The Always and Forever Opponents

Time is interesting. Whenever I watch the news and some story comes about “so-and-so did such-and-such” I’m always shocked by how long ago that thing took place. If something took place within the last 3 months, however, I’m shocked by how recent something was. The whole Greek austerity thing was how long ago? Really? Wow, that’s kind of a long time ago. The United States presidential election was only 33 days ago? Holy cow I would have sworn it was in 2014.

And the last time Barça played PSG? Yesterday. 1956. I don’t know. Is this a trick question? Don’t we always play PSG? Aren’t we playing PSG this weekend and last weekend and every weekend forever? And if we don’t, why not?

Wait, those jerseys. Was that last year? Holy crap, that was two years ago. Man, how time flies. And wait, didn’t we go through this whole question of how often we play teams just last year with Arsenal? And why didn’t this end up being a goal!? It deserved to be a goal, but oh okay this was a goal. And this. And also this.  Woooooo.

But seriously, we supposedly played Arsenal every year but it turned out that we hadn’t for 5 years. PSG was obviously always going to be our opponent, but it’s only because we played them 4 times 2 years ago that it seems like we always get them. Outside of the group stage, we’ve played them twice since 1997. Those times came since 2013, of course, but in that time we’ve played Manchester City, Bayern Munich, and Atleti twice as well, with Man City getting a 3rd meeting through the group stage this season. We played Celtic 3 times as well since 2013, though all of those were in the group stage (including this year).

It may seem repetitive, but it’s not really possible to truly avoid a lot of teams. The only team in Europe that never seems to play a team twice is Real Madrid. But they actually even they have played Borussia Dortmund like 18 times since last month and obviously they met Atleti twice in the final since 2013. What I mean, though, is that as the money in football concentrate in the hands of fewer and fewer teams, those same opponents will pop up time and again. The turnover from year-to-year is okay in the Champions League, with 48 unique teams represented in the knockout stage over the last 10 years, but only 16 teams were there once (Gent! Malaga!), meaning that the likelihood of running into the same culprits was pretty high.

Beyond that, look at the number of teams represented in the final over those nine years (because there hasn’t been a final this year): 9 unique finalists for 18 slots. Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, and Inter Milan are the only teams to have just one final appearance in that time and there were 2 exact replica matches (Barcelona-Manchester United and Real Madrid-Atletico Madrid).

If we are to lament the rise of matches pitting the same teams against each other year-in and year-out, we must first recognize that we’re pretty bad at actually remembering things–wait, didn’t we just play Lyon? Juninho retired!?–and that if we want to avoid repeat matches, we need to invest in greater access for more teams. That means changes to transfer markets, salaries, television rights distribution, and tournament prize money which, if we’re being honest with ourselves, hurts Barcelona in at least the short term and possibly the long term. Missing out on the Champions League because of major change to our footballing world sounds terrible, but it has become a question of what we want out of football: the same mega rich brands with the world’s greatest stars plucked from sides lucky enough to have raised them and then reaped the rewards (or, more often than not, stiffed of both their financial windfall and their player) competing against an ever smaller number of successful corporate structures or a kind of mishmash where our favorite team, long top dog in the European market, might very well lose out from time-to-time?

Do you even remember the last time Barcelona missed the Champion League? It was in 2003, when a fresh-faced young lawyer named Joan Laporta had just taken over the club. My how time flies when you’re having fun. Do you know who we faced in the group stage the very next year, once we had re-qualified? Celtic, of course. We always play them.

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The CL Draw is a (sorta) mystery

The Champions League group stage is over, so that means we now get to freak out about what an easy road Madrid is getting and that we have to return to Paris for winter match involving Unai Emery and something called Hlebruary. Recently Mr. Chip tweeted out the percentage chances each team had of drawing a particular other team. The results may seem to be standard stuff, but I actually think Mr. Chip, in all his statistical glory, made a few mistakes in his calculations. I base this on empirical data gathered through statistical research. I poured over hundreds of years of Champions League results and it appears that maybe Mr. Chip forgot to carry a one somewhere.

Methodology: I had some chicken molé today for lunch, though it was just leftovers from my wife’s night out last night with the girls where they apparently talked about insurance reimbursements. My wife does spin a pretty good yarn about that, so I can understand how she didn’t get through that much of her meal. Anyway, I ate that and type this up.

Results: It was pretty decent, though a bit dry after being in the fridge overnight. Oh, you mean the Champions League stuff. Right. I put this in a handy graph just like Mr. Chip.

2016cldraw

There, I fixed it for you.

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Lucho out. Okay. But now what?

At the press conference before the Champions League dead rubber against Borussia Monchengladbach, a journalist asked Luis Enrique about the Classic:

Journalist: What if this Clasico was at end of season, would you have started Iniesta?
Luis Enrique: What if my grandmother had 4 wheels? she’d be a bus.

The point of the exchange, one probably lost on many, is that you can’t make things be what they aren’t. This season, FC Barcelona football has not been at its best. There have been moments, stretches of minutes, most recently against Real Madrid in the Classic. But for most of the season, after a dazzling start that had many thinking this would be a steamroller year, international breaks came, and Barça went.

There was a point in the first season, before Barça won a treble and the long knives were placated. But among a coterie of people in the world of Barça social media, LuchoOut is trending again, for the familiar reasons:

— The Way is lost
— No midfield
— No evolution since the treble
— Not using Messi properly

If you consider the period of domination that Barça has enjoyed, with roughly the same personnel, it’s stunning. When you consider the expectation that each and every year that domination must continue, irrespective of what happens to bodies and legs, it’s even more stunning.

Andres Iniesta is 32, Lionel Messi is 29, Busquets is 28. Normally, those are prime years, but what also must be taken into consideration is that these players have been flogged. Essentially, Luis Enrique has to get the same tasty milk from an increasingly worn-out cow. But let’s do this.

Lucho Out

So who’s in? And what will they have to contend with? Let’s have a look at the roster, assuming Lucho Out kicks in for January, when there is (lawd, lawd!) some season still to be salvaged.

Ter Stegen, Cillessen
Pique, Umtiti, Mascherano, Mathieu
Alba, Digne, Aleix Vidal, Sergi Roberto
Iniesta, Busquets, Rafinha, Gomes, Rakitic, Suarez D.
Messi, Alcacer, Suarez L, Neymar

Now, let’s roll out a theoretical XI of the best available players, which will look a lot like the one that fired coach Luis Enrique would use:

Ter Stegen, S. Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Neymar, Suarez, Messi

Curiously, that XI looks a lot like the XI that won a treble and then a double in consecutive seasons. Lucho Out, so who’s in?

There are hipster faves such as Thomas Tuchel, now at Dortmund, the likes of Oscar Garcia, who it is said is wonderful but his players suck, or Klopp, now at Liverpool, of whom it is said his teams would be great if they just didn’t concede goals at the wrong time. Any of those managers would be steeets better than Luis Enrique, because the thing that you don’t have is always better than the thing you do have. It has to be, because you’re unhappy with the thing that you have, dammit.

Gegenpressing. Yup. With that current Barça XI. Let’s see you do it. “You. Number 10. Why are you walking? Get over there and press in the midfield! (To assistant coach) Who is this number 8. Can’t he run any faster? How can he help us press moving that slow? At least he isn’t as slow as that number 5 dude, though. Whew!”

“If my grandmother had 4 wheels, she’d be a bus.” It’s easy to watch another coach doing things and say “Boy, I sure wish our coach did that.” It’s also easy to look at videos of old matches from the “good times,” and say “I sure wish we did that still.” But if we’re going to do that, let’s presume that we also have a time machine through which we can put players so that they are their old selves.

In the two seasons since Barça won the treble under Luis Enrique, there have been international breaks, friendlies, pre-seasons, injuries known and unknown, and just time, measured in passes and kilometers. Someone on Twitter said on my timeline that Luis Enrique is the worst coach ever. How does this stuff start? It starts from influential Twitter accounts with large numbers of followers, who start a drumbeat that gets echoed by the masses. It starts with people trying to analyze something in a vacuum. It starts with that fondness for a time gone by, that unwillingness to realize that yes, seasons are years. Two seasons is two years. Players don’t live in Never Never Land, where they remain ageless and energetic.

Iniesta came in during the second half of the Classic, and Barça was wonderful again, playing the kind of football that everyone loves to see. Why can’t that happen all the time? Mostly because opponents adapt, which is what happened to Guardiola during his time at the club. So a coach will try to find a new way to skin a horse. Vilanova went vertical. Tata Martino also went vertical until mid-season, when change came and everybody was happy until the record-setting team suddenly became something significantly less. And then came Luis Enrique, who got the best No. 9 in the game and adopted an approach that for many can be boiled down to “get the ball to your best players.”

There are times when Barça has played off the counter, times when Barça has been vertical, times when Barça has played midfield-dominant football, all in this season. While it’s easy to ignore the things you don’t want to see in order to reach a desired conclusion, other things are worth considering. Unless a new coach comes in and brings in transfers, also deciding to do different things with storied veterans, he will face the same situation as Luis Enrique. It’s easy to watch Tuchel run out with a group of young players at Dortmund, easy to watch them and wonder why Barça can’t play like that and boy, wouldn’t Tuchel be lovely at Barça until you consider reality.

Busquets does what Busquets does. So does Iniesta. So does Messi. With this batch of transfers, is Luis Enrique trying to build for a future that he almost certainly won’t be part of? In an ideal world, as Iniesta declines, Messi moves into that role. But for that to happen, there has to be someone in attack to replace Messi. But when Luis Enrique moves Messi back to midfield, preparing him for the evolution into a 10, the coach is stupid because he has his most dangerous attacker playing away from the box, that idiot.

There are people who still think that Messi is the dynamo who set the goalscoring record, or the bundle of energy that ripped through Getafe for what would be the goal of a lifetime for most players, but just one of a glittering series of moments for Messi. Dude is almost 30. He has been kicked, and shoved, had chunks kicked out of his Achilles, ran, passed, been tackled and tumbled. He has flown countless thousands of miles for club and country, all of which have piled on, along with time, to make him a different player. He is no longer as explosive. There was a time if he got the ball and a sliver of space on a defender, he was gone. No more. A coach has to learn how to adapt to the players that he has. It’s easy as a supporter to dream of a new coach absent any other factors. But Barça is a team whose core is aging, and fast, because those players are on duty all the time. Copas, Federation and World Cups. They’re always playing. What can we honestly expect from these players, and what magic could a new coach work?

Valid questions. Lucho Out is easy. Saying he’s a bad coach because he doesn’t do what you think he should is easy. What is more difficult is to understand what he has to work with.

For what it’s worth, Luis Enrique will be gone this summer, and he should be. After three years at a top team, a coach starts to lose the power that he once had, starts to run dry in ways to reinvent an aging, changing wheel. Transfers can sometimes provide that spark, but the day of long-term coaches, the Fergusons and Wengers, are long gone. Pressure means that clubs will be changing coaches, or coaches just get tired, and move on. And you can’t defend Luis Enrique because he doesn’t need defending. A treble and a double say a lot more than even his most vociferous defender could. This is more about reality than Luis Enrique, just as it was about reality when there were those of us who said that Tata Martino didn’t do as badly as legend has it. Because reality.

Logically, Barça had a fantastic transfer summer. But there are the five stages of the Barça transfer:

— Wow! Holy crap! I’m here!
— Whoa! These guys are really, really good.
— Man, I can’t be that good. Will I ever be?
— I’m feeling better about life now.
— Hello, teammates.

It takes time for that cycle to happen. It took a player of the quality of Arda Turan a full season, and he still isn’t fully assimilated. It took a legit legend of the game, Thierry Henry, more than a season to adapt. The speed at which transfers become effective also have bearing on a coach’s plans. In the ideal world, Alcacer would be banging in goals and Gomes would be living up to his reputation as a tall Busquets/Iniesta hybrid. Neither of those things is happening yet, because Barça is the best team in the world, stocked with legends of the game. That’s reality. And it would be the same reality no matter who was coaching Barça right now.

It’s easy to want the best, easy to want the team that you love to be exceptional, easy to think that someone else can do it better than the people that you have. Until you get those people, and things are kinda the same, because humans and stuff. So, yeah … Lucho Out. But remember, “If my grandmother had 4 wheels, she’d be a bus.”

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Barça 1, Real Madrid 1, aka “Rolled the dice … snakeeyes”

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.

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Of Tomorrow and Onwards

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.

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