You can learn a lot from a simple match of football. For example, you have to be really, really smart to be dissatisfied with the way that Barça played yesterday as regards the esoteric minutiae of today’s hyper-enlightened fan. Positioning, formations, heat maps … ordinary dullards struggle with looking that deeply, preferring to marvel at the fact that … Barca beat Atleti again. What. The. Hell.
And Barça didn’t just beat Atleti. It beat the best Atleti. Last match there was no Miranda, nor was it their top choice at RB that Messi was tormenting. But at the Camp Nou it was different. A great many things were different and yet the result was the same: Barça won. Even more interestingly, a top-level opponent had to react to Barça, rather than the reverse, yet another Enrique myth put to bed.
What an extraordinary match of football. I rather imagine that neutrals had a great time because this was a battle royale between two teams who probably realize that this tournament is their best real opportunity for silver.
The pace was absurd and the pressure unrelenting. We know what Atleti is because they are unchanged from last season, a vibrant fist of a team that is improved this year. They’re scoring more in addition to being able to attack teams in the same way defensively, even as they are now understanding what it’s like to get an opponent’s best game.
We also knew that their coach, Diego Simeone, would make adjustments from the last time the teams met, which resulted in a 3-1 drubbing that really wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.
But I wonder if culers are fully aware of what has transpired over these last two matches.
Battling the demon
Last season for Barça’s season was defined by Atleti. That beast knocked Barça out of Champions League, then took the Liga crown off, of all things, a set piece goal. This season started brought and early opportunity for “I told you so” as a 3-1 loss to RM allowed people to suspect that things were just about as horrible as many said. And anyone who deemed it possible that Barça could beat Atleti just didn’t know football. Just you wait. Sign after sign, from “Ibra is coming, just you wait,” to “Simeone is coming,” flew about like robe-clad dudes with sandwich boards prophesying the End.
As the team improved, beginning to show signs of life and coming together in a system, it was “Wait until Atleti.” Atleti came and was dispatched, and then it was “Well, that was at the Camp Nou,” or “Let’s see what happens when Simeone makes his adjustments.”
What happened was that they didn’t get a shot on goal in the entire match. Atleti started up front with Griezmann and Torres, and had a full-strength lineup that featured their first choices at every position except for 9 and it could be argued that Torres’ counterattacking gifts would be better for their purposes.
In the Liga match Simeone said that he didn’t like the way his team was pressed into its own half right from the outset. So Barça started the Copa match pressing them back into their own half. And Barça team did it with aggression, pace and its trademark beautiful football. The defense was rock-solid in transitions and set pieces, but none of that really shocked me, mostly because I have been watching this team come together instead of trying to find reasons that it is in fact not coming together.
And yet what was most surprising was that the team wasn’t at its best in the first leg of the Copa quarterfinal, and still won.
Back to the front
Defense wins championships. Simeone and Atleti demonstrated that last season as they put teams on lockdown. They put Barça on lockdown. This year they eliminated RM from the Copa.
It is That Atleti that a sub-par Barça defeated. Did it squeak past? The scoreline says that the match was close, but Atleti was never in it. That it was decided via penalty put-back was in many ways fitting, as Barça would bang in an ugly goal against a team that in many ways demands that an opponent get ugly to defeat it. Curlicues and passing intricacy are all fine and dandy until Godin, Juanfran or Miranda say “That will be enough of that.” Countless times culers found themselves screaming at the TV, “Just SHOOT! For the love of all that is holy, just shoot the ball!” Teams like Atleti do that to you, make you not want to waste the shot and potentially lose possession, unleashing their counterattack.
Atleti was resolute, and Simeone before the match lauded this team as the best Barça in recent memory. That is high praise, accompanied by the feeling that he isn’t just tossing verbal bon mots at an opponent as part of the obligatory pre-match hooey. And after that 3-1 victory it was clear to me how extraordinary a match it was, because teams don’t have many matches like that in them, 100% effort and focus from first whistle to last. It was a statement game, but one that could be dismissed almost as an outlier. Atleti didn’t know what hit them. As the Copa tie played out and it was clear who the opponent was going to be it was this match that interested me more, because this would find a Barça closer to its sustainable norm, an effort level that doesn’t have to send a message but only has to get the job done. The first part of that job is to not concede so that the tie is 0-0 heading away, where an away goal becomes immense. The second part of that job is to win at home. Barça managed both parts, and did that despite being sub-par in two significant ways.
Suarez It took a penalty to get the win only because Suarez is struggling to put the ball in the net in a way last seen when the team was trying to get Eto’o the pichichi, and he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with the football. Suarez is indeed doing the other stuff, including affecting play by keeping the Atleti defenders busy. But his miss was staggering. For all the rage that is directed at Pedro, there is another ball that is nestling into the back of net instead of the first row.
It’s tempting to say that Suarez was crap because he didn’t score goals. I would rather say that his goalscoring was crap. And while you love the all-pitch game and the effort, he’s like a janitor who is a champion at video games. Okay, cool, but the floors still need sweeping. Suarez has to put the ball into the net.
The Camp Nou cheered him after his miss. The culers in the seats understand football, and see what Suarez is doing. They also know that the goals will come, because that’s what goals do for talented players. For now it’s weathering the storm and hoping that his case of the yips won’t bite the team in the butt. Anyone suggesting that Pedro would be better than Suarez is missing the point. Pedro doesn’t make opponents say, “Uh, oh …” in the way that Suarez does. As Enrique says, in effect, just because Suarez isn’t scoring doesn’t mean that he isn’t raising hell. He is.
Messi He can’t be defined by mere statistics, his devoted fans suggest, until falling back on them to define what was in fact a performance that wasn’t as good as his last time against Atleti. Dribbles, passes, this stat or that. The simple reality is that Messi wasn’t all that Messilike for long stretches of this match, and still the team got it done.
Rationales were offered up, such as them defending him better, him being locked in a cage, etc, etc. But I challenge anyone to watch the dominating, mercurial presence in the Liga match and tell me that same player showed up. That player can’t be stopped, irrespective of what an opponent does. Don’t overestimate Simeone and Atleti. I don’t believe there is a team or defense in world football that can stop a Messi who doesn’t want to be stopped, as he was in that Liga match.
The Copa tie found him more intermittent for lack of a better word, very good instead of superhuman. And Barça still won.
The obvious question is what happened? How did a Barça that was a seeming mess morph into the team that has not only defeated its obstacle (and precisely the kind of team it traditionally struggles against) but did so twice in less than two weeks? Defense, and an Enrique system that works. So often, talk at Barça starts with the attack. It’s also one of the most vexing things about this team, because all of the attack talk, how it’s deficient and reliant upon individual brilliance blablabla, means that the building from the back that seemed obvious to some has slipped by the wayside.
Pique is back on form, Alba is suddenly a wee tyrant and Alves has found his mojo. For all of the “Mascherano can’t play CB” talk, he has also been excellent at the position in a defense that has raised its level to a degree that he isn’t automatically the best defender on the pitch any longer. And Mascherano hasn’t dropped his level a bit.
The defenders are more effective because the press is more effective. Neymar is defending. Like crazy. Suarez and Messi are also clamping down to make the midfield a dangerous place for opponent attacks. When forays filter through the defenders are able to keep play in front of them, kinda like when the Guardiola team was getting it done. Any defender is better with the play in front of them but particularly Pique, who isn’t the most agile CB. And everybody has a job, rather than chasing the ball like children at a park kickabout. At what point does the defensive quality stop being a surprise?
Cruijffian total football is a thing that is talked about as lost, but is it really? For the first time in a while — including early in the season — Barça is defending and attacking with 11. In noting Atleti’s propensity for finding some success on the right, note that Alves had the most touches and passes of the XI yesterday. He had a fine game but it’s worth wondering if some of the stability and balance that we saw in that first leg was lost.
Messi didn’t contribute as much to the press either, which allowed Atleti to have some success on that side of the pitch and put pressure on the defense to gain a series of set pieces that were all dealt with easily and almost effortlessly. We can thank the work of assistant Juan Unzue for that, as the myth that Barça can’t defend set pieces is on life support.
Letting genius do what it does
In a match of clashing systems with both having success, what picks the lock? Part of Enrique’s system is rooted in liberating his attackers, three of the best in the world. There is less positional rigidity and more facilitating of freelancing, which, when you have Neymar, Messi and Suarez, isn’t a bad thing. As has been noted before, “individual brilliance” isn’t a curse word. It’s a benefit of having footballing whizzes playing for your team. Embrace it. Because when your system is working, your defense clicking and your keeper on form, individual brilliance is just another weapon, and a daunting one.
What’s eerie is that this team has a moving, shifting target. Losing is bad, of course. But winning the wrong way is bad. So is not lining up the right way. The Russian judge gives it a 5.0.
And yet, many of us are simple culers with simple needs, starting with being able to watch a match and not worry every time an opponent has the ball. Those simple needs also include playing against a top-level team that was less than a minute away from winning the double last season and doing well. Winning? Well, that’s just crazy talk. Atleti could still come back to take the tie, which won’t negate the beauty and wonder of how this much-maligned team is working, coming together and, dare I say it, acting like a team that might have a shot at making a liar out of me, and winning some silver this season.