So you’re at this party in a gorgeous house, and the staff passing the drinks and snacks are supermodels. The music is perfect, and you’re having a great time. But there, on the corner of a rug that probably costs more than you make in a year, is a dog turd. It’s a little one, and nobody is really noticing it.
At least, they’re not actively acting as if they’re noticing it. And suddenly, you begin to notice other things …. that supermodel has nose hair, that other one has a sway back, you have a better music mix on your music player, if you really want the truth of it …. and so it goes.
And you’re cranky, because you should be having the time of your life but thanks to that little turd on the Bokhara, a little luster is gone.
That’s kinda how I feel about this 4-2 win, one that features a very deceptive score line. But not for some wayward shooting from distance and a few last-ditch defensive efforts, this one could easily have been a match that we were chasing, just as easily as it could have been a 6-1 hiding by us. Because we have crucial defensive vulnerabilities that were exposed by Rubin Kazan of all people. Valencia also got on them, as did Osasuna.
Simply put, we are vulnerable to fast counterattacks up the middle of the pitch. Yes, we have been since time immemorial, because of how our fullbacks play in such advanced positions. But this year it’s particularly acute because of how teams are playing Xavi, which affects our rock-solid midfield control.
So in many ways, when Guardiola rolled out with Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Txigrinski, Abidal, The Yaya, Keita, Busquets, Pedro!, Henry and Ibrahimovic, I was sore curious to see what would happen, with our 3-layer cake suddenly turned into a donut. Two things happened:
–Without midfield command and control, our playing defense with possession fell apart as Mallorca created dangerous chances that all had their ground zero in the center of the park.
–Without that midfield layer, we were reduced to starting attacks with long balls for Ibrahimovic and Henry, who would take the pass and make stuff happen.
In many ways, this last thing wasn’t a bad option, as Henry and Ibrahimovic are two of the best in the world at taking a pass with a defender in their back pocket, and holding the ball until the cavalry arrives, in the person of a hyperactive Pedro!. But it reduces our time of possession, not to mention meaningful possession, so the other club has more time on the ball, which makes us remember what Guardiola said, which is “We’re shit without the ball.”
And without the anticipatory Mighty Mites in the center of the pitch, attacks get to the heart of the defense very quickly, making those defenders do what they aren’t really all that good at, which is stopping a full-speed attack in a league filled with little, fast players with great ball skills. So a bad pass, as the one from Txigsuddenlynotsonasty, leads to a bust-out by Webo, which was just parried by an excellent Valdes.
But that pass led to a corner, where their first goal was scored. The excoriation for Abidal was present then, and lingers now. But if you watch the play in frame-by-frame, you see that he didn’t know what the hell to do, because he had responsibility it seemed, for two men, both coming in from the top of the box. So he was paralyzed a bit, and froze between two choices. Big error on his part, compounded by the Pique deflection of the initial corner.
And in my usual “it takes a village to concede,” what the hell was Henry doing standing around at the top of the box, instead of marking someone? Valdes was beating himself up over that goal because he moved too slowly with the flight of the ball, violating the keeper’s rule of always having the ball in front of you. This doesn’t even include the view by some (like me) that Puyol could have done a better job of marking his man and reducing the space at that post.
It takes a village, indeed. The goal all started with an errant pass that became the defense’s Kryptonite, a quick break by the attackers. And that’s life, right? Even more interestingly, the second goal happened in almost a similar way. It began with an awful clearance from Abidal. Mallorca came charging at the defense. Pique was nutmegged, and TxignotverynastyatallnowthatIthinkaboutit lunged at the ball, a cardinal sin for a defender, and something of a characteristic of his. Puyol, in full fireman mode, was running around just spraying shit with his hose. He ran over to spray that situation, leaving his man all alone in the box, who took the pass and slotted past a spectating Valdes.
So, should we be worried about this turd on the carpet? Good question. The answer comes later, because we have some joy to discuss.
Henry came back, and so did our width. He let it be known right away that this was to be the case as with the first play he had, he burst past a defender and slotted a pass into the box that was intercepted, but let Mallorca know that now, they had to play the entire width of the pitch. The positive effects of this were evident, as Pedro! had acres of space, as did Ibrahimovic, my Man of the Match. Yes, P! had the brace, but Ibra made everything happen with his movement, passing and compression of time.
Great players have the ability to compress time with talent. Ibrahimovic has it. So does Xavi, Messi and Henry (P! doesn’t by the by. No knock on him.) So when a long pass from Pique for Henry was misplayed by a Mallorca defender, falling to Ibrahimovic, they were thinking “Whew! Got him! He’s outside the box, and surrounded by four of us!”
But a play that seemed to take all the time in the world, he very calmly threw a fake by sliding the ball under his foot, then batted a little side-footed sort-of-backheel-pass to Pedro!, who curled it around the keeper. It was an absolutely sublime goal that almost killed Ray Ray, and put us ahead 1-0 with that crucial early goal.
But P! wasn’t done. Keita laid on an exquisite pass for P!, who volleyed it but was stopped by an extraordinary Aouate, the Mallorca keeper. Then Henry had a blast that was parried with a reflex save. Then Busquets had a blast before finally, P! knocked it home through a deflection off a defender because you know what? Aouate had that shot covered, too. And suddenly, it was 2-1.
What do both those goals have in common? Long passes from defenders, Pique in the first instance, Keita in the second.
The third goal came from a set piece started by P!, who laced a ball into the box. A lovely setup header by Busquets found Henry at the far post, who knocked it in, and took his frustration out on the post, to the amusement of Ibrahimovic.
And make no mistake, despite my rumblings about defensive complexity, we had some beautiful play in this match, one that really shows how good the side is. We built a 3-1 lead on the 5th-placed side in the Liga, without Messi, Xavi, Iniesta or Alves. And it should have been more, but P! fluffed an amazing cross from Henry, almost as if he didn’t believe that the ball had gotten there. Which is what I mean about him not having that same time-compressing greatness. He was surprised, and tried to control it instead of just one-timing it, which would have beaten the keeper cold, and given him a first-half hat trick. Somehow, some way, we need more P!. There is a directness to his game when he’s on, that is difficult for defenses to deal with.
Our fourth and final goal was a thing of beauty. Xavi laid out an inch-perfect ball for Messi, who was able to get off to the races without even having to control the pass. He bombed toward the box before passing (again, perfectly) to Ibrahimovic, who was just fouled by a defender. Messi buried the penalty, and there you go.
This wasn’t a 6-1 mauling, but it was a good match, and one that showed us all just how good this side is. We didn’t play great, though we were very good in spurts, and still weren’t really that stressed by a top-5 Liga club. Yes, with better shooting by them it could have been very different. But it wasn’t, so be consoled by that. More importantly, there are signs of life from our beloved lads. Messi showed them, as did Xavi and Iniesta. And Henry was on fire, though inexplicably starved of possesson, as we continue to be a right-side-oriented offense. Have to work on that.
Team: 6. Much improved display, but that defense needs some work in communication. Several times, players got in each other’s way. There was also intelligence to the play, though I would fault everyone for not getting the ball to Henry and Ibrahimovic more. Every time we did, something good happened.
Guardiola: 7. Smart lineup, his rotation of Txigrinski and Pique was spot on, and he knew when to make the substitutions that would enable us to tiki-taka the match away. Keep rotating those players, dude. They need the rest.
Valdes: 6. He should have followed the flight of the ball better on that first goal. He needed to look no farther than the other end of the pitch for an example on how to do it. Still, some excellent play, including that killer deflection off of what should have been a goal by Webo.
Puyol: 7. Knows when to do the Alves impersonation, and when to play defense. Between giving up his body for the side, and snuffing out attacks (that flying Ninja header was crazy!), he is the raw, beating heart of this club.
Pique: 5. Between wayward passes and funky positioning, his little bout of The Funk continues. Sophomore slump? Maybe, but not as bad as Busquets.
Txigrinski: 5. For almost every good play, he had a bad one. Love the long passing and the position defense. Hate his inability to stop an attacker running directly at him. The Liga puts different pressures on a defender, and he has to work on that aspect of his game.
Abidal: 6. Uncharacteristically average match from him, with some poor positioning and wayward balls. He really played into things, however.
The Yaya: 8. Ah, The Rock. Command and control were his hallmarks today, though I thought that he could have been more assertive in patrolling the pitch and moving the attack forward.
Keita: 7. Excellent all-pitch match that had a defensive focus. He was the guy who stopped a lot of breaks by just getting in the way, or playing stalwart defense.
Busquets: 6. Man, was he stanky to start, but he settled down. Let’s hope this is the start of something consistently good, because we need him. Bad.
Pedro!: 8. Great match. You can almost see him improving from match to match, as he learns to play with truly extraordinary players. Still gets a little wild at times, and doesn’t know what to do with the ball at other times. But I love what he brings to the side.
Henry: 7. You might not like him, but you can’t deny his effectiveness in passing, creating chances for himself and others, and providing much-needed width. We have to pass him the ball more.
Ibrahimovic: 8. Staggering match from BANGS. After his assist, the ever-annoying Phil Schoen said “That is a play that Sammy Eto’o would not have made.” Why single out Eto’o? That’s a play that few footballers alive would have even had the wherewithal to think about, much less make. Ibrahimovic keeps attacks alive, holds the ball to wait for runners (that don’t always come) and functions as an advanced midfielder. He even clears balls on the defensive end.
Messi (for Pedro!): 7. He’s playing his way out of the funk, as he lit up the pitch today. I can’t wait for the day when he fully comprehends the power he has, and understands that sometimes he can do so much more damage by passing more often.
Xavi (for Busquets): 10. He was spectacular, and almost single-handedly got the match under control. Everybody got better when he entered and suddenly, we had full midfield lockdown. From then on, Mallorca hardly ever saw the ball. Amazing player.
Iniesta (for Henry): 7: He returned to his rightful role in the midfield, and was part of the magic that saw us play defense with possession.
Now, back to that turd on the carpet. No, we shouldn’t be that worried about it because with Henry healthy again, Iniesta can return to the midfield, where he and Xavi will exert the kind of control that keeps our defense from becoming vulnerable. We saw it in the second half of the Mallorca match. Yes, we are going to leak a goal or two, because we have tall, strong central defenders who aren’t that fleet of foot. But that height will also prevent a goal or two, as a pass that would usually get over the top is intercepted by a towering noggin.
P.S. Yes, this is late. My apologies. Life intrudes sometimes, and I had a really hard time with this review. But on my fourth(!!!!) match viewing, it all came to me. And here’s some goodness to send you all home smiling.