“The feeling was that the game was over after 30 minutes and we paid dearly,” Tata Martino said in a post-match Press conference. “When you can step on your rivals, you have to step on them, finish the game and win.”
Few things are more meteoric than culers during a Barça match. “Best team ever!” “Sell everyone!” And all points in between. Pique is brilliant, Pique is a prat. And so on. I have another suggestion, however:
What if our players are simply human beings, who are, at long last, showing exactly how difficult it is to be brilliant, to make people oooh, aaah and win match after match, week after week.
Football is a capricious thing. We see this in the matches that have crazy scorelines, as some third-division side rattles the cage of a first-division giant. Things happen. And when Valencia in effect sold the team, brought in a bunch of new players then rolled into the Camp Nou, many were predicting a slaughter of epic proportions. And for the first 30 minutes of the match, it looked like that was precisely what was going to happen.
When the cat doesn’t kill the mouse, the mouse gets up and runs away.
In the post-match rush to blame, lots came out: Martino, Pique, the Alba/Alves combo, the board for not replacing Abidal, Bartomeu just because. The two things that were mostly missed, however, were the players wearing Blaugrana, and Valencia, a team who had significantly more to play for mentally than Barça.
Want is a weird thing. If you look at the play that resulted in one of the Valencia goals, Alves kinda sashayed over to the ball, while Piatti, the smallest man on the pitch (which is pretty astounding when you consider our collection of wee ones) charged it, shouldered him out of the way and made it happen. Want.
On their first goal, Mascherano half-assed a slide tackle, then Busquets did likewise. Valencia, not believing their luck, charged forward to convert the gift that came from a team being sloppy in possession. And people see trends, just not the right trends for me.
Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, is a ruthless bastard who keeps him team on top. They don’t always win championships, but they are always in the running in the American football league. How? Turnover. He discards, trades, jettisons, benches, never becomes too attached to a player who might become an albatross. You. Out. We need to move on.
Is he any smarter than any other coach? Some claim yes, but who knows. He certainly understands the necessity of keeping a team on top, that new blood that keeps a group hungry.
I had the delightful occasion to edit an interview with jazz reedist Branford Marsalis, who was talking about his fiftysomething self and what happened to his long-standing band when a 22-year-old was added to the mix. For many years he had been pretty damned sure his band was playing its ass off, was just about as intense as any band could be. Then that comparative kid rolled in and said, “No, THIS is intense,” and knocked them on their butts.
They are playing their asses off again, for real. Because you forget until an infusion of something or other makes you remember. Because humans become complacent. They rely on history and knowledge to tell them what they know, until they find out that they in fact don’t know, and the unexpected happens.
Would Piatti have shouldered Montoya aside as he did Alves? Interesting question. Montoya is, after all, playing for a job and a contract. Alves kinda is, but understands that his pedigree and history mean that he can pretty much be assured of another fat contract, whether he stays in Barcelona or takes his trade elsewhere. Does that mean Alves was lazy, or didn’t want to make the right play? Absolutely not. But Piatti had a lot more to prove.
You’d also be fair in looking at that goal and wondering what in the Blaugrana hell Valdes was doing. The only chance that header had of going in was if the keeper came off his line for some unfathomable reason, to present just the right angle. Valdes obliged, and there ya go.
It is worth reminding people that this is the same team that, at home, defeated RM 2-1, held Ronaldo without a shot on goal and would have had the clean sheet had Messi not turned the ball over, leading to a break that they converted. That team. And that team, I am sure we will all recall, didn’t suck. Far from it. That team didn’t have problems, or systemic this or that. It was a championship team who stared its eternal rival in the eye and didn’t blink, a team that left it all on the pitch and pulled off a stunning victory, made even more so in light of the fact that we weren’t even fully fit yet, weren’t even fully ready to rock and roll.
That is the same team that lost to Valencia, essentially because it lost interest in the match. The players know, the coach knows, anyone who watched the match know, because you could see it. Valencia didn’t lose interest. Not at all. And for many, their MOTM was Jeremy Mathieu, a player who, when his name came up as a potential transfer to Barça and many thought the idea was interesting, drew laughs. “He isn’t good enough,” so many said. Maybe. But he sure was good enough to play a major role in his team pulling off a stunning upset.
Want is a weird thing. It is really, really hard to stay on top. It’s even harder without an infusion of new blood and energy. Look at the Neymar effect. Nobody told him that it’s time to be complacent. So he runs around, capers, tries stuff, does double nutmegs and scores goals. He runs around like the colt unbound that he is, because he’s new, he’s that infusion.
Cesc Fabregas said in an interview last week that Messi being back calms the team, makes them feel better about things. But given that since Messi’s return the team has drawn twice, won once and lost, maybe that isn’t the best feeling for them to have. Maybe that edginess, that necessity to prove something, that Barça is still Barça even withOUT the best player alive, counts for something.
Someone said something crazy on Twitter yesterday, about the notion of selling Messi. Is THIS what a loss does to culers? The team lost to Valencia because it got complacent. And lazy. And Valencia played its collective asses off, playing over its heads because there was something to prove, and our team played right into their hands. It happens. It happened under Guardiola, it happened under Vilanova and it happened under Martino. It happened because it is the core of a team that won everything under the sun and then won some more, a human team that can’t help but read its own press clippings, watch its own highlight reels, know that it has the best player in world football right now and, unbidden and inadvertently, emit a sigh of contentment.
And along comes a Valencia to make them understand that no, it isn’t that easy, that it never was even as it did indeed seem that easy.
The reason that team can focus for the big matches and play as it has the potential to is because the challenge invigorates, sparks that nebulous thing that activates potential. But it’s those other matches that win championships. I saw a few times yesterday that “In a 100-point league, you can’t …” None of the top 3 teams will be getting to 100 points this season. Count on it. There are many surprises yet to come in this Liga season, as a minnow rises up, a mid-table team finds the collective game of its lives from somewhere and things get interesting for one of the top three clubs.
So no, the championship isn’t over because we lost to Valencia. The only thing over is that however-many-match unbeaten run at the Camp Nou, and XX number of weeks at the top of the table. And both of those are okay, particularly if the collective slap in the face works in a manner sufficient to, next time, rouse the boys from their psychic slumber.
WhoScored had Messi as Man of the Match, for what reason is unclear. There shouldn’t have really been a man of the match in an overall performance such as that by a collective. Tactics? Sure, that’s part of it as it’s clear that the False 9 experiment has come to an end. A keeper standing on his head to keep his club in the match? Sure. Okay. That, too. A loss by a top club is generally everything all at once.
There is talk of Plan Bs and Plan Cs, right on down to Z, but the fact of the matter is that our players have the talent to beat any club in the world. The problem for me, the problem that they are evincing is that they don’t always have the motivation. Some players said that Champions League was the focus this season, which makes sense. From here on out, every match is Big. No time to look at a Levante or a fire-sale Valencia and think “Okay, let’s spank these boys and go to be … what just happened?”
And it’s Armageddon Time. And talk of this player and that player, and this transfer and that transfer, and the one player who will make it All Right. And all of that talk is, for me, misguided. Would Abidal have kept Alves from being out-manned by a shrimp? Nope. Might he have stormed to the rescue on one of the other two goals? Maybe. Or maybe the collective malaise would have swept him in. Would a big 9 to lump the ball to have turned the tide? Maybe. But our players running and making space would have done the very same thing, instead of going it one-on-one, and shooting or dribbling when they should be passing the ball.
I don’t see a trend yet. And the reason I don’t see a trend is because this team is in the running for three trophies this season. If there were such a trend, it would be out of the running for one of those bits of silver. Until that time comes, I’m going to take each day, each match as it comes.
Undoubtedly, people will call me foolish for ignoring the deeper problems of this club, having the wrong players can’t you see that, etc, etc. That is certainly their right, and their opinion. But what I see is a roster stacked with talent, more than enough talent to dispatch any club in the world. It just has to put its mind to it.
That loss isn’t the board’s fault. Sure, transfers could have been made, but to what end? What player is truly going to improve that side, even as we also know that no player is good enough for culers. And as Martino has a trusted XI, would a transfer have been the one playing during that match? Doubtful. Alves/Pique/Mascherano/Alba is his choice back line. It isn’t Martino’s fault. He can prepare his team as best he could, but he can’t play the match for them. The fault lies, clearly and completely, with the 11 men wearing the Barça shirts. They had the chance to finish the match. play as they can play for an entire match, rather than just 30 minutes, rather than thinking that brilliance is like a switch.
Smarter people than me will have ideas about this player or that player who can solve everything, but the only transfer that I really want to see is Focus. That player is cheap, effective and unrelenting if properly deployed. Focus has a way of improving even the most malingering player, so think what it can do for our world-class footballers. And as Tata Martino works on that transfer, it might be one of the club’s most complex operations, even as the payoff will be immense.