Is Barcelona’s team strong enough to qualify for the Champions League? How can the club respond to Neymar’s departure with only one marquee signing? Why has the club been neglecting La Masia? Has Barça really done enough to threaten Real Madrid’s recent run of dominance?
Sometimes I think we get so lost when trying to analyze things in the grand scheme that we forget that the true joy of sports comes from the minutia that makes up the most valuable achievements.
Take last season, for instance. The two high points of the campaign were the Remontada and Messi’s winner at the Bernabeu. With Barça failing to win the Champions League and La Liga, neither moment amounted to anything in the big picture, and yet it is those two memories that will stick with us for far longer than another victory in the Copa del Rey.
While all of the focus has been on whether Ernesto Valverde can restore Barcelona as a European superpower, perhaps the more integral inquiry from a spectator’s perspective is whether he can revive the style Barcelona played when they were at their best.
If Barça can return to the style of play that makes them distinct, then the place in the table becomes less significant. We watch Barça because they are Barça, not just so we can say we root for the best team in the world. The trophies are rewards for the players; our reward is their joy, which manifests itself on the pitch.
And so, an otherwise innocuous fixture against Espanyol Saturday seemed like more because of the nostalgic feeling it provoked. That was Barcelona.
It wasn’t just the scoreline – a convincing 5-0 victory – or the dominance of possession, it was the totality of the performance. The grit and desire to win the ball back quickly, the patience in the possession, the ability to shift the tempo on a moment’s notice. The quick passing, the dangerous chances and the collective ethos that produced a lovely aurora around the pitch.
Valverde’s men looked like a totally different side than the one that cowered against Madrid in the Super Copa, the team that looked aimless with the ball and outclassed without it. The caliber of the competition was far less, but the improvements had less to do with exploiting the opposition and more to do with Barça’s players recognizing their own strengths and playing within themselves.
Messi was the star of the show, as usual, scoring a delicious hat trick to further his lead as the top scorer in the history of the Catalan Derby, but these were not the kind of goals that Messi created out of thin air.
First, the killer through ball from Ivan Rakitic that threaded past two lines to (an offside, but shhh) Messi, who controlled and finished brilliantly. Then, the breakaway, with a left back (Jordi Alba) flying up the pitch to provide support, eventually sliding the ball to Messi to tap in. Then the third, which capped off a near 30-pass move in which all 11 Barcelona players touched the ball. It was a goal carefully concocted in typical Barcelona fashion, and it was Alba again playing the ball across to Messi, who finished off his third close-range goal of the night.
The buildup, the finishing, the transitions, the pressing. It was all ticking for the Blaugrana. There wasn’t a player on the pitch who had a bad performance and very few had so much as a minuscule mishap. Even the subs played a critical part in a goal. While Paulinho was inches away from his first for the club, Andre Gomes’ inch-perfect through ball in the 90th minute freed Ousmane Dembélé to mark his Barcelona debut with a gorgeous assist to Luis Suarez, who nicked the first of what could have been many goals at the death.
On a night when the entire team was in top gear, it took something special for any player to set himself apart. And yet, the highest of plaudits go to a trio of players who, along with Messi, delivered magnificent performances that reminded us of the value of their particular skillsets.
Alba would have been the man of the match on any other night, but he was a victim of his own brilliance given that both of his assists stocked Messi’s goal tally. Alba is probably one of the few players who saw the bright side in Neymar’s departure because it has revived his role as the functional left winger. With Valverde deploying the team in a 4-3-3 that tilted heavily toward the right with Messi and Suarez playing as inside forwards and Deulofeu as the only true winger on the right, Alba made great use of all of the space he had on the left flank. Alba forayed forward so often the actually had the most touches in the game at 112, a remarkable sum for a full back.
As good as Alba was, his partner on the opposite flank might have matched him. Nelson Semedo dazzled the Nou Camp with a number of cute touches and dribbles in tight spaces, got forward at will and combined brilliantly with both Deulofeu and Dembélé. Sergi Roberto was an adequate stopgap as the club search for a true Dani Alves replacement, but now it appears they have one, and Semedo has just shown us how much of difference that makes for the squad.
Rakitic is probably the person most thrilled with Semedo’s arrival. The defensive work he was asked to do to assist Roberto and to cover for Messi when he meandered centrally has been greatly reduced, and Valverde has maximized his skillset by placing him in the controlling midfield role that Verratti or Seri would have filled. To this point, Barcelona’s failure to sign either of those players hasn’t mattered, because Rakitic has performed brilliantly.
— Mark Travis (@Mark_Travis) September 10, 2017
His two assists in this game were lovely, but I was more impressed with the diversity of his passing, particularly his long-range accuracy. When you see a long balls stat you probably think of some Stoke midfielder flinging the ball in Peter Crouch’s general direction, but Rakitic’s drilled switches allowed our fullbacks and forwards to combine in tight spaces and to build play quickly as the defense shifted. They were the precursor for tiki taka.
You know the team must have played well when there isn’t enough ink left at the end of this writethru to wax lyrically about Dembélé’s first taste of life as a Barça player, but I guess I will save my poems for his upcoming stormer against Juventus.
Look: In the macro, Barcelona smashing Espnayol 5-0 at the Nou Camp isn’t likely to be an immortal segment of the season, in fact it is more like tradition nowadays. But the glowing context of the performance heavily outweighed the importance of the result, and it might just be the genesis for a season full of unforgettable successes in the micro.
And if you ask Espanyol, they’ll tell you that those small bits of genius amount to quite a grandiose conclusion.