Euler is coming to the rescue with the review, which is a good thing, since he’s a lot better at it than me.
But what he isn’t better at than me is stirring up the villagers, like Frankenstein on the roof, dropping trou to moon the peasants. So let’s do this, in the form of (mostly) bullet point-y type stuff.
Does anyone still think Messi is on form?
If yes, go stand in the corner. Let’s state this for the record: Messi is the greatest player on the planet right now. Even off song, he has a pigpile of goals and assists already. He’s also a player who is having significant complexities right now, and that is damaging his team.
Who doesn’t remember fondly when Messi was Leo the Lion, who wanted every ball that came close to him, moving constantly, reading the game like a dog-eared favorite childhood book that he’d memorized 10 times over. Compare that to the player who doesn’t seem to quite know the right spot to be, where to put the ball. That little extra shimmy and step is consumed by fatigue, so he is playable, stoppable by a physical, disciplined Sevilla side who rolled into our house thinking “Point. Let’s get a point.” A walking, trotting, aimless Messi directly contributed to that well-earned point.
Guardiola will have to summon whatever courage he has, and sit Messi. Otherwise, it will only get worse and eventually lead to an injury from overused muscles. Yes, 80% of Messi is better than most players alive. But not 50%. Sharp players don’t play the way that Messi does. I know that he wants to play all the time, but it can’t happen. Not any more. The evidence is too clear.
Is the Argentina NT stuff wearing him down? You bet. If his NT were playing better, I rather imagine there would be more spring in his step. But today, when they showed Messi face on, he looked terrible. And I mean physically. Tired, thousand-yard stare, like a guy who, if he were at work in the real world, his boss would ask him, “When was your last vacation?” Then he would suggest that he take one. And not tomorrow.
Let’s not wet ourselves over Javi Varas
If you hit the damn ball right at the keeper, it’s pretty easy for him to look brilliant. Yes, he evinced some good reflexes, but except for the horrific Messi penalty kick, he didn’t really have to move much to make his saves. We helped a lot by basically doing what Sevilla probably does in practice, which is hitting the ball at the keeper to keep his reflexes sharp. Is he Sevilla’s Man of the Match? Absolutely. And probably overall MOTM. But keepers have had better matches against us.
Keita and Busquets are different
Keita was brilliant today. So was Busquets when he came on. I’m happy that we have both on our side, but it isn’t an either/or, it’s a both. Keita is the physical facilitator who was everywhere today, truly from box to box. Busquets is the offensive addition. But I do think that both substitutions were in error. I wouldn’t have brought Pedro on. He’s been crap all year, and we lost something. If Keita is in the box raising hell, maybe some of those scrambles have a different outcome. Busquets for Xavi brought energy, but robbed us of the killer ball.
I’m sure that people will blame Keita for the result today, rather than listless, stationary attackers, when all the man did was go out and play his butt off. But he’s as unfashionable as Messi is fashionable. The other argument for Keita today was Thiago, who serves as the bridge for both he and Xavi, making the Busquets inclusion less of a necessity. That said, the Busquets substitution was too late, and shouldn’t have been for Xavi.
We stayed up too late reading Plzen a bedtime story
By not putting them to bed early as we should have, it cost energy that we needed today. It’s energy that resulted in everything being just a little off …. not enough to really notice. We still looked like us, but just enough so those amazing balls to the likes of Iniesta and Villa were overhit just a smidge, and the player’s legs were just a little bit heavier, the result being a near-miss, rather than a goal. The real way to beat the kind of defense that Sevilla was playing today was movement and one-touch football. That requires so much energy. So instead, we would get so many instances with Villa or Messi standing there, surrounded by a pigpile of Sevilla defenders, because people weren’t moving.
And by the by, the whole team is off song
We’ve been fooled by hammering some lesser clubs, but we can’t be fooled any longer: This club is having a bit of a spell. Yes, Sevilla came out and played the precise match that they needed to in order to get a point from this one. But if we are on form, we win 3 or 4-0. Easy. We were tired and off, they were fresh and on. It happens. What concerns me more is that there are no windows, no ways for the club to get that freshness, that sharpness back. It will just have to play through this patch.
One way is by finding new ways to freshen the stew, such as Adriano, who was almost a real difference-maker today. Mascherano is another. When Sanchez comes back, that effect should be immense. Speaking of ….
Boy, did we need our crocked Chilean today
Villa, Pedro and Iniesta were all faced off against ex-homie Martin Caceres, and all came up short. Caceres is too strong, big, quick and physical. So the very deficiencies that made him not cut out to play our system, make him perfectly suited to own the folks we put up against him. Ain’t that just about a bitch? Caceres had one heck of a match today, but a player who can run right past him would have created a great many problems. Villa is a brilliant striker, but he can’t beat my mama 1-v-1. Pedro is just off, and relies on being in the right place at the right time, rather than a skill set that would let him take on Caceres. And Iniesta is, and will always be, ill-used on the left wing, even if he had more success against Caceres than anyone else. Sanchez, or even Afellay, would have been perfect. Size, quickness and guile would have come in handy. As it was, it left us with only 2/3rds of the pitch. Adriano had fleeting success, it must also be noted. Why? Pace.
Speaking of Messi, he shouldn’t have taken the PK
Yes, you go down with your best. And had Varas stopped Villa or Fabregas, it would have been “Why didn’t Messi take the PK?” Those are the choices that a coach has to live with. Here’s a story: One of my bicycles was creaking like crazy. My genius of a mechanic and I just couldn’t figure it out. He disassembled, reassembled, lubed, Teflon taped and still …. the creak. A lesser mechanic put it in his workstand and said, “Hey, the chainring bolts are loose, and one is missing.” Creak gone. Problem solved. The moral? That sometimes, you need someone with less, to do more. Messi is smart, talented and a footballing genius. So like my mechanic who did everything except check the obvious, with too many things to choose from, you don’t get the right kind of stupid.
A striker, like Villa, doesn’t think. Blam! Goal. Done. Hard and low, or hard and high are pretty much a striker’s PK options. Then direction, as in left or right. Done. Fabregas? Same thing. Blam! I ain’t got time to think about that crap. It doesn’t even occur to me. Blam! Or how about Iniesta?
But as it was, Messi tried to outthink a quick, on-form keeper, which just wasn’t going to work. There are very few keepers in La Liga who wouldn’t have stopped that shot. Yes, your best player should take your PKs. But what about when your best player is far from your best player on that day? What then? Good question.
Mascherano? Yes, Mascherano
Another day, another match in which Mascherano was our best defender. How you gonna keep him down on the farm? He needs to be in the regular starting XI. What he does is just too awesome not to have. He has pace, physicality and an unerring sense of where to be. Does his short stature mean set piece problems? Yep. So don’t give up set pieces. He had a monster of a match today, that was fully Puyol-like. The midfield is crowded and the back line is crowded, so I don’t envy Guardiola that selection headache. But Mascherano has to play for this side. He owns everything in front and around him too often for it not to be so, and he did it on both sides of the pitch today.
Can we break a bus?
Yes. I know that some have said that this team has the same problems that it’s always had against parked buses, but I don’t agree. I think this team is light years better at breaking them, but it has to be on song. Look at the near-misses today, any of which with a club that didn’t play a looooong match (thankfully at home, away, and we might have lost today) on Wednesday would have been goals. The movement, the passing options, the dizzying high-wire act that works so well for us, was just a bit off today, so no goals. But the chances galore that went begging very capably demonstrate that we can break the hell out of a bus. Recall the time when we didn’t even get shots on goal against parked buses. And now look. It takes a keeper who has probably been presented for Sainthood by now, such is the effusion. But change one angle of a shot just a little bit, and he’s another close but no cigar losing keeper, and we’re still top of table.
Oh, yeah …. some ratings:
Team: 6. Some good, some clunk, some overthinking and not enough movement on or off the ball, making it easy for Sevilla to do what it did. This should have been a win today, which is easy to say from the fever-addled cheap seats.
Guardiola: 6. He got the starting XI right, but the subs wrong. Pedro shouldn’t have seen the pitch in this match, and Busquets should have a lot earlier. Same for Fabregas.
Valdes: 8. And would have gotten higher had he had more work. Unlike Varas, who had balls hit right at him, Valdes actually had to work for his brilliance, particularly when Abidal tried to give me a heart attack, on top of the flu.
Alves: 5. Off-song, and takes too many touches. The fluid, fluent, dynamic Alves needs to come back. The ball that he took in the box is a prime example. The moment was there to one-time it. Instead he tries to control it in the face of a charging keeper. That isn’t going to end well. Defensively, he is (increasingly) getting caught pinched in toward the center, requiring the likes of Abidal or Mascherano to bail him out.
Mascherano: 9. He was an absolute monster today from sideline to sideline, with key interventions and tackles. Not much to say aside from my effusion above.
Abidal: 7. He’s getting better and better, once he stopped trying to kill me with too-soft chest passes. His pace allows him to contribute to the attack and still get back in defense. Alves has to rein in his roam, by contrast, in the face of a more active attacking opponent. He’s so calm on the ball, and is more and more, making the exact right pass from the back.
Adriano: 7. Very good match today on both ends of the pitch, but particularly as the destabilizing attacking fullback. When the match started, his presence on the right was tactical brilliance from Guardiola, as it let him be Alves while Alves was …. well …. Alves. I understand why the switch to the left was made, but don’t agree with it, even as Adriano did pretty much the same thing on the left, which was cool.
Keita: 8. I might have to change his nickname from “Huh? What?” to The Facilitator, because that’s what he does. His presence, physicality and in-the-wayness doesn’t work against every club that we face, but it worked perfectly against Sevilla today. Time and again, when something happened, there he was with a foot in the way, a tackle or interception.
Thiago: 7. Interesting how Ray Ray and Schoen kept suggesting that he was having an off match, because of their offensive expectations. But if you think of Thiago as the Busquets to Keita’s Keita, he was having a delight of a match. He’s so aggressive and pacey on the defensive end that teams have to really watch the back door when he’s out there, or he will blaze in and kill an attack. And he’s so fast to loose balls. But man, is he still too casual with possession and risky passes.
Xavi: 7. Lovely and inevitable, the only thing he lacked today was willing targets. He had to drop a bit deeper at times today, resulting in more work. It’s also a tactic that Thiago, as the bridge-maker, facilitates. Sometimes the best pass is the pass that you don’t make. Xavi demonstrated that today, instinctively feeling the Sevilla pressing and lane-closing and being more circumspect with the ball.
Iniesta: 9. He’s my Man of the Match today, attacking, passing, shooting, beating off the dribble, earning what should have been a penalty (“All ball,” my ass!) and tracking back on defense. He was an absolute wonder, and the value of the energizing effect of an injury, though you never wish such things on a player. But sometimes, forced rest still works.
Villa: 4. Move, dammit! Too stationary, and overmatched physically against Caceres. Moving him more toward the center just stuck him among the tall trees, where he had about the same effect. Yes, he had some chances, and really should have put the one away, but his right at the keeper tendencies continue apace.
Messi: 3. There were moments where he turned it on, and animated the attack. But he spent too much of the match not being at all effective, with misplaced passes, being in the wrong spot at the wrong time and not fighting as he usually does. I know it’s conserving energy for that late charge, but as noted above, below a certain percentage of quality and overall effort, Messi just isn’t as effective. He was way, way off today.
Pedro (for Keita): 2. Worthless in his return to headless chicken mode. On form, Pedro never seems like he’s chasing the match. Off form, he’s like that kid in a football game who is always chasing the guy with the ball, running hither and yon. Lots of effort, precious little effectiveness.
Fabregas (for Thiago): 3. Didn’t do much, aside from taking a right stout thwack from Kanoute.
Busquets (for Xavi): incomplete. Not enough time to get a rating, but boy, what an effect he had on the proceedings. His energy and presence were just what the midfield needed.
Party Boy, aka Joan Laporta, will be on GolTV’s “A Solas” show, which airs Thursday at 7 p.m. Central Time (do your own math. You know I don’t do math.) Could be interesting, if they ask him the right questions. Finally ….
When the preternaturally calm Kanoute took a poke at Fabregas, the post-match nattering started. “What made Kanoute go nuts like that? Must have been something that Fabregas said. Was it racial?” And the elephant in the room again became a barrier, as initial reports were that Fabregas called Kanoute a “terrorist.” That must have been it, right? And the buzzing began. But Fabregas’ girlfriend is Lebanese. Hmmmm …. And Kanoute is from Mali and is Muslim, which must make him a terrorist, right? And so it went.
In fact, Fabregas called him out in no uncertain terms, for kicking the ball away from the spot as Messi prepared to take the PK. Simple as that. But in a hot, aggrieved situation in which Sevilla felt as if they had worked so hard for so long, to be thwarted by a dubious (to them) call, emotions were white-hot. Kanote snapped.
Note also that the player didn’t make these allegations, unlike the most recent “He said, he said” episode in which Patrice Evra has accused Luis Suarez of dropping the N-bomb on him not once, but ten times. No, this was just the rumor, nonsense kind of crap that was all facilitated by the elephant in the room, racism.
Until football confronts this beast in a significant, meaningful way that goes beyond bullshit two-tone “Respect” patches on player sleeves, it is going to be a problem. You can’t change the way that people are. Sometimes, life and exposure to people are are different can. But the game can, in a truly serious effort, remove them from the game either physically, or with penalties that make such behavior unthinkable. Monkey chants? Ejections. If it continues, empty the stadium. Maybe then bystanders won’t be so quiet. If a player is proved or heard to have done it, suspend him for the remainder of the season. Period. If a player makes an unfounded allegation, bye-bye. Zero tolerance. It can be done. The game’s governing bodies just have to get serious about this problem.
As it stands, it’s all lip service, and when a black player such as Kanoute snaps on a white player such as Fabregas, the first answer that will come to too many lips will always be that something horrible must have been said, and that “something” is invariably racist, right? And it’s all because the game is, from a human rights perspective, broken. Until the people who run it are serious about fixing it, this crap will continue.