Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Fear

"And then at last it happened: someone scored against Barcelona. There had been 31 goals since Villarreal striker Nilmar's clever strike when the league's third sexiest player out-sprinted Carles Puyol on Saturday night – and all 31 had been scored by the same team. Almería defender Santi Acasiete was the only non-Barça player to be have found the net in seven and a half matches when the man Don Balón's panel of 'experts' (or 'women', as they're also known) judged only marginally less attractive than Aitor Ocio and Fernando Llorente hit a clean, low shot past Víctor Valdés - and Acasiete had found the wrong one. The aggregate score in Barcelona v Their Combined Opponents was 31-0 when, in the 62nd minute of the eighth match, Daniel Pablo Osvaldo did what Almería, Panathinaikos, Real Madrid, Osasuna, Rubin Kazan and Real Sociedad couldn't do.

The banners were out – "Catalunya, more than one club"; "Barça by decree, Espanyol for feeling", "Welcome to Blue and White Hell", "This town aint big enough for the both of us" – and so was the deafening noise, the war cries. (So, sadly, were the monkey chants from some fans who oo-oohed Dani Alves all game, including when he confronted Carlos Kameni.) In midweek, Espanyol had released a video set to bellicose classical music which declared: "You're not opponents, you're the enemy." And Osvaldo, the team's top scorer, was promising to "paint Barcelona's faces". Now, amidst the din, amidst the intensity, pace and aggression, amidst the football and the 'other football', with Espanyol employing a high-line and enormous pressure, he had. It had taken 677 minutes but perhaps Barcelona were beatable after all.

Perhaps not. There was one flaw. Osvaldo had scored but the score was 31-1. More to the point, it was 3-1. Barcelona had scored three times already, through Xavi and Pedro. And while Espanyol rallied, while they had beaten Barça's defence – and the ease with which Osvaldo out-sprinted Puyol and the risk inherent in such a high back four may yet cause concern – it was soon 4-1. And then five.


This was the fifth time Barcelona have scored five. They have now got 51 after just 16 weeks. They have won 10 on the trot and racked up an eighth win out of eight away. They have dropped points just twice – against Mallorca and Hercules - to boast the best record in history at this stage. They finish 2010 with a record 103 points in the calendar year, the best league side in the world. With a Copa del Rey to come, Leo Messi has scored 58 goals in 53 games – the highest total ever. He has 17 in 13 league games and though he did not score on Saturday, his performance was once again strikingly complete and he now has 11 assists too.

All of which makes it sound like Espanyol were rubbish. But they weren't. All of which makes it sound like Barcelona did what they always do. But they didn't. Not quite.

Make no mistake, Barcelona were brilliant. But this was another kind of brilliant; the kind of brilliant that amidst the precision passing and movement often goes unnoticed – the kind that, as has been argued here before, destroys the clichés, the facile assumptions. Because on Saturday night, Espanyol did fight. More than anyone this season except Copenhagen (and, yes, that does include Hércules). Few, if any, sides have pushed so high against Barcelona, nor chased them down so quickly. Espanyol did battle, they did pressure, and they did take the game to Barcelona; they did, on occasions, succeed in taking the ball off them; they did rattle them, they did dive and whinge and protest. They did create chances.

Trouble is, so did Barcelona. Barça have conceded just nine goals this season. Not only had they gone seven and a half games without conceding any goals, they had barely conceded any chances. In the last six games, they had allowed just nine chances. In part, that is because of their ability to keep the ball: against Real Sociedad, Barcelona completed more passes than any team since Opta stats began, they occupy the top 36 slots for match passes since 2006, and the top four average passers in La Liga this season are all Barcelona players: they have nine in the top 14. Tiki-Taka is a defensive tactic as much as an offensive one, founded on the principle that if you keep possession the other team can't score.

But it is not just that Barcelona keep possession, it is that they win it. Conscious of their weakness without the ball, Guardiola has perhaps one obsession above all others: get it back. As one commentator put it this weekend: "Barcelona don't just play, they earn the right to play." At the start of the season, Valdés insisted that his side were getting even better. Not because of the skill but because, he said: "We have improved hugely in robbing the ball, in how little time it takes to get it back." That means intensity and aggression, chasing players down, pushing high – even if that is occasionally risky. It is no coincidence that those who commit the most fouls in the side are invariably the forwards. If Espanyol wanted a fight, Barcelona gave them one. If Espanyol's pressure was asphyxiating, Barcelona were the Boston Strangler.

As much as anything else, that was why they missed Eto'o and why Zlatan Ibrahimovic – although he was really pretty good and scored possibly the most important league goal of the season – did not fit. He offered a Plan B, sure. But he weakened the Plan A. Now, with David Villa, who has nine in seven league games, Barcelona have a bit of that back.

With Villa and increasingly with the man who, splashed across the cover of El Mundo Deportivo, embodied Barcelona's personality this weekend: Pedro Rodriguez. The man Barcelona's technical staff wanted to ditch before Guardiola intervened, who two and a half years ago was playing in the Third Division and is now a World Cup winner, who ended 2009 by scoring in all six competitions and, so often overlooked, has ended 2010 undisputed at last. Fast, genuinely two footed and a great finisher, dangerous racing through or coming in on a diagonal or horizontal run, Pedro has become a kind of better version of Ludovic Giuly. Barcelona have started five games with a Messi-Pedro-Villa forward line; in four, they produced manitas. Pedro has now scored six in seven games, including goals against Madrid and Espanyol, as Barcelona beat their two biggest rivals by an aggregate score of 10-1.

Those goals were key; the way they arrived was the secret. With speed, attitude and intensity; with edge, bravery and alertness. Beyond the precision passing, Barça's physical condition is impressive, the way they fight, the sheer speed with which they screech around the pitch, closing down space. The solidarity, the character, the competiveness. It was no empty rhetoric: Espanyol really should have been Barcelona's hardest game. And in some ways way it was. But still it finished with five goals. Barcelona always seem to have the ball. On Saturday night they showed they have balls too."

{From DAILY READING once more. Not to scare fellow Arsenal fans or anything, but: we're totally fucked}


Unknown said...

pure poetry!

jane said...

i´m still rooting for real sociedad... :)