Individual brilliance is a wonderful thing.
Barça and the narrative around the club is that team football, intricate passing and movements that create lovely goals are the desired effect. Wins that are a consequence of individual brilliance are fine, but not ideal.
Yet even those great Guardiola teams were absolutely stuffed with individual brilliance. The players that made them go were individually brilliant, which is exactly why those teams were so great. Iniesta laying off a flawless pass, Xavi seeing into the future are just as much individual brilliance as a mazy, crazy Messi run.
Players with talent, aka individual brilliance, stand the game on its head, make it exciting. When Ansu Fati strolled onto the pitch, Barça was in a wrestling match with a tactically sound, disciplined La Real. About 20 minutes after Fati rolled on it was 1-4 and his team was strolling. His appearance dripped with individual brilliance, as did every goal he was a part of.
His assist to Dembele was a thing of beauty, simplicity coupled with elegance. Yes, it was a backheel. But as much as it can be said that backheels often aren’t for show, Fati’s wasn’t. He instantly assessed the moment, deduced that was all that he had time for as he had an open teammate and only one way to get him the ball. So backheel it was. And it was a good pass. Hell, that entire goal was individual brilliance as Dembele made space, and took a strike that just kissed the far post and nestled into the corner. Funny part about that goal is that the ESPN chance assessor, digital creation that it is, had the chance of that Dembele shot being a goal at something like less than eight percent. Yet it was a goal. Why? Individual brilliance.
His second assist, to Lewandowski, was the gentlest kiss while under physical pressure. It almost looked like luck, or an accident until you watched the replay and realized what a wonderful thing it was. And this team has a player who makes those runs, who drives in with the capabilities to score those goals.
But Lewandowski is also a fantastic associative player, as evinced by the goal that Fati scored. The man who moved over from Bayern Munich to do exactly what he does, did a bit of sorcery to control a pass, flip it up and volley it behind him for Fati, who of course made the run, to roll home.
And before we get too far gone, we should talk about the Balde assist for Lewandowski, whose goal was exceptionally well-taken even as it looked almost mundane. For Balde to be able to see that pass, and for Lewandowski to be able to make the sudden, sharp movement to not only present for the ball but take the strike? Beautiful to watch.
Every goal was possessed of an individual brilliance sufficient to cause permanent jaw damage. And don’t forget about Pedri on that first goal, who put three La Real players in acid, making them dissolve in a moment that few of the highlights for that goal will show, but that was crucial in its execution.
Individual brilliance wins football matches. And a lack of it can cost, which brings us to their goal. De Jong, in dwelling on the ball, got dispossessed in a way that he should watch and rewatch for the sake of his own information. It shouldn’t have happened. He took that pass and had two open men. Busquets would have one-touched it to either of them, or even rolled it back to the keeper for a reset. De Jong’s game is to DO something with the ball. He drives it, makes wonderful runs, but that comes with risk. And part of learning the game is to know when to just … not do anything except move the ball along. That’s crucial when in the hole, and even more crucial when your centerbacks are soft enough to stuff into a comforter suitable for chilly winter nights.
De Jong does what he does because he is a brilliant player. The trick to harnessing brilliance is knowing when to use it. What makes Busquets so incredible is that he understands what to do with the ball, even before it gets to him. Time has withered his other skills, but he is still everything with the ball at his feet. After the dispossession he sought a foul that was never going to come. Alexander Isak took the pass, and brushed Eric Garcia aside like a rag doll to put it past Ter Stegen.
Would that have been a goal had De Jong sprinted to clear off the line instead of trotting, with a eye on the free runner? Likely not. But if De Jong leaves that player, Isak likely slides it over to him. But here’s that whole brilliance thing again. There is a point in that sequence where it is clear that Isak is going for goal. De Jong is still trotting. Part of brilliance is risk assessment. If you sprint for the goal line, is Isak good enough to make that pass, particularly with Garcia on that side of him? It was an interesting sequence to watch and rewatch.
The vexing thing about football is that Barça played better against Rayo, but the ball didn’t go in. It’s also worth noting that Fati, the Golden Child, started that match. On different days, the ball rolls differently. It’s important to not let the result obscure the process even as we celebrate the victory. Xavi has some work to do. For the second matchday running, a disciplined team held his players at bay. Play was still too slow and predictable, and presumably this match also put to bed the “De Jong in the hole” talk. His talents aren’t for that part of the pitch. Kessie would have been much better there, but Xavi got that decision wrong. Time will tell whether he learned from it, but Kessie’s game has all of the attributes that make him well-suited for that role: he keeps it moving, never tries to do more than he should, progresses the ball when necessary but can also defend and stop counters. The road not taken.
And last week as this week, Ter Stegen made key saves to keep his team in the match. There was a time, before his knee work, during the recovery and as he worked back to full fitness, that the knives were out for the German. Might want to sheath those for a bit. Exceptional saves in consecutive matches, every last one of them essential, is something easy to lose sight of. But last season those saves are goals conceded. His movement and agility are clearly better, which is promising. You don’t win anything without a keeper that is a statue. Now if he can just get to a space where he is more commanding of that space in front of goal on corners …
Xavi’s team is a work in progress. In building that team he is going to make errors, such as starting Ferran Torres on that left wing, in another of those anonymous, ineffective performances that some are going to dub “elite” because of movement, or some other attribute. Or suggesting that Xavi somehow set him up for failure tactically.
But a part of individual brilliance is adaptation. Fati adapted. Lewandowski adapted. Dembele’s entire game is adaptation, even as the Frenchman had a vexing match right up until he knocked home that worldie for the winning goal. Systems are wonderful, but at some point players make plays. The Guardiola teams were wonderful things to watch, again because of the individual brilliance of those players. If it was all the system, you can take Barça B, drill them in the system and get that same result. But the game doesn’t work like that. It functions, it flows on talent. Talent and individual brilliance are what thrill us, what we come to see.
As amazing as Messi’s passes are, who goes to a match to see those passes? People want to see those runs where he left defenders in his wake, or absurd free kicks that defy physics. Make magic. Individual brilliance is magic. Its vexing quality is that it isn’t always on display. Fati missed two great chances against Rayo that on a different day, he bags. That’s the game. But whatever Xaviball is, we saw more of it on that day that the ball didn’t go in. Against La Real, Barça didn’t play all that well, even as individual players had moments. It’s okay to celebrate those moments.
Individual brilliance isn’t a “well, actually.” It’s an amazing, wonderful thing to enjoy, laud and celebrate when it bails out the team that we love. And that team is stuffed with it, and so many of them are young. Pedri, Gavi, Balde, Raphinha, Dembele, Fati, Kounde if he ever gets to play, Araujo. Xavi has a magnificent foundation on which to build an edifice that should have us humming for years to come. There hasn’t been a more exciting time to be a culer since Neymar and Suarez teamed with Messi (speaking of individual brilliance).