10 post-Classic points, aka “It ain’t over, but many things should be over”

"Okay guys, we sucked. Next question."
“Okay guys, we sucked. Next question.”

So. Barça got its collective tails handed to it yesterday. What does it mean, and what are the implications, moving forward? Here are 10 thoughts about just that.

1. Exorcismus Guardiolus: Time to eradicate all things Guardiola. Cries for “What Guardiola brought us, blablabla,” are pointless. That team, that system existed in a moment in time. Nobody was prepared for it, but people got prepared for it. It affected Spain just as it is affecting Barça. Time for the team and culers to move on. The question is “What can Enrique bring us?”

2. People seem somehow surprised that RM attackers ran past Iniesta and Xavi like they weren’t even there. Why? They weren’t, for all intents and purposes. It isn’t about triangles and possession. Not with the players that Barça have. It’s about getting the damn ball in the net. The play is slow because the players in charge of dictating it play slowly, then can’t help when possession is turned. Enrique has to solve that. Pedro is one possible solution. The Cuadrado desire is becoming more clear.

3. Enrique should figure out what the hell he wants to do, and then do it and not waver. You don’t set up a system, buy players and then decide in the biggest Liga match of the season to go conservative. The lineup was illogical, and turned Barça into Celta. It shouldn’t have happened. It starts with the coach. If only there was half as much focus on Enrique as Mathieu …

4. The change that has to happen to the team is hamstrung by the looming transfer ban. It’s also a case of hanging on to players too long. Should the team have sold Iniesta by now? Good question. Xavi is still effective against everybody except the types of teams Barça have to beat on the big stage. So why are both players still there? Why is Busquets still an automatic starter? Iconic players make a coach conservative.

5. If Barça is no longer going to defend with eleven as it attacks with eleven, changes have to be made in the way the team defends. At present, when attackers pierce the nonexistent press and slow mids, the back line is going to have problems. It can get away with them against lesser opposition. If Neymar isn’t going to track back, sit him down until he figures it out. Enrique shipped out Deulofeu for defensive deficiencies. The player can’t be blamed for wondering why him.

6. I don’t care how hard the players work in practice if they go on mental walkabout in matches. Barça has conceded six goals (PSG, RM) through stupid play. All six goals could have been prevented. You can say that even as you can also acknowledge that Barça was outplayed.

7. Like every Barça coach since the Ascendancy, Enrique doesn’t have the nerve to yank Messi. He should develop that nerve. When Messi goes absent he never comes back, even as he might sometimes find himself in a position to do something wonderful. “They defended him really well,” say supporters. When the hell has a focused, alert, charged Messi been able to be stopped? Early in the season, Messi set the tone, running, pressing and leading by example. Those days seem to be gone.

8. You have to fail before you can succeed. There were moments when (in attack) Enrique’s system worked. But if you are going to have a lineup that needs possession, you can’t be sloppy with it and you can’t leave big spaces, which means exploitable passing lanes for a top defense. It didn’t look at times like players knew what they were supposed to do, and that’s on the coaches. There were also too many speculative passes that went to RM players, when somebody didn’t make an expected run. For the run to dictate the pass, the run has to happen.

9. This board failed the team and the supporters, but was it ever going to be allowed to make the kinds of significant changes that would have been required? I reckon that it would have been pilloried if it had. It was time to sell Ronaldinho and Deco (past time, actually). Many culers are romantic, and believe that this team can still beat top sides with Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets running around. I am as romantic as the next guy, but the game has moved on. RM demonstrated that very clearly.

10. Retrospect. Even with that beating, there was a very real chance that it could have been 0-3 20 minutes into that match. This team has quality. What it doesn’t have is a margin for error. Pace and athleticism give you that margin for error, because fast, strong players can fix their own mistakes. Even as we moan into our libation of choice and hunt for reasons, in looking at the team that we have, it can compete against top competition. But its coach is going to have to make some very, very difficult decisions.

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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.

182 Comments

  1. Dar_vincy
    October 30, 2014

    Apologies, Deerwithwings, and other ladies in this space for my phraseological gaffe.
    It was never deployed with a conscending or sinister intent.
    Correction duly noted, Hansh and Kexvin.

    • October 30, 2014

      Careful now, or you’re going to make me use a smiley face emoticon. I figured as much about the intent. And it can be complex in a world in which different phrases fall into casual usage. Thanks for the response.

    • deerwithwings
      October 30, 2014

      It’s all good, but I appreciate the apology.

      Here’s to race, gender, and class distinctions going away in a hundred years.

  2. Peter
    October 30, 2014

    The more I watch the stats the more worried I am. I hadn’t considered, until today, just how frightening the dependence on Messi truly is. Right now Messi is not only the second-best scorer, he’s the leading assister in La Liga. The players who have assisted this season in the 23 goals scored so far in La Liga are these: Messi 7, Dani Alves 2, Pique 1, Munir 1, Busquets 1, Alba 1, Neymar 1, Luis Suarez 1. To these you may want to add Rakitic’s assist to Munir against Elche, Messi’s assist to Sandro vs Villareal, Messi’s through pass for Neymar against and Messi’s through pass for Munir, which became Neymar’s goal after the intervention of the keeper against Granada. Those don’t count as assists, because an opposing player touched the ball, but I count them for a reason.
    In the Champions League Barcelona has scored six goals in three games. The assists are as follows: Messi 2, Iniesta 2, Dani Alves 1, Rafinha 1.
    What do you notice in those stats? Well, you may notice that in La Liga Iniesta and Xavi don’t have a single assist between the two of them. You may notice that overall the only midfielders not to assist a goal have been Xavi, Sergi Roberto and Mascherano. You may notice that overall the only striker not to assist has been the powersub Sandro.
    So what does the creative midfield of Barcelona do when it has created only two chances that have resulted in goals? It passes the ball. Iniesta and Xavi create chances, but the fact that they haven’t had a single assist between them means that the chances they created were either wasted or the ball arrived in a moment when either the receiver wasn’t ready, or there was a defender/keeper in position. By itself that’s not so bad, even though the idea is that the creative midfielders are the ones creating the chances and the strikers are the ones executing them. The problem, however, is that especially in the Barcelona system, pressing has to be maintained. Players like Xavi and Iniesta are at a distinct disadvantage in aerial duels and most duels that rely on physical superiority, so they are supposed to compensate by pressing and closing channels. When they don’t do pull their share of defensive duty it’s no wonder that the defense will be exposed. The defense is exposed because the wingbacks are needed upfield to provide width, something which in normal teams is normally the job of the wide creative midfielders.
    That is my main point. Barcelona, the team that had provided the absolute best midfield trio, has a dysfunctional midfield. Some blame may be hurled on Busquets, but this doesn’t mean that Iniesta and Xavi don’t need to take a long hard look in the mirror.
    For me Real won the game in midfield, because their midfielders were more (4 against 3), younger, fitter and more motivated. But they won because they ran. They ran forward, and then ran back, in order to present a double bank, especially in the latter stage of the game when they could afford to defend en masse. However, my greatest fear is that Real were allowed to ran back, form their defense and wait. My greatest fear is that Real were allowed to do that, because the creative midfielders of Barcelona chose to keep the ball and make the safe pass. My greatest fear is that those creative midfielders chose that option, because they feared and maybe they knew that choosing the vertical pass may result in lost possession, which would mean they would be required to run and press. My greatest fear is that they either couldn’t do that running and pressing, or didn’t want to. Time will tell.
    What I can tell with absolute certainty right now is that Messi cannot score goals, create chances, drop back to pick up the ball, run at defenses and also be required to press. He is one player. The rest cannot rely on him to pull them out of the fire time and again. He cannot press if the ball isn’t played from the back. He cannot press if the ball is lost in midfield.
    In the match against Ajax Iniesta played probably his best game of the season. He had Mascherano and Rakitic next to him running and gunning for all they were worth, there was Pedro and there was Jordi Alba. Messi also ran and pressed a lot, because he wasn’t required to drop continuously to the center line and carry the ball forward. Ajax played from the back, because that’s what they do, but also because when they tried long balls, those were often intercepted by Rakitic and Mascherano, or returned by Pique and Bartra.

    How often did we see that against Real?

    • October 30, 2014

      Well said Peter. I was never able to explain it so well as you have done it.
      People seem to boast about lack of Messidependencia, with Neymar scoring, but they simply do not want to see what they dont want to see, that is Messi is still carrying our attack nearly by himselves. No one in the team is able to pick and complete a pass like he does. I think Suarez might do some of it in the future. The assist numbers by the others are so low to think that, we consider/ed us to be the best passing side. Iniesta and Xavi are not able to create what they did, against the big teams. Playing both of them together against a good side will be a suicide.
      If LE is what he is, as per many claims made here (for me he is not good enough for us), I hope Masche should be our DM for every big game. And Busquets/Iniesta/Xavi should play with Rakitic. But I am afraid, Rakitic displayed a lack of confidence both during PSG and RM.

    • Jim
      October 30, 2014

      A decent analysis, Peter, and I think we do need to beef up the physicality in midfield although if you look at the first half against Real as I did in an earlier post there isn’t much evidence of anyone running past the midfield. What they tend to do is quickly switch the ball wide which presents its own problems on the flanks. Tbh, I think our problems lie more in the system as a whole and what we see our pattern of play as being. I would argue that at the moment our system is heavily weighted in favour of the FBs having to be the creative players which they really aren’t up to. At times, the point seems to be to get the ball to an already present and standing still Alves or sometimes Mathieu/Alba and expect them to do something with it and I think both Xavi and Iniesta have to some extent fallen into that. I think that has to change. It may also be that Xavi and Iniesta are still living in the days when any breakaway meant a goal. I strongly believe our defence is much better these days ( gaffes not withstanding). If RM were running through our midfield in the first half, especially as has been said after the twenty minute mark, they created nothing. Happy to hear to the contrary but nobody has taken me up on this. So, to me, the gameplay for the first half worked. We were cutting them open at regular intervals and creating chances leading to excellent defensive work on their part to keep us out. Below, I’ve copied a Madrid view of that period from a stats based look at the Clasico. I wanted to have a look at what they were saying

      “It’s fair to say that the entire Madrid defence played exceptionally well – save for the opening 5 minutes – and this is shown by the number of passes and through-balls they cut out as well as the clearances they made. For example, Real Madrid made 6 crucial interceptions within their own box which was double the amount that Barcelona’s defenders managed. Real Madrid’s defenders also made 8 tackles inside their penalty-box compared to Barcelona’s 1 tackle. Here we can see the level of defensive concentration that made Los Blancos so hard to break down. A lot of praise has rightly gone toward Dani Carvajal & Marcelo who were tireless down their respective flanks but give credit to Pepe & Ramos too. They were immense. ”

      Our system in the first half worked – never better exemplified than by the 29th minute move with a lengthy passing movement during which time Madrid couldn’t touch the ball, and involving Xavi four times, ending with a slipped through ball from Messi to Mathieu who was slightly slow in reacting and getting the ball across. Their whole defence was back and we cut through it by being patient and waiting for the right moment. Where physicality comes into it is in the why Xavi went off. Was he tired? Can he only give us 45 minutes of that style of play? Were the energetic replacements in the last thirty even close to the same quality of play? Not to my view. Is the answer I suggested earlier not to discard Xavi but to embrace what he does best, give him two more defensive mids, forget about the predictable FB running forward into position then standing waiting for the obligatory ball ( largely because the opposition don’t mark them because they’re not worried about what they can do from a standing start) and encourage him to take more chances because our defence can now cope with breakaways better?

      Don’t have the answers but look at the last thirty minutes and lets be careful what we wish for.

    • October 30, 2014

      Look at this breakdown (in Spanish) from Rondo Blaugrana. It’s really excellent, and makes the point that Enrique made, that the loss came down to improperly executed tactics.

      http://www.rondoblaugrana.net/2014/10/un-problema-de-indefinicion.html#.VFI6ZkCbiAV.twitter

      It’s an interesting idea that seizes upon the team play when it was working as evidence.

      It’s funny, watching the Martino teams from last season, I can’t help but wonder what he would have done with the same transfers that Enrique has gotten. His teams were so good in both Classics, and that destruction of La Real was probably, in hindsight, the pinnacle of the Martino systemic approach.

    • Jim
      October 30, 2014

      Kxevin, you’re teasing us non Spanish speakers again …. 🙂 Go on, give us the gist.

    • Peter
      October 30, 2014

      Be patient and I’ll come up with a translation 😉

  3. luisthebeast
    October 30, 2014

    I watched westham vs manchester city and west ham have an amazing playerw.He is strong fast and very good passing.His name is song and maybe we will make an offer for him in the future…when xavi will be 48..and i want to say one thing to rosell..you can enjoy ur new boat mr rosell with the money from neymar transfer but one day we will findm the truth

    • G6O
      October 30, 2014

      He does indeed

      The question is how do we fix it in real life

  4. October 30, 2014

    Oh. I know in this world of cyber opinion, folks saying they were wrong is about as rare as a roc’s egg, but I was wrong. I watched the 3-4 Classic again last night while transferring it to DVD and damn, Jordi Alba was really, really good. My misgivings about him were misguided.

    So yeah, would have liked a back line of Alves/Mascherano/Mathieu/Alba, which I think might have been more effective. I still don’t think Mathieu was as crap in attack as many assert, and he offered things different from Alba.

    What I can’t really assess yet though is what the effect of the fourth mid had on the effectiveness of Alba. Also, Iniesta was absolutely brilliant in that match last season. Not even in the neighborhood of that this season.

    • Davide
      October 30, 2014

      Good point. Is it just me or does Busquets need rest and/or surgery? He looks like a shell himself the past nine months or so.

    • October 31, 2014

      Both, I imagine. I suspect that is why job one was to retain Mascherano. Now Enrique just has to develop the courage of his convictions.

  5. October 30, 2014

    The failure of Barca is not due to staying stuck in Guardiola era, but a failure to understand why the Guardiola era was a success. The success of Guardiola era was due to the fact that we had a midfield which dominated others. Now we the game has changed. Opponents have adapted and that is why most of the good team plays with a 4 or 5 member midfield against us. That gives us the numerical advantage. I have said this earlier it’s time we looked past the 4-3-3 formation. The current Barca will do well with a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3 formation. That is the only way we could get the midfield onus back especially who looks to overcrowd us.

    Look at Real Madrid midfield, they always had that one man advantage. That helped them to break quickly.

    Ronaldo & co has been always faster than our boys. It’s not a new thing. Even in the Guardiola era we use to struggle with their break. But the plus point then was the breaks were not this frequent.

    The sheer arrogance of our management of not trying to adapt is causing this issue. Opponents have adapted, the only one who is not doing is us.

    • October 31, 2014

      Yup. Note that Martino recognized that by going with a 4-man midfield last year against them. Not sure why Enrique didn’t.

  6. Peter
    October 31, 2014

    For Jim and the other non-Spanish speaking members:
    A PROBLEM OF INDEFINITION.

    Guardiola installed the Positional Play(PP) in the Blaugrana pantheon. Well, not installed it, but gave it the definitive touch, coinciding with a generation of unequalled players. He also encountered his nemesis: the Top European teams that barricaded themselves in their half and killed on the counter. Chelsea, Inter, Real Madrid… These rivals closed down the lines, negated the space in which PP thrives and took control of the encounter. And escaped the trap of the pressure.

    Tito made the team slightly more vertical. He achieved a historical point record domestically, but was defeated in Europe – although we’ll never know what would’ve happened had he been on the bench. Martino radicalized the idea. The results praised him during the first half of the season, but then diverse causes pushed him into reverse. The result – better competitiveness in Europe, worse domestically.

    This can be explained because the requirements of the big and small matches are different. The small matches demand the space that rivals negate by default. Abandoning the PP, elongating the team, playing worse you come near the goal, and the better quality in both areas decides the encounter in your favor. The big matches demand PP, because the rival has similar quality in the areas, subjugates the midfield through physicality, and has the capability to tip the balance in his favor. The only solution is to defend with the ball, progress with pauses, unite the team close to the ball.

    That’s why Lucho jumped on the Delorian and returned to take a stroll in the past. The experiment functioned for a time – between the 30th and 45th minute and mostly between the 45th and 60th minute, when the team fused and minimized the counters of Real, while simultaneously producing chances. That’s when the subs came and denaturalized the team. The goal conceded from a corner in favor didn’t help much, either.

    But let’s segment the match a bit more. The thing started with an early goal by Neymar and with alarm lights lighting up in the blaugrana team every time it didn’t have the ball. Madrid needed very little to start this disorder: Ronaldo on the left drawing opponents. Marcelo doubling, and Isco in support; and Benzema and James overloading the weak side. That same play repeated insistently and only luck prevented the draw. Those were probably the worst minutes since the semifinal against Bayern two years ago.

    From there Madrid lost its initial push and the forces equalized. Xavi took the wheel and started cooking long possession spells, Barcelona came together close to the ball and defended in the only way possible: with the ball.

    Barcelona found easily the back of the white midfield, and the presence of Suarez inside, unlike the first minutes, prevented the CBs from coming forward to anticipate the play. This sent Messi in the middle or the right. Added Xavi ahead of the ball. He returned to give a clinical lecture of understanding of the game, offensive work and class.

    This helped Barcelona reorder the defense and for a while Real attacked worse. It reencountered the holes, this time with joined Isco and Marcelo, increasing winnings every time. This time with three players loading the box, doubling down, leaving more and more holes behind. Only little wasn’t enough for the 0-2. Barcelona overcame the lines better, reached the rival half and once there set up camp around the box and waited for a spark of genius. As said, just a little.

    After the draw things equalized once more. In the second time, in spite of the goal, I’d say the visitors were slightly better. The team defended better, had longer spells of possession, and reached the box of Real creating occasions. With the substitutions and the 3-1 inventiveness died. Luck deserted them. The team kept on trying, but we’d better tiptoe past the last 30 minutes.

    Conclusions:
    1. Messi and Neymar should get to know Suarez’s movements. It will take time, but will bring profit. Luchito knows how to play that. On Saturday he delighted us with a range of movements of drags, support – third man – and good first touch.
    2. Luis Enrique should work on the defensive problem that are the flanks. Neymar and Suarez didn’t arrive, and the mids can’t cover that much space.
    3. Right now the team can’t defend set pieces, due to lack of a system and “athleticism.” The wings don’t join the midfield line, leaving those three to cover too much space, and holes appear. Furthermore the CBs don’t help because they fear leaving their back uncovered. We saw in the second part how Masche was much more aggressive towards Benzema’s support runs. Exactly in the best moments of the team. Coincidence?
    4. Right now Rakitic is beneath the level of Iniesta and Xavi. This is why he didn’t start the game. Patience. It’s another world and adaptation is difficult. Against Ajax we saw him much more liberated and deep. Here’s to his continued evolution.
    5. Xavi continues to be without an heir. He was the lighthouse. Messi and Iniesta can’t manage to adapt to his new role. They lack decision-making, take risks before the team has joined together, then defend even worse. Xavi finished? Won’t be surprised if he finishes the year being the best midfielder of the team.
    6. I believe Lucho had the right idea. The team doesn’t have the capacity to contain the offensive traffic that the whites generate. The best moments were when the team was kneading the ball, which certifies the approach. However, the team failed to do it during half an hour, for which it received a harsh reality check.
    7. Even so, Martino decided to run last year and pulled out a 3-4. Messi legitimizes that approach. Accompanied by Neymar and Suarez, even more so. But still, measures to help the defensive bleeding should be taken, like four midfielders. But then that’s one too many up front. Difficult.

    Looking ahead

    Lucho needs to define his system. How he wants to attack, how he wants to defend. Whether he wants to run or pause, who will be the one to make the decision and time the beat of the team.

    It won’t be easy. As seen on Saturday, the three up front won’t be doing much defensive duty. They won’t follow their markers, at least no always. But even though they aren’t defending they aren’t attacking either. They don’t take up position to receive the ball after recovery and start an offensive transition.

    It appears it’s not the best option against big teams. When the team runs, it splits, and attacks and defends in numerical inferiority, because the mids don’t get on time neither on one side, nor on the other.

    If not running, then the whole team needs to defend together. Press together and retreat together. It’s something we aren’t seeing. The front presses, the defense balks, and the mid remains in no man’s land, covering a space too big for their capabilities.

    The base of Positional Play is that the whole team moves in the direction as a single unit. In that way, in defense every player defends a minimum of space, for which he doesn’t need great defensive reading of the game, just intensity. The Blaugrana defense seems always coming up late. It’s normal, they have to decide. Lots of space, the decisions are more complicated. They aren’t comfortable.

    We saw it in the second part, probably after the half-time talk of Lucho. Masche stepped forward. But for Pique it cost him. It seems he doesn’t trust his fitness, which makes him defend a step backwards. That’s sufficient for the passes to the back of Busquets are easy. Any elite player could get them.

    One or the other, the Mister needs to define. Mixing bacon with velocity* is usually not a good recipe.
    *A Spanish saying, “What does bacon have to do with velocity?” is used to display basically that the one addressed is talking about completely unrelated stuff and has no idea what he’s talking about.

    My comment: defending and attacking as a single unit seems okay, but we forget something very important, a lesson learned a long time ago not in football, but in war: a fleet moves with the speed of its slowest unit.

    • deerwithwings
      October 31, 2014

      Nice work and good translation!

      For anyone who doesn’t speak spanish, that’s a hell of a lot of work that Peter just did for free =)

    • Jim
      October 31, 2014

      Thanks, Peter. I do appreciate the work involved – all the more so as I reckon the article is spot on in a lot of ways. Nice to hear I’m not alone in supporting Xavi’s contribution. With regard to your point about moving at the speed of the slowest, you’re right but to me that’s the whole point about us condensing the game. Defence moves up and forwards need to hold things up as much as they can so the mids don’t have so far to go. Under the current system our mids, who aren’t the biggest or quickest are being asked to do far too much. I’ve never liked forwards chasing pass backs to the keeper for instance. That’s a really low percentage play. Much better to retreat twenty yards and face them with a compact unit, kinda like a half court press in basketball.

    • October 31, 2014

      Thank you about a billion times, Peter! That was wonderful!

    • Valdemar II
      October 31, 2014

      Yeah, very cool of you Peter.

    • barca96
      October 31, 2014

      Thank you so much Peter!

    • barca96
      October 31, 2014

      Slightly OT, but what does bacon have anything to do with velocity?

  7. October 31, 2014

    To the surprise of exactly nobody, the board has decided to appeal the judge’s decision in favor of Laporta and the former board members.

    • CuleToon
      October 31, 2014

      .
      On the other hand, the board has relinquished the guarantee Laporta and his board members had to answer for. That guarantee pertained to another lawsuit (A) but turned out to have no effect because of the lawsuit (B) recently ruled. The reason for this renunciation is that Laporta and Co. would have to answer for it *if* the current board appealed lawsuit (B), which it just did.

      A total mess, isn’t it? If not for other things, the current board stands out because of his love for the judicial world…

    • Jim
      October 31, 2014

      Yup. Big mistake on board’s part for me and I’m usually for giving them benefit of the doubt. Our struggle this year is gonna be hard enough without fighting among ourselves. Not sure if there’s anyone who can unite the club though, short of Messi walking into the room and saying “It stops here! ” Surprised at Bartomeu who I think usually has his wits about him.

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