Every match comes down to a key moment, and for me, this picture illustrates that moment as eloquently as any verbiage. Because in the 30th minute, when Alexis Sanchez was hacked down by a tackle that deserved at least a yellow and instead got nothing, the match changed for the worse for us.
It wasn’t even that David Villa entered, making the left side a place where attacks went to die. It was that the most positive player on the pitch was gone, and the malaise seemed to creep about like a particularly virulent infection. The players became aimless. Nobody seemed to know what to do with the ball, or where to go when they had it. Was some of it the pressure that a brave, tireless Real Sociedad put on us? Absolutely. Witness their players collapsing after the final whistle. They played their hearts out for a draw that they justly earned, so put any talk of gifts out of your minds, as this draw could easily have been a loss, courtesy of two late set pieces.
And we go into week 3 of the Liga actually better off than we were at this same time last season. How ’bout that? So everybody, calm down.
We aren’t going to die
Bear with me, as I had to watch the match via ESPN3 replay, and am banging away on a strange computer. But neither of those can hide the fact that only one side played the entire match, and that side got the result that it fought for. Rather than shame on us, I will say congrats to them. This will be a season where a draw will be as good as a win to the rest of the Liga, and potentially as damaging as a loss in the standings for the Big Two. Both top teams will drop points this season, in unexpected ways and places. It was our turn this week, and it will be their turn in another week. The important thing is not to panic, finger point and run around, bellowing “Lawd, lawd, we’re all going to die!”
Because we aren’t. We have had collective cases of the dumps the past couple of seasons, but for those with short memories, go back and look at the last two years that Rijkaard was at the helm, if you want to see extended collective heart failure. And yet there is no real point of comparison, because the Rijkaard teams, those last couple of seasons, were finding ways to screw up, waiting for the hammer to come down. This group falters when it commits the sin of arrogance, of thinking that we can just show up and make magic. The other side doesn’t always cooperate in such notions. Are we as good as advertised? Yep. But we still have to show up and take care of business.
Guardiola rolled out with a lineup that should have been good enough to win this match: Valdes, Alves, Busquets, Fontas, Adriano, Keita, Xavi, Thiago, Fabregas, Sanchez and Pedro. That there wasn’t a real striker was immaterial as unlike with most sides, any player out there can play with the ball at his feet and score goals. And we got off to a quick start, with two goals that masked the fissures that were visible in the edifice of our excellence.
Our first goal was a very simple bit of Fabregas perfection that fell to the feet of Sanchez, who evinced a dazzling bit of close control as he stabilized, then slid a ball to Xavi, who tapped home for 1-0. It was a goal whose roots were in movement, and one dynamic player dragging defenders around to create space for a teammate to run into, an inch-perfect pass and a player with the skill to turn the trick. It was an absurd goal of the type that we score with regularity, a kind of perpetual-motion domino machine that needs for everything to be perfect, and it almost always is.
It was also a goal that took advantage of the way that they were playing, which was to control Xavi by flooding the midfield with 6 players, and keeping a tight, 4-man back line. What Xavi’s movement into the box did was take advantage of temporary confusion caused by the role switch between he and Fabregas. What Fabregas’ pass did was take advantage of the space allowed, a no man’s land into which lofted balls could be played. Yes, he had to ask a very difficult question of Sanchez, that was answered with style.
The second goal was a little uglier, it must be said. Xavi returned to his role of provider, again taking advantage of space between the two Sociedad lines to place a ball directly at Fabregas’ feet. He slid it to Pedro, who tried some bit of ridiculousness that was easily stopped by the keeper, but Fabregas was there to prod home, and it was 2-0. It was also an example of a Pedro who hasn’t been the same since his injury last season, and still isn’t. He’s pressing more, seems less certain and acts like a player who is playing out of fear, rather than joy, as if he feels compelled to live up to the effusion spewed about him the past couple of seasons. And it isn’t going so well for him in that regard.
What now, coach?
Still it was 2-0, and you could make yourself find consolation in the scoreline, rather than in the effectiveness of the Sociedad effort, the bigger triangles that gave them more time to get in the way of passes, the times that players were left alone, with nobody to give the ball to, the long balls over the top that rarely failed to cede possession, breaking up our attacks in a way beneficial to a side playing for a draw.
At almost no time did we have full control of this match, despite our typically gaudy possession statistics. Because rather than calm passes to moving players, today’s were rushed and harried stabs to teammates who looked around and found themselves in the same situation as the player who just gave the ball to them as Sociedad ran, scratched, pulled and clawed in an attempt to get any kind of a result that they could. And when they scored, for me it was as inevitable as the sunrise, because of that lack of control.
Even if we had effective midfield pressure (we didn’t), they were going over the top to create chances that gave them a direct shot at our defense, and Guardiola was looking far more worried than a coach who was looking at being two goals up should — because he knew. He could see it, just like we could. Because we never got that match-killing third goal, never even got a real good look at it before halftime, setting the stage for their coach to say to them, “You took their best shot and you’re in striking distance. Let’s get it done!”
Uh, oh …. it’s about to get messy.
In the second half, we essentially continued the aimlessness and confused ineffectiveness of the first half, only against a team that felt like it had new life, rather than one waiting to die. You saw the first evidence of it when a Sociedad attacker got the ball in our box, and was surrounded by 3 players, none of whom really did anything. Finally, the shot caromed off Fontas’ leg past Valdes’ goal mouth, as alarm bells began to ring. It’s a scenario that we’ve all seen before, and it didn’t take long for reality to rear its ugly head.
On a free kick, there was zero pressure on the passer or the player receiving the pass, as our players just sort of trotted back toward Valdes. This allows their player time, space and luxury to consider, then make the right move and he did so, laying a perfect pass for a header that should never have been, but Busquets was either on psychic walkabout, or confused as to what to do with a player in the box. Would a real defender have probably stopped that play? Yes. Certainly? Impossible to say, as it was a hell of a pass. With even a bit of pressure, the goal probably doesn’t happen, because what defines great players is the right decision under pressure. Sociedad doesn’t have great players. Pressure makes that first pass a little less perfect, that second pass even more so.
Another question worth asking is whether Valdes shouldn’t have been protecting the near post a bit more, as the header would have had to go over/through Busquets to take advantage of the far side. Either way, hell of a play by them that was assisted by our fundamental lackadaisical uncertainty. But make no mistake about it, our defense isn’t as great as its statistics show. It’s a defense that is predicated on rarely seeing the ball, or when it does, its center backs act more like sweepers, scooping up errant passes and feeding mids, who return to the task of gutting an opponent. As Guardiola himself said, “We’re crap without the ball,” and if you give teams a direct shot at our defense, they are going to score goals.
It’s not going to get worse, is it?
Their second goal was a comprehensive a cluster as you will ever see, and as near as you will ever come to being able to lay a goal at the feet of a single player — David Villa. Perhaps he knows why he ran to the ball and popped it back toward Valdes, instead of the much safer short pass to Keita for a reset. But when he did, Keita grabbed his head in chagrin because he knew what was about to happen. Sure enough, the Sociedad player ran onto the ball, beat a desperately lunging Valdes and popped a shot that Busquets hand-balled off the crossbar. The reboud was tapped home by a teammate, who should have been marked by someone, anyone, and it was 2-2. Worse still, it was 2-2 in a match that we’d collectively lost interest in.
Guardiola made the right substitutions in adding Messi and Iniesta to the mix, but without the desired result because the machine was already broken and Sociedad were playing their hearts out. Once they got that equalizer, you could see in their faces that they would do anything short of driving a bus onto the pitch and parking it in front of their goal to keep from giving up the point that they worked so hard for. We complied with those desires by just being plaing ol’ craptastic in attack and execution. Villa backpassed, Messi made runs into 4-5 defenders and Pedro windmilled ineffectively. The font of Masia Magic was blunted by hard work and ennui but even then, there were chances. Pedro took a pass that bounced bad, not giving him many options except try a crazy kinda chip thing, that failed. Alves outfights a Sociedad player to a ball on the end line and feeds a wide-open Pedro, who promptly tried to give someone in the stands a souvenir. Xavi had a shot and thought too much. Villa had a great chance and took such a big windup that a defender had plenty of time to block the shot.
And so it went.
The Sanchez difference, aka “Why NOT Afellay?” aka “Future shock, since Afellay wasn’t on the bench, dumbass!”
When Sanchez went down with an injury that, by the by, will keep him out for 6-8 weeks, which doesn’t sound as long as “ohmygodtwomonthsitsthecurseofthe9!”, Villa came in and the dynamic changed. And it wasn’t just because it removed a very positive player from the pitch. It also swapped a player with the precise skill set to harass the kind of system that Sociedad came to play, with a player whose skill set played right into its hands. So the mids can spray the ball wide to Sanchez, who can beat his defender and charge the box, creating chaos. It’s like having a Messi Lite on the left wing. Villa can’t beat a defender one-on-one, so he takes the pass, does a little feint then passes it back to midfield. A defense can breathe a lot easier, and really bunker down.
Sanchez also has better ball control and passing abilities, and a significantly higher work rate, which brings me to my next question: Why not Afellay? His pace, dribbling abilities and skill on the wing would give us some of what Sanchez brings to the table. In consideration of upcoming matches, will Guardiola want an out-and-out forward out there to partner Pedro? Probably, despite the difficulties that the Villa/Pedro combo, bereft of Messi, has against bunkered-down defenses. Messi is the bunker-buster who creates space for his attacking teammates. Absent that, both Villa and Pedro are “take ball, shoot” kinds of players, rather than “take ball, make move, shoot or make great pass” kinds of players that Sanchez and to a lesser extent, Afellay are.
So, to sum up, we dropped a couple of points. No biggie. No. Really. No biggie. EE is NOT going to go undefeated this season, and we know this, because they play us. Twice. But you know what? Neither are we. So hunker down for what’s going to be an awesome Liga dogfight this season.
Yep, a Kxevin review means ….
Team: 4. It’s hard to laud a group that clunked its way to two dropped points. They did some things well, then screwed the pooch in a way that was coach intervention-proof, that even the Best Player Alive couldn’t fix.
Guardiola: 7. Made the right moves, rolled out with a lineup that was clearly good enough to do the job, as evidenced by the 0-2 score at the half. Made the right substitutions as well. But boy, was he late with the Iniesta move, and I would have swapped him for Pedro rather than Fontas. Might have made those last two Sociedad set pieces less fraught.
Valdes: 5. Not as sharp as usual, and yes, I feel that he should have been tighter on the near post. He was hung out to dry on that second goal, so it’s hard to fault him for that. A die-hard Valdes hater, however, might ask if he should have stayed home to make himself big, and give the player something to think about when making the shot. Who knows? That’s a tough ask, as Valdes is an aggressive, ball-hawking keeper. And he almost got there.
Alves: 4. Didn’t have his usual marauding effect on the match, and with the gobs of possession that we had, you can’t really explain it away by him being terrified of his counterpart. Seemed particularly aimless, and didn’t provide the ball pressure that he should have on the set piece that led to their first goal. Had a bad case of Boxus Uncertaintus today, except for that HUGE intervention to prevent a late goal for them.
Busquets: 4. Some nice interventions when moving forward, but lacking a defender’s instincts showed at the worst possible times. A defender can track the ball and the man. Busquets half-assed both. Does this mean that he’s a terrible defender? No. It means that if we put him in a situation where he has to be a good defender, he’s probably not going to be all that a real defender would be. That’s the risk you take in the Guardiola Plan.
Fontas: 5. He showed some good instincts and better foot speed than I thought he had. He also showed why he isn’t ready for a regular starting role. The real value of Puyol, Mascherano and Abidal is that they are decisive. “I’m doing this,” and they do it. Fontas still doesn’t have that snap decision making that he needs to be able to partner a player such as Busquets and not have bad things happen.
Adriano: 5. A curious match in that he was very good early, right along with the rest of the team, then lost his way. He provided no dynamism off the wing, either, which is much of the reason that he’s out there.
Keita: 6. The question: Am I as happy when I see Keita at DM over Busquets? Nope. Does this mean that I think Keita is the disaster that many do? No. He is a different player than Busquets, a physical presence who will usually get the ball or at least get in the way, and will 9 out of 10 times, make the safe pass. He did that for most of the match today, though he had a rather awful last 20 minutes or so.
Xavi: 7. Nice and solid, but let down time and again by his teammates, who were running hither and yon for reasons only they know. He missed Iniesta as well. Beautiful passes, a well-taken goal and the pass that led to the assist for the second. Could easily have had a couple more assists, as well. Did better than he should have, with a quartet of Sociedad mids tasked with making his life hell.
Thiago: 3. Bad time to play like a kid still finding his way in the first team. When he wasn’t invisible, he was making mistakes and misplacing passes. He plays too fast, as playing fast is very different from playing quickly. So he decides to do a flick, but a teammate isn’t reading his mind, so the ball rolls to the defender instead of the feet of a forward. Not as visible on the defensive end, either.
Fabregas: 5. A goal and a brilliant setup pass, coupled with standing around, trotting lackadaisically and not helping on defense or with ball pressure. He didn’t seem to know whether he was a mid or a false 9. He’s also too casual with possession. The lofted long balls are nice, going to a pure forward, but we don’t have one of those. So you might as well just give the other side possession.
Sanchez: 7. Not a full match rating, but he played long enough to be rated. Aggressive, fast, usually did the right things with the ball, work rate off the charts. Raised hell wherever he was. His assist came from that Messi Spot, just to the right of center, and when on the left, he made the defense’s collective lives hell. He will be sorely missed for these two months.
Pedro: 4. No exclamation point for him, just a mediocre match that saw him trying way too hard. Whether he’s feeling pressure that is self-imposed or from the presence of Sanchez is beyond my deductive powers, but he doesn’t have the confidence that Pedro!! had. This is affecting his decision making with and without the ball, so he runs a lot, but to precious little effect.
Villa: 1. This might or might not be controversial. I don’t care. He was terrible today, with more back passes than any defender, a couple of poor shots that had zero chance of going in, the Killer Back Pass and hardly any tracking back/work rate. His match today felt like final-season Henry, and we all know how that went. He will improve, as it was a team malaise today, but he was particularly bad, and lazy at inopportune times, when a forward looking to rush the net and score could have capitalized on passes, including a great one from Alves.
Messi: 3. Not his usual galvanic effect, but once he stopped being selfish, made some very positive moves. He loses a rating point for that ridiculous dive in the box.
Iniesta: incomplete. Not enough match time for a rating, but wasn’t all that hot in his (today) typically stranded state.
Next up is a Tuesday Champions League match against an AC Milan side that did the same thing that we did, in drawing 2-2 against an opponent that should have been beaten. And typically of our transfer karma, it had to be Milan, featuring one Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who will be spoiling for a fight. Should be a good one. Until then ….