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Don't Be Fooled: Barcelona Are so Much More Than Just Messi, Suarez and Neymar

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistMarch 10, 2016

BARCELONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 28:  Gerard Pique of Barcelona is celebrated by his team after scoring his team's second goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Sevilla FC at Camp Nou on February 28, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Vladimir Rys Photography/Getty Images)
Vladimir Rys Photography/Getty Images

The buildup was feverish to the point of being hysterical. Engulfed by a cocktail of anticipation and reverence, an entire city waited for a first glimpse, for the sighting.

Of them

As buildups go, this didn't feel like football. Instead, due to the way in which it was being billed, this felt like an occasion for celebration or the run-in to what people would inevitably view as a defining moment in history, a before-and-after event that packed a sense of celebrity. Royalty. 

The city was London and the event was Arsenal vs. Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. Not Arsenal vs. Barcelona, no; Arsenal vs. MSN/the trident/the triumvirate/the three amigos/the world-altering trio. 

Seemingly every newspaper cover: Them.

Every television segment: Them.

Every sentence uttered: Them

The sighting soon came, and so did the anticipated act. Neymar found Suarez, Suarez went back to Neymar, Neymar then fed Messi: Goal. It was breathless, exquisite and ruthless. Messi would soon add a second, London given the occasion it wanted, a city left comprehensively awestruck. 

"Magic in their DNA!" proclaimed the Daily Mail with a match report that featured the names of only three Barcelona players. Yeah, those three. Countless others were similar, but it was the Telegraph that best summed up what this night had become to this city.

"To have Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez on a pitch in London was not really a fixture," ran the opening line, "more of a happening, a kind of state visit."

The narrow fascination was understandable, but it also represented a significant shift. Six years earlier in 2010, Barcelona, then-European champions just as they are now, arrived in the same city and with the same status but to a contrasting reaction. Messi was still king, yes, but it was the encompassing elements of Barcelona that captured minds: the collective, the philosophy, the selflessness, the togetherness, the artistry and the identity. 

This time, though: Three players. 

Barcelona are so, so much more than that. 

Frank Augstein/Associated Press

Though this incarnation of Barcelona will always be defined by its forwards, too often overlooked is what's necessary elsewhere for such an existence to be functional. 

In their current form, the Catalans are top-heavy in a way they haven't been at any time prior in their post-2008 dominance, their balance skewed forward to an extent many believed was unsustainable given the evidence in the capital at Real Madrid.

Amid this shift, Barcelona's fundamentals haven't really changed, but the manner in which they combine has. Since Luis Enrique's appointment, Barcelona have relinquished a degree of control. Their pressing has eased. They concede more shots. Their territorial suffocation isn't what it was. 

Not at all. 

Barcelona games now carry a frenetic edge they've rarely had previously. To cater for their monsters in attack, the Blaugrana have deliberately set out to create an environment of greater chaos. The play is more vertical; space is abundant; the possibilities at either end are heightened; the sight of Messi, Suarez and Neymar counter-attacking is common.

As Xavi put it in a interview in June with UEFA.com:

Before we had players who were dominant in games. They didn't lose the ball. Maybe they weren't outstanding when it came to taking players on. Maybe we only had one player like Messi who took players on. Now we have three. We have Neymar and Suarez as well as Messi. When the ball goes forward, it's an attack almost straight away. 

Such changes may sound elementary given the personnel up front, but the changes have actually heightened the demands on those behind the three. The midfield has had to embrace the chaos, cover more ground, work with less time and become a sort of high-speed delivery service; the back-four is working harder than it has any point this decade; more is now asked of the goalkeepers. 

Barcelona have changed. Evolved. The drivers of the evolution have of course been the trio up front, but the extent of their personal adaption has been smaller to that of the "others"; others have had to adopt a deviation in emphasis for them and to make this functionally sustainable. 

YOKOHAMA, JAPAN - DECEMBER 20: A dejected Luis Gonzalez of River Plate as Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta of FC Barcelona celebrate victory during the FIFA Club World Cup Final Match between FC Barcelona and River Plate at International Stadium Yokoham
Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

So others, you say? Yep, others.

Others like Sergio Busquets, who continues to underpin Enrique's side and serves as a one-man counter-balance; like Gerard Pique, whose remarkably complete game continues to be undervalued; like Dani Alves, one of Europe's great creators despite being a right-back; like Javier Mascherano, the thriving centre-back who's not supposed to be a centre-back; like Andres Iniesta, who is still, well, Andres Iniesta. 

These are the others.  

In October, when the 23-man Ballon d'Or shortlist was announced and Busquets was left off it (again), those in Catalonia shrugged their collective shoulders. "They don't get it," the region basically said, they in this case being those outside Spain's northeast, the rest of the footballing world. 

It's hard not to feel they're right, that the outside world doesn't truly get Busquets. Enrique called him the "best midfielder in the world without a doubt," according to Agence France-Presse (h/t the National). Before him, Pep Guardiola famously said, "If I was reincarnated as a player, I'd like to be him [Busquets]." Spain manager Vicente del Bosque has said similar, while Xavi described his former team-mate, per UEFA.com, as "the player with the best understanding of football, both in attack and in defence, in the world."

They can't all be wrong, can they?

To watch Busquets is to watch a master in subtlety, which is perhaps at the core of him being misunderstood in a highlight-driven world. So fluent, so economical, the midfielder nurtured by Guardiola has made an art form of little things, simple things: play-reading, body positioning, ball protection, spatial awareness. 

In Enrique's team, the one embracing an increased sense of chaos, Busquets is vital; "fundamental," said the manager. As a sort of anchor-playmaker hybrid, he has to serve and protect, create and disrupt, defer and lead. With him in the lineup, Barcelona are typically secure; take him out of it, and the drop-off is striking, the recent clashes with Levante and Las Palmas serving as neat examples. 

BILBAO, SPAIN - JANUARY 20:  Sergio Busquets of FC Barcelola duels for the ball with Ander Iturraspe of Athletic Club during the Copa del Rey Quarter Final First Leg match between Athletic Club and FC Barcelola at San Mames Stadium on January 20, 2016 in
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

For influence, Pique is similar. Perhaps stylistically, too.

Like Busquets, there's a smoothness or elegance to Pique's game despite the more forceful nature of his position. To those outside Catalonia, it's possible that such aesthetic qualities affect the way he's perceived, hurting any idea of him being pivotal or colossal.

But he is

As Barcelona stormed to last season's treble, Pique might have quietly been his side's outstanding player in the season's second half after a difficult beginning. Dominant, vocal and demonstrative, the defender at one point was at the heart of a run for his side that read: 18 games, 17 wins, zero losses, 54 goals scored, only eight conceded and 11 clean sheets, and that included clashes with Manchester City (twice), Paris Saint-Germain (twice), Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Valencia. 

This season, the pattern is looking similar. It's his thing. There's a casual, laid-back disposition to Pique, who admitted training doesn't excite him and that his intensity can come and go in an interview with Papel (h/t Sport). As such, he works his way into seasons rather than starting them in a blaze. Some see it as a weakness, but it's his way and the results are hard to argue with. 

Last season, Enrique's more open and frenetic Barcelona conceded just 21 league goals, equalling the best figure recorded during Guardiola's era of greater control. This season, a side perpetually viewed as vulnerable at set pieces has conceded just once in such situations. Yes, once. 

Pique stands central to this despite a seemingly widespread reluctance to acknowledge it. Browse through the Spanish headlines and it's remarkable how little the defender's game is discussed. Instead, it's all controversy, tweets, cheeky remarks and the subsequent backlash. 

Evidently, Pique doesn't care, but in pure footballing terms, he should be spoken about considerably more. 

Barcelona's defender Gerard Pique celebrates a goal during the Spanish league football match FC Barcelona vs Sevilla FC at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on February 28, 2016. / AFP / JOSEP LAGO        (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Ima
JOSEP LAGO/Getty Images

It's the same for others around him even if the source of distraction is different: Alves' invention and incision is too-often overlooked; outside Barcelona, an Iniesta that brought the Real Madrid faithful at the Santiago Bernabeu to their feet in November—after which Enrique dubbed him "world heritage"—now tends to be a footnote; Mascherano's out-of-position reliability is glossed over; so is Ivan Rakitic's work rate and Sergi Roberto's play-me-anywhere-coach-I've-got-this excellence. 

Suddenly, probably too much, it's become just about them.

Them again.

Them only.  

Barcelona are not just a front three even if that front three is the game's new obsession. They're more rounded than that, more complete. More diverse. Though the monsters up front are extraordinary, those behind them have adapted and evolved in order to make this team functional and what it is—a team with so many resources and ways of competing. 

When pressured, they always respond; when engaged physically, they will, in a footballing sense, fight. Such traits, collective ones, routinely go unrecognised because of the visual beauty of it all and the front three, their competitiveness, evenness, fortitude and strength of will underrated.  

It shouldn't be.  

Soon, they'll take on Arsenal again, the popular narrative likely to be the London outfit's battle with Messi, Suarez and Neymar. But that's not the reality; the battle is one with Barcelona. 

A Barcelona that is so much more than just them

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