Football teams, at their highest-functioning level, are like electrical wiring. Without a complete circuit, something to close the loop, nothing happens.
Sometimes that link comes through a player, sometimes a moment that catalyzes the proceedings, but without that linkup, that bit of solder, it’s just a bunch of dead wires.
At the end of a wild affair at Levante, in which the opponent essentially did a Frankfurt, aided by a barely competent ref, Barça played two halves of football that couldn’t have been more different, defined by the closing of circuits.
As Levante pressed, pushed, shoved and ball hawked, Nico Gonzalez, awarded a starting role by Xavi, looked completely out of his element. Tentative, over aggressive when he wasn’t tentative, not linking play anywhere, he was just a mess. At his best, it should be noted, he still isn’t that kind of player, instead a box-to-box catalyst more than a player you can rely upon to do the kind of work necessary to propel an attack. But you can get away with it facing a more passive opponent. Levante wasn’t that opponent.
This also left Busquets trying to force passes and close spaces, made Dembele have to come deeper to get passes, leaving him more space to cover, with Aubameyang almost at the halfway mark, trying to link play with his one-touch boondoggles that found blaugrana shirts more often than lavender ones.
Levante found joy in jumping the passing lanes and taking off on fast counters, usually up the wings, efforts that found Barça’s defensively bereft fullbacks wanting, time and again. Like Frankfurt, that approach created dividends even if, also like Frankfurt, Levante found itself wanting in the final third, except for an extraordinary sequence that found Jose Morales, aka Commandante, making an unlikely, slaloming run through the Barça defense. He even deked down Araujo until somehow Ter Stegen bolted from his line to parry the shot enough for Eric Garcia to clear it off the line.
At about ten minutes into the second half, Xavi had seen enough. Off came De Jong and Gonzalez, and on came Pedri and Gavi. And just like that, the circuits were closed. And not long after came the first goal, a creation born of movement, incisive passing and Dembele putting a perfect pass right on the bonce of Aubameyang. Levante heads dropped. All that work, all that effort, and two lads strolled on — combined ages just about that of Morales — and undid it all. And they weren’t finished yet.
Xavi insisted that Barça doesn’t have Pedridependencia, and he’s right. What Barça DOES have is a reliance on that kind of player, one who makes the game easier for everyone around him. Messi was that kind of player, as were Xavi and Iniesta. Busquets needs a bridge between him and the teeth of the attack. Pedri is that kind of player. The yang to his yin is Gavi, one elegant and precise, the other pugnacious, ready to fight for the ball, any ball, to feed his youthful cohort.
When Gavi assisted Pedri for the go-ahead goal, everything seemed right in the world again, even in a match that still had another sting in its tail. Xavi subbed on Clement Lenglet, and hearts went into mouths. Sure enough, late in the match, late enough to spark resignation, he conceded a penalty. Not only was the penalty legit, but it was the kind of play that has, sadly, marked too much of his time at Barcelona.
All Lenglet had to do was keep his body between the attacker and the goal. The danger wasn’t that real, a reaction wasn’t necessitated by the circumstances. But Lenglet acted, and … penalty. After the shot was smacked smartly past Ter Stegen it was 2-2 in the 83rd, and Levante had something to fight for, and fight they did. They survived a Pedri box shake-and-bake, thwarted by a thrown boot, they survived a Gavi 1v1 that deserved a better fate.
Then in the 84th, on came Luuk de Jong, and in the second minute on injury time, in went the winning goal. It was bedlam, and at the end of a match in which Barça didn’t quite play well enough to win, they had won, propelled not only by the kids, but by four players: Ter Stegen, Dembele, De Jong and Garcia, all of whom had been written off by a grumpy, impatient supporter base.
“Poor keeper now, no idea what happened, but sell.”
“Made of glass, not worth what the club paid, Adama Traore is fine.”
“WTF is Koeman thinking. He isn’t a Barcelona player.”
“Punk-ass defender. Isn’t worth the money, and he was free.”
Ter Stegen has been quietly undergoing a resurgence. Whether it’s a knee feeling better or confidence returning along with everybody else’s he’s making plays he wouldn’t have made mere months ago. When he darted off the line to stifle Morales the timing was perfect. His penalty save was exceptional. He saved the match for his team.
Dembele, nearing the end of his time at Barça, has become the player that the club thought it had acquired. He’s a creator, and dishes out assists like candy, adding yet another to his tally. He’s now smart on the ball, keeps possession well, tracks back defensively and puts in a work shift. Also contributed the assist that started the comeback.
My nickname for De Jong is Easter Island, because his square-headed visage reminds of one of those giant statues of legend. So did the way he moved when he first arrived to the club. Now he’s Mr. Big Shot, saving the day yet again. For a player who doesn’t belong at the club, he sure has a knack for turning up at key moments.
And finally, there’s Eric Garcia, who has suddenly decided to become a titan. He’s been good his last series of outings, but reached another level against Frankfurt, and again vs Levante. His goal-saving clearance off the line was perfectly timed, and the result of a defender who is now proactive rather than reactive. He’s reading the match better, making attackers react to him rather than the reverse.
All four, just like the team against Levante, have come back from the depths. Is it Xavi? Is it something else? The challenge in assessing a scrappy win such as the one against Levante is … well … what does it mean? In the standings, the team regained second place, but still sit the same 12 points back. And yet, the match was of immense value, particuarly coming off of a slugfest in Germany last midweek, because it’s important for a team to understand that it can win matches like that, that it can overcome three(!) penalties against, countless fouls ignored and still beat a resolute opponent.
If confidence is yet another circuit, the switch that Xavi has flipped is buzzing with current, and the joy is there for us to see, and enjoy.