Real Sociedad 3, Barça 1, aka “A question of balance”

rsomessi

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.

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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.

rsoceleb

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.

Didn’t happen.

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.

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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.

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Written by:

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

189 Comments

  1. flyzowee
    February 25, 2014

    This comment is interesting. I think Barca may have stuck with Ronaldinho for at least an extra year if Messi wasnt showing such promising form in his absence. It made the idea a little less crazy and easier for the fans to accept. Messis case is a bit different though. It seems a section of cules are only on his case because of his ‘lack of hussle’ ( one of the major complaints againgst Ibra mind you) which admittedly can be really depressing to watch sometimes. People seem to be happy with his form – at least statistically. In my opinion this part of Messis game is here to stay and since ( lets face it) we are not selling him anytime soon, other areas of the team i.e midfield and defence are just going to have to be fortified accordingly to cushion the knock-on effect especially if we continue to insist on playing a high line. This is standard practice in top teams whose star players (esp forwards ) are attacking juggernauts but defensively weak.

    • KEVINO17
      February 25, 2014

      Good points. Tata tried that against Sociedad (double pivot to compensate for two luxury players up front) and it came unstuck.
      It’s ironic though that Barca, which prides itself on its teamwork is now the hostage of one player.

    • February 25, 2014

      Then I think, flyzowee, that we will have to change the way that we play. Because it is no longer attack and defend with 11. So suddenly we are needing different types of defenders, and more aggressive, pressing mids with a greater range, etc, to compensate for when Messi decides that today isn’t the day he is going to press.

      And if that is the case, then as far as I am concerned, that situation is a problem.

      Personally, I think Martino and any other coach that comes in is screwed, if that is in fact the situation. And if that is indeed the situation, I don’t expect any silver from this team this year. Unity is important for a team to be able to pull together, and you have to pull together to win a championship of any kind.

  2. flyzowee
    February 25, 2014

    This was a reply to kxevin further up.

  3. Jim
    February 25, 2014

    Interesting Revista tonight with Ballague, Hunter and Terry Gibson. Hatchets out big time for Tata. Seems the players thought he had finally got the message regarding the way to play but he suddenly changed tack. Comments such as losing the dressing room and not just from Ballague ! I saw the look on Xavi’s face at the time but hadn’t realised he stopped warming up early. Worth a watch. Short segment but all seemed to be hinting that Tata is in bother. Consensus seemed to be too many mistakes and too long to learn….

    For me it’s not that simple although I do think he made a huge mistake. People with short memories are forgetting that Pep’s experiments with three at the back cost us just as much as Tata’s tinkering. Coaches need to have the power to make changes and I can’t argue with giving Xavi a rest – if that’s why it was. However, if he has lost the dressing room , and they made the point that it’s a tough dressing room , he’ll be gone at the end of the season, despite the club’s reassurances.

    • February 25, 2014

      If he has lost the dressing room, then that is because a cadre of spoiled millionaires don’t want to change, so they are sabotaging a coach. If that is the case, I can’t begin to express the contempt I would have for the instigators/perpetrators.

      It also means that ANY coach who doesn’t do what they want is doomed. And that is some more bullshit. Because coaches talk, and who would take over that situation.

      Iniesta said in a quote today that Martino has the players full backing, and they are wholly with him.

      Many of us said that it would be a difficult task getting players used to playing one way, even if that way isn’t fully effective any longer, to accept new ideas.

      It would just disgust me if the Revista folks were right, because it would be the same locker room toxin that Guardiola had to clean out when he took over. Spoiled superstars who want to do things their way.

      It’s as if we have become RM of last season. Factions who don’t like what the coach is doing, etc. Ick.

    • barca96
      February 25, 2014

      I didn’t watch it but I just don’t understand why they’re so harsh on Tata. Do these journalists and pundits criticize Ancelloti too whenever Madrid doesn’t win? I hardly read anything on the media but I don’t watch Revista so I don’t know how they are over there.

      • barca96
        February 25, 2014

        So far it seems that Xavi’s name has been brought up a couple of times already as the person who doesn’t like Tata’s style.

  4. barca96
    February 25, 2014

    Mourinho:”The problem with Chelsea is we lack a scorer. I have one [Eto’o] but he’s 32. Maybe 35, who knows?”

    Wow

    • Cule
      February 25, 2014

      ???? Don’t be such a sucker, that was just a joke that the media turned into controversy.

      • barca96
        February 25, 2014

        Does this sound like a joke to you? we don’t have a scorer. It’s going around for weeks now that Chelsea lacks a quality striker and Eto’o hasn’t been doing too well. So it could’ve been a proper conversation and not a joke as a Mourinho would claim. Anyone in that position would be defensive.

      • Cule
        February 26, 2014

        The comment about lacking a scorer was serious, the part about eto’s age was a joke..

    • teddy
      February 26, 2014

      Iinm, Mourinho has been going on about how his team does not have striker for quite some time now. And I think he’s doing it on purpose regarding the age.

    • Ryan
      February 26, 2014

      It’s not the first time he criticizes his team’s strikers – he did the same at EE! I haven’t watched much of Chelsea, but Torres, Ba, and Eto’o haven’t really been raking in the goals, right?

  5. barca96
    February 26, 2014

    Hilarious comments from the Guardian;

    justiceforthe96
    Moyes is Souvlaki to still have a job

    and somebody replied this;

    NewHartson@justiceforthe96
    Tzatziki for you to say.

    • barca96
      February 26, 2014

      In case nobody gets it as they played with words that sounds or actually is Russian since Man United played Zenit (from Russia of course).

      justiceforthe96 says: Moyes is “so lucky” to still have a job.

      and NewHartson replied;

      that’s easy” for you to say.

      • February 26, 2014

        Thank you. I was really wondering, what it was.

      • barca96
        February 26, 2014

        Oh snap. Sorry guys. Yes thanks, it is Olympiakos. I’m going through the Man United vs Olympiakos and Zenit vs Dortmund thread. I guess it’s time for bed now. Zzzz

      • Peter
        February 26, 2014

        both words are Greek 😉

        Souvlaki is Greek “skewers”, basically pieces meat and vegetables skewered on small wooden spits and grilled. Often sold as fast food.

        Tzatziki is a sauce/dip made of strained yoghurt mixed with finely chopped cucumbers and garlic, olive oil, salt and sometimes lemon juice, dill, mint or parsley. Often added to Greek fast food.

        Damn. Just writing about it makes me hungry – again. 😀

  6. scribblez
    February 26, 2014

    Firstly, I want to mention this is my first post and I love this site and the thoughtful discussions.

    Amongst all the furore against Tata by the media and some of the cules I wanted to add my two cents.

    I really like Tata as a coach. One of the great things, he has demonstrated so far this season is that he is a big match coach. In the games, we have have played Athletico, RM or Man City, we haven’t lost. He got his tactics spot on when it counted. And that is an important improvement over last season where we were seemed to be lost at certain times in the big games. And I hope it is not too early to make that comment.

    I also liked his squad for Anoeta. The copa is not going on any more to make experiments, champions league is not the place, this was a good match to try things since the squad’s morale was high. However, the players failed him. And when that happens, it is sad but the coach is not completely not without fault.

    Journalists like Ballague have been on Tata’s case from the very first day. To me, most of the criticisms are very unfair. I think he is a very smart coach who, if given proper freedom and support, will be good for Barca in the long term.

    • Dar_vincy
      February 26, 2014

      You’re welcome, Scribblez.
      Quite right with that.
      He’s hardly put a foot wrong this season. And like any other coach, he’s liable to mistakes.
      It was obvious his intentions were plausible against sociedad with the double pivot idea which unfortunately boomeranged.
      But then again, he can’t bear the fault for some individual errors, can he? That would be unfair. Just like none of us wouldn’t like to take the blame for something we are fautless about at work.
      Against Valencia you could see how gutted and exasperated he was in his reaction when we conceded one of those cheap goals.
      He just couldn’t comprehend how easy the defence line was effortlessly penetrated.
      A coach that was able to pull off victories against Madrid and M.city with such astute tactics deserves our respect.

      • Valdemar II
        February 26, 2014

        Last season there was a sharp decline in our cup strength. Tata has made improvements there. Could someone explain what he did terribly wrong vs Sociedad? There was nothing wrong with that XI, on paper fully capable, our players simply lost 2/3 duels and let RS players easily run through with the ball.

    • barca96
      February 26, 2014

      Welcome scribblez. Yeah, I’ve noticed that Ballague has always been against Tata. Always. Even in the first month. I do get Sky broadcast from time to time if I’m lucky and they always have a pre-match talk, half-time and post-match talk.

    • Dar_vincy
      February 26, 2014

      Scuttlebutt has it that Barca is after Eliaquim Mangala. So also is Chelsea, Man U and Mancity.
      Dude is worth around €40m.
      However, considering our tendency and reputation to be quite frugal with finances, this might just be a distant possibilty.

    • teddy
      February 26, 2014

      Kinda put things into perspective, especially this sentence

      In fact, if we go back in time and compare Martino and Guardiola after La Liga week 25 fixtures, both have exactly the same records.

      Played 25, won 19, drawn three, lost three.

      And of the treble winning team for crying out loud. It’s a pity that Martino come under fire after a loss, but if the rumor of him losing the dressing room has any truth to it, things are going to get harder for him.

  7. February 26, 2014

    Poor Tata, it says a lot when the coach of your fiercest rival has nicer things to say about your coach than the local media. It is all a bit ridiculous when you think about where we are at the moment and the players the coach has at his disposal. Anyone looking outside in can see he is doing a fantastic job but for some reason the view from the inside is the polar opposite.

    I would not blame him if he wanted to leave at the end of the season, although I sincerely hope that he doesn’t. I think he is doing all the right things. Sure he made a mistake at the weekend but every coach makes mistakes, Pep made his fair share of them. The important thing is that he admitted it, took it squarely on the chin and I am sure will learn from it.

    I also think all this business about rifts in the dressing room is just more hot air. Xavi and Iniesta both came out and showed strong support for the coach. Of course Xavi didn’t look happy on Saturday, we were losing!! Nobody was happy!

  8. KEVpitt
    February 26, 2014

    Any word on rumors od Mueller to Barca?

    • KEVpitt
      February 26, 2014

      *on

  9. G6O
    February 26, 2014

    So much for RM having a difficult game at Schalke…

    • Jim
      February 26, 2014

      Just about to watch the highlights but a very impressive win for them and they are starting to look good. However, I think the difficulty comes more with the travelling, the effort then having to be ready from the first minute at the weekend. I don’t think many thought Schalke were one of the genuine contenders.

      Busy watching Chelsea. Not impressive against an average side but should go through.

      • kosby
        February 26, 2014

        It sucks to say this but EE have been impressive for the last few months now, not losing for the last 26 matches or so…

        Also they seem to have all players firing at the same time..

      • kosby
        February 26, 2014

        now I feel even worse – “Since the start of 2012-13, Cristiano Ronaldo (15) has scored two more Champions League away goals than Barcelona (13). Solo.”

  10. Jim
    February 26, 2014

    Ok, I feel slightly better having seen RM’s goals . That’s the worst defensive display I’ve seen for a while.

    • Peter
      February 26, 2014

      Galatasaray played similarly vs Real in the group stage. Hopefully some people around Europe would finally get their heads out of certain orifices and begin to comprehend that it’s very difficult to achieve what Osasuna, Athletic and Real Sociedad all have managed to do this season.

      Hell, Real Sociedad managed to stop United from scoring(the only goal in the two games was an own goal by a Real Sociedad player) – And that was in the first months of the season, when United were not in the dire straits they are right now.

      • February 27, 2014

        I dont get it, why all these professional coaches cant see the evident. Why dont they just park the bus against Real. Even the biggest team will do that to us. But even the weakest in the tournament wont do that to Real.

      • Peter
        February 27, 2014

        Reason one: teams that get to the last 16 of the Champions League aren’t used to collective, physically and mentally exhausting defensive efforts. They are used to attacking and winning.

        Reason two: you need players that are capable of that collective effort, players who can decide to forget about winning and just concentrate on not losing. You have few of those in smaller teams that are in the top spots of their respective leagues.

        Reason three: most teams will more readily assume ultra-defensive posture against Barcelona, because of the habitual physical superiority over the Barcelona players and the self-evident technical superiority of those same Barcelona players. The same does not hold true for Real Madrid, who have lots of players capable of elbowing their way in.

        Reason four: Real Madrid seem more easy to score against by attacking them. The problem comes when the smaller team forgets that this is Real Madrid – the exhilaration of managing to pin back REAL FRIGGIN’ MADRID!!! overcomes the defensive focus. And as exhaustion creeps in from all the running, cracks open.

  11. Huckleberry
    February 26, 2014

    Ronaldo-Benzema-Bale are really scaring at the moment.
    Neymar-Messi-Alexis/Pedro have to give their best to match them.

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