RM 2, Barça 1, aka “It has to come from the players”

classictrio

For years, Barça has had all the answers, for pretty much every question. But now, after having lost three of its last four matches, we are left with more questions than answers.

Feels kinda weird, doesn’t it?

I didn’t care whether we won or lost this match, and even predicted a 2-1 loss. But I most emphatically cared how we played it. For what it does to the standings, the loss is no biggie at all. For what it does to the psychology of a damaged team, the loss is immense for the simple reason that the wounds are self-inflicted.

Jordi Roura came out with a semi-rotation lineup of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Thiago, Iniesta, Messi, Villa, Pedro. And simply put, those players came out and did nothing. Absolutely nothing. No slashing runs, no aggression, no verticality, no nothing except aimless possession. And toward the end of the match there wasn’t even that, as RM spent the last portion of the match embedded in our end.

And the only people who could have done anything about it, we allowing it to happen. Because this isn’t about coaches present or absent — this is about the FC Barcelona players, OUR players, and how they are approaching this game that they used to own like a well-worn pair of boots.

Because for the first time, I see fear. And that fear is making the club play tight, a quality manifesting itself in tentative play, runs not made, passes not attempted. The FC Barcelona of recent legend inspired sonnets of praise by playing swashbuckling football. It was daring and fearless, even as it was rooted in possession. That Barça played possession because it was waiting to strike. This Barça plays possession like a married couple that shouldn’t be, going through the relationship motions because it’s been going on for so long that they don’t know what else to do.

The aggression isn’t there, only pique at referee decisions. The joy is gone, along with the magic. And what’s left is a group of players who don’t seem to know what to do, even as they do. And we know this because the times they do it, good things result. Look at the first goal, for example:

— Messi skulked up to the shoulder of the defense, and made a run that dictated a perfect pass from Alves. He took that pass, beat the keeper and that was that.

— Pedro made two lovely runs into space, and passes found him to create real danger.

Then, as if chastened, the runs stopped. And when someone like Pedro did begin a run, the action was met by a midfielder who was already passing the ball laterally to another blaugrana shirt.

You could see the tightness manifesting itself in the lineup constriction that led to fatigue, that led to injuries, that led to malaise, that led to this. When you are in the gym, and work to failure, your muscles can’t move the weight any longer. It’s as if our beloved football club has worked to mental failure rather than physical failure. Whew!

Song rarely plays, Bartra doesn’t play, Montoya? Who? when Thiago starts it’s “Whoa, Thiago is starting!” Why is that? Constriction. Let’s not lose. Our great players can tough it out for one more match, right? But then, suddenly, when you need those players, their qualities haven’t been honed through real match situations. If this club has players who aren’t good enough to play, sell them, loan them, do what needs to be done. Because every player on that roster should be able to be called upon for duty, and the club should be confident that said player(s) can deliver the goods.

And for those who say, “I want my Barça back,” this IS your Barça. This is our team. It’s a team that is struggling, a team that has been beaten handily, twice within the same week, by its most bitter rival. It’s a team that has to be thanking its lucky stars that the Milan return leg isn’t this coming week, so that it can find some way to regain the swagger, the boldness that inspired fear. Opponents don’t come to the Camp Nou anymore with fear in their eyes, hoping simply to not get killed. They come in thinking, “We can score, and if we score, anything can happen.”

What I don’t see is flair or creativity. The effort is there, but whole team has become like my nickname for Alexis Sanchez, 95%. At the terminus of every tika-taka buildup needs to be a run — a player asking questions of the opposing defense, making them move so that spaces are created for other attackers.

Instead, look at the times that a Barça player got the ball on a bust-out, only to look up, into the box and …. cricket! cricket. By the time someone decides to sashay into frame, the passer and attacker are surrounded by defenders, and that is the end of that.

Messi gets the ball in midfield, where he is doing little else except removing himself from the attack, and passes it to Iniesta. Then he trots over here, takes a pass from Alves, and trots over there. While he is doing that, Villa is standing on the left side, waiting for something to happen. Pedro is walking around on the right side, waiting for something to happen. And in that sequence, it’s so clear to see what the difficulty is:

Nobody is MAKING anything happen..

Cycles of team greatness don’t usually end because of physical pressures. They end because of mental pressures. At some point, the team has won so much that rather that seeking, desperately wanting to win more, it desperately wants to not lose. It is at that very subtle cusp of effort and determination that an opponent who simply wants it more can have success.

And yes, I think that right now, Barça is in that delicate state of playing not to lose, and it is permeating everything that the team does on the pitch, as players do “just enough.” So Alves got in front …. just …. of the RM player making the pass to Benzema. Lord knows what Pique and Mascherano were doing, and no doubt Alba was complaining to the ref somewhere.

On the Ramos goal, he was surrounded by blaugrana shirts, yet he rose the highest with the most strength, and headed home. Mark him out? Put a body on him? Why?

That last bit of effort and desire, that thing rooted in an athlete’s hunger, seems to be absent from our players right now. Pundits and announcers, during matches and after matches, say that struggling teams need for something good to happen to them, without realizing that the only ones who can make something good happen are the players themselves.

Getting want back is difficult. We see it time and again in all disciplines.

— The Clash went from “White Riot” to noodling around with dub music.
— Andy Murray got sick and tired of losing to Federer and those other guys.

Our players aren’t playing with urgency, with that sense of somewhere to be. There used to be risk. Guardiola brought up Busquets and Pedro, took a chance on Ibrahimovic, played different formations and systems, played around with things in a restlessness that made the team unpredictable even as it was very predictable. You just couldn’t stop it. RM didn’t work any harder during the match that Oil Can was yelling at his teammates to come and help him try to get the damned ball off of those insufferable sprites, as they capered about.

But we are working less hard, and with less success. Further, it’s less hard with a tentative quality. So the player receiving the pass stands there, instead of running to the ball and finding space in which to find a teammate, who has already anticipated that movement and is there, waiting.

When people like Sid Lowe write about how the team has lost its identity, this is what they mean — the absence of that weird, nebulous thing that used to make us unplayable, goals as inevitable as a loss. RM is fit, sharp and angry. They are (and who can blame them) sick of the prose, the gushing, the odes to the greatness of The Barça Way. And they want. SO much. We think we want, but we don’t want in the same way that we used to.

Guardiola left at the end of last season, and speculation was rife as to the real reason that he left, reasons that we will never know. But could he see such a thing coming? Can a coach know that a team’s edge of greatness, of desire-fueled excellence, is dulled? I honestly believe that he would have left even had the team done the Treble again last season. But I can’t help but wonder if he saw what was coming. Knowing him, the struggle was probably wanting to stay, to see if he could answer the challenge of what to do and how to do it.

Some of it is injuries. Some is fatigue. But for me, and I will freely admit that I could be wrong, it’s execution. They know what to do. But something isn’t clicking, something is dulling the edge. And now we get to see the hearts of champions. A weak club will mutter and moan, and start pointing fingers. A strong club will say “We have to get better, and set about the task of doing so.”

Is all lost? Absolutely not. But some significant self-examination is going to have to happen in the time between now and when Milan come to town, looking to advance by using the hide of a wounded lion as a doormat.

Here’s something that I DO know: This club needs our support. Cules are going to see all sorts of danger, and why this player or that player must go, or why so-and-so is the real reason for all the malaise. But this is a team failure, just as it was a team success. And your team never needs you more than when it is struggling, and hurt. Like now.

I still believe that we are going to overturn the tie and advance against Milan. Absolutely. But to do so, our beloved club is going to have to, between now and then, rediscover what it has been missing since it scampered off to that giant Liga lead: The want that makes excellent players superhuman. Meanwhile, support your club. Defend your club. Believe in your club.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

173 Comments

  1. March 3, 2013

    Watching Spurs/Arsenal now, and the parallels between us/RM abound. Like us, Arsenal was one pass away. RM just cracked the lock with speed and athleticism, which brings me to not only what Euler said above, but the Treble club.

    The Treble team had pace. Henry, Eto’o, Messi, Abidal were all fast. It enabled the team to flip play and possession in a way that made that club so dynamic. It’s athletes. When in doubt, just put the ball into space for Henry and have a go.

    Against RM when Sanchez entered, you could see hints of that dynamism, but not enough. Pedro also brought some. I think that is the answer, and some of what will almost certainly inform some of the club’s decisions this summer: we need pace. If you watch how teams are attacking Pique right now, they are playing the ball into space and counting on the attacker to outrun Pique. This is happening time and again.

    The offense plays slowly because it doesn’t have pace. It’s why Villa is offside so much and Pedro isn’t: the latter doesn’t have to be.

    Barça can play vertically. The Alba Copa semi goal is a perfect example of this. But man, would I love to see more.

    It’s funny, because Euler’s comments about the team becoming TOO execution-dependent are interesting. I think the team has ALWAYS been heavily execution-dependent. Those mazy, crazy, high-wire act goals require some remarkable stuff. And our players do that stuff. Now that the edge is off, that execution is lacking. But the club also lacks the sheer athleticism that can get it through a lull. The value of a player like Messi or Ibrahimovic is that you don’t HAVE to execute perfectly. Ability can close that gap.

    In specializing in smaller, less physically gifted players, Barça has also painted itself into a stylistic corner.

    Now that opponents have been able to counter that by constricting space, a solution has to found. That solution lies …. because it simply HAS to …. in execution. Particularly as our most dynamic player is out of favor.

    • March 4, 2013

      There is another benefit of having pace in your side. It pushes the opposition backline further from the defense. Have you ever asked why the RM’s defensive midfielder is having a great day against our boys, because they could come and commit challenges (which could be risky against other teams) without any fear as we never pushed the back line back.

      If Barca is playing bad, then it is only one part which is failing – midfield(it’s always been like that). They have to get some release strategy for the midfield players. It’s e. Another issue is the two wide players trying to stay as wide as possible to offer some width. We don’t need that as the flank play can only develop in one flank at a time. There is no point in Pedro trying to stay wide on right when the ball with Iniesta in the middle. He should come towards the middle allowing Messi/Villa(Whoever in middle) to further push forward. Iniesta from left could only play a lofted ball onto the right flank, which only a full back can run onto. These kind of things used to happen without any problem with Guardiola at helm.

      Sport is reporting that there could be a serious change in strategy against Milan. Hope so. But then they said Villa will play in middle against RM in NC! So I have no idea to trust this.

    • KEVINO17
      March 4, 2013

      Barca was able to play high-wire football when it pressed like crazy, because the players knew that if they lost the ball they could get it back. Indeed, they often got it back when their opponents were just starting to transition into offence and were ripe for a quick counter-attack. But that part of the game is missing (lack of athleticism, I think).
      That’s why I think that, against Milan the top priority must be a side that can press hard: Alexis, Song, Tiago, Pedro (even he) in that hope that by re-igniting our forward defence we can reignite our offense.
      Interesting how other sides like RM now mimic Barca’s press and do it even better. Barca used to beat RM because so many RM players did not do a defensive shift (remember how useless Ronaldo was). However, Mou eventually realised that RM in fact had a more physical side than Barca and so could press even better.

  2. Choba
    March 3, 2013

    A lot of things has been said by you guys, I agree with a lot of them and all of what has been said point to one thing : we need a coach to figure out and resolve those problems before we lose somehow those talents that we have! That what we are missing, Tito should take care of his health and forget about the team till he will be healthy and Roura should be replaced by a interim coach (Luis Enrique ? I am just saying randomly) the responsibility is a real burden for Roura, the administration should not trap him like that.

  3. March 3, 2013

    Watching Filipe Luis always makes me sigh. I like what he does.

    • barca96
      March 4, 2013

      He nearly signed for us a few seasons back but had an injury that prevented us from signing us. That or he got injured after the deal went through. In any case, he wasn’t the same player in that season.

      I haven’t been following him since then though so I guess he is back to his best or better.

      • March 4, 2013

        I get actually pissed off when I watch Caceres playing for Juventus. We never believed him in and he now looks like a real defender.

      • Rivaldo
        March 4, 2013

        Boy, i think we really got it wrong with Caceres. played Right across the back line, has pace, agression, agility, strength, good heading ability, etc. Exactly what we’re looking for now.

        But he couldn’t improving if he wasn’t playing (something some of us want Thiago to do…. just note when Thiago was moving rapidly he was playing for Barca B and leading that team…. confidence etc. Now he has had to adapt. I bet the day he goes to a team and gets to run the show day in and day out we’ll wonder where this type of talent comes from)

      • Clouseau
        March 4, 2013

        Txiki prevented his signing by trying to bargain the price at first place (offered 8 million and Depor demanded first 20 million than 14 ) but his Injurytragedy hidded his mistake later on.

        Very happy to see him doing well and finding happyness again. Still not as influential as he was at Depor though..

      • March 4, 2013

        Actually what happened was the deal was done. His bags were packed. The Lotina got the notion of trying to squeeze a few more Euros out of the deal, and the club said “Screw you,” and moved on.

        I’d rather have Filipe Luis than Jordi Alba. And Kiko Femenia is …. well …. Kiko Femenia.

  4. March 3, 2013

    But the club also lacks the sheer athleticism that can get it through a lull. The value of a player like Messi or Ibrahimovic is that you don’t HAVE to execute perfectly. Ability can close that gap.

    In specializing in smaller, less physically gifted players, Barça has also painted itself into a stylistic corner.

    This is what I was getting at. This has become a real problem-especially against RM.

    This is what I’m concerned about & partly how I look at these last 2 seasons. Yes-when we are at our best we are brilliant. But over time the system has become less robust and more execution dependent. So if execution falls off even moderately we can really struggle.

    The team has become more narrow in it’s skill set. And in turn it’s ability to win when it’s not executing at a high level has diminished relative to what it was before. In a way it’s harder for the team to win when it’s not on. We saw this at the end of last season. We’re seeing it now as well.

    Now in some ways it’s gained in execution in certain ways as more and more technical players have been added. But to me the mix has become too imbalanced.

    And this execution dependence is a particular problem when your approach to periodization creates 2 down turns in physiology each season. You know before hand that during those 2 periods execution is likely going to suffer.

    It’s just more difficult now for us to win when not operating optimally in many ways. Outside of handful of players -Messi, Alexis, Alves & perhaps Pedro & Alba we don’t have players who can use athleticism to turn into results. And that’s especially problematic when 1 of those players is completely off form, 1 has stopped scoring & 2 are FBs and none are tall. Tello has athleticism but doesn’t play very much so that’s why I don’t include him here.

    Same goes for physicality. How many players do we have that can influence a match with physical presence or height?

    This is especially an issue vs RM as the gap in athleticism/physicality has just become massive. I’m not saying that athleticism is an requirement to succeed. Obviously this Barca project has demonstrated that vividly. But athleticism does have a role – it really does help. And in a way it can function as a “get out of jail free” card when a side isn’t playing at its best.

    And the team is limited in how it can incorporate athleticism because the midfield zone is spoken for and just isn’t going to have much capacity with regards to athleticism. That means it’s going to have to come from the front line & backline.

    There’s also another real concern I have along this dimension. It’s one thing to orient a template when you have Xavi in his prime. His ability to exert match control as a single invdividual is perhaps unparalleled in the history of the game.

    If you have 1 player who can exert that kind of control then you can rely on having a remarkable level of consistency in execution & you can decrease athleticism/physicality elsewhere.

    But as Xavi moves out of his prime can you continue structuring the template with these same assumptions? Thiago or Cesc could become the best CM in the world in the future & still not be close to Xavi in terms of match control & execution. As such, can you continue to be so execution dependent?

    • March 4, 2013

      Dear Euler,
      ”And that’s especially problematic when 1 of those players is completely off form, 1 has stopped scoring & 2 are FBs and none are tall.”
      – Do you really think any forward who is out of form would have scored the Messi goal at Bernabeu on Saturday. Messi definitely may not be at his best – which is also because of the totality of how we play and how much of service our forwards receive – but that goal doesnt say that.
      – To have one defensive minded full back would be better may be

      It is ok to say execution is the problem. But execution also depends on how well your opposition plays. When you are having world class players against you – who have been groomed to fight with heart – execution is never clock work.

      But I strongly believe if Tito was there on the bench, all this would have been so different. May be we would have still lost, but none of us would have thought that we didnt try. Football is highly tactical and none other the coach on the bench (not watching a TV) can recognise the pros and cons of his players. And when players look to the sidelines they should be able to see the face of their coach, who would look confident, knowing what to do and how to do. Unfortunately, they are looking at Roura, who is quite clueless (not his fault) and anybody who have played can easily see how much that affect players.

      Only few months back, weren’t all glorifying Barca selecting players who were not physical.

      • March 4, 2013

        Euler is right. Messi IS off form. It’s clear to see.

        Also, I don’t think anyone is suddenly kicking the Barça Way to the curb. Instead we are saying that the system was at its best when there were some athletic players who could turn a match with a moment of physical prowess.

        People still adore the Barça Way. But there are missing aspecys.

  5. mjtaba
    March 4, 2013

    PROBLEM NO.01 : WHAT TO DO WHEN IT ALL GOES WRONG
    .
    PROBLEM NO.02 : HOW TO PLAY THE MILAN MATCH

    ANSWER TO NO.01 : Well i beleieve that at the moment the team is strugling on all fronts at the same time . so what to do? well… start from the basic :-

    Rethink the tactics , surely tik taka is not working well at the moment , so surely we need a plan B to keep us floating in this shit storm that we are facing. i said it before and i will say it again that to play Song besides Sergio in the DMF position to give back the deffense some extra cover and much needed confidence plus Song as by his history knows how to play reasonably in the mid section of the pitch.

    Answer to No.2 : Everybody here thinks we can overturn the tie , so do i BUT the question is how . Clearly they will come to defend and that they will do tho the last minute with ” park the bus ” mentality. we are already at an disadvantage so how to go for it . Well here is my take on the match.

    ehm ehm ehm ….

    Go with Puyol, pique and Masherano where The P’s having the istructions to Defend at all time and not to come forward and Mash to sprint forward to replace song sergio if they go forward in an attack move .

    NO alves or alba , because against a 10 man defense the wings wont help at all .

    now u got 5 players to attack and create.

    they should go like this

    ———valdes———-
    —puyol–masherano–pique
    ——sergio—song——-
    pedro——-cesc—–iniesta
    ——messi——villa—-
    .

  6. KEVINO17
    March 4, 2013

    I see the problem a bit differently. Barca gets into lots of fantastic positions to attack the box. That’s what comes from having a team of great play-makers. However, the problem is that Barca does not have a target in the box. It relies upon players rushing into the box and trying to impersonate strikers. In Euler’s terminology, Barca becomes, in the most important phase of the game, highly execution dependent.
    So that Barca doesn’t need to be so execution dependent in the box, it needs a big athletic striker who can drag around the CBs and charge towards the near post like a wounded rhino. If Barca’s playmakers can’t hit a target like Klose, Gomez, Cavani et al you can cut off my legs and call me shorty.
    It also needs a physically imposing central midfielder who can shield the ball and make crunching tackles. Fortunately, it does have that player (Song). Unfortunately, it won’t play him.

  7. providence
    March 4, 2013

    valdes

    Alves. Puyol. Pique

    Busquets

    Messi. Iniesta.

    Pedro. Villa. Sanchez. Alba.

    No 1 : Back 3 shd b stable to stop counter. attacks

    No 1: Leo shd supply the wingers and attackers

  8. March 4, 2013

    I will look into two formation for Milan – both of them with a three man defense.

    1)
    —————————–Valdes ————————–

    ——-Mascherano———-Pique————-Puyol—————

    ————————-Busquets——————————–

    ———–Xavi—————————Iniesta—————-

    Alves—————————————————–Alba/Tello-

    ——————————–Messi————————–

    —————————Villa——————————–

    Or if Xavi is not fit, I will go with

    2)

    —————————–Valdes ————————–

    ——-Mascherano———-Pique————-Puyol—————

    ————————-Busquets——————————–

    ———Song———————————Iniesta———

    ————————–Cesc/Thiago————————–

    ———–Messi————Villa——————–Tello

    Whichever way Tello has to start to give us maximum speed on the flanks.

    • KEVINO17
      March 4, 2013

      Alves – Puyol – jordi

      No holding midfielder.

      Adriano – Song – Inni – Thiago

      Messii – Alexis – Villa.

      Don’t think you can leave out Adriano because he can beat his man and score.

      The three man defence must be pacey and should allow Barca to dispense with a holding midfielder.

      With a 3 -4 -3 and this line up the pressing should be awesome and Barca will be able to flood the penalty area in attack.

      • March 4, 2013

        Holding midfielder is a must, especially with a three man defense. But then Song in ur lineup can play that role. Adriano! I don’t expect him to be fit for Milan clash. We will play Depor this weekend and Adriano will definitely start and is 100% to be injured. As far as the attacking options Villa could remain completely wasted on the right as he has no pace to exploit anything there. Sanchez in center is nice but won’t help as he will not shoot as his confidence is rock bottom. A well organised Milan side may not be the right opponent to try and get the confidence back.

  9. providence
    March 4, 2013

    I dun see it as the players who r having psychological problems or hunger

    No 1: The same players started d season w/ d best liga start in history

    No 2: we all saw the come backs against Celtic and Benfica. The game in Russian which we usually draw

    No : Prior to Tito’s Uncertainty, we all saw d clasico’s …Win-Lose and draw …the Loss came from Alves injury 5 min into the game and Adriano’s Early red card… the draw, we played @ camp nou w/ real central defenders

    No 5: The issue is Simple, its the Coaching issue, look @ all the games we’ve lost after Tito left, all were lost in the second half, meaning Tactical switches from oppositions without any adjustment from Barca

    Milan

    1st half. 0-0
    2nd half. 2-0

    Madrid.

    1st half. 1-0
    2nd half. 3-1

    1st half. 1-1
    2nd half 2-1. w/ reserves

    its Just clear, we’ve been losing the game from the bench. #AnimsTito

      • March 4, 2013

        Disagree. If you watch the season’s matches, there were not that many tactical variations even with Vilanova. But the players were playing better.

        Also, the quality of opponent has risen. Traditiinally in February, we see Liga matches against weaker sides, and Champions League against the likes of Stuttgart and Lyon (we drew against both, though we were markedly superior to both).

        The players have to play better or it doesn’t matter WHO is on the bench. People want to blame someone for the team’s collective failure. Roura didn’t get owned on tha Ramos header. And the Messi goal was the result of the team executing properly. Then it started knocking the ball about again, and boom.

      • Kimcelona
        March 4, 2013

        Disagree. If you watched the season’s matches there were many tactical variations within the games. These same variations were praised by the reviewers on this site. Let’s not revise history. I don’t think the players played excellently in the beginning of the season, especially when we had a mini-injury crisis. Lots of players were either off-form or just coming off injury, yet the necessary changes were made to accommodate this downfall because Tito was there, you know and actual coach.

        The quality of opponents in February have risen? So what? The quality of opponents has always been high at this time of the season, yet we’ve always been able to pull through with a coach.

        It’s not a matter of blaming someone for the team’s collective failure but pointing out the obvious.

  10. providence
    March 4, 2013

    valdes

    …… Alves…. Puyol….Pique

    ……………. Busquets…………

    ……… Cesc. ……. Iniesta ….

    Pedro … Messi….Villa…. Sanchez/Alba

    nb : Tello is a second half player, his pace will exploit tired right backs

    nb : 3 back shd b stable

  11. March 4, 2013

    Great comments everybody, especially Euler.

  12. barca96
    March 4, 2013

    New post up.

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