Andres Iniesta is an incomplete sentence. His name should read as "... and Andres Iniesta" as it has for the past decade or so. It's one half of a whole, a sentence of two subjects with the action subjugated like a high ball between the two. Xavi and Iniesta, it's the only way that it seems right.
They are the Castor and Pollux of Barcelona: the same soul in two bodies. And while ultimately they will both be remembered as Camp Nou immortals, during the last few years, they seemed unable to exist on the same plane. But the pain of separation allows us the opportunity to examine each player individually, and in this case, to remember just how wonderful and deadly Iniesta can be.
He was the man of the match against Real Madrid in the same way that the writers are the true stars of an acclaimed television show. By creating the perfect situations and crafting a stable base, they can allow the talents of the more visible cast to shine. Neymar is a star. Luis Suarez is a star and Lionel Messi, whether on the pitch, bench or returning from injury, is larger than life. Iniesta is not quite so large, and given the blinding radiance around him, it's easy to miss the brilliant fire of the small man in the center.
But this small, unassuming man has a taste for the big occasion. That's when the little things matter the most, after all. Indeed, it was before the footballing lesson that Barcelona taught Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final that Sir Alex Ferguson stated that while Messi is outworldly, Iniesta was Barcelona's danger man.
The thin-haired midfielder broke the hearts of Chelsea fans with a vicious volley that betrayed his personality not too long before. He would win the World Cup for Spain. He would stand as the mastermind of the butchering of Italy in the Euros 2012 final. Even last year against Juventus in the Champions League final, in his advancing years, he supplied the dagger for Ivan Rakitic's first strike before weaving his simple magic behind football's most fearsome trident.
Most of the things that Iniesta does are simple. Or at least they look simple, because the simple things are often the most difficult. He scans his shoulders before receiving passes and decides what to do with the ball before he gets it. He touches the ball with intention and comfort. He one-touches, two-touches and holds the ball all when necessary and doesn't do much more than needed at any moment.
He steps into dangerous spaces between the midfielders and defenders. He drags his defenders out of space when he sees an attack building, as he did with Luka Modric during Suarez's first goal and Sergi Roberto's run. His control is immaculate and his composure is at spiritual-teacher-under-Bodhi-tree levels.
But Iniesta is much more than just a possession player. He has the ability to receive the ball from Neymar, take a touch inside the onrushing James Rodriguez to beat him, feint to the inside to deceive the incoming Modric before going towards the center circle and playing a high, defense-splitting 40-yard ball to Sergi Roberto, who has made a run behind a ball-watching Marcelo.
It's also impossible to dispossess him. Enclosed in space, under pressure, Iniesta seems to grow two more legs that help him to keep the ball as defenders kick at air and heel in frustration. The best little trick that he does is when a defender is playing right on his back and Iniesta running towards his own goal with the ball. The defender thinks that he has him. Either he will pass the ball further back in midfield or lose it.
But Iniesta doesn't do either. He waits for the defender to rush in, then he pushes the ball with the outside of his right foot to the right and turns. The defender runs past him and then it's up and away into attack. It's not a feat of speed or strength, but Iniesta instead uses pure guile to turn the defender's aggressiveness into his advantage.
One big difference between him and his departed sporting brother Xavi is that Iniesta is much more capable as an attacker in the final third. His dribbling style isn't aggressive as Messi's, nor is it as flashy and fast as Neymar's. He seems to move at an unbothered and fluid speed when pushing the ball, using his immense close control and deceptive hips to shift those who wish to stop him. This, combined with his awareness and passing ability, leads to incredible moments like his dribble and assist against PSG:
It was on display against Real Madrid, as well. After he pushed his way into the heart of Madrid's defense, he chipped a ball into the path of Neymar again.
Then there are times when Iniesta adds the icing on the cake. When the writer of a hit TV show creates a spectacle that is so astounding that the audience have no choice but to acknowledge him. When he speaks their language of explosions and boldness. When Iniesta sends a pass to Neymar, who lays it off to the midfielder to run onto the ball and torpedo it into the net from outside the box.
Credit: user penguin672232 on r/soccer
Iniesta seems to specialize in those goals. Goals that are rebellious against the rest of his game. As if they come from years of pent up aggressiveness that bubbles beneath the surface of the gentle man. They're big, loud and fast -- everything that Iniseta is not when he's doing anything else on the pitch. And he always runs off celebrating in jubilant fashion, though he has often said that he is a tranquil man of no extremes.
His masterpiece against Real Madrid was a bittersweet reminder of his ability. As the years pass and his hair grows more grey and scarce, it becomes harder for Iniesta to stay on the pitch. Even magicians are affected by the same human aches and pains that befall the rest of us. But when he does play, when he is fit and at the peak of his powers, it's apt to remember the words of Samuel Eto'o from 2009.
"When I said Iniesta was the world's best, you laughed. Now you can see I'm right."
Xavi is gone, and there must be a sort of phantom-limb pain when Iniesta looks over his shoulder and doesn't see the familiar figure there. He is incomplete, but incomplete in the same way that great poems are. While the omitted words and stanzas of this poem are a universe in themselves, the gentle lines that are still visible to the eye are wondrous in their own right. Even the Bernabeu faithful were forced to clap for him as he exited the field after orchestrating the destruction of their team. Praise from your greatest rivals' fans is highest praise of all.