The away Champions League leg to Paris St-Germain was like the baseball pitcher who has a perfect game going. Then he walks a guy. Next guy gets a hit. Next guy hits a home run and suddenly, it’s all gone.
Barça rolled into Paris on the heels of a single draw as the “negative” result, and no goals conceded. This was to be the match, the team’s first match against a grownup, where we would see what this group was really capable of, and a number of things happened.
— Barça conceded
— Barça lost
— Barça was easily controlled at times
— Barça committed absurd defending mistakes that would be a shame for Barça B, never mind the first team.
— PSG played its collective tails off in an excellent display.
— Barça didn’t
Seems simple, right?
PSG started this match determined to wrest control of it from Barça on the defensive end. So every pass past midfield was contested, a man-marking PSG pressing hard as the back line moved in unison to always keep the last attacker offside.
Barça cooperated with languid play, just knocking the ball around, giving PSG confidence, not playing at all like the intense, committed group of fiends who laid waste to Granada. Instead they seemed to be feeling PSG out, even as the more-than-worthy opponent was interested in no such thing. As possession began to turn and PSG started pressing, it was interesting to note how the press that was so effective against Granada was simple ball chasing vs PSG, no real logic or systematic approach, but rather running around. It was only the first of many things that would go wrong.
A harbinger came early on, when Busquets dwelled on ball and lost it, setting an early tone as loose pass after loose pass gifted PSG with possession. Yes, they were pressing well but more crucially, Barça was slack in movement and approach to the match, playing almost as if expecting PSG to wait around until they were ready to hit the gas, which was silly at best, suicidal at worst because PSG was playing at its most dangerous: as a team.
PSG earned its first set piece at 6′, and look at the marking. At the time the ball is struck, every attacker is accounted for, and the result is an easy clearance, followed by a shot from the outside blocked by Busquets and barca was off on the break, that was killed via a crap Pedro pass.
The real trouble began as a silly, silly mistake. Dani Alves stupidly tried to dribble out of the back and was closed down by 2 PSG players, finally ceding an even more stupid handball that led to the second PSG set piece. He also got a yellow early, a cardinal sin for a defender. Worse still is that Alves had a number of passing options. PSG scored on the attendant set piece, but let’s have a look at what happened.
David Luiz is given way too much space, but who the hell is marking who? Further, as Luiz was the most forward man, should there not have also been shielding on the ball side? The absence of such a thing meant the set piece was basically a pass to Luiz, who already had position on his marker. Yes indeed, he got in front of Mascherano, but is the goal his fault? Interesting question if you have a look at all the Barça players who are out of position, watching play.
A lot of discussion ensued on Twitter about the ways that PSG attacked Barça, and the things that they did to defensively stymie the attack. It was all very interesting, but I still come back to a notion I had some time ago, which is that Barça, like the honey badger, doesn’t give a crap.
It is a system that works on passing and player movement. In American football, the heyday of the New England Patriots featured an offense where the first X number of plays were scripted out, as in “This is what we are going to run, irrespective of what the opponent does.” Similarly when Barça’s system is working, the opponent doesn’t matter. Passing and space utilization are what they are, and the result should, logically, be what it is. Now let’s look at the answering goal scored by Barça.
At 10:49, Mascherano starts the play around midfield. At 10:56 the ball is in the back of net. It was all movement of the ball and players, of a sort that not only rendered PSG helpless, but didn’t really concern itself with PSG. The passing and movement were the thing. So from Mascherano it was a one touch from Iniesta to Neymar, who controlled and pinged to Messi who played a one touch to Iniesta, then moved for for the one touch return ball from from Iniesta, before stroking the one touch shot past the PSG keeper.
It was an exquisite goal, and also one of the only times that Barça moved the ball as it was supposed to. PSG had no answer because again, Barça football doesn’t care who the opponent is. You force the PSG defense to move rather than stand there, watching the inexorable ball movement. The rest is just angles and physics.
Then the laxity returned, almost as if that goal was too easy, so much so that the team got bored. Notice how at 12:25 Busquets is again caught dwelling on the ball, and gets stripped. Question is why? He has an open man facing him in Mathieu, but seems to try to play to Alba for some unfathomable reason, then falls over. Luckily Cavani wasn’t interested in doing much with the shot, which he didn’t even get on target from the edge of the box.
From that point on, Barça got stupid in possession. Long diagonals, and look at the spacing here, which was all too typical. Pedro marked by Maxwell, Messi sandwiched, Neymar marked by Lucas, with Matuidi rushing to remove the diagonal angle. So Alves plays it back, and the slowpoke action begins again.
Then when PSG pressed forward in an aggressive fashion, the Barça forwards obliged by moving to midfield to pick up the ball, thus helping PSG defend. Further complicating matters is that the press, such as it was, let PSG play its way out of the back almost every time. Almost every time any pressure was applied, a turnover resulted, but it was almost as if Barça wasn’t all that interested. This allowed PSG to grow into the match, looking the better team for large chunks of it as Barça struggled with what to do against an opponent who managed space by simply closing down angles.
Another wake-up call happened, as Messi and Neymar collaborated for an excellent chance as Messi made a run and, fronted by FIVE PSG defenders, paused. Neymar saw it all happening, and makes the run behind the defense. Messi’s lob pass is a little too firm, or that would have been 1-2. Again, movement off the ball came to take advantage of how PSG was defending.
Then came the second PSG goal, which made me wonder what the hell Alba was thinking as he tried to dribble past Lucas, who calmly picked his pocket and started the PSG break. On the ensuing set piece the ball is in the air, and the defense has no idea who to mark. The corner is played far post to take advantage of a defense set up wrong.
The ball is in the air, and everybody just kinda runs around. Ter Stegen errs by coming out for the punch and misses. Rakitic was defending three men, and at sea as to which one to pick. But he’s playing the ball instead of putting a body on a man, so it doesn’t even matter. You could see Mascherano lecturing after that goal, for good reason. And he wasn’t lecturing Ter Stegen, who is the popular culprit for that second concession.
But there are 5 defenders loose, not guarding anyone. Ter Stegen’s error? Okay, sure. If you come out for the ball as a keeper, you damned well better get it, and he rather completely misjudged it. Rakitic? Okay. Ball watching is a cardinal sin. But the system broke down yet again in a way that it did not during that first PSG set piece. hats off to PSG for an excellent set piece, but my word that was schoolboy defending, and even schoolboys would be insulted by that depiction.
On their third, Pastore played a quick diagonal to Van Der Wiel as he saw Alba standing there, wondering whether he will be able to find xocolata in Paris (no, Jordi). Alba turned and chased once it was clear that doom was imminent, but too late. Meanwhile EVERY Barça defender is ball watching, so nobody sees Matuidi, who only has to decide whether to run in front of or behind Alves, who was late in picking up the run.
Ter Stegen didn’t have a chance, and note that Mascherano’s instant reaction is to gesticulate to Alba.
Apologies for the crap image quality, snapped by cameraphone off my TV set, but I wanted to get the exact right images for illustration.
So, what’s good?
Simply put, poor performances, average to poor overall team play and still Barça was stunningly close to netting the equalizer, the best chance coming when Marquinhos blocked an Alba shot almost at the doorstep. That’s a pretty darned good football team there, once the hand wringing and garment rending is done. Because just in case anyone is checking, PSG kinda doesn’t suck.
–The Messi and Neymar interplay is also good, as those two are developing a bond that means danger for opponents.
— This is the seventh match of a young season, featuring a new coach, completely new staff and a squad that a third of which is new. If you aren’t impressed, you should be.
–The technical errors are easily correctable, even as the wandering focus isn’t. PSG kicked ass, but Barça also presented its butt to be kicked.
So, what’s bad?
Whoo, baby! Fullback play, Iniesta, Busquets, Pedro, the tendency of the team to go on psychic walkabout, Rakitic’s tendency against an aggressive opponent to pick up fouls, Alba’s positioning, which was easily capitalized on by a player as fast as he is, how easily Barça was funneled into playing the way PSG wanted, as space was compressed to isolate attackers time and again, forcing them to try to beat 2-3 defenders off the dribble. Even the most football illiterate person can tell you that strategy isn’t going to come with a high success percentage.
But most noticeable was the lack of discipline from a team for whom discipline had been, until that match, a hallmark. Even when the control wasn’t there, the discipline to regain control was. The Barça that played PSG was too sloppy, too loose with the ball, too fond of making the wrong decision with the ball.
The future. It’s clear even to me, a tactical fledgling, that Barça is an incomplete team, playing a system for which it doesn’t quite have the right personnel for yet. A Cannibal is the most noticeable change coming, as a player who will occupy that gaping maw of space that is left when Messi is withdrawn. You could see how the danger factor rose when Munir entered the match because suddenly there was someone running around, drawing the attention of defenders rather than allowing them to sit in wait for when Neymar or Messi decided to try dancing past them.
— Reconsideration. Fullback play is a problem from a standpoint of positional discipline against top European sides. It’s worth recalling at this point that the two CBs purchased by Barça this summer can both play LB. Coincidence? Almost certainly not. Might we see a back line of Alves/Pique/Mathieu/Vermalen? Quite possibly, as Enrique decides to gain width from Iniesta and Neymar, since Suarez will now be running around in the center and Messi roaming as width on the right comes from Alves, who will now have a place for those crosses.
— Mascherano goes home. When he moved up the pitch last night, it was an excellent move. Calm and assured with the ball against the physical play of PSG, you began to wonder if on form, he shouldn’t be starting over Busquets.
— Mathieu. It’s getting increasingly difficult to find reasons to slag him, even as some keep trying.
But we lost!
Yesh, so what? The objective of Champions League group play is to get out of the group. Then you can worry about placement. Certainly, Barça would love to finish first in the group as you get the second-place folks from the other groups but you know what? When this team is on, there isn’t a team in European football that worries me. At present, Barça sit one point behind PSG in the group standings. Win out and win the group, assuming that PSG doesn’t stumble at some point, as they did by drawing to Ajax.
The loss really isn’t that big a deal, as I just don’t see any possible scenario that might result in Barça not getting out of the group. There are two matches against Ajax, one each against PSG and APOEL. two home and two away. Thankfully Ajax is the home match after the international break.
Yes, the team lost. It dumped an error-prone match against an opponent who played about as well as it could. Only a fool would suggest that everything is rosy or that gloom beckons, mostly because we don’t yet know what this team is capable of and how it will look once the full complement of personnel comes on line.
I do know that we are going to have a lot of fun this season, because the potential of this group is immense.