I hate being right sometimes. I don’t mind being second int he league, but I mind a lot being second in the league to That Other Team. I’m not too concerned, of course, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves and forget that every game is important from here on out. Take nothing for granted: not trips to San Mamés, not hosting Xerez. Nothing. Ever.
Yet sometimes you can see these things coming. Off a tough international break that put us down a few options in all three zones (offense, midfield, defense) we were more vulnerable than we have been for a while. And Athletic knew that and played us defensively, working for the counterattack. They got one and it’s hard to fault them for coming out to play the only way they thought they could win. They were there when we won the Super Copa and they saw what playing from behind against us can do to a team. So kudos to them.But let’s talk about what we need to do: put away chances. Alves did and that netted us a 0-1 lead in a tough stadium. That, though, was in the second half, after a first half that we dominated, possession-wise and chance-wise. How many of you are beginning to doubt the ability of Messi to score goals 1v1? I am. He hasn’t done it in like 8 weeks even though he’s had chances galore. What’s going on? He’s obviously still the same player he was last year, so why does he seem incapable of putting the ball away after doing all the hard work.
Others have told me that Xavi’s chance in front of goal was by no means a sitter, but, from what I saw, there was a ball lifted across the box to him that he should have done more with. It didn’t need a spectacular finish, it just need a side foot and one that I thought, when the ball was in midflight, Xavi would accomplish easily. Perhaps I take these things for granted, that our players can do the impossible and make it look easy, but it struck me as a wasted chance.
We were dominate in midfield throughout most of the match, even when we lost the ball we were back on it quickly. The passing wasn’t as crisp as we’ve seen it in the past, but it was effective for most of the match. We weren’t as incisive as we could have been, but we were solid and made it into their box on enough occasions that it really shouldn’t have been just that solitary goal on our side of the scoreboard. But it was and that’s how it goes sometimes.
The goal they scored was somewhat of a fluke, but it was a fluke allowed by some fairly lazy marking. The ball is lifted into the middle of the field where Chygrynskiy is playing. He gets an awkward touch on it and the ball flies directly to Toquero, who puts some serious emphasis on his shot, leaving Valdes with no chance. But Toquero was open because Alves, who was just getting back onto the field after getting stomped on by Toquero, hadn’t bothered to get back goalside of his man. Get goal side of your man. Pique really had no shot at covering for Alves because he was busy also covering for Chygrynskiy, who, as previously mentioned, wasn’t quite in position because he was covering a man further up field.
So Alves scored both goals, in a sense, though the second one was more flukey and the first was more Xavi slipping a beautiful ball through the Athletic defense and Alves making hay out of that situation. Chygrynskiy has to get a better head on that ball and Alves has to track back further and Valdes needs some super powers to stop that.
A note about Chygrynskiy: this was a solid game for him. He was there defensively, wasn’t beaten for pace (maybe because Llorente doesn’t have any?), and he had a couple of seriously wonderful passes from defense to offense. He sprang Pedro! once in a situation that, had there been an Ibrahimovic-style striker to cross to, probably would have created a fairly threatening opportunity. Instead Pedro! was left alone up top and had no one taller than 3’4″ to pass to. Chygrynskiy, though, was able to break through the layers of Athletic defenders and get the ball, to borrow an NFL phrase, to the second level very quickly. Phil and RayRay on GolTV mentioned that his passing was very Marquez-esque and I have to agree: it was spot on 99% of the time and there was one “What the F were you thinking?” moment when he passed between Maxwell and Keita and out of bounds. He’s coming into his own.
And that brings us to Maxwell. Ah, Maxwell. You are quite the enigma because you’re on the other side of the field from Alves, meaning you are both expected to attack as well as defend more than you normally would. Alves is, of course, off on some sort of a run 80% of the time (though notably not during the goal they scored), so Maxwell has to be the third defender, much as Abidal is. But because he’s Maxwell, we kind of expect him to add to the offensive dynamic more than we expect Abidal to. That seems odd and I think that we’ve got to pick where he’s going to play rather than expect him to be Alves plus Abidal. That’s just not fair. He did a fair job throughout the match and I don’t remember many attacks arriving from his side of the field.
Okay, this is all I’m going to say about Busi, who had a decent game most of the time: do not ever dive in your own box again. Seriously. Stop it. You got lucky that Llorente wasn’t one-on-one with Valdes after controlling that ball and your stupid flop. Be a man.
Xavi and Iniesta were fairly dynamic throughout thanks to Keita’s persistent running, but once Henry came on, we sort of seemed to lose some coherence through the middle. I can’t really put my finger on exactly why, but I think it was because there wasn’t enough time after Henry came in (83rd minute) to really get into any sort of a rhythm. Which is why I think that some sort of a change has to be made earlier in the match. Why do we not use our subs anymore? Does Guardiola not trust our bench ever? Sorry, but if Pedro! isn’t doing it out there or Messi is a bit injured, then they should be subbed out. If Iniesta would be better in midfield, put Henry out there with 20 minutes remaining and see what he can gin up. Why 7 minutes from time? Ridiculous.
I’m not going to rate all the players because I don’t rate the same way Kevin does, but I will say that this was a fairly good team performance; individual moments of anti-brilliance (dullness?) ended up scuttling our chances of getting three points. It would be too harsh, however, to get down on anyone in particular as no one was particularly horrible or brilliant. Basically, I’d give the whole team roughly a 6 and Valdes an incomplete because he didn’t have to do anything–which might suggest that the team actually dominated more than I’m giving them credit for. That means everyone should get a 7. But…that’s confusing my poor brain.
What I haven’t mentioned–the giant silverback in the room–is the fact that Messi was injured during the match. That is not good. Not good at all. But initial fears that he would necessarily be sidelines for the Inter match have proven false as his left thigh injury was downgraded to a Grade 1 tear and he might be able to start on Tuesday. Whether that’s a good idea or not is questionable, but in the short-term the Inter match is more important than the Clásico (in my world that’s an untrue statement, but we will still have the remaining 26 matches of the year to play in the league if we don’t win on Sunday while we may not have more than one match left in our CL life if we don’t win on Tuesday).
Obviously, much more tomorrow as I 1) write the preview for Inter and 2) gear up for el Clásico, which, if you’ve been reading me for long enough, you know will be one hell of lead up. I do not mess around with el Clásico.