Another day, another moving target for our wee ones.
Levante wasn’t fit to be in the Liga. Wait til Malaga.
Malaga was down on its luck. Wait til Rayo.
Rayo had more possession, we got lucky. Wait til La Real.
Yeah, whatever. La Real are playing like crap. Wait to see what happens against Celtic. And without Messi!
We won, but now Celtic isn’t good enough. So we’ll see who’s next.
This was a very interesting match, because it isn’t often that you get to see a new coach against the same European opponent. And boy, was today fascinating.
We know what happened last season: Celtic pulled out an historic win, cheered on by everyone including the homer Fox Soccer announcers. Rod Stewart wept like a baby, and Barça showed many weaknesses.
This year, same opponent, different coach, VERY different result, because of a great many things, all worth noting individually.
Last year, the team was playing tika taka as if by rote. Lots of possession, no real purpose, no player available on the wings to change the match or cause pressure, with predictable results. There was much passing around of the ball in the midfield, few real chances, few opportunities for anything except watching Celtic cheer hard work and work that found them in the right place at the right time. Boom. Loss.
This year, the club had a plan, and you could see it from the outset. It wasn’t just tika taka, it was possession football that probed the opponent for a weakness, happy to be patient until an opportunity presented itself. When Celtic got the ball, almost each and every time, the Celtic attacker was presented by at least three sprites. Closed. There was pressure, and by every member of the team, not just 9 of 10. This meant that last avenue was closed off.
There was purpose and steel, two things that ultimately saw out the match.
The intelligence of this club this season is not to force things. It’s very easy to pass the ball back to the midfield and reset. This is what Martino means by keeping control of a match. Celtic had a few chances, both from dead balls. But from open play? Nothing, because the match was under control. If you lose the ball, get it back and reset. Just one example, Neymar lost the ball to Ambrose, who took off on the break. Neymar tracked back, getting help from Adriano and Busquets. They stole the ball, and resumed the probing. Patience.
What this means is to keep play in front of you, to keep the ball in sight and the play at the defenders’ feel. The few times that things got out of balance resulted in Celtic having a sliver of an opportunity. Turn Pique sideways, or make him run backward and he’s in trouble. When he is bouncing on his toes, anticipating play, he is a hell of a defender. The play of the whole team helps keep the defense in its element.
Bartra roamed forward, Pique stayed home to keep the back locked down. This was the second match we have seen this, with a similar result: not a lot of drama, nor opponent goals. Part of that Barça-style defending was Valdes passing out of the back, instead of hoofing it long. Team attack, team defense.
Picking up after each other
Martino seems to have given everyone a clearly defined role. Xavi was usually forward, with Iniesta in the traditional Xavi role. Neymar and Alves functioned as wing attackers, and Busquets as a defensive-minded playmaker. The attention, the focus, the orientation was on attack, but patient attack. And when one person was found out or had a lull, there was always a teammate with a key intervention, interception or stop.
Bartra on the loose
Last season, when Bartra was asked to be a traditional defender, something that ALL of our defenders spent too much time doing last season, he looked uncomfortable and clunky. And tentative. Duh. When do our defenders play like traditional defenders? Compare that this this season, with the attacking defense. Bartra owned Samaras today, not allowing him much chance to do anything. Steals, interceptions and runs, Bartra made his second lobbying for MOTM. But again, as with the moving target, it is the next opponent who will find him and our terrible defense out.
Real wingers change everything
Neymar started, and Messi was out. And Neymar was a terror. Yellow card for one player, then another, red for another, movement, passing, faking, constant danger. This unbalanced the Celtic defense, and widened the field for them, because whenever Neymar beat his man, two other defenders were called upon. They then had to run back to defend other players.
To be sure, Neymar made a meal of a couple of challenges, the forehead hooraw, and the Scott Brown “Wait, you aren’t the ball?” moment. But you know what? Even those moments showed that he was capable of getting under the opponent’s (and opposing fans) skin. Boo him all you like, but Neymar is a difference-maker, on and off the ball. People aren’t booing him because he playacts. They’re booing him because he gets fouls called, AND he kicks ass. Get used to it.
A real Plan B
The counterattack, some say with a sneer. Barça is becoming a counterattacking team, something that is somehow beneath them. But you know what? During the vaunted Treble season, there were counter goals galore as the defense turned possession, then fired vertically to Henry or Eto’o on the bust-out. If you have an opponent who puts everyone behind the ball, how are you going to generate a real chance on goal? Wait for a sliver of an opportunity, then hit them on the counter. No tika taka, no 45,834 passes, just flying up the pitch and the keeper picking the ball out of the back of the net. Plan B works. Beneath Barça? Maybe. I don’t think so. I rather like it, because now the team has multiple ways of scoring, rather than just passing the ball around and waiting for Messi to make some magic.
And that goal was perfect. The ball was fed to Busquets, who saw Neymar streaking up the pitch. Rather than going for goal himself, taking the opportunity to do something highlight reel that might have failed, he opted for the surer thing, holding up play beautifully until Alexis Sanchez (subbed on for Pedro) came into the picture. A lovely layoff found Sanchez in space with the ball, and time to think.
When Sanchez gets the ball, there are SIX Celtic attackers, all with their attention focused on Sanchez and the ball. Meanwhile, ghosting into the picture on the left side of the box, is Fabregas. Sanchez takes, pauses, and as Fabregas continues his run behind a distracted defense, Sanchez lays the ball in a perfect spot. Fabregas heads across the Celtic goal into the far corner, and that’s that. What a goal.
Counter? Okay, sure. And why not? Meanwhile, your club is still perfect in Champions League and the Liga, until the next test. And I think that’s pretty cool.
EXTRA SUPER-DUPER POST WITHIN A POST, ON MANLINESS
In the LiveBlog (thank you, VJ!!!!) thread, in the aftermath of the match, some were calling our players “soft,” and saying that they needed to man up. I don’t understand that, and here’s why:
I find this notion of “manning up,” and “playing like a man” to be a misguided notion that has its roots in this English-style mentality. Leaving aside the fact that the Premiership has more than its fair share of divers and embellishers, a foul is a foul is a foul. If you don’t want a player to exaggerate or make a mountain out of a little foul, I have a suggestion:
Don’t kick him.
On two occasions, Neymar made a lot of a foul: the forehead incident, and the Brown red card. The first episode was a bit silly, and he seemed to know it. But the second was legit, and yes, he did the right thing in calling the ref’s attention to it, just as, in the second half, a Celtic player was fouled by Busquets, and waved his arms around as if suffering the 47 Agonies, waving one arm in a “card! Card!” Gesture.
Where is the manliness them? When “our” player does it, it’s gamesmanship. When “their” player does it, it’s shameful.
Our players get kicked. A lot. Neymar gets kicked more than any of them, even Messi, which is pretty incredible. So why do players do it? To calm the match down. If you get kicked every time you get the ball, at what point do you decide to do something about it? The only way to get it to stop is to get a card on the person kicking you. So you flail around. Samaras was tapped by Alves, and his big ass dropped to the pitch like a stone.
Like anyone, up to and including Neymar, Samaras was trying to get Alves in trouble with the officials. And he was fouled. There is nothing manly about getting kicked, standing there and taking it. That’s just silly, particularly when your team is peopled by small, technically skilled players who don’t have the physical advantages that opponents have. So when you get kicked, to bring the match from their terms to yours, you exaggerate fouls that you receive. Why? Because being kicked hurts. A lot.
Try this: Get a friend to put on some football cleats. Now start running, and have your friend kick you in the Achilles tendon. See what you do. It hurts. Would you fall to the floor, flailing around and making imaginary card gestures? You might.
Some of the stuff that Alves and Alba do is silly. It’s also beyond the realm of exaggerating a foul received. Exaggeration is also different than diving. We have seen Barça players dive. Pedro isn’t considered a diver, yet Pedro has taken dives on more than one occasion. Iniesta isn’t a diver, but he will exaggerate the effect of a foul, so that the ref understands how hard he is being kicked. Messi will take steps to ensure that the ref understands that he is being kicked, and needs protection. No, Messi doesn’t dive. But Messi exaggerates, just like so many other players, including Neymar.
Notice as well how once the desired effect is reached, the exaggerating player calms down and plays through challenges. The kicking has stopped, so the point was made. People sneer about “cheating,” and how Barça are divers. This is nonsense. Barça players are using their physical DISadvantages just as opponents use their physical advantages.
And what in the heck is wrong with that?t