Bayern/Barça redux, aka ‘You’re right. No, you’re right’

During the Bayern match, Isaiah and I were on WhatsApp, as per our usual recent practice, and we were discussing the Sane goal.

My take was, “He waltzed through the midfield, outran everybody and knocked it home. Yikes.” Isaiah’s take was more tactical, looking at what Bayern did to set up, create and execute so that Sane’s task of scoring was easier. What was most fun about that exchange is that we both were right.

Meanwhile, Xavi was like, “Take the damn foul.” He was also right.

What is the most fun for me the day after a big match is following the assessments. You will see some loooong dissections of tactics and positioning, some different, more human takes. Some look at moments, others at a broader swath of events. What’s most fun about all those various views on a single event is that they are all right, even as different as they often are.

Back when I was reviewing cultural events, I assessed a movie that every other critic who was in the screening room panned. I didn’t, and talked about the aspects that made it worth someone’s time.

At the next screening in the critics’ room, one of the lambasters said to me, derisively, “Nice review.” My response was, regrettably in hindsight, “What makes you think I give a shit about what you think about my work?”

More thoughtful, however, was the late Roger Ebert, a former Sun-Times colleague who I still chatted with though I was at the competing paper. He said, “You had some really interesting, and different ways of looking at that movie that are worth considering.”

That meant a lot to me, and it helped shape my views on evaluating events that exist mostly in a subjective realm. The only real absolute in the wake of a football match is the score. Everything else lives in the realm of interpretation. Take the Pedri chances. Did he fill his pants? Was he overawed by the moments? Or did Neuer make a great save on one, and the capriciousness of striking a round ball with a shoe come to bear on the other? Or did Neuer’s excellence make Pedri want to make the second shot better than it needed to be, in the wake of the first one?

All of these are right, because the only truth is that he didn’t score. What makes the assessments even more interesting is that more often than not, Pedri scores those chances. They were fantastic chances, created by exceptional play from Barça. This time, he didn’t. It can be fun and cool to discuss why, as long as everyone understands that everybody is right. And wrong. And the only person to be wary of is the person who claims to have a monopoly on truth, or denigrates the opinion of another as they seek to buttress their truth.

“White chocolate sucks.”
“No, it doesn’t.”

And there you go.

Lost in a lot of the discussion is how well Bayern played, as a team whose strengths match up against so many of the Barça weaknesses. Sane, Musala, Upamecano particularly were all exceptional. The changes made by Nagelsmann all had an almost immediate effect on the match. Pavard went off, Mazraoui came on and a different series of challenges was presented to the Barça defense.

The speed of their ball movement, particularly through midfield, the connection of flanks with midfield as play flowed up the pitch, was truly a delight to watch. Pity it was Satan’s work. The challenge in looking at that match is that there were so many wonderful things to dissect: Pedri and Gavi, the stupendous performance of Busquets, the battles of the Barça wingers against the Bayern fullbacks, Alphonso Davies as Terminator. It’s pretty close to impossible to even know where to start, once you get past the scoreline.

And this doesn’t even get into the newcomers such as Jules Kounde, who acquitted himself with class, even as he also had moments where his weaknesses were evident. Were they a consequence of a structure and its flaws, or individual weaknesses? Yes. No. Discuss.

Athletic events such as football matches really do come down to execution. That’s the only reality. A goal, as a ball nestles into the net, leaves behind it a panoply of things that could have happened, didn’t happen, almost happened. It’s even easy to find a way to apportion blame for an event on any number of different participants. Same with glory. And every last one of those assessments is right and worth discussing, worth taking seriously.

The aftermath of a match is almost as much fun as the match, viewed through a lens of the utter absence of truth. Penalty on Dembele? Yes. No. Okay. Ter Stegen should have cleared his space. Yes. No. Whose man was left loose? What happened? In the blizzard of opinion and dissection, it’s still impossible to build a snowman of truth. And that’s what is wonderful. People cling to, like and favorite on social media the opinions that hew closest to their views. That’s what we’re supposed to do, as humans usually default to affirmation.

But think of the fun in starting out that same journey with, “Everyone is right, now let’s see how their truths differ.” Barça lost. But the match was fun, even thrilling, football executed at a very high level for so much of the 90 minutes. And it was fantastic to hear Ray Hudson and Andres Cordero on the call, voices that enlivened many a weekend afternoon in my man cave. Everything about the match was good, and fun, except (for culers) the final score. Pity the only absolute truth has to also be a stone-cold bummer.