So. Four times I watched this match. Once on a craptastic Web feed at work. Never again, I say. Again bleary-eyed at home last night, whereupon I cost myself a shiteload of sleep, banging out a screed whose vituperation would have been unmatched by any document offered up by modern man.
After the morning viewing, I calmed down a lot. After this evening’s viewing, I was even more calm, because things really weren’t that bad.
Without question, we were dire for some of the first half. Not all, but some. Yes, we were slipping all over the place. Yes, we were spraying balls to Stuttgart players as if we were the Harlem Globetrotters and they were the Washington Generals. And yes indeed, we conceded a silly, silly goal that only served to wake us up.
But from some of the post-match commentary in Web-Land, you’d have thought that we’d lost 10-0. Some were wondering if we’d lost the European glimmer, others still were predicting dire things. Yet the simple reality is that this match was almost a carbon copy of the first leg of last year’s round of 16, in which Lyon played out of their minds in the first half, that saw us decidedly funky and clunky. They were very physical, and contested every inch of the pitch in the midfield. They charged forward on break after break, and had us on the back foot. Then we grabbed an equalizer that gave us the advantage, thanks to the away goals rule, because it meant that they would have to come to our house and play to win.
And then, we had them.
Does anyone really think that Stuttgart are going to play a better half of football this season, never mind in three weeks time? Really? And further, that Guardiola is going to be stupid enough to roll out, as he did this time, with Valdes, Puyol, Marquez, Pique, Maxwell, The Yaya, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Ibrahimovic?
No. Because I think that even though, like most geniuses, he thinks he’s smarter than the rest of us, even he has to now realize that Iniesta is all but worthless on the left wing. And yet, out he came with that lineup, that tried to play football on a pitch that (I watched in high-definition) resembled a gopher playground more than a football pitch. And we gained possession, and knocked the ball around, and gave it away time and time and time and time again. Iniesta was one of the biggest culprits, as were The Yaya and Busquets, and each one sent Stuttgart off to the races.
Yes, they played well, but we were complicit in our own struggles. Stuttgart kept 10 behind the ball as they got their sea legs, a bout of uncertain early play that should have played right into our hands, was instead rewarded with incessant gifts of the ball. As Guardiola has said, we’re shit without the ball, and boy was it evident in that half. Puyol was on constant walkabout, which allowed a red carpet for Stuttgart to pass balls to our right side and charge in on the attack. And when we got the ball back, we had no width, because Iniesta was constantly pinching in toward the center, and Messi was playing in the center. Neither Puyol nor Maxwell were coming up on the attack, so we were easy as pie to defend for a side flooding the midfield with physical pressure.
Compounding matters was an amateurish defensive strategy from us that saw us chasing the ball, rather than playing men. Pausing the picture at any time during a Stuttgart attack saw 3-5 men around the ball, which means what? Favorable matchups all over the pitch that Stuttgart took advantage of, mostly because we were punks about clearing our own end.
Then it all went pear-shaped on a simple throw-in that, under the harsh light of replay, looked like a schoolboy defense how-not-to guide.
1. Busquets goes for the ball fake on the throw-in, capping off a shitty half of his. Iniesta is stationary, instead of helping pressure at the throw.
2. Pique contests the pass into space, and for the subsequent control by Stuttgart, Pique, Xavi, Busquets, The Yaya and Iniesta are all around the ball.
3. Puyol and Marquez chase the ball, watching it instead of playing spaces and men, and there are still 5 around the ball, since Iniesta has barely moved from his spot at the initial throw-in.
4. Maxwell moves to the ball, opening up a passing lane for the crosser, who lays in a beautiful ball for Cacau.
5. Puyol, done for pace and probably a little tuckered from running around like a chicken with his head cut off, gets outjumped and has a prime view of the ball going into the net.
Absurd, and our nadir for that half, a stretch of play in which we had chance after chance after chance to control, contest and clear. We almost seemed to believe our press clippings, which might explain why we never bothered to really contest for possession in the midfield, which allowed Stuttgart to send free and clear attackers into our end of the pitch, running full-tilt past our slow-ass defenders as if they were practice pylons.
But still, we woke up and began to dominate possession, push the match into their end and create opportunities. It was almost as if we said “That was their best, boys. Now let’s get ’em.” The end of the half came just in time for them, really, one in which Messi, aside from spurts of creativity and a shot that almost caught Lehmann out, sleepwalked around. Ibrahimovic was starved of service as we made it easy to play us, all because we didn’t have any width. Once Puyol and Maxwell began to move up the pitch, things turned around dramatically. Their fullbacks had to stay home more, which meant that their breaks were less effective, reducing them to popping the ball up the pitch for us to intercept and come right back at them.
And at the end of the first half you had to say that yes, we played pretty crappily, but we weren’t all that horrible, and it was only 1-0. If the ref calls that penalty on Marquez for that elbow to the attacker’s chest, we probably have some real problems.
We looked more alive in the second half as we resumed the task of playing into the match. Then when Guardiola corrected his initial error by bringing in Henry (for The Yaya), we really took control. Why? Width. On one play, we slid the ball to Henry and he drew 3 defenders. This allowed plenty of space for the pass back, and our defense through possession game continued.
Our goal was simple enough, another of those scrappers that makes me so happy we are scoring these days. Yes, I love the pretty goals as much as anyone else, but you win championships by being able to scrap goals out of nothing. And so it was that Busquets laced in a lovely ball toward Ibrahimovic, that wasn’t properly dealt with by the Stuttgart defender. It popped up into the air and Pique kept it alive. It fell to the foot of Ibrahimovic, who volleyed it directly at Lehmann. The stop was made, but the ball bounded right back to Ibrahimovic, who made no mistake the second time.
Just like that, the match turned on its head. Not only did Ibrahimovic break his knockout round scoring duck, but we were in control of the tie. On the front foot, we started pressuring them like crazy, but always in a controlled fashion. Messi came to life, and Iniesta was less horrific. We challenged in the midfield, and all was right in the world. We could have had a second goal any number of times, most notably when Messi made a run and played a perfect ball to the feet of Iniesta. But typically of the match that Ghostface was having, he whiffed on the shot.
And that was that.
In three weeks, barring anything unforeseen, Alves and Keita are back in the side, and maybe even Abidal, if the trend of players coming back early from injury continues. And does anyone really, really think that Stuttgart are going to roll into our house, on a proper pitch with almost a full and healthy side to contend with, and do anything other than go down like dogs?
Didn’t think so. Which brings us to ratings.
Team: 5. As I said, things weren’t all that bad. There were about 10-12 godawful minutes in that first half, then the ship gradually righted.
Guardiola: 4. Shame on you for not having them ready to play, and for waiting so long to realize that we needed width on the pitch. Pulling Marquez was smart, because it kept us from maybe going a man down, and brought a better defender out in Milito.
Valdes: 7. Couldn’t have done a damned thing about that goal, which was a rocket of a header from right on the doorstep. But every other time he was called upon, including right on the doorstep, he came through like a champ.
Puyol: 4. He came to life, but was still beaten like a gong every time a Stuttgart player ran at him. He’s never looked slower. Why he kept pinching toward the center is beyond me. He has to know that out-of-position players lead to pitch imbalances, which lead to scoring chances.
Marquez: 3. Dire. And getting knocked off the ball by Hleb? Really? He doesn’t have the pace to make up for the positional errors, and he was very lucky to not concede a penalty with his elbow in the box.
Pique: 7. Our best defender, who also understood the value of charging forward to create opportunities. Nice work keeping the ball alive on the Ibrahimovic goal, as well.
Maxwell: 5. Solid, but again, positional errors created problems that we just don’t have the back line pace to make up for. And attack, dude! Every time he went forward, something good happened.
The Yaya: 2. He was just terrible, spraying balls all over the place, evincing a concrete first touch and fouling. Yikes!
Busquets: 4. Unlike The Yaya, he had a chance to play himself into the match and did so with style, as he really calmed down from the casually playing nit of the first half. And Sergi, never head a ball again. Whenever you do, something bad happens for us.
Xavi: 5. Strong, once he got some help. Iniesta returning to his side made him and our midfield so much better, as suddenly everyone had more time to play passes. The dwelling on the ball that got us in such trouble in the first half, stopped.
Iniesta: 3. Horrifying first half marked by giveaway after giveaway, and sleepwalking play that really hampered our battling for possession. Yes, he played better at Xavi’s side, but not better enough to overcome being dragged by his terrible general play.
Messi: 4. Came alive, but should have been doing so much more. The value of a well-times pass is devastating, particularly when the defense is playing you to keep running for the goal. So surprise us, and dish. Every time he did, we had a great chance.
Ibrahimovic: 5. If a striker is starved of service, he can’t strike. Once we started playing him the ball, his game improved. Hell of a goal, and I absolutely love that he came in and stood up for Messi after a shameful (but necessary) foul.
Henry (for The Yaya): 4. Again, he was starved of service, making the beginnings of a run time and again, only to stop when the ball wasn’t coming his way. But even his presence on the pitch really opened things up for us. Very beneficial substitution.
Milito (for Marquez): 7. Excellent match, with strong tackles, smart passes and the kind of physical play that makes people think about charging into our end. Another tip-top personnel decision from Guardiola.