If we really, really think about the Athletic Bilbao thrashing of Barça the other day, it’s something that would have been as obvious as the day is long.
— Sevilla, the other team who flew halfway ’round the world, on that midnite plane to Georgia (oh, shut up … you wouldn’t be able to resist, either) gave up 6 goals to Roma, of all teams. Why? Fatigue.
— A U.S. money-grabbing tour that none of the players or coaches liked because it’s just a lot of traveling and running around, a messy pre-season tour that means you have to round into shape and get fit while running a dog and pony show.
— An opponent with something to prove, at home, an opponent who has done nothing except sit at home, watch on TV and say “Boy, howdy, I bet those boys are tired. Let’s press the hell out of them, and see what happens.”
What happened was a beating that was actually every bit as complete as the scoreline indicated, a mess of a match that played into the hands of every team naysayer. There wasn’t shape, direction, movement or a discernible system as a team fell apart in a miasma of individual errors that led to collective crap. Were I still giving grades, the highest grade any Barça player would have received is Vermaelen, with a 5. Nobody else would have been much above a 3.
That grading would, of course, be match dependent rather than external factor dependent, which is something that we need to include as part of the evaluation.
When I am tired, I drop stuff. Keys, papers, clothing, glasses. “Thud!” And my wife says, “You’re tired, why don’t you take a nap.” “No, I’m fine.” “No, you’re not. You’re dropping stuff.” And she’s right. We all have different reactions to being tired. If you are an athlete and you are tired, you suck. There’s no way around that sucking, either. You hope for the best, that your opponent is of sufficiently low quality that you can bluff your way through, but you are going to suck in significant ways, all of which are affected by fatigue.
— Judgment goes, so simple tasks that are rote, get messy.
— Positioning is a problem, because you’re too tired to move to the place where you need to be.
— Shortcuts become viable, so you lunge instead of run to get into position.
— Execution fails as a consequence of fatigue and poor judgment.
Barça is a footballing team blessed with an extraordinary XI that conquered the world last season. Its reward for that is a Super Cup in Georgia, then a few days later a first leg Super Copa on the road against a difficult opponent in a difficult stadium. Yay, for us! In a better world, that U.S. tour time would have been spent frolicking at the Camp Nou, or playing European friendlies, so that the players could have proper rest and recovery. That didn’t happen, and much of that is the reason for the Friday beatdown.
It’s easy to single out various, unfavored players for excoriation, but this one was on everybody. At one point I asked on Twitter if Messi was playing, and was the subject of almost immediate abuse. Another person said, “Well, he needs the ball, and etc, etc.” I mused that Messi can’t be a superhuman being and one who is powerless without the ball, that maybe he is just one tired-ass superhero. And if Messi is that way, how must Sergi Roberto or Rafinha be?
Enrique came out with a rotation XI that he said he would do again, and as with Anoeta, I don’t blame him because it made perfect sense, if the team isn’t hammered. But the reason the Athletic press was so … well … athletic was because Sergi Roberto and Rafinha couldn’t move the ball quickly enough to get around it, because they and their teammates couldn’t move quickly enough to get around it.
To deal with a press, one-touch football is paramount. Pass and move, pass and move, pam, pam, pam, pam. Look at the Barça attack at any time during that match, and you will find players standing around. And because Athletic forced Barça on the back foot, this means that midfielders were taking the ball from defenders with their backs to the opponent goal, which makes a press even more effective.
On full song, everybody is facing forward for Barça. Defenders are playing up the pitch, taking passes and feeding mids who are perpendicular to the direction of attack, already thinking about the next pass. Forwards are running around, looking for slots in the defense. But even the best players can’t see behind them. By putting Barça on the back foot, transforming them from an attacking to a reacting team, Athletic took full advantage of the fatigue of its opponent.
Also like Anoeta, Enrique got a slagging for his XI, but the lambasters aren’t really noting that in the second half, with the insertion of Iniesta and Rakitic, the match didn’t change materially. Ah! Busquets and Pique weren’t there! Well, that’s because they were every bit as tired as everyone else, as much as we’d love to believe that they would have made a difference in that match, which was really decided by a series of stupid errors. Let’s look at all four goals:
No. 1: Sweeper keepers are going to do stupid stuff from time to time. I am sure there was a voice in Ter Stegen’s head that said, “Chest it down and play a simple pass. You have plenty of time.” There was another voice that said “Hey, look! If you head the ball forward quickly, you can take advantage of their pressed-forward team, who are chasing the long ball from their keeper.”
Ha haaaa, right! He headed the ball, and it fell directly to an Athletic player who controlled and smoked a distance shot right over Ter Stegen and into the wide-open net. Error. Stupid? Nope. The logic probably made sense, and his teammates, if fresher, probably have a better shot at that headed ball. But not on that day.
No. 2: Sergi Roberto takes a pass at the touchline and is pressed immediately, and hard. He has no passing options because Alves, just standing there, hasn’t made himself available nor has Messi, who is having a statue contest with Alves.
Every Barça player is marked because every Barça player is like a training ground pylon, as stationary as can be. Rather than holding the ball or banging it off the Athletic player for a reset, Sergi Roberto reverts to Barça logic, playing a pass to a space that would be there if all was right in the world. It wasn’t so the Athletic attacker picks it off and goes for the end line, marked by Alves who he easily fights off.
In the box, everybody except Vermaelen is ball watching rather than man watching. It’s fascinating to note how different Barça defends when fit and on song. Everyone finds a man, and the ball is allowed to do what it does because without a terminus, who cares what a pass does? This time they were ball watching, and at the point of the cross Aduriz is allowed a free run at the header over the shorter Mascherano, who is playing the ball instead of the man. And there you go.
There were, of course, the inevitable “Mascherano isn’t a CB, too short, can’t defend, etc.” There is too much evidence to the contrary for any of those assertions to be true. But rare is the goal that isn’t a team effort, and this one was no exception. But note how Vermaelen is marking his man, unworried about the ball and what it is doing, and Bartra is there to control the cut in if the attacker gets past Alves. But once Alves lost that sideline battle, the goal was coming.
No. 3: Adriano misplays a ball he should have controlled easily, a mess that began when Bartra headed a ball into the air, then Alves just punted it out somewhere toward the other sideline. (Note: As poor as Adriano was, Alves had an astoundingly bad match on Friday, as bad as I can ever recall him being in the colors.)
When a team has more energy and is pressing, ball control is paramount, which means not just hoofing it but playing it to feet and making those rote decisions that have been worked on the practice pitch. When you’re toast, stuff that makes sense, doesn’t. And good players become stupid ones.
Athletic gets control of the loose ball, and attacks. The cross goes in, and lord knows what Alves is doing when he whacks it across the Barça box because the littlest tykes, when first learning the game, hear “Never cross the ball, as a defender, through your own box. Ever.” Alves does. He isn’t looking, or following through with his volley. As with the ball he hoofed earlier, he has no idea where it will land, or anything. At that point he was effectively an Athletic attacker, given the net effect that his “clearance” had.
Vermaelen lapsed and lost coverage on his man, who got inside him and ran onto the ball. Bartra had contain on Aduriz then decided to chase the ball like a hyperactive puppy and left the hot player who already had a brace. That man took advantage and slotted home.
No. 4: Alves (him, again) is following his runner during a set piece, and decides a rugby tackle would be in order. There was near post contain, and really no reason to do anything except follow the man and stay between him and the front of goal. But again, being tired makes you stupid, and that attempted piggyback ride was stupid.
Funniest of all in this sequence is the ref’s face as Barça players argue the penalty. It’s almost like he wants to say “Midget please. You better get outta here with that craziness.”
The post-match reaction was inevitable. This player isn’t good enough, that player isn’t good enough, so and so should be sold, the team doesn’t have a coach, and so on. The temptation would have been to go back in time and look at the post-Anoeta comments for analogs.
This kind of a loss was coming, and it’s good that it comes in a functionally meaningless friendly such as the Super Copa, which matters only if a team wants to crow about the “Year of Six Cups,” or use silly Twitter hashtags such as #Dr5am. Any culer would rather lose the SuperCopa than any Liga match, its trophy status notwithstanding. This kind of a loss was coming because players are flesh and blood, not machines. Messi wasn’t the all-conquering dynamo because he was tired. Alves was stupid because he was tired. Iniesta wasn’t effective because he was tired. The whole team had to play extra time, win a match, celebrate, hop on a plane, fly back to Spain and play a match a couple of days later.
Enrique won’t make excuses for his team, and nobody should. That group didn’t get it done, in a spectacular way. Fatigue was an issue, to be sure, but they have played tired before. It also makes fascinating the thinness of the margins that define excellence. Every successful play could just as easily be a disaster. That goal-saving tackle in the box is a few millimeters away from being a penalty. That golazo is, if the foot is a fraction off on the striking angle, over the crossbar or easily saved.
Last season was magical in that Barça, as any successful team does, found itself on the right side of those margins time and time again. Add fatigue and lack of sharpness, and suddenly those margins are not only gone, but tilt in the other direction. A month from now, Sergi Roberto takes that same ball on the sideline, and Messi dances around his marker just as Alves slides toward the sideline for the tunnel pass from Sergi Roberto before one-touching it to Messi, who leaves his disgruntled marker in his wake.
But that elegance was left on a runway somewhere between the U.S., Georgia and Bilbao. The result was a tired team that tried to get it done, but wasn’t even close.
It’s easy to draw conclusions from a single match, but every one of those conclusions would be wrong except for a few:
— The quality gap between the Barça XI and the rotation group is immense. And here is where culers can’t have it both ways. The snarking and howling about “galactico” signings such as Arda Turan (who isn’t) and high-quality squad players over Masia beings-in-waiting is an example. Turan coming onto the pitch as part of the rotation is very different than Sergi Roberto. That’s why the team bought him. Aleix Vidal gives a viable backup for Alves. That’s why the team bought him. A first team such as Barça needs exceptional quality at every position, or the group suffers. You want playing time for Bartra? Okay. But recognize that he isn’t Pique. Give a Masia man a shout in Rafinha? Sure thing. But he isn’t Rakitic or Iniesta. That’s why they are subs.
So the question is, what direction should the Barça first team go in, getting the best players, irrespective of source, or building from the academy ranks where appropriate? It can try to mix the two, but that means you are going to get some Sergi Roberto matches. That’s part of the deal.
— A system is only as good as its players. The cool thing about many of the preseason matches was how the team looked and played the same, irrespective of who was on the pitch for it. Tired players mess that stuff up, because lesser players need bigger margins. Subtract some talent from that equation and suddenly, stand back.
But from this seat all of the rest of it, from Enrique errors to tactical speculation, doesn’t hold up because Barça ran into a buzzsaw at the exact wrong time, and took a beatdown that should make the team better in the long run because it now understands how thin its margins are. As the Guardiola teams also learned, you can’t just show up, strip off the warmups and expect an opponent to say “Oh, no! The Marauding Sprites!” You have to play, to be as close to your best as you can. That quality defines the margin. Sometimes, it’s a gap you have to get a running start to hurdle. Other times, it’s the width of the line drawn by a fine-tipped, super sharp pencil. Still other times, that line is erased by a variety of factors from fatigue to a willing opponent in the thrall of a home crowd, and you get your ass whipped.
And that’s that.