Barça 1, Atleti 0, aka “Growth program”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Strange magic

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

"Wheeee!"
“Wheeee!”

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.

Imagine that.

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Written by:

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.

24 Comments

  1. FCB16
    January 24, 2015

    Messi was shackled to the wing in the first half and had 3 guys on him, whereas he started to drift inwards the second half. Simeone learned and made sure Leo wouldn’t be the one to beat them.
    Suarez need to exorcise demons and start burying chances, even as he’s still working his socks off.
    Finally Rakatic can be Rakatic as he doesn’t have to cover for headless chicken 1/100 positive crosses Dani.
    Thank goodness for Pique’s form since the 3 defenders Zubi bought, two are broke at the moment ( but some were being “pessimistic” when calling them injury prone right?) and one just plain isn’t good enough ( but we were “pessimistic” when saying so right?)
    At any rate, a truly well fought game.

    • Rivaldo
      January 24, 2015

      I really don’t think Messi was shackled and less so that they were three men. Actually the combination play between him and Alves is a beauty to behold once again once they remember that others are on the pitch.
      Give Dani credit, he has looked reborn but always does so when new contracts are close (lol… just go back and look)
      Matthieu isn’t good enough? As i recall before the Madrid game and all the injuries he was making some of you eat your words. The only thing missing were proper clearances.
      Guys need to really go watch Rakitic before so we won’t let our expectations obscure who Rakitic really is, less we do the same to him as we did Song.

    • FCB16
      January 24, 2015

      I was referring to douglas ( although Mathieu’s form did dip before his injury). Not sure what you mean regarding Rakatic as he’s much better than Song, was a real beast at Sevilla.

    • Rivaldo
      January 25, 2015

      I honestly dont know what Douglas is… na by that I mean capabilites, potential, etc… so I’ll pass on that.

      Not likening Rakitic to Song … btw Song was also a beast at Arsenal… and a West Ham too :).
      Just saying knives were out for Rakitic following his dip,etc… maybe shouldnt have got all my thought out on one post.

  2. Rivaldo
    January 24, 2015

    Forgot to say great articles Kev…

  3. G6O
    January 24, 2015

    I didn’t watch the game – what kind of penalty were they given to win?

    • PrinceYuvi
      January 24, 2015

      Bale fk, someone in wall jumped with palms up- Handball.
      In other news, ronaldo is absolute pisspot.

  4. lala10
    January 24, 2015

    our play so far is too slow

    • ooga aga
      January 24, 2015

      Good. Dont need to put the foot all the way down on the pedal for this one. Big game on Wednesday.

    • PrinceYuvi
      January 24, 2015

      Exactly

  5. January 24, 2015

    Kxevin, its quite unfortunate that you are hell bent on crediting every barca victory on paper to Enrique, our turn of form and consistency has been as a result of that feud.
    You might not see it but Enrique does not have a system, its funny you even think Enrique’s barca could beat athleti without him trying to tweak a thing or two. We have certainly reverted back to the old ways and system, no more tweaking to fit the opponent.

    Players might be rested or subbed or not included in the matchday squads by Him but this transformation and how we play now doesn’t relate to Enrique’s genius.

    • ooga aga
      January 24, 2015

      Kess: it’s quite unfortunate that you cant relent in your criticism of Enrique and that you are unable to give him credit for anything. you might not see it but two matches, two wins vs Atleti. last year, no wins in 6 tries. this should at least be enough for you to withhold judgement rather than continue with your hate of LE, which has been on tap for quite a while now.

    • FCB16
      January 24, 2015

      You should know better than to question Luis “rinus michels” Enrique around here

    • ooga aga
      January 24, 2015

      where did i say he was Rinus Michaels? Has anyone said that? Has anyone ever claimed he was a magnificent coach and tactician? No.

      Maybe he is, maybe he isnt.

      All I’ve said, and all most “defenders” of LE (if you can call it that) have said, is …give the guy, and the team, a chance.

      can you or Kess prove that LE “does not have a system” (Kess’ words)?

      great victory for the team today, by the way. potential banana peel avoided.

    • January 24, 2015

      I have not for a while criticized him because he has been subdued, a full flight Enrique would have done something dramatic Versus one of the six teams so far. So far, it has been routine barca and no cameo surprises.
      All I’m saying is the guy should not be given credit for what he doesnt do.

      And whether you see it or not, he is more of a care-taker coach that is going to last the season irrespective of achievement.

      I still think he is undergrad but that doesnt concern me now because this team is not His anymore, so he can’t hurt us with schoolboy theatrics.

  6. stefan2k
    January 24, 2015

    That is one agressive bus parked in Elche. Pique continues his run of good form and hopefully they will have a little more space in the second half.

    Neymar certainly got no easy life with this pitbull on his tail

  7. georgjorge
    January 24, 2015

    This game just reminds me how good some players who received heavy criticism here – like Iniesta, Alves or Suarez – really are. Take them off, and suddenly our defense doesn’t look that safe, nor our midfield controlling or our attack threatening. Sadly, even Bartra seems unable to use this chance well.

    Still no real complaints from me, I’ll take a scrappy 3-0 lead with rest for some players between two hard matches any day of the week.

    • Jim
      January 24, 2015

      Hmm, not sure I’d agree with this, maybe apart from Suarez and possibly Bartra not having his best game. You can’t honestly think Dani makes the difference between our defence being safe or not ? Mind you, I’m guessing you wrote this at 3-0. Six goals kinda puts a different complexion on it.

  8. Ryan
    January 24, 2015

    Elche get what they deserve after flying into challenges and quickly getting so many yellow cards. It’s great seeing how the Messi-Neymar partnership is improving though!

  9. Jamal103
    January 24, 2015

    Can anyone who watches the premier league/FA Cup please explain to me how sides like Manchester United, Chelsea, and Man City do so poorly against League 1 teams? Are these teams playing several reserve players to conserve energy.?

    • G6O
      January 24, 2015

      It’s a combination of even tighter calendar (remember that there is no league cup in Spain; it is true that the Copa del Rey is played over two legs but often games are decided in the first one and everyone who matters is rested in the second) which forces them to play weaker teams in cup games, higher level of lower-division teams relative to top division clubs (the drop-off from the PL to League 1 is no as steep as it is from La Liga to Segunda B), and lower absolute quality of the PL teams. We know how to play a bus because we face on almost every game, they don’t. And we have better players who can break it down with a moment of genius more often than theirs.

  10. Rami
    January 24, 2015

    Very smart of enrique not to include suarez in the line-up, Specially when in the preceding day, Sport’s front cover reads:
    “TODAY’S YOUR TURN!,LUIS SUÁREZ’S TIME ARRIVES.”

    Yes, Suarez is in the middle of a process of adapting not just to a new team, But a new league with different style than PL, But he’s also in the midst of a negatively self re-enforcing cycle, Of irritability and anxiousness to score goals, Which in itself causes him to miss more, And that makes him even more nervous, And cause him to miss even more…etc,etc.

    Even without that ludicrous SPORT front cover, He needed a break to calm down and get some slack, It’s the best way of breaking his negative cycle, Although it’s fair to keep in mind, That he was going to a break anyway since enrique is currently trying to rotate the front line, Hence why neymar was subbed off against deportivo, And messi turns hopefully coming soon, It was two birds with one stone, In luis’s case.

    • Jim
      January 24, 2015

      I’m not sure you regain any confidence, though, losing your place and sitting on the bench. I also thought his absence was at least part of the reason for our weak opening as their defence could get comfortable with nobody really playing up against the CBs. I agree the headline was a bit silly though and would add pressure. Good to see Neymar not always being the one to come off. Next, as you say, hopefully Messi – but when?

    • Rami
      January 24, 2015

      Perhaps i didn’t phrase it correctly, Benching him isn’t to directly enhance his confidence or cure him, But it is more to prevent further progression of the pressure on him, We all know that his current ‘stinky’ phase he’s going through is temporary and will eventually run it’s course, But the more peaceful and the lesser the stress is on him, The shorter this phase will be, No one wants it to take more time than it should.
      The coach could have played him, And with some luck he could’ve scored and had some relief, But the more likely chance is that he wouldn’t have, And the deleterious effect resulting from that would’ve been unnecessary, Keep him of the spot lights, Minimize the pressure, And let it run it’s course in training.

      Yes, His absence was felt, Until pique goal, We hardly had a decent chance, I thought the match was shaping up to be just like the getafe match, But luckily the team did what they always should do in these type of matches, Get the first goal, And get it fast.

      Messi could be subbed off against villareal if we managed to get an early 2-3 goal lead, It also applies to the Copa del ray match also against villareal, 10 days after the la liga one, And i wouldn’t be surprised if he never gets a rest.

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