Barça 6, Granada 0, aka “What a difference two days make”

Photo courtesy FC Barcelona
Photo courtesy FC Barcelona

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.

Effort

gramess

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.

graxavi

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 …

"I got this, little fella."
“I got this, little fella.”

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.

Negative justifications

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.

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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.

21 Comments

  1. IamXavi6
    September 28, 2014

    I completely agree with you. The team was on song and HUNGRY today and everybody wanted a piece of the action. What’s funny is sure, we will drop a few points here and there (draws, a loss, etc) but the fact is overall so far, all Cules should be happy with what they are seeing.

    Sidenote, Pique, he has been medically cleared to play, no? If so, I absolutely admire Lucho to demand more of Pique before he even gets close to being back to a starter here.

    Oh, and the 4th goal, Xavi 30+ yard ball to Alves, one time to Messi…that is an INSANE goal to score…watch it for days!

    https://vine.co/v/OZXmrgXQnF6

    • Dar_vincy
      September 28, 2014

      It was nothing short of sublime. Quite interesting that we’ve seen many times those Xavi’s diagonal pass to Alves culminating in goal.

    • Gekko64
      September 28, 2014

      Watching that goal develop was very nice because you could tell what was going to happen as soon as Xavi got the ball… Dani sprinted forward, Xavi of course picked the perfect pass and there you go 😀

  2. lala10
    September 28, 2014

    overall the match was fantastic. Not so the first half. Until the goal it was not vry cohesive. But thats the first forty minutes. We also seemed far apart and bypassed Xavi too much. its to be expected though as its early season.

    Another thing that seemed funny to me Messi finding team mates and vice versa. He set up a couple of chances but apart from the Alves volleyed cross numerous times he made runs that his mates could not service. He is on a different wavelength. When Suarez comes back we definitely will be better off.

    Its early days and our play is not yet very fluid. I like that a lot because we will definitely hit our stride as the season unfolds.

    Visca

  3. barca96
    September 28, 2014

    Sorry for the OT but I have to post this here from the Guardian;

    Messi’s new role in the grand design will cast shadows over all who have gone before him. Rakitic will establish himself as the most complete midfielder in the modern game while Suarez will be taking so many match balls home with him the Chinese will need to step up production. Mathieu will be breathing down Ronaldo’s neck so much poor Crissy will need surgery to remove the nicotine stains. Bravo will have so much time on his hands he’ll start giving in-play goalkeeping tuition online.

    😆

    • PrinceYuvi
      September 28, 2014

      Haha. That was brilliant 🙂

    • barca96
      September 28, 2014

      There are a few other banter like comments further up in the comments section. They were playing with words regarding Ronaldo’s hair styles. Hilarious.

    • PrinceYuvi
      September 28, 2014

      Link plz.

    • PrinceYuvi
      September 28, 2014

      Got it 🙂

  4. Dar_vincy
    September 28, 2014

    Great review, as usual.
    One significant development so far is seeing a scoring and a more business-minded Neymar this season compared to last season’s. Great cause for optimism coupled with Suarez’s return and Messi’s mojo.
    Munir- glad the buzz around him has significantly dwindled; should serve as a benefit to keep him grounded. Hopefully he develops into the marquee player we all know he could become.
    Though the classico is roughly a month away, I would love to see a midfield comprising Masch-Bus-Rakitic (lots of solidity and intelligence), while Ini plays on the right side of the attack, a place where he impressed against sevilla some years back whilst also scoring a spectacular golazo in a 4-0 victory- provided Pedro’s form continues to be in errabund hibernation.

  5. Tata2
    September 28, 2014

    The kind of Messi we need is this tireless working
    un selfish Messi ,who doesn’t care about getting
    on the score sheet anymore but is more
    concerned about creating chances and helping the
    team win. I will take that Messi over a CR7 that
    scores a billion goals per match. Look at the
    Neymar third, old Messi would have tried to score
    by himself… Hmmm… I wonder what Enrique has
    said to these guys…

  6. Tata2
    September 28, 2014

    Interesting comment from EE blog, ” Great to get some winning rhythm but our
    midfield remains like butter with this formation we
    ´re just lucky that Villareal didn´t convert. My
    mind´s eye couldn´t help substituting a Villareal
    forward about to pull the trigger for a Suarez ,
    Messi or Neymar and the effect on the adrenalin
    levels was not favourable.
    I´m afraid for me for now it´s going to have to be
    back four plus Illara and five more. I´d sacrifice
    the BBC for another midfielder but hey let´s see
    what Sr Ancelloti does he´s the expert.
    Bale was bad yesterday, just bad”…. So y’all see, we aren’t the only fans who are always of the negative ‘wait-until-X-team-comes-to-town narrative

  7. georgjorge
    September 28, 2014

    My favorite goal was the fourth one, for turning some preconceptions on their head: A long through ball from the player who only passes sideways anymore, a perfect cross from the guy who can’t cross to save his life, to a flawless header from the smallest guy on the pitch.

    • Gekko64
      September 28, 2014

      good point! I could watch that gif all day 😀

  8. lea_terzi
    September 28, 2014

    Great observations as always, Kevin!

    This is why I’ve been looking forward to matchdays (and especially Saturdays) for the last ten years – this team is capable of such beauty and wonder at any given moment! And they seem such a likeable bunch, too. Messi-Neymar dynamics take me back to Ronaldinho-Messi days of old – except they look like they can make magic together for years to come. They just seem so willing to connect and look for each other, so sincerely happy when the other succeeds, when the team succeeds.

    Another dynamic I’m liking so far is the real team depth and working rotation – not only do we have game-changers on the bench, but they seem to be ready to come in and give their all, independent of how many minutes they played in previous matches. Having Mathieu, Masche, Pique and Bartra give quality minutes in the center of defense, Busi, Masche and Samper in defensive midfield, Rakitic, Xavi and Iniesta in the center, and Suarez ready to add to an already potent and hardworking forward line is such a luxury. Not to mention our roster of goalkeepers, fullbacks rounding into form and very promising-looking youth to provide energy and fill in the gaps.

    The main challenge for Enrique is to keep them all active and motivated, to make sure the team peaks physically at the business end of the season, and there are fresh legs and minds to step in and make things happen when the going gets tough, like on Wednesday – and that means staggering minutes, getting creative with rotations (like figuring out which players complement each other and playing them together), and paying attention to little things. And resting Messi, every once in a while.

    This team might win everything. It might win nothing. But I’ll be looking forward to matchdays and enjoying the hell out of this group of players, no matter what.

  9. Jim
    September 28, 2014

    Some quick thoughts on last night’s game as Kxevin has said most of it already. I don’t know exactly why the improvement from midweek – it could be training cycles, it could be Granada boldly trying to keep a couple of strikers up or it could be better movement from our forwards. What I do know is that it runs a bus over all the premature comments about Xavi’s demise. It was interesting that LE had given a him a more limited defensive role which suited him down to the ground and was possible because of Rakitic’s mobility and the fact that our FBs seem more aware of their defensive responsibilities. If other team give him the same freedom on the ball we’re in for a successful season. Can we now put away all the ” he only passes sideways”, ” can’t play through balls” and ” “slows the play down” comments which were always lazy observations ? No, I thought not. If there are forwards moving in the box there is nobody better at finding them. That is our challenge for this year.

    OT : Only just recovering from both knees seizing up after watching the a Ryder Cup solidly from 10am to just about an hour ago ! Our guys delivered yet another whupping to the the USA team. What is it that you guys can’t understand about the value of teamwork ?
    / inflammatory comment. 🙂

    • September 28, 2014

      It’s that whole “rugged individualism” business. Carries over into everything.

      — As I note above, in the right situation Xavi can still be really good. And frankly, given how opponents are choosing to play us time and again, Xavi might prove to be more useful than many suspect.

      As I also said above, neither side, the “Xavi is past it” or the “Xavi’s still got it” are absolutely right or wrong. Situationally, both can be true.

    • Peter
      September 28, 2014

      I believe Xavi is both past it and still got it. He isn’t the Xavi of old, pressing and running for 90 minutes two times a week. He is probably still good for 90 minutes every week, but what is more important is that the vision, the intelligence and the experience acquired, those don’t depend on his physique. This is what Luis Enrique and Barcelona are using, this is what we must understand and must accept. Right now it seems Xavi is at Barcelona in the function not as the starting puppet master, but the veteran player that is responsible for the building of the team. For me he is the resident Old Man, the one younger players look up to, the one they learn from. This connection, this apprenticeship and process of building and maintenance of the team as in unity, it’s not done in the 90 minutes on Match Day – it’s done every day. Six days per week, off the game pitch, on the training pitch.

      Luis Enrique put it succinctly in the after-game presser:
      “Xavi helps us on the pitch and off the pitch.”

      I have criticized Xavi a lot in my defense of Fabregas, but perhaps I should’ve realized that Xavi needs to rest. Xavi needs to create and needs to have someone to take over the defensive duties Xavi can no longer perform. Maybe this is why Camp Nou was applauding Rakitic – not just because of the way he has blended in and his stellar performance, but maybe because of the fact that his work rate allows for the best of Xavi to be brought.

  10. dl
    September 28, 2014

    Agree with all the comments. The xavi-alves-messi goal was so incredibly stupidly good I still cannot believe it. As much as I liked messi the past 5 years, I think the next five will be even more fun. Messi as an attacker is one thing, but to see him become a creator and string puller will be yet another. The vision and swiss watch precision to his passes into places where he knows the attacker will be!

  11. PrinceYuvi
    September 28, 2014

    Such fun article.
    Thanks kx.

  12. IamXavi6
    September 29, 2014

    On Xavi:

    Xavi was the player who ran most in Barcelona’s game against Granada: 11’5 kilometres #fcblive Alves 11’5, Adriano 11,2 [via weloba]

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