The most enduring image from this match for me came late, when they showed a rear view of Isaac Cuenca, whose No. 39 shirt was pristine. Then they showed Mallorca’s Alvaro Gimenez, and his No. 30 shirt was bedraggled, with the 0 just hanging on by a bit of adhesive, the rest of shirt all dirt and grass-stained, like dude had been dragged behind a truck.
He had. It’s license plate number was 10. No other letters, just the number 10. Familiar Messi watchers probably noted the “Godfather” stare on Messi’s pre-match face, and the fact that he was clean-shaven, then said “Uh, oh.” For whatever reason, after slumps in which he slouches around, unshaven and off-form, his comebacks are marked by a clean shave. Our fathers, back in the day, always believed that a shave and haircut were just the cure for whatever ails you. Maybe that’s all it took.
Or maybe it’s something more. Or nothing at all.
My first clue that Messi was different today was his head movement. When Messi is off, for whatever reason he just tunnel visions, almost as if his temporarily diminished capabilities necessitate full, unwavering concentration on the task at hand. Today, it was on a swivel, and everything was in play. Pass, run, delicate 1-2 …. all possibilities were available. When he chased a ball down, fouling a Mallorca player in an effort to get it back even though were were up 3-0 was another clue that Messi was back.
And that penalty. Boy, howdy, what a penalty. No delicate, “I’m smarter than you now watch” little thing. This was a “You will never touch this in a million years” howitzer into the far upper corner. It was a very clear message. “Yes, I always go right. Now let’s see you stop it.”
But, it should be noted that it was a PK off a thoroughly bogus penalty. Ridiculous. Ball to hand, all day and all night. Be that as it may, the PK is still worth noting for its absolute quality. And here’s another thing ….
People who say that Messi was being criticized, and everybody is stupid for criticizing him should realize that players, even great players, can be discussed and analyzed. And saying that the dude is playing like he needs about a week’s worth of sleep, some ice cream and a hug is not criticism. It’s an observation based in a moment, or in his case an extended sample of un Messi-like performances. Simple as that. Today, he was back to himself, until he decided to take the second half off, as did the rest of the team. And “himself” was brilliant, including runs that were also different.
Good Messi makes runs at defenses that are out of position, with defenders moving. He can take advantage of their instability, adding his own to terrorize. Bad Messi makes runs at stationary defenses that are saying “Come on, little man. Bring it.” Today’s match was an excellent example of these qualities, both good and bad. Is Messi back? He was never gone. And we will never know what happened this week. Was he allowed to rest during practices? Did he get Krkic’s supply of Rocket Pops? Some extra hugs? Who knows. Just love the result.
Mallorca jumped off the bridge. They weren’t pushed. Guardiola came out with Valdes, Alves, Mascherano, Abidal, Adriano, Busquets, Keita, Thiago, Messi, Cuenca, Villa, and Mallorca came out with fire in their eyes. The match was still young when they unleashed a break that saw Alves caught pinched in toward the middle (again!), and they were off. Mascherano was outdone for pace and a flawless pass …. and their attacker pushed the ball wide. Valdes was beaten. Dead to rights. I thought for sure it was going to be a goal, then a 90-minute assault on a parked bus, complete with defenders arm-in-arm, singing “None shall pass.” But he missed. They they got the second blow of that stupid, stupid penalty call. Then not long after that, the second goal came when Cuenca smoked his defender and threw a perfect ball to Adriano, who scuffed the crap out of the volley, but it fell directly to an in-position Messi. Tap-in for 2-0.
Yes, another sign that Messi was on this match, was his being in the right spot so often during that first half. That comes from work, total involvement and reading the match. But for poor Mallorca, those two goals made them all but give up. As Phil Schoen said, “How do you recover when Barcelona’s been given a gift?”
You don’t. And you proceed to make matters worse by not playing defense with any discipline, shape or organization, a perpetual fire drill. Like the Washington Generals, who were the designated patsies for the famed Harlem Globetrotters, the team that always won, Mallorca did everything possible to hasten its demise. So you don’t have the same level of talent, then you proceed to not show shape or discipline, give balls away and do everything to make our life easy. Yes, the team played very well today. But they were also allowed to play very well. Compare Mallorca’s back line with Sevilla’s unison up-and-back, side-to-side disciplined elegance. Huge, like the talent gap.
So that third goal, off the amazing pass from Alves, required a few things for perfection to occur: space for Alves? Check. Room for Messi to run into? Check. And voila, a third goal. From that moment on, Mallorca were playing for pride and not to get hammered. They failed in both intentions, but it won’t be that long of a trip home, because hey, it’s Barca. But don’t kid yourselves, that 91st-minute Messi slam was professionals saying “Hey, what the hell. This match is over. Stop trying to humiliate us.”
I won’t go anointing the kid the second coming and stuff like that, but this is the second match that he has been an absolute delight. And if we ever figure out that his crosses are coming, and they’re really good, folks like Villa and Keita will be nailing tap-ins left and right. He has pace, aggression and skill. This match was really cool, because you got to see Deulofeu come on, a player who is 3 years younger than Cuenca and looked it. The polish and seasoning differences were apparent, as apparent as the talent of both. I admit to not following the B team as closely as others, but I don’t recall hearing a peep about Cuenca. It was like when Assulin was supposed to be magic, then some dude named Pedro popped up.
His goal, the fourth of the day, was a wonder not because of anything other that what it was: a perfect pass from Adriano that was controlled by a player who used both feet to round the keeper, and calmly slot home. All done by a 20-year-old B-teamer, freshly stamped with a “Masia-approved” logo. I reckon that’s the answer to the question, “How is Cuenca in front of goal?”
The timing of his emergenge is also good, with Pedro and Afellay being injured. I await to see what he will do against a big club, but Guardiola is bringing him along exactly right, by letting him get confidence in the Liga. And let’s not forget that beautiful, beautifully taken goal. Like those movies where the nerdy kid, in the final part, blossoms into a cool kid, Cuenca has exploded into life. I haven’t grinned after a goal that much since Abidal scored against Bilbao. So here. Grin along with me.
How wide? T h i i i s w i i i d e.
If you look at our recent case of the clunks, a constant characteristic has been center-dependent play, as if we’re playing down a corridor. Mostly because we were. Pedro was crap, and Villa useless on the wing because he doesn’t really have any 1-v-1 moves. Afellay is usually the width-maker, but he’s recovering from injury as is Sanchez. Alves is usually the man on the right, while we use overlaps from the LB to get that width on the right. But with injuries, nobody has been playing where they’re supposed to, and things have been messy. Enter Cuenca and Adriano. We saw hints of the latter when he was used on the right against Sevilla, then switched to the left as we were forced to become a bit more defensive. Today, with Cuenca on the right, consistently getting the better of his marker, and a marauding Adriano on the left, the full width of the pitch returned to us. It was only bad luck and a dodgy touch or two that has kept Adriano off the scoreboard of late, but he will tally. But a big part of why today’s match seemed to easy is that Mallorca, even had they evinced defensive discipline and aggressiveness, still would have been stretched. We need the full width of the pitch to be truly effective.
Speaking of slumps
Lost in everyone worrying about Messi is the fact that Villa hasn’t scored in the Liga since September. It’s one more sign that the team isn’t yet firing on all cylinders, because though Villa will always screw the pooch on some goals, he usually has chance after chance to put one or more in. Not of late. Some of it seems to be the reading of the game that seems to go awry when a player is slumping. You can’t fault his effort and ambition, and he will start finishing, just as he did last season when he went through a couple of similar scoring droughts before eventually turning in about the same number of goals per season that he reliably does. Why isn’t Villa as worrisome as Messi, though? Because he obviously isn’t a talisman. Should Villa’s lack of scoring be as worrisome as Messi’s? You betcha. Messi needs other threats to be as threatening as he can be. That means Villa. It explains why he was trying to feed Villa every chance he got.
More good news
Alexis Sanchez will get the green light this week, and is expected to be available the Bilbao match next Sunday. Not a moment too soon. That is going to a tough one, just because it almost always is. They’re playing very well right now, and Iker Munain, their Messi, is on fire. This means that for the immense November/December stretch that will include deciding whether we come out of our Champions League group No. 1 or 2 and the first (away) Clasic, the club will be healthy except for Afellay, who is quite capably replaced by Cuenca. Oh, and both of these dudes played, and neither one of them got hurt again.
So we’re back, right?
Some are saying yes. I’m saying I don’t know, and won’t know until after the Bilbao and Milan matches, both away and both huge. And I don’t think that draw is acceptable in either one. We want to come out of the Champions League group as top, just for the more favorable draw, and I just don’t think that ANY dropped Liga points are a good thing. One point behind EE and if we grab a victory in their house, the psychological advantage gained is monstrous. P.S. Wouldn’t it rock if Levante could continue its wondrous run, putting pressure on both big clubs? Yep.
But for now, as the title notes, I’m not handing out any woof tickets. Not yet. When we put the wood to a good team in a convincing way, I will start to believe. For now, I’m cautiously optimistic, and thankful of the overall quality that allows us to dispatch willing victims such as Mallorca.
Team: 9. Excellent unison performance, with pressing, overlaps, movement and defense in depth. Hard to fault, even if almost everyone took the second half off. You can hardly blame them, since Mallorca kinda stopped playing for real as well.
Guardiola: 10. Right lineup, and who knew Cuenca was ready? He did. Weird. And whatever he did to/for/about Messi this week, hats off to that.
Valdes: 8. You forget what it’s like to be Valdes. Imagine sitting in your easy chair watching the match, then a flaming meteor crashes through the roof. “Whoa! What the ….” Valdes would have a fire extinguisher at the ready and, drink in one hand, not even getting up, snuff out the fire.
Alves: 7. Kind of a tale two Two Alveses, the dude who got jumped on defense and misplayed passes, then suddenly caught fire, becoming Storming Dani. His resurgence culminated in a one monster of a golazo that marked his debut in the scoring column this season.
Mascherano: 9. Guardiola said he’s been our best central defender this season. And how. Up and back, meeting (almost) every challenge. He was outdone for pace on Mallorca’s one great scoring chance, and that header that Valdes bailed him out on was kinda crazy. Beyond that, just brilliant. Then moved into midfield when Puyol/Pique came on.
Abidal: 9. Again, what can you say? His passing keeps improving, both short and long, and his pace is a security blanket for the back line. He’s improving rapidly, returning to Le Roi Abidal status in time for some very important matches.
Adriano: 9. For anybody still wondering why we bought him, look at today’s match. His pace is astonishing, and at full flower, he’s a left-sided Alves, particularly in tandem with Abidal at CB, who can cover for the times he gets caught too far forward.
Busquets: 7. Dazzling. Sometimes, it takes the absence of Xavi to make us understand what an intelligent player he is, on and off the ball. He’s another of those “right place” players. I do wish he would just take a foul, get up and keep playing, as he did in the 45th minute today, rather that first-half moment where he tried something silly, lost the ball then fell down, holding his foot.
Keita: 8. Marvelous today as that physical presence in the center of the pitch. Some suggest that Guardiola has some sort of strange allegiance to Keita, but no. Guardiola understands the value of a player who can stop an attack in our box, steal a pass or break up an attack in the midfield, blast a long shot or be in position for a header attempt at goal.
Thiago: 7. Everyone was thinking, “He’s going to be Xavi today, and it’s going to be awesome.” No, he was Thiago, a dynamo on both ends of the pitch, and all points in between. His defense has been a bonus for me, but it’s a wonder. He wants the ball. All the time. He’s also become significantly less casual with possession, as he matures before our eyes.
Messi: 9. Man of the Match by a long shot, for all of the reasons enumerated above.
Cuenca: 8. Improving rapidly, and we still don’t know how he will be against a big, dangerous opponent such as EE or Bilbao, but something tells me we will be finding out sooner rather than later. But again, see above for the reasons he delighted today.
Villa: 5. Like an analog radio, drifted in and out today, from involved to invisible. His work rate can’t be faulted, nor can his committment to the club. For a player who was The Man to come and give himself over to a system and way of play as he has, is to be admired. And he will come around. He always does.
Pique (for Abidal): incomplete. Nice to see Beanpole back, working his way into match shape again. And he didn’t get hurt.
Puyol (for Busquets): incomplete. Captain Caveman made a few of his classic interventions, flying into defensive situations with vigor unabated. Nice to see.
Deulofeu (for Villa): incomplete. The kid has talent. But he’s still a kid. Unlike Assulin, he has the body to go with that talent. When he nutmegged a defender and dashed for goal, you could see some of the bright promise, even as the kid part reared its head in a touch that was too hard. Definitely one for the future.
Shout-outs are cool!
Ray Ray gave me and the blog a shout-out today, in between humming the Himno while Phil Schoen was trying to read the lineups. People often say that Ray Ray is for one team or the other, but I think that he is just for the game in all of its beauty, played by whomever. The shout-out was cool, but if everyone here didn’t contribute to making this a brilliant space, nobody would be saying a thing. The family challenges the writers here to be better, think more, not screw stuff up and raise our games. Constantly. It it, as always, a pleasure.