Perfection, Barça and notions of stability, aka “Foundations are important”

"What did that Dutch guy say about us?" "Dunno."
“What did that Dutch guy say about us?” “Dunno.”

There is as much danger in being overly pessimistic as there is in getting overly excited, but it’s very safe to say that there isn’t a culer who, even in a most optimistic moment, would have thought that after 5 matches Barça would be perfect: 5 wins and 0 goals conceded.

Last season Barça delivered the best start in the history of the club as a Christmas present, before fizzling to a trophyless conclusion. Whether you want to place the blame on the loss of Valdes, heartache, fatigue physical and psychological or whatever is up to you. Maybe it was all of the above.

Yet it isn’t misguided to suggest that this season feels different, even if the future might yet make this gaudy start a fond memory. Let’s have a few looks at feelings and why they matter:

Quality and discipline

Last season as with this one, a new coach started. But where last season’s coach was saying that “Puyol will be our most important signing,” this year’s new coach had a veritable bumper crop of new signings from which to choose, players who enhanced the team at crucial points. Rakitic, who functions as more of a second DM than the traditional Barça midfielder, has been the biggest difference. His presence means that suddenly Busquets doesn’t have acres of space to cover all by his lonesome as Xavi and Iniesta chug their wee legs to catch up to an opponent attack.

Rakitic is also a more disciplined player, knowing when to move up and when to move back. He stopped a Levante scoring chance in our box, and blasted home a golazo from the edge of theirs. He has covered for Alves, cleaned up Busquets mistakes and recovered possession. And just as importantly, he has added pace to the Barça midfield, which once again allows that group to function as a buffer for the pushed-up back line rather than a turnstile.

Last season, bereft of any covering pace, the FBs had to pinch in to help put out fires in the center of the pitch, which left the flanks open to opponent wingers. The gaps for opponents to exploit were many, and often required Valdes heroics to plug at the death. This season, midfield pace and discipline means that Busquets can return to his role of hybrid midfielder, one with defensive duties who is cognizant of his importance in the team’s attacks. Yet again today, a Busquets turnover became a pass for Messi and a goal threat.

We also see that stability in what has become Enrique’s preferred CB tandem of Mascherano and Mathieu. For those who say “Hell, Mascherano is STILL playing at CB,” I would suggest that he isn’t, that the traditional Barça CB’s role makes him more of a DM than Busquets, adding yet another layer of security with sure tackling and interventions, roaming helped by the pace of Mathieu and the defensive strength of Alba, who is also playing a more disciplined role this season even as Alves flits about on his fanciful bursts, secure in the knowledge that Rakitic and Mascherano have his back.

And yes, there is something of a placebo effect in the head coaching presence. Last year, it was “Tata who? That Argentine nobody? I’m worried!” This year, Enrique was greeted with huzzahs. It’s easier to find an effect that is reassuring and positive in something that you actually want.

Return to the past

Barça is not a defensive football club and never will be, but when the system is working, Barça is also one of the most secure teams, defensively, in the world. It’s because once again, defending is starting with the attackers as Messi, Munir, Pedro and Sandro all press opponents who try to play the ball out from the back, applying pressure at the most crucial part of an attack.

This leaves an opponent with a couple of options: continue trying to play it out and risk an interception, or hoof it long in an attempt to bypass the pressing forwards and mids. But because of the pressed-up defenders and attackers, if you don’t win possession of that hoofed ball (more difficult because the spaces between the lines is more compressed this season), you are on the back foot as a midfielder feeds the ball to Messi, who is right at your doorstep with a running start.

If you try to play it out, a stray ball leaks from that applied pressure and is scooped up by the CBs, who then feed it back into the mixer.

Either way, it means that an opponent’s chances on goal will be minimal, which means defensive security. This was a crucial element of the Treble season, as unsettled opponents turned the ball over, or just hoofed it out to stop attackers from running at them yet again, as fouls and yellow cards piled up. Gaudy possession stats weren’t a desire as much as a byproduct of an effective system. During today’s 0-5 win over Levante, Barça possession percentage was in the low 70s. Some fluke occurrences might transpire, but it will usually be rather difficult to beat an opponent when you don’t have the ball.

Another return to the past is in the return to the pass, judiciously applied. As part of the myth of tika-taka, sprites played rondos hither and yon, deciding to pass the ball into the net when the moment was right. The reality of that system is that triangles facilitated the short passing game. Under Enrique, the passing game is still there but the lines are longer, the mobile rondos exchanged by a man moving into an open space to receive the ball from a slightly longer distance away, even as it is a pass with just as much security as the shorter ones of the past as a consequence of how the team uses space.

The future

It’s no coincidence that this season, Messi has more assists than goals. The Argentina Messi was bound to collide with the Barça Messi at some point. The difference this season is that Messi has players to pass to.

Last season, Messi was the center of the universe. Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Sanchez all fed Messi, and Neymar was still learning what he could do. This season, Messi is still the center of the universe but a more versatile one with real actual forwards to play with. Neymar has been used in that role, as well as Munir and Sandro. All have benefited from Messi passes.

But it’s obvious that this is an incomplete system that is still awaiting its final piece in the arrival of Luis Suarez, who has just over a month to go in his four-month ban. Right now, Sandro and Munir are the beneficiaries of this system that draws attention to Messi, who is more often than not fronted by 3-5 defenders whenever he gets the ball near the box.

In the past, there have been two problems: static attackers and Magic Messi. So an attack would either fizzle when there was nobody to take a pass, or when Messi would try to beat the entire defense to score. Both offer poor percentages, no matter how often you apply them. Sanchez was certainly capable of functioning as a forward, but he was more often than not, stationed on the right wing as Messi had freedom of movement in a cleared-out center.

This year, Messi is a bit more withdrawn, still close to the opponent box but in a way that draws defenders and opens up space for a mobile, hard-working forward. At present, Munir and Sandro are thinking, “Boy, howdy, this scoring goals in La Liga stuff is easy.” Because it is. And it is because the best player in the game right now has taken on a role that will not yield him as many goals, but is every bit as decisive.

It has often been said that Messi just wants to win. Who scores the goals is immaterial. And while this has always been true, if we want to parse truth by degree of veracity, it has never been more true than right now. Neymar slotted home into an empty net, thanks to a Messi pass. Sandro slotted home into an empty net, thanks to a Messi pass.

When Luis Suarez comes on line, it is impossible to say what will happen. Messi might have to return to scoring more, as defenses collapse on Suarez. Neymar might take off like a rocket as the third man in a bizarre situation in which he is the lesser of three evils. But it’s plain to see that the attack is being worked out and groomed for the presence of that last piece.

Results

This season, Barça has yet to play an excellent match, or even a very good one. They have been good, very good at times and kinda clunky at others. The team has faced opponents who are defensive, for anyone foolish enough to think that no major silver last season would make teams more brave. Even as Barça has struggled to score, it has, up to this moment, always found ways to score. Pique bundles it in off a set piece. Neymar gets loose like a jackrabbit behind the defense. And when all else fails, a moment of sublime skill turns the trick.

Last season, far too often it felt like that last option was the only viable one, that if an opponent set up in two banks of 5 as Levante did today, a draw was the inevitable result as the team would somehow cadge a goal, then give one up in a moment of frailty, or a set piece.

Against Elche, the first goal came in the 43rd minute. The goal against Villarreal came in the 82nd minute. Against Athletic Club, it was the 80th minute. APOEL broke the trend as the goal came in the first half-hour. Then against Levante, it was just before the stroke of halftime. The stats are interesting:

Elche 72% possession/0 opponent shots on target/93% passing; Villarreal 72% possession/0 on target/89% passing; Athletic Club 61% possession/2 on target/82% passing; APOEL 71% possession/1 on target/91% passing; Levante 73% possession/2 on target/92% passing

There are lies, damned lies and statistics, but in considering why this year’s team feels more secure, numbers do indeed say something.

Happy Messi

levmessrak

Even as the team is FC Barcelona and not FC Messi, you would be wrong to discount the effect of a happy genius on the team’s overall play. Is it a coincidence that the team’s most desultory performance was against APOEL, the match in which distracted Messi returned? Psychology is an important part of any sport, that belief and contentment that go into the makeup of a top athlete that makes him do his best, and want to do his best.

It isn’t difficult to deduce that the millions and millions spent this summer transfer window on adding quality players to the team invigorated its best player. Yes, the World Cup was also playing on matters Messi last season, but you’d better believe that the inaction of parsimonious weasels had a significant effect on players, as they wondered exactly how committed this board was to producing a winning football team.

In the here and now, for whatever motivations, that commitment is no longer in doubt. That makes the employees, most notably the perpetual Employee of the Month, happy. Happy workers are productive workers.

The house has a foundation

Last year’s house was beautiful, but was built on stilts. This year’s house is also beautiful, but sits on a foundation of concrete, resting on granite pillars. This year’s good start feels different because it is different, even as the season might end in the same way as last season did, and we should be prepared for that. There is certainty even in the face of uncertainty because of structure and discipline. There is a structure that is important and apparent, systems in place that should serve the team well against faster, stronger opponents as well as slower, weaker ones.

In the legal profession, it’s called due diligence. In athletics, it’s simply doing the work. Neymar, once he figured out that his ankle injury wasn’t as bad as he thought, wanted to get back onto the pitch. Players are coming in on days off to work out, and rushing back from international duty early. It’s the work and quality born of competition that makes the team better.

Last season, Pique was the starter by default. It was him, Mascherano and Bartra. Who YOU gonna pick? This season, Mathieu would appear to be Enrique’s choice, and you can see why. Mascherano is a player who, like Martino, Vilanova and Guardiola before, Enrique wants to have on the pitch. And Thomas Vermaelen is about to come on line, as well. If you want that spot, take it. Earn it. Make it impossible for me not to play you, is the gauntlet that Enrique is throwing down this season. There might be preferred starters, but there aren’t any automatic ones.

That, so far, is the biggest difference this season: the players have to put out. Not that they didn’t work their tails off last season in the face of soul-crushing adversity, but there is nothing like worry over losing your place to make you raise that personal bar. And there is no better foundation than happy, hungry players trying to outwork each other to curry the coach’s favor. So Messi kicks at a defender’s ankles as he tries to bring the ball out, Rakitic slides into an upright or Neymar earns a yellow for an opponent after stealing the ball then leading the break.

I like it, and you should too even as you should also be cautiously optimistic. There’s a long way to go yet.

levteam

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Recent Posts

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.

162 Comments

  1. September 24, 2014

    It was a bad bad game, just not a good one. Our defense (minus Douglas – who was obviously very nervous) played well. Bravo had a great game, and so did Busi.

    Our midfield and offense was off color and Malaga was not. Still, 0-0 isn’t the end of the world, nor is five straight clean sheets.

  2. ciaran
    September 24, 2014

    Stats just showed that Messi covered 7.3km, Alba and Rakitic both covered well over 11km.

    And in the funny category, Gerard Deulofeu scored the only goal for Sevilla in his first league start. You can’t argue with 2 assists and a goal from two starts.

  3. say2
    September 24, 2014

    Really odd choice of players from Lucho, was expecting bit of rotation in midfield. the players looked tired and this was evident by no press at all in the midfield zone. In whole of second not one header were we able to win nor we could win any second balls. this match reminded me of the CL match against atleti.

    would have wanted xavi to come in and provide more stability, interplay between midfield, defence and attacker.

    hope team rotates over the weekend to provide some much necessary rest to midfield who have played all the matches till now.

    on the positive note 5 clean sheets in a row. Visca Barca!!

  4. TITO
    September 24, 2014

    We probably have the most pathetic collection of fullbacks in the world when crossing is an issue. You can name anyone of them, including those who didn’t play tonight.
    That’s a serious task for LE to figure it out what they need to do.
    To me it was more like a friendly game than anything.
    Who would have BET on us playing like this? Strange game. We never ever really pushed for a win.

  5. pslio
    September 24, 2014

    Really don’t understand why Messi didn’t sit out Levante.

    • pslio
      September 24, 2014

      Had he been more active, there would’ve been a realistic chance or two created.

  6. Peter
    September 24, 2014

    Well, tonight we saw the first version of the anti-Barcelona tactics, implemented very well.

    Every time the ball got close to the box there were at least two, mostly three Malaga players rushing the carrier.

    P.S. Eighteen months ago Malaga were one minute away from Champions League semifinals. Now they’re celebrating a point at home from Barcelona as if they actually reached that semi-final. Of course I’m bitter. Two days ago I was defending the quality of La Liga teams, that it’s not a two-horse league. Should’ve known better.

  7. TITO
    September 24, 2014

    Oh, and worth noticing that we had 0 shots on the goal.

  8. September 24, 2014

    Probably should have started Adriano. Was it last year that we won with a single golazo?

    Anyway, it’s a long season. No shame in a draw. Malaga played a great game to be honest, they deserve credit for that.

  9. Tata2
    September 24, 2014

    Never had faith in LE plus I think Messi is done not because he isn’t good anymore but cause he has been figured out. Iniesta just frustrates me these days (pass the damn ball INI!!), Rakitic is good defensively but has never been creative going forward. We can keep on complaining about how other teams open up against EE but park the bus against us but its our own doing. EE have aerial threats: we have zero, they launch a ruthless assault on parked buses. They don’t dance around with the ball when there’s a chance to counter attack, they don’t try to pass their way through an 11man defense. And shame on you malaga, may this one point come to be reason why you can’t qualify for champs league

    • September 24, 2014

      I know this is inflammatory, but if a 0-0 draw makes you think that “Messi is done,” what would happen if Real Sociedad put 4 past us?

      We can’t win them all man.

    • September 25, 2014

      Lol

  10. bhed
    September 24, 2014

    Bound to happen – just one of those games. Nobody played great, nobody played terrible. Everyone was just a bit off. Douglas as well – not awful but not impressive. I think he’s earned another shot in the near future (but not in a big game). Sandro looked like he might have made something happen if he had a bit more time, so that’s good. But then again, maybe I’m just delusional.

  11. September 24, 2014

    The whole team was crap in attack, very good in defense, particularly Pique and Bartra. But we saw this last season, where the defense did its part but the attack didn’t score enough goals.

    Iniesta was very poor, Pedro ineffective, Messi distracted and lackluster, Neymar struggled with the tight marking. Malaga was disciplined and fought like hell for that point, so credit to them.

    Did anyone honestly think that there weren’t going to be matches like this? A team has yet to come out and play with Barça, and why should they? You take the point, call it a win and go home. There were chances created, primarily off set pieces. If one of those goes in, people are talking about what a resilient, gutsy team we have. Instead this player sucks, and that player sucks.

    The entire attack was bad. Single out Douglas, who was nowhere near as horrific as his legend would suggest, and that might make you happy even as it wouldn’t get at the problem, which is that Malaga made the match exist in the midfield and on the wings, where no damage could be done. Smart, and it takes a ton of discipline to accomplish.

    And in the Goldilocks world of Barça RBs, Alves crosses too much, Montoya doesn’t attack enough, Douglas doesn’t do much of anything. Where, oh where, is that perfect RB.

    It was a bad match. The team kept its sixth clean sheet in a row. Now we move on to the weekend.

  12. September 24, 2014

    A draw was the best result we never created anything of importance throughout the match. Loved to see Deulofeu scoring. He looks like in a mission to prove some points. That two assists in Europe was brilliant too. That delivery into the box was wicked.

    Watched Villareal vs Rayo and JDS was pretty good. Finally it looks like he is getting back his career on track.

  13. bhed
    September 24, 2014

    Yeah, now that you mention it, actually Bartra did play quite well, as did Pique and Bravo. Busquets wasn’t too bad either, but the attack was pretty lackluster – no sharpness or creativity. In the future, this is where our $100+ million dollar man would hopefully make a difference, kind of like in Pep’s first season where one of the front 3 would always provide a goal or 2 if the other 2 were off. When they were all on, it was just ridiculous. Fingers crossed.

    • September 25, 2014

      Well, just like Neymar is finding out now, I think Suarez also will find how terrible it is to play against tight defenses.
      In Peps first season, we never faced these kind of defenses.
      We have a genius who have scored 90 plus goals in a year inspite of often facing such defenses, but..with every game he is getting even more and more attention.

      I hope, others also noticed, that pass Messi did to Alba, and he just missed to connect on Alba’s excellent return cross. After passing to Alba, Messi is running to the box and as he enters the box, you can see he is being pulled back by a defender, losing may be like a fraction of a second, and he misses Alba’s ball by a fraction of a second. Just saying, how important minute details are.

    • G6O
      September 25, 2014

      Every time Messi got the ball there were at least 3 defenders forming a cage around him. No matter who you are, it’s difficult to do much when the other team is so dedicated to stop you. Contrast this to the wide open spaces a certain other team enjoyed yesterday…

      Of course, when you have 3 defenders on one player, that means that at least two of his teammates are open and should be able to take advantage of the space, but they have to move out of their own half for this to happen. I don’t know why we did not do this (I am sure the coaching staff has exercised better judgment of the situation than I am able to) but it certainly seemed like we could move the game 20 meters forward, but for some reason we didn’t.

    • September 25, 2014

      Right, but that did not happen yesterday with the other forwards, except for some tit bits by Sandro.

      Everyone is talking about how lackluster our attack was, but it was our midfield who really got terrible, especially Iniesta. I am worried for him. We need him for big games and hopefully he will be back to his best. No attack is good without a good supporting midfield.

  14. Tata2
    September 25, 2014

    Suarez scores twice with his LEFT FOOT

  15. Ultraculé
    September 25, 2014

    And…
    That is why Dani Alves is still so fundamental to the Barcelona attack, even after 5 years inspite of Cules constantly flogging him for misplaced crosses and losing balls. Mind you, Douglas didnt do anything wrong yesterday even if he didn’t attempt to do anything at all offensively. which is understandable, given that it was the first time the world’s eyes were on him.

    But alves provides so much in attack, its very hard to look around and see which RB can effectively replace him in our system. just like iniesta, the team does well when alves is in full flow. Can’t think of a game when dani scored and we didn’t win the game.

    Crap match. but it doesn’t say anything.
    The 0 shots on target stat though, is a bit worrying given the amount of fire power we have in that 11.

    • Gekko64
      September 25, 2014

      Well said. Dani is still in the top 3 best RBs even if he’s not as devastating as he used to be.

  16. barca96
    September 25, 2014

    Lucho seems to be making the same mistake as his predecessors made, not resting Messi enough. We have a long line up of matches coming on yet he decides to let Messi play in matches like vs Apoel and Levante especially when Messi wasn’t needed after 70mins.

    He had 2 opportunities already not to play Messi for 90mins in 1 week time yet he didn’t exercise that option. And it’s even worse knowing that we had 2 matches in a week for 3 weeks.

    • September 25, 2014

      Thanks for that. When I say that Messi shouldn’t play all the time, people say, “Why do you hate Messi?” Which makes me giggle, even as it ignores the point.

      Who’s to say what a front line of Neymar/Munir/Sandro would have done, in place of Neymar/Messi/Pedro. Messi is always the first name on the team sheet, but he’s human, and needs rest.

      We’ll see how the season progresses.

    • Peter
      September 25, 2014

      The fact of the matter is that when Messi didn’t play, the other teams came out and played. The only exception I remember was Osasuna.

    • barca96
      September 25, 2014

      My reason is that key players should be rested when possible especially when we have a grueling schedule ahead. I always use NBA as an example.

      But why do you guys think that all our managers refuse to treat Messi like a human being? He gets tired too. And when Messi is tired and not pressing, the whole team follows. Even if the team doesn’t follow suit, it just doesn’t lift the players up. They need to see their captain working hard, to set an example for them.

      I like 4,5 goal margin wins but I rather we win a string of 2 goal margins and have key players rested from time to time until the business end of the season comes.

    • Gekko64
      September 25, 2014

      While I agree that Messi shouldn’t play every match, I think LE is not clueless ( until proven otherwise 😀 ) and he has considered this. It should be said that, being the start of the season, accumulated fatigue is not a factor and thus he may want Messi to get some good minutes in his legs to reach maximum fitness.

  17. barca96
    September 25, 2014

    To the newer fans, Wellington vs Messi beef has been going on since 2009. Wellington stamped on Messi back in 2009 at their home ground and the Brazilian has always given Messi a “special treatment” ever since. So I wouldn’t be surprised if Messi did call him a hijo de puta. Messi has his own limits too. But if I were Messi I wouldn’t do it again.

    • barca96
      September 25, 2014

      Son of a … It’s a word I learned while watching a match. Thankfully I had a Spanish speaking friend. What a way to learn other languages 🙂

    • Peter
      September 25, 2014

      If Messi called him that, then Wellington should have a serious talk with his mom.

      The guy is a reptile, if he had a bit of real skill, he would’ve been long gone to EE to usurp the Pepe position.

    • September 25, 2014

      Nice! Well-played. ^^

  18. September 25, 2014

    Today in the Twitterverse, the match is still being overanalyzed. All the people crowing about how hard Enrique’s training sessions were, and Tata Martino sucked because all they did was play Pat-A-Cake, do a few passes and have milk and cookies, should understand that athletes work in cycles. At the end of a hard training cycle, you will look kinda like the team did yesterday.

    You overload so that you can rebound stronger, but that time of overloading is really hard, and there will be days where you suck. Had they played Malaga today, for example, might have been a very different outcome. Granada should see the group lively again, this weekend.

  19. Rami
    September 25, 2014

    It’s always a bummer losing points, But let’s avoid the melodrama, We see matches like these in every season, Malaga haven’t done anything tactically different than what many teams do against us, It’s just that some times, A string of in-game circumstances and moments decide to follow their favor instead of ours, And that’s that.

    Very optimistic about our current season, Especially in la liga, truth to be told i expected a loss of 4 or 5 points in the first five matches, Similar to what happened to pep on his first season, New ideas to implement and many new faces will always take it’s toll initially, But i was pleasantly surprised this time around.

    There is still a room for tactical and physical improvements, The team currently lacks the optimum levels fluidity and cohesion, Yet it’s something that can only improve in the coming time.

    • Gekko64
      September 25, 2014

      It’s true that it’s not a big bummer, but I hope they really think about that 0 shots on goal stat. It’s unacceptable for a team like Barca to not manage to cause any danger to the opponent.

    • Peter
      September 25, 2014

      Currently there’s a law being worked on, that will introduce a collective bargain and that will not allow the best team to get more than 4 times the lowest. The new contract with for TV rights is supposed to be right on the 1 0000 million. Barcelona and Real’s sum will probably go down a bit, but given the reality of the market I don’t think we’ll see something of the sort the EPL teams enjoy.

      The bottom half of the EPL relies almost exclusively on their share of the TV rights. Personally I’d prefer for Spanish clubs to be motivated to lower their percentage of income from TV rights and instead concentrate on sponsorships and partnerships. That way they won’t depend on the TV income and it won’t create a Masonic lodge of about 23 clubs that perpetuate their participation in Primera División.

    • Peter
      September 25, 2014

      Barcelona’s participation last time there was talk of the new contract depended on two points:

      1. La Liga of 18 teams
      2. Increased accountability of the clubs and increased efforts in marketing La Liga

      Not a condition, but a request, that absolute income for Barcelona is not lowered. However, I believe that if Barcelona manage to offset that with more contracts and/or naming rights for the new Palau Blaugrana, as well as sponsorship for the sections, it may agree even on lowering of the absolute sum. Right now Barcelona spends something like 24m on its sections per year, to which should be added something like 20 million per year for La Masia. If that expense can be offset with additional sponsorship deals, then Barcelona may step down a bit on the income part.

      But as of right now that’s just musings and rumors.

  20. September 25, 2014

    Vermaelen has the medical all clear.

    — Anybody on Twitter should check out the TL of @barcalogia. Great tactical breakdowns.

  21. PrinceYuvi
    September 25, 2014

    During last ten minutes, At one moment, most of the 20 players were huddling close in the Centre Circle. Ha.
    In other news, Malaga refused to Roll over & Die.
    How dare they ?
    In games like this, it won’t hurt to score via Set pieces.
    Instead of taking Corner kicks, I wish Rakitic would use his giant ForeHead to score headers every once in a while.
    I hear Vermaelen is decent set-piece threat, The more the merrier.

Comments are closed.