In the 73rd minute of a fraught affair at a rocking Benito Villamarin, something very interesting, and potentially illustrative, happened.
At the end of a beautiful move, Ferran Torres found himself in the Betis box, ball at his feet, in close. It was a moment. Torres struck the ball cleanly, and with excellent physical technique. But he didn’t look up until after the ball was struck, alas, right at the keeper, who saves.
Just after that he is subbed off for Ansu Fati who in the 76th minute has a more difficult chance, and from a greater distance. As Fati takes the pass and controls it perfectly, he has to make a number of decisions: how much time he has to shoot, with the defender charging at him. Also he needs to suss what the keeper is doing. The most important variable, where to put the ball, is affected by everything else.
Of course Fati scored. His control gave him plenty of time, an eternity for an elite talent, but really it was a second or so. He sees the keeper make that feint to the far side, guessing that with him shading near post, Fati wouldn’t go there. Fati went there. His head is up, taking pictures. And goal.
It is without irony that Fati is called the golden child. Even in a season riven by injuries, and just back from another, he scores. It’s a goal every 60-something minutes, which is crazy for a player who has spent most of his time out of rhythm, due to persistent injuries.
What’s fun about Ferran Torres, who came from Manchester City for about 55m, is that you can watch him have a poor match, and an analyst will write something that explains how he in fact had a good match. Torres is a talented player. He uses space well, does lots of things right. But he finishes like Alvaro Morata, more prone to head in hands than a goal celebration. He shoots quickly, which isn’t always good.
Fati, on the other hand, finishes like … well … a finisher. It’s only worth looking at the two players in that match because of how closely their moments arrived for the team. Fati didn’t even strike his goal cleanly, unlike Alba’s piledriver for the win. But he struck it so smartly, with such timing and placement that it looked like a slow roller as it oozed past the keeper. It’s the calculus of a goal scorer.
Barça didn’t play well against Betis. Araujo did, but that’s pretty much it until Fati came on. Even the golden child of a different era, Riqui Puig, surfaced and was Riqui Puig. Some sharp moments but not up to it overall, physically or mentally. Adama Traore, still another golden child of an even deeper vintage, came on with his usual cloak of invisibility, except for the few times that he was Adama Traore — a dart for the end line and a thrown-in cross, as hasty as his feet.
Frenkie De Jong had one of those matches that smart people are analyzing and will tell us, come Monday, how he was brilliant. But Barça was poor. Yet for a change, they had something psychologically in common with Real Madrid: they didn’t play well, but rode a couple of moments of brilliance to pull a match out of the fire. That works, too. Those three points won’t have a “but actually” asterisk by them.
Dani Alves celebrated turning 39 by laying another defensive egg, even if Araujo was determined to save him from himself. People will point to the match-winning assist and say, “See,” and they did with Alba. And yes, moments provide absolution even as it’s fair to ask if, in the aggregate, the quality of a different athlete would make such moments of heroism unnecessary.
Let’s take nothing from the Alba match winner. If you want to teach a class on how to volley, can use that video. Ball struck in the right spot, body shape is excellent and Alba’s head is up, focused on the target through almost the entire strike. It’s a moment of sheer class from the Catalan wing … fullback that deserves all of the bliss it elicited.
Yes, bliss, as Barça finds itself having “won” the only reward of value in this fraught, messy season. People doubted whether Barça would finish in the Champions League spots but really, they needn’t have, even as it’s also safe to suggest that the same team that basked in the gloom of the Koeman era is surprising by being in second place, four points clear of third. That’s mostly because this team isn’t fully competitive yet in every aspect of play but especially at the defensive end.
The Marc Bartra header was hilarious in its ease, as he made the run and thumped the ball past a bewildered and hapless De Jong and Alves. But the sequence began when Betis took advantage of the welcome mat on the right flank and Alves, without Araujo to bail him out, had to foul the attacker to keep from having something worse happen.
The set piece worked exactly like Betis diagrammed it on the practice pitch, because they knew, as every team that faces Barça does, of its defensive complexities. That Araujo spent most of the match gesticulating furiously should tell anyone a lot of what they need to know. And still they won, because players make plays. It was lovely to see the idea of individual brilliance as an indication of a failed system being cast aside. Because there is no more finely honed system right now than the one at Manchester City, and they were eliminated by a team with players who made plays.
After the match, Alba asserted that Barça has the coach and the talent to win Liga next season. A chest puffed with pride makes you forget consecutive 1-0 losses to relegation scrappers. Those losses happened because the team isn’t good enough. It’s too slow everywhere that Dembele or Traore aren’t, isn’t sufficiently physical to manage an opponent that wants to assert itself and has only one defensive problem solver, which is pretty woeful for a defense that creates problem after problem. The more problems you create, the more you need to be able to solve issues quickly. Death by 432 predictable passes leading to a more predictable shot isn’t the best way to go about that. Nor is cross and hope.
FC Barcelona’s men’s football team wasn’t good enough on Saturday to beat Betis, even as it created enough moments of individual excellence that it was able to get the job done, following the template of its on track for a double eternal rival. And that Barça has finished second behind a team with players who make plays, match after match, is somehow apt.