Wow. What a golazo! That it was the only goal wasn’t really surprising when you watched the match for more than 10 minutes, as Hugo Sanchez unveiled a new formation, the 0-10-0, in an effort to keep us from scoring, shamefully playing for a draw at the Camp Nou.
Thankfully, the footy gods brought us the new, calm Pedro!, who spun and smoked a shot into the far upper 90, that was astonishing. Maxwell will get credit for the assist, but it’s a gift because that goal was all P!.
Who knew that it would be the only goal?
Guardiola rolled out a lineup that gave me instantaneous pucker: Valdes, Alves, Marquez, Puyol, Maxwell, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro!, Messi, Ibrahimovic. Why? Because Busquets will always have his moment, Maxwell gives away corners too cheaply and Marquez is still experiencing his Great Decline, which makes Puyol grab his fireman costume and run around too much. And whenever that happens, we concede.
Thankfully, Almeria had about as much interest in attacking us as I have in showering with a brick of limburger cheese, as The Fear kept them in check. “Can’t have them beating us 6-0. Nope. No way. Just kick them and the ball and off we go.”
And it almost worked, were it not for the aforementioned moment of individual brilliance saving the day. And a few more words about that golazo. Because Pedro! always attacks with the ball, the three defenders forming a triangle around him were playing him for the run or the pass. To his credit he realized this and decided that something from distance was just the trick. It’s his second strike for us that was crucial, that was again done with power and accuracy. And that moment was needed, because Almeria decided to man-mark Xavi again, as that is the tactic of this season and will remain so until Guardiola finds a way to beat it. I’d like to hand him the clue phone, which has someone on the other end saying “Busquets and Marquez don’t help!” With one constant follower and another shadowing, Xavi was effectively marked, and rarely allowed to be our devastating puppet master, except in non-danger areas.
This meant that Iniesta had to be the orchestrator, and that we had to one-touch our way into scoring positions. Iniesta, however, was just too anonymous and unselfish to a fault. He also looks like a little boy out there, with a body ill-suited to play the physical matches that the officiating dictates. And you can’t even say that the ref was having a bad match. He just wasn’t calling the ticky-tack stuff that we usually get. In every replay, the defender got ball first. It could be argued that the only call he missed was when he awarded a corner for a challenge in the box, but the defender didn’t touch the ball. So it’s either a penalty or a goal kick, dude. A corner is a punk call.
We also wasted Ibrahimovic by throwing long balls his way and saying “Do your thing, big fella,” or not working overlaps properly, which left Ibrahimovic’s three defenders to keep him company, with nobody taking advantage of the space created by his presence. It’s early days yet, but I’m sure he could be forgiven for thinking, just for an instant, “I could have stayed in Inter for this kind of stuff.” Pedro! worked very well with him, but you could see him trying to find space in which to work, being constantly shadowed by much of the very determined Almeria defense.
There were spaces to play into, that would come whenever Ibrahimovic took the ball and moved, and someone moved into the space that he’d just vacated. He lofted in a perfect ball for Pedro!, who should have done better with it. Then it was a perfect setup for Xavi, who knocked off a shot that the keeper still has no idea how he stopped.
And we spent more time arguing with the ref instead of playing the kind of one-touch football necessary to rip Almeria apart, bickering over alleged fouls not called. But every side that we face henceforth is going to play us physically, and the trick is to give it back when you can, and play through it when you can’t. Alves understands this, so does Puyol. The calls aren’t coming. Why should officials make the rich richer? Get over it and play football.
There were many bad signs in this desultory match that was a lot more tense than it needed to be:
–On one play Messi was charging the box, and Iniesta and Ibrahimovic stopped running, because they knew he was going to not even consider passing.
–Xavi didn’t touch the ball for stretches of time, thanks to diligent marking.
–We didn’t really control the midfield in an attacking way.
–Our defense is susceptible to full-speed attacks.
–Marquez, in his role as defensive mid, sucked more than a Pop-Sicle convention.
But as I said, Almeria wasn’t interested in exploiting any of those …. um …. challenges, so we could wallow in our collective mediocrity. We kept the ball pretty much forever, and Valdes made no saves. None, as in zero. The only ball he had to control near his goal was off a pass, and he flubbed it but was bailed out by his defenders. And that was that.
This match was a win, but it wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t really that exciting, because Almeria were never going to score. Never. Not with one forward playing behind the midfield line and everybody else defending. The sole remaining option is to counterattack, but that was never going to work, even when Puyol whipped out the blade for a play that might, at another time and place, earned a red card. As it was he got a yellow and Almeria, for just a second, were able to walk in our shoes.
So, how to deal with that Xavi marking business?
Guardiola made the exact right substitutions with that very thing in mind, first removing Marquez in favor of Gerard Pique. The dividends were immediate, as Pique brought the ball up in his usual smart way, delivering it to the midfielders in a primo position. The result was an excellent Ibrahimovic shot on goal, that was parried away with a stellar save. This was a refreshing change from Marquez dwelling on the ball for too long, playing matador defense and generally being craptastic. So Pique was the first move, because by bringing the ball up, he bypasses Xavi and his marker, delivering the ball to the danger area and forcing that marker to track back on defense.
The second moves were to bring in The Yaya for the awful Busquets, who continued his recent trend of setting up attacks for the other side, and Keita for Pedro!. The only error of this move is that Keita should have come in for Messi, who was shit. Yes, shit. You heard me.
So suddenly, Pique and The Yaya were defenders, attacking with the ball in a move intended to move the entire pitch onto their end. Xavi could then come back to get the ball, or accept delivery from a big-ass house as it went rumbling past. Smart. Very smart. Yes, Almeria continued to play defense as if it were still 0-0, so we could calmly retain possession, and successfully stave off the occasional counterattacking foray in what might be one of the most unimpressive wins from us that you will ever see.
Team: 4. Quit whining to the officials and play football. If you dwell on the ball too long, of course you’re going get fouled, or have the ball taken away from you. Duh! Lousy overall performance.
Guardiola: 7. He played people who we won’t be seeing against Rubin Kazan, which explains the Maxwell, Marquez and Busquets thing. But made the right substitutions when things began getting crazy.
Valdes: 5. Man up and control balls in your box. It’s your box.
Alves: 6. Good defense, but was too loose with the ball at times. His passing was also off, and he just wasn’t integrated into the attack.
Marquez: 4. This is how you play when you have a contract on the table? If you’re going to bring the ball up, don’t lose it. And at least try to stop an attacker, rather than putting your arms behind your back and letting him run past you. Oh, and playing a ball with your upper arm might be considered a hand ball by some officials. Yes, you had good moments, but they were outweighed by the bad.
Puyol: 7. Strong and solid, except for the late error. He continues to be the beating heart of this club.
Maxwell: 4. Did you at least yell at the guys as they ran past you? And stop conceding corners so easily. Oh. One word, three syllables: O-ver-lap. On the other hand, thanks for making Abidal feel so warm and secure.
Busquets: 4. How can you dribble a ball out of bounds? What the hell? And why are you so hell-bent on helping the other team score? That’s not what “Charity begins at home” means. You dwell on the ball too long and generally try to do too much. Did you watch how The Yaya played when he came in? No. Did you really watch? People are saying that you’re the future for us. I hope it’s a distant one. My heart can’t take it.
Xavi: 6. Had a few loose balls early, and he has to bury that chance. The keeper shouldn’t have had a shot at it. Controlled well when he was allowed to, but there were too many times that he made life easy for his marker.
Iniesta: 6. Our Ghostface nickname for you doesn’t mean you should disappear for stretches. And make up your mind when you have the ball, instead of getting caught in that “Should I shoot or should I pass” limbo? By the time you decide, the moment is gone.
Messi: 3. You did almost as much to kill our attack as the Almeria defense did, with your consistent ignoring of fellow attackers and constant one-on-one forays that lost ball after ball. Your first touch is a bit loose of late, and your passing lacks precision.
Pedro!: 7. Shoot, dammit! Yes, you did that second time, but you should have done the same thing that first time and you would have had a brace. Nice to see that you chose to take advantage of the acres of space that Ibrahimovic’s presence allowed you. It goes without saying that you’re my Man of the Match. But don’t let it go to your head.
Ibrahimovic: 6. Excellent play with and without the ball. But you can’t get discouraged when that little Argentine dude doesn’t pass you the ball. Nice passing, and you should have had two assists. But that’s life, right, against a defense shadowing you with at least three men. Oh, and happy birthday. Sorry that your present was to have your scoring streak broken.
Pique (for Marquez): 7. You made an instant difference with your intelligent forward runs. Nice work.
The Yaya (for Busquets): 7. See above, Man Mountain. Your control and defensive work in keeping your part of the midfield shut down rocked my world. And so calm with and without the ball.
Keita (for Pedro!): 6. Nice effort and movement. Funny what athleticism does for an offense and defense, isn’t it? Hope you’re all nice and loose for Tuesday, sir.
So, we’re atop the table, waiting to see what happens between the EE and Liga B front-runner Sevilla. Until then ….