A football game is in every way, shape and form, about time. It starts with the first kick of the ball. Great players seem to compress and expand it — depending on whether you are the tormented or tormentor — it as their skills play with chronology. It slows when your team is hanging on, speeds up when your team is losing. And when you face an opponent such as Barça faced in Malaga, there is never enough time just as there is too damned much of it.
The team drew, for the season’s first “negative” result. A sixth clean sheet fell by the wayside, an accomplishment more to be scorned than celebrated, perhaps because culers realize that the myth of a poor defense was precisely that, a macguffin crafted to obfuscate reality: against certain systems at certain times, the magical ones can’t put the ball in the opponent net.
Defense is easy. None of them are revered, iconic, none of them sparked a baby boom in the aftermath of a goal scored. So a problem that isn’t a problem becomes a problem, until the real problem smacks us in the face once again. Five goals short last season, one goal short on Wednesday. The defense didn’t let anything happen, so what was up with the offense?
Malaga got in its face, is what happened. Just as when Weligton grabbed Messi’s face and shoved him to the ground, adding a high attack to the low one back when he stepped on Messi’s leg, Malaga stood there and dared Barça to do something. It was clear they were playing for the point that they started the day with, an attack that was an attack mostly in name, because attacking wasn’t the point. Stopping Barça from scoring was.
There have been many tactical breakdowns of what happened, eminently logical dissections of formations, tactics, what Malaga did right and what Barça did wrong. It’s very difficult to argue with any of them, really. They are all right even as for me, they all miss the point.
Barça “lost” because the team was toast. Referees, a pitch that was pretty much green-colored sand, this player, that player, Douglas isn’t Alves, shoulda bought Cuadrado, etc, etc. But when an entire team fails in such a desultory fashion, for me it’s something more.
When I am tired, I start dropping stuff. Then my concentration goes and I miss things in stories that I usually catch. Tired players can’t concentrate, so things that become second nature are suddenly a struggle. Watch Iniesta wrestle with a pass and tell me that team was fresh. The ball moved slow. The players moved slow. Everything was labored. That’s what happens when you’re tired.
History and present
Luis Enrique took over the team from Tata Martino, and the work began. Legend was that training under Martino was little more than parlor games and kickabouts, followed by a run for ice cream. Word got out that the training pitch had to be replaced, and culers stuck out their chests with the knowledge that Enrique is working them so hard he’s wearing out the practice field. Get some!
So what if … maybe, just maybe … the team was just tired. Bad touches, poor control, players who were previously unmarkable are suddenly easily controlled by their inferiors, from top to bottom. Stagnant runs, midfielder malaise, winger drabness as a collection of 10 outfield players played like a bunch of dudes who had been worked like dogs and were now evincing the effects of those exertions.
Did Malaga have an effect on the result? You bet. They played their asses off, even as Barça made it easy for them by being collective crap. The defense looked good, but it didn’t really have that much to do. Bravo made a save that looked cool but really wasn’t all that difficult for a keeper of his caliber. And Malaga, after all, was attacking mostly because they were stuck with the ball and figured “Hey, maybe we can steal something.” But really, Malaga was about defending the point, which they did. They celebrated, their fans crowed and reality beckoned to anyone clear-eyed enough to listen.
The bus is reality. Every opponent that Barça has played this season has been defensive. Messi isn’t going to beat us, they aren’t going to beat us. Not here, not today. And yet, for 5 previous times, Barça did exactly that, combining movement, passing and when necessary individual brilliance to get it done, to be perfect until the trip to Malaga: 5 wins, 5 clean sheets.
Culers were crowing as vindication beckoned in the knockout start of Enrique and his charges, as people conveniently forgot that Martino’s Barça made history up until the break, with a eye-goggling start.
And even now, after just one result that really wasn’t all that bad given how the team looked and how Malaga looked, the familiar refrain can be heard in the distance: Aren’t we allowed to criticize Enrique and the team? Substitute Vilanova and Martino for Enrique and it all starts to sound the same in the world of zero allowance, zero tolerance. Winning is an expectation, not a joy, not the weird, improbable thing that it really is when you stop to think about it.
It’s easy to destroy, easy to get in the way and just kick the ball away. It’s easy to break up the match by spreading fouls among a team, to have the keeper take the maximum time before restarting play. It’s easy for a team that doesn’t want a match to happen to prevent that match from happening. Conversely, making that match happen, scoring goals, making the magic work time and again against opponents who know what you are going to do, is daunting and kinda amazing when you really think about it.
“Levante was crap, which is why Barça won.” Sure. But until that electrifying Neymar goal, a collaboration between a pair of dazzlers, Levante was holding its own, looking to make halftime scoreless, regroup and see about getting the point they started the day with. Electricity made that happen.
Where was that electricity on Wednesday? Maybe on the practice pitch? We have forgotten fairly quickly, it seems, but the dynamo named Messi that started the season has returned to a bit of reality.
That Messi would have found a way against Malaga, because when Barça hits the gas, the team is unplayable. Messi passing, Neymar running, Munir and Sandro making intelligent movement as Busquets and Iniesta kept things ticking over like a metronome. Who were those slow, sluggish players misplaying passes and displaying the control of a blacksmith? You can know what Barça is going to do but if the team is on, you aren’t going to stop it.
If the team is off, however, you won’t be able to believe your luck as a great team becomes complicit in its own demise.
Does the tactical stuff — midfielder isolation, no forward passing, Malaga setting up blocks and hunting in packs, no attacking play from the fullbacks — all make sense? Absolutely. But I will argue to the death with anyone who doesn’t believe that Barça doesn’t have the quality to break any bus if the players are fresh and committed to the effort. They weren’t yesterday and even then, set piece possibilities beckoned as the team that couldn’t score found other ways to create danger.
They could isolate Neymar because there wasn’t anyone making themselves available. They could front Messi because what passing options did he have. Rakitic didn’t do anything offensive because what was there to do, as he and Pedro were reduced to standing around. And when Neymar, really the one player capable of doing precisely what was required to pierce that defense came off, Malaga was instantly emboldened.
Neymar couldn’t do anything because nobody else could. People focused on Douglas, who got his first start for Barça, saying that if Alves was there, things would have been different. Well, yeah. There would have been crosses into a box absent any Barça attackers, and more goal kicks for Malaga. So that would indeed have been different.
But the team just looked tired, which played right into Malaga’s hands.
How do you suppose Treble Barça would have fared had it faced defensive team after defensive team, 10 behind the ball every week in an effort to gain the point that the opponent came with.
FC Barcelona has a collection of the most demanding supporters in world football, where 5 wins, a draw and zero goals conceded is somehow “disappointing” for a team with a new coach and 7 new players as well as a new system. I am, frankly, amazed that Barça has the record that it does. Teams in that situation often struggle until everything gets worked out, then it’s off to the races. But Enrique’s Barça is winning. It isn’t (usually) winning by gaudy scorelines, but 2-0 is pretty gaudy when the opponent can’t beat our defense and keeper.
There are going to be matches such as Wednesday’s. It’s unavoidable because footballers are great athletes, but they are also human. They get tired. And from time to time, when they do get tired, there is an opponent there, waiting to pounce.