Villanovense 0, Barça 0, a delightful cabbage patch kickabout

At the end of the opening match in Barça’s defense of its Copa del Rey title, Luis Enrique declared himself “satisfied” with how the team played, performed and the effort that it put out.

The oddity of this statement was that precious few culers would place themselves in that same boat with Enrique. Nay, people were wondering why this, why that, why this player here, why did our knights in powder blue armor not dispatch Team of the Topless Mermaid like the wastrels that they were, questions, questions, questions.

During the match, Enrique mostly sat or stood there with a rather calm expression on his face as he took it all in. Did the match go according to his plan? Valid ask. With a back line that featured, in effect, three center backs, it wasn’t that hard to think that he wanted to build a solid defensive foundation, then tell the kids to go wild. The full XI was Masip, Douglas, Vermaelen, Bartra, Mathieu, Adriano, Gumbau, Samper, Kaptoum, Munir, Sandro.

Adriano was playing the left wing role via which he made a name for himself, confounding those newcomers who only remember LB Adriano, and what the hell is Enrique doing? Samper started the match in the role that he plays for Barça B, in the hole, then he moved up the pitch as Gumbau slid into the hole. And again, Samper isn’t in the role in which he can shine! What the hell is Enrique doing?

Not being a mindreader, who knows, but all of the signs were there that this match was little more than a glorified friendly. A Segunda B (fourth division) side gets the match of its lifetime, a draw with the glamor boys from the big city. They add seats to their tiny stadium, lay down a new pitch, clean and paint the locker rooms, all to put on a nice show for the big boys. The stadium atmosphere was glorious, a reminder of that purity that comes with being a football supporter, that this is MY team that carries you through everything, the joy of just seeing them every week. It was a combined picnic, party and pep rally.

You didn’t see tons of replica shirts in the stands because you didn’t need them to identify yourself as a supporter. You were there, and that was enough. Shirts are for the players, scarves for supporters, who identify themselves by screaming their throats raw. That post-match hoarseness displayed at the local bar is worn more proudly than a replica kit.

On the pitch, which had just been laid mere days before, nothing was going to happen for a number of reasons. Even a simple pass along the ground bobbed, bounced, weaved and slowed down. The field was smaller than normal, the ref was lenient and the home team spirited. These guys have jobs in town when they aren’t being lions on the pitch, and damned if their bosses, friends and colleagues were going to see them slacking off or being cowed by those superstars.

It didn’t even matter that the engine room of Barça was from its own Segunda B side and a couple of newly promoted B players. It was FC Barcelona, dammit! Nothing was going to happen for the same reason that if you put Messi in an alley kickabout on a pilfered patch of synthetic grass against some hotshot locals, he wouldn’t look like a divine being, either. You can’t. It was clear to Enrique, so what you do is set things up so that your team doesn’t concede, and get some good looks at youth players. Then you go home, where you can actually play football, and take care of business. It’s a two-legged tie anyhow.

What did we see?

Kaptoum: Lordy! There is hype aplenty for this player, the latest midfield gem who is a year away from the cognoscenti screaming that this coach or that coach is stupid for not playing him. For now, he’s a bright talent who reminds a lot of the Alcantara brothers in his movement, the way he glides/hops about the pitch and how the ball explodes off his foot. He seemed at times to be playing in fast motion compared to the Villanovense players around him. Yes, he lost the ball some, but so did the Alcantaras. A player learns that ball security as he progresses. Now that he is healthy, it will be fun to watch him move through the ranks.

Samper: His talent was already clear, and he did nothing to dispel those notions. From the broadcast booth at BeIN Sports, who broadcast the match in the U.S., Phil Schoen said that he saw nothing of Samper that made it seem a mistake that he wasn’t already a part of the first team, which was an interesting observation and one that I don’t entirely agree with. This is even as I understand the quality of the first team, the necessities of the B team and exactly why Samper is where he is.

But he moves with silk and honey, and has a preternatural vision for a player his age, or any age, really. Not every midfielder can see the lanes, the angles that are about to open up, the way a defender moves that will create an angle. Alves said that Xavi played to the future because he saw all of that. Samper seems to have that gift, something that became even clearer when he moved up the pitch. Making him the next Busquets when the current Busquets has plenty of high-quality years left is adorable, and Quixotic. What you want to see is how Samper runs a midfield, the vision and distribution. You also want to see that he has that Swiss Army knife versatility of a player such as Sergi Roberto, and can play anywhere from the hole to attacking midfield.

Samper wasn’t as glittering as Kaptoum even as he was just as impressive. It was also clear that he is a developing player who needs more work.

Gumbau: This is the name that can only be uttered in a spluttering rage by many culers who believe that he is standing in the way of Samper being anointed. Yet they shared a midfield at Villanovense, and did so quite well. Gumbau is a sharp, physical player who moves well and has a good passing eye, which was demonstrated time and again, even as the danger of being an unfavored player is that nobody sees the good things that you do. But coaches aren’t supporters. The more you watch Gumbau, the clearer it is why Enrique is using him — that physicality. He’s the player who an American football coach tells to “get in there and hit somebody!” His skills aren’t reduced to that, but in the same role, he is a saber where Samper is a foil. Enrique seems to believe that the first team, in this injury-ravaged time, needs a saber. There is plenty of time for he and Samper, and I suspect that the latter will be at the club long after Gumbau has moved on to his forever home in the XI of a mid-table Liga side. If Kaptoum is the New Thiago, Gumbau looks to be the New Fontas.

Aitor: Almost as exciting as Kaptoum (not coincidentally who he subbed on for), Aitor was less flashy, but every bit as dangerous. He has that unusual quality of always being around the ball and seeming to always be moving toward goal. Both of those are invaluable.

The rest of the match was Munir trying too hard, Sandro bottling another glorious chance, Mathieu being a colossus that doth bestride the Earth and Douglas not being anywhere near as terrible as his detractors would suggest, something else that Phil Schoen had the temerity to point out. Right from the start, when he bailed out the team by stopping a Villanovense break created by a sloppy Samper turnover, he showed well. There were interceptions, defensive stops and some high-quality free kicks.

That said, I can’t see any set of circumstances that will have Douglas at the club at the start of next season. Maybe he lands at Sevilla, as their sporting director, Monchi, has been very vocal in his admiration of him, on more than one occasion saying Sevilla wanted him.

The other question on many lips as the squad was announced, was why not Grimaldo? But given the player’s contract situation and very clear desire to leave the club first chance that he gets, why spend time and effort developing him or giving him first team time? As he said, he has his team and Enrique has his team. That was a messy situation that he tried to skin back by saying he was misinterpreted, but it’s almost certainly too late for that, and the ins and outs of a situation not all that well known by anyone except the directly involved.

Now the teams return to the Camp Nou for the second leg, a broad expanse of perfectly manicured pitch, where the passes roll true and nobody slips and falls when trying to plant, or stumbles over a turf seam. And Barça will win, playing lovely football probably with the same XI or close to it, and things will move on.

But for now, spare a thought for the parties that must have been on last night in that town, as local heroes were feted by an adoring local populace. They faced the glitter boys in the eye and didn’t blink, and it was glorious. The players know they don’t have a chance at the Camp Nou, and so do their supporters. But the magic of cup football, as we saw in England, is that underdogs can dream big dreams, and that is all kinds of wonderful.

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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.

8 Comments

  1. georgjorge
    October 29, 2015

    A rather accurate description of the match for me, and I must say it was great to see so many happy faces, many of them families, in the crowd. However, I disagree with one thing: Messi WOULD continue looking like a divine being even in an alley kickabout on synthetic grass ; ).

    Samper was average in the first half but really took initiative and upped his passing game in the second. I can see what excites people about him. Douglas…yes, he made a couple of interceptions, but provided nothing going forward. Also can’t see him staying beyond the season unless something shady is going on. Hope we’ll get a chance to see some of this team (Samper, Bartra, Munir, Kaptoum) in the return leg as well, maybe with some experienced players to increase their effectiveness.

  2. ciaran
    October 29, 2015

    I don’t think it has anything to do with Douglas being terrible, it’s that he really isn’t anything at all. He tries nothing and for a Brazilian he isn’t very, well… Brazilian. I don’t remember a young Brazilian full back who is so dull in possession.
    If he was 19 you could say that he has plenty of room for development but he’s in his mid twenties and looks no better than Montoya whose place he took. Still, I feel sorry for him that he got injured and is out for another 8 weeks.

    It’s hard when you drop so many youngsters in all positions around the pitch. With 2 youngsters in each line there would be at least some continuity in style of play but Lucho clearly didn’t want to play this game so getting it out of the way was all that anyone wanted.

  3. injohanveritas
    October 29, 2015

    Lucho: So, Marc Bartra, you know you are an integral part of my plans for Barcelona, right?
    Bartra: Am I, coach?
    Lucho: Yes, that is why I had you sign a huge transfer fee contract to keep you here alongside our van-load of CDs. Do you know why I yanked you off a few minutes into the second half against Eibar? To crush you. ThenI had you join the kiddie crew for the cup game. We tolerate lots of mistakes, but not defensive ones.
    Bartra: Look, the cup game was fine. Eibar, it was an offensive mistake, not exactly defense, but I take full responsibility. I controlled that high pass back just fine, but since we’ve abandoned quick passing triangles that can beat the press, our guys aren’t open for passes like they used to be. I could have blasted the ball fifty meters forward, get my EPL on, but I lost it in that spot Neymar, Messi, Busi, Masche, Ivan, and Alves have all lost it in the recent past. I take full responsibility.
    Lucho: Marc, we forgive those players, but not you. You need regular game time to get into a place where you commit fewer venal sins, but I’m never going to give it to you. I don’t want you CDs to start feeling settled and confident, not you, or Jeremy, or Thomas if he’s ever fit. Think of me like LVG without the flat face and Dutch pedigree. Did you see how I’ve handled Jeremy of late? He had a few poor games, so I crushed him, and then let him return against minnows. Thomas got to re-debut vs a 4th division side, alongside players who’s names he doesn’t know. Masterful, eh?
    Bartra: But haven’t most of our players had a run of poor games or errors here and there?
    Lucho: Yes, Marc, but you are not a zillion Euro member of The Trident. They screw up, I barely notice. But you are an inexpensive CD, and a recent La Masia product. Don’t get overconfident. Recall how we handled the Alcantara brothers? One is now injured, and one is now world class in Germany, but if they were here available to me now, who knows if I’d give them a full 90 minutes. How about Roberto? He’s so great lately I like to never play him in the same position. By the time the transfer ban is up, he’ll be back to the bench and I’ll have some new signings. And consider Sandro and Munir, see how I yank them from game situations when we could instead rest Neymar or Suarez? Confidence, my boy!
    Bartra: Not sure I follow.
    Lucho: Look, for you and Jeremy and Thomas, play like every mistake could be your last. Nervy. Unsettled. CD is my deepest position, and we were unstoppable there last year. Look how I’ve turned that around! Even Gerard and Javier are off song. How did I make it happen to every single one of you, incredible! Have you seen how nutty Wenger keeps supporting Bellerin through all of his mistakes at Arsenal? Hector might really grow into something. Lots of managers support their players as they develop. But I believe in sports psychology, and I’ve nailed it! Keep at it, Marc, you’re very important to us!

    • ciaran
      October 29, 2015

      May I ask why you think of Lucho as this evil mastermind?
      Had he no involvement in the treble?
      Had he no involvement in Rafinha’s, Sergi Roberto’s or Nolito’s rise to prominence?
      Had he no involvement in the improvement of both Pique and Mascherano last season?
      He wasn’t even at the club when Thiago left.
      He can’t be blamed for Vermaelen and the never-ending injury list of his.

      I agree that he doesn’t give Bartra enough playing time however.

    • Yaredinho
      October 30, 2015

      not sure why one has to spend his/her time…on such foolish argument…am not saying you are fool tho!

  4. luisthebeast
    October 29, 2015

    Come on Ciaran we all know the answer!Lucho gave the order to sell Thiago and to the Roma player to hurt Rafhinia!Also Lucho made magic in pre season friendlies and Bartra was poor!Lucho is the evil who want to destroy our identity that is going back to 189….erm my mistake,back to 2008 when we start play football.And what treble??There is no 2015 treble!It s an illution that Lucho created with the evil powers he have!In reality we were relegated to Segunda!We live in a fairytale and thank god so many good people want to wake up us!

    • raj
      October 30, 2015

      I read it. My sympathies with him. But you can’t hang him there as a scarecrow. Everyone decides what they think is best based on circumstances. Mistakes only get identified in hindsight.

      In case of Fran, leaving Barca for Arsenal was the correct move by logic, the Masia is filled with competition. And see, Fabregas turned out good enough! Athletico Madrid move from Arsenal could have gone either ways. He had some good performances for them. His exit wasn’t in his control if we can take his word for it. So how much of it is really bad decisions, how much is chance and how much his actual (limited) talent?

      If he had stayed at Arsenal, it was very much possible that he may have turned out to be mediocre and regressed anyways.

      All I am trying to say is that it is easy to judge using hindsight. It would be disappointing if a kid turns down a good offer, scared by this story.

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