Marc-Andre ter Stegen shows why he won the Barcelona goalkeeper job
It was the 85th minute of the 2015 Copa del Rey final, and Athletic Club's Unai Bustinza had Neymar hemmed in near the corner flag. The Basque right-back had pressed him but didn't want to go too tight, in case the Brazilian dribbled past him. There were a couple feet of space between them.
Neymar wanted past his opponent. There was time left to add to the 3-1 margin, and this was the Camp Nou; in club terms, his "home sweet home." With a hop and a skip, he sprinted forward, catching the ball between one instep and one heel and lobbing it over both the back of his own head and Bustinza.
Startled, the Athletic defender simply hauled Neymar to the ground. Once Neymar was down, up to nine of the losing team ran over to try to accost, insult and provoke him.
Apparently, he had overstepped some unwritten law of civility that says it is acceptable to go past a man only in ways everyone has seen before and knows. No witchcraft, please, and no humiliation, either, seemed to be the message. A melee ensued. It was a cause celebre for a few days on social media around the world. Feelings ran high, and judgments were mixed.
OK, OK: Competitors do things in the heat of the moment. I can't claim that when I played sport, I wasn't capable of that rush of blood to the head when a combination of anger, fatigue, defeat and temporary helplessness boiled over.
But I argued at the time -- and again when Neymar produced an equally glorious and genetically similar flick against Celta Vigo to escape his pursuers -- that this isn't simply marvellous entertainment for the fans. Rather, this is a technical solution to a practical problem. This is technique that most players don't have, technique that can look provocative but is put to use so that a specific problem (lack of space) can be dealt with.
Cut to the San Mames on Sunday. It was Athletic vs. Barcelona again. Marc-Andre ter Stegen celebrated his mini-coup and forced his club to choose between him and Manchester City-bound Claudio Bravo with a record-breaking display. Not only did he make a record number of passes (62), but he also accurately completed a Liga keeper all-time record number of them (51). The German played more passes than any Athletic player, and only three men in his team (Sergi Roberto, Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti) used the ball more than Ter Stegen.
Truly extraordinary is that he played more passes than Barça midfielders Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Denis Suarez. Just think about that for a second! Looking for the new Xavi? He's in goal.
If you watched the game, you might understand why I'm linking Neymar's occasional tendency to pull off the outrageous -- the kind of thing that gets him in trouble with certain fans -- and Ter Stegen's night of brilliance in Bilbao.
The black-and-white stat of how many times he received and successfully distributed the ball might look remarkable, but you ought to have seen it in practice. Even if you've admired Ter Stegen (and Bayern's Manuel Neuer) before, this was truly epic. In football terms, it was like one of those escape artists who challenges an audience member "prop" on stage to wrap him in a straight-jacket, secure it with chains, throw away the key and drop him, over his head, in a cubicle of water.
There was no space, no time and a sense of urgency. As the vital moments arrived, your heart beat faster. Red-and-white-shirted men buzzed around the young German, choking the space, applying aggressive pressure, trying to anticipate his move and trying to freak him out. Yet for 99 percent of the time, he was Gulliver, and they were Lilliputians. Ter Stegen was football's Houdini.
Calmly, he lofted the ball over them, dummied them one way and then passed the other, out-thinking them and proving that his technique was superior to their blue-collar effort. He was calm and elegant, while they were red-faced and sweaty.
It was the kind of performance that, sadly, can lead some players, fans and media to react with nonsense such as, "He's out of order for humiliating them," "That's showboating," "He's doing that for ego ..." or, worse, as former Madrid stars Poli Rincon and Manolo Sanchis said of Neymar last year: "He deserves to be kicked for that."
Two things came together to ensure that Barça's keeper produced record numbers. First, Ernesto Valverde's Athletic team presses high and presses well. Not only is it in his DNA -- three times now, Barcelona have been close to appointing him -- but also he knows very well, and proved last season, that if you catch Barca on a night when they aren't sharp and are mentally tired, their high-intensity, high-line pressing can cause them to make calamitous errors that produce goals.
You remember the 2015 Spanish Supercup first leg, right? Athletic 4-0 Barcelona? Good. We can continue.
The second thing that helped cause Ter Stegen's perfect storm of pass reception and distribution is that Barcelona defenders used him as a sweeper more often than I can remember since the absolute height of Victor Valdes' time at the club. It's worth accepting here that the previous record of 44 completed passes was set by Bravo at the same stadium last season, but the Chilean isn't cut from precisely the same sweeper-keeper cloth.
I mention Valdes because, like Ter Stegen, he is a complete disciple of the 11-man football team: not 10 outfield players and a keeper. Like Edwin Van Der Sar and Neuer, Valdes and Ter Stegen hold dearly to the idea that their role is not simply to mind the nets but to constantly offer an out-ball for under-pressure teammates and to restart the play as if they were the ball-playing centre-half. He isn't just some guy who rolls possession out to his nearest teammate.
In essence, Sunday night at San Mames was a crystal clear demonstration of why, over and above the fact that he is nine years younger, Ter Stegen won the battle with Bravo to be the No. 1 at the Camp Nou.
Bravo is immense. He's a winner, a great pro and tremendously authoritative between his three posts. His great misfortune has been to enjoy only two seasons at Barcelona because he has bumped into an utterly sublime footballer, who is also a very good keeper. However, I think there are some notes on the night.
Sooner or later, Ter Stegen will make a mistake. He has the elasticity of an eel and the passing and touch of a goalkeeping Xavi, and his cold nerve is James Bond-esque. But he'll make a mistake and cost Barcelona a goal at some point -- no question. It nearly happened at San Mames, when he failed to spot that passing to Busquets was the wrong ball and then failed to alert his Catalan teammate that Benat was arriving like a steam train behind him.
That's the point at which Luis Enrique will think about "net gains," if you'll excuse the pun. Barcelona and Ter Stegen play that way not to show off nor to humiliate but to have "superiority" of numbers in the zone where they are being pressed and thus to drag the unwary forward, so that when Barcelona break this line of pressure, there'll be more space in midfield, on the wing or up front via which they'll try to score.
The net gain, thus, is that unless Ter Stegen loses his nerve or his technique and thus concedes a flood of goals, then the occasional embarrassing hiccup will be dwarfed by the positive gains accumulated by Barcelona's keeper's effectively becoming a libero behind Pique, Umtiti, Javier Mascherano, Jeremy Mathieu and so on.
A final note is that judging by what happens to Neymar, some dogged but ragged, tired or frustrated forward will sooner or later lose his temper with the keeper because what is in fact a practical, intelligent and strategic use of his technical skills can look provocative or arrogant in a particular context.
It's just that you and I know better now, don't we?
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.