“This was an intelligent win,” said the team’s coach, Gerardo Martino.
While it’s always tempting to analyze statements, like when someone says “You look nice today,” and your thought is “What, do I look like crap all the other days,” that analysis is often dangerous. But let’s have a little look at it, just for fun.
This team has been pragmatic, pretty, direct and any other modifier that you want to throw at a football club. But for me, what made Martino’s statement so true is that the club let Betis kill themselves. It used the space they left, the weaknesses they displayed the flaws in their approach. It was a win based in malleability and understanding, one of those wins after which an opponent says “How the hell did THAT happen?”
Although not every match will be reviewed this season, this was rather an odd one for many reasons. FCB visited Betis, a great ground peopled by great fans and a team with heart that can be measured in the ton. They were also absent 9 of their gala XI, something which might have played into a laudable decision by their embattled coach, Pepe Mel: Let’s play football.
So rather than the counterattacking turtle approach to matters, Betis came out to play. They pressed high, played a very high back line and decided that being at home, they would do the opposite of many teams. What Barça usually see is a team playing for the 0-0. So there are two ranks of 4 with a packed midfield, a single striker and the other players with an “all hands on deck” mentality.
Betis came out with an approach that found Martino getting the lineup right: Valdes, Alves, Bartra, Puyol, Montoya, Song, Xavi, Messi, Neymar, Pedro, Fabregas. It was the right lineup that became even better when a player was injured, but that’s another notion. Meanwhile, when Betis decided to be brave, to press and go for it, death or glory was really the only option.
The result was 1-4, and could have been 0-4. The possession statistics weren’t gaudy (57%), even if they weren’t quite the “disaster” of Rayo Vallecano, a match that was similarly open and resulted in a similar scoreline. But more interestingly, it was a match that dictated a very direct approach to matters. Direct. This meant the jackrabbits up front, as Martino adapted his charges and approach to the opponent. Nor should we forget the green-painted cabbage patch that passed for a pitch today, that made a ground game impossible.
In the past there has been “The Barça Way”: possession, triangles, curlicues and elegance. Ah, nostalgia. SWOON! There was passing, probing and an inexorable build toward an eminently logical goal. But against certain opponents, teams that packed it back, it often resulted in possession as a road to nowhere.
But along the way, something happened, as the team recognized that with opponents figuring out how to play against tika taka, verticalidad had to enter the picture. Vilanova opened up the war chest last season, even as he didn’t really have the players to do it. Then, with the addition of Neymar, everything changed. What the club purchased in that willowy Brazilian, was a Plan B.
The traditional Plan B people have been clamoring for has always been a 9 to lump it in to. Now for the life of me, I can’t figure out how feeding a 9 who is surrounded by opposing defenders is going to be any more effective than passing the ball around outside two banks of 5, but that’s just me. I’m silly that way. But Plan Bs can come in any number of ways, something realized by Vilanova, even by Guardiola when he had jackrabbits such as Eto’o and Henry, who could run onto balls fed out from the back, or over the top.
As I have written in the past, tika taka was a tactical reaction to an available toolbox. A coach would be a fool if he didn’t adapt a system to take advantage of the available players. Martino has done this, even as people carp about the team moving away from “The Barça Way.” There is talk of lost edge, diminution of quality, blablablabla. Meanwhile, this team is unbeaten. One Liga and one Champions League draw are the only instances of dropped points.
People want to find things. One pundit said that today’s win was a reliance on individual brilliance, an approach that would seem to be suicidal in Europe. This of course ignores that history of success that was in fact based in individual brilliance. The Iniestazo, the Henry goals in the 2-6 Classic. The Eto’o toe poke that came against the run of play against United. Messi’s dolphin header into the opposite corner. Goal after goal that was a direct consequence of individual brilliance. That’s what gets a team over the top in a world of equals in European football.
Betis was running, working, playing its hearts out and then in a two-minute span, it all went pear-shaped for those bravehearts.
In the first goal, it was 35 minutes in and looking like a goalless draw rolling into the half. Pedro ran onto a long pass from Bartra, and chipped into the hands of the keeper. In the very next sequence, Song laid in an absurd pass that split two defenders, in a perfect place for Fabregas to run onto. He slid the ball across to a running Neymar, who tapped home into an open net.
As Mascherano said, if you can score in three passes, why take 20? That goal was two passes.
In the second goal, Bartra headed the ball clear for Pedro to run onto. He tapped the ball to himself on the dead run, slashed past the Betis defense and curled home. Again. Two passes and the keeper is picking the ball from the back of his net.
Both goals used pace and pinpoint passing to take advantage of the way an opponent was playing. Barça has faced high lines in the past, but things were different, because the defense was always ready and willing to collapse onto the one player who could take advantage of that high line: Messi.
But in one of the stranger things, something that really isn’t all that strange any longer, when Messi went off the pitch, the team became more rather than less dangerous. We have all seen how in the past, Messi goes off the pitch and the team becomes this collection of wandering midgets looking for inspiration, really doomed to have to try to pass the ball into the net, because the pace AND the individual scoring brilliance, embodied in one man, went to have a seat.
When Messi went out against Betis, ALL 11 players became involved in the match. No knock against Messi, because we all know how he plays in this day and age. But arguably, all 11 players involved at both ends of the pitch makes the team more dangerous and more in control of a match and its opponent.
The team also became more dangerous because with an star-studded offense such as Barça have, having one player who is The Threat sells those other players short. Xavi isn’t going to beat you and score a goal. But Xavi can ghost in and pick off a pass to slot home. Pedro isn’t going to kill you, but give him a ball to run onto, and he can raise hell. And now, the team has a jackrabbit straining in the traps in Neymar.
Time after time after time, real danger originated in the efforts of number 11, a player who at the other end, tackled to win a ball, then ran onto the long pass from Fabregas, then slid the pass to Pedro, who just missed scoring thanks to the intervention of one of the cadre of indefatigable Betis defenders.
Now have a look at the third goal, tidy, elegant interplay from the feet of Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas as the ball pinged around before falling to Montoya, who slid the cross in for Fabregas to tap home. It was tradition, and it was beautiful.
The fourth goal was again, simple and direct, using space that Betis chose to cede to Alves. So a long pass from Xavi to Alves, then from Alves into the box for Fabregas to run onto and bang.
So there you have it: a fast break, a counter, a tika taka delight and a long pass for a headed goal. In three of the four cases, the goals were very direct, aggressive and, rather than working gradually toward goal, slashed and burned. It’s difficult to not laugh ruefully at quips about Martino, post-match, having to explain why he took advantage of the way an opponent played.
“And once again, Ray,” says match announcer Phil Schoen, “we’re coming to the end of a Barcelona match in which they have been far from perfect, but the scoreboard is dominant in their favor.”
“We’re spoiled, is what it is,” replies Ray Hudson.
This is exactly right. But more than that, the complexity of memory is such that we don’t want to remember bad things. Knife fights with Espanyol, a diving Henry header than salvaged a Champions League draw at Lyon, the Estudiantes battle that was decided late, only when those warriors began to tire, coming in the form of a submarine chest into goal from Messi. Memory lets us forget those matches.
But then as today, an opponent took the fight to Barça, worked like dogs, battled to win the midfield and took an ass whipping. Culers will scoff that teams play anti-football, choosing to turtle up and play on the counter. But as an opposing coach, what the hell would YOU do? I know what I would do, and that’s give my team the best possible chance to win. And that means the turtle counter game. You can’t play an open match against Barça. I don’t think that any team in the world can win an open match against Barça. I think that our club has the best collection of direct attacking talent in the world.
Do other teams have different ways of scoring, and more ability in a method of attack? I’ll buy that. But if those teams come at Barça without a controlled approach that is rooted in defense (yes, Bayern did this last year), they will get their throats cut.
The end of Messidependencia?
Isn’t that a good question. Recall what happened last season when Messi was injured against Paris St. Germain, dragged his semi-healed bones out for the second leg and changed everything. You heard it then, that Barça can’t play without Messi, that there was this psychological albatross that will eventually doom the team. Then Messi reinjured his leg, and never featured against Bayern.
Moving to the Liga, Messi continued to rest and heal, and something happened. Barça found ways to win without Messi. Other players scored, Alexis Sanchez began to blossom into the confident hellraiser that he now is. The summer of Neymar came and suddenly, Messi returned to something very different: a complete team. It needed him, because what team doesn’t need the best player in the world? But it was also a team that wasn’t paralyzed by that need. That is the difference between then and now, and it’s a wonderful thing.
Messi is best when he’s part of team. Argentina has Messi, Aguero, Higuain, in addition to the other talents on that side. It’s a team on which Messi is the best player. And that works. Barça is, once again, that kind of a team, and I love it.
For me, I do sincerely hope that this is the end of Messidependencia. He is spectacular. But the fact that we are getting it done and with style without him, is a great sign.
Speaking of revisionism, there was a great hue and cry to play Marc Bartra more last season, that he was the future and the club was going to “do another Thiago” and lose him by not playing him enough to satisfy his demands. Statements such as these came without having a clue about what those demands were. Meanwhile, the process continued, and a young player matured.
We saw him with Pique, a player who for my money isn’t ever going to be captain material. The on-pitch shaping that was necessary from a back line general wasn’t coming. Bartra looked better with Mascherano. Then when Puyol returned to the side, suddenly he had a back line partner. Our Capita isn’t the player he was before his immense laundry list of injuries, but he still knows what to do and where to tell a player to be. He makes Bartra better, and is helping to complete the maturation process in that delightful thing: a home-grown Barça CB.
Was he ready last year? Nope. Is he fully ready this year? Still, no. But he is a lot closer to fully ready because of the process that brought him along, that worked him into a team without forcing him in to satisfy playing time dictates of pundits, media critters and supporters. He and Barça are better for it. He was magnificent today, and put Puyol in the shade
Same old Song, but with a different beat
The team had two matches in which Sergi Busquets was played over Alex Song, and the “waste of money” talk started. Martino has to be able to count on him, etc, etc. Meanwhile, we were starting to realize that we had a coach who shifted lineups and personnel based on the opponent and their style. But here’s another thing:
You can replace Busquets like you can replace Messi. That is, you can’t. Expecting Alex Song, a world-class player, to be the equal of Busquets and slagging him because he isn’t, is the pinnacle of unfair absurdity. Song is the player that HE is, not the player that Busquets is. He’s also the exact type of player who would thrive in a match such as Betis played today. Martino knew that, which is why he rested Busquets by not even having him in the squad, and tipped Song to do well in the pre-match presser.
And Song was exceptional today, as tunes changed, when people mentioned him at all. Because some have so much invested in him being a waste of money that they would rather be silent than acknowledge that he played an excellent match today. And that’s okay. People need security blankets. But here’s another thing: Song has NEVER been as bad as his detractors allege, which is why he still has a spot on what, for me, is still the best club in the world.
“He isn’t a center back.” Duh. He was purchased as a player who COULD play center back. His first outing was pretty craptastic, but subsequent ones were much improved. In the midfield, the “crap CB” dogged him, or the other convenient brickbat, “lack of positional sense.” This one is easy, because saying it imparts the person who says it with Knowledge. It also ignores the fact that somebody told Song where and how to play when he was on the pitch, because that’s what he did.
Contrary to popular belief, players don’t decide “Hey, I’m going to do this.” They are part of a match plan, and an overall system. And they improve as they work in to being fully part of a team. Song is doing this, even down to the Barça Way of farting around with the ball in our defensive end, rather than just hoofing it the hell out.
And people say, “Song is improving,” or “this was his best match for Barça.” Nope. He has had excellent matches before for the team, and will have more excellent matches for the team. He isn’t Busquets, and he isn’t a CB. What’s more, he is never going to be. Busquets is never going to be Toure Yaya, but people don’t give him crap for that. Because he is what we need in the role that we use him. The same is true of Song.
While people dump on Barça for not being a team that it never was to begin with, Gerardo Martino is going about the task of building a club that can win trophies. We know that he assumed the reins of a club that won the Liga last season, and did it in record-setting style. The nucleus is there. But what he is adding is confidence, flexibility and adaptability. He makes adjustments, scouts and comes up with a game plan for each match.
Within those plans, personnel will change. He has a favored XI. We know this because Fabregas isn’t part of it, as he said in some post-match remarks, adding that he wants to work to add himself to that XI. Good on him.
The team is fragile, and always has been. That is what happens when you have truly great players at so many positions. “The Xavi replacement.” Xavi is only the best offensive/playmaking midfielder in the history of the game, to my view. There simply IS nobody to replace him. Who the hell do you replace Iniesta with? Or Messi, Busquets or Alves. Or Valdes, for that matter. The club buys players, slots them in and they do okay, even as they pale in comparison to a player who is one of the best in the world at his position. Duh.
Martino understands all that, and adapts the system in a way that allows the players that we have to be as good as they can be, in their context. Pedro can’t beat defenders, as he has to when the club plays tika taka. But he can sure as hell run onto the end of a long pass. “Where has this Pedro been,” people ask. Looking at two defenders and passing the ball back to midfield, is where. In space and with running room, the old Pedro is back.
Having a coach who comprehends this, who sets up a game plan that allows the players that we have to work within its context is a wonderful thing. Fabregas isn’t a tika taka player. He gets impatient, and takes risks. Neymar can tika taka, but why waste him doing that, unless you want to control the match with possession.
There is no one formation, no Way of playing. And yet the club wins. You can see the tinkering, fiddling that sometimes doesn’t go exactly as it should and the team turns the ball over or Valdes is forced to make a save. Martino is still figuring out how to use the players that he has, but if fast getting a clue. Fabregas, for example, has looked good in the first half of the season in previous years. But there is a comfort and confidence to his game. Same with Sanchez. Busquets is being pushed into becoming a DM with an AM way of thinking, a destroyer who creates.
We shouldn’t assume that this Barça is a finished product, and find that product wanting. It’s a hunk of raw material that is being shaped right before our eyes. Players are coming and going, and key players are right now dealing with injury complexities, most notably the club’s best player. We haven’t even seen anything close to a fully operational Death Star, yet people are already prophesying its doom. It’s something that I don’t understand, because I see a work in progress, and am loving watching that progress occur.
What’s the deal with Messi?
Lawdy, how the speculation is going on. “He doesn’t seem mentally or physically into it any longer.” “Why is he hurt so much?” “Whose fault is it?” Etc, etc, etc.
I sure am glad people can detect a player’s mental state just by looking at him. Some of Messi’s best matches have come when he appears to be sleepwalking, with that “Whatevs” face. That is his demeanor, but people are going to read into that what they will. But it’s the physical part that interests me.
“He never got injured under Pep Guardiola.” This is interesting, because Messi has a history of fragility. When Guardiola took over the club, part of his approach was a systematic way of dealing with players. It was diet, preventive maintenance and strengthening, a wholistic approach to making a modern footballer.
I saw an MD story that said Messi is “now” working with a nutritionist. The word nerd in me reads that sentence as he hasn’t been hitherto, and wonders what changed.
There was a recent story on Olympic athletes and what they ate, and people were stunned. Why, I don’t know. My time as an elite-level athlete wasn’t all that long (it never is, really), but I can tell you that for me, functionally, there was no such thing as a bad calorie. BUT, there was a way of eating in place that worked best for my body, that fed and hydrated the muscles, etc. ALL athletes should have this.
Why is Messi getting hurt now? Everything, even from the player himself, is speculation. You wonder if a wholistic approach is no longer being taken, if as Messi moves from Lionel Messi to Messi to Greatest Player Ever, if shortcuts are being taken, if muscles suddenly aren’t getting the care and feeding they should. Martino said this is the other leg, not the one he has been wrestling with since last season. This means it’s more than bad luck. What it exactly is, we have no idea.
We can also speculate that fatigue has something to do with it, because tired muscles are more easily injured. Messi has had rest, but Messi hasn’t had a break. When he isn’t playing football he is preparing to play football, rehabbing, preparing, doing something. Maybe he’s a player who, more than anything, needs a break. Rest those legs and let them heal.
Maybe it is the prophylactic thing that has fallen by the wayside, that he isn’t taking care of the motor as he should. Constant vigilance is hard, even for the most driven, committed athletes. Day after day, doing this thing you have to do. Parties, dinners, PlayStation, fun stuff has to wait because the task, the maintenance, is more important. And that crap starts to wear on you.
The biggest joy of not being an elite racer was waking up on a Sunday morning, rolling over in bed to look at my wife, then going to breakfast. No weight training, no motorpacing, no drills, no nothing. Just pancakes. And it was wonderful. I can’t imagine what Messi’s life must be like, but can only imagine the impossibility of adhering to a regimen.
Don’t forget that when Guardiola was coaching the club, it still wasn’t the Greatest Show on Earth. So the demands weren’t as numerous or as acute. Messi is also a father, and an adult with a lot more responsibilities. He is no longer playing with Legos or PlayStation, being tended to and playing football. It’s different now. Is this new life part of the matter? Again, who knows?
What I do know is that these injuries he is suddenly dealing with are no more anyone’s fault than anything else. Life breaks us down. Why is Adriano suddenly much less injured this season? Like Messi who is the reverse, who knows?
Man of the Match
This is an easy one for me. Victor Valdes. A keeper is crucial to a club. Duh. But playing keeper is also complex. Xavi can make 200 pass attempts in a match, have 5 go awry and he still had a brilliant statistical game. A keeper might have fewer than 10 chances in a match to deal with the ball. Every last one has to be exact, or his team is down on the scoresheet and has to atone for his fallibility by scoring a goal themselves.
A keeper can also keep his team in a match, keep things calm until they find their stride and score some goals.
Valdes was all this and more today. He even launched accurate long passes, and charged out of the box to play CB when Puyol unleashed a real stinker of a pass that led to a Betis attack.
The praise is coming fast and furious, and people are saying “How will Barça ever replace him?” But it wasn’t so long ago that he was dodgy, and had nicknames like Exxon Valdes. Now, it’s difficult to think of a keeper playing better than he is right now, even as in far fewer months than we would like, we will have to start thinking about a different face tending our nets.
For now, all we can say is gracies, VV. Keep it up.