First things first. It was “only” Depor.
That is a phrase that vexes me for so many reasons, not least of which is that it dismisses an opponent that earned its way into the Liga, even as it is most surely doomed to the drop. This is, despite the absences of a couple of players, the SAME Depor that we needed 5 goals to beat in their house.
But most importantly, people forget how much opponents (particularly keepers, sigh ….) are inspired to play when they come into the Camp Nou. So squash that “it’s only Depor” nonsense right now, and start looking for portents, for there were many today.
Was the way that Barça played today good enough to get past Milan? No. But Barça wasn’t playing Milan. It was playing Depor in a match that was something of a hassle for both teams. Depor didn’t want to drop 3 more points, and Barça didn’t want any injuries or fatigue to key players.
In looking at a match like today’s, particularly before a mid-week home encounter that is the biggest match that this club has played in a very, very long time, for me I wasn’t as worried about the score as much as I was how the team would play.
The club’s periodization schedule is well known, just as it is well known that we are going to be pretty bad in February, aka Hlebruary. The difference in this season compared to previous seasons is that we haven’t really had opponents that have the capability to expose our frailties in the way that the likes of Milan and RM did.
So what you look for as the team rolls into March and starts feeling better, is signs that the funk is being shaken, that the athletes are beginning to find their legs for the home stretch. This was the same thing that some of us were looking for in the Classic — not a final score as much as a drive, a willingness to compete and put out. In that match, there wasn’t much, which made it disappointing for that reason, and that reason alone.
Today was a different story, and let’s look at some of the reasons why:
Pinto, Alves, Puyol, Mascherano, Adriano, Song, Fabregas, Thiago, Sanchez, Villa and Tello rolled out to do battle today. This lineup was never going to sparkle. It’s subs and Hamburger Helper — players such as Puyol who are there to give real flavor to a makeshift assemblage. It wasn’t going to be sharp, or dominate, or lay a manita on Depor. But this group could very well set a mental template for the team moving forward, of willingness to work, to put out, to understand that every match was crucial, even a match against a relgation-doomed side as the team is holding double-digit leads over second and third place in the Liga standings.
This team, today, wanted the ball. The key to keeping a clean sheet is not letting our defenders defend. Seems weird, right, because if your defenders are best when they aren’t defending, what does that say about your defenders? It says the same thing that Guardiola said, which is we’re crap without the ball. Our defenders are best as sweepers or players that intervene at the midfield level. Stick them in the box and say “Now defend,” and you’re going to have problems.
This week, the whole pitch was moved up, particularly in the person of our own Captain Caveman, Carles Puyol. Notice how much of the time he was defending right behind the attackers, breaking up an attack right at the most fragile time, when it is first beginning. This means that the entire team has to defend, and press the ball so that an attacker is always scrambling, even when he successfully evades the defenders. Even when the first defender isn’t successful, this makes it easier for each subsequent defender. We saw this today, all over the pitch, but particularly from Puyol, Sanchez and my MOTM, Alves.
Once again, there was a timer on the opponents’ possession, and hustle was back. As a result, Mascherano was able to move forward to intercept balls, rather than running backward to defend balls. Adriano could keep the play in front of him, using his pace to resolve matters rather than chasing players who leaked through. An active team makes our non-defenders very effective as defenders.
The team, when it got the ball, was moving forward. There wasn’t tika-taka as much as “Let’s get ’em!” This resulted in excellent scoring chances that were spurned, but again, this was progress, given the desultory passing of the ball that we saw in recent matches. Sanchez was constantly running toward their goal, as was Villa and Tello. Thiago was passing the ball forward, Alves was bombing the right flank like he used to do against a tight midfield box that will be very similar to the one that we see against Milan. There has never been a better time for Alves to be on form than right now, because his play against Milan will be crucial in creating opportunities and establishing REAL width, rather than “tactical” width, in which some forward just stands around by the touch line.
The results of all this forward movement was that there was danger in their box, rather than in our box.
The players were playing like they had somewhere to be. Forward movement can be walking, or running. Alves and Sanchez were running like they had hot coals in their shorts, and the water was in the Depor box. Thiago, before his dramatic tail-off, was all over the place, owning possession and control of the midfield in a way that we have all been dying to see. And the dynamism of the effective players was even more dramatic in the context of the players that were absent or just plain terrible, but that’s okay too, because even those players were trying.
Physically, you can see the team already starting to feel better, resulting in a spring in their step that has been missing for too long now.
The opponent doesn’t matter
To use a basketball analogy, think of a great distance shooter who is in a slump. We so often hear announcers say that the athlete has to make the easy ones. This is true. Layups and free throws re-establish the success template. Those become short jumpers, which become long jumpers and before you know it, a player has his groove back.
A clean sheet was more important than anything today. I would have even taken a 0-0 draw, and been happier than with a 3-1 win, because the team learned today that it can play a whole match and not give up a goal, that their forward-thinking, aggressive play can make the difference in how an opponent can attack our team. Deportivo La Coruna was a gimmie, but an important gimmie because it allows the team to end the match on a mental high. “We won, we felt good again on the pitch and we didn’t concede.”
The opponent doesn’t matter in a team looking to get its groove back, because that team is also looking for signs. Even as people scoff and say “it’s only Depor,” it would have been easy for them to string some passes together, create a threat and score a goal. They did that four times in their house. But the difference in how the team approached this match minimized that possibility. This team, the way that it played today, would have done better in the just-passed Classic than the team that we rolled out there.
The Barça way of playing doesn’t CARE about the opponent. It knows how it wants to play, and believes that as the best team in the world, if it executes its Way properly, it will win that match. That is what happened today.
So what next?
There are people who act as though they don’t want this team to do well. When it was losing, it was “Jordi Roura was in over his head. He really shouldn’t have that job.” Now they have won 2-0 and it’s “It was only Depor. They were supposed to win.” Being 30 points better in the standings than Real Sociedad, we were “supposed” to beat them as well, but that didn’t happen. You aren’t “supposed” to beat anyone, even as you might be “favored” to beat someone. That is how upsets happen, and the Barça of a couple of weeks ago would have been in significantly more danger against this very same opponent than the team we saw today.
Form is temporary, class is permanent. In looking at the two goals and the way that they were scored today are more signs of encouragement, as both were goals that were aggressive and forward. One was the kind of goal you don’t see that much from us, a cross to the noggin of a dynamic player — in this case Sanchez, who seemed to exorcise some demons with that slam of the ball into the net. Simple and effective.
The second goal was more of a team goal, tika-taka moving forward in one of those mazy, crazy high-wire act goals that we used to score with impunity (yet another good sign). Sanchez fed Messi for a nifty chip that found its way into the net. In weeks past, that same shot might have rolled left or right of the goal, or hit the post. The difference today is that concentration was there.
Big players show up for big matches
The match against AC Milan midweek is HUGE. If Barça fails to advance, that will mean that it didn’t make the quarterfinals of the Champions League, which means millions of Euros off the club’s bottom line, money that the club was counting in its fiscal projections.
But the players aren’t thinking about money, except in as much as they are saying “Hells bells cap’n, if we don’t make the quarterfinals, what happens to my Champions League success contract incentives? I have a new little mouth to feed!”
It also damages a success template that many say is already no more. Barça wins championships. Those same people saying that the club is in crisis, who are somehow forgetting the double-digit leads over the second and third-place teams in La Liga, that teams don’t fear Barça any longer would LOVE for Milan to advance. And players like nothing more than rubbing doubters’ faces in their success.
This is a big match, and we have big players. No, the Copa semi, or the Classic were NOT big matches. Sorry, but they weren’t. Nor was the first leg in Milan, because there is a different mindset in first legs of two-legged ties. Your life isn’t depending on it, assuming you don’t lose 8-0 or something crazy like that.
This return leg is different. There is so much riding on this match that it is impossible for me to imagine that our players won’t be as close to their best as is possible.
Which means what, exactly, against Milan?
Who the hell knows? I’m sticking to my 4-1 prediction, for the record. Why? Because I liked the mental and physical signs that I saw today, of a team ready to find its stride again, that is ready to bust out. I’d be a lot more confident if the match were a week farther along than it is, but you play them as they come.
But another thing is, you look at our lineup, and tell me that group of players, on form, isn’t good enough to put four goals past any side in the world, so I can laugh at you.
I have no idea who we are going to start, or what formation we are going to play, but what I do know is this: If the starting XI shows up with the same focus and concentration as was on exhibit today, the team will advance. No, the football played today wasn’t sparkling, dazzling or anything that will inspire sonnets of praise. Hell, it won’t even inspire the doom-sayers to move away from their comforting narratives, because people want this team to fail. They find comfort in it, the knowledge that beauty can be sullied, yanked away, that success is fleeting. Others are just sick of the club, its success and the reams and reams of effusion.
So those groups will say that Barça had to struggle to beat a doom-bound team 2-0, at home. They will say that this was done poorly, and that was done poorly. They will find every way in which to portray a very positive display as something negative, because of narratives. Snore. Whatever. Wake me when they’re finished, because I have a team to support.