The aka says it all: I hate matches like this, for so many reasons, but let’s start out with happy, Snoopy dance stuff: Improbably, we won. And we didn’t just win. We came back from 2-0 down against a gritty, resolute opponent in their house, an opponent who, in that same house, defeated our most bitter rival, an opponent who, for much of the match, came out and played us like an equal, showed no fear and almost got a result against us.
If this club pulls off what I still think will be an amazing feat, winning the Liga, it will be matches such as this one where we will look back in those season in review posts, and say “this was the one. Or that was the one. Or maybe, that was the one.”
This team isn’t just winning, it’s winning in a way that great teams do, not playing its best, with grit, determination and yes, a little bit of luck. We’ve said it before here, and it bears repeating: Last season, we lose this match.
There is a hunger in this group, an edge that wasn’t there last season, an advantage that finds its face in late goals of the sort that kill opponents and make shoulders slump. This team is a killer.
I said in this very space, that we were going to win this match. I didn’t know how, and I didn’t even doubt it after we went down 2-0, because all we had to was stop screwing up to right the ship. I say this even as I give Sevilla immense credit for bringing out our best, making us realize, as almost every opponent has this season, that the world isn’t afraid of us any longer. They no longer see the blaugrana shirt, and wonder how much they are going to lose by.
Instead, they stick out their chests and say “We have talent too, and we can beat this club.” In a way, this plays right into our hands, because they have talent, but we have more, even as a bunch of it is injured. But Sevilla was different. They not only chose to play us an an equal for much of the match, but in fact, they were equal. Whether you want to lay it at the feet of defensive errors, or an aggressive, physical, pressing style that forced us onto the back foot at key times, we played against an equal today. And we won. Better still, we won singing a redemption song for two players, one of whom is carrying a price tag around his neck like an albatross, while the other is almost finished with the looong road back from a serious injury.
To win this match, the team had to change, adapt and take a different approach on the fly. Football is unlike other team sports in that there are no time outs to discuss strategy. The coach yells directions, makes substitutions and relies on the players to correctly implement his wishes. Our substitutes didn’t just mean different players, but a different way of playing.
Many of you probably noticed, most acutely with the additions of Tello and Villa, that Messi moved back to the role of a true 10, an influential playmaker with the ability to go for goal. This kept him from doing his tilting at windmills that he was doing earlier in the match, running at gaggles of defenders in the hope that magic will happen. He was part of the collective magic that allowed great things to happen. The goals were scored by Fabregas and Villa, even as Messi had a hand in all of them.
But his moving back kept space for attackers to run into, because you always have to respect Messi, a player who can destroy you at any time. He gets the ball, and it is impossible for defenses to not shriek and run toward that danger. Yet if the other players do their jobs, Messi as decoy/playmaker is every bit as dangerous as Messi the goal scorer, because the same body and ball control that allow him to score improbable goals, also allows him to see a pass that nobody else sees, to get a teammate the ball when by all rights, there isn’t any logical way to get them the ball. And then, they have to finish the trick.
Today’s match made me happy because those teammates finished the trick. We have discussed, time and again, the need for a teammate to step the hell up, so that Messi doesn’t feel like he has to do everything, score every goal, beat every defender every time. I can’t begin to imagine the pressure relief at watching Fabregas score twice, Villa score the winner, all from passes that Messi made. Whew!
But to do that, we had to come back from two conceded goals of the silliest kind. In the first, Song goes for a 50/50 ball and just misses the interception. Sevilla start a break, and the cross pings off Mascherano’s heel to another Sevilla attacker, who takes advantage of the acres of space given him by Alves and smokes one past Valdes.
What I saw on Twitter was “Song,” and that’s ridiculous. After going for the interception, you can see him hustle back to be in position in the center of the back line. But if the ball doesn’t ping off Mascherano at the exact right angle, if Alves even bothers to mark his man, if Valdes does a little better (even though he isn’t that kind of a keeper), that isn’t a goal.
Their second goal came off an appalling giveaway from Buequets, in the most dangerous part of the pitch, and Sevilla was off to the races. Again, it was “Song.” Phil Schoen, doing match commentary, scoffed that Song’s effort against Negredo “was a midfielder’s tackle.” But you do have to wonder if Song wasn’t worried about being last man, taking out the attacker and getting sent off. If you watch the replay, he was last man. Negredo finishes beautifully, and it was 2-0.
High risk, high reward
The other thing that started was “shoulda bought a center back in the summer.” What CB can deal with a springboard attack from a giveaway deep in his half that springs a fast, tricky striker? Would Puyol have stopped that one? Almost certainly not, because we’ve seen similar situations, and they’ve resulted in goals. The person we have isn’t good enough, and the other CB is always greener. Our defense is fine, if the attack doesn’t screw up.
There is no other club in the world in which defense and offense go hand in hand like ours. If the offense fails, or doesn’t press hard enough, or loses possession in a risky spot, it will be exposed. That’s just how it works. The same fluency with the ball that allows our defenders to become attackers, will find them out of position at times. That’s the risk that comes with the reward.
Then there was also the hue and cry for Bartra, but I’m guessing that if the man who watches practices every day, who knows his players better than any of us thinks that Bartra isn’t ready, then it’s a pretty safe bet that he isn’t ready.
I HATE matches like this!
The narrative is already beginning: Sevilla was hard done by, Sevilla had to play against the referee and Barca, etc, etc, as once again in La Liga, an incompetent official becomes the story over what was in fact an extraordinary match, from both sides. Great football, high drama and two teams playing their hearts out is what this fixture should be remembered for. We didn’t get a gift, and here’s something else: an incompetent referee is thus for both sides, but perceptionally, the more aggressive side will be seen as the benefactor of officiating incompetence.
Possession was 69/31 in our favor, we had 14 shots on goal to their 8, and 7 corners to their 2. Fouls were 15-3 in their favor. A simple look at these numbers would tell you what we already know, which is that one team was set up to defend and counter mostly, while the other team was keeping the ball and attacking. Yes, these statistics hide the speed and danger of their counters and yes, the possession stats hide the dimwitted futility that we at times displayed.
But this whole “12th man” business is facile, and lazy. If the ref calls some ridiculous penalty late in the match, something that is undeserved and a team converts it, it’s hard to argue with the gift-like qualities of such a boon. But we had to score 3 goals of very high quality, the first of which required the same bit of luck as Sevila’s first tally, while the others were just pure excellence. Would Sevilla have defended those the same with 11 men? Would the goals even have happened? Good question. But given that the man sent off was a midfielder, it’s tough to imagine a scenario in which he would have been in the box, defending one of our attacks when the goal(s) was scored.
–In the first, Messi pings a pass to Pedro!, who doesn’t quite control it but it falls right to Fabregas, who blasts it past the keeper.
–In the second, Messi flips a deft flick to Fabregas, who finishes cool as you like, over the keeper.
–In the third, Messi spanks a ball to Villa, who shrugs off two defenders and spanks it high, for the winning goal.
Further, when Gary Medel got sent off, it was because he was stupid. Was Sevilla hard done by in that situation? Yes. It wasn’t a red card. Fabregas, weasel that he is, exaggerated the hell out of that slight contact from Medel. But that’s what he does. That’s what most players do, and Medel should have known better. Anybody who carps about the ref should note the off the ball stuff that wasn’t getting called, by a ref with a reputation for allowing fouls.
Another part of the narrative is the handball call on Thiago that many say should have been made. The ref was right there, and ajudged incidental contact in the same way he did when a Messi shot stuck a Sevilla defender in the arm. No call in either situation, justly so. Not that any of this will squash that silly business.
This crap is bad for my heart. I’m getting along in years, you know, and this whole Cardiac Barca business is killing me. I was sweating and my heart was racing, all from stress. I can’t take a whole season of this. For realz.
Thiago Alcantara, a substitute for Busquets, hurt his knee in the match. It’s ligaments. The good side is that they are saying he won’t be able to play El Clasic, good as in the “it could be a lot worse” file. You like them talking about matches, rather than months. That dude deserves a break, even if he wasn’t exactly dazzling today.
Tito Vilanova, like a boss
Vilanova doesn’t just have an eye for the right substitution, he also has the courage to make them. Alves was our worst defender today, and Vilanova pulled him, replacing him with Villa, another attacker. Yep. 3 at the back. Again. So keep the ball and minimize the risk. He yanked Busquets, who was having an excellent match, an brought on Thiago, again with attack in mind. Ditto for Sanchez, who came off in favor of Mr. Danger, Tello. And that risk was rewarded by a coach that, like his predecessor, doesn’t seen to be interested in draws. The season is young, but Vilanova’s substitution history and effectiveness is superior to Guardiola’s …. so far. Long way to go yet.
And now, to make sure I stay in practice ….
Team: 6. Still waiting for this group to play a whole match as a cohesive unit. There were times when you were ready to file a missing persons report for our offense, and there was way too much ineffectual possession. And stop bitching. You’re getting fouled. If he isn’t already calling it, he isn’t going to. There is also still a sense of players not quite knowing what to do with each other yet.
Vilanova: 9. Right lineup, right subs even if he couldn’t always work his influence from the sidelines.
Valdes: 5. As mentioned above, could have done better on that first goal, and didn’t have much to do beyond that.
Alves: 3. Poor defense except in spots, poor crossing and passing, just generally bad.
Song: 6. His positioning is still suspect, but he makes plays, interceptions and physical play. Cules may never accept him as a CB, but as Vilanova himself notes, he’s been doing very well in the position. He is physical, has a high work rate and hustles to make up for his errors.
Mascherano: 6. Some very good defensive plays, but not sure what he was thinking when he flicked a foot at that pass. Either clear the ball or let it go. If he doesn’t deflect that ball, the goal doesn’t happen. I like the fireman quality, but it sometimes goes awry.
Alba: 7. Our best defender today. Jesus Navas wasn’t the same unholy terror that he was against RM, and Alba was a bit part of that, even if it was like midget wrestling. Lots of interceptions and key instances of being in the way, thus affecting a Sevilla attack.
Busquets: 7. I thought he was having his usual wonderful match, right up until the giveaway. Even then he shrugged off the mistake and continued right on being excellent. His sense for where the ball is going to be is uncanny. I’d love to see more of him in the attack, but he has a role to play.
Xavi: 6. He’s had better matches, even if some of his difficulties can be laid at the feet of poor player movement. He missed a few runs, which is surprising. It’s harder for him without full-time help, and Fabregas wasn’t it.
Fabregas: 6. Playing better and better, with two goals, defense, effort and basically being all over the pitch. He still has those vanishing periods. Both of his goals were the well-taken, instinct kinds of finishes that you home our players learn to take more of. Less thinking, more shooting. Played to a higher rating, but lost a point because of the Medel business.
Messi: 4. Another substandard match, even as his influence in the three goals was key. At times today you could see him take a few steps after a Sevilla attacker, then just say to hell with it, deciding to stand around and wait for the ball to come back. The few times he did press, he would raise hell with Sevilla’s attack.
Sanchez: 4. When he comes off, he always looks frustrated. You can tell that he wants to do more, but he seems to be overthinking his play. His moves work, then he turns the wrong way with the ball. He’s in the clear, and opts for the pass instead of the shot. Still a work in progress, but people can be forgiven for beginning to question what the deal is.
Pedro!: 5. Solid match, with a great all-pitch work rate. A stifling defense such as Sevilla’s never does him any good as he thrives on space, and Sevilla just wasn’t leaving any. Disappeared for long stretches.
Tello (for Sanchez): 7. A constant danger, whose pace caused continual problems for the Sevilla players on that side of the pitch. More than a few balls passed into the box that deserved better attacking fates.
Thiago (for Busquets): 5. A few key plays, including the intercepted pass that led to the first goal, but not all that impressive.
Villa (for Alves): incomplete. Not enough time for a full rating, but he was aggressive, dynamic and unleashed. The winning goal that he scored was brilliant, shrugging off the defenders (second time this season) and scoring over the keeper.
So. We know what’s next. This team is perfect this season, and still isn’t playing all that particularly well, even if they’re getting the job done. If we beat them in our house, it’s (depending on what happens in their match tomorrow), potentially Liga-ending, even at this early date. I’ll be watching it with the Chicago Penya again, Penya Barcelonista Chicago, whose Facebook page is here. If you’re ever in Chicago, it’s a great group to hang out with.