A big part of being a grownup is ownership, taking control of the moments in life when you so desperately wish you had done better, raising your hand and saying, “That’s on me.”
Players raise their hand to acknowledge a loose pass, or a shot that shouldn’t have been taken, but who will raise their hand in the aftermath of a very thorough hiding at the Bernabeu? Xavi mouths platitudes, such as “We had ’em in the first half, blablabla,” and Iniesta says “You hate to lose matches like this.”
But who will take ownership?
This paean to failure should begin with respect, and a “Well done” to RM, who ruled the day. Xavi’s after the fact bleating is like Jake LaMotta after Sugar Ray Robinson turned his face into hamburger, dripping blood and saying, “You never got me down, Ray. You never got me down.” Which might well have been, but it was an ass whipping nonetheless.
People have been saying it time and again that you can make errors against Elche, but the PSGs and RMs will punish those errors. PSG came down to 3 instances of Keystone Kops defending. It was easy for many, myself included, to say “Work on that stuff in training, and do better next time.” Today can’t be excused, Yes, their goals all came from errors, but they were forced errors:
— A full-speed overlap resulting in a cross and subsequent handball.
— Some “After you, my dear Alphonse” marking on a set piece, leading to a free header.
— Iniesta undressed on the sideline leading to a full-speed (that phrase again) counter
Within those errors was a simple reality: Barça was outplayed. RM got to every loose ball, had their opponent on the back foot for most of the match, causing reactive defending of the type that will beget fouls. People were keeping track of our yellows vs their yellows, suggesting that something nefarious was afoot. Not from what I saw, which was an outplayed team lunging and coming in late, a step behind a fast-moving opponent.
Divide and conquer
What RM did was simple, really. Ancelotti’s match plan reduced every key battle to RM’s favor. So when Neymar got the ball, rather than defending him, defenders just blocked his passing angles. Messi was fronted, his passing angles blocked. Xavi and Iniesta were reduced to prancing irrelevance, and Suarez was mostly isolated. the molasses-like Barça movement giving their defenders plenty of time to switch targets. Mathieu would take an overlap, and Carvajal would simply stay inside to cut off the crossing angle and block the pass.
On attack, the isolation plan continued, Marcelo 1v1 against Alves, Ronaldo 1v1 against Pique and other defenders. Part of the isolation was bred in overall team quality of the type that Barça used to boast, threats everywhere meaning that a defense had to mark everyone. In trying to mark everyone, you often marked no one.
The use of space against Barça was also exemplary, as they always had a free man to take a pass and keep an attack going, something that culers should be very familiar with. They got technicians to enhance their pace and physicality, to make them able to match technical teams with flair and fluidity of their own.
Helping the enemy
In last year’s first Classic, Martino got the lineup right, forcing RM’s formation into a blunder. This year, Enrique rolled out a puzzler:
Alves Pique Mascherano Mathieu
Busquets Xavi Iniesta
Messi Suarez Neymar
Mathieu at LB made sense for the same reason that Adriano did last year. You need a physical player whose default setting is defense. But in the midfield was the living, breathing manifestation of a dire prophesy. Many said that if it is Xavi AND Iniesta, the collective would be too slow, leaving Alves stranded and Busquets scrambling. And with the three forwards essentially doing desultory tracking back or not tracking back at all, a constant numerical superiority was created for RM in attack, once they left behind Xavi and Iniesta.
That means that for a team that attacks and defends with 11, half of the team is out of the play, cast adrift by pace. When RM raised the tempo of the match after about the 20th minute, it began to get really ugly as Barça couldn’t match their pace. They ran faster, passed faster and just seemed to always be a step ahead.
As the pass is struck to Ronaldo on the play that resulted in the Pique handball, not only is the passer unmolested, but he has three open targets to play the ball to. He chooses Ronaldo, and Marcelo takes off on the overlap. There isn’t a Barça player within yards of Ronaldo or any of the other RM attackers. So not only can the play occur in space, but now the defenders have to scramble to cover, which means they are off balance and increasingly error prone.
Mascherano had the Marcelo cross covered, but Pique didn’t know that because he was scrambling.
On the set piece goal, 3 RM attackers pushed up, and Pepe just slid into the space they vacated for his open header. At the time he strikes the ball, Xavi and Iniesta are standing on the edge of the box as though they are looking for a lost puppy. Were they tracking late runners into the box? Good question.
The third goal was just ridiculous, as Iniesta lost possession and Isco broke, taking advantage of a (again) scrambling Barça defense. Space. Running space, passing space, attacking space, space taken away in attack, and compressed on their end of the pitch.
So what happened?
In retrospect, it was the wrong XI. No Rakitic means that Alves was stranded. No Pedro meant that none of the forwards tracked back effectively. Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta are too slow, relics of a bygone era. The game is faster, opponents are faster and play faster. Keep possession and everything is groovy. Lose possession and you have pace and physicality problems, which is what happened.
Atop all that, key players — Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Pique, Busquets were poor. Alves had good plays, but Marcelo could take his corner and set up shop whenever he wanted. Neymar played soft, Messi distracted, like last year’s Messi and Suarez wound up being the team’s best attacker. Go figure.
Enrique erred on the macro level in his approach to the match, thinking that Xavi and Iniesta would be able to play possession football. He didn’t take into account how easily isolate either player can be with a physical opponent that presses intelligently. So Xavi has the ball, but where can he pass it to? Hold it long enough and it gets taken, sending RM off to the races.
On the micro sense, he chose to start Suarez, no doubt wanting to take full advantage of the trident, a thing that too often wound up being separated tines of a fork. Messi and Neymar were too far apart and Suarez was isolated. Yes, people will use fancy illustrations and diagrams to explain what happened, but the simple reality is that RM reduced the match to individual physical battles, and won almost every time.
Not great men
Messi and Ronaldo, despite all the hype, weren’t really all that good today. But the lesser players stepped up. Isco, Benzema, Pepe, Marcelo. Isco’s play today probably has RM supporters who believe in that kind of stuff, jamming pins into a Gareth Bale voodoo doll.
Ancelotti will never be anyone’s Special One, but he doesn’t need that to coach. This was a Classic with no violence and few controversies, just a thorough beating. Such was the savagery of it all that a curious psychological malaise seemed to suffuse the players, almost like they suddenly believed they were outmatched, and began to play in that loose, distracted manner of a lesser team.
After the Messi doorstep chance was missed, some of the fight seemed to go out of Barça, and RM elevated its game.
So what’s next
Celta Vigo is what’s next, and trying to stay top of a table that it surprises me we’re leading. The team will continue to come together, as it has been playing a system that only now has its final piece in Luis Suarez. There are very real deficiencies that are not soluble any time soon, given the looming transfer ban. Suffice it to say, I don’t think that anyone considers it ideal to take Iniesta off and bring Sergi Roberto on. But that is the situation this team finds itself in.
For four years, this sporting project has been being neglected while the board set up its ultimate bauble in the nou Nou. Four years. Guardiola wanted change and transfers. Vilanova wanted change and transfers. Martino wanted change and transfers. Nobody got anything, and now we’re seeing the results of a management policy that short-changes the most important thing: that group the punters pony up to watch.
The minutes piled up, nagging injuries became chronic ones as other, potentially better players come and go. Benatia moves, Mangala moves, Marquinhos moves. Rumors come and they go, stories come out after the fact that make sense of the board’s policy of being stagnant. Now the team has many real problems.
— Who do you sub for Xavi or Iniesta?
— When Alves leaves, and he is declining fast, who goes there?
— If Pique is still the best we got, we got some problems.
— How can any of these problems be fixed with a looming transfer ban?
And of course, making matters worse is that the transfer ban is due to “errors” by the board in how it dealt with its youth players. Somebody squealed, and that was that. The net result is a process that by all rights should have only started with this summer’s spending spree, will be interrupted. The players out on loan can help a few of the problems, but if we are seeing the core of the team suddenly aging, you need a damn sight more than to bring back Deulofeu and Denis Suarez.
Today’s loss is on the players. But it’s also on the board that let the team get to this state. As much promise as Thomas Vermaelen holds, it is almost November and the summer transfer still hasn’t played except in a friendly against a bunch of teenagers. You really can’t argue with the rest of the transfers, as Bravo and Mathieu are proving their worth, and the jury will be out on Suarez for some time.
For now, we have the after effects of a match that really is just 3 points in the standings, even as the beating leaves the team exposed and damaged. The lead over RM is but a single point, but it is still a lead. This team has some work to do, but so does everybody in the club.