So. Here we are, basking in the afterglow of what would be a perfect Saturday, were it not for the fact that we face 4-6 weeks without our beating heart, Carles Puyol. We defeated Getafe in their house, a place in which we slid to a 0-1 loss last season, and Sevilla pulled off a miracle against our most hated rival, leaving us with an 8-point lead in the standings after only 4 matches.
Never mind that the last stat should quell the zeal of anyone thinking the Liga is done and dusted. After all, we still have Hlebuary to get through. I’d rather chat a bit about why this team, this season is different, and why two Big Matches found the same result — 3 points — in ways that were different, yet the same.
Two different lineups
For the Valencia match, a Big One because that club had just come off taking points off Them, Vilanova came out with Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Adriano, Song, Xavi, Fabregas, Messi, Sanchez, Pedro. For the Getafe match, there was some big news that happened:
Vilanova had a chat with Messi before the match, to see how he felt after two difficult, physical South American World Cup qualifiers, and word came down that Messi would not be in the starting lineup today, which was Valdes, Montoya, Pique, Puyol, Adriano, Busquets, Xavi, Thiago, Pedro, Tello, Fabregas.
When the lineup for today was announced, people went crazy. A few of them Tweeted at me that Vilanova wasn’t all there for tinkering on the day of such a big match. Draws were predicted, and a few losses. I said that we were going to win. Why? Because of the Valencia match.
Watching the Valencia match via stream, I came away with the impression that things were much more fraught than they actually were, a feeling enhanced by the fact that one goal isn’t much of a margin. It’s a defensive lapse, a keeper error. Then I downloaded the match, watching it a couple of times just to be sure of what I was seeing, and the impression was very different: lockdown. That is, we played our possession game in a way that kept a dangerous opponent from becoming so. They got a couple of chances, including a late header that Valdes looked to have covered, but nothing particularly dire, once you get past the cule ability to see gloom in every set piece and throw in.
We took fouls, evinced effort and played out hearts out, defending by keeping the ball, minimizing the opportunities that an opponent has to get at us, thus making those rare moments carry significantly more import — much like us against Chelsea. And it paid off. More importantly, that Valencia match was an outing that, last season, might have gone differently.
Last season I sowed a bit of controversy in suggesting that the feeling of want wasn’t as acute as it had been in the past, a feeling that manifests itself in the slight dulling of the edge required to always, always be at or close to your best. Guardiola’s first year found that want in abundance, because nothing builds want in a championship-caliber athlete like failure. Each failure has caused this club to rebound:
— No silver at all in the last Rijkaard season
— Champions League failure after the Treble season
— Now, no major silver last season
Each time, the edge has been restored, reminding us of a very simple notion: If the best club in the world plays its game, it is unbeatable. We saw that at Valencia, but we saw it in a very different way at Getafe. Is this a reset season? The club touts the fact that it won 4 trophies last season, and it did: SuperCopa, UEFA SuperCup, World Club Championship and Copa del Reig. Anyone who thinks that all of those combined leave players satisfied in the same way that Champions League and/or Liga does, should reconsider. Particularly in considering how excruciatingly close things were in both competitions, with 6 goals meaning the difference between consolation prizes and another Year of the Six Cups. The off-season was spent sharpening edges.
That second Big Match
At Getafe, where we lost last season in a desultory 0-1 runout, Messi wasn’t starting and we were doomed. But something curious happened, or something curious only if you don’t know this club: It played its game, created chances and dominated Getafe at home, resulting in them having hardly any danger for us. At Getafe as at Valencia, Adriano scored the first goal, El Kabonngg! at Valencia and a simple finish off of some gorgeous interplay with Fabregas.
Getafe pressed more, and were more physical than Valencia. They defended differently, for the simple reason that without Messi in the starting XI, everybody became a danger. Look at how the blue shirts rush hither and yon, in effect chasing the ball rather than marking a player. In resting Messi, Vilanova freed up his club to play its game in a way that makes it infinitely dangerous. The match really could have been over by halftime, even though in effect, it was anyhow. Tello missed what should have been a sure scoring chance, Thiago was just off, hitting the crossbar. As it was, they only scored when two deflections resulted in a Mascherano own goal.
But look at how we chased the ball and marked their attackers, even more intensely than vs Valencia. Almost every time a Getafe player turned with the ball, he was faced with 2-3 pina coladas. They were reduced to long balls to a lone attacker, that were cleared and fed back into the mixer. When Messi was subbed in to face a tired Getafe, the first time he got the ball in midfield, their only option was to grab him, as they were too tired to chase him down.
And Vilanova went from idiot to genius in 90 minutes.
What the two matches had in common
Two different scorelines, two different perceptions, but what the wins over Valencia and Osasuna had in common, for me, is that they have gone a long way toward identifying this current group as Tito Vilanova’s team. The same sort of hardness that enables Vilanova to, when discussing players who won’t leave, say “This isn’t a social club,” finds its presence on the pitch, as well. Defense is more conservative, even as the two fullbacks swashbuckle as they did under Guardiola, just not to the same extent, as Vilanova recognizes that teams are attacking us differently.
There is also a, for lack of a better word, cynicism in the gruop that finds its voice in strategic fouling. Many a match under the Guardiola era found me screaming at the telly, “Foul him! Foul him!” Sometimes, when you know what’s about to happen, or when there’s danger developing, a well-timed foul that will stop the player yet not earn a card, is called for. Adriano did it a couple of times today. Mascherano also employs it. The rest of the group is learning it, and it is a wonderful thing when properly employed.
There is, shockingly, given the overall more conservative qualities of the way Vilanova’s side is playing so far, more movement across the pitch and players. Montoya was breaking up plays on the left side of the pitch, Adriano on the right, Mascherano everywhere (once Puyol went out). It seems to be a more disciplined-yet-looser variant of the total football that found its flower under Guardiola. And it’s pretty cool, certainly enhanced by the fact that Adriano and Montoya are compatible in their dual-sided capabilities.
The aggression with the ball is coming from players, rather than from the pass. Guardiola’s teams moved the ball like crazy. But as teams have begun to defend by clogging passing lanes, a player has to make a run with the ball to move defenders, which then enables space for the other attackers. It isn’t that we didn’t attack with the ball under Guardiola. We certainly did. It’s just becoming more evident under Vilanova, which probably explains why Tello got the deal that he got — his slashing, pacey style with the ball fits perfectly with what we’re seeing. Cuenca will be another one who should adapt quickly, and Thiago will probably find things more to his liking, as his skill set flourishes with the ball at his feet. Witness that shot that he clanged off the crossbar as but one example.
But all of this finds its roots in want. The team is hungry again, and playing like it. The addition of Messi was perfectly timed, to move the Getafe match from a close-run thing to a rout. Villa was icing on the cake. Both took advantage of an opponent that was tired. Pedro was running like crazy, Tello was running like crazy, Xavi was dancing, Thiago was running, Adriano was crashing around hither and yon. Everybody had to be respected, because nobody was king. Is Adriano cavorting around in the box if Messi is on the pitch? Maybe yes, probably not, because Messi is in the box, along with the 3-4 defenders that accompany him. Adriano found significantly more space that he and Fabregas reveled in, making the goal look easy. The midfield was clamping down, defenders were aggressively shutting down those attempted long balls.
And what have we learned?
Not much, really. We know that Vilanova isn’t Guardiola, but we knew that in actuality already. Yet many were watching him to see how he would diffrentiate himself from his predecessor. Guardiola had Messi start from the bench a few times, last against Real Sociedad last season. Would Guardiola have started Messi from the bench in a key match such as this? Good question. But Vilanova did, which is a point of distinction between the two.
Vilanova is the perfect man for the job right now Note the “right now” caveat. Guardiola left at the perfect time: there were flaws in the diamond. And yet, the club didn’t need someone to come in with an entirely new system — rather it needed a slight evolution of the present system, preferably by someone who already knows it intimately.
Enter Tito Vilanova.
Making him even more perfect is that because there wasn’t any major silver won last season, he has a bit more carte blanche than he would have, taking over after another Year of the Six Cups. He can try more things, stamp his authority on the club in a way that he couldn’t, following in the footsteps of a more-successful last season Guardiola. The players like and respect him, and learning curve is nonexistent, and he better than anyone knows what happened last season, and possible ways to fix it. Right man, right team, right time.
This centerback thing could be an issue
It’s looking like 4-6 weeks out for our Captain, which rules him out of El Clasic. The rest of the matches should be winnable without him, provided Pique does nothing silly, being as how he is on 3 yellows already. Should we have bought a CB in the summer transfer window? Let’s see what Bartra does, first. People thinking that Fontas will get a emergency runout are kidding themselves. He, like Dos Santos, is out of the team, sitting until January when they will find new homes.
Messi is a badass
But he’s even more of a badass with rest. Today he was staggering, seeming to be moving faster than anyone else could even think, when he turned to the attack. Contrast that with the tired, sluggish looking bloke sashaying around the pitch earlier this season. Yes, he was still scoring goals. But for me, he wasn’t looking as electric.
We had a good summer window One of our signings, this Villa dude, could work out pretty well.
In all seriouness, it is only now becoming apparently how much the shin was bothering Villa. The goal that he scored today was nowhere in evidence last season, as he held off a defender, took the pass perfectly and smoothly fired home past the keeper. Yes, it was one of those icing on the cake goals, but he continues to show signs of becoming the player we bought. That is immense.
Alex Song started against Valencia, and played an excellent match. Yes, there were people picking at his performance. Duh. That’s what Cules do. But I will say now as I said then, were Song from La Masia, there would be sonnets of praise being written in his honor. He absolutely looked to the manor born in that, as well as in his more forward position during the second leg of the SuperCopa.
Pedro! is back in form, which makes him once again, the Random Chaos Generator. He doesn’t have a real position, and can pop up anywhere with that howitzer foot of his. And he is completely unafraid to shoot when he sees the whites of the goal.
Jordi Alba, for me, is the least-sparking summer signing, even as he has done very well, and clearly opens up the left side of the pitch in new and exciting ways. That said, the competition has done Adriano good, as he is playing as well as he ever has, and the injury minimization work that he’s done in the off season also seems to have worked wonders.
Pique is back, playing the way that he did when people were talking about him being one of the best CBs in football. For my money, he isn’t quite at those otherworldly levels yet, but he’s been excellent this season, making the right plays (mostly), understanding his lack of pace and the imperatives that it places on his positioning, and controlling his attacks.
Too early to tell for Sanchez, but he will have to find his voice for the club to have the most effective shot at sparkling. He is, potentially, our second most dangerous player because of where he plays and how he can work with Messi when all is right in the world. You read it here first: 20 goals from Sanchez means we hoist Liga and Champions League trophies. That’s how important I think his performance is to the club’s attack, particularly with Messi on the pitch.
Rotation will be crucial
Today, Vilanova came out with a starting squad absent Iniesta, Sanchez, Alves, Alba (who I consider the starter) and Messi. Yank 5 of the established starters out of any team in the world against a dangerous opponent in their house, and see what happens. We bossed the match. As opponents play us with the same pressing, physical style that has been employed by everyone we have faced since the last quarter of last season, fresh legs will be crucial along with fresh minds. This means rotation, and lots of it. The effectiveness of that rotation starts with letting this team see that it can play the same way with different players. Hats off to Vilanova for that.
We don’t know how good this club is yet
The last time we had a coaching change, we had an inkling, because the talent at hand combined with the talent that arrived with him. This time around, the signings are less splashy, but might wind up being every bit as effective. This team is still reaching full fitness, still learning how everyone plays and plays together, as players evolve over time. Alba isn’t integrated, neither is Song. Both could prove crucial in the long campaign, as much as a fully fit Villa. The potential is immense, even as expectations are tempered. Now for reality.
Are Kxevin, et al stupid for predicting no big silver this season?
I hope so. But let’s see. An 8-point lead after only 4 matches doesn’t necessarily point to that same multiplier continuing throughout the rest of the season. If we beat Them at home, then take care of Sevilla, I don’t know that Cules would necessarily be misguided in puffing out their chests a little bit. But my match skills tell me that there are something like 418,335 points still on the table this season …. or something like that. And a lot could happen. October is a cruel month, that finds mid-week Champions League ties as part of the mix. So who knows?
I will say that this club has done better than I expected. I honestly didn’t expect to be perfect after our first four matches, and boy would I love to be wrong about major silver. Time will tell. For now, let’s bask in the glow of an 8-point lead, smile a little bit and hope that the predictions for our Captain aren’t as bad, once a full series of tests is done on Monday.