Yes, I want it huge. I want everyone to be able to return to this post, look at this picture and remember how it feels when we don’t play as a team, when we let a match that we should have won going away, slip away. Yes, it was a draw, but for me it feels like a loss. It certainly was celebrated like a win down in Osasuna, which is the story of the Barca life. A team will kill themselves just to draw with us, and we aren’t matching fire with fire.
I want to start with the goal, because it so completely sums up this match for us. After an Abidal throw in, a series of headers pinged around until one came Busquets’ way. He got a little shove from an Osasuna player, but not enough to send him to his knees as if he’d been poleaxed. But that’s Busquets. All of our players thought the foul call was going to come, so they went flat-footed. But it didn’t.
So when Osasuna played the ball out wide, Xavi wasn’t in his usual position to occupy that passing lane, and he went trotting, instead of running, after the ball. If he runs, he maybe intercepts it. Messi also had an excellent shot at disrupting the play, had he run for the ball, instead of trotting. And when it went out to Marquez’ man, the one shot that Marquez had to control the ball he blew, whereupon he tried some silly little back of the heel thing to at least knock the ball off line, to no avail. The attacker knew what he had to do, and smoked the cross in. It had to be hard, because Puyol was closing fast, and he just missed knocking it out. As it went into the box, every available Osasuna option was covered: Keita had straggler duty, Abidal had the other attacker, and that was pretty much it. We were shielding the goal with 5 men.
At this point, it gets really silly, because every defender knows that a hard-hit ball does weird stuff on a deflection. Pique was leaning up the pitch, standing splay-legged as the cross was hit. It was struck with such force that really, his only thought should have been “No ball hit that hard is going to bend, so I’ll just let Valdes punch it away.” Valdes should have done the angle math and said “Call Pique off, punch it away, and we celebrate a grinder win. Excellent.”
Instead, he didn’t say anything, and Pique forgot what every defender knows. So he stuck a leg out, the ball deflected off his foot and into Valdes’ head, for an own goal. Bad luck? Sure, I’ll buy that. If the ball hits Valdes squarely in the head, it bounds back out into play. If Valdes has his hands up, it hits them squarely, and he makes a reflex save.
But none of that happened, and the result was a draw, that saw us cede two points to the Evil Empire. Now, everybody is acting like it’s the end of the world, but we’ve been here before, right? With a one-point lead. And the next match weekend, they drew while we put the smack down. This is going to be a close race. Last year, we were able to run off and hide, letting everyone chase us. But last year was an extraordinary situation, and most importantly, it wasn’t a World Cup year.
Never forget that Cup years suck the life out of teams and players. Messi has been off all season, Henry has been injured, everyone has been traveling back and forth. Combine that with a short off-season, extended vacations and integrating new faces into the side and no, this isn’t going to be the all-conquering juggernaut of last season.
So get used to it.
What will follow now is a lot of stuff that folks might not like, so strap in.
We drew this match because our two most important players, Messi and Xavi, let down the side by being mostly ordinary. Can we win when they are off song? Absolutely, but everyone else has to step it up a notch, including the coaching staff. But by rolling out a lineup of Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Txigrinski, Abidal, Busquets, Keita, Xavi, Messi, Iniesta, Ibrahimovic, it left me thinking that we were going to have problems. Why? Because with the way that Osasuna has always pressed the ball, cutting off passing angles and not giving anyone time to dwell on the ball, width was what would be needed to break them down, width that comes from a legitimate scoring threat on the wing.
Usually, that threat is Thierry Henry, who was healthy for this match, but wasn’t used. Ostensibly, it was Iniesta, but he was running all over the pitch, popping up on the right, and the left, and the center. Yes, he played well, but sometimes you don’t just need someone to play well, you need them to be where they’re supposed to be, so that when somebody pops a ball out to the left he’s there, ready to break down the defense and provide a killer ball, or weasel his way into the box and just raise hell. But without that real width, when a team gets in our faces, as Osasuna did this go-round, and Valencia did as well, there isn’t an option to shift play and break them down.
Instead, we were left with a left-side attack of Keita, who has pace but isn’t going to break anybody down off the dribble. He also needs the pass to score. Or Abidal, who can cross, but he isn’t going to score a goal for you. So Osasuna’s defensive pressure was helped by our formation, which shaded from center to right. And the single time that we got a legitimate scoring threat on the left side, as Ibrahimovic drifted out there to take a pass, their entire defense had to shift and the result was a goal, knocked in by Keita, who was bombing the box as he should be. This was an excellent goal that came in our typical way, through movement and brilliant passing.
As Messi took the pass, Osasuna’s already overloaded defense had three defenders run at Messi, who calmly slotted a pass to Puyol. But because you still had Ibrahimovic running around free, there was some loose marking. Puyol made the cross, but I’m not sure he was making it for Keita, as Xavi was also making a run at the front of the goal, even as he was tightly marked by a defender. Frankly, a better cross probably wouldn’t have resulted in a goal. But Puyol’s ball rolled through to Keita, who had time to stop, control, and bury it. At that point it was 1-0 against a side that really never looked like scoring. No, they weren’t playing for a draw, but they rarely committed fully to the attack, because first in their minds was to keep us from scoring, as it should have been.
Another thing that helped in the second half was moving Busquets to the back line, so that we had a back line of Pique, Busquets and Txigrinski, which freed up Abidal and Puyol to give us legitimate attacking width, even though they weren’t true attackers. Those two extra bodies in the midfield got us back the control of the match that was so lacking in that first half. So when we scored, it should have just been a matter of closing it out. And it would have been, except for bad luck, laziness and poor play. Ibrahimovic is a luxury, one that results in, when the attack is lazy, just banging the ball up the pitch to him and seeing what he can do. This happened time and again today, which doesn’t take advantage of his movement or passing acuity.
First thing that people won’t like: Last year, we had urgency. We moved as if we had somewhere to go. This year, for the most part, we’re moving like somebody who’s already arrived. No, everybody doesn’t have to run around in fire drill mode like Captain Caveman, but show some urgency at crucial times. That was the last play of the match. For players to be trotting was, to me, inexcusable. Pressure the ball, shut down passing angles, run to a spot. It didn’t happen, so we drew.
Second thing that people aren’t going to like: Txigrinski didn’t have as bad of a match as everyone, including me, believed. He had two shit plays, the lazy lunge at the attacker to cede the free kick, and the hatchet job that earned him the yellow card. But even this latter one had me thinking “Put Goliath out there against a winger with the ball, and what do you expect. Hulk smash!”
But he had some very good defensive plays and some even better passes. Sometimes, a couple of moments can come to define a player’s match. It shouldn’t in this case. Guardiola pulled him, I think, because he just wasn’t working as that lateral defender type, which makes sense.
Last thing that folks aren’t going to like (I promise …. but I might be a liar): We have to foul the piss out of people. If Marquez realized that he was beaten outside the box and just slid through the attacker, he maybe gets a red, maybe they get a free kick, but we can set the defense and control that, which would have been the last play of the match. A scrambling defense that now has to scramble even more because a defender got smoked, has a much greater chance of something bad happening. The professional foul can be a valuable tool.
I know, “We don’t play like that.” Well we should. We take enough of ’em where we can afford to give one or two back, and not have our petticoats get too dirty.
Okay, one more thing …. : We’re trying to half-ass our way through matches, because we know that the side is better this season. There’s not a chip on the shoulder. Last season, we wanted every ball, and fought for it. This meant absolute midfield control, even when teams pressed us. This year, we aren’t fighting. And we’d better start.
Team: 4. Not enough ball pressure, movement or unselfish play that is necessary to grab a match by the throat and kill it. There’s no urgency.
Guardiola: 3. I don’t like that he seemed willing to concede points here in thinking about the Champions League in midweek. I don’t like that he put on a damaged player (Marquez), who is still fresh off being awful against Rubin Kazan. And I don’t know why he still doesn’t realize that Iniesta is not a viable option for the wing. I’d rather have seen Pedro!.
Valdes: 8. Dude got screwed, yo. He played about as good a match as he’s been playing this season, fast off his line, doing all the right things until a bit of bad luck at the end.
Puyol: 8. Excellent match. He ain’t Dani Alves, but he’s still better than most right backs in the league. He also showed great range, and pace. Not to mention that assist to Keita.
Pique: 7. Very strong match, and he looked good moving forward on the attack. Major screwup on the own goal. What was also interesting is that he stuck a leg out during a similar situation, earlier in the match, and the ball popped up crazily. You’d think he’d have learned.
Txigrinski: 5. Solid. Committed two stupid fouls, one of which could have been dangerous. But that play in the box? That same attacker schooled Pique and Puyol in pretty much the same way. That said, I would never, ever play him on the wing ever again. Ever.
Abidal: 9. I was trying to find something that he did wrong, and I couldn’t. Play after play, save after save, even charging forward on the attack, he had an extraordinary match. The only thing keeping him from a 10 is the one time he guessed a bit wrong, and his attacker got the cross in.
Busquets: 4. Almost every pass that he made was negative, either back or lateral. He can’t defend without fouling, and he flails too much when he occupies such a crucial spot in front of the defense. And stay on your damned feet and fight for the ball. If you do that, we have a win today. “He got a lower rating than Txigrinski? Are you crazy?” Possibly.
Keita: 7. Excellent match from Keiiitee! Strong in the midfield, did what was required on the wing, and made run after run from box to box before being rewarded with the cross, and a goal. Man crush, anyone?
Xavi: 6. Usually, he has the answers for the kind of pressure that we were facing today. But he was off song. Granted, that’s still a pretty good song by his standards, but if he’s better, we have an easier time of it.
Iniesta: 6. A lot of nice passes, but not a lot of real effect today. And I still think he needs to raise his pace of play. Last year he was faster, mentally and with the ball. I know, I know …. I’m stupid, and hate Iniesta, blah, blah, blah.
Messi: 6. Drifted in and out of the match today. If most players have the match that he had, they’re getting a 9 or 10. But by his standards, he was off. And didn’t seem all that bothered by it. Not sure what his deal is, but we need him to be The Man. And I don’t mean tomorrow.
Ibrahimovic: 6. Learn to hold your run. Simple as that. I know it’s hard, because Messi passes sooner than Xavi passes sooner than Iniesta, etc. Still …. you’re the best in the world. Make it happen, because you can’t be offside that much. Really. And when we’re flowing, you’re that striker who can also play midfield. When you park it in the box, or wait at the shoulder of the defense for the pass, you limit our options. So stop it.
Marquez (for Txigrinski): 2. Now in his defense, he had an excellent long pass to Ibrahimovic, along with a fine sliding tackle. But he didn’t have enough time on the pitch to cancel out his more egregious error. As I said, I start from zero when I do ratings, and players work their way up with goodness.
Pedro! (for Iniesta): incomplete. He was, in effect, a time-wasting, momentum-breaking sub. Osasuna was getting a little bit of life, and there’s nothing like a stoppage for a sub to derail that. And it worked, too. Or it would have, if not for …. you know.
So. We have a one-point lead at the top of the table, going into a Wednesday match in the shivering cold against Rubin Kazan, who are going to be looking to make it two of two against us. What will happen?
I still believe that this squad is better than last year’s, and is even more capable of winning the triplete than last year’s. But the luck hasn’t been there, so we’ve had injuries to muscles that are a little more tired. This club needs a real break, one that isn’t coming any time soon. So brace yourselves, we might not even be at the top of the table at the break. But after that rest, when all the qualifiers, and friendlies, and other crap is all done and the boys can focus on the job(s) at hand, I expect our juggernaut to return, and destroy all.
Yes, I do.
P.S. What the hell was Mark Hughes doing at the match?
P.P.S The Yaya is up for a contract sweetening. Give him whatever he wants.