The rain, the pitch, no penalty, Enrique sucks, Alves …
The quest for blame in the wake of a negative result scatters thoughts like dandelion spores in a hurricane, a fascinating search that often finds them landing in odd places and pollinating certain ideas.
But today’s draw vs Getafe was a great many things all at once, too many to lay at the feet of an individual unless that individual is the Getafe team, which played like lions today. Want to blame someone? Curse them and their moving, aggressive, systematic defense that took full advantage of a Barça team coming off of a very difficult mid-week match against a strong European opponent.
Full credit to a brave opponent, who were it not for a couple of Claudio Bravo saves, could have caused a much bigger upset than the absence of full points for Barça.
Rather than playing the blame game, let’s assess something of what happened today, and whether there are any solutions at hand.
On Wednesday, Barça played its asses off to spank a rampant Paris St. Germain side, and win its group in Champions League. On Saturday, it had an early match against a traditionally difficult opponent in its fortress of a stadium. Not surprisingly, legs were heavy, which affected everything from movement to finishing. Compounding matters is that Getafe was sitting at home, watching the match and thinking “Man, them boys are working hard. Hope they’re tuckered out on Saturday.”
And yet, Enrique came out with the “Duh!” XI of Bravo, Alves, Pique, Mathieu, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Rakitic, Suarez, Pedro, Messi. Of that XI’s outfield players, Alves, Alba and Xavi didn’t put out full force against PSG. Xavi was a sub, while Alba and Alves didn’t play at all. It’s worth asking whether a different XI would have been more effective, or just as INeffective against Getafe, one such as:
Bravo, Adriano, Pique, Mathieu, Alba, Mascherano, Rakitic, Rafinha, Munir, Pedro, Suarez
For a coach who was so daring against PSG, Enrique was quite conservative against Getafe, who had come to defend. Would it have made much difference if they were diving into the path or Munir or Messi? Nope. But in the second half, when perhaps the match would have needed a decisive move, having a Messi charging off the bench to run at tired Getafe players is different than having an already tired Messi out there, playing in fits and starts.
Why not take that risk? Why not give Rafinha a go rather than starting Xavi. What’s the risk and what’s the loss against a team that was always going to defend, and play off the counter?
The answer to the heavy legs dilemma is easy and difficult: rest. Real rest, the kind of rest that makes a team spring out the traps like greyhounds, the kind of rest that prevents a press from being players just chasing the ball. Getting that rest, in a season in which a team is active in multiple competitions plus the increasingly frequent international, is rather tough to come by.
Dani Alves is what he is, for better and for worse. Because he is what he is, dilemmas are created, “for want of a horseshoe” type mini-crises that affect more than just that side of the pitch.
Put another way, when Alves is out there, Rakitic is usually the midfielder deputized to in effect babysit Alves. What this means is that not only is Rakitic not being used to his strength, but Xavi isn’t being used to his strength, which means that pressure can be more effectively brought to bear on our aged maestro. It also gives Busquets more ground to cover, which facilitates counters.
Now, nobody complains about Alves when he’s making stops and banging in accurate crosses (yes, he does), even though he’s the same player then as now, a man for whom defense is never, ever going to be job one. The larger problem is that all of the things that happen as a consequence of Alves being out there contribute to a significant problem: dilution of the Barça midfield.
Enrique knows that Alves needs help, which is why Rakitic has the duties that he has, rather than being a partner in crime for Xavi. It’s also the reason that so many Getafe attacks were down Alves’ flank, just as they were for RM and Marcelo. Because why not?
We can sit and snarl about diminished midfield effectiveness all we like, but it’s a problem that isn’t going to go away anytime soon, because Dani Alves is the best RB that Barça has, the same sort of personnel deficiency that has sparked a reliance on Xavi.
This doesn’t even get into the lack of effectiveness created by poor movement up front. A forward pass needs somewhere to go. Absent that, a midfielder either plays a risky ball that gets intercepted, or passes back/sideways.
It’s easy to say, “We don’t have a midfield” and blame someone for it, usually Enrique these days. But reality is a bit more nuanced.
“Should have bought a right back then, dammit!” Okay, who? Again, the solution is easier than the question that is in part who, but also would that theoretical colossus have been any better at the high-wire act of being a Barça fullback?
We shouldn’t forget that for months and months the solution was that Barça needed a 9. It paid 81 million Euros for one. But there are other problems, challenges that sometimes, the team overcomes. Accepting that some days this group just isn’t good enough is hard, verging on impossible. Nothing has to be wrong for a tired athlete to come up short.
The necessity of width
When Neymar came to Barça, people scoffed and snarled. Unnecessary, luxury purchase and other things were bandied about. But the fact of the matter is that his absence was immense today, because it meant that Barça didn’t have effective width. It would seem, prima facie, that Neymardependencia is rearing its head.
The consequence was that Barça had to get width from fullback overlaps rather than an actual winger. It also meant that Getafe didn’t really have to worry about the flanks because nobody was out there who could force their defense to move. So they stayed compact in the center, and just kicked balls away all day. It’s worth noting that the best Barça scoring chances came via flank play from Luis Suarez.
A centralized Barça is a predictable Barça. Two ranks of defenders is difficult to spoof for even the most adroit give-and-gos.
An overlapping fullback isn’t real width because if it’s Alves, it’s easy to wall him off. If it’s Alba, his attacks are usually runs into space rather than destabilizing wing play of the type that Neymar offers. So rather than moving to deal with the player, a defense will just cut off the target, as they do against Alves. Absent any target, the ball goes back to the center and a smart defense can relax a bit.
Mix in the heavy legs and it was always going to be a long day.
There were times that Messi moved to midfield, something that would be effective if there was movement up front for him to lace passes in to. But because there wasn’t, and a centralized Getafe defense could just pack it back when Barça had the ball, Messi in midfield just seemed like a misplaced goal machine rather than an attempted tactic that failed in the execution phase.
The team wants Messi to touch the ball, but in the face of the brilliant Getafe defense, how is that going to happen? They weren’t letting anything near the box, and the few times they did, they either fouled or gang tackled to work the ball loose. So you move Messi to midfield, and he makes his runs into the arms of a packed, waiting defense. So what does Enrique do?
Well, if you try to diversify the attack, you’re a prat for ignoring Messi. If you run the attack through him, you’re a prat for forcing Messi to do too much. The events of a match dictate tactics and reactions as much as any coach does. Players aren’t automatons, who are doing what a coach tells them in bad times, and being individual geniuses in good times. The coach devises a match plan, and relies on his athletes to execute it. Sometimes, they don’t.
For those of you who are on Twitter, it must have seemed that everyone was poor today. Alves, Pique, Mathieu, what is Busquets doing, dammit Pedro, etc, etc. It seemed that the only player who (thankfully) wasn’t down and out of it was Claudio Bravo. Is there something to the notion of a collective being drained by a big match, even the players who didn’t feature?
Whatever the reason, Barça was flat today, from top to bottom, Messi to Busquets. Flat players aren’t sharp players, so movement that is customarily effective is, when that step’s hesitation occurs, the difference between a goal and a pass eluding an outstretched toe. Concentration also suffers, leading to wonky first touches and passes that lack the usual precision. Yes, it was a crap pitch, but that isn’t the first cabbage patch that Barça has played on, and it won’t be the last.
Barça had gobs of possession, created a few excellent chances but didn’t play well, collectively or individually. And Getafe took advantage of that, reveling in the disjointed mess of a match. Yes, the buckets of rain and a lumpy mattress of a pitch made their tasks even easier, but the XI that Enrique rolled out should be good enough to beat Getafe, even in their house.
Sure, “tactics and positioning” are the brickbats rolled out to whack Enrique over the head. And while he certainly came up short in not acknowledging the difficulty of that Wednesday match and its attendant aftershocks, how is a coach ever to know when his team is going to be flat? And if Enrique knows his group of players well enough to know they were going to be flat, shouldn’t the lineup have reflected that acceptance? Good question.
This doesn’t really feel like a team coming together, even as I believe that next season, once Enrique’s tactics fully bed in and the players get used to each other, I will be expecting some silver.
But at the moment it is caught between two worlds seemingly, universes populated by lame ducks. Xavi is on the way out, and so is Alves, yet they are two of the automatic selections right now in Enrique’s XI and two of the essential things that make Barça feel like Barça. Busquets has a style that is a holdover from a glorious past, but how does it work in the present?
What we know is that Barça isn’t playing as well as it should be, and we look for answers. Enrique is obvious, because he’s the newest variable. Alves is obvious, because he isn’t the player he once was.
But sometimes, it’s everybody. It takes a lot to craft a below-standard result, from the coaches who prepare and select to the players who execute. It also takes an opponent willing to do the work necessary to take advantage of all that. It’s why the blame game is rarely fully satisfactory. Yes, it provides for the opportunity to have at established targets, but it can’t really solve the problems because sometimes, the problems are unsolvable.
In bicycle racing, as spectators cheer on their friends and loved ones, the most hilarious and misguided cheer is “Move up!” The idea is that by moving up, the racer is where he or she needs to be to take a role in affecting the outcome of the event. One day, in response to the constant cries, lap after lap, a racer yelled back, “I would if I could!” That’s a classic example of a unsolvable dilemma.
“Why are you defending him/them/it?” It’s worth asking whether accepting reality is in fact defending. The team would have loved to feel fresher, be warmer, not have it bucketing rain, not have Getafe be so goddamned resolute, get a lucky bounce or two and be in position to capitalize. The coaches would have loved to have made the exact right selection, and had the exact right subs sitting on the bench, raring to go.
But none of that happened. In admitting this, are we making excuses for someone — coach, unfavored player, underachieving team — or are we simply acknowledging that sometimes, on some days, there are problems that can’t be solved, either with collective excellence or individual brilliance. And in the math equation that is competing in a football match, sometimes 2+2=0