“This will be an interesting week. Hunting season is open,” said Luis Enrique, referring no doubt to the massive upheaval that is expected after two losses in a row, both in pretty much the same manner when you really think about it.
— Opponents won challenges, got to loose balls, outfought Barça
— Chances not taken that can console those who crave consolation
— No evidence of a real system, a real way of attack
— Key players not on form
It feels like I have been typing this much more than usual these past few months dating back to the end of last season, but full credit to Celta and the damnable keeper of theirs. The better team won today, successfully taking one of the few chances it had and converting it beautifully. It was a deserved win, a victory forged from effort, talent and more than a little bit of luck, an alchemy that describes almost every victory by a team.
Many will seek consolation in the same libation, Retrospect, that they quaffed in the aftermath of the RM defeat. Then, it was “If Neymar doesn’t rush his chance and Messi converts, it’s 3-0 and a different match.” Today, it’s “If we just don’t hit the crossbar and their keeper doesn’t come up huge, it’s 4 or 5-1 and we cruise.”
But none of those things happened, so a loss is the result, a discomfiting beast of a loss that forces us to stare a great many things in the face as people come down from a pre-season filled with giddy anticipation.
— We got Enrique. Yay!
— Intensity is back. He’s working them so hard they are wearing out the practice pitch.
— We signed the best 9 on the planet. It’s Go Time.
— Messi is back, fit and raring to go.
Expectations and reality
Assuredly, nobody should in their right minds expect things to click right into place. Not with a new coach, new players and a new system. But it would not be out of line to have an expectation of some vision, some notion of a system that is something more than “Okay, I’m gonna go over here and do something cool, then you do something cool, and we should be able to score. Got it?”
Today, in an attack that has been all too typical of late, a fullback or CB hoofed the ball forward for Suarez, Messi or Neymar to run onto. But because Celta was working its collective asses off, the runners were covered. The net result is turned possession or an ineffective shot. On one such pass Messi took the ball, but because the defender was right there along with an alert keeper, the result was a weak header over the net. Another hoof-in-mouth moment was a long ball to Alves, who lost possession.
The BeIN Sports technical commentator, Ian Joy, observed that “At Barcelona, there doesn’t seem to be a real game plan for where Luis Suarez is supposed to be on the field.”
This is exactly right, and a symptom of the very thing predicted by Jonathan Wilson in this excellent dissection of one potential Barça future. Individual brilliance has bailed this team out of many a dilemma, from the Iniestazo to submarine headers and Pedro bundling in goals.
That was then, and this is now. In the short term play is on the wings, leaving Barça a formation with a hole in the middle. Alba and Alves had accomplices in Rakitic and Rafinha as midfielders functioned more like wingers than true midfielders.
So should anyone be shocked that midfield possession and control were largely absent? Time after time a single attacker was forward with others coming up, the delay helping the defense to get set. The attack would be Messi, Neymar and Suarez running at the defense. No possession, no buildup, just a track meet. If a defender stuck a foot out at the wrong time, the attack collapsed and individual brilliance is once again outdone by collective effort.
And when Celta got the ball on attack they went over the top to get directly at the back line, and found reward in their goal. A long ball over the top found Mascherano losing the aerial duel. The ball comes off his head directly into the path of Nolito, who is being marked by Alves who has an excellent chance at the clearance but shanks it. Becuase Busquets is lollygagging back, when the ball comes away from that fluffed Alves clearance effort Busquets then has to react quickly, which has never been a strength of his.
Meanwhile, he and Mathieu are rushing to the ball, reacting to play with their backs to the rest of the attackers. So of course, neither has cover on the Celta attacker, who is running free. The loose runner slides between Mathieu and Alves, and slams it past Bravo.
The worst part is that it was a 4v2 in our favor. But Alba is out of the play, Mathieu marks Nolito and nobody marks the trailer. Goal.
Aftermath and reactions
The net effect of that setback was that our play continued as it was, only with more desperation. So players chased the ball, rather than pressing as a tactic. Individual efforts came and went, Quixotic quests that make the life of a committed, organized defense as easy as can be. Or sometimes, just for a change of pace, a lofted cross flew to a head, but the Celta back line was able to successfully keep the Barça attackers from getting close enough to do any real damage.
You can pause your recording at almost any point and you will find a single Barça attacker with the ball, about to hoof it forward to a loosely spaced gaggle of attackers, all of whom are covered by Celta defenders.
They get a man loose in the box and it’s a goal. We get Messi loose for a shot and a Celta defender saves their keeper with a goalmouth clearance, or a 1v1 situation results in the Barça attacker losing possession.
Celta also very effectively isolated Barça attackers. Again. It felt like a rerun of the Classic, as Neymar on the wing has three defenders in front of him. Suarez faces up two defenders and is dispossessed. Messi runs at 3 defenders, and is dispossessed.
In his post-match presser, Enrique alluded to things to correct and strengthen, including player attitudes and things that didn’t really have anything to do with tactics. In many ways he was right. Most athletic contests come down to … well … athletics. Celta lose the ball and everybody runs. Barça lose the ball and Messi walks, Alves jogs and Alba trots. Busquets looks like he’s waiting for a taxi. Luckily Mascherano steps up to make the steal and passes it to a winger, who hoofs it forward.
But tactics give structure to an athletic endeavor. It isn’t “Just go out there and win!” There is a plan. If that plan was being deviated from, as players starved of possession began to freelance to ensure they got the ball and some touches, that’s another matter. But this seeming chaos looks to be something of a trend, which is a concern.
Get me the old guy! Stat!
In an effort to change the match, Enrique brought on two subs, Xavi and Pedro, and went to 3 at the back as Mascherano slid forward into midfield. But Pedro was stationed on the right wing, which didn’t take advantage of his ability to run into space and finish, something that usually happens for him on the left, not the right. And Xavi. Well, Xavi. There are a lot of things that you can say about Enrique going to Xavi in an effort to exert some control on the match, but let’s start with this one:
Jesus, the team still hasn’t moved on from Xavi??!!
That is no knock on Xavi who, on selected occasions, still has it. But if you have to rely on a 35-year-old midfielder, it means that your template is in serious need of adjustment or alteration as it straddles past and present. That, for me, is a significant problem.
The loss doesn’t bother me. Even two losses in a row don’t bother me. It’s a long season, and a few points here or there aren’t really going to matter a whole lot in the overall scheme of things. RM went 7 points down and came back in the table, so there’s not a reason that we can’t either.
The way that the loss came, however, as noted above, is worrisome. Enrique didn’t seem to know what to do to affect the result, nor would I argue that he had the tools. Maybe, just maybe, you don’t throw all the toys out the pram at the same time, because you might need something to play with later, particularly with an important Champions League match coming up midweek. But there are even problems with that.
— Can’t sit Messi, right?
— We paid 82m for that dude. Sure as hell can’t sit him.
— Neymar has been our best attacker on form, can’t sit him.
So the full box of tricks starts right away, and once demonstrated to not be able to effect the desired result, the options are scarce.
In the past when Barça lost, it was as a group that played its way, did its best and that was that. But not since the end days of Rijkaard have I watched a mess of a team that didn’t seem to have any real direction.
If you’re going to have Messi around the center circle getting the ball, have some players around him so that you bring it up as a unified attack, rather than him running at the defense or smacking a long pass. If only one attacker is in the box, a defender doesn’t really have to be a geometry genius to figure out the passing angle.
Positives or negatives?
These aren’t end days. It isn’t a question of “Sell him! No! Sell him! Lucho out!” That’s all overreaction to a team that still has gobs and gobs of talent, and the potential to bring that talent together in a devastating fashion.
But don’t think that this loss today was down to luck. Luck is a malleable sop. Teams have good luck and bad. Balls bounce in funny ways, etc, etc. But to chalk the overall path of an occurrence up the presence or absence of luck isn’t supportable by logic, for me. Neymar hit the crossbar. Bad luck. Okay. Or is his concentration not at the level it is for other matches, so that last little bit of quality isn’t in the shot. The keeper dives, and is able to stop a Messi shot. A defender comes charging in at the last gasp, to stop a Messi shot from reaching goal. Luck? Or maybe the ball need have been hit a little sharper?
Luck is easy. Luck looks at a 3-1 Classic defeat and says “If only.” Luck looks at a home loss in which an attack worth hundreds of millions of Euros couldn’t scrape together a single goal and says “Coulda been, if only.”
I hate luck. Celta wasn’t lucky. Celta made its luck. Sometimes, the difference between a goal or a stop is a lucky bounce, but look at the way Nolito kept fighting for that ball to set up that goal effort. Luck? Finding money on the street is luck. An athletic result is usually down to something different, and it’s that “something different” that isn’t working right now.
Barça have lost two Liga matches in a row, after a gaudy start. Okay. Losses happen. But time is wasting. There isn’t time for recrimination, or shaking a fist at the board that did this or that. Those moments are gone. We have the players we have, and the coach that we have. We also have a colossal amount of talent that needs to come together in a way that is reflective of its quality. That can happen. Celta played close to a perfect match today, the kind of match they had to play to win, given the talent disparity between them and us.
But maybe some of the attitude Enrique references is the reality that our talent used to have a much larger margin for error, when legs were younger and fresher, when opponents were more tentative. Maybe. And maybe right now that cognizance isn’t there, maybe that all-out that is required, that something extra is being held in abeyance.
Lots of maybes. But the sum total of all those maybes are potentialities that worry me far, far more than a couple of losses.