It was the best of teams, it was the worst of teams, this group of players that we gather to support whenever they strap on their boots. From the heights of joy on Tuesday to the depths of despair on Saturday. And on a day when the ancient Vikings predicted the end of the world, maybe they were wrong … maybe they were just predicting what was going to happen in culer land.
Because La Real kicked some Blaugrana ass today.
The last time Barça got full points away to La Real was in the 2006-07 season, under Frank Rijkaard. Didn’t get silver, but beat Real Sociedad. So I reckon that’s something. The sense of history is absent, probably because so many believe as I do, that history’s bunk. Or maybe people just forget. They beat Guardiola, beat Vilanova, beat Martino. That wonderful 2011 Barça team that won Champions League? Drew at La Real. Last year’s record-setting Liga champions? Lost at La Real.
Bogey team? Snakebit? Dunno, but what was apparent was that La Real came out with intent. Someone in this space said they expected the bus to be parked. That didn’t happen. The opponent came out with every intention of playing football and winning the match. It was a young team with not as much to lose as its storied opponent, flying around and playing as if this were the final match any of its players was ever going to play.
Athletic Bilbao did that, and beat us. Ajax did that, and beat us. La Real was the latest opponent, this time with the advantage of facing a team that was stuffed fat with its press clippings as it had just come off of the victory at the majestic Etihad, where Manchester City not only wins, but destroys.
Iniesta said “We didn’t interpret the game correctly, and we paid for it.”
Martino said “It was probably a mistake not to make changes when it was 1-1. … I didn’t prepare the game well.”
And there is a seeming glee by some at the team falling, and falling badly, a joy that allows all of the people who have been saying the team was flawed, the team screwed up in squad building, the team is headed for a fall, the opportunity to gloat “SEE. I TOLD you so! See? Do ya see? I was RIGHT!”
But the reality is that only a myopic idiot couldn’t see that this wasn’t the squad that Martino wanted, just as it wasn’t the squad that Vilanova wanted, or the squad that Guardiola wanted. It’s a squad that hasn’t been right for years, a squad that needs significant additions and to take some hard decisions, a squad that needs to jettison some player weight in the form of Masia graduates who are never going to cut it, bargain purchases and other folks. this has been true for some time, but here’s the thing:
You can be bummed when the team that you love loses. It isn’t anything to celebrate or be smug about as some seem to be. Being right isn’t more precious than our pint-sized warriors dropping 3 points today in a stadium that has been hell for this team.
“Yeah, but we can analyze! No law says we can’t analyze!”
Nope. Not at all. But I’m a fan of balance. A team can’t be the best ever on Tuesday and the worst ever on Saturday. In both cases, it is a flawed team that is managing, sometimes to the good, other times to the bad. And make no mistake, it is a team.
And just as there are negative “what ifs,” there are also positive ones. What if that lovely interplay between Iniesta and Pedro resulted in a goal, as it often does? What if Bartra hadn’t tried to make a play on a ball going over his head, what if Adriano had decided to actually defend, instead of studying Canales’ technique with his next offensive foray in mind. What if, what if, what if.
What if culers understood how freakin’ HARD it is to week after week, stay on top, play every opponent who wants to make their season by dancing on your skulls. The shoves, the fouls, the stomps, the aggression, the crap that just wears you down. Players read papers, visit social media, see what people have to say. They will read that they kinda sucked today, and they will agree.
And some will probably say that they wished folks understood how difficult it all is. I don’t. I am an athlete who has competed and failed, who has been a favorite and failed, who has been an underdog and succeeded. I am still completely clueless as to how our players do it, week after week, and succeed far more often than they fail.
As usual, I popped in to Twitter just before halftime, and you’d have thought that Alex Song had grabbed Messi, bent his head back and quaffed from his severed jugular, such was the scorn. I missed the first half, but was able to watch the full match, because I was curious. And then I watched again. Then I went back down my Twitter timeline because again, I was curious.
The passes, the interventions, the defensive plays that helped the club were greeted with silence. I know, right? If we cheered every pass a Barça player made, we’d be hoarse with bloody hands. Maybe. But boy, that own goal that put Barça down 10-0 was appalling, right? The embodiment of everything wrong with Alex Song.
Song didn’t cover himself with glory, but up to and after that own goal, until the second half when the entire team decided to slide from sleepwalking to crappy, headless chickens, he was having a solid match. And there were players doing worse, who received not a mention. Adriano was a turnstile. Pique almost gifted La Real a goal by leaving a ball perfectly set up for Carlos Vela to strike, then laying out the turnover that resulted in the break that led to a La Real goal. Montoya made Alves’ day by being mediocre again, and I wonder if that taxi Messi was waiting for ever showed up? And that doesn’t cover everyone.
“But Song, man … dayum!”
Someone whose opinion I respect said of Song, “He is a fine player now in completely alien surroundings.”
Richard Whittall posted a wonderful breakdown of the exact sequence of circumstances that led to the Demichaelis sending off in the Champions League match. The point wasn’t to assess culpability, but rather to understand that an event is really a series of occurrences that culminate in one thing happening.
So for the Song own goal, it’s easy to ignore how easy La Real slid the ball around, how nonexistent the marking was on the Canales pass, how lucky the bad bounce was that took the perfectly placed pass from La Real attacker’s head to Song’s chest and past Valdes. Yes, it was an own goal, by a player who really couldn’t have done a lot to not have that be an own goal.
I was expecting some sort of silly kick at the ball, some direct headed clearance that fooled his own keeper, something to justify the derision. I watched him play, expecting to see a miasma of shame.
He apparently sucked on another goal, where a long ball from La Real was perfectly headed by Bartra directly into the path of a La Real attacker, who the defense was playing offside until the header turned an offside player into a danger already behind the high back line. Song raced back to track down the man with the ball, but nobody else thought that playing defense was that great an idea. So the hurried pass fell to a running Antoine Griezmann, who banged it home.
There was also a third goal, again a long pass over the top off a Pique turnover, that Song had the opportunity to head clear, falling down as he made the effort. Nonetheless he pushed the ball over to the sidelines, where La Real had to reset. Again, an opposing attacker was given the time and space to lace in a perfectly curled pass that fell directly to the feet of an onrushing attacker, who bounced it off Valdes for the third goal. Moroccan Argan Oil.
Now back when Valdes still was considered something of a prat, people would have wondered why he hesitated before coming out to attack the ball, suggesting that had he done so, it would have been a catch or hoofed clearance, rather than a goal against. But Valdes is on the good list now, so he couldn’t have done anything about that goal.
Ah, some Twitterverse denizens say, but Song could have. He messed up the headed clearance, a race to culpability that ignores the pass being allowed to happen, nobody marking a loose player who began his run almost from midfield, and a keeper who hesitated, and was lost.
“Damn. Song did it again.”
The point isn’t to defend Song. The point is that pretty much everybody sucked in that second half, except for Iniesta. And even he went into Beautiful Failure mode, rather than the recent Nou Iniesta. But he had to, because somebody, anybody had to get into the box. Messi, wasn’t, Neymar was reverting to ineffectual whiner. The Busquets as Xavi experiment was a flop, everything was a full-on mess, made so by an opponent who had an immense quantity of want.
We played poorly, and lost. We have played poorly and won this season as well, but today, the risks necessary for this team to get results didn’t pan out.
“Why didn’t Martino play Xavi? What a mistake that was.”
Xavi is, as we all know, one of a kind. Play him, and it’s “Martino should rest Xavi more.” Don’t play him and it’s “Martino knows the team needs Xavi. He should have played him.” The third annex is, “The board is stupid for selling the one player who could have played the Xavi role this year,” the retrospect approach that eschews direct culpability for even more futile blame.
Something bad happened, whose fault is it? “Everyone” is too facile. It’s also dangerous because it incorporates favorites, not just punching bags. “Whose fault was it?”
But it all relates to a team that isn’t perfect. If you were to sit Martino down and give him truth serum, he would probably say what we already know, which is that he wishes we had a player who could give Xavi rest, that he wishes Messi were more involved and engaged in the team that is making him a multi-multi millionaire, that Neymar isn’t fit yet and why does he keep raising his shirt to show off that little pooch he has?
And no, my defenders aren’t the ones that I want, and guys like Dos Santos, Cuenca, Afellay, Tello and Sergi Roberto are just drawing a paycheck and costing airfare. I can’t play them in big matches, so that big squad on paper really isn’t all that big. I wish I had the squad that I really want.
Because he doesn’t, he has to rotate, and take risks, such as he did today. No coach ever knows when his team is going to be poor, but he can see it when it is happening, hence the Martino remarks that he should have made the changes at 1-1, coming out of the locker room. But again, risk. The team didn’t play all that bad in the first half, and it can turn it on at any time, right? And who knew that La Real would have so MUCH energy, and keep running, and diving, and fouling and defending and finding ways to get around a suddenly laconic group of players.
Today, the opponents resurrected a past tactic of going over the top with long balls, to get directly at our non-defender defenders, and it worked. So. Three goals later, there is a rush to blame, a race to say that this team really isn’t all that good. Some even say that City was crap, which was the only way that such a poor team could have beaten them.
Make no mistake, Barça was poor today. Not as poor as many would have you believe, but more than poor enough, particularly in the second half, to get a butt-kicking from a committed, energetic opponent. A risky rotation lineup created risks that were exploited and by the time that the match was out of hand, we didn’t have to players to insert to chase the darned thing.
You don’t have to be blind to see that Neymar isn’t match fit, that the team isn’t playing as well as it was when Messi was recovering in Argentina, that it needs defenders and an attacker or two, that it needs some way to replicate the control that Xavi exerts on a match, that it needs somebody to be able to make Pique play with the kind of focus that he evinces in big matches, all the time.
This team has needs.
But for right now it has what it is going to have. From week to week, there is the potential for a match such as this one, because of the crazy high-wire act necessary to work magic with an aging team that had done it all already, and is running out of magical ways to pull out yet another match.
What this means is that it will be erratic, so it will win a Classic, beat a Manchester City, then lose to a Valencia. Its coach will take risks as he sits there hoping, wishing he had a lineup filled with players that he could confidently play in big matches.
Meanwhile, in the here and now, the players that Martino CAN confidently play in big matches come from a finite list. We will watch those players, cheer for them and be disappointed when they lose. And some of us will hope for balance and understanding. You can’t defend a performance such as today’s, even as you can understand how it happens as you watch individual and collective failure. Because just as individual brilliance can bring collective success, individual failure can bring collective failure.
“The team has to rely on individual brilliance to score.” Duh. Thankfully, we have Messi, and other brilliant individuals. “Yay, what a goal, only Messi can do that!” Exactly. Individual brilliance.
Barça failed today, as individuals and a collective. From top to bottom. It happens, and will probably happen again.