It’s impossible to know what to think about this football team. It’s either whistling past the graveyard or headed for a massive fall.
Rayo Vallecano always seems to bring out interesting things for Barça and today was no exception. Many probably have forgotten that Rayo was the team that ended the Martino Experiment as they lost 0-4 but won possession, causing a culerverse to implode.
Today, Rayo won every significant statistical comparison, starting with possession. Barça ended up with just over 43% possession. Barça was also outshot, had fewer corners, was a mess in just about every statistical measure except one: the final score.
Asking what that means leaves most folks at a loss. The team has conceded 11 goals this season. Of the five teams in La Liga who have done that, two are in the relegation zone. Only one is at the top of the table, and that’s the strange thing in a team that is confounding, during a confounding season complicated by injuries and poor form, both individual and collective.
Rayo strutted into the Camp Nou and played the exact match that it needed to play to get a result against Barça because sitting back and waiting to die isn’t the answer, unless you hope to play for a Malagaesque 0-0. If you can get at the Barça back line you can create chances. Celta Vigo knew this, Sevilla knew this, Rayo knew this. The differences between the three results were not tactical naivete, but rather luck and form.
Celta had remarkable finishing accuracy, rooted in the quality of its counterattacks and the space attackers found while making them. But Celta also rode some stanky finishing form from Barça, which was a necessary part of that result. Sevilla turned on a 10-minute blizzard and got the necessary margin to see a victory home but again, that results needed some poor Barça form as Sevilla rode some luck. Barça had 28 shots on goal, almost half of them on target, and hit woodwork a couple of times.
The difference that Rayo saw was Neymar is rounding into form, and Bravo made some excellent saves. On another day, or even a few weeks ago if Neymar isn’t in the form that he is in now, today’s match might have ended very differently, in a draw or even victory for Rayo, who played an exceptional match today. Full credit. People ask, “Why would you play like that against Barça?” Well, why wouldn’t you? They got 2 goals and really could have had a few others. By sitting back and defending, you eliminate the opportunity to get at the most vulnerable part of Barça, which is the defense. But Paco Jemez wasn’t counting on That Neymar. Who was? And the midfield was supposed to be a mess. Who is this No. 20?
When Messi went down injured, the consensus was that Neymar was going to have to step up. He began the process of raising his game, but today was absurd as he was involved in all five Barça goals. He created the penalties in two (which he then converted), he scored two others and assisted the fifth. It’s easy to nitpick his game, easy to say that in some situations he should have done this or that, easy to hold him to a standard of perfection that no player alive can meet. Reality is that he had an exemplary game on a day when his team needed him to. If he isn’t the player he is, Barça don’t get a result today. It’s as simple as that as chance after chance was squandered again. Rakitic, Suarez, Sandro. And when Rayo capitalized on atrocious marking and a flapping keeper to make it 0-1, the feeling was that one of Those days was in the offing.
Then up stepped Neymar, who worked some magic to win a penalty. Then, at the edge of the box he nutmegged a player and got loose, forcing a defender to take him down for yet a second penalty. Then he stepped up and converted both shots with ease, a nonexistent runup as he hit one to the left, and one to the right, leaving the keeper guessing both times with low, hard shots. Run after run, pass after pass, it was clear that this is his team until No. 10 returns to the starting lineup, and Neymar reveled in it.
That Suarez kept getting caught by the Rayo offside trap and couldn’t control the ball or hit anything when he wasn’t offside didn’t matter, as his distressing form continues. That Sandro was Pedro 2.0, all industry but no goals, didn’t matter either because this was Neymar’s day, and it had to be.
What a mess
The defense, right now, is kinda junky. Pique is going on mental walkabout, Alves has gotten his contract and checked out, Mathieu can only seem to summon a single half of focused, effective football and Alba has to scurry around like a squirrel on speed in an effort to plug holes. Even with all of that, the problems are happening in the midfield, with the second Rayo goal being a typical one. Suarez lost possession just on the Barça side of the halfway line and threw up his hands in exasperation instead of hustling to help the team. Rayo had numbers going forward, and a direct pass was deflected by Alba, but right to a Rayo attacker who was unmarked, and slotted home.
Making that goal worse was that nobody knew what to do, so they all chased the ball instead of finding a man to mark. Ridiculous.
And perhaps now that Bravo is leaking goals just like Ter Stegen was it’s safe to say that maybe, just maybe, the difficulty with the defense is everybody in front of the keeper instead of the keeper himself. Barça isn’t doing anything as it was last season. Busquets lost a ball, shrugged and casually strolled back as Rayo countered. That didn’t happen last season. Mathieu was sharp and alert, Alves was playing like the Alves of old and Pique was Lanky Puyol and Rakitic was a midfield sentinel.
Whatever you attribute the difficulties to is immaterial to their existence. Teams are getting at the back line and the keeper as Barça are facing more shots which means the team is conceding more goals. But things are also breaking down at the midfield control level as opponents are flooding that area to take advantage of pressing to work the ball loose, in the full knowledge that Barça doesn’t have traditional defenders, that their fullbacks are likely to be caught at the other end of the pitch during a fast counter. It’s no coincidence that so many goals conceded by Barça this year have come from wing attacks.
Last season, the team was able to get back, there were overlapping circles of pressure that didn’t allow opponents to ever get comfortable on the ball and set pieces were easily controlled. The result was reduced shots, shots on goal and danger, which means clean sheets abounded. This year is quite dramatically different.
Atop all of that, the attackers aren’t finishing chances.
Despite all of that, Barça is tied for the top of the Liga, which is inexplicable and if you are an optimist, a reason to smile and rub your hands together in glee, anticipating the day that this team gets its stuff together. Yet right now Barça isn’t a good football team by its own standard, statistically or functionally. The group is doing what championship teams do, which is find a way to win, a way to hang around until everything comes right, even as the unspoken question is what if things don’t come right? What if this is it?
That a team with the stats Barça has sits atop the table isn’t logical. And it confounds culers who understand that the team isn’t good right now, and want to cheer that it is doing well in the standings, and would if so many things weren’t so … poor. So we don’t know what to do, because even as people say, “Wait until Messi comes back,” the problems enumerated above existed before Messi was injured, something easily forgotten. Yes, losing the best player in the game was a blow, but the team was laconic, loose in midfield and leaking goals even before the plague of injuries began.
So the “wait til your father gets home” thinking, that solutions will return with Messi, Iniesta and Vermaelen doesn’t quite sit well if you really consider it. So what IS the solution? Rest, and less football, to start. Note how many days off training the team has already been given this year by its coaching staff, in an effort to stave off the concentration-killing fatigue that leads to dropped points. Those days off mean that the body is fresher, but the body and mind aren’t honed as sharp by the rigors of training, as a coaching staff hopes that collective quality and reflex drilled home by last season and those memories, kicks in. It’s a risk, but a calculated one.
The c-word is always interesting because it gets thrown around a lot. Last season the Anoeta match was a crisis, but it really wasn’t, because that stadium has always been a bogey ground and the only thing that match did was postpone the team taking over first place for a bit. External factors and misguided paranoia combined to make an ordinary occurrence into a crisis.
The c-word hasn’t been used as much this season, a time when the team is much closer to being in crisis than last season. Last year the team was playing very well, even if the theoreticians didn’t think so because it wasn’t meeting an academic ideal. This season, the team isn’t playing well by anyone’s standards, looks tired and can’t keep people healthy. Motivation and focus also look to be absent at significant times, as at too many times, members of the group seem happy to let someone else handle something as they back off just that little bit. This isn’t a full-on crisis yet but it’s close, and will be interesting to see how the coaching staff gets the team out of it because January and the relief promised by Aleix Vidal and Arda Turan, is a long way off.
On the up side
If anyone knows what Enrique did to and for Sergi Roberto, bottle it, because he has been brilliant this season. When he was promoted, Pep Guardiola was effusive about his talents, saying that he had the quality to play anywhere on the pitch. That was forgotten as Sergi Roberto underwhelmed. As this string continued, even his showing signs of beginning to come into the quality that so many suspected that he had was ignored.
This season he has been excellent at right back. But he has also been excellent at midfield, particularly in today’s match, where he sparkled. That is like a bonus signing, as a journeyman player who so much of the fanbase had already discarded has turned out to be Barça quality.
Thomas Vermaelen is another benefit of the season. His absence was the beginning of a difficult patch for the defense, so the news that he will get the medical green light for the midweek Champions League match against BATE Borisov is very welcome news.
Claudio Bravo has learned from watching his keeping competition Ter Stegen and is playing the ball out faster, and even passing with a bit of style and accuracy, if not anything like the Ter Stegen fluency and style.
Neymar is continuing to grow as a player. The Rayo display was just an example of something that has been going on for some time. He blossomed the last time Messi was out for an extended absence as he and Alexis Sanchez conspired to raise hell, but this Neymar is more mature. He is crashing to the ground less after challenges, seems less impetuous and calmer.
January will be here eventually. Enough can’t be said of the injection of quality and increase in options that two players will mean for the team. Suddenly, you don’t have to run Iniesta and Rakitic into the ground. Neymar also has a deputy as Turan is versatile across the entire front line. On the right, Vidal brings his immense quality to that side of the pitch. He can play RB while Sergi Roberto slides into that Rakitic position, to keep the Croatian fresh. When Rakitic is tired, his performance drops dramatically.
The midfield depth also means that Sergi Roberto can add a third position to his resume, as he can sub for Busquets, the midfield role at which he was best until this season, when he is now shining in attack, as well.
But for now, this team is going to have to hang on. It isn’t going to be pretty, and it probably isn’t going to always be effective. But it’s all that we have for a while.