Okay. My heart is now back to a normal rhythm, so let’s look at some general impressions of this match. This won’t be a review proper, because I’m streaming, rather than DVRing, but I do know this:
Great galloping Wilfred, how did we pull that one out? Like everyone else in the known Culeverse except for nia, I figured a draw was the best we could hope for, and the evidence was abundant:
–We were terrible
–Our key players were off song
–They were insane, working a game plan to perfection
–The ref was letting (as usual) the more aggressive side dictate play
We were, frankly, in trouble.
And then, somehow, this happened ….
And then this:
So where did this all come fron? Ladies and gents, I bring you my Man of the Match, Tito Vilanova. It’s only two matches into the Liga season, but it sparked a question that I raised on Twitter: Would Pep Guardiola have made those same substitutions?
My initial thought is as my more considered one is: No. But not for any negative reasons. I think that, in his heart, and the reason he isn’t coaching this club right now, is because Guardiola is a Cule. He feels, he understands, he is one of us. He rages against losses and poor play, he gesticulates, he weeps and parties when we win. He believes in his players as he thinks, “Just one minute more …. he has some magic in him. We just need one play …. ” That fire, that joy is why he eased his way into Cule hearts. Kindred spirits.
Vilanova is more cerebral. Players have said that our current coach was the brains of the operation, so to speak, and today was an excellent example, He understood exactly what the match needed, and did it. Xavi brought control, Pedro! brought chaos, Villa brought the threat and movement that gave Messi just enough space from an aggressive, ball-hawking Osasuna defense. We pulled this match out because of the subs.
In a way, a coach has to be heartless to sub a player. Guardiola is bad at it, Wenger is bad at it. And I would argue that you would be hard pressed to find a coach with greater affection for their charges, human beings who are, in reality, living, breathing chess pieces. “He isn’t getting it done. Out.” It’s harsh, but it has the team and its success at heart.
It seemed so obvious to everyone watching what needed to be done, and Vilanova did it. And we won. It seems so simple to say now, that we played 80 minutes of crap and 10 of good, but that’s how it was.
The real question is what happened?
Osasuna lost their minds
They deserved better from this match, and are to be applauded, sincerely, for an outstanding performance. They didn’t come out and play open, slitting their own throats. They came out determined to bleed if necessary for the colors. They contested every pass, made every 50/50 ball a point of severe contention, fouled, pushed, pulled, blocked, dove, did everything in their power to ensure that their club would come out the victor. How they didn’t have 3 or 4 goals is beyond me, their most confounding chance being the “Ohmygoddontgoin” miss that was the result of Busquets getting fancy, and getting tangled up in his feet instead. The result was, in effect, a running penalty kick that went juuuust a bit outside. Craziness.
This was the same team that handed our butts to us on this same ground last season, and they were doing it again until somehow that magical, slow roller trickled across the goal line. Shoulders seemed to slump, and they seemed to lose a step. Then Messi put the knife in, and that was that.
Collective failure is the most damaging
The list of players who were below par was as damaging as it was fascinating: Alves, Busquets, Iniesta, Messi, Alba, Puyol, Sanchez, Fabregas. It’s a wonder than anything at all happened, really. Iniesta misplaced balls, missed two great scoring opportunities and punted away a pass in midfield that resulted in an exceptionally dangerous Osasuna break. Sanchez held the ball too long, Fabregas struggled in that Xavi role, etc, etc. Was it the mid-week match? Partly. But I think it was also Osasuna. “Too much, too soon,” as the referee says in one of the crazy fight scenes in the movie “Slap Shot.” We’re ready for that kind of aggression in October, not August. And it showed.
So yes, much of why we were playing poorly is that we were forced to play poorly by a determined, amped-up opponent, but it doesn’t explain away everything. Let’s look at the starting lineup, of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Alba, Busquets, Fabregas, Iniesta, Messi, Sanchez, Tello. Are there answers to be found there?
Tika-taka works because there is always a home base, an apex of a triangle that the ball can always go to. An aggressive, pressing opponent coupled with a midfield “captain” who wasn’t quite sure how to roll in Fabregas, meant that suddenly, we didn’t have triangles. This meant long passes, and balls over the top that were easily headed away by Osasuna defenders. And they herded us into corridors, taking advantage of the lack of attacking width to funnel everything into a forest of feet. Tomorrow at work, assign someone to walk right behind you all the time, and give you a little kick on the Achilles from time to time, and see how productive you are. Defensively, midfield breakdowns halved the distance that an attacking opponent had to travel. But even without that, there was trotting instead of running, and the fateful cross had two of our players as spectators, rather than pressing defensive attackers, reducing the goal to a training pitch exercise. As with almost every goal, there was more than enough blame to go around.
The inevitable Xavi
Xavi entered the match and suddenly, the triangles had a shape. “Ping, ping, ping” went the ball as it always returned, like a yo-yo, to the creator. He moved from side to side, left and right, distributing, receiving, reminding one and all that the system we play is based on simple actions. You don’t take the ball, feint, dribble, stop, feint, dribble then pass it back. You take the pass, slide it to a man who is already thinking about where the ball is going to go next, then you move, reforming a triangle with two other players. Beautiful and logical.
The long knives are out for Fabregas, but it’s important to note that Fabregas has never been that kind of player. No player except for Xavi really is that kind of player. Fabregas ran the offense that he knew how to run, and our attack was the poorer for it. It wasn’t that he was invisible, it was that he wasn’t evident. Xavi is always evident. Fabregas would ping a ball to a player, and never get it back as he placed himself in a position that made it difficult to give it back. He will improve, and learn how to exist in this demanding system.
But Xavi is Xavi.
Great players do great things
The ultimate tyranny of FC Barcelona isn’t that it has great players, but that it has layers of great players. You play your heart out for most of the match, then in come Xavi, Pedro and Villa, 3/11ths of the Spain NT lineup. And there is Messi, laying in the long grass, so to speak, just waiting for a chance to kill you. Look at the semi-falling stab at the ball that he had to make to prod it over the goal line for that first goal, then the exuberant rocket that left the keeper helpless for the second. Two delightful goals that were also out of the ordinary goals, even as he has taught us that the extraordinary looks pretty ordinary sometimes.
Villa is somebody who you have to mark. You can let Tello get the ball then deal with him, because you know that he has to make a run. He isn’t going to kill you by curling a shot from some silly angle, or slide something over to a teammate, like Villa. That worry creates space, and that space is there to be exploited by great players.
And suddenly, it’s 2-1.
So what do we know?
Not much, really. Vilanova has a vision, but how his team will implement that vision remains to be seen. We applauded the direct, fast-moving, attacking style against Real Sociedad. Then a pair of SuperCopa ties meant that tomorrow always had to be taken into consideration, as we don’t really have two first-class starting XIs, so rest and thoughtful rotation was key. I don’t think we will really see that RSO team again until after the international break, when we don’t have a match every 2-3 days.
We know that Vilanova seems more willing to substitute than Guardiola, but this might be because he hasn’t really settled on his choice XI yet. Or it might well be that he won’t really have a choice XI, that it will be situational, Alba for some matches, Adriano for others. Time will tell.
Don’t be countin’ no chickens
Yes, we have a 5-point Liga lead over the other member of the Big Two. So what? Talk to me in May, preferably the end of May. There are many matches to be played, many points to be dropped by both clubs. Does it augur well for them that they only dropped 14 points all of last season, and have already dropped 5? No more than it did for us, the year of the Treble.
But today, we pulled one out of the fire. Whether this turns out to be the kind of fate-determining match that Great Teams Win, remains to be seen. For today, let’s just celebrate a win, as unlikely as it seemed for so long, which made its emergence seem all the more magical, tricks done by our wee sprites.
And for now, what a team, what a win, which I prefer to look at this way: If a supermodel walks up and starts spoon-feeding you chocolate ice cream, are you really going to question how it’s happening?
The length of time that Puyol will be lost to us due to his fractured cheekbone is yet to be determined. Some are already saying “See!? Shoulda brought a CB!” Pique picked an excellent time to be himself again. And if the rumored 6 weeks is true, the injury might have bought Fontas a reprieve until January.