“Worst game of the season. (The) second half was a bit better, but more because of the players’ desire than because of our game.
“I don’t know what happened in the first half. The result is the best thing, but the goals won’t hide the things we did wrong”
— Luis Enrique
Even in the aftermath of a narrow win pulled out against a brave, exceptionally good Almeria side, I am still not sure if Enrique was a genius, a jackass, or all of the above.
He started today’s match with a lineup that I confess to liking when I first saw it: Bravo, Adriano, Mascherano, Bartra, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Rafinha, Munir, Pedro, Messi. You get industry from Munir and Pedro, string pulling and attacking from Messi and more industry from the midfield. And if all that fails, you have Bartra and Mascherano, pace and tackling ability, at the back. It was also a lineup that made rotational and meritocracy sense.
What we got instead was a leaderless, rudderless mess that Almeria took advantage of time and again with the three things that have been the Achilles heel of Barça for years now: team cohesion, pace and physicality. Any balls that Almeria didn’t outrun Barça players to, they outmuscled them for. As with Malaga, Celta and RM this season, Atleti last season and the Chelseas, etc before them, you can trouble the handsome guy if you just punch him in the face.
But what made today’s first half such a mess was the complete lack of cohesion, logic or pretty much anything else. Nobody seemed to be sure where they were supposed to be, so everybody just looked to be running around. And that was on defense. In attack, it was “Here, Messi, you do it.” How much of that was the player taking it all on because that was what he sensed and Almeria removing options is interesting to consider.
If you look at how they played Munir and Pedro, it was clear that they took the superstar approach to defending Barça, which is “If Messi can beat us by himself, good on him.”
As with Celta, there were chances. Barça smacked the crossbar with shots 3 times today. There were those, as well as some excellent early opportunities from lovely sequences of play. And when those didn’t come off, Almeria seemed buoyed by failure and came on hard. The match seemed stalemated until something that was kind of expected happened, given how this season has been going.
Messi took a pass, turned, dribbled, dribbled some more before being dispossessed outside the Almeria box. From there, the rest was easy. There was no midfield presence, as Rakitic and Rafinha were functioning as attackers. Alba and Adriano were wide, Pedro and Munir also on offense. The perfect outlet pass to Almeria’s fastest attacker found his feet, and he slid a lovely finish home. 1-0 to the home side, and some blasphemers asked questions, such as what if Messi had passed?
Ignoring the full-on tactical shambles that meant essentially, nobody was back to try to control the fastest, most aggressive player on the pitch, that question lingers. I understand the desire of the most creative player on the pitch to make something happen. I also look at a moment in the second half where, faced with almost a similar situation, Messi took the pass, dribbled a bit, surveyed his options then passed back to midfield for a reset.
No, the goal wasn’t Messi’s fault. The goal wasn’t anybody’s fault unless you want to lay the blame at the feet of a messy team performance and seeming tactical clusterf***. But recall in the PSG match, when Alves was castigated for giving up possession close to our box, and when Luiz scored from the set piece, many said “Garbage in, garbage out.” It was a valid question then, and is a valid question now.
Messi is a phenom, who will almost certainly go down in history as the best player to ever play the game. Any culer who isn’t thrilled and thankful every day that he is playing for Barça is delusional. But he is also a player who is on the team at FC Barcelona. If you can’t ask a question about him, just as you would any other player, at what point does it become impossible to thoroughly discuss the team?
Apres le deluge
Barça went into the half down a goal and, frankly, a mess from to to bottom, from attack to defense. It looked like exactly what it was: a tired team coming off of a very difficult away match in Champions League into a very difficult away match in league play, with a new coach/staff and a bunch of new players. I understand that our wee millionaires are supposed to be fonts of boundless energy, capable of rising up and crushing lesser mortals. But maybe, just maybe, that fatigue played into the Enrique XI decision, holding his top players in abeyance in case the match didn’t go as he would have hoped.
For me, I can’t really excoriate Enrique for the initial lineup decision without taking a lot of other things into consideration. That’s the easy, seductive path, though. Such an atmosphere of doubt exists around this team and its coach that everything is up for grabs, and nothing makes sense.
“We want a fresh start that has to be perfect right now.” Guardiola tinkered with his lineups and the phrase, “In Pep we trust” was born. Enrique is just a clueless jackass.
Nonetheless, Suarez and Neymar entered the fray just after the half and immediately there were signs of life, mostly because suddenly the superstar defense tactic was no longer effective. Almeria had three weapons to worry about, instead of just putting 4 men in front of Messi and daring the others to be good enough. And maybe, just maybe, the coach kinda knew just a bit about what might happen.
If you take a player still coming into match fitness and throw him out against a fresh opponent that is full of energy at home, a player coming off a difficult away match, is that player going to have the same effectiveness as he would against a tiring opponent with a half of football already in his legs? And maybe, just maybe, that energy edge will be enough to turn the tide. Maybe.
Suarez generated two moments of individual brilliance for two assists, one to Neymar and the other to Alba, and the decision to keep him as a sub sure seemed a proper one. People can snarl all they like about how depending upon moments of individual magic means a system is flawed, the team shouldn’t have to, etc, etc. but Barça history is FILLED with moments of individual magic. Even in that Treble season, the one in which the team won every match 324-0 and nothing was ever in doubt, there were moments of stunning individual brilliance, because that is precisely why you have those kinds of players.
When Mascherano dons his cape and saves the world as he did today, yes, it’s a flaw because he shouldn’t have to. But the luxury of that world-class player is that when you need him to, he can. And that ain’t bad.
A messy Messi
And speaking of those kinds of players, it’s time to ask what’s wrong with Messi. Late in the match, Messi got a chance that you would have bet the house on his finishing. Making it even better was that Neymar and Suarez essentially cleared out the Almeria defense, so that it was effectively Messi and the keeper. Saved. And he missed two chances before that, moments that we have become accustomed to watching the ball nestle into the back of the net.
He had Iker Casillas at his mercy in the Classic, and didn’t finish. It’s fair to begin to wonder, as others have, where the finishing sharpness has gone. What happens with Messi is that people line up to defend him. “Hasn’t he suffered enough,” or “I don’t know why he stays at Barça,” etc, etc. And the person who asks the question is branded a “hater,” because that is easy. I get that, even as I don’t accept it. Because nobody hates Messi except his victims, and even they can’t really muster up a good hate. How can you? All he wants to do is cuddle his kid and cut your throat.
The fact of the matter is that Messi, who started the season in a manner that was brilliant even by his own lofty standards, has tailed off in dramatic fashion. Yes, some of it is that he is being fronted by armies of defenders outside the box. But on the line, in the box, goals that he used to score with style and precision he is now missing, or putting where the keeper can get at them. I remember a time when Messi viewed being dispossessed as a personal affront, and would practically assault the player with the ball, nipping at his heels to get it back.
It’s fair to question Messi, even as so many think that it isn’t. “Look what he has done for this club, you ungrateful bastard.” Messi doesn’t dive, Messi doesn’t make excuses. People don’t need to make excuses for him. When I observed that he should have passed, which might have prevented the turnover that led to the Almeria goal, the reasons why he didn’t pass were many. “Creative players don’t do that,” “He has to do everything,” “He wasn’t getting any help,” etc, etc.
But would beginning of the season Messi have made that pass? Even second half Almeria Messi made the pass, and you can’t even say it was because he had Neymar and Suarez on the pitch as seeming equals, because he passed back to midfield. Is it as simple as a great player not trusting the people around him to do it? Like any great player, Messi probably considers himself the best option, and figures if he takes a risk, his teammates will bail him out, as the midfield and defense should have after that turnover. But that didn’t happen and even if it had, would it be fair to ask whether a pass should have been made?
Our newest contributor, Barça Chief, called them “Messi goggles” on Twitter. I won’t go that far. But I do believe that like any other part of this team and any player, it is fair that Messi is part of the conversation. He isn’t at his best. Why? Many have had opinions recently, ranging from his former Barça coach and current Argentina NT coach to Cruijff. It’s all speculation. But it isn’t “hating” to ask the question.
Pending the results of the rest of this round’s matches, Barça moved top of the Liga table. Crazy. A terrible team with a butthead for a coach after an abysmal transfer summer, right in the thick of things.
Only a fool would say this was a good performance today. Only a fool wouldn’t wipe the brow with a sigh, relieved that individual brilliance could pull out a win. Only a fool wouldn’t admit that this team is, though showing signs of occasional life (Ajax performance midweek), is still coming together in a way that I don’t think anyone can yet predict.
But I don’t believe that the quality of today’s performance detracts in any way from the fact that this team won a match that it didn’t have the form or energy to today. And that, for this culer, is awesome. I can say that even having just penned, in effect, a tale of woe. Because I love when my team wins. Can’t help it. That win makes me smile.
Things have happened, in and out of the board room, that have this club in the situation that it is in. The problem is a more complex one, however: We don’t know what situation the TEAM is in yet.
Is the clean sheet steamroller team the real potential, or is reality the bunch that lost to Celta? The “big team” theory would appear to fall flat in the face of that Celta loss and the Almeria performance today, yes? What if it’s an simple as aging players, now that the matches are piling up, developing heavy legs? What if it’s a great many things, from a snarking press, supporter doubt, court battles and boardroom squabbles, all contributing to the overall picture? What if it’s a coach wanting to do things that he doesn’t have the players to do, thanks to poor personnel decisions? Club vs team. Can a board rip at the former board under which the bulwarks of this current team found their halcyon days, and not cause an effect on the pitch? Good question.
Transfer bans, marketing whizzes who aren’t sure what to do about those humans, “mes que un club” becoming “mes que un ho …” can all of this have a factor, almost as if the club is damaging the team? Gaaah! Fantasy football is pointless. We need this player, or that player, or the other player. Winter window is months away, and the club faces a two-window ban of its own making. That’s is reality.
Nobody should be afraid to call something what it is and say, “That sucks.” The danger for me is a rush to judgment. We know this team has talent. We also know the club bought some talent in the summer transfer window. What we still don’t know is how it is all going to come together. I don’t believe in predictions of doom any more than I believe in predictions of a rosy, shiny-bright future.
But there is something going on at Barça. And all of the things that are going on are exacerbating the seeming effect of what is in fact, a team that is still struggling to come together. And for the team that we all love to develop into this thing that it has the talent to become, it is going to take a hell of an effort, from the board that ignored it for so long to the players who make the millions to the supporters who are right now, so ready and willing to say, “This sucks.”
I won’t tell anyone how to support Barça. That’s silly. I won’t say we all have to pull together, because there are too many divergent (and valid) opinions out there about what is going on. But the atmosphere is a mess. It’s stultifying, and becoming increasingly poisonous. How the hell is anything good supposed to grow in such a world?