To start. No, this isn’t a review. I have watched the match only once, and have a spare half-hour before bedtime for my sprinter legs. So call this a glorified comment, in post form.
Rayo Vallecano didn’t deserve that manita, really. They played their little hearts out at that closet-sized field of theirs, in front of fans who screamed, drummed and sung from the first minute to the last, never letting their players forget what real support is like. Full credit, and hats off were it not so ccccooold here up Chicago way.
But man, they took one in a match that was closer than the scoreline indicated, yet not really close at all. Statistics can be deceiving. You might think, from all of their shots and corners, that they were actually IN this thing even as they never really had a chance at it.
Things aren’t the same, so get used to it
Tika taka and endless possession to control a match? Those days are gone, replaced by a different kind of match control, in which brilliant players crawl through a sliver that someone leaves, and put the knife in. In many ways it’s a more cruel dispatching, that leaves commentators doing nonsense like comparing the Rayo and Depor matches, commentators who don’t really pay all that much attention because if they did, they’d realize that we hurt ourselves more than Depor did. Once the own goals, lucky bounces and silly errors were cleaned up, that was that.
This Vilanova side is direct, aggressive and out to take no prisoners. Last season, all of the pretty possession was so logical and inexorable that the reason defenses and keepers had career matches against us, was that at the end of the the runs, passes and curlicues, there was pretty much only one place for the ball to go. And they stood there and waited.
This season, swashbuckling runs are leading to open spaces, and dynamic goals of the type not seen since Pep Guardiola’s first year. And opponents will have to readjust their expectation for this side, because the Rayo match was typical of this season: Brave opponent comes out, plays their asses off, presses, runs, digs deep then deeper, gets just a smidgen tired, and that’s that. Why? Yes, we are tired as well, but great players have a bigger window. A fatigued good player becomes an average one. A fatigued great player becomes a very good one. And that’s the difference.
But it’s more than that. It’s the constant vigilance required against an opponent. Look at that first goal, which happened in about a nanosecond, and completely against the run of play. Possession flips, Fabregas slides a honey of a pass to Villa who shot out of the gate like a rocket, and that’s that. 0-1 in a way that had Rayo thinking “Wait …. WUT?!” Ka-boom.
This is a new Barca, one that will be more fraught, less (and more) assured and more (and less) fun to watch. Did Rayo have chances to score? Not really. The best one was off a low, hard blast that forced a brilliant save and hold from Valdes, the guy who must be replaced at the first opportunity. You know, him.
When Cesc Fabregas returned “home,” I was carping about it. Many of us were. “We don’t need him,” “He’s overpriced,” “He can’t even get a game with Spain, where the same players are with Barca,” etc, etc. Fabregas just worked, came in leaner and more assured this season, and is making liars out of his doubters by being our most consistently good performer this season to date. He’s tracking back, pressing in midfield and making the kinds of passes that he has always been capable of making. But he seems to have finally adjusted to the speed of the Spanish game (yes, I said that, despite the institutional arrogance that suggests the Prem is so fast) but more importantly, to the brilliance of his teammates. This manifests itself by being in the right place at the right time. “Messi is going to be there, so I will be here.” And bang. There’s the ball. Fabregas was extraordinary today and most encouragingly, he seems to be improving, rather than regressing.
But he had a bright start to last season as well, so what say we wait a bit before anointing his feet.
What back line problems?
Today, the defense did what it was supposed to do: Function as the last line of defense in front of its keeper. Did it have moments? Yep. Did it have moments that might have been capitalized on by a better team? Yep. But we were playing Rayo Vallecano. “If” is a game that people play when they often don’t want to admit that things are going well, so it becomes “If the defense plays like that against ….” I will suggest that today’s back line was a calculated gamble against a side that Vilanova knew couldn’t really kill us. So it becomes Montoya/Busquets/Adriano/Alba, a group that did just fine, because everyone else did their jobs. Funny how that works. And yes, that job includes the offense. If they score goals, it becomes a lot easier to defend as an opponent presses harder, and as a consequence makes more errors with the ball.
Jordi Alba was brilliant today. He’s the buy of the summer, by some stretch, since we didn’t really buy all that much, but also because he’s a diminutive wonder. He is a left-sided Alves, but in a very different way. He is all the offense and more, but a better defender and so, so fast. Our left side is open for business.
Alex Song had, for my money, his worst match in the colors. It’s funny how when he was actually playing rather well, people were getting on him for playing poorly. This match, however, was a seriously mixed bag. You could see some of the things that Arsenal supporters warned about: dwelling on the ball too long, slack passes in dangerous areas of the pitch, an annoying casualness that manifests itself in being a beat slow. And yet, he also made some excellent plays and passes. Still a work in progress.
David Villa shows what an early goal can do for a striker. He was all over the pitch today. Very good match, in yet another start. He is up right as others are down. That is one characteristic of a championship side, kids.
Alexis Sanchez is definitely down. Work rate saves his butt, but he’s plain in a funk right now, playing the wrong ball more often than not, even not being able to finish a scoring chance that most attackers dream about. He’s close, and will need careful care and feeding. Some will say that Villa starting was a slap at Sanchez. I disagree. But I do think that if he isn’t careful, he will dig himself onto the bench in a way that wasn’t possible with Guardiola. Vilanova isn’t as forgiving, or as kind. He’s a coach who knows exactly what he wants, and how to get it. If he doesn’t think you are The Way, you won’t be.
Holy shit, Jonathan Dos Santos played, and did so rather well. See? Digging in your heels CAN work, at least until January.
And that’s it. My half-hour is up, so let fly in the comments. What say ye?