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A Reflection on a Momentous 2016 for Barca

As we end and reflect on 2016, it is fair to say it has been another successful year for Barca. We defended our La Liga crown, won a record 28th Copa del Ray and landed the Supercopa de Espana to seal a superb treble.

The one disappointment will, of course, be the Champions League but we can’t get too greedy. We must celebrate a superb 12 months rather than focus on the few negatives from the year.

Lionel Messi Player of the Year 2011” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by globalite

Winning any league title is never easy. After 38 games in the campaign, the best team will always be at the top of the standings. Since Atletico Madrid won La Liga in 2014, we can no longer say it is a two-horse race for the title in Spain.

Going into the final game of the 2015/16 season, Barca, Real and Atletico were all in contention for the trophy in what was a thrilling finish to the campaign. Thankfully all we had to do was take care of our business against Granada where Luis Suarez scored a hat-trick to ensure Luis Enrique would win two league crowns in two seasons since taking over the side.

A third straight La Liga title will be tough in 2017. Real already have a three point advantage and a game in hand when they return from the winter break where they won the FIFA World Club crown. Cristiano Ronaldo appears to be playing some of the best football of his career and they have Gareth Bale to return to their side.

That said, there is no team on the planet with a better trio of forward players than Barca with Suarez, Neymar and Messi. Barca ended last season with five consecutive wins in the league and they are going to need a better stretch than that in the second half of the campaign this time if they are to get the better of Real again.

Barca return to action in the New Year with a tough away trip to Villarreal. They are expected to come away with all three points in that game though, as Sportsbook.io makes them 53/100 to win the tie.  Visit website for all the betting on the next round of La Liga fixtures where Real Madrid are heavy odds-on favourites at 7/100 to defeat Granada.

FC Barcelona Museum 6” (CC BY 2.0) by dersportmanager

Although a third La Liga crown will be an amazing achievement, we all will be hoping for success in Europe in 2017. We have a tough last 16 test against PSG, however, the French champions don’t quite look as strong this season. The Paris club is third in Ligue One, five points behind leaders Nice so over two legs of football we should be able to make the quarter final again.

In an ideal world, we would avoid Real and Bayern Munich until the final in Wales at the Millennium Stadium. Our record in finals in recent years has been superb. Therefore we can be confident of recording our fifth success in the last 11 years in the completion.

Let’s hope for another hugely successful year and support the team when they need us to get behind them.

A holiday gift from BFB: Messi comparison liberation

A lack of bias is liberating. It lets you study something from an emotional reserve, a place where even as the passionate scream at you that you don’t understand, it isn’t that you don’t understand. It’s that the view is different.

Writing about football with a journalist’s perspective is difficult, especially when it concerns the team that you love. You aren’t a fan of any players, even as their exploits can move you, touch you in ways like they touch even the most passionate supporter.

Not being a fan of any player is also liberating. It also lends — hopefully — a little bit of heft to what comes next, this Christmas Eve gift to you in the form of some freedom: Messi isn’t better than Ronaldo. He isn’t better than Ronaldo because for that to be true, there has to be a point of comparison. There isn’t.

You can stop bristling at charts and statistical analyses, stop tilting at windmills in the form of “best of” player rankings and the like and awards that he didn’t win, stop trotting out statistics that support your contention. You can stop it all, because there is no comparison. Further, anyone who thinks that there is really isn’t worth taking at all seriously.

Luis Enrique is a savage. He was as a footballer and he is as a coach. He doesn’t have time for niceties or making anyone feel better. People assume that he has it in for various players, when he doesn’t care about anything except winning. Aleix Vidal is playing more because he is sucking less. There wasn’t any doghouse, just pure quality. Luis Enrique gives about as much of a damn as the honey badger.

In a recent interview, Luis Enrique, on the incessant Messi and Ronaldo comparisons, said simply enough, there isn’t any comparison, even if you drag out stuff like the “Melon d’Or.” It was brilliant because it laid waste to everything, all the hot takes, all the statistical analyses, all of it. It said that someone might think one player or the other is better because they have acquired a gilded bauble, but a savage who cares about nothing more than winning is here to tell you: there is no comparison.

Luis Enrique is right.

My respect for Cristiano Ronaldo is immense. He is a brilliant footballer and a magnificent goal scorer. But Messi is something completely different. At times, they aren’t even playing the same game. This isn’t a knock on Ronaldo. Not at all. It’s just that even at his most magnificent, Ronaldo could never do what Messi did. Nobody in the game could, and that includes Maradona.

Yes, Maradona had great dribbles, great matches and has World Cup gold to brandish in support of those who say that Messi isn’t his equal. Immaterial. But here’s the biggest problem with any efforts to compare Messi to Ronaldo or anyone else: art and the unquantifiable effect that it has on the human soul.

There is an opera by Francis Poulenc, called “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” It tells the story of the Martyrs of Compeigne, Carmelite nuts who were guillotined rather than renounce their faith. The climax of the opera is, of course, the scene where the nuns, singing in unison, march to the scaffold. As the sound of the blade falls, repeatedly, the chorus of voices is reduced by one. It is an absolutely heart-wrenching moment. I can’t watch it, I can’t deal with it, I can’t listen to it.

How do you explain that effect to someone? When you look at a piece of art that is beautiful, sufficiently so as to render you speechless, how can you answer the tears in your eyes? There is no explanation for it. You can fall back on painterly dissection or art historical context, but it’s a bunch of blablabla that doesn’t and can’t quantify the effect that art has on us.

That’s Messi.

“See, he scored x goals and Ronaldo … ” So what. Messi statisticians now have something called the pre-assist, yet another plank in the platform that attempts to objectively explain why Messi is better than Ronaldo. But I don’t need any of that. All I need is YouTube clips of goals — Getafe, Bayern, Athletic Bilbao, Real Madrid, Espanyol — the visual evidence that magic exists. Statistics don’t make magic make sense. When a great illusionist performs a trick so remarkable that it makes you angry because you KNOW dude didn’t just make a human being vanish, but where the HELL is the person? Dammit! The trick can be explained, but it doens’t help. It’s the accomplishment.

That’s Messi.

You can’t even explain his goals, which is part of the problem. So people reduce Messi and Ronaldo to goals, or some other statistical notion, but Messi exists in the realm of magic. It’s why you needn’t bother. It isn’t a question of science, it’s a question of art and feeling. That said, it doesn’t mean that Messi’s vast superiority is subjective. It’s objectively subjective, a lot like the arguments that Larry Bird or Magic Johnson were equal to, or better than Michael Jordan. No. Nobody was, for the same reason nobody compares to Messi.

When you look at something and exhale when it’s over, that’s the quality that scribes call “breathless.” You’re watching and wondering, marveling. You can’t believe what you’re seeing, yet there it is. How can we quantify that? We can’t. No statistic can explain what it’s like to see Messi move, the improbability of it all.

Ronaldo is gorgeous. Face, hair, abs. He leaps, runs and slashes through the game with long strides, a being that not only is superior — he looks superior. You see him face off against a defender, and even aesthetics are in his favor. His stepovers are flamboyant, even when he knows he is just doing them because that is what Ronaldo does. He scores goals in quantities that would be absurd if not for that squat Argentine bloke who eschews the crossover for the stop and drop, that shoulder dip that you know is coming but can’t do anything about. What if this time it’s not real and he keeps going? Jerome Boateng probably had that internal dialogue before toppling like a sequoia. Lots of players do. Messi doesn’t rum as much as chop, like an armadillo capering among lions.

Lionel Messi doesn’t make sense except in that emotional realm where things don’t make sense because they can’t be explained. So how can anything be compared to that? Luis Enrique was right. Give all the trophies and player of the years that you like. They vex Messi fans, and they shouldn’t because there isn’t a comparison. It’s almost like Messi is a footballer from another planet, where he isn’t bound by the rules of Earth. So when he doesn’t win Earthly awards, who cares?

You have never heard me argue about Messi vs Ronaldo, and you never will, because there is no argument. It’s impossible to explain why there is no argument, but there is no argument.

People are fond of saying, and proving, the adage “I know what I know.” And it’s accurate because it can’t be disproved. “I know what I know” is an absolute. You know Messi is better. I know Messi is better. The people who voted for Ronaldo in some best player of the year contest know Messi is better. The Melon d’Or voters know Messi is better. Everyone who plays, watches, writes about and follows football knows Messi is better for the simple reason that nobody can be compared to him. Even dyspeptic scribes like me, viewing from a steely reserve in which we evaluate Messi just like any other player, have moments where we just sit, slack-jawed, fuming because he did it to us, too. We sat in our seats in the theatre as he pulled off the trick and dammit, how did he DO that?

You can’t explain it, I can’t, none of us can. That is what makes the comparisons pointless. You have to make Messi make sense, and he doesn’t.

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Watching Messi — a field guide

“What Messi does seems routine but it’s really not.”
Luis Enrique

Those words, uttered by Messi’s coach, Luis Enrique, are worth repeating and remembering. They’re a caution and an admonition. Football is sport, not science. Football the way it is played by Messi can verge on the divine.

Messi, like all the other Barça players, trains. Training allows a player to work and work at something until an action becomes rote, in the hope that at those moments, reflex takes over. On the practice court, a player can perfect a topspin backhand up the line, hitting thousands of them so that the shot is reflex. In a Grand Slam final, with a glowering opponent at the net, what happens then? What separates the greats from the goods, and the goods from the merely okays is that the greats make excellence repeatable. They make magic so often that it becomes routine. In training, a striker can score a goal like Messi did when he turned Boateng into a pylon, then smoked the best keeper in the game. In training. Not in a Champions League semifinal. These moments are magic because they are extraordinary. You can’t train for that stuff. A purer example of repeatable genius is Andres Iniesta.

At the Argentina Copa America match in Chicago, every time Messi touched the ball, phones rose into the air as everybody crammed into Soldier Field anticipated magic. He scored one goal. Then another. Finally, a third. Only one of the goals was a “Messi” goal, a tally that marks his status as human highlight reel. The rest of them were goals that — well — any old player could score. But even those goals are elevated because of the man who scored them, as tap-ins generate esctatic emanations because Messi scored it. Not only does he make greatness (almost) repeatable. He elevates the ordinary by virtue of his presence. But he also creates outsized expectations, even from folks who should know better.

“But Messi changes every game, he stops time. He’s the only player who could score a hat trick in every game if he wanted to.”
Quique Sanchez Flores

We can forgive Sanchez Flores’ poetic license, because Messi does want to score a hat trick in every match. But he can’t, particularly in the matches that he most wants to. The Sanchez Flores quote is the danger of Messi and how the world deals with him. Messi doesn’t get compared to Michael Jordan a lot except from this keyboard, but he should. People compare him to Cristiano Ronaldo but that measuring stick isn’t accurate because it’s temporal and immediate. The only analog that Messi has is in the sands of time via a sport he knows, from an era unrelated to his. Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose sent Messi a jersey that the Argentine wore a lot, creating a link to the team that was elevated by the only athlete most of us have witnessed who is comparable to Messi in the way that he makes the exceptional seem routine.

We gasp when Messi runs at five defenders and fails, because he has beaten five defenders before. On more than one occasion. Back in the day, we gasped as Michael Jordan took an opponent’s manhood by pulling off some amamzing physical feat. In a moment known as The Shot, in a playoff game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Jordan got the ball, like everyone knew he would. Craig Ehlo defended him, leaping to upset Jordan’s shot. Ehlo jumped, and landed. Jordan was still in the air. He stuck the jumper. Bulls win. That isn’t normal. Messi and Jordan perform the absurd so often that there is danger in how the world approaches them. Greatness should never be an expectation, should never make us forget how rare it is. Many of us are very lucky in that we have had the opportunity to watch, live and in person, players of whom history will speak of in reverent tones, watching grainy highlight reels and wondering if anyone will ever again be that good at anything.

Messi supporters expect him to always be able to single-handedly turn a match, an expectation that morphs into rage when Messi reveals himself to be, sometimes — more often than not, mortal. When he can’t carry a team all by himself, the baying mob turns on accessible targets from Tata Martino to Gonzalo Higuain, entities who let down a player too good to be let down, who his supporters always think deserves the absolute best. And he does. But the danger of hero worship comes when our heroes aren’t, leaving us bereft and psychologically homeless.

— “He will win the match all by himself.”
— “Damn them for not giving him the tools he needs to win matches!”

It’s the yin and yang of a player for whom the spectacular has beocme an expectation, because the other thing that transcendence does is build outsized expectations. It’s weird to be accused of hating Messi. But it’s routine for me, something that gets absorbed, that it isn’t even worth the bother to explain. Because it’s easy to understand where such thinking comes from. The same qualities that spark rage when teammates fail Messi spark ire when someone evaluates Messi in a way that doesn’t jibe with expectation. If you point out that Messi’s recent touches during a match all resulted in loss of the ball, the responses will usually be something like, “Why do you hate him? The next time he touches the ball could be a goal! What’s wrong with you?”

The answer to that last question is quite elegantly addressed by the two coaches who led their teams in the Catalan derby. It’s a question of what’s wrong with the expectation. What we want from life is for things to bring us joy, to elevate us. We want to believe that Messi can score a hat trick every match if he wants to, because that’s what greatness does. It builds massive demands carried in our need for joy. And this is true even as we know that Messi can’t be great all the time. It’s why we erupt into spasms of glee when he does something beyond his own lofty standard. The two goals he created with solo runs against Espanyol were remarkable bits of athletic skill. They were, simply put, absurd.

If reality matched our expectation, we’d just shrug when he did yet another slaloming dribble, mark the goal and return to our match watching routine. People wouldn’t whip our their phones to capture something that we know is going to come. But dealing with Messi is a challenge. We always expect greatness from him, even if we shouldn’t. We should expect him to be what he is, which is an exceptional player who will often morph into a human cheat code, but who will be erratic. Luis Enrique, with his quote, reminds us to not assume exactly what Sanchez Flores does with his. Extraordinary things are to be cherished. Do we take Messi for granted? Hell no. But we should be careful with our expectations. Greatness is elusive, and comes when it will. Greatness isn’t a utility, like the switch you flip when you want light. It’s that comet, streaking across the night sky — an exquisite rarity you were lucky enough to get a glimpse of.

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Barça 4, Espanyol 1, aka “Impossible to describe. Just watch.”

We forget how bollocks most attempts to analyze football are, as scribes sit at keyboards and strive to quantify the unquantifiable. How do you analyze a rainbow? How do you analytically quantify events as remarkable as those witnessed today?

Dunno.

The official match chronicle will state, simply enough, ” ’68: Goal Suarez.” It will be accurate, but it can in no way capture a high-wire walk of a goal, in which two of the best players in the game, off a pass from the third, demonstrated that football is about magic. It’s that thing that makes you watch a moment and leaves you reeling, seeing spots like when you get hit in the face with a camera flash — when a perfectly planned surprise leaves you joyful and speechless.

Iniesta took the pass and fought through one challenge, then two, his last act as he hit the turf to slide the ball to Messi, who stops, starts, fakes, gets fouled, keeps going, swivels and slaloms before unleashing a piledriver that was parried by the keeper before Suarez put home the rebound.

” ’68: Goal Suarez.”

The four goals that Barça scored today all had roots in football of the highest order, the kind that only players of a certain caliber can play with other players of that same caliber. Football is a team sport that be elevated by a brilliant individual. It’s the elusive beauty of the thing. Pape Diop clipped Messi during a Barça break. The score was still 1-0 at that moment. From that point on, Messi was different.

We often speak of players performing with the “red mist,” this thing that obscures vision and judgment. What happened with Messi as he lay there on the pitch in the wake of that Diop foul was something quite different. Poets with a free-flowing mind will wonder about the Rage of Messi, felled one last time by a thug from the crosstown rival, wonder about the thing that, like Homer’s Achilles, awakened the hero.

Or being pissed as a crappy foul could have just steeled his determination in a way remarkable for what it means.

Athletes perform to the best of their ability, a yardstick that is always changing, always elusive. Sometimes that best is unstoppable, other times that best is rather ordinary. The best players in Spanish football play in La Liga, the topmost division in Spain. Messi is also in La Liga, but he is different. He is a player whose absolute best is unstoppable. His best is at a level that makes opposing coaches just shrug, as Quique Sanchez Flores did on the Espanyol bench.

In the wake of that Diop foul, Messi, who had been having rather a below-average match to that point, decided to be unstoppable. He destroyed Espanyol for the second. Then he did it again for the third, with another determined, stumbling run that always found the ball glued to his feet, before Alba slotted home. Then he flawlessly controlled a pass of Luis Suarez for the fourth, deftly nutmegging the Espanyol keeper to caress the ball into the net, this sphere that nestled into the fibers at the back of the goal as if put there by its rightful owner.

Lionel Andres Messi is the best player in the game, and for me, the best player to ever play the game. Cristiano Ronaldo just won the Ballon d’Or, and good for him. It sparked endless debates, defenses of Messi, railing against the capricious standards of a now-silly award. But as BeIN broadcaster Ray Hudson says of Messi, “Just watch him.” You don’t need a gilded bauble to understand what you’re seeing, to see a player who takes top professsionals and makes them seem like they aren’t even playing the same game.

That kind of magic obliterates and consumes. Luis Suarez appears to be back in form, scoring a brace. Who’s talking about that? Mascherano was magnificent. So what? Neymar was like this marauding sprite, a player who, as a Twitter associate, Heimo says, is actually the player that Ronaldo’s supporters think the Portuguese is. Okay, but did you SEE what Messi did?

What Messi did to Espanyol was almost violent in its intensity and determination. We can wonder how Diop felt in the locker room after being the catalyzing event, like the Miami Heat young player who was teasing Michael Jordan during an off night for the Chicago Bulls superstar. He said the wrong thing, and Jordan woke up to almost single-handedly destroy the Heat. And that player’s coach, Pat Riley, said to his young charge, don’t ever say anything to Jordan again. If you see him in the hall, just walk by and don’t say anything. It never makes sense to wake a sleeping colossus.

Most fascinating about the four goals is that, for a time, they obliterated all the talk about proper football and The Way. None of them were “Barça goals” in the way that keepers of the flame so cherish. Iniesta going route one for Suarez. Then a broken-field run. And another. Then a pass over distance that led to an intermediate pass over the top.

Yet everyone screamed, cheered and cooed over those goals because they were exquisite, football of the highest order. In a previous post here, the different midfield of the here and now was being discussed, how the midfield used to be Heaven and now it’s Purgatory, a waystation before the ball gets to Heaven in the form of Messi, Neymar and Suarez, a trio of players who can do for themselves. Not a single goal today was a consequence of midfield play, really, even as a midfielder had a hand in two of them.

This Barça horaded possession like a miser hoards money, not only keeping the ball, but challenging Espanyol’s right to it, as if any time that sphere wasn’t being caressed by a Blaugrana foot was an affront to the game. There were remarkable passing sequences, one-twos at high speed that left Espanyol defenders frozen, like people watching players at an exhibition match. It was remarkable.

There are those who will assert that this Barça doesn’t play beautiful football, doesn’t play the game properly. There are others of us who will watch those goals that were scored today, laugh maniacally and hug ourselves with glee. In the luck of the draw that has placed us all here at this time, in a position to be able to marvel at this team and its players, these are heady days.

The final scoreline, even as lopsided as it was, doesn’t fully reflect the dominance displayed by Barça in the Catalan derby. The final scoreline can’t in any way reflect how spectacular the best player in the game was. Neymar had a brilliant match and at the end of the day, few cared as his omnipresent gloriousness was consumed in the flames of a player who only woke up a ways into the second half, then obliterated everything with brilliance.

This is a team game that is played by individuals, some of whom display that thing scoffed at by so many, “Individual brilliance.” But that quality is quite precisely why Messi stands out, why Iniesta is magic, why the acquisitions of Suarez and Neymar were so important. Messi was the best player in the game when he was playing with the likes of Pedro and David Villa, but he didn’t have playmates who could run on the same playground. They were augmentative players, rather than cohorts.

In a memorable outburst, Messi said that he wanted players he could work with and a board committed to providing the best possible platform for the football team to excel. Neymar and Suarez came, and suddenly Messi had playmates. The three are great friends off the pitch because they all understand the symbiotic needs of greatness, how Messi is fantastic, but the other two make him, them and the trio even more fantastic. Neymar to Suarez to Messi to goal. Messi to Neymar to Suarez to goal. In many ways it’s cheating to have those players, being fed the football by Iniesta.

In the wake of the Manchester City/Arsenal match, a commentator ended all the Guardiola hot takes by saying that at City, Guardiola doesn’t have the players that he had at Barcelona. That’s an easy thing to forget. And many of those players are still at Barçelona, still performing at a dizzying level. Busquets is often overlooked, but he’s quietly spectacular. Iniesta is Iniesta. Football is theory. We talk about formations, bandy about numbers and phrases such as “positional play.” Then individuals lay waste to a team game as they have a private cutting contest with their opponents as the victims. Then the greatest of them all decides that it’s time.

When people ask us why we love this game, why we huddle to watch grainy streams on wee screens, why we wake at ungodly hours, why we debate and squabble and chatter on and on about the exploits of a passel of millionaires in short pants, it’s kinda hard to explain.

But just as effective would be to say nothing, and give them the YouTube link to the four goals scored today. Every time a match starts, the air is saturated with possibility, with the potential for something great. This is true whether you support Stoke City or Sevilla or Barça. What we forget until it happens, is how exhilarating it is when possibility becomes reality. And a fanbase is united in disbelief at what it has just witnessed, a collective head shaking, mouths agape.

That’s what happenend today. It was the game at its most beautiful because it was also the game at its most capricious, performed at the highest level by the folks who do it better than anyone. And we got to see it.

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The danger zone and a changing midfield

There’s a name for a coach who doesn’t get the ball to his most dangerous players.

Fool.

This season, there has been much talk about style, betrayals of style and beauty of play, leading to discussions about whether Luis Enrique is the corect coach to lead Barça (he is) and since he isn’t, who would be better (nobody).

Luis Enrique has often said (correctly) that he plays Barça football. What’s interesting, as you watch Barça over the recent glory years starting with Rijkaard, is that the three Barça coaches — Rijkaard, Guardiola and Luis Enrique — are more alike than anyone would care to admit. They all share the fundamental trait of all coaches, which is wanting to get the ball to the most dangerous men, and making sure that they have the ball most of the time.

With Rijkaard, the player was Ronaldinho. With Guardiola, it was mostly Xavi and also Iniesta. With Luis Enrique, it’s Messi, Suarez and Neymar.

Each Barça coach also adapted his system to the personnel that he had. Positional play is lovely. It also helps to have an in-prime Xavi and Iniesta to implement it. Rijkaard’s mission was simple as well: devise a way to get No. 10 the ball, and let him do what he does. That hasn’t changed since Messi changed his number from 19 to 10, no matter who the Barça coach is. This is true even as Luis Enrique is the Barça coach who is best equipped to not have to get the ball to No. 10 as a way of life.

It’s weird to say that, because Messi is Messi. But a lot of why Guardiola won his treble is the same reason that Luis Enrique won his, that lack of complete dependence on No. 10. Supporters need Messi to be that rumbling, tumbling superhero who bursts from the phone booth to save the day, right after he creates the day, makes the sun rise then builds the phone booth. So many want Messi to be everything, when the best Barça is when Messi isn’t everything. It’s no coincidence that Guardiola and Luis Enrique had similar treble-winning squads. Barça could work a bust-out to Thierry Henry on the left wing in 08-09, Neymar in 14-15. An erratic, mercurial striker fond of missing easy chances prowled the opponent box in Samuel Eto’o. So did Luis Suarez. And then there was Messi, always Messi.

Guardiola wanted Xavi to have the ball because Xavi was his most dangerous player. Messi was the goalscorer, the dynamo but Xavi was the timekeeper, the maestro with the baton. Even Messi danced to his tune. When Luis Enrique set up the vaunted Trident, he did it with championships in mind. Part of that was unpredictability. To make the MSN machine go, they need the ball.

We hear, all the time, that “Barça doesn’t have a midfield.” It does. The difficulty with the people who say that is that it isn’t doing the things that meet their expectation of the Barça midfield, as defined by a starburst in time. The Barça midfield is different now. Iniesta isn’t a timekeeper like Xavi was, even as he dictates play when in form, but he’s more a reference point, a human la pausa. And it’s beautiful. In that idealized world, Busquets is as close in function as we are going to see to Xavi. Both their jobs are to get the ball as quickly as possible to the danger men so that they can do their thing. This means that times are different.

So much of the modern game has shifted to the wings, and Barça is no exception. Looking at where the danger comes from is always interesting. The defense will always be clustered where Messi is, because he’s Messi. But Barça keeps a statistic, shot assists. In La Liga this season, Neymar has 38. Messi has 22, Suarez 18. Neymar also leads the team with 13 assists in all competitions. One of the most significant differences between Henry and Neymar is that while Henry could pass, he isn’t a playmaker/associative player in the same way that Neymar is. Neymar has the ball so much because he isn’t just the second best player in the game — he’s an accelerant, that thing you toss onto a fire to cause or intensify combustion. He gets the ball a lot because like Messi, the attack needs him to have the ball. Luis Enrique’s Barça needs all three of its most dangerous players to have the ball.

As Henry waned, Barça had less success. Guardiola made a tactical adaptation, moving to the midfield-based positional play that so many crave today, that kind of play that, with Suarez and Neymar, would be like hitching a plow to the Ferrari. Sure, it’ll work, but …

Positional play worked because of Xavi and his omnipresent danger. Because he was so dangerous, Jeffren could score goals, Tello could score goals, Pedro could gain an exclamation point, such was the excitement he generated. It all flowed from Xavi, who was the same essential element who provided a lot of the same impetus for Luis Enrique in that treble season. In the here and now, Barça doesn’t have Xavi. It also doean’t have the same need that flowed from that legendary player. Neymar, Messi and Suarez can do for themselves in ways that the likes of David Villa and Zlatan Ibrahimovic couldn’t. The game moved toward mobile, creative attackers just as it moved toward the wings. At Bayern Munich, Robben, Costa and Ribery did their thing, moving outside in.

This isn’t about being right or wrong. It’s just about what is. The same reason Arda Turan is a troublemaker on the left wing is enabled by the reality of the modern game. Alba does an overlap, Turan moves to fill the space and take the return pass. Or Turan floats into the center for a shooting position, while the defense is focused on Suarez and Messi. Wing play works. Diversification of sources works even better. Suarez has renewed with Barça, and Messi is almost certainly as happy as the Uruguayan because Messi understands what many still don’t: he isn’t That Messi any longer. But because he wants to win, he dosn’t want to keep pretending, striving to be That Messi. He needs to work alongside a pair of assassins.

The role of the midfield has, of necessity, changed because the team’s most dangerous player isn’t there any longer. It isn’t that “Barça doesn’t have a midfield,” but rather that the role of it has changed. The midfield now is sorta like Purgatory for the ball, before it gets sent to Heaven (if you’re a culer) or Hell (if you’re a defender). There were signs of dysfunction when Busquets had to cover the world and Iniesta was recoverinng from his knee injury. But Luis Enrique understands the importance of the midfield at Barça. We need look no farther than his signings of Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez to understand that, two players who replicate roles that already exist at Barça.

But even as those players come into their own, it’s important to understand that the midfield of yore isn’t coming back. How people choose to deal with that will be up to them, but remember what kind of coach doesn’t strive to get the ball to his most dangerous attackers. And Luis Enrique is no fool.

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