There is something hypnotic about watching football teams fall to pieces. A footballing collapse -- not just a loss, but a proper gubbing -- has about it a certain stateliness, even a grandeur, like an industrial chimney descending into the dynamite, or a tipsy elephant finally surrendering to the twin forces of fermented fruit and gravity. Something big, strong and, above all, coherent being reduced, over a long hour and a half, to a mess of bricks and dust and rubble, to a snoring leviathan with its legs sprawled out and its trunk lodged in its ear.
Real Madrid lost on Saturday. That sentence is both perfectly accurate and entirely inadequate. Real Madrid, in front of their own fans, were stripped, sliced, diced, seasoned, lightly fried, then eaten on toast by Barcelona. It was a beating to join the 3-0, the 5-0 and the 6-2 in the annals of great thumpings, and at the end of the game, as is traditional, Madrid's appalled fans waved white handkerchiefs at their appalling footballers, at their floundering manager, at their President, and at anybody else who happened to cross their eyeline. And fair enough. That ballboy had a nightmare.
Barcelona were brilliant, that needs saying. Neymar and Luis Suarez made a non-issue of Lionel Messi's non-selection, Andres Iniesta was at his most lubricious, and Sergi Roberto scampered about the place with disgusting aplomb for one so inexperienced. But as beautiful as they were, it was hard to take the eyes off the men in white. What were they doing? Why were they doing it? And what were they trying to do?
On paper, their lineup looked like an unusually -- at least for Rafael Benitez -- broken team, in the tactical sense: a back four, a gap where a defensive midfielder might have gone and then a front six built around a midfield of James Rodriguez in front of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. Five players to stop the goals, six players to score them. Makes a certain amount of sense, perhaps. If you're playing somebody with no interest in having the football.
On grass, it looked broken in every other sense of the word. Since the game ended, screenshots of the peculiar shapes into which Madrid managed to contort themselves have been flying around the Internet; we've analysed a few of the more important ones over here, but perhaps the best is this one, which shows the entire Madrid lineup attempting to attack by, essentially, standing in a really big circle. You can almost see the Barcelona players realising that their closest opponent between the lines is agoraphobia in this graphic from Sports Illustrated's Liviu Bird.
And that's before we even start to dig into the more nebulous stuff, the body language, the chronic lack of any interaction or relation between this nominal "team". Cristiano Ronaldo's nose has never been more upturned, his handflaps have never been so exasperated. Raphael Varane, marooned at the back, has never felt so alone. The only Real Madrid player to show any grasp of the situation was late substitute Isco, who realised that the game was done and all that remained was to give somebody, anybody, a decent kick. Off he went, to applause.
That circle sums the performance up: it makes no sense. We are used to seeing Real Madrid, at their best and their worst, as more a collection of individuals than any particularly intricate team; that's the business model, that's the philosophy, and that's what defines the coach's job. Take these exceptionally shiny, exceptionally expensive parts and make them as whole as you can. Hopefully the sheer weight of quality will overwhelm any problems of imbalance.
But while it shouldn't necessarily be a surprise when that system breaks down -- it's a fundamentally silly way to run a football club, even when it works -- it is always, always remarkable to see some of the best players in the world shambling around the field in abject disarray. Of the 11 players who started for Madrid on Saturday night, six started the 2014 Champions League final. It's not as though Barcelona were tearing the children apart.
Obviously, Madrid have a lot going on at the moment. If even half the stories in the paper are true, then Rafael Benitez is less popular at the Bernabeu than Samuel Eto'o, while Ronaldo's got the face on and the transfer rumours flowing. You couldn't blame Gareth Bale for struggling a little, since everybody's being terribly mean to him, nor Karim Benzema for being a little distracted during an ongoing criminal investigation into allegations that he attempted to blackmail one of his best friends. And they are a mere six points behind Barcelona, who you may recall where themselves convulsing in crisis this time last season. In the end, they did okay, and Messi never made that move to Manchester United.
So as a moment in a footballing season, this may just have been a perfect storm of a brilliant opponent, an appalling plan and a collection of players with their minds and hearts elsewhere. Benitez, it appears, will be getting to the end of the season, and may spend the intervening time purging the squad on Perez's behalf. But it stands as a testament to the innate fragility of these apparently relentless sporting machines, and the fact that the line between lifting the decima and falling on your arse is a fine one, easily tripped over. Particularly by a drunk elephant.
To return to the hankies, in a funny way those little bits of cloth sum it all up. After all, if Madrid had won, those hankies would still have been sitting there in pockets or tucked up sleeves, brought to the game by fans hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. Perhaps they were only there for runny noses, perhaps they come along to every game against any team. It doesn't matter. When the hankies wave, it's not just the crowd saying "You're rubbish, and we hate you." It's the crowd saying something deeper and far more terrible. "You're rubbish, and we hate you, and we knew this might happen."