Barcelona don’t just get back to winning, they get back to winning their way
Champions League last 16 victory over Milan also down to getting back to their characteristic asphyxiating pressure game
Barcelona players celebrate after Lionel Messi scores his team's second goal against AC Milan. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images
And so in the dying seconds, Barcelona threw a defender into the attack. But this was not Gerard Pique and this was not desperation. Lionel Messi brought the ball out and found Alexis Sanchez on the right. On the other wing, Jordi Alba was hurtling up the pitch, legs whirring like Roadrunner: stoppage time, 3-0 up, nerves frayed, and the left back was racing into the opposition penalty area. Some might have taken the ball into the corner but Sanchez curled it into Alba’s path instead and he finished the night off at last: 4-0, relief and redemption.
Barcelona had gone back to what they know, not just in winning but how they won. They did it their way. Until that stoppage time goal, the threat always hung over them: a Milan goal would have put them out of the Champions League and, for all the dominance, that was not impossible: M’Baye Niang hit the post - “At this club, you can’t do that,” Javier Mascherano said of his mistake – and as the final seconds ticked away, Alba made a vital interception, stopping Robinho barely six yards out. But they had got it right.
[CROSSHEAD]‘Proud of the team’
[/CROSSHEAD]“Even if we had lost, I would have said the same thing: I am proud of the team,” Jordi Roura, the assistant coach, said. Mascherano added: “The fans have gone home happy, because of the performance as well as the result.”
Above all, because of the result. But the two things are not mutually exclusive and it is baffling they have so often been treated as if they are.
“Would you rather win or play well?” is a question asked often in Spain. Quite apart from the fact “play well” is the most loaded of phrases, the response should be obvious: the best way to win is to play well. Ultimately, this was a brilliant performance, a very Barcelona one. And that was what made the victory possible. It does not feel like there is too much wrong with Barcelona’s philosophy this morning.
In November, Andres Iniesta analysed the style employed by Spain and Barcelona. He told the Guardian : “It’s not that now we are saying football is a science and playing this way you will always win. We play the way we do because it suits us.
“We don’t have the players to pull it off playing a different way. People talk about ‘pragmatic’ football, well, for us, this is pragmatic. It’s the way we like to play and it’s the way we believe we have the best chance of winning.”
Here was another example. “We returned to our origins, playing the kind of football that has characterised this team for the past five years,” Mascherano said. “It is true that we had not played like this for a while.”
This was not about Barcelona changing style – “you can lose a game but you must never lose your identity,” Dani Alves once insisted – it was about them recovering it.
The essence returned. Talk of Plan B and Plan A, as if the only options are tiki-taka or lump it up to the big bloke, is mistaken. Yes, other options are valuable but it is more nuanced than that, variations on a theme. Plans A1, 2, 3, and 4.
[CROSSHEAD]Doing what you do
[/CROSSHEAD]It is not about doing something different, rather it is about doing what you do and doing it well. There is a reason why Barcelona signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic but there is also a reason why they let him go.
The Barcelona team that started on Tuesday night was the same team that started the 2011 Champions League final against Manchester United, with the exception of Jordi Alba in place of Eric Abidal.
In recovering some of the things they had failed to do of late, they recovered some of the play too. There were differences too, small details that had changed (they took on more shots from distance, for a start) but this was recognisably Barcelona. The previous weeks had not been.
David Villa was back in the forward line and back scoring. Above all, though, Roura explained he had drawn the central defenders to him, creating space for Iniesta and Xavi, Alves and Messi, stretching the attacks. Iniesta was a central midfielder, not exiled on the left wing. Xavi was properly fit. Busquets, as so often, was immense.
Without Cesc Fabregas, there was less congestion in the middle. Without Messi, too: rather than facing Milan’s midfield, he was behind them and he was decisive. Alves was right out on the touchline, providing width and aggression.
And that was the other thing.
Before the game Carles Puyol had insisted Barcelona needed to recover the asphyxiating pressure that had for so long characterised their game.
[CROSSHEAD]Speed of ball and bodies
[/CROSSHEAD]Here, it was back. The sheer speed of ball and bodies. At times it was incredible, breathless. Goals came from robbing the ball: Iniesta on the second, Mascherano on the third. A fortnight spent preparing for this match paid off, so did the mental intensity.
Sometimes it is forgotten Barcelona are a team of athletes as well as aesthetes, competitors for whom physical condition is fundamental. The players left the Camp Nou shattered.
Mascherano had asked to be taken off because he had cramp. “It’s true that we had lacked intensity recently,” Jordi Alba noted, “but today we had it.” Right up to his sprint in the last minute.
“Tonight,” Roura said, “we have gone back to being the team we always were.”