You’d think we’d have learned by now not to celebrate shit when Villarreal is in town. Last season, we feted the Liga trophy, and they left a turd in the punch bowl with a late goal. This year, we celebrated the 6 cups and again, they had the audacity to come in and out-Barca Barca.
These guys just ain’t broad minded.
And for the record, we should have lost this one. So rather than two points dropped, think of it as one point stolen, because we were outplayed for most of this one, in part because only a few of our lads came to really play, and one of them was my MOTM, Grampa Henry, the guy people love to hate.
Somehow, I wound up with 12 pages of notes for this match, one that gives so many examples of so many things, such as:
–Poor decision making by our defense: On the best chance that Villarreal had in the first half, Alves decides to head a ball, even though he has plenty of time to play it to his feet, then pass it to a wide-open Puyol. Speaking of, he follows the ball instead of marking a man, so Villarreal just passed into the space that had just been vacated by Puyol, forcing Valdes to make an excellent save.
–Busquets is not the answer: Don’t let a nice few minutes of play via parlor tricks fool you. Time after time, pass after pass, he just wasn’t up to the job today. And the constant falling down reminds of a child who does something, then starts crying in the hopes that it will distract Mom from spanking him.
–Ibrahimovic has to man the hell up: It’s easy to play well when things are going well. It’s when they aren’t that you have to show us why you’re worth 60+m Euros. Today, you behaved like a petulant child, one who will now miss the next league match. Lucky for you, it’s away to Tenerife. You also made bad decisions, such as moving away from that excellent pass from Pedro!, thus giving the Villarreal defender a chance to make the play. If you move to the ball, you remove that option for him, make the play and probably score the go-ahead goal. Of course they’re going to foul you. You’re the stud. Suck it up.
–Teams are figuring out how to play us, and we don’t have any answers: Villarreal was in our faces today, cutting off passing angles, getting bodies in front of the ball and filling the midfield with pressure. Sound familiar? Our bench was, once Iniesta was used, filled with plenty of nothin’. Krkic isn’t going to turn a match. Not with men on the pitch, who were playing the way that Villarreal were today, which was like they wanted it more than we did.
The worst part of the match for me was that we blew our cool, and lost it from the moment that the awful, awful foul call was made on Henry as he crossed to Ibrahimovic, who didn’t even get his shot on frame. The Villarreal defender, replay showed, jumped into Henry then fell down. Henry got the foul call, and we got apoplectic. And there went the match, because we’re waiting for something bad to happen to us, instead of playing through the bullshit and making it happen. Yes, at about the 70 minute mark we started doing so, but by then it was kind of too late, because our most potent offensive weapon was a dog-tired 32-year-old striker playing out of position.
So a draw it was. But if the Villarreal attacker doesn’t scuff that wide-open header, or if the justly deserved penalty gets called on Puyol (spare me the “ref sucks” comments, because he sucked for both sides), they have a 1 or 2 goal lead, and we’re chasing a match that we probably aren’t going to catch. Because Villarreal’s incessant pressure and hard work forced more negative passes from us than I have seen in a long time. And the center of the pitch, where this battle would be won or lost, had Xavi and Gangly, the Collapsible Boy. Villarreal had Marcos Senna. So you know how that battle went, and why Xavi had only brief moments of effectiveness. Because every time he got the ball, he was bracketed by 3 Villarreal players, snapping at his heels and removing all passing angles.
Usually, Keita comes rolling up to take the ball, or we have The Yaya to rumble up so that the pitch tilts, thus throwing the other players off balance and giving Xavi space. This time, Xavi was just screwed. The arrival of Iniesta in the second half relieved a lot of that pressure, and Xavi instantly began to show better because of the other midfield threat. But we were missing a layer, someone to fill that gap between midfield and forwards. Usually, it’s Keita (African Cup of Nations duty), or Messi (on vacation, watching from the stands), or The Yaya (ACN duty).
So today, we had two kids with Xavi, Busquets and Dos Santos, in a lineup that was Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, Busquets, Dos Santos, Xavi, Pedro!, Henry, Ibrahimovic. And that wasn’t going to cut it, particularly given that our 60 Million Euro Man decided to go on psychic walkabout. Yes, he’s allowed to have bad matches. Everyone is. This was, however, a bad time to have a bad match. If he wants to quell the rumors that he only shows up against minnows, matches such as this one are the answer. Kick ass and take names. Your club needs you.
When we notched an early goal, it was feeling pretty good, particularly the genesis of the goal. A brilliant Alves pass led to a ninja-style volley by Henry that smacked the crossbar square on, with Pedro! sliding in to put away the rebound. And usually, an early goal allows us to settle into our possession game and put things away as the other club chases the match. But hampered as we were, things were always tenuous. Guardiola sensed danger, and was off the bench as early as I have seen him, coaching, cajoling and guiding, trying to get us through a match that was always going to be very, very difficult.
Because without control of the midfield, we were reduced to long balls for the forwards, rather than the kind of inexorable passing development that usually leads to another goal, and another win. But Villarreal kept pressing, kept making demands of our funky defense, demands that weren’t met during one horrid sequence.
It all started out when Busquets, for whatever reason, was dicking around on the right-hand side of the pitch. So they passed the ball right into the space that should have been occupied by him. Realizing his error, he comes running back to where he should have been in the first place, but the damage is already done, and it’s a 3 on 2 as Busquets is rushing over to make it a 3 on 3. They feed the streaking attacker who slides in behind Puyol, who has one shot to make the right play. He sticks a leg out rather than moving his body, and everything is then out of balance. It’s a fire drill.
Abidal comes charging in to control the attacker on that side of the pitch, then he and Pique switch. Things look to be in control, but if you look closely you can see danger brewing, because Alves, Puyol and Busquets are gathered in front of Valdes, covering the same man. The shot comes and Busquets does what he almost always does, which is stick a leg out, deflecting the ball to the one of the two spots on the pitch that we don’t really have covered. The Villarreal attacker pops a pass to the other part of the pitch that we don’t have covered: the back post, because Alves is doing lord knows what.
Now, what you see most defenders do, when confronted with a guy about to shoot, is square their body in front of the shooter (like Pique, who took one for the club late in the second half). Alves turns to the side. Voila, a goal. Valdes was pretty much screwed, and chose to play for the near post instead of the far post shot. The guy hit a hell of a shot, and that was that. The defense was victimized by another leaking attacker. In the first half we got away with it, even though there again, everybody’s back was to the most important part of the pitch, the part containing the other team. This time, we didn’t.
The match was tied, and we got on the good foot, to no avail.
I could go on and on about the worrying signs that this match brought, but the fact of the matter is that this will be our most difficult match in the Liga this month, and Copa shouldn’t be that horrible, either. So we might get out of this DM-less stretch reasonably intact. No, we aren’t playing that well right now, but we haven’t been all season, yet we aren’t losing matches. Yes, draws feel like losses, but we’re spoiled. Villarreal will justly feel like they left two points on the pitch today, and Guardiola will have plenty of deficiencies to show his charges, who had better learn fast, because Sevilla comes up mid-week, in the first leg of the next Copa round.
Meanwhile, we have some points to dole out:
Team: 5. You can’t let someone beat you at your own game.
Guardiola: 7. Pretty much had to play the lineup that he had to play, though I don’t know why you sub Krkic for Pedro!. Frankly, I would have subbed him for Henry or Ibrahimovic, probably the latter, who was clearly a time bomb waiting to go off.
Valdes: 7. A couple of funky early touches, and some stellar play after that. Not sure that he could have done much about the goal.
Alves: 6. Some excellent passes and good defensive plays, but came up short at crucial times, which puts the whole back line in danger. And look here, Glamor Boy, take a hint from Premiership defenders and get your damned body in front of the shooter.
Pique: 5. He’s showing signs of playing his way out of the funk that has plagued him of late. His passing is getting back to where it was, but he’s still slow on the tactical uptake these days. I might try Txigrinski in his place next match.
Puyol: 4. Some fine plays brought him up from a much worse rating, in a match filled mostly with bad for him, from bad positioning and woeful passes to a lack of his usual tactical awareness. And he should have had a penalty and yellow card to his credit.
Abidal: 8. A couple of passes that knocked off the legs of Villarreal attackers, and gave up a needless corner with a heavy touch after putting out a fire caused by Puyol. But he was far and away our best defender. Remember that play in which Puyol should have moved his body to cover? Abidal showed how in bailing out the defense on the very next Villarreal possession.
Busquets: 3. Almost everything bad that happened, came about as a result of one of his errors, from giving the ball away to Senna then falling down, to sticking out a haphazard leg and deflecting the ball to a Villarreal attacker, to a shitty pass to Puyol that led to the break that led to what should have been a penalty for them. If you think I’m harsh, just watch the match and count the mistakes that he makes, the times that he dwells on the ball too long, the poorly weighted passes.
Xavi: 7. Brilliant in the first half, less so in the second, though Iniesta saved his bacon. His movement was a little off, though the incredible pressure had a lot to do with that.
Dos Santos: 6. Hey, he didn’t get the memo that you aren’t supposed to pass to Henry, so he did, and the results were delightful. Contributed to very good midfield pressure, as well. Unfortunately for him, he was the obvious sub with Iniesta coming in. The kid’s a keeper.
Pedro!: 8. Constant movement and danger, with some brilliant passes that led to dangerous chances. His long passes are usually spot on. I still think he’s tactically a bit slow, but that kind of stuff can be learned. Exceptional match for him today.
Henry: 9. Not quite perfect, because he ran out of steam, but almost everything good offensively came from him, from the shot that resulted in the goal, to the best chances of the match for us, only to be outdone by excellent defensive plays or (on the one header) a great play by the keeper. The symbolic play for me was when he was driving up the wing and was fouled, got up and laid on a lovely cross. Too bad Ibrahimovic was late to the party, a tardy arrival that surprised Pedro! I think, who got there a fraction late.
Ibrahimovic: 1. Awful. Just awful. Petulant, ineffective and just plain bad. Had a great chance on the doorstep, and tried some silly flick thing? What the hell was that? I repeat. Man the hell up. Yes, they were fouling you, jumping into you then falling down only to have you get the whistle. Talented players are supposed to rise above all of that stuff. Letting it get to you just drags you down to the level of the mortals.
Iniesta (for Dos Santos): 9. What a sub role for Ghostface, who was betrayed a couple of times by a funky first touch, but he played exceptionally well. No surprise that our possession got stronger and more dangerous when he came on, as that player who can run with the ball, to move a defense around.
Krkic (for Pedro!): 1. In just about his only touch, he ran at 5, count ’em, 5 Villarreal defenders, who just let him get nice and deep before taking the ball away. “Hey, kid. Give me that.” The right play is to hold up and wait for support, rather than barging up the pitch and playing right into the other side’s hands. Wait for teammates, and we have real danger.
Now, we all know what was missing: That player that can run with the ball, changing defensive relationships on the pitch and creating danger. But that guy was in the stands, recovering from vacation and looking like he needed a nap and a shave. Iniesta did some of that. We were also missing a layer of pass reception, and a man to make Xavi’s life easier. Busquets ain’t it. He might be in a couple of years, but he isn’t now, and won’t be by the end of January.
There isn’t a whole lot more to say about this one, except get used to it. Every side that we play has the date on which they play us, circled on the calendar. On that night, they get a good night’s rest and do everything right, because we will be the match of their season. It’s going to be a close, hard road, so strap in.
But as usual, a bit of joy to leave you thinking good thoughts.