Barça 2, Valencia 0, “A fraught, “easy” win”

enrique

A clean sheet and two goals as the home team strolled to a comfortable w …

Not so fast. This is a match with a scoreline that will in no way reflect how complex things were, making it almost a reverse of the Sevilla match in which the scoreline wasn’t reflective of how much Barça was in control.

It will also be considered for many an Enrique vindication and an example of the learning process that a coach goes through as he comes to grips with the immense task of controlling a world-class side. That Enrique has a capacity for learning is as without question as the unwillingness of too many to allow him the opportunity to get a handle on things.

Last week at Sevilla he made some controversial changes. Leaving aside the glaring errors that had more to do with the final result than anything Enrique did with his lineup, the focus of the culerverse is such that often the obvious is ignored for the more, shall we say, subtle. Pique cocked up the pass but the larger story was that Neymar was subbed off, as the one player capable of making Sevilla play more honest and press less because of the danger he represented in running behind their defense as they pushed forward.

Xavi was also controversial because he came on as Sevilla had decided that flooding the midfield with a pressing batch of as many as 8 players would be the way forward as on the key error, Busquets was stranded high and dry with one shot to influence that play. He just missed the ball, Reyes danced past him and that was that.

This week against Valencia, Enrique played a (shudder!) double pivot with Busquets and Mascherano, something that was a topic of discussion during the match, and deemed a failure by some because of the spirited Valencia display in that first half.

Yet what people fail to consider is what might have happened had Iniesta been in there instead of Mascherano, a player who, it is worth considering, might have made a difference against Sevilla last week. People also find it easy to lay failure at the feet of the aberration, but Adriano in effect had Barça playing with 10. Valencia decided the war would be fought in the midfield and after picking themselves up off the canvas in the wake of an absolutely stunning early Suarez goal, they set about grabbing the match by the scruff of the neck.

To say that they put Barça on the back foot would be an understatement, and they did it — as did Sevilla — in a way that demonstrated the necessity for change. If you have a midfield-based system and somebody presses the hell out of it, not allowing a clean pass, cutting off passing angles and contesting not only the passer but the receiver, what is a team to do besides evolve? People can have semantic daisy chains and chalkboard dissertations all they like, but Sevilla and Valencia showed exactly why Guardiola, Vilanova, Martino and now Enrique were experimenting with adaptations of the system that worked so well against a world that was unprepared for it.

And it wasn’t just Xavi, as once again the difference between running him out against fresh, pressing players vs tired ones late in a match became clear. It was the whole team, as well as a fundamental plank of the Barça attack going awry when Pique picked today of all days to have a poor match, falling prey to that unreliable beast called form. From a penalty to another wayward pass that almost resulted in a Valencia goal, this just wasn’t his day, even as he also turned in key interventions in the air and on the ground.

But because the defenders are key for attack starting at Barça by playing the right ball out of the back, this also makes that part of the Way subject to attack by a pressing opponent, particularly when the back line becomes the Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight.

Despite all that, the biggest part of the problem was the passive defending that reared its head for some inexplicable reason, as Barça cowered on the rocks of its own box like a Segunda side being stalked by a Primera predator in an early-round Copa match. Guardiola said that “we are crap without the ball.” The secret is that most teams are crap without the ball. Give an opponent enough shots at you, and one of them will probably work. It was only luck (a post and poor finishing) that allowed Barça to take its 1-0 lead into the locker room, making halftime a fraught time for culers.

mathieu

And then — and the veracity of this will depend on your view of the Barça coach — Enrique changed the match with a series of subs. The first was a sub and a tactical change: Rakitic came on for Adriano, Mascherano moved to the back line and Mathieu became the left back.

These three changes yielded a completely different match because the right side gained the defensive solidity that Rakitic brings when he is on the pitch as a true box-to-box midfielder (rather than the non-Xaviniesta that many scorn him for being). He worked with Alves and others a number of times to dispossess, slow down and break up Valencia attacks, regaining possession. He also helped control possession with runs and passes, and picked up a key yellow card to stop a Valencia break that was leading to a golden scoring chance.

Mathieu at LB didn’t just mean that we now had a functioning FB on that side. It meant that we had, in effect, a giant Alba out there, an LB who can get up the pitch with speed to lead a break, make the right cross and defend with facility. No looping balls over the top of his big ass, either. On three occasions he sparked breaks, and crosses that resulted in corners for Barça, putting Valencia on the back foot and giving them another thing to worry about, which they didn’t have in the first half as Adriano functionally did nothing.

Mascherano to the back line gave Pique what he needs when he isn’t being a boss: a fireman. Puyol ran around and put out fires when he stomped the terra for Barça. Was he a great CB? In the traditional sense, some might quibble even as in the fullest sense, nobody would argue for a microsecond about his greatness. But his greatest attribute for me was an essential rightness. Right spot, right pass, right intervention, right tackle. Mascherano, despite the assertion of many that he doesn’t have any real business playing CB, brings many of those Puyol-like qualities to the back line.

His fitness for being in the XI was being debated as he was making play after play, one described by Phil Schoen as a clearance “off the S on his chest.” More than that, Mascherano also brought some more Puyol to the dance as he brought the ball up to disarm the Valencia press, rather than passing it up.

mascherano

Enrique got the moves right which meant that where Valencia enjoyed the run of things in the first half, that team was now facing a complete Barça, with attackers on the right and left as well as a solid center that was as willing to battle for the ball as the flank players were. And there was also danger from all three directions. Distances were compressed, which meant that there were fewer spaces for Valencia defenders to chase balls, and the Enrique version of match control took full shape.

After a mess of a first half fraught with danger and complexity, the second was something of a assertive stroll through the woods in a match bracketed by goals in its first and last minutes.

That first goal was magnificent, and as sumptuous a warp-speed bit of football as you are likely to see this season. From the back line to Busquets to Messi to Suarez to the back of the net, each player dwelling on the ball for a fraction of a moment. The ball from Busquets to Messi was about as flawless a pass are you are going to see in football this season because it gave Messi all the time in the world. He didn’t even have to slow down, and he didn’t dally as he fed Suarez. The striker’s finish was unstoppable because he took it first time rather than controlling and waiting for Diego Alves to get set. Again, it’s the quality of the pass for him from Messi.

suarez

The second goal was a consequence of Valencia (my hands keep wanting to type Sevilla) pressing for the late equalizer, and Messi getting behind the defense on a bust-out.

Another player who showed a capacity for learning is Claudio Bravo, who is as much in the running for MOTM as Mascherano. Guess who didn’t fist any balls away this week, coming at the world with palms out? Pique gives up the penalty and Enrique turned away in disgust, which turned to delight when Bravo made the save. And he didn’t just make the save. He caught it. Yes, it was a crap penalty, but lots of crap penalties go in if the keeper guesses wrong. Bravo nailed it, and two other immense saves today.

bravo

Speculation about whether he is the right man for the job has long since dissipated even as he understands that he is a place holder for a young, talented German named Ter Stegen.

As I write this, it is with no idea if the points gap at the end of the Liga round is going to be 2 or 4 for Barça, but it doesn’t matter, because the only people this team need depend on share a locker room. This week, a Mathieu quote made news as he said, “Luis Enrique is a special person. He doesn’t talk a lot with us. We know what to do, but we don’t know what he thinks.”

There are many ways to interpret that statement:

“He isn’t cuddly. We don’t know if he likes horror movies or action films, but we know what he wants us to do on the pitch.”

“He tells us what we need to know to get the job done.”

“He doesn’t talk to the players. Told you his man-management skills sucked.”

The way that a culer chooses to interpret that Mathieu quote will of course depend on worldview, even as the results that the team is having this year as well as the way that the team is going about getting those results, points to a clear, communicative coach both on the pitch and in the locker room. It’s been said before, but set pieces and defending aren’t individual brilliance but work in a system.

Getting results is about clarity of vision, respect and execution. All three were on view today at the Camp Nou, and the result was a fraught-but-effective 2-0 win that keeps the slim Liga lead. And the team has to depend on itself to see this out. As with any other talented group, it’s hard to imagine they would want it any other way.

P.S. 400 goals for Messi. Holy crap. He’s only 27.

messi

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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.

128 Comments

  1. Jim
    April 21, 2015

    You have to wonder about PSG though. They’re showing nothing at all. Surely they have to put more pressure on us first twenty ? They’re suggesting long balls on ITV. That might be their best hope.

    • agar2515
      April 21, 2015

      It’s Blanc, he coaches in a league with little to no competition then suddenly he becomes some Tactical wizard to some because Mou got it wrong at the Bridge? Mediocre coach, not one to fear at all

    • barca96
      April 21, 2015

      To be fair they are really having strong competition this season.

  2. barca96
    April 21, 2015

    Please take Messi off. Put Pedro in. No need to unnecessarily tire him. Save him for La Liga on Saturday. And give Pedro some game time for him to gain form. Imagine one of MSN gets injured, we do need him.

    Also Bartra in. Give him experience that he really needs.

  3. agar2515
    April 21, 2015

    And for as much stick as Masche still gets, for as much moaning as the Mathieu signing garnered ( from me included)…
    Imagine how screwed we’d be with David Luiz in defense lmaaaao, what a joke he is.

    Thiago Silva’s reputation grows exponentially every time Luiz is forced play without him, let alone replace him

  4. barca96
    April 21, 2015

    Lucho should’ve seen this coming. Messi was hell bent on taking on players and score. I was hoping he would score at some point to settle him down but now he hasn’t. I’m worried he’ll go to Espanyol with the same mindset, trying to do it all himself.

    I just don’t understand why Messi can never be taken off? Firstly it is to protect him and keep him fresh for a more important match in the weekend and secondly he was already having a poor match in the first half and it became worse in the 2nd half when he kept on trying to dribble. PSG had Veratti and Matuidi on him, 2 great DM’s.

    I’m glad Ter Stegen finally got a clean sheet. He really needs some.

    What’s up with Pique’s clearances nowadays? He’s caught the Matthieu bug. In all seriousness, Bartra should’ve definitely given a run out. It seems that some players can have a poor match but still not be substituted; Messi, Pique and Alves (not poor in this match though, love his energy). They seem to be the untouchables of this team.

    • Dar_vincy
      April 21, 2015

      It worries me too. Pique has been in great form recently but seems to be exhibiting a bit of overconfidence and carelessness with balls lately. I do hope for our sakes that those old habits of his, including distraction, don’t persist.

  5. stefan2k
    April 21, 2015

    Everyone brought their absolute A-game tonight. Special shoutout to Busi and the Pale Prince… tremendously talented!!

    • stefan2k
      April 21, 2015

      By the way, give Alves his damn contract already! His interceptions today probably can’t be counted on two hands

    • barca96
      April 21, 2015

      His energy, his work rate in the offensive half, his creativity, his determination will be sorely missed. He is one in a century Full back, one of the best ever player I’ve ever seen, well at least since 1995 when I first started following football religiously.

  6. Jim
    April 21, 2015

    Well, that was as comfortable a QF tie in the CL as you could ever hope for. Great result.

  7. Valdemar II
    April 21, 2015

    First 15 minutes looked like highlights from the Guardiola days. Secondly, what possessed Roberto? He looked like Xavi twirling.

  8. YaSd
    April 21, 2015

    All you fools thinking Iniesta should be dropped next season, look at that. You want the club to get rid of a legend who has done everything for this club? Who can still make world class plays…

    You look pretty ridiculous right now. Whoever this applies to, should burn his/her Barca jersey, what a disgrace.

    • April 21, 2015

      If Iniesta did that often enough where the times that he did it these days wasn’t extraordinary, nobody would be suggesting anything except that he be cloned.

      Further, mind your tone. This is not an acceptable manner in which to discuss ANYTHING in this space. Nobody should burn their shirt. First warning. This space has calmed down, and I will not tolerate it going awry again. This is not a message board, or Goal.com.

  9. April 21, 2015

    Mascherano: “It’s obvious that, for Barcelona’s style, it’s better that Busquets plays than that I play.”

    I know, I know … not fit for the back line or midfield, but this man is an absolute freakin’ boss.

    • Dar_vincy
      April 21, 2015

      Real fricking boss. An epitome of everything you want in a leader.

  10. Dar_vincy
    April 21, 2015

    Real fricking boss. An epitome of everything you want in a leader.

  11. Inamess
    April 21, 2015

    Dear Barca,

    So glad we both made in it into the semis. I appreciate all those cules who were rooting for me and Thiago to stage our comeback, and today truly belongs to both of our teams. To celebrate this glorious day, I invite you to a glorious banquet at the Allianz where we will discuss great football, reminisce about the past, and toast our great futures.

    P.S. Thiago and I have been discussing coming back to the club, and I would appreciate your input about how best to make this a reality. Nothing would make us more happy!

    Hugs and Kisses,
    Pep

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rgDvP39Lqw

  12. LAcule
    April 21, 2015

    long timer lurker here, finally compelled to join so that i can participate in the wonderful commentary during the run-in that to me is an excellent season, regardless of the outcome.

    having watched barca since 2008 its hard for me to not have full confidence in this team. they are an absolute joy to watch again in the sense that you can expect the unexpected in a good way (some of the MSN goals, iniesta’s run today) without some of the mishaps of yesteryear like the opponent scoring on set pieces or the midfield looking like a turnstyle.

    barca has made one of of the best teams in the premier league and the most stacked team in france look positively ordinary in the last two CL rounds. think about that. it has been interesting to see them labor against sevilla and valencia. not sure if barca is just more geared up for the big eared trophy, or the spanish league is just that far ahead in terms of quality at the moment.

    i was certainly an Enrique doubter at times this season, but at this point its hard to not give him backing. my personal theory is that he has saved xavi for this very point in the season after seeing him deteriorate down the stretch in the last few. to me, at the moment, he looks a genius when you compare the health of our squad versus most of the upcoming foes.

    overall, i could not be happier with this team at the moment. glad to be here amongst this wonderful portion of the cule fanbase. most of all, i like our chances against any and every team at the moment.

    • Inamess
      April 21, 2015

      Welcome LAcule!

  13. luisthebeast
    April 21, 2015

    Some teams must face City and PSG to reach the semifinals and some others walk with help from the draw,the refs and some schoking defending in crosses.With Danilo and Alex Sandro out that was main Porto problem.I bet if Monaco make the surprise against Juve then they will face Bayern.Well for me if Bayern played in la liga they will fight for a CL spot.Overrated team and coach.But now they praise Pep and last week it was a doctor.s fault.Yeah sure.Fanboys of Pep Mourinio and others make me sick.One poog guy have 42 in 50 games and nobody loves him.Lucho u are the BOSS

  14. luisthebeast
    April 21, 2015

    We won in the last 25 games atletiko 3 times madrid city 2 times PSG 2 times Valencia Villareal 3 times and still people fear a team that cant beat Porto or Shaktar or Wolsburg or Leverkuzen away.Bring them now.

  15. luisthebeast
    April 21, 2015

    And something last.I am a very emotional about Barca but only about Barca.I was never a Pep fan or Ronaldhinio or anyone.Barca is a big club and when i read from people the crying that we need Pep or Thiago or anyone back,they make Barca small.And i hate it.When someone leave the club bye bye and good luck.

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