On Saturday, Barça did exactly what it was supposed to do in dispatching newly promoted Las Palmas. The 2-1 scoreline didn’t really reflect the almost constant danger posed by Barça in a match that could well have ended 4 or 5-1. But nobody counts those goals (unless it’s a draw and goal differential comes into play). Almost is for horseshoes and hand grenades.
There really isn’t much to say about the match beyond the fact that Ter Stegen got screwed by his defense again, after a tremendous cock-up by Mascherano, who seems to have forgotten everything that he knows, which is late in a match with an opponent pressing for anything, don’t hold the ball. He had an easy pass back to Bartra beckoning. He was even facing Bartra and had to have seen him as a viable passing option. Instead he held it, got stripped and the rest is history.
But of course, the biggest event of the match was the Messi knee injury, another contact knock that finds the best player in the game out for up to two months. It is impossible to replace a player of that quality and unpredictability. Period. But there is something else that is pretty important to remember, which is that Barça doesn’t exactly suck without Messi.
The championship Chicago Bulls were, essentially, Jordan and some other guys. To be sure, the effect of one guy in a 5-player team is outsized compared to the effect of a single great player on an 11-man group. But if you take Jordan away, the Bulls were a mid-table team, peopled with talented players who would probably have scraped out enough wins to make the playoffs, before heading home after a first-round beating.
Barça is entirely different.
Alves to the midfield
The probable XI without Messi will be: Bravo/Ter Stegen, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Iniesta, Rakitic, Neymar, Suarez, Sandro/Munir. But there a number of interesting wrinkles available to Enrique, assuming that FIFA’s absurd non-answer on the Arda Turan question continues to be an absurd non-answer/veiled threat.
For some matches, dropping Rakitic and adding Alves to the midfield, a position he was functionally playing toward the end of last season, is worth a consideration, particularly as it also gets Sergi Roberto and his energy on the pitch. The midfield becomes Busquets/Iniesta/Alves, who functions as a modified version of the Rakitic role, but with better ball skills and interplay on and off the ball.
This option would also add a shot from distance, something that Alves is a lot less loath to use than Rakitic, who has a rocket but seems interested in keeping his powder dry. The other thing Alves would add is that Messi-like quality of passing and moving, close control dynamics that would work very well with the intelligence of Sergi Roberto.
The problem that Enrique has isn’t as much how to replace Messi, since you can’t, but rather how to replicate some of the things that he did within his team’s system of attack. Suddenly, the right side looks a lot like the left in that it is rather dependent upon fullback overlaps to create attacking danger in a Messiless side. So it goes without saying that the emergence of Sergi Roberto as the team’s best right back on form right now, is perfectly timed. He dropped a pass directly onto Suarez’s bonce today for a goal, and is as capable of controlling an opponent attack as he is starting a Barça one.
With a fit Rafinha, you don’t really have a difficult a quandary to resolve, but he is out as well, another victim of a contact injury. The easiest thing to do is stick Sandro or Munir on the right wing, but neither of those players, though Munir was quite good against Las Palmas, has shown the kind of quality that makes them anything other than a stopgap that opponents won’t really have to take seriously until they have the ball.
Ivan the Terrible
At Sevilla, Rakitic ran the show, running, passing, distributing, shooting and controlling the Sevilla attack in the way that Iniesta does at times now, and in a way that might be useful in the absence of Messi. This might mean a front line of Neymar/Suarez/Iniesta. Because even though Iniesta can’t seem to score a goal to save his soul (which has already been given to vampires), he is a devastating passing and attack option from the left, working with Alba and feeding Neymar and Suarez.
Of course, this would mean something that culers would find repulsive, which is a midfield with two DMs, in Busquets and Mascherano, not that Enrique would care about the weeping and rending of garments.
When Rakitic came to Barça, he became another player who played one way to draw the attention that made him transferable and worth it, who then had to assimilate into a system that in many ways didn’t want many of the same skills that made him a top Liga midfielder. It’s those skills that are being held in abeyance. People have forgotten that he ran the midfield that gave RM fits. Wonder if Enrique has?
The “Wheeee!” option
The last time Messi was out for an extended period of time for Barça was coincidentally also 8 weeks, Neymar and Alexis Sanchez were unleashed to devastating effect. As both players thrived in an open game, improvising on the fly coupled with constant movement, this meant unpredictability and goals. Sanchez became the player many wanted him to become, and Neymar was the high-flying trickster.
With Suarez in the XI, the potential for devastation through movement is even more significant. The second goal that Suarez scored today was a prime example of that, as he found himself in shooting space that was created through team movement, and CBs not quite knowing what to do.
So yes, put Neymar in the middle, flank him with Suarez and Munir, and move. A central Neymar gives him the option of cutting in either direction, passing or shooting, and it also takes advantage of his ability to, on the dead run, assess options and make things happen. On the ball, Neymar is deadly in a way that is different from Messi, but one that must still be respected by a defense. Having Neymar on the left means that he is just a little easier to play. But with the entire pitch as a playground, Suarez becomes potentially more dangerous, particularly if the link-up play and intelligent movement displayed by Munir today are a trend rather than an anomaly.
Having Vermaelen healthy would make this option even more interesting, as you could move Busquets up the pitch almost in a Xavi role, free up Iniesta to be the player he used to be and have Mascherano providing the long outlet pass, something he does quite well, to the mids and attackers running up the pitch.
Culers would complain about not having a midfield, etc, but that wouldn’t be the point of such an attack, though it would be easy to revert to ball control when necessary. The whole point would be speed of attack and unpredictability, with a link-up man and dangerous 9 playing off a pair of dribbling whizzes who also possess an impressive array of passing options.
No, I’m NOT kidding
Barça has a player who has pace, ball skills, crosses well and can link up with teammates, a player purchased as an RB but who seems to be better suited to the RW slot in selected situations. Yes, I’m talking about Douglas.
Like it or not, and most don’t, Douglas has looked best in an attacking role. And at a time when all bets are off, it’s certainly worth considering such an option. I wouldn’t consider him as a part in the XI, but would certainly think him worth a look against less-dangerous sides, as Enrique looks for a way to rotate his team and still keep wing attacking options open on the right side.
Or what about Pique as a 9, flanked by Neymar and Suarez in a more traditional attack with a big man at the center. With the sudden depth that the team has as CB, particularly if Vermaelen returns to the cause soon, it’s an off-the-wall notion that is, in certain situations, worth considering. Pique is physical, has very good ball control skills and can get a shot off quickly. He also heads the ball very well. Let’s get crazy.
Back to reality
Though a lot of people took umbrage with the observation in the wake of the Atleti victory, different things happen to Barça when Messi is absent. On the pitch, the best player in the game demands attention, even when he’s just standing around. He influences play through almost any movement. But when he isn’t on the pitch, the defense is faced with a very different array of possibilities.
When Messi is out there, you know who is going to get the ball. When Messi isn’t out there, what do you know, as a defender? Suarez can pass, make runs and shoot, as can Neymar. Iniesta can keep the ball in a hurricane and find the open man in a telephone booth. Busquets is the closest thing to Xavi that Barça has right now, all command and control combined with intelligent movement and passing.
Barça has world-class talent all over the pitch, even in the absence of its best player. And because everyone’s role is different, in many ways it enhances the diversity of possibilities in attack for a defense, who will have to figure out what to do in a world in which everyone is empowered. And there is no looking to the bench for No. 10, because he isn’t coming. Neymar will have to step up, as will Suarez. I suspect a more attacking Iniesta will be a consequence, or perhaps Rakitic returns to the role he had at Sevilla, in another very interesting tactical twist.
The unfortunate thing in some … many … most ways is that Claudio Bravo will be returning to the side. With an attack that will suddenly have to find ways to attack from different directions and do so quickly, having a keeper who can start attacks with throws or his feet like Ter Stegen can, will be of immense value. That Bravo plays slowly is a function of the kind of more traditional keeper that he is. So where Ter Stegen catches a pass and almost immediately has picked a target for the throw, Bravo all too often holds the ball, yelling various commands at players, giving the opponent defense plenty of time to get set.
A keeper who can spank a long pass to a streaking Neymar, or lob a pass to Busquets to feed Iniesta who if off and running, would be very, very useful. Unpredictability will have to be the norm, as well as speed of attack.
Here are the matches that the team will face over the next 8 weeks:
Bayer (CL, H), Sevilla A, Rayo Vallecano H, BATE (CL, A), Eibar H, Getafe A, BATE (CL, H), Villarreal H
Messi returns in time for the first Classic, toward the end of November. Of that stretch of matches, a time helped by the international break (from the club perspective, that is. From the WCQ worldview, Argentina has some dilemmas.), every one of them is potentially winnable.
But more than the Barça attack, which will score goals, is the defense. If the goal-stopping crew can return to the command that it had last season, Barça could very well run the table, setting a springboard for the team to take off like a rocket when its leader returns.
As crazy as it sounds, if there was ever a good time for Messi to be facing an 8-week layoff, this is it. What Barça lose in his absence is that spark of genius, that wonder that makes any time he touches the ball a potential highlight. It’s a bailout as well, as when things are going bad, there’s Messi with a run, pass that wouldn’t have occurred to anyone else, or shot from nowhere. But there is potential for full and complete success over these eight weeks even as I suspect there will be a couple of draws in there, probably away to Sevilla and BATE. But your team is a powerful unit. Many want to panic, or freak out because Messi is injured. It is a blow, to be sure. Any time you lose the best at anything, it sucks.
But Barça has an array of talent that is more than capable of dealing with most teams in the world, even without a genius. Though the way it came is truly awful, it will be interesting to see what develops with this team over the next eight weeks.