What an extraordinary match of football, one that for me was most interesting in the way that it tested the mettle of this Barça side.
It’s easy to scoff and say that “It’s only Villarreal,” but this was a team that today suffered only its second road loss and was unbeaten in its last 10 before coming to the Camp Nou. It’s also a team of talented, intelligent, well-coached players that will be a handful in the coming Copa semi-final tie.
The challenge for a team is always, “What will you do when you’re punched in the face?” In 3 matches against Atleti, the last most notably at their house, and then at home today, Barça was punched in the face via a pair of goals that were a comedy of errors more than any sort of indictment of the defense, even as culers were waiting for the defense to concede, for Pique to make an error so that the shouts of “A-ha!” could begin, in a world in which even good things are suspect, failure masquerading as success.
The first was an excellent break. Mascherano gets a foot on the ball into the box, but doesn’t clear it far enough. The Villarreal attacker slams it at his teammate, who banks it home. There were certainly errors, and it’s worth asking what in the hell Busquets was doing, as he was closest to Cheryshev, but didn’t mark him. The second was Pique with a simple brain fart, and the team lost track of the trailing man. A better scramble means that not only is someone in front of the trailing man, but the cross gets picked off.
Neither one happened, and that’s that. But after each goal, Barça came back. The level of play is raised, and three excellent goals are the result, the first when Rafinha makes Asenjo stretch to parry the rebound, and Neymar slots a difficult finish home down the narrow corridor between the defender and the keeper, who was scrambling to get back into position.
On the second, Rafinha slots home after the rebound falls directly to his feet.
The third came after a dazzling sequence of football, and Messi saying “Have some of this!” With the right foot. From outside the box. Since the Belter at Anoeta, Barça is 8-0. It seems odd to say, even though I did in a video for fotlipou.com, that the team is taking on the personality of its coach, but it’s a nasty bunch that is suddenly uninterested in taking “No” for an answer. There have been strolls and manitas and comebacks, hard-fought matches and on-pitch training sessions.
But when searching for a singular characteristic, the team has stuck out its jaw, taken some shots and fought back. Hard and mean. And that is what I like more than anything else. Any team can win when playing Elche with a 4-0 aggregate lead at the start. But what does that team do against the defending Liga champion? What does that team do when a very good football side that is also defending excellently, goes up a goal. In the exploration of character, there is something to be read from those situations.
After the goals were conceded, people were, in the land of social media, saying things such as the Barça defense seems shaky compared to the likes of Bayern, who only the other day let in four goals vs Wolfsburg. Okay. You seek succor where you can, but as the adage goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So you see the Barça that you want to see, rather than the Barça that is. Nits are picked with the club based on a past template from a different world, different time and different set of players. There is talk of control, and pause, and people say “Yeah,” as a notion comes to life on Barça Twitter, a notion that ignores what we have, which is a bunch of swashbucklers willing to play the kind of football necessary to win.
I will be the first to say that I sigh wistfully when I recall the days when our players danced around their opponents with dazzling passes and sublime sequences of play. I also sigh wistfully at the days when the rest of the world was interested in allowing such things to happen. But both times are gone, replaced with opponents who do what Villarreal did, which is contest for every last inch of pitch space, hurtling hither and yon to shut off Alba, double-team Neymar and put Messi in a cage. And when they didn’t have timely interventions, they had an alert, sharp whiz of a keeper in Sergio Asenjo.
But I have a hammer, dammit, and “Wham! Wham!” I will strike at the head of the nail that is embodied by what I want to see.
The match was fun and funny in reactions to an excellent set of substitutions by Enrique. When Mathieu came on for Busquets and Mascherano moved up to the midfield, again the hammers came down in the Barça world. And then Mascherano set about showing exactly why the sub made perfect sense as he did what he does, destroying with verve and industry, intercepting passes and releasing balls, making intelligent decisions and becoming exactly what Barça needed at that point of the match: a quick DM who can read the match and destroy stuff. And the Villarreal counters stopped.
Pedro came on for Suarez and it was, in some quarters, “Oh no, Pedro!” Then Pedro did what Pedro does, which is to be everywhere, making runs and breaking up attacks, intercepting passes and making a general nuisance of himself. The game was a lot more calm and in control after those two moves, which ain’t bad for a clueless coach who is crap at reading a match and making tactical changes.
The other Alcantara
Nothing sparks a war like the mention of Thiago Alcantara, but it was his brother Rafinha who turned in an MOTM performance today in a walk, Messi’s match winner notwithstanding. Goals are seductive but even there, Rafinha had a hand in two, scoring one and influencing the other with a nasty curler of a shot. He passed, controlled, defended and intercepted, even destroying a bit of serious Villarreal danger by taking one for the team and picking up a yellow card.
His heat map today isn’t a map as much as a succession of brush fires, as it becomes difficult to find a part of the pitch where Rafinha didn’t touch the ball today. This was only only the best match Rafinha has played in the colors, but one of the best matches that a Barça mid has played this season to date.
He needs playing time, and should have earned more today. In addition to guile and Masia-bred craft, he showed strength when he had to. Is it coincidence that his longest run of being free of injury/sickness has resulted in a match such as he played today? It’s a question worth asking. Here’s another one.
What of Ter Stegen?
Claudio Bravo was an excellent pickup in the market, but both goals asked interesting questions about his ultimate suitability for the No. 1 slot in all competitions this season. On the first Villarreal goal, he seemed to hesitate just a second. The Cheryshev deflected shot was in a spot that made a reflex stab save possible, even as that brief pause made it impossible.
On the second goal, would a more active, aggressive keeper have played Dos Santos differently? There was a moment where Dos Santos was close enough to Bravo where had he been that kind of keeper, he might have made a play on the ball at Dos Santos’ feet.
Neither one happened, and if the displays from Ter Stegen are at all fresh in your mind, it’s worth considering whether a different keeper would have resulted in a clean sheet today, despite the defense giving up a couple of rather unfortunate goals.
Right now, Ter Stegen is the keeper in the Copa and Champions League competitions. This makes sense to me, and demonstrates the confidence that Enrique has in his “No. 2” keeper. But how long will it be before Bravo finds his way to the No. 2 slot. Ter Stegen is probably wondering the same thing, and the answer might not be as long as we suspect in coming.
Suarez in full
“Augggh!” scream culers as Suarez fluffs his lines in front of goal again, or demonstrates a heavy touch, or fails to protect the ball as he should close to the box, allowing a defender to make a play on it. Suarez finds his way to the bench after being subbed and abuses his boots in rage. In a game that values goals, it’s nonetheless worth asking about the quality of Suarez’s overall game as once again, he had a hand in goals today even if he didn’t score any himself. He had a hand in them by making plays that only a player of his quality can make.
It’s easy to say that “Pedro would have scored that,” just as it’s easy to ignore the question of whether Pedro would have been in position to be there for the chance. Suarez has excellent movement in the box, understanding what to do and how to get there. He reads the game exceptionally well, which tends to almost always put him in a place where he can influence play. To be sure, he has moments once he is in that position, that make you want to pull your hair out. But as with Henry, Neymar and Sanchez, it would be erroneous to look at his goalscoring statistics alone and surmise that Suarez isn’t having a good year.
Statistics are lovely. A Twitter denizen, in labeling me a “Suarez hater,” threw a stat at me that compared Suarez goals/assists in his first 18 matches as a Barça player to Neymar and Alexis Sanchez. But because culer history has already branded the first seasons of those two players to whom Suarez is compared as woefully inadequate, that sort of statistical comparison doesn’t really interest me.
People say, in another for instance, that Neymar is much better this year popping in goals at a ludicrous rate. But part of that capability is being beneficiary of a front three that contains Messi and yes, Suarez. But Neymar is better this year because he is having a direct influence on matches, defending, tracking back and playing the sort of all-pitch game that makes him potentially devastating.
Hell, we all wish that Suarez didn’t have the yips in front of goal. He could easily have had a brace before the half, providing a degree of comfort that would have made the match less fraught. But if he isn’t on the pitch the match would have been even more fraught, without his direct contributions to goals scored.
On the first goal he drags a pair of defenders around as if they were on leashes. One of them would have, with a different player at the 9 slot, probably been free to stop Neymar’s shot. On the second his spin, control and cross are superlative, setting the table for the subsequent goal. On the third, he controls and lays off the pass for Messi in one fluid motion, putting the ball in the perfect spot for Messi to unload.
The game isn’t just goals, even as goals are how we keep score.
Winning when you have to
Barça didn’t have to win this match today. In many ways, situations argued against a victory. Villarreal was defending very well and attacking with verve. As a team, Barça didn’t have the best match even as the team played well enough at crucial moments to secure a hard-fought victory in a dazzling match for neutrals.
All five goals in this match were high quality, but also involved an element of luck. Rebounds have to fall to the right spot, errors must be made. But this was a match begging to be lost or drawn, and Barça chose to win it. People will see what they want to see: Enrique isn’t good, team got lucky, Messi bailed them out, Suarez wasn’t good, the midfield needs to do more, etc, etc. And while certainly a results-only focus is short sighted and intellectually lazy, an excessive focus on the journey taken to a given result threatens perpetual dissatisfaction.
This year’s club is something of a surprise package as it comes together. I intend to sit back, have fun and react, while making myself understand the difference between what I would like to see, what I see and what the opponent allows me to see. The fun is in parsing the different realities.