This match, a match that ultimately wasn’t a whole lot of fun to watch, really, is why I kept saying that the worry shouldn’t be there, that the comparisons to the Rijkaard era were invalid, that this was a club that just glitched a couple of times and merely needs to regain timing and most importantly, focus.
Osasuna came into the Camp Nou with a Liga record identical to ours, at a win and a draw. They left the victims of a club that had something to prove to itself, a club that looked in the mirror and was determined not to have any letdowns, any flaws in concentration or lack of interest. The result was about as uncompetitive a match as you are probably going to see in La Liga this season.
You could see it in the players faces as they waited in the tunnel, faces that looked as though this were a Champions League knockout match in which they’d lost the first leg. You could see it in Messi’s angry face about 5 minutes into the match. It was concentration and fire, a focus that made this club determined that whoever the opponent was today, they were going to beat the hell out of them. Which is pretty much what happened.
Guardiola started with a no-nonsense lineup of Valdes, Alves, Mascherano, Puyol, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Thiago, Fabregas, Messi, Villa. I call it the “marbles in a bowl” lineup, because that’s what playing against it is like when it’s on form. People will attribute this result to all sorts of things, such as “See, this is the difference between Busquets and Keita,” or “This is what happens when Guardiola decides to play with defenders in the back line,” etc, etc. But the simple reality is that this result was a consequence of amazing players deciding as a unit that enough was enough, that they needed to satisfy themselves that the successive 2-2 draws were flukes. And to do that, those players had to focus.
Yes, there was a talent gap between the two sides, a gap that was no more or less real against Sociedad. The difference there was, more than lineup, a group that just didn’t seem to care, and it got slapped in the face for it. As I noted in a comment, errors were made, and professionals learn from them. The errors were, simply enough, that you can’t lose focus against anyone, top or bottom of table. Today the players didn’t, and this was the result.
And rather than talk about the goals, I’d like to discuss what the goals represented, just a little bit. Euler might or might not have some tactical dissertation in the works to dissect this dismantling. But for me, it came down to four things:
Whenever this club stops moving, it becomes less potent a force because moving targets are harder to hit for the opponent, but easier to hit for teammates. As long as Villa stands still, why pass him the ball? When he’s running off it and being aggressive, the passing lanes open up and suddenly, it’s all so easy. There was movement on the attack, movement in the midfield that resulted in the kind of pressure that brought about an 85-15 first half possession statistic. It’s also the kind of movement that results in a player always having someone to pass to. Compare this match to Sociedad, where we were stabbing balls hither and yon, leaving teammates stranded on the sidelines to try and fight their way out.
Today, the triangles were tiny and tight, with pass recipeients moving to spaces, giving, receiving and moving. It was that constant movement that makes an on-form Barca impossible to play for anyone, even if you foul.
When I mentioned in another review about wanting him to be the dynamic kind of player that he was at Arsenal, this is exactly what I meant. We don’t need another Xavi or Iniesta. We bought him to be a Fabregas, which means functioning like a combo platter of a midfielder in possession, and a forward in attack. His runs into the box were aggressive and well-timed. They were also unexpected and completely destabilizing for a defense built to worry about getting killed by Messi and Villa. So when Messi becomes the provider of balls, it creates complications that there aren’t effective answers to. And it all starts with Fabregas making himself aggressive and dynamic in a way that Villa can’t.
WHAT DEFENSIVE CRISIS?
The result would have been the same, no matter the back line today, because of the mids and attackers. When our system is working, attackers become defenders and vice-versa. So Villa gets a yellow card for a studs-up tackle, and Busquets or Abidal make runs into the box. Fabregas stops an attack with a sliding tackle in the 78th minute, and Mascherano pops a long ball to Thiago that makes the defense have to shift. When our system is working, there is no defensive crisis. When it isn’t, there still isn’t a defensive crisis, it’s just players being stressed in ways that don’t suit their talents.
So it wasn’t that Puyol brought something magical to the back line, it was that the mids and attackers worked in such a way that his defense rarely saw the ball. When Villa is standing around at the other end or strolling around, or Fabregas just saunters around as if he’s waiting for the Metro, attackers will be able to get at our defense. This doesn’t mean there’s a crisis, it just means that players aren’t doing what they’re supposed to. As long as they do what they’re supposed to, security is omnipresent.
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
Has anyone noticed the large amount of balls over the top that we’ve been playing on attack this season? Interesting, right? Here’s the thing: Tika-taka can work, but sometimes, as during the Milan match, a more direct approach is needed. So this season, we’re seeing a lot of over-the-top attacks. Worked incorrectly, it just gives possession away, which can be a dangerous thing when we aren’t pressing properly in the midfield. Worked correctly, it drops balls at the feet of players in the box, an area where caution must be exercised in how defenders play our attackers. Throw in multiple attackers and you have a problem for anyone, anywhere anytime. We saw this any number of times today:
1. Alves headed cross in the air to Messi
2. Over the top for Fabregas to volley
4. Abidal long ball for Villa
6. Messi chip for Xavi
Some wondered why it always seems as though Guardiola is starting from scratch every season. It’s in part because stasis is easy to plan for. If a team does the same stuff the same way all the time, it becomes easier and easier to defend against. Announcers are fond of saying “Everyone knows what Barca is going to do, but few can stop it.” Eventually, that becomes less true. Our new aerial show is a way around that, a way to present the direct threat of an attacking “9” without having a big “9.” Whether it’s planned for EE or Champions League opponents remains to be seen, but you can bet that there are some coaches right now, at drawing boards, swearing and erasing, swearing and erasing.
These three things excite me more than taking care of business today. Yes, normal service has been resumed, and all 8 goals were of surpassing quality, the kinds of high-wire acts that our talent makes seem so easy. But when I start thinking about the fact that Fabregas isn’t even fully integrated yet, that Thiago has, even though he was spectacular today, only just started to scratch the surface of his potential, that a fit Sanchez means when we get the ball in the opponent’s end we won’t have to gradually work it out but instead, can just bust it up the line to a runner, it makes me happy. Far, far happier than whomping Osasuna 8-0, because that score in and of itself still results in the same 3 points that a 1-0 scoreline would have.
But in considering the portents, the way that this club responded when it was being doubted, I’m very excited for the future.
Team: 9. As direct, as fluent, as remarkable as I have seen it in a long time. There were some “phone booth” moments as Thiago, Xavi, Messi and Fabregas all have the same instincts, leading to those “Wait, who was that pass for” moments. And things got a little loose at moments in the second half, thanks in no small part to Afellay.
Guardiola: 10. To think about what he must have had to say and do to make these players do what they did today. Right substitutions as well, although you could certainly say that when he started subbing, it was already 5-0 and over.
Valdes: 7. Probably would have played to a higher rating with more to do today. But he was super sharp, quick and aggressive. His outlet passing was also excellent, short and long.
Alves: 9. Wow. Pretty cool what happens when Alves doesn’t have to play any defense. We’ve carped before about the accuracy of his crosses and passes into the box, but not today. And he almost nabbed quite a golazo off that half-volley in the second half.
Mascherano: 8. Exceptional match. Every time Osasuna got into our end and into his zone, the attack ended at his feet. And his running slide during a late Osasuna jailbreak made the attacker have to hesitate just long enough to make the shot angle too difficult. Worked very well with Puyol.
Puyol: 8. Speaking of Puyol, it’s good to have our captain back, spiritually. The results would have been the same had he not been in the back line, but his presence heartens his teammates.
Abidal: 7. A few loose balls early, including a howler that almost resulted in a 0-1 early scoreline. But once he got into the match on both ends, he was sterling, including two great long passes for Villa that both led to goals.
Busquets: 8. Aggressive and dynamic on and off the ball. Like Keita, you don’t see a lot of what he does when he’s on, because a lot of it is getting in the way to restrict access to passing lanes. Nice passes and some very good runs, as well.
Xavi: 10. For me, he was extraordinary today. Yes, some of it was the space that he was afforded, but he was as alert and aggressive as he’s been in a very long time, and it’s easy to forget how good a defender he is, until he reminds you.
Thiago: 8. He had a delightful sequence that led directly to the 5th goal, where he stole the ball and fed Fabregas, who lost it, so Thiago stole it again, this time feeding Xavi, who sent Fabregas and Messi off to the races.
Fabregas: 8. He still has times where he looks lost out there, and he was way, way too casual on that scoring attempt that he should have buried. But an excellent, excellent match for a player who must be feeling a ton of pressure. This was as unbound as I have seen him play, for us or Arsenal, in a very long time.
Villa: 8. His work rate was off the charts today. Yes, he scored but for me, seeing that studs-up challenge and the other times he busted his butt on the defensive end, warmed my heart. That’s the second match in which we have seen this new, uber-Villa.
Messi: 8. He continues to move toward being unplayable, and his partnership with Fabregas is already looking impressive. He has a new confidence this season that has resulted in unselfishness. Assists make him just as happy as goals. Opponents should be very worried about this.
Adriano (for Abidal): 7. And that rating is with a bullet, as more time would have assuredly brought a higher rating. Saved Afellay’s bacon on a couple of occasions as well, and demonstrated sideline-to-sideline range.
Maxwell (for Puyol): 5. Solid positionally, but showed signs of rust, which is to be expected. The way that Abidal and Adriano are playing, however, I fear that his future will be in matches that have been put to bed.
Afellay (for Xavi): 3. Whoa, 3M had some serious suck today, giving away passes including one that led directly to a good scoring chance for Osasuna. It happens with young players, but whoa.
Next up is a mid-week match, away to (present league leaders as EE have not played) Valencia. This should be a good one. Until then, here’s what’s looking like our new Dynamic Duo.