what it was going to do.
Luis Enrique took over Barça in much the same situation as Guardiola. The team was coming off a silverless season and an ousted coach, but with gobs of raw material and brilliant players. A pile of transfers later, and we saw the same combination of calm and wild that worked at that first treble, but with a feeling, thanks to Messi, that combined the Barças of Rijkaard (Ronaldinho) and Guardiola (Xavi). Messi was the logical trickster who had a pair of perfect foils. Meanwhile, Xavi and Iniesta provided the structure, the calmness and positional play.
When Xavi left, many despaired of what would become of that calmness, that sense of positional play absent the bedrock that dictated tempo and movement. Luis Enrique moved to a more vertical style and came within a single, solitary goal of being in for another treble. There was still structure, even if more and more of the driving was coming from the left flank as Neymar took the wheel and accelerated the team.
This season, the team has moved even further away from the Barça identity. It doesn’t seem to care about possession as much as it does getting the ball to the most dangerous players. But absent a structure to get the ball there, the team either has to hoof it, or the danger men have to come to midfield to get the ball, and then attack. Opponents figured out the roles of Neymar and Busquets, and strove to isolate those two linchpins. The rest of the offense, unless Messi decided to be divine, would then founder on the rocks.
This season, the crisis isn’t in the results. The results would be cause for optimism in the presence of something discernible, something logical, something that gave a sense of something building. The two Anoeta messes are rather different. That treble Barça was playing very good football, structured and within the team’s identity unless you were one of the folks who had reduced that identity to a two-year period under Guardiola. You could see something building, and it wasn’t a surprise when the team took off like a rocket.
This season, you don’t see anything except stagnation and cluelessness. Are players not moving because they don’t quite know what to do, or because they aren’t doing their jobs? Is there a point where reflex takes over and players start to do what they need to do to win? What if that doesn’t happen? Right now, Barça has no structure. In the second half against Hercules, as more Barça B players occupied the pitch, there seemed to be more structure. It wasn’t Rafinha scurrying about as Denis Suarez made like a circuit with no way to close links. Hercules could pack the box and exploit that lack of structure because the way that Barça plays now makes it easy to isolate danger. No circuits are closing.
That’s the crisis. Culers would rather the team was playing better, with a sense of structure and position but not doing as well in the three competitions than the way things are now. Because a structure provides a foundation from which to build, precise things that can be pointed to and improved. A mess of a furball might win, but the results aren’t repeatable. So a 4-0 one week becomes a 0-0 the next. Tennis players hit thousands of topspin backhands up the line to build the memory, the reflex that serves them in a crisis. We know the Barça players work on rondos in practice because we see the videos from training. But in matches, the skills demanded and honed by those rondos aren’t called upon. They’re just banging the ball over distance to a teammate and hoping that defender doesn’t nip in to head or kick the pass away. They’re being asked to build a house without the proper tools.
Even aside from the club structure being taken over by marketing men, which is another part of the crisis that only culers who are also nerds care about, you could almost live with that if the team was playing properly because in reality, Barça has never had excellent stewardship (no, not even under Laporta). This team isn’t fun to watch any longer, and it’s deeper than the idea of football being entertainment. There is no beauty. Pragmatism can be elegant. Pragmatism works. Pragmatism can even get results. But pragmatism is dour, and often uninspiring.
Exacerbating the sense of crisis is that every now and again Barça gets it, plays the kind of structured, possession football that leaves an opponent helpless and foundering, just kicking at everything and hoping the goals don’t go in. But for too much of this season Barça has been as it was against Malaga, as it was against La Real, as it was against Hercules: an aimless mess of players running around, with no seeming idea if they’re even headed for the same destination.
Culers want more than results. It seems silly. It’s easy to make fun of, as people say, “Look at those fools. I would kill for my team to be in that position.” But everything is context. If you’ve never had a strawberry, the first one you have will be sublime. In the span of fifteen years Barça has won four doubles and two trebles. The context is different. But more than the achievement, it has always been the way of play that has made culer hearts swell with pride as much as the accomplishments. Xavi said farewell during the celebration of a treble that he was a key part of. That was perfect. Many of us speak derisively of the Way. That’s because of the idealized notions people have that distill a team’s history down to two years. This is different.
There is something important missing in the way that Barça is playing. If the team doesn’t find it, not only will results not come, but results will be impossible to attain. And that is why, in the absence of short-term thinking, so many culers believe their team to be in crisis. Because in many ways, it is.