I rather imagine that we are going to be repeating this question a lot this season:
What did we learn today?
To start with, we learned that yes, an opposing player can be MOTM. “Tono” Rodriguez, a 32-year-old keeper formerly of Racing Santander, was spectacular today. No. He was absurd, that kind of head-smacking good where you make yourself wonder what just happened, that forces players to change their performance expectations.
We hit shots against that dude that go in against 99.9% of keepers in the world, on any given day, but not against him. It wasn’t that the shots weren’t good, it was that he was better. Fabregas missed a wide-open net, we thought. But the slightest of touches pushed the ball wide. Granada’s keeper was astounding today, and is easily my MOTM.
That’s one thing.
We can not be great, yet have great players
The attack wasn’t good today for many reasons, not least of which was its static quality. Villa isn’t part of the offense the way that Pedro is. He stands at the shoulder of the defense, waiting for the killer ball. If he doesn’t get a pass his way, he isn’t part of the offense. Pedro runs, jumps, passes, receives, defends, is always around the ball in a way that doesn’t make it at all remarkable when …. well …. he finds himself around the ball. So the lack of movement from the forward line meant fewer real opportunities. Let’s look at the starting lineup for some answers: Valdes, Alves, Song, Mascherano, Adriano, Busquets, Thiago, Fabregas, Sanchez, Villa, Messi.
First question is “Who runs the offense?” In our possession-based style, there always has to be a home base, so to speak. That is Xavi, when he is in there. Today, he didn’t start, so Fabregas and Thiago were sharing those duties, even while performing them in a way that made offensive continuity impossible. Because both would pass and then run somewhere. In an ideal world, another player slides into the spot they have vacated, for that series of triangles.
In the real world, with Fabregas and Thiago running around, Busquets becomes that home base, but triangles don’t form because the players are too scattered, and we have difficulties keeping meaningful possession. But as usual, Vilanova got the subs right, bringing in Xavi, Pedro and Tello. Instantly, the offense got more dangerous because the attackers saw more of the ball and thus were more involved in the offense, which had a home base: Xavi.
Great players can elevate
The excellence of Tono meant that ordinary shots weren’t going to beat him. That Xavi goal, the one that broke the deadlock, was an extraordinary, extraordinary thing. He aimed at the crossbar, knowing that the only way to beat that keeper was going to be with a shot that there was no way in hell he was going to reach. So Xavi hit a howitzer that spanked off the underside of the crossbar (that’s how fine he cut it) and bounded into the net. The goal was an example of a great player readjusting his reality to compensate for another player having a great day. It was remarkable, when you think about it.
Further, these great players are ultimately what make it so difficult to play against us. I am going to blaspheme here, and say that top to bottom, talent-wise, That Other Spanish Team has a better team than we do. But we have more great players, and in a 90-minute match, in which one great play can make all the difference, such a thing can be huge. Granada played a perfect match for 85 minutes, then that one great player did that one great thing, and that was that.
Messi is human
Now we already knew this. He is flesh and blood, born of mortal beings. But the way so many folks act, you’d think he was divine. So when he showed a normal moment of petulance, born of frustration coupled with intense desire, it became something much more that it was. David Villa didn’t play a ball the exact way that Messi would have liked, and Messi let him have it. And a shouting match erupted on the pitch, with the match in the balance. And much was made of it.
At the time, on Twitter, I said “I don’t like bitchy Messi.” That is still true. Vilanova said that he also didn’t like it. Duh. Messi said those sorts of things go on all the time in practice as well as in matches, and it was no big deal. We’ll have to take his word for it in practices, but it is a rarity, from what I have seen, in matches. Be that as it may, it’s understandable for many reasons.
Last week, the Chicago Bears were getting pasted by their most-hated rivals, the Green Bay Packers and the quarterback, Jay Cutler, wasn’t having a good game. Nor was his offensive line. So he laid into his left tackle not only verbally, but amplified that commentary with a shove. There was consternation, media hoopla and other sorts of hand wringing. The involved players squashed that beef, publicly.
But one player came out and said, essentially, that Cutler shouldn’t have laid into a teammate when he was having as bad a game as everybody else. Keep that frustration to yourself. This is an interesting point, because Cutler’s reaction, just as Messi’s reaction, was crap.
Alves dropped a pass at Messi’s feet that should have been a goal. Blocked by the defense because of one touch too many. Alves didn’t scream at Messi. Villa made an exquisite run, Messi’s pass was too hard, and bent too much. Villa didn’t yell at Messi. Didn’t do anything except run back and reset the offense. It happens. Nobody’s perfect. So no yelling. Period.
Some might lay such things at the feet of Messi’s efforts seemingly being worth more than everyone else’s. After all, Guardiola went from “Run you bastards, RUN!” to “Run you bastards, except for you. Save your energy for important stuff.” Messi’s only playing half the pitch, usually. In wider shots you can see him, as the rest of the team is in our end if an opponent is attacking, standing around midfield like he’s waiting for the bus. Pressure, pressure, pressure. You have the ball, No. 10, now be brilliant. Every. Last. Time. Madness.
Messi has been scoring goals, but he hasn’t been glittering Messi, just as his club has been getting it done on the pitch, even while not sparkling in the way that everyone on the planet is expecting. And personal pique can make us angry, as much at ourselves as others, and human nature makes us lash out. I hate playing tennis doubles because if I win or lose a point, I want it to be because I played well or screwed up. Then I know who to get mad at.
And I wasn’t even that good a tennis player. Now imagine being Messi, who has Messi Moments of such otherworldly grace that even he can’t live up to his own expectations. Like that crazy thing that resulted in the Granada own goal today. That was impossible. Yet it happened. However do you deal with being that good?
If you have a high personal standard, it can make you impatient and yes, bitchy. At the wrong times. Messi and Villa made up quickly, and Villa waited for Messi in the tunnel after the match to share a hug with Messi. All’s good, even as somewhere, Wrongaldo allowed himself a little smile, as Mr. Humility became, for a few seconds, a Spoiled Superstar who wasn’t getting his way.
So we know that Messi is human because he is subject to emotional frailty. But he also didn’t have a very good overall match, losing something like a dozen balls and recovering none, and leaving a few excellent scoring opportunities begging. And that’s frustrating. Couple that with the immense pressure of a season in which this club HAS to win big silver, and it must be making him crazy. Should we be a bit worried about the pressure that is on Messi? Yes. None of us can imagine how it must be, but he is in effect the absolute everything for two football-crazed nations of supporters.
None of which excuses what he did
Strikers have that elegant, eloquent two-armed “put the ball right here” gesture, that invariably generates an acknowledgement from the teammate in question. Voila. Shouting means ears close, and the teammate shouts back, because he’s a man too, dammit. And there’s an edge, that can sometimes develop into a fissure. Vilanova will ensure that such a thing doesn’t happen, irrespective of what he says in public, which is basically “I don’t like it, but I understand it.” We should justly emphasize the first part of his comment.
The press is silly
So MARCA has turned the substitutions of Villa and Thiago into a repercussion of the Messi petulance. In fact, they were subbed because both were coming back from long injury spells and aren’t yet fully match fit, but they were also suffering from varying degrees of ineffectiveness, as mentioned above. We weren’t going to win this match by staying pat, and Vilanova knew that, even if the two players were daisy fresh and match fit. Different skill sets were required.
So the substitutions had nothing to do with Messi. Period. Anything you read to the contrary, you can feel free to giggle at, then dismiss.
We should be striving for Mascherano II, not Txigrinski II
Let’s try some numbers on for size: 3 matches, 31 balls won, none lost, 17 won today, including one that led to the winning goal. This has been Alex Song’s contribution to the cause. Not bad, right? Yes, he has made errors, including a ridiculous whiff on a ball that fell to Alves for the Spartak own goal. But today, he had as good a defensive match as anybody on that back line, with key interventions, physical play at the right times, snuffing out two attacks, playing out from the back with Barca quality and always making himself available for the return pass.
Yet, there are those who saw the same match that I watched and said “Dude isn’t good.”
I don’t begin to know how such things happen, even as I have seen them time and again. Henry wasn’t as bad as so many said he was. Neither were Txigrinski or Ibrahimovic. But once some cules decide they don’t like a player, that’s it. The player can stop attacks, contribute goals, and it won’t be good enough.
I have been a lifelong Chicago Bears fan. The Bears used to have a fullback, Matt Suhey, who I didn’t like. He would score a touchdown, and I would say “Anybody could have done that. He sucks.” But if he missed a block that let to a negative play, it was as if a plague had been unleashed upon the Earth and it justified every last bad thought that I had about him. Fact of the matter was that Suhey was an excellent blocking back for Walter Payton, a reliable third-down receiver and a Pro Bowl-quality player. Not to me, dammit. I will confess that it was silly. Very silly.
When Javier Mascherano came, he was a bad passer and card magnet, who was going to leave us a man down every time that we had the temerity to play with him on the pitch. Reality has proven to be something very different. But because he came from Liverpool and was a proven player, he got patience and the benefit of the doubt. Now he is an excellent center back, having adapted to what isn’t his natural or learned position.
Alex Song isn’t the player that anybody wanted, except for our coaching staff. “We need a real defender. That dude sucks. What the hell did we buy him for?” The cries for Javi Martinez, etc, etc, rose far and wide, amid mutterings about a crappy summer window. He took the pitch as a sub in the second leg of the SuperCopa, and owned. He would have provided the winning assist had Messi been able to finish a shot that he usually makes, and there wasn’t much that anyone had to say.
But with the error in the Spartak match, nothing good that came before mattered. Song sucks. And for me, such a worldview is wrong and unfair. People can think as they like, but if Puyol has the match that Song had today, the chatter would be about how awesome our Capita was.
I don’t know how it happens, even as I know that it happens, because I did it. But having watched the match today twice, and the Spartak match three times, Song isn’t anywhere near as bad as too many cules believe, not that this reality will stop them from believing that he is a disaster.
Tito Vilanova is an excellent coach
This will inspire a clamor of “Duh,” but recall the reaction when he was named. It was as though so many forgot that Vilanova was an essential part of the success that has graced this club since Pep Guardiola took over, and now that Guardiola left, the players would suddenly start to suck and the tactics and approaches that Vilanova had a part in shaping weren’t going to work any longer.
And yet, Vilanova’s club has shown amazing resilience in winning matches that should have been draws or losses, and doing so at times because the coach has made the exact right substitutions, or tactical alterations. Is the club playing as well this season? Nope. But recall that things weren’t all that hot last season, except in spurts. And this season, opponents have found new ways of attack that successfully neutralize tactics that have heretofore made us successful.
All of the long balls this season are no accident, as opponents know that even when our back line is whole, we don’t have pure defenders in there. If you can get directly at our back line, bypassing that pesky, ball-hawking midfield, you can do some damage. If you can get a defender one on one or in a pace situation, that’s even better. The Spartak attacker ran past Mascherano like he was in quicksand. The RM long balls in the SuperCopa were no accident. This season, we are being played more physically and much more in the air. Yet we are still winning matches, and Vilanova is a big part of that. Will that stop the “Oh, Lawd!” attendant to every different lineup that he offers? Nope. And that’s a pity, because even if he will never get it, he deserves the same support that Guardiola received. Here’s hoping that results will mean that Vilanova, too, will earn it.
Fabregas isn’t going to get a whole lot better
Cesc Fabregas’ last few matches have been, for the most part, very good. If a few shots go the right way, people are saying “He’s back!” rather than “Sigh, is he ever going to get good?” But in our system, we are pretty darned close to seeing a Fabregas that is as good as he’s going to get. He passes, helps in possession, defends, including tracking back that belies his sluggardly pace, and creates chaos on the offensive end by popping up in places where midfielders aren’t supposed to. Because in our system, that’s what he’s supposed to do.
At Arsenal, he ran the offense. He was The Man, making key passes, taking key shots. It was his team. And we kicked the crap out of Arsenal, let’s not forget. So even if we sign their best player (at that time), whatever did we expect? Xavi is our Fabregas. So is Iniesta, depending on which hat Fabregas would wear for Arsenal. Nor was he playing against packed midfields that were bound and determined to prevent tika-taka. He had space to be creative, and he used it to shine. It’s different in Barcelona, and Fabregas is adapting. But there is a standard, or more correctly a price tag-based standard being applied to him that, if it persists, he is never, ever going to meet.
It’s going to be a long season ….
Today, Granada came at us with a very intelligent match plan that almost worked. On defense, they didn’t bother with marking players, deciding instead that it’s easier to just put a leg or body in front of the ball. I can’t recall a match in which we have had more shots blocked at the defense, never mind a keeper having the match of his life. And long balls over the top are getting at our back line, directly. And people are going to piss and moan when we concede goals. But you know what? If we had a back line like Manchester City’s, big, strong traditional defenders who can deal with attacks, hoof the ball out and are physical, cules would piss and moan about THAT. Further, our play would suffer, because attackers defend and defenders attack. So Song is in the box, feeding Messi while Sanchez transforms into a right back and helps to break up an attack. We can’t have it both ways. Our best center back, Carles Puyol, is a converted forward. The ball skills and touch required to play in our back line means that ordinary defenders need not apply. This is a blessing much, much more than a curse. But at times this season, it will be a curse.
It isn’t 2009, and won’t be ever again
Guardiola’s first year featured an absurd team, the likes of which we will never, ever see again. Of the Top 10 attackers in the world, we had 3 of them: Eto’o, Henry and Messi. Any one of them could kill you and at times, they all did, with key goals, assists and passes that led to goals or assists. As our offense has evolved (in ways that I am not the biggest fan of, frankly), it has become more delicate, more capable of being derailed. In 2009, we could just bang a ball up the pitch to Eto’o who would take it, overpower somebody and bang a laser bean into the net. Or Iniesta would slide a ball up the pitch to a streaking Henry, who would outrun everybody and cut in toward goal. If you survived those two, there was Messi.
Those days are gone. Today, we have a highly pressurized Best Player Alive, an aging striker coming back from a broken leg, a Serie A bit of brilliance who is finding that he can’t play that same way with us, a player just finding his form but who will always have to rely on work rate rather than sheer excellence to make a difference, and a couple of recent Masia graduates. If Vilanova wins anything with this club, it will be a remarkable accomplishment, just as it was last season, when Guardiola came sooo close.
But it isn’t 2009 any longer. Cules need to stop applying that standard to subsequent clubs, and celebrate the hell out of what we have which, on its day, is still The Best Club in the World.
And yet, we’re perfect so far this season, 5-0-0
Our back line is a shambles, our attack is a mess, we’re too dependent upon one player and yet, we haven’t lost a match this season, losing the SuperCopa on the away goals rule. And even then, we weren’t beaten, we lost thanks to two defensive errors that were almost comical. Vilanova says that the team is still improving. Hell, it has to, right? It can’t keep pulling out victories from what in another time would be draws or defeats, right? That’s just absurd.
Which is pretty much what cules were saying about last season’s Liga winner, a team that didn’t play great all the time, but just kept on winning through key goals, well-timed substitutions and having the depth that meant play didn’t suffer to much when rotations had to occur.
Yes, we still have the Great Player problem that they don’t have. It’s easier to replace a Xabi Alonso than a Xavi, even as we acknowledge the quality of both players. They can pull Jughead for Ozil or Modric. If Iniesta comes off, nobody is as good. Without Ronaldo, a tag team of Benzema and Higuain ain’t too bad, right? If Messi is off for us, our only proven goal scorer in the kinds of situations necessary to create goals is a 30-year-old dude coming back from a broken leg.
All of which means that wins are going to be precious this season, not in their scarcity, but in the effort required to bring them off. They should be cherished and enjoyed, rather than expected. The scream that I uttered when Xavi scored that goal is still echoing in my TV room, because it was so glorious and no unexpected, like the legendary Iniestazo. It didn’t mean as much …. maybe. Because what it means right now is that this club has kept on winning, which is all that it has to do to pull off a remarkable accomplishment this season. So fasten those seat belts, folks. It’s going to be a hoot.