I had the great, good fortune to watch and analyze Barcelona’s penultimate La Liga match with the man who was responsible for giving the Blaugrana their first aggregate victory over Juventus.
His name is Steve Archibald: He won the League, the League Cup and so very nearly the European Cup with Barca. His was the goal in Turin against the Juventus of Michel Platini, Michael Laudrup and Gaetano Scirea and coached by Giovanni Trapattoni, which meant Terry Venables’ Spanish champions advanced to the 1986 European Cup semifinal.
Steve still lives in Barcelona and remains an immensely shrewd, knowledgeable and stern football analyst. Believe me, he gives praise only when merited, and even then, it’s laced with caution. So when he agreed with me while working together on La Liga’s Week 2 review programme that it had been many years since we’ve seen FC Barcelona work as hard to press and regain possession like they did in Vitoria in the 2-0 win against Alaves, they were significant words. “Archigoles” (as he’s still known in his adopted city) doesn’t make those kind of statements lightly.
Just as an aside, if you want to rile him, you can repeat the often-quoted fallacy that his goal that night in Turin to eliminate La Vecchia Signora, a tremendously clever back-post header from a Victor Munoz cross, actually came off his ear. It’s an infamous goal, one that looked impossible from that angle and no matter how my friend tries, he can’t convince the Catalan faithful that it was the side of his forehead, not his ear, that produced that golden moment.
All of this is more relevant because Barcelona are about to face their tormentors of last season, Maxi Allegri’s Italian champions, at the Camp Nou once again this week. And they prepared not only by trouncing a well-organized and pugnacious Espanyol, but by taking their display of outright harassment against Alaves and trebling it at the Camp Nou on Saturday.
I fully understand that the impact of Messi scoring his 38th Barça hat-trick, a debut and goal-assist from Barcelona’s most expensive ever signing, Ousmane Dembele, and Gerard Pique hitting what I calculate to be his 50th professional goal for club and country will distract from the central and hugely important motif of the game.
On the few occasions Ernesto Valverde’s revitalized team actually parted with the ball, they were utterly ferocious in winning it back. Like hungry dogs, they hunted in packs, racing to close down the ball-carrier, shutting off passing options and testing Espanyol’s technical abilities (first time control and accuracy of passing) to their limits and beyond. Quique Sanchez Flores’ players would have needed wing-mirrors on their heads to anticipate the floods of Blaugrana shirts flocking around them from all angles to smother their possession.
Just like in the Pep Guardiola days, you could set a metronome to what normally happened when Barça lost the ball. The instant that possession was turned over, you could count to five, and the majority of the time, one of Valverde’s players would have the ball back by the time you reached “five.” I’ve mentioned this in the past, but I’m convinced it’s worth re-emphasizing — particularly as when I wrote it, a number of players and coaches confirmed the truth of my contention.
High-level pressing, which is consistent, organized, efficient and effective, certainly requires tremendous physical fitness. But it is also, beyond question, reliant on mentality. If just about every single player isn’t fully onboard, fully committed and completely reliable then sooner or later, the system will fail and break down.
No matter how fit, how aggressive or how determined to win you are, no matter how happy you are to make the back-and-forth sprints British footballers call “doggies,” you won’t succeed and you’ll lose interest if the nearest players to you aren’t doing the same to add pressure and to block off passing options.
It’s the ultimate “all for one, one for all” work in football. At its best, the kind of elite, high-up-the-pitch pressing we saw at the Camp Nou on Saturday needs to be like a fishing net with every strand moving in tandem, linked and coordinated, almost choreographed. At any given stage, half the team can be simultaneously moving into “linked” positions to ensure that the opposition’s sudden possession gain is effectively too much for them to cope with. The opposition are overwhelmed whenever they get the ball. The passer is pressed, often by two or three guys, and their passing options are shut down — and perhaps the next-nearest guy readying himself to burst onto a loose pass across the pitch, too.
Everyone has to believe in the coach’s philosophy. Everyone has to believe that if they run their guts out, then each team member around them is 100 percent guaranteed to be doing the same thing. Although the chief kudos probably went to Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Samuel Umtiti, Andres Iniesta and the startlingly hard-working and focussed Gerard Deulofeu, it was Messi who, for the second match in a row, epitomized this.
Messi hasn’t been required to chase and press for at least two seasons. Not “required to” in any meaningful sense, which states that it’s his “duty.” But against Alaves, there he was, racing back 50 metres to try to spoil a counter attack — albeit in the 91st minute with the game already won 2-0! Think about that. It was literally startling in context of how little any of his teammates, or his coach, expect that of him.
Then, against Espanyol, more of the same. Busquets loses the ball in the 21st minute and Leo Baptistao is suddenly free to break. Busquets will haul his shirt back and be booked, but Messi doesn’t know this and bursts into another sprint to try to track the Brazil attacker back and make a tackle.
Please let me convince you that when his teammates see Messi doing that, it affects them massively. “If he is doing that, I’ll do that all day and all night,” is what they think. I know because they tell us so, and there’s a particular relevance to all this not simply because Barcelona now sit joint top of La Liga.
Last season, their display against Juventus in Turin was abject. Time and again Juventus were gifted oceans and oceans of space, “pressing” looked like it might be a dirty word in Catalan and Dybala in particular looked like he thought it was Christmas, his birthday, a lottery win and a hot date all wrapped up into one. His brace of goals, created by Juan Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic with time and space to pick their passes and his own splendid isolation as he drilled two exquisite left-footed shots past Marc-Andre ter Stegen epitomized a night on which Barcelona were simply not competitive in mind, body or spirit.
That has changed. Whether it has changed sufficiently for Barcelona to register the win, one they so keenly need both to scourge that embarrassing memory from last season and to start this group stage powerfully, will be something we watch for on Tuesday night. But if you haven’t studied the Blaugrana‘s last two Liga matches, and if you are wary of taking my word for it, take the word of a Barca man who had the measure of Juve all those years ago in this very competition.
Steve Archibald called it a fortnight ago: This group of Barca players has had its considerable pride stung and is working double-hard again, which makes them unrecognizable from the latter stages of the past two Champions League seasons.
It makes them dangerous, too.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World.” Twitter: @BumperGraham.