It was bound to happen, say the pundits. Even Pedro! said “We had to lose sometime,” and you know what?
I just don’t buy it.
Most football matches come down to one or two moments, and this one did as well. When Guardiola decided to roll the dice, and pencil in “Jeffren” at right back, the damage was done.
No, I don’t mean to armchair quarterback, but Jeffren is an attacker who has played at right back before, against lower-level opposition, not a Liga side with something to prove at home.
Nonetheless, there it was, the lineup of Valdes, Jeffren, Puyol, Milito, Maxwell, Keita, Busquets, Iniesta, Xavi, Messi and Ibrahimovic, a lineup that was plenty strong enough to take care of Patetico, until not even 5 minutes into the match, Keita pulled his hamstring. Pedro! came on for him, which did us a favor in that it moved Iniesta back to his traditional role of shadowing Xavi, rather than dicking around on left wing where he’s about as much of a threat as my mama.
And things were balanced, at Atleti did the usual “flood the midfield and don’t let Xavi kill you” thing, and they were having more success than usual, because of the absences of Marquez and Pique. Without that ball-handling center back to bring the ball up and deposit it to Xavi, it pinged around more than usual, and ATM was having their share of the play.
Then it all went pear-shaped. On what should have been a simple lay-off pass to Iniesta, Xavi over-hit the ball directly to an ATM player, who sent Reyes off to the races. He snookered Iniesta, then snookered Busquets. Jeffren, meanwhile, let Forlan run right across his bow as he was caught ball watching. Puyol looks over with an “Oh, shit” moment, then tries to cover. But by then, about the only thing that his movement did was make the passing angle that much easier for Reyes, who slotted an inch-perfect pass to Forlan, who ran past Puyol as if he was parked and beat Valdes who got a hand to it, but couldn’t stop the shot.
Just like that, it was 1-0, bad guys, and our defense was exposed for the patchwork thing that it was for this match.
At this moment, people are going to call me unfair and accuse me of hating Jeffren now, but as the guy on the back line with the most pace, certainly more than Forlan, you can’t just stand there and watch him run at your keeper. Run with him, vex him, foul him, do something other than standing there, watching the play develop. In his defense, he’s an attacker, so he’s used to watching his defenders control stuff, then get him the ball so that he can do his thing, right?
Their second goal was just as bad, in my estimation, and once again, Jeffren was a big part of the equation as he pinched in toward the center of the pitch, ball watching again, instead of controlling his area. So the ball was passed into the acres of space left by his absence. He scrambles back, but is out of position, a movement that again opens up a passing angle to Aguero who takes, and is fouled by a charging Puyol.
Should Captain Caveman have played him straight up and waited for help? Yes. Did he? No. Because that’s not how he rolls. The foul was dubious, but a defender is always going earn the foul on that one because even if he got ball, he also got a touch of ankle, and Aguero sold it.
Frankly, there wasn’t a damned thing Valdes could have done about that free kick, which was world class and beat him cleanly.
So now it was 2-0, and we seemed to wake up. The goal that we scored was one of those scrappers that we sometimes get, coming off a corner kick that was kept alive by Puyol and Milito. It fell directly to Ibrahimovic, who made no mistake and volleyed into the top of the net. It was 2-1, and we had life, but it just wasn’t to be, because we had absolutely no midfield control thanks to a collective case of the shits.
Keita coming off really hurt us, because suddenly Busquets didn’t have that buffer, and had to cover a lot more ground in the midfield. This allowed ATM to have more of the possession than we customarily yield, and they hurt us time and again, as Aguero constantly got the better of Puyol with pace, causing our Captain at one point to pound the sodden turf in frustration at yet another man, running full steam into our box.
We can analyze, and natter and armchair quarterback all we like, but this match came down to rotten luck with another injury at a very bad time, and a right back who should not have been on the pitch. Guardiola screwed up the selection. Yes, we took the play to them in the second half, but after a while, they were content to play defense and try to hit us on the counter when we allowed such a thing to happen.
I’d also like to say a very simple thing to our lads, who don’t read this blog and it’s a damned shame: Take the professional foul. Now! Maxwell laid on a couple of them, but he was the only one who understands that if you give up a free kick way out on the wing, or just past midfield, who cares? Put him on his ass. Both Busquets and Iniesta had a chance to foul Reyes, and Jeffren had the chance to nick Forlan.
I know, I know, we don’t play that way. But we should. Lord knows everyone else plays that way against us, and it can be very effective at disrupting a match and breaking up an attack. Because if Reyes is fouled, no way that goal gets scored. Could we have sprung the offside trap? Maybe, but the pace at which that play developed means that our defenders were in full on man the ramparts mode.
So it was a loss, and it sucked. What now?
Who knows. We have a perfect storm of injuries, with Alves (who practiced today), The Yaya, Keita, Xavi, Abidal and Txigrinski all out for the next week, at a minimum. And something good came of this match, in that I don’t think we have to splash for a backup right back in the summer transfer window, as Marc Bartra came on and kicked out the jams, showing time and again what an actual defender can do at right back. One of my favorite moments was when Aguero came dancing at him during the second half, and he calmly watched the ball, then stood him up and took it, all man-style and stuff. I’d like to see more of him out there, and our next match, Racing, is the perfect time to do it.
And with that bit of joy, the points:
Team: 3. We played a lot of the time as if we didn’t really know each other. Passes were overhit, misguided or just plain wrong. There was no midfield pressure to speak of until late in the second half, when a sense of urgency finally reared its head.
Guardiola: 2. I know that you think you’re really smart, but sometimes you really aren’t. Jeffren was a poor choice, as was Pedro! instead of Henry. And what’s up with the physical training sessions that are most likely leading to this rash of injuries? Stop it.
Valdes: 5. Solid, despite letting two get past him, neither of which was really his fault, particularly that second goal. His tendency to play with the ball at his feet too much almost cost us in the second half, however.
Jeffren: 1. No defense, no attacking, and lots of ball watching means that you, my son, had a horrific match. You’re probably still feeling pretty bad right now and honestly, you should. Yes, Guardiola deserves some of the blame, but still.
Puyol: 6. He came back from his early funk and played a strong match, passing test after test, and keeping the ball alive for the winning goal. Again, however, he was on the scene for both goals, with a move that opened up a path for Forlan, and an ill-considered challenge.
Milito: 6. Very solid the times that he was called on, and he’s another dude who isn’t afraid to just put a player on his butt. Not as strong as his last match, but it was a fire drill in our box today.
Maxwell: 6: Might have to change his nickname from Neo Soul to PF (professional foul). I’m sure it’s that Serie A hardness, but Maxwell will say “screw that” and knock a guy down faster than you can say “si us plau.” He got forward on the attack, but with no left winger to speak of, since Pedro! was off running around somewhere, he was usually stranded with the ball and plenty of ambition.
Keita: incomplete. Injured very early.
Busquets: 4. He was doing the “colt unbound” thing, scrambling about willy-nilly. And what a stupid, stupid yellow card to pick up at a time when your club needs you. Desperately. Oh, and foul the dude, don’t just stick a leg out. Yes, you had some good plays, but not enough to counterbalance your inadequacies.
Xavi: 1. Wow. The pain. I never, ever thought that I would give our Maestro a rating this low, but he was terrible, overhitting every ball, evincing horrid touch in the box on a pass that usually, he controls and buries. That’s life. Some will say that he was injured, and that’s why he was so horrible. Whatever. 15 balls he gave away this match? That’s usually more than he gives up in an entire season!
Iniesta: 6. Slid very neatly into the command/control role, but seemed aimless at times. When he focussed, he was exceptional.
Messi: 4. Too many runs, and what’s with overhitting passes to Ibrahimovic, and not passing to him when you should have? Learn to play with that man, as he is making every effort to fit in. Play him the ball, and let him score goals. My notes say it all: “Messi kills another attack,” “Messi bad pass to Ibra,” “Messi kills attack by dribbling into defense with Maxwell wide open,” “Messi shoots, ignoring Ibra diagonal run.”
Ibrahimovic: 6. Love the effort, but you have to get back onside more quickly, dude. That’s killing us. Yes, you were called offside many times when you weren’t, but those are the breaks of the game. Lovely goal, and your interplay with your teammates is a thing of beauty. The diagonal runs are also nice. Keep it up, and the passes will find you.
Pedro! (for Keita): 3. This match, more than any other in recent memory, demonstrated his lack of tactical awareness. When he wasn’t giving balls away he was overhitting pass after pass after pass. I repeat, he isn’t ready to start, no matter how much people dislike Henry. There was no width, and there hardly ever is when he’s in the side.
Bartra (for Jeffren): 7. Wow, what a revelation. The guys on Deportes were going nuts about his play, and they should have. He came on against a real Liga side and more than held his own, turning in a performance that suddenly solidified our back line. He has very good pace, and isn’t shy about bombing forward on the attack. I like, I like!
Krkic (for Xavi): 2. It’s getting painful to watch his indecision and tentativeness on the pitch. It really is. Something has to be done, whether it’s a brain transplant, or a transfer.
I’m not sure what Henry has done, but boy could we have used him that match. His pace and width on the wing would have been just the thing to stretch out ATM’s suspect back line. But Pedro! is apparently the man, even if he isn’t ready to be the man.
No, he isn’t.
Next up is Racing, and our list of “withouts” is immense, with the biggest one of all being Xavi, who is (right now) scheduled to miss the next three matches. Here’s wishing him a speedy recovery. Meanwhile, we get Racing, while EE get
Sevilla Villarreal. Here’s hoping that our two-point lead can be stretched back out to 5 by the end of next weekend.
Finally thanks for the patience, everyone. Blame ESPN Deportes, who had a picture blackout for almost the last half-hour of the match (not that I missed much). But this thing is finally up and as usual, I don’t mind at all being called a jackass, as long as you can provide the evidence of what a dummy I am. 😀