Euler is coming with the meat to my potatoes, but I wanted to throw a few thoughts out there, mostly as an excuse to piss everybody off with my match ratings.
Perspective is a beautiful thing, and this match made me think about that. To us, our possession game is beautiful, a way to keep our defense from …. well …. having to play defense. To others, it’s just boring possession with no real point …. until there is a point and suddenly, the ball’s in the back of the net.
While watching us today, it finally hit me: We’re like the Frogger video game.
You know, the arcade classic where you navigate the frog across the highway, hopping up and back, from side to side, often moving back and sideways to move forward. And I actually started laughing, because it’s all just so beautiful. Up, back, side, back, up, across …. goal.
You’d think that ATM would just stop coming to the Camp Nou. It never seems to go well for them in our house, and they always seem to show up when it’s Statement Time. Coming off of a draw with Valencia, a match that either side could have/should have won, it was that time, and we made the point with movement and intelligent possession. This is as smart as we have been with the ball all season, because we knew that the threat of Falcao, who’s been scoring goals in his sleep, could be eliminated simply by never letting them have the ball. They ended up with about 37% possession, a deceptive stat because most of it involved trying to get the hell out of their own end.
Pressure, pressure, pressure. This match was the first time we played our game this season, of incessant pressure and defense through possession. We’ve hinted at it from time to time, but this match was how, if we just had the energy, we could play every match. For me, the second goal was my favorite, because whatever ATM tried in getting out of their end, there was a midget battling for the ball until finally Busquets, Gulliver in our passing Lilliput, forced the turnover that sent Pedro and Messi off to the races, for an own goal born out of panic.
It’s also why I say that the only defensive crises that we ever have are when our defense has to function as an actual defense. Unlike today. Note that the only time ATM was able to run at our defenders at pace, a goal almost resulted, stopped by an excellent Valdes intervention. It’s the job of the midfield to make sure runners don’t get free, and they did a great job at that today. I also liked the strategic fouls that reared their heads today, from Villa, Busquets and Mascherano in particular. Better to give up a free kick at midfield than a possible goal. Every time.
They had two real scoring chances today, the first from taking advantage of that space we sometimes leave between the midfield and back line and the second from taking advantage of rapid ball movement to burst out of the midfield. The end. The rest was thanks to our defense not actually being a defense but rather, a trio of sweepers. Pick up stray passes, feed the Mighty Mites, watch them go.
Yes, we scored 5 goals, tallies that were, for me, of surpassing quality:
1. Xavi is magic! That pass to Villa was absolute perfection. The rest was relatively easy.
2. Chaos reigns, as described above.
3. Messi beats the entire ATM defense. Twice.
4. Never forget that Abidal pass to Alves that set up Messi.
5. So Villa can pass, so beautifully that Fox Soccer Report commentators thought it was Xavi.
But as noted above, Euler will break it down with the tactical realness. I have some ratings to take care of:
Team: 10. A faultless match from top to bottom. A favorite sequence was in the second half, when ATM got the ball and was breaking, and our attackers were on the back line as the defenders were pressed up, slowing down the action in the midfield. Passing, movement, style and grace. This might seem obvious, but is still worth saying: We’re better with the ball than most, which makes so much of our game possible.
Guardiola: 10. Again, perfection, with the exact right lineup, including the role of Thiago. Excellent subs as well, bringing on The Chicane (Keita) at the right time, as well. Mentally and physically, the players were so ready today that ATM didn’t have a chance.
Valdes: 7. Would have played to a higher rating, but didn’t have all that much to do. His distribution was excellent, and his stop on Falcao to prevent the honor goal for them was classic Valdes.
Alves: 7. Lovely interplay with our attackers, but rather a tamped-down match for him, which in many ways is good, particularly on the defensive end.
Busquets: 9. A brilliant, brilliant match, between passing, attacking, pressure at key times and defensive interventions, he was just wonderful.
Mascherano: 8. I’ve said it before and will say it again: We HAVE to find a way to keep him on the pitch, once we return to full defensive health. I think he is our best ball-winner and tackler, and now that he gets the system, his passing out of the back is marvelous.
Abidal: 9. Great scott, what a match. Attacked like a demon, defended with strength, physical presence and pace and almost always made the exact right pass. He still makes me nervous with his circling back with the ball in our end, it must be said. The standing ovation from the Camp Nou folks spoke volumes. Dude had something to prove today.
Xavi: 9. Magic. Absolute magic. Recall the sequence of moves in which he drove an ATM defender to distraction, before plopping that inch-perfect pass to Villa for the first goal. If that ball is a little off, Sir Hack-A-Lot (Perea) heads it away. Too much, and Villa has to struggle with it. Instead, it was absolutely flawless.
Fabregas: 9. Okay, okay, I give …. he’s worth every penny we paid for him. For me, it wasn’t the passing, running and offense, it was the tracking back. ATM was off on a dangerous break, and No. 4 came charging in like a demon to win the ball, and off we went in the other direction. Time and again, he was in the right place at the right time. He’s scored goals and ladled out assists, but for me he’s yet to have a better overall match than today.
Thiago: 8. He probably reduced the running that Xavi had to do by a third today, as he was everywhere. Those interventions that Xavi usually has to run over and make, Thiago was doing. His distribution was brilliant, and that late-match nutmeg and attack in the box was just stupid good. His most controlled match in the colors, as well.
Pedro: 8. If he keeps this up, he’s going to get some exclamation points back. Far and away his best match since the injury last season. Hopefully it’s a harbinger that he is back to anticipating the match, rather than chasing. On the offensive and defensive ends he was part of so much of what we did, and hardly looked tired. Windmills away!
Villa: 8. Again, I absolutely loved his match today. I stopped counting the times I saw No. 7 running around on the defensive end of the pitch, pressuring in the midfield and battling their attackers along the sideline. Marvelous, and his assist to Messi for the 5th goal was stellar.
Messi: 5. A hat trick, but not that great a match overall, which sounds absurd but longtime Messi watchers know what I mean. His passing (as pointed out by Josep) is still off, and he made me scream at the TV on the break where he ran and ran and ran, ignoring an open Villa only to be stopped by a trio of ATM defenders. He also wasn’t that involved in the pressing part of things, which to me is a sign that he isn’t at his best. At his best, Messi is omnipresent, rather than solely an offensive force.
Pique (for Busquets): 6. Almost like he never went away, on his way to a higher rating. You can see the lack of match fitness and mind pace, however. That will come.
Keita (for Fabregas): 6. Again, The Chicane was probably on his way to a higher rating. Sometimes, you can see that his job is to just get in the way, like a chicane set up to slow down traffic. It provides crucial time for the defense to set, or ball-grubbing midgets to work their nefarious wiles.
Maxwell (for Abidal): incomplete. An excuse for Abidal to get an ovation? Who knows, but Maxwell looked rusty as heck, which isn’t surprising. More than any of our players, he thrives on playing time.
So to end as I began, here’s some more perspective. Messi’s three goals were brilliant, particularly the first one. It’s hard to understand how someone who notched a hat trick didn’t have a great match. One perspective is that it’s impossible, and Kxevin hates Messi. Another is that his immense personal standard, coupled with how involved he is with our whole game when he’s at his best, makes it easy to see how this wasn’t his best match today.
So let the debate begin, until Euler rolls in with The Truth.