Two tales from life, both having bearing on this post.
1. One of my bikes was making an odd, cricket-like noise. This brilliant mechanic checked everything, even pulling the bottom bracket. We scratched our heads as a much less talented mechanic said, “Hey, a chainring bolt is loose.” Voila.
2. My training week is Su: hard; Mo: rest; Tu: very hard; We: long moderate; Th: long hard; Fr: easy; Sa: moderate. On Sunday or Thursday, nobody can beat me. On Friday, my Mom can beat me. It’s the cycle of a training week, and the effect that it has on an athlete.
Which brings us to a pair of matches, and their effect on culers and analysts.
After Malaga, there were many analyses from many different people, ranging from players to systems to other complex, interrelated things having to do with the reason that a really good team had such an awful day. Then a dullard wondered if hey, maybe the players were just tired from all the hard training, and would probably be different on the weekend.
So what was the difference? If you watch both matches back to back, it doesn’t take long to find out, really. During the first Barça possession against Malaga, Pedro/Messi/Neymar are already walking. There are huge spaces between players, working directly into the hands of Malaga. The ball moved slowly and the players moved slowly, again helping Malaga defend the point it came with. A crap pitch meant passes were in the air more, again lazy balls that gave Malaga defenders plenty of time to shift focus.
When a Barça player got the ball he often had to hold it, because nobody was moving, or moving quickly enough. At one point, not even 10 minutes in, Douglas (yes, him) slid a ball into the box that Pedro just looked at, almost as if his brain was saying “Run!” and his legs were saying “Wait … what?!” A sharp, alert Pedro sees that ball coming in and is moving to it. A dull, tired Pedro watches it roll.
First Barça possession against Granada, the players are running, darting into spaces to create passing lanes, moving to open holes, run dictating pass as the ball pinged around. A billiard table-like home pitch meant passing on the ground into spaces could be accomplished with much greater effectiveness. The ball moved faster but more importantly the players moved much faster, ultimately too fast for Granada’s defenders, who had a much more difficult task than Malaga’s defenders.
The Barça that we saw today, two days deeper into a cycle that finds them recovered in time for the weekend, would have beaten Malaga as well, I believe. Malaga was better than Granada, which isn’t to say that Granada wasn’t good. It was, after all, a team that had conceded only 3 goals before today’s 6-goal pasting. But today they might have been hoping to get Wednesday Barça, but got Saturday Barça instead.
Luck and inches
On Wednesday against Malaga, Marc Bartra had a couple of set piece opportunities, both of which deserved better fates, and one probably should have been a goal. If he scores one, the narrative isn’t “Everything needs to change, I told you,” but “Tired, gritty team bangs out a result against a resolute opponent.” Figure if Bartra hits one of those an inch in a different spot on his head, maybe a different result happens.
Now look at today, and that first goal, a bit of luck created by good play in which Neymar moves into space, creates and takes a shot that is deflected slowly, lazily into the Granada net. Lucky, right? Prima facie, yes. But notice how an alert, pressing Barça and its forwards, with Messi drifting into the easier passing lane, forced a cross-pitch pass from the Granada player. The pass wasn’t hit hard enough and Neymar, as a contrast to Pedro in the box against Malaga, saw it happening almost before it actually did, sprinting to the ball to outrun the Granada player and taking the shot. Effort creates opportunity, with luck as an assist.
In the 82nd minute against Granada, a still-pressing Messi dispossesses a Granada defender, charges at the keeper and slots home. In the 82nd minute!. Could there be a clearer difference in the two matches than that? Note the languid, almost nonexistent press against Malaga from walking forwards almost playing zonal attacking, and the relentless, hungry sprites sprinting around the pitch today.
The second goal is another example of effort. Messi has the ball, but isn’t charging at the defenders, so they don’t know what to do except worry about the most dangerous player in the game. Meanwhile there are four Barça attackers in the box, darting about and keeping space for them to run into. Messi dances, sees a cross opportunity and Rakitic, having left himself space to run into, glances a header home.
If you look more closely, when Messi strikes the ball, Barça have numbers at the point of attack because the defenders also have to worry about Neymar, who is lurking at the edge of the box. Two attackers are facing Granada defenders, while the third has to choose between marking the runner or shading Messi for the dribble. He makes that choice, leaving a teammate to chase the stray runner. Messi has three options for his cross.
It’s so simple and wonderful when you look at it that way, but it’s a situation that never happened on Wednesday, because the team never played well enough to get the ball into a legitimate attacking position. So individual players tilted at Malaga windmills, and the defenders were happy to calmly dispossess him before things got out of hand.
Balance in all things
“Xavi is past it,” “Alves should be sold,” “I can’t believe Zubi’s stupid ass paid 20m for an old player who isn’t world class,” etc, ad infinitum. Then a match such as today’s happens, and the other side comes in with derision for “haters.” But the truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.
Xavi was brilliant today. Did he turn back the clock? Nope. It was, simply enough, that conditions played right into his hands. His forwards were running around like crazy people, giving him plenty of passing options. And if it’s one thing that Xavi can do, it’s pick a pass. And Granada was so busy defending that they weren’t attacking, and they certainly weren’t attacking in a way that put pressure on Xavi, as many opponents have done previously to create the tactical imbalance that lets them get at a vulnerable back line. So yeah, he kicked ass. Today.
There is no vindication for anyone in a moment of situational superiority, just as there isn’t any succor for the other side when the player is poor. The same can be said of Alves, who was wonderful mostly because he played as a right wing, but look at what he had to play with and pass to. Damn right, he was brilliant.
The gaudy scoreline obscured the fact that Mathieu and Mascherano had to bail him out as he was caught up the pitch during Granada attacking forays. But Alves is “back” because his passes into the box had actual targets, instead of the sound of crickets. Alves isn’t “back.” He never left. Again, situational superiority turned the trick, along with an opponent caught up in a relentless Barça attack, on offense and (more importantly) on defense.
Sweeping conclusions can only be drawn at the end of a season, which is a collection of one-off events that individually defy any conclusion whatsoever, even as you can sometimes see trends developing. The Liga season is 6 matches old, and the Champions League season is one match old. Even if there were conclusions to be drawn from the collection of singular events, there haven’t been enough of them to satisfy even a wild-eyed statistician trying to come down from a cocaine binge.
The search for answers is sometimes a simple one, just as the search for conclusions is complex, and needs time. A crap match on Wednesday is just that, a singular event awaiting a more thorough data set. A Saturday stomping is the same thing. Balance is important.
Mathieu, people …
If there is one trend that is developing, it is that Jeremy Mathieu might just have been worth the money. As people looked at the defense and its complexities (such as they were), many, many theories were being thrown about. Some opted for a simpler notion, that things haven’t been the same without Abidal.
What made Abidal so impressive wasn’t that he held it down at left back, though that was certainly part of his magic. It was that he was an eraser. If somebody screwed up and an attacker got through, our French Gazelle pranced over to make a play. If Alves got caught up the pitch, Abidal was there on the right side to stuff a bit of potential danger.
Mathieu did all those things today, in addition to holding more than his own at CB in his finest performance for the club to date. Yes it’s early days, but the man carrying the dual nicknames of Mathieuselah and Antique (old and expensive) is looking like quite the deal at 20m.
Another trend is that there is an overall increase in team pace, which gives many more options for dealing with opponent breaks. Today, a Granada attacker was charging up the middle, and Mathieu came sprinting in from the back to deny the chance, in part because other Barça players were able to get into a position that caused a bit of hesitancy in the attacker. Voila.
Granada had three real chances on goal today. There was some “A better opponent would have …” Well, sure … maybe. Or maybe Bravo would have made the save, or maybe a different set of circumstances would have brought about a different result. Maybe, maybe, maybe. The only thing more vexing and impossible to refute than the “Well, it was only X opponent,” is the negative justification.
Opponents are going to get chances during a match. The question, of course, is what does the opponent DO with those chances and what is the role of the rest of the team in controlling those opportunities? If you tell a coach before a match that an opponent will, in 90 minutes plus injury time have three chances, that coach will say, “Get the hell out of here with that crazy talk!” In an ideal world, of course you want zero chances. Duh.
Give an opponent, even the best one, three chances (really only one truly good one) and they would have to be very good indeed to score all three. Let’s say they hit an otherworldly 33%, scoring 1 of the three. That’s still pretty damned good, and if an offense comprised of some of the best attackers in the world can’t get at least a goal, then you have bigger difficulties than going 1-3 on scoring chances against.
It’s early days, but I like what I am seeing, and the general hints of trends that are maybe starting to develop. (Is that going out on a limb, or what?!) I have said it before and will say it again: enjoy these matches. Even the crappy ones. This is a rare collection of talent, spearheaded by a player who has scored his 400th goal in 500 some-odd matches, and was involved in every one of the 6 goals scored today.
It really is a whole lot of fun, if we let it be fun.