And it was all going so well …
Possession stats in the 70s, the ball pinging around in midfield, Barça attacking, Valencia defending, Barça resetting, Valencia defending again. Everything was headed toward the inexorable conclusion until something horrible happened.
Iniesta took a tackle of the type that players take all the time. Enzo Perez got the ball but came through the man to do so. In 99 of 100 of those challenges, the player gets up. Today was the hundredth, and Iniesta signalled to the bench as soon as he went down. Even he knew.
There was excoriation for the Valencia player but in reality, there wasn’t malice. It was a hard challenge, but not a butcher’s challenge. The bad luck was that Iniesta’s foot was planted and that was the leg that Perez hit after getting the ball. Dani Alves, in the Juventus/Milan match, laid an almost identical challenge on an attacker, who went down, grumbled a bit then got up to resume play.
What happened in the aftermath of Iniesta being stretchered off is a link went missing. When Rakitic entered the fray, the midfield was Busquets/Gomes/Rakitic. Absent was the associative kind of midfielder, that shuttle player like Iniesta, who can flit about the pitch with the ball to make space. What remained were a bunch of incomplete URLs, and Valencia took advantage.
Compounding matters is that the precise players needed for those roles were watching from the stands, as both Arda Turan and Rafinha were injured, and things were still a bit raw for Denis Suarez. The result wasn’t that midfield control was lost, but rather that open links weren’t closed as players who weren’t used to a certain job were forced to perform it. Injuries can come at good or bad times. Having a trio of creative mids all injured at the same time is luck of the worst kind.
Passes got longer, runs with the ball proliferated as the Barça attackers had to close the links somehow. This increased the danger because every lost ball meant a Valencia counter, and a man moving with the ball is less secure than a pass to an open teammate. Valencia began to find its way into the match, and then Messi happened, with a goal that will be controversial.
He took possession just outside the Valencia box, and fired past Diego Alves, who immediately ran to the referee to complain about Luis Suarez, who was in an offside position. Some contend that the FIFA “clarification” of the offside rule means that as long as Suarez didn’t make contact with the ball, he can’t be interfering. But the FIFA rules clearly state that interfering with an opponent can also be “preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball. For example, by clearly obstructing the goalkeeper’s line of vision or movement.”
Was Alves able to see around Suarez at the time Messi struck the ball? What is his obligation to move to find clear space? Suarez didn’t make contact with the ball, and Unidamo Mallenco clearly judged Suarez to be a sufficient distance from Alves so as to not clearly obstruct his vision. So the goal stood, and a brilliant goal it was, even if it was also a goal that Alves almost certainly saves if a big Uruguayan wasn’t acting like a duck blind.
The first half ended 0-1, and if things weren’t looking to be completely in control, they were feeling rather comfortable. Barça was having most of the ball and the lead, even if the physical play being allowed by Mallenco made the movement of attackers with the ball rather fraught. The trend this season (again) seems to be to kick Barça off the pitch, with physical, aggressive football. It doesn’t work, until players are actually kicked off the pitch, as in the cases of Pique and Iniesta. Valencia hewed to the current trend with a vigor that at times bordered on recklessness. Mario Gomez went into Gomes, studs up, making full contact with the front of the shin, a clear red card offense that didn’t even get a yellow. Montoya was willfully and wantonly thwacking Neymar about, something else that is all the rage this season, as opponents take advantage of the “He had it coming” worldview to kick the crap out of a player trying to play his game.
When play gets physical and messy, the natural reaction is to close ranks and for everyone to focus a little more intently. Someone forgot to tell Gomes, who lost the ball, then compounded the error by sashaying after his man, Munir El Haddadi, who used the open space to fire past a helpless Ter Stegen for the equalizer.
We can only imagine what Luis Enrique must have been thinking after than goal, because it wasn’t long after that Denis Suarez started warming up. For a team such as Barça that is so vulnerable without the ball and whose game is predicated on having the ball. such lackadaisical play is intolerable. Gomes was clearly and directly at fault for that goal, with sloppy play on one end and lazy play on the other. A player doing his job is never more crucial than in a difficult away stadium with an opponent clawing its way back into the match. Poor play can be a lifeline.
So can poor finishing. Rakitic and Suarez missed excellent opportunities to continue giving Valencia hope. The latter was 1 of 5 on excellent chances, including an open header that he punted over the crossbar. Yes, he made the run, made the play that led to the winning goal. Finish like he’s supposed to and such heroics aren’t necessary. Barça is a great team, but even the best teams have a hard time overcoming sloppiness and inexactitude. Bad decisions kill.
The second Valencia goal came from another poor decision as Digne, who had plenty of time to play the ball to feet and make the secure pass, headed it away. It fell directly to Valencia, who wasted no time as Nani laid in a perfect pass that was struck home for a 2-1 lead, and a berserk Mestalla.
Suddenly Valencia players were everywhere and Barça looked a mess. Did the Iniesta injury affect the team psychologically as well as tactically is a question only the players can answer, but salvation came in the form of a set piece. A perfect ball found the head of Rakitic, whose header was parried away by Alves directly to Suarez, who smashed home from an acute angle. Just as suddenly as it was 0-1, it was 2-2, but Valencia kept coming with a fantastic chance — only the selfishness of Nani and the determination of Sergi Roberto saved a third goal.
The match settled into a familiar pattern: Barça possession and probing, Valencia with the lightning counter. Rinse, repeat. And with only two minutes of added time, things looked set for a draw when one last run was the one. As noted previously, Barça just keeps doing what it does, daring you stop it one more time, to muster one more effort. An exquisite, high-speed interplay between Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez put the Uruguayan in perfect position in the box.
Valencia, given the match Suarez was having, would have been better off letting him shoot. But Aymen Abdennour, a sub at LB who had a brilliant match, cleared Suarez out. It was a sure penalty. Messi stepped to the spot, and drove home just under the hand of Alves, the penalty stopping specialist, who guessed right but was a fraction too late.
The players celebrated, and some savage Valencia supporter threw a bottle at the embracing pack, a stupid, reckless act that unleashed Messi, who strode toward the Valencia supporters, hurling verbal invective of the likes never before seen from him. Ever. His face was contorted with rage, righteous indignation and exultation, and it was glorious.
This was also a champion’s victory. Teams have a moment where things come together, where something happens that kick starts a fire. Was this it? It was an exceptional win that shouldn’t be marred by an abysmal refereeing performance. This week, Barça completed the comeback, showing the mental toughness and resilience that is a mark of this Luis Enrique team.
Solutions must be found to the aggression of opponents, and how refereeing laxity allows possession to be turned in dangerous areas. After the match, some were again lamenting about how Luis Enrique has let the midfield to pot, positional play, blablabla, but here’s something worth considering:
Luis Enrique’s Barça doesn’t play like that, and isn’t going to. So it’s probably worth putting those familiar tropes away, and understanding what this team — THIS team is doing, and how it’s doing it. You can’t hate chocolate ice cream because it isn’t rocky road. It is what it is. Luis Enrique didn’t “let” the midfield go to pot. He has his charges playing in a way that suits the skill sets of the players that he has. What does anyone reckon would have happened to positional play Barça had, say, Xavi, Iniesta and Keita been injured? Who remembers the chaos of matches that was quelled when Xavi entered? Few, apparently.
The Denis Suarez for Gomes substitution was excellent because it restored that linking player to the midfield and let Barça back into the match. Suarez was also more capable tracking back, and putting Valencia’s defense on the back foot with his movement and aggression with the ball.
It’s difficult to be calm and neutral in the face of such a match, that had me trembling for the last ten minutes or so, then giddy, jittery with nervous energy in the wake of the remarkable, last-second heroics. This is a magnificent football team That we have the privilege to enjoy, week after week. What’s next? Who knows, but some there should be some respite as the woeful Granada visit the Camp Nou next week.
Barça lost something when its Captain was struck down. But it might have also gained something significant in a single moment, that might go down in culer lore as the Rage of Messi.
Pep Guardiola sows chaos even when he’s just sitting at a press conference.
“There were a number of things which Lucho and his team do better than I did during my era at the Camp Nou.”
What a statement to unpack for so many reasons, most rooted in the dogma and wretched subjectivity that holds a fanbase in place like a millstone the size of Stonehenge.
Once, while making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a friend gasped. “What are you doing!”
“Um, making a pb and j?”
“No, what are you doing?! Why are you putting peanut butter on one slice, and jelly on the other?”
Is there a right and a wrong way to make a pb and j? Depends on who you ask, apparently. Putting both on one slice would have struck me as odd. What’s most fascinating about the incident is that there is a right and a wrong way for everything. You should make some time to read this very thoughtful piece at These Football Times, written by Jamie Hamilton. It asks the question, “what is good football,” then stands that notion on its ear.
For Barça supporters, there is no question what “good” football is. It’s rooted in that Cruijffian ideal that is drilled into future geniuses before their testicles have even dropped. It’s no less a religion than the Commandments inscribed on the stone tablets of Biblical lore.
Thou shalt possess the football.
Thou shalt exalt thine migratory, passing keeper.
Thou shalt hold nothing before the midfield.
Thou shalt have more of the football, for this is divine.
The run doth dictate the pass.
And then came Luis Enrique. When he was brought on as Barça coach the oracle was consulted, and he saith unto us, “Luis Enrique will do better than I did.” The believers scoffed and snarled at such an impossible thing, because mes que un club is also mes que un results. And that is the dilemma presented by both of these statements from Pep Guardiola. They force a fundamental rethink of what is, in fact and in subjective perception, good. Barça doesn’t play good football these days, many culers will assert. When asked what good football is, they will reply, citing the Barça Commandments and explaining why the Luis Enrique Barça worships false idols. This is true, even in the face of the rather sparkling results achieved by this group of athletes.
Atleti, of late, has become the bane of Barça’s existence. When Luis Enrique became coach, it was accepted culer belief that he wasn’t a good enough coach to lead his charges to victory against Diego Simeone’s warriors. That first go-round, at the Camp Nou, was fraught in a way that it can only be in the culerverse, complete with visions of the Sack of Troy, as Catalan maidens clutching footballs are slain before the Camp Nou altar. But Luis Enrique had a plan.
Simeone came out ready to stomp the terra, ready to battle Religious Barça. But the Heathen King dared to have another view as he wondered, “What if we just bypass the midfield, where all those guys in red-and-white striped shirts are?” Barça won 3-1 and after the match, supporters scoffed. “Where is the midfield?” “What of positional play?” “Sure we won, but at what cost?”
Luis Enrique didn’t care. In building his Barça, the one that Guardiola says does some things better than his edition, he has built a Leatherman tool. It’s a device that can do lots of stuff, from playing the game in a way that would make even the most devoted Cruijffist smile to raining thunder from the heavens in a fashion that would have Harry Redknapp nodding in approval.
And all of them are good football in a sense, one that is again subjective. When you evaluate a concert, what makes that show good? For a critic like me, it is how good was the band at being the band? It’s remarkable how many bands are crappy at being themselves. But goodness comes from accomplishing the task. Good football meets a need within the paramaters that it establishes when unpacked. So the 3-1 Atleti win was good football because it met its tactical goals with style and aplomb. It wasn’t traditional Barça football but that, in and of itself, is only a bad thing to some. The Inter Champions League semi-final victory against Barça was good football in that context, even as it was aesthetically unpleasing. Atleti’s Champions League semi-final win was, for them and their coach, good football. It was successful, and fulfilling within its own context.
Subjectively, good football means something rather different for a Barça supporter. We are, as a group, one of the most dogmatic bunches in world football. A mere win isn’t enough. There must be possession of the right kind, positional doctrine and beauty — so much beauty of a kind sufficient to make the Gods weep. Woe betide the blasphemer who gets results without aesthetics. Guardiola’s Barça played good football. Vilanova’s Barça was, every now and again, capable of doing this. Martino’s Barça? Nope. Ugly.
The best football is, of course, good football that also brings good results. The reason the Guardiola teams will always and forever live on in culer lore is because they hewed to every tenet of the Cruijff dictates — presuming that you, of necesssity, ignore the Guardiola treble team, which blasphemed. The second Manchester United victory is, and will always be, one of the most exquisite football matches that any of us will ever have occasion to witness. I have kept it on my DVR, dubbed it to a DVD, downloaded it to my tablet. Whenever I want to see it, I can.
Yet that match wasn’t just glorious and successful. It was the apogee of a doctrine, the ultimate in good football as interpreted by Barça. Inter Milan doesn’t play good football. Neither does Atleti or Real Madrid. Manchester United? Pah! Don’t make me laugh.
And yet, to supporters of those clubs, their teams can, and do play good football for the same reason there is chocolate and vanilla, sports cars and trucks. In the vast variability of the world, the concept of universal good isn’t supported by any tenet of philosophy, worldview or even religion. If you give a homeless person money and they use it to buy drugs, have you done a good thing? Prima facie you have in that you used something of which you have more than enough of, to however temporarily, alleviate the suffering of another human being. Are you responsible for not having foreseen the result? Should that trepidation temper your empathic benevolence in the future? How good are you now?
For many, goodness denotes purity. For others, goodness is the goal attained. For still others, goodness is the pursuit. The true culer is the one who, in the wake of a loss, says, “But the football was so beautiful.” Into that strange world walks Luis Enrique, with the imprimatur of the greatest Barça coach ever, who underscores that blessing with words.
Those words are complex because they slash at the very nature of good football by a fanbase that had hitherto believed it understood this notion. “But … but … if these Luis Enrique teams do some things better than the Guardiola teams, what are those things, and what of my concepts of goodness?”
Good isn’t rigid. Good is malleable. Good is swathed in shades of grey. Our do-gooder, when next confronted with a needy person, hesitates. “What if this is another druggie?” Perhaps they see a picture in the paper of a person killed in a store robbery, trying to get money to feed a family. The sense of good felt by not once again facilitating someone’s descent into substance-abusing madness is, once again, tempered. Good is never always thus.
Of the Guardiola statement, what are those “things” of which he speaks? One person said, in a reply to a post of the quote, “Winning without possession?”
For me, the Guardiola quote is one of the most wonderful things that he has done for Barça football because of its benevolence and clear-minded adherence to the notion of intellectual growth. If you need to build a woodshed, and one workman had screws and a hammer while the other has a screwdriver and nails, each will need to devise a different way to erect that shed. Guardiola’s Bayern Munich played differently than Guardiola’s late-period Barça, which played differently than Guardiola’s middle and early-period Barça. Guardiola’s Manchester City will play differently than any of his other teams, even as the roots of its fundament will be the same.
Like Luis Enrique, Guardiola is a pragmatist. All coaches are, even the ones who supporters convince themselves aren’t. Coaches look at what they need to build, the available tools they have and go from there.
Luis Enrique’s Barça can do some things better than Guardiola’s Barça because of evolution, that thing that makes an entity adapt to meet a different set of challenges. Even as the 7-0 Bayern result can be explained away somewhat by injuries and a psychological mess of a team, that demolition was also perfect because it dropped the curtain on the religious aspect of the Barça defition of “good” football. The Bayern win was more than a smash-and-grab. It was a dismantling that ripped at every tenet of the Barça doctrine. It didn’t care how much possession Barça had, wasn’t all that interested in midfield dominance and disrupted positional football through intense, physical pressing all over the pitch. And the organism had to evolve.
The notion of Luis Enrique as Darwin is weird to consider, even in the wake of the Guardiola imprimatur. What this all means for our idea of good football is perhaps it’s due for a rethink — maybe, just maybe. Maybe there is more than one good even as there isn’t any good, really — that what is bad can be good for someone, just as what is good can be bad for someone else in a world where nobody is right.
If you want to understand how good Barça is, understand that they took the top-of-table side in the Premiership, coached by a certified genius, and reduced them to an irritable Rayo Vallecano.
Just like Rayo City pressed, stroked the ball around, accumulated possession and made culers say “What’s wrong with us? They’re making us look at sixes and sevens.”
Then the goals came and the world returned to normal. The biggest difference is that City was determined to sweep the leg, with a series of fouls that mostly irritated except for Gerard Pique, who fell prey to a repugnant bit of butchery from David Silva.
Before the match there was some worry, because it’s Guardiola. And even though people call nonsense on the Premiership “best league” stuff, they still worry. It’s hard to get that out of your system, right? And it’s Guardiola. But the match went pretty much as expected. Is it as simple as one team beat Celtic 7-0 while the other team drew Celtic 3-3? Nope. Drawing inferences from scorelines would mean that Villarreal is better than Barça, since they hammered the Celta team that beat Barça.
But in watching both outings against Celtic, the difference is clear. Barça is evil, and inexorable. Like the Terminator, it won’t stop until you are dead. The passes keep coming, the runs continue to be made, time after time after time until you break. And you almost always break, barring a peculiar set of circumstances which aren’t repeatable all that often. Because Barça isn’t just the best team in world football. It’s also the most confident team in world football. City doesn’t have that yet, that quality that breaks your heart and will. It will take work to instill that. Talent isn’t enough. A tennis player drills, hitting thousands of topspin backhands up the line to make that shot a reflex, to make the exceptional automatic.
It’s when great players make the exceptional automatic that you wind up with a team such as Barça, who also have an absurd collection of talent even if too much of its fanbase doesn’t understand or appreciate just how extraordinary that team is.
Before the Manchester City match, Barça great Ronald Koeman said, prophetically, that you can play a perfect match, then Messi decides to do something. And it’s here that things get a little — well, a lot weird, because on the surface, this is what happened. Messi is decisive. Three words that state the obvious but carry so much meaning.
Messi scored a hat trick, one of the easiest he will ever notch, and Barça strolled to victory against the Premiership leaders, who are also favored to advance from their Champions League group. Messi decided this match on a strange day during which a … THE favored son returned to the Camp Nou once again, once again at the head of a brace of enemy combatants. And Pep Guardiola, certified genius and legitimate Barça legend, got his ass handed to him again. Some would say it came from the monster that he created, even if fully shaped is more accurate.
But it was more than Messi. Early on, Neymar undressed a City defender and danced into their box. The pass went awry, lacking the necessary precision and optimistic teammate to generate something more, but the intent was clear. This is going to happen again. And again. Barça is coming for you.
After the match, like the belief in Santa Claus, people had to find consolation in the lopsided scoreline with things such as “City won the tactical battle,” “Barça played for crap and got lucky,” “Things were close until … ”
Guardiola sounded like yet another vanquished coach in saying that things were fine until a player got sent off, the result of Claudio Bravo making an error of the forced variety. But no.
Quite frankly, City was a mess and Barça was indomitable. The game was chaotic because City charged and attacked Barça, leaving exploitable open spaces. There were times when the City press got the better of Barça, times when the vaunted building from the back was thwarted again and again by sorbet-colored hooligans. But Barça would hit the reset button and begin again, confident that this would be the time that it would work and eventually, it was.
The feeling was that the first goal came out of nowhere, but that wasn’t the case when Messi took the ball — he actually took it, emerging from a meeting of players and coming out with the ball thanks to strength and determination. And if he didn’t Boateng the fools who would dare try to stop him, he humiliated them nonetheless, dribbling Bravo and leaving his former teammate flat on his face, just another victim doomed to hear the roars of adulation as Messi did it yet again. The exceptional becomes automatic.
Barça was the better team, and not by a little. Was the seeming chaos that, or a team being adaptable and shaping to the avenues left it by an opponent until able to impose its will. People said, post-match, that the Bravo sending off changed the match. But from the Messi goal onward, when both teams were still 11v11, the tables were already turned. The City press was less effective, Barça was able to pass around their defenders. Neymar was running riot as too often City was forced to play him with a single defender because of the other dangers flitting about. Bravo’s sending off was because the match had already turned.
The worst part for opponents about Barça is that the team forces you to make choices. You can stop Suarez OR Neymar, Neymar OR Messi, Iniest … naaaah. Shut down Iniesta and Ter Stegen drops a rainbow of a pass from the back to the feet of an attacker. Press Ter Stegen and Umtiti smites a diamond ball to Iniesta. It never stops. The truest cruelty of playing FC Barcelona is that it only takes a moment. The beautiful part of the match was that Guardiola could see the evolution of the team that began in his hands. When he was coach, there was a particular set of skills that forced a particular type of play, and it was beautiful, aesthetically pure and successful.
The Barça that wrecked his team is beautiful, aesthetically malleable and successful.
At his pre-match press conference, Luis Enrique spoke of wanting possession, to play the Barça way but also having the luxury of being able to adapt his tactics to the skills of his individual players. The quality that he has to call upon provides exceptional luxury. Messi, Suarez and Neymar are impossible to play against. City did a great job of dealing with Suarez in attack, even as he influenced the match in other significant ways, of kinda sorta mostly keeping Neymar at bay, which left Messi. It’s inhuman.
It’s easy to say that it was Messi, it was individual brilliance, but City didn’t score either and Messi wasn’t playing CB or keeper. Ter Stegen was brilliant with Samuel Umtiti right behind him, buttressing other players forced to take the spotlight after the physical, verging on reckless approach of City cost Barça its back line anchor, Pique, who went out with an ankle knock after being battered by Silva.
This was after Jordi Alba aggravated his hamstring injury and had to come off early in the first half, replaed by Lucas Digne. Mathieu subbed on for Pique and suddenly the Barça back line was Mascherano, Mathieu, Umtiti and Digne.
And City still didn’t score. Ter Stegen made a brilliant save, and saves sow panic in the people whose Barça good performance is 100% possession and the keeper sitting in a chaise lounge, cheering as his teammates knock in five or so goals.
The consolation to be found by asethetes in being able to attribute the City loss to simple individual errors ignores the view that against Celta Vigo, many of those same aesthetes screamed that Luis Enriuqe screwed up and cost his team a real shot at victory. That’s the perception game, hard at work. Guardiola’s players let him down, Luis Enrique lets his players down.
It is doubtful the moment will ever come when the majority of culers admit that Luis Enrique is a brilliant coach. He isn’t sprinkled with fairy dust, doesn’t have an encylopedic knoledge of all sorts of games and miutiae. But he wouldn’t be Luis Enrique if he did. He just wants to kill, and go home. What should worry opponents is that Luis Enrique has instilled that same quality in his team, another evolution from the Guardiola magicians, whose eviscerations were more good-natured, almost theoretical. Even opponents would think, “My, that was lovely.”
This Barça’s savagings are all business. It isn’t personal nor are they at all interested in how you feel. It can be a velvet fist or a wrecking ball. Your choice, not theirs as this Barça doesn’t bend opponents to its will, but rather lets them choose the means of their own destruction. Want to sit deep? Unzue has a set piece. Want to play football? Okay. Pack the midfield and press? Watch those wings.
Many were saying that Barça didn’t play well. In that perfect universe of the diamond match. But these days, Barça never plays well. Every match is flawed in some way. But if you look at what actually happened, the injuries, the fouls, the disruptions and mayhem — and still a win at a canter. Put another way, if someone had told you before the match that Alba and Pique would be injured, Suarez would have no goals and Mathieu would be sent off against City, what would be your bet on the scoreline? That it was 4-0 isn’t beautiful, but it is magnificent.
The total number of major trophies is staggering: 7 in 4 years. There are the other, lesser trophies: 7 of them too. There is the sense that what was a team on the brink of greatness is now firmly entrenched in the history books as one of the greatest club sides of all time. There are new words in the global lexicon to describe the team’s rise and recycled terms re-introduced to the contemporary generation: tiki-taka, false 9, true 10, libero. There are heirs to thrones and entirely new dynastic roots. There are images that are seared in our minds and statements we like to repeat. This is the legacy of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona.
But make no mistake, this is also the enemy.
It is not about hating Pep Guardiola—that seems impossible—but it is about looking at today through unblinkered eyes. It is about remembering that whatever he gave to the team before—and it is an unpayable debt—today is today and yesterday is yesterday. Luis Enrique’s accomplishments 2 years into his tenure mirror those of his legendary predecessor (8 trophies apiece). They were teammates and friends, they won a gold medal together at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona (Pep in the #9, Lucho in the #8), and they worked together as first team manager and reserve team manager, but now they face off in a group stage match on the biggest club stage: the Champions League. It’s not hard to imagine a hero’s welcome before kickoff and then a towering inferno after the whistle sounds.
It is not about hating Pep Guardiola. It is not about hating Manchester City, the nouveau riche, or the new corporate overlords of global football. It is not about hating anyone or anything, but it is also not about adulation or pining for old times. Guardiola may very well return to the club one day—perhaps at the behest of President Pique—to work alongside Manager Xavi or Mascherano, but for now he works on the other side of the divide. He is not a bad person for having chosen to leave us, for having chosen Bayern Munich and then Manchester City, or for getting paid extremely handsomely for his decisions.
But make no mistake, Lucho will attack Pep’s weaknesses and attempt to burn him with fire.
It is not about hating Pep Guardiola. It is about loving this team and cheering for it. It is about enjoying the brand of football that will be on display and the scintillating moves from Messi, Neymar, Iniesta, and Pique. It is about kind of clutching yourself a bit when Ter Stegen gets the ball, only to see a pass drop sweetly into the path of a charging chipmunk or wavy haired Croatian. It is about the spectacle of 98,000 fans wearing the appropriate shade of blue and roaring their hearts out. It isn’t about clipping the wings of an up-and-coming European powerhouse, but it is about asserting our own sense of self within that sphere. We are no longer the underdogs, but this should not change our feelings for our team. It does not also put our management or players beyond reproach or take away from the legitimacy of any criticisms leveled at them, but keeping perspective is extremely important.
Guardiola goes to operas and speaks in the hushed tones of an academic while Lucho barrels down the side of a mountain on a bike; Guardiola is quoted at length in literary works while Lucho is, well, not. One is stylish while the other insists on sneakers with his suits. Both have won everything and both don’t take crap at press conferences.
But make no mistake, this is Barcelona vs. Manchester City, not us against Pep.
So what of Manchester City? They sit joint top of the Premier League table with 19 points from 8 matches (19GF, 8GA) while Barcelona sit joint 4th in La Liga with 16 points from 8 played (26GF, 10GA). It’s hard to directly compare the two, of course, but Manchester City has stuttered of late with a loss and a draw in succession to put an end to their previously unbeaten league record. Previously they played the teams currently ranked 20, 19, 18, 15, 11, and 7, with a combined 1 clean sheet. They lost to the 3rd placed team and drew with the 6th. Barcelona, who have stuttered in their own right against mediocre opposition, have lost to the 12th and 9th ranked teams, but have won against teams ranked 18, 16, 15, 11, and 6 while also drawing against top-of-the-table Atletico. There were 3 clean sheets in there, though allowing 4 at Celta Vigo wasn’t a brilliant move. Neither team, therefore, is firing on all cylinders, but it could still be incredibly entertaining because these are fantastic attacking sides that occasionally give up silly goals.
Looking at their Champions League records, City cruised by Borussia Mochengladbach 4-0 then surprisingly drew 3-3 away to Celtic; Barca beat Gladbach in Germany after coming from a goal down to win 1-2, but started the campaign by absolutely thrashing Celtic at the Camp Nou to the tune of 7-0. Barcelona therefore sit top of the group with 6 points and City are in 2nd with 4 points. This match could easily determine the final order, though the “second leg” in Manchester on November 1 should be the real decider, especially if Gladbach and Celtic split points along the way. What’s clear is that fireworks are possible tomorrow night and that is exactly what I would like to see.
Kevin de Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, David Silva.
Neymar, Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi.
These are just some of the attackers on display for each team and that’s the epitome of mouth-watering.Claudio Bravo, Nolito, and, of course, Pep Guardiola return to the Camp Nou (Yaya isn’t in the CL squad) so there will be plenty to applaud before and after kickoff. There will be darting runs and slick passing as well as a back-and-forth on who can hold the ball the most effectively. The first 15 or so minutes should be frenetic, possibly frantic, and hopefully fantastic before things settle down and Barcelona’s quality shines through.
But make no mistake, this is not a friendly. This is about 3 points and about effectively ensuring continuity in the Champions League through at least the first round of the knockout stage. This is about showing that while Guardiola’s 2008-2012 Barça were magnificent, loveable, and all-together fantastic to watch, this is now the 2016-17 Barça and it too is all of those things. Before you point out that maybe Luis Suarez’s antics make them not so lovable, my counterpoint is Andres Iniesta. Checkmate.
The king, then, comes back, but there is a new king named Luis Enrique. He is now The Man at Barça. Along with Andres Iniesta, of course. And that little dictator, Messi. And Reymar. And Luis Suarez’s maté provider. And Ter Stegen’s ego.
Prediction: 3-1, Barça.
For Barça and the rest of the big three, the weekend’s La Liga action was just what the doctor ordered. Instead of the usual post-internationals vulnerability, the title-contending trio all laid up gaudy scorelines.
Barça, however, had the most interesting storyline, not only because of the focus of this space. Although it seems I quote Ramzi a lot, it’s because he makes so much sense. After the Alaves match he said that a month or so later, and the same lineup would bring about a different, more positive result.
The evidence of that was clear against Deportivo. It was a rotation XI again, as in the social media universe that revolves around Barça, people didn’t like it. The XI was Ter Stegen, Pique, Mascherano, Mathieu, Digne, Busquets, Turan, Rakitic, Rafinha, Neymar, Suarez.
Of course people didn’t know what to think of this lineup, or a possible formation. Barça Twitter was rife with pre-match speculation about who the RB might be, with a bonus: lots of grumbling about Luis Enrique’s XI, how “he hasn’t learned his lesson,” “too much rotation,” “a 3-4-3 won’t work against Depor,” etc, etc. And to be sure, the team was just coming off its crapshow at Celta as well as knocking the detritus of an international break off its boots. And because the last two outings against Deportivo both ended in 2-2 draws, a bit of apprehension could be forgiven.
Yet this wasn’t just rotation for the sake of it. Alba and Sergi Roberto are dinged, Messi was coming off an injury, Iniesta and Umtiti will be needed for the midweek Champions League clash. It was the strongest lineup available, upon further consideration. This was an XI that was not only the right thing to do but crucial for the team, short and long-term.
The differences between Deportivo, Alaves and Celta were execution. The ball wasn’t stagnant and neither were the players. Spaces were not only closed, they weren’t present because nobody was making silly possession errors as against Celta, or making solo runs against banks of defenders, as against Alaves. Barça needs for its football, on boht ends of the pitch, to be controllable. The team is still kinda janky without the ball, and its players aren’t the fastest. If the game isn’t in front of them problems ensue, as we saw vs Celta.
Luis Enrique’s midfield-heavy lineup was proactive rather than reactive, designed to control problems with redundant layers. Turan and Rafinha could slide back as Mascherano slid forward, giving this team the potential to flood the midifeld — there were even glimpses of Rakitic and Busquets doing the double pivot thing, as a further acknowledgement of the necessity for control. The formation was tighter thanks to the entra ball handlers, and the result was a calm, assured runout in which the team could do its job.
The astute observer might have been thinking that maybe Luis Enrique did indeed learn some lessons, judging from the team setup. But so did his charges, as they were controlled and cautious with the ball almost to the point of drabness at times, an approach that rendered anything Deportivo tried irrelevant. Even though they hover around mid-table, there is, rather than a quality gap between them and Barça, something more resembling a chasm. Their only hope was to defend, be physical and foul, and hope for a lucky break.
The early goal killed that notion. It’s easy to speculate that the Alaves match might have gone differently had Neymar not scuffed that early chance, but hindsight is always 20/20. A lead lets Barça play on the front foot and makes an opponent have to chase the match. Even at a single-goal lead, with the lineup and formation Luis Enrique opted for, the hope for playing off the break was mostly eradicated because of the midfield pressure.
Notice how much less distance passes had to cover, Deportivo vs Celta. Even a pressing, physical opponent can’t deal with compressed space and skilled players, so the only option to control an attack becomes the foul. If the ball moves quickly enough, even that isn’t an option.
Notice the third Barça goal, in which everything happened too quickly for any reaction. Neymar played a perfect pass off the dead run, whipped in to Suarez who controlled with ease and slotted home, great pass leading to rather difficult finish. It was 3-0 and Barça looked to be in third gear.
And like the match last season in which Messi returned from injury, Barça was rolling, having put things away even before their talismanic No. 10 entered. 0-4 last year, 3-0 this year.
Form is also crucial. Rafinha quickly went from uncertainty to essential. His gradual return to full fitness from the knee injury, coupled with a passel of midfield acquisitions in the summer, made many wonder about his fate. But there were previous glimpses of what he could bring to the side in that Messiesque role — in a more dynamic adaptation that finds him working box to box.
A great many people also said of Rafinha that he was a comfortable player for Luis Enrique as the two have ties from Barça as well as Celta Vigo. But the first two goals demonstrate the reality of Rafinha — he is a unique midfielder, his only approximate analog being Sergi Roberto, who is a little busy these days.
Look at the first goal, where Rafinha applied not only pressure, but physical strength to work the ball loose. He then made the run into space to capitalize on his aggression, and fired past the keeper.
His second goal was not only opportunistic but again, typical. Rafinha can play like a midfielder but also track the ball and attack like a forward. His build and strength let him hold his own in the box against defenders as well. When he prodded home after a goalmouth scramble, this match felt rather different from the previous outings in which Barça gathered a two-goal lead, only to falter. One significant difference was the absence of Lucas Perez, the excellent Depor striker. Another difference was the clampdown.
Luis Suarez’s Uruguay edge seems to have shaken him out of his funk a bit. His movement was sharper. Neymar was electric, with a MOTM performance and a shout-out for Mathieu, the player Barça Twitter loves to hate, who was right in there with a shout for MOTM with a brilliant outing that included a wrongly disallowed goal.
Before the match there was worry. After the match, it was “only Deportivo.’ But it was also “only Alaves.” The team is playing better right now, sharper and with more purpose. There would be no 2-2 on this day, and good sings were everywhere, from the press and aggression even though the team was up 4-0, to the way Messi lifted off that rocket of a goal he scored. If there is any residual groin problems, that shot doesn’t have the pace that it does.
All that Barça can do is play the opponent on the schedule. This week, it was Deportivo, who had been something of a bogey team the last two outings. The expectations and demands are high for this group, which many consider to be the strongest team in world club football. Those expectations and demands are also malleable.
It’s difficult to know what to think about this Barça at times. It can look a desultory mess against Alaves and a side that can do nothing right against Celta, then destroy Deportivo at a canter. After a period free of injuries and international breaks, we should really get to see what Luis Enrique is working toward with his team.
Pray for Paco
Whether it is a voodoo doll or just simple rotten luck, you have to feel for Paco Alcacer, a player who is doing almost everything right except having the ball to into the net. He moves with alacrity, but keeps hitting posts or having keepers make astonishing saves against him. Eyebrows are starting to raise, but clearly, the goals will come. Luis Enrique, it’s safe to say, will say to him “Keep doing what you’re doing, and the goals will come.”
When the former Valencia subbed in for Suarez in the second half, it was the right move (again) from Luis Enrique. It lets Suarez leave on a buzz, gets him some rest and gives Alcacer a safe runout. And Alcacer could quite easily, with a few breaks, have had a hat trick instead of a dejected, empty-handed stroll of the pitch.
Tellingly, players such as Rafinha came to his defense, saying they know that the goals will come. And they will.