This picture of the coaching staff cracks me up because like many New Cules, they already have an expectation of what is supposed to happen, even as their reasons are different for having the same anticipation:
— We roll into town, kick the crap out of whatever poor side has the great misfortune to play against us, and that’s three more points in the bank. Ding!
— The staff says “Hell’s bells, our boys is good, and I wouldn’t take a one of them boys from the other side. On paper we are superior so logically, we should be able to have success.”
We all want to think otherwise, but it’s difficult because as with the coaching staff, the team is just so damned good! And the cule thinks, “Of course the best team in the world is supposed to kick the crap out of everyone. What’s the matter with you?”
Yet every now and again, an opponent comes along who hasn’t read the script, and then the real fun begins.
Granada was at home, and they definitely didn’t get the script. Yes, this is the same Granada that had won its last two matches, with the scalps of RM and No Longer Super Depor hanging from its belt. And Barça was coming into its house with plenty on its mind: a Champions League clash in midweek vs AC Milan, then a Copa home leg against RM in the immediate future. They were hoping to catch a distracted club, have some luck themselves and pull out another result.
Rotation was the operative word for Barça, as Roura rolled out with Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Adriano, Busquets, Thiago, Fabregas, Messi, Pedro, Sanchez. And things started out pretty much the way everyone expected them to go: We kept the ball, knocked it around for a while, then decided it was time to score. Alexis Sanchez made yet another one of those remarkable runs of his, and Messi found him with an absolute peach of a pass …. and Sanchez fluffed his lines.
For a moment there, as he ran onto the ball, everyone had visions of Getafe rolling through their heads and a cool, slotted finish. But in the time it took that remarkable ball to get to him, Sanchez had time to think, and blammo. Nothing. Ray Hudson, on the BeIN Sport match call, likened him to Long John Silver, with only one leg to stand on.
And Granada seemed to take heart from that, with some aggressive attacks and forays into our end, showing off the fact that we weren’t the only team on the pitch able to play slick, attacking football.
Then it happened again. Again Sanchez got an exquisite pass, again from Messi, and again, in that time that it took for the ball to get there, he thought, hesitated and the moment was gone.
But rather than diddling around, giving consoling hugs and saying “Dang, dude …. that sucks,” the Granada players were churlish enough to say “Hey, their best tracking back attacker is laying on his face in our box, and we have the ball. What say we venture forth, mates?”
And so they did, with a springboard attack of remarkable aggression and ball movement, one of those attacks that will always catch our defense out because well hell, where did that come from? Didn’t we just have the ball? A bit of fast movement, slick passing and Alves going on holiday on the far post later, they slotted home for a 1-0 lead that was no less than they deserved because they came out and played football. Granada pressed intelligently, took their chances (including a brilliant opportunity that found ex-homeboy Nolito not ready for the challenge), and didn’t cower in the corner at the sight of the Barça crest.
It was 1-0, and there was doubt. “They’re going to park the bus.” “We’re all going to die.” “Why can’t our defenders defend?”
Some knuckleheads were pretty calm, because they had predicted a 1-2 scoreline and could see the tactical error of Granada’s ways, evinced by the fact that Dani Alves has his best match in some time. Granada essentially figured that the real danger was in the center, where that No. 10 was, and let’s just leave those tactical width folks to stand around out there and do their tactical width thing. So not only was Granada able get get a lead, they were able to defend it until the half. But my 1-2 prediction was looking strong, because Granada had played an excellent half of football, while Barça masqueraded as the Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight, creating plenty of chances and yet not converting, because of a number of things.
Everyone has, in their lives, blown something. Job, date, bowling game, some other sport. You had it, and you flat out blew it, for whatever reason, and now the chance is gone. There are usually a few simple reasons that we blow stuff: overconfidence, fatigue, lack of concentration, overconcentration.
The past four seasons have been outings in which our beloved football club could well have won four Champions Leagues, instead of two of four. Poor finishing. Krkic somehow missed an open net with his header against Inter Milan (lack of concentration), and that was that. Messi missed his penalty against Chelsea in the Camp Nou last season (fatigue) and that was that. And then there was today.
Sanchez missed two glorious chances. So did Messi, but for reasons different than Sanchez.
As well all know, Alexis Sanchez probably has to leave his car on the street, because he can’t put it in his garage. And lovemaking is right out of the question, because well …. um …. yeah. He has a confidence problem that is only getting worse, so his misses were rooted in that “Agggh! Okayhereitcomesdon’tscrewitupthistimenononodon’tcomeon …. Agggh!” He’s thinking so much, trying so hard, is so focused on NOT screwing up, that he does.
Messi missed his simple chances (I believe) through a simple lack of concentration. So the movement isn’t quite as sharp, nor is the control. And pow. Ya miss. And in one case, cules scream bloody murder. “Aggggh! He did it again!” And suddenly, an immensely talented player isn’t fit to wear the colors …. or something.
Meanwhile, we had a second half to play, and those two first-half bottlers, Sanchez and Messi, pretty much picked up where they left off, only this time Sanchez spurned a killer through ball from Fabregas, for a change of pace. But something else was happening.
Whether it was Granada tiring, realizing what they had the potential to accomplish or Barça just plain started playing better, suddenly there were more and better opportunities. The ball was moving, the Sprites were everywhere and Granada was on the back foot. One important difference was that Adriano was subbed off “as a precaution,” which I firmly believe was a precaution against him being crap any longer. Because he was. Jordi Alba came on, and suddenly things were moving around, and Granada had to play the full width of its very wide home pitch, and that created problems as they actually did start to get tired.
So who knew that the goal would come from the simplest of plays, as Fabregas unleashed a rocket of a shot from distance, that the Granada keeper spilled. Guess who was right there to lash it home? No, not Sanchez. Messi. Boom. Just like that it was 1-1, and Granada was really starting to wonder.
To their credit, they stuck to their game plan, recognizing that where there was one goal there was almost certainly another. So they pressed intelligently and waited, but their opportunities were fewer and fewer as the possession game began to work, and chances were being created. Two goals were ruled offside that shouldn’t have been, but there was some scrabbling at the lock going on and it was evident that we were more likely to score than they were.
Then Thiago was fouled, Messi stepped up to take the ensuing free kick, and that was that. 1-2, as I predicted.
Some say, “Where would we be without Messi,” and I say we’d be fine, because someone else would be in that position, and they would be scoring goals in a system that is designed to keep the ball, create chances and create goals. Yes, Messi is the best player in the world. But many of the goals that the system creates, doesn’t take the best player in the world to score them.
Was the match fraught? Depends on your perspective. Was it in any greater danger of being a loss than the 6-1 win over Getafe? No. And even if it was a loss, what would a dropped 3 points represent, really, assuming that both Madrid teams “threatening” our table-topping place were to win tomorrow? A lead of (shudder!) 9 and 13 points.
Confidence, expectation and The Cule
We have one hell of a football club, and have, really, for the past 8 seasons because even when the Rijkaard teams were a mess, they were still a good football club even if the on-pitch results weren’t bearing that out. And perspective is a fascinating thing, because there are supporters of clubs such as Sevilla, Levante, Granada or Athletic Bilbao, who find it absurd when cules run around, rending garments and ripping chunks of hair from their scalps because we conceded a goal, drew or even lost a match. They wish that such feelings were so rare for them that such events were considered apocalyptic, that they didn’t have to watch Blaugrana-clad midgets caper about in joy after having thwacked yet another goal past their helpless keeper.
And they’re kinda right to find it a bit silly. But expectation has changed expectations. When every match is supposed to be a win, it’s hard to get minds around things potentially damaging that anticipation. Every time cules sit down to watch a match these days, they might say one thing, but they are believing that Barça is going to win, because that’s what it does. So a draw becomes unfathomable, a loss life-changing, and the Quest for Blame begins.
I am confident in this club. I have the expectation that the players will try their hardest when they are on the pitch. As an athlete, I am aware that some days, no matter how hard you try, you just don’t have it, and you ain’t never gonna get it. So as cules sit there, wondering what’s wrong and why the team hasn’t dropped a manita on some Liga minnow, the players are trying their hardest, even as the other team’s players are also trying their hardest.
I am confident that this team, if it plays as it can, should win every match that it plays. And I say this even as I am aware of the peaks and valleys in athletic performance that make such a thing impossible. Because of that, I never expect the club to win, until it does. It’s a rather fatalistic worldview in a way, that defensive expect the worst, so that you can be surprised by the best.
Alexis Sanchez and the Struggle
On Twitter, I wondered if Sanchez is finished at Barça. And I wondered this not because he isn’t a brilliant, at-times spectacular player, but because of the psychological damage inflicted on him with every miss, every move to the wrong spot on the pitch. Cules feel it, the coaching staff feels it, the player feels it. After a while, it becomes paralyzing, so much so that it no longer becomes possible for a player to have success in a system.
But man, he doesn’t deserve the lambasting he’s been getting. At the end of the first half, the missed chances tally was Sanchez 2, Messi 2. Messi bounced back and got the brace that proved to be the winning margin, while Sanchez bounced to the bench, to be replaced by Tello, who was part of the reason the last 10 minutes of the match seemed so fraught — dude can’t defend.
IS Alexis Sanchez struggling? To put the ball in the goal, yes. To do the rest of his job: making runs, defending, tracking back, tackling, creating space, passing …. no. But because of that oppression, that “Why the hell can’t I score goals,” the other parts of his game might start to be affected, because like any one of us, Sanchez is human. And humans hate screwing up. This means that whenever possible, humans will try to avoid it. At some point, however consciously or not, maybe he doesn’t run in a way that puts him in a position to make an error. Maybe.
Or maybe he realizes one day that he is never going to be able to play his best position in this club, because it is occupied by the best player in the world. And his second-best position is occupied by Andres Iniesta. And so he tries to find space in which he can play, in a less-dynamic and direct system than he likes, a system that runs less and retains possession, and he wonders. Anyone with pride would.
Many wonder, “Where is the Alexis Sanchez we bought from Udinese?” I rather imagine that were Barça to start playing like Udinese, that guy would show up pretty quickly. But that isn’t going to happen.
So is Alexis Sanchez done at Barça? I think that he is, which doesn’t mean he isn’t good enough to play at Barça. It just means that sometimes, a change of scenery is the best thing for a player’s career. When he leaves, some will say “Good riddance,” others will wonder about what might have happened had his potential been realized at Barça. And that will be that.
Meanwhile, today our football club did what it was pretty much supposed to do. Kids capered about and the Granada players applauded their home supporters in gratitude for the cheers, the music, the cacophony that was supposed to lift their players to an improbable result. Granada lost, but with chests puffed out. Everybody clapped, and Pique gave a kid his shirt. If you want a measure of how good this team is, understand that: Rather than stomping off the pitch, yelling at officials and being outraged by the indignity of it all, a one-goal loss at home felt pretty good. And Barça knew that it had been in a football match.
Whatever script somebody was expecting, this was the script that was, and it sure was fun to watch.