It all seems so familiar, Barça strolling out to a 2-0 lead against Deportivo at home, then succumbing to a late equalizer, but the two matches couldn’t have been more different.
In many ways it’s funny because had Barça not been more preoccupied with the Xavi party last season, Depor wouldn’t even be in the first division.
Depor came into the Camp Nou in a fight for a European position, a team that Enrique warned about in his presser. They defend well, attack quickly and can finish chances. And yet when Barça strolled out to a 2-0 lead courtesy of a pair of excellent strikes, first from a Messi free kick and then a Rakitic rocket from midfield, it was assumed that as the team was in the thick of a Liga battle with two worthy rivals, things would be different this time. And they were, even as the result was the same.
Even as Barça was comfortable at 2-0 and rolling, the complexities were clear, even before the match. Busquets has more miles in his legs than a horse about to be put out to stud, and Suarez has been in a trough of late. To boot, there was no real way to get attacking flair from the left side, and Barça has been of late exhibiting a tendency to lose control of matches late. It happened at Leverkusen as well, even with a different cast of characters.
Perhaps the pertinent question here is how good can a team be to allow for individual mistakes. Well, a lot better than Barça, who are at present the best team in world football. This was a match that was in perfect control until two things happened on the pitch, both of which are easily dissected.
— Jeremy Mathieu, on at LB for Jordi Alba, headed a ball away that he should have, as he had plenty of time to, played to his feet. From that point, it’s easy to pick an outlet pass, or play it back to Bravo. A header, when a player has time to play it to feet is not only lazy, but fraught with danger because you can’t really control where a defensive header will land. Against an aggressive, pressing opponent, that is a recipe for danger.
But even after Depor got the ball and started the attack, a number of things still had to happen, and did. Pique lunged in and missed the tackle, which meant that he was out of position. Mascherano guessed wrong and just nibbled at the clearance, which meant that he, too, was out of position. Mathieu sauntered back, not really covering anyone. As the player with the freshest legs and the most pace, this was very poor. We have seen him before come speeding in to make the last-ditch challenge. This time, he was a spectator. The value of a man rushing back also makes it easy for the keeper, who doesn’t have to try to guess at all of the angles.
That goal didn’t just give Depor hope, but it exposed Barça. All the things that were happening to create the situation in which the team was dropping gaudy scorelines on opponents, aren’t happening any longer. Collective, controlled play is absent, the midfield is a collection of open spaces instead of the interconnected whole that it was during the run of great form, and form has dropped off, individually and collectively. Alba was poor, Suarez was crap, Sandro was ineffective, etc, etc. Barça as a team is a collection of individually closing circuits. If any wire is shorted, the whole thing doesn’t work. It’s the beauty and the curse of Barça football.
— The second goal was an egregious error from the most reliable player on the team, Busquets, who inexplicably played a long, lazy pass that was easily picked off by a Depor attacker. In the first half, with fresher legs, maybe the defense closes down quickly enough. Late in a match, it wasn’t going to happen. Mascherano fell back off the attacker, who curled a remarkable finish inside the far post. But what choices did Mascherano have? Charge the attacker and he rounds you, leaving Bravo a sitting duck. Sit back and play him for the very difficult shot is a less-risky proposition. He hit the shot, and that was that.
The thing about both mistakes is that they gave the opponent the ball in an area of the pitch that is dangerous for Barça, a team whose CBs function more like DMs. They are pressed up, and a midfield turnover/fast counterattack will always find the back line exposed. It’s a function of the system. When an opponent builds from the back, the ball is always in front of the Barça defenders, which makes it much more manageable. Turnovers in midfield are recipes for disaster.
For yet another match, the team forgot to do the things that make it go, sliding back into early-season Barça. Fatigue? They got plenty of rest, with key players not having gotten a run-out against Leverkusen. Brain cramps? Maybe. Or maybe, some might speculate, the third consecutive draw has come from a series of unfortunate events, all having to do with a group whose form will be up and down. What Enrique will probably mind more than the draw is how the draw came about, as Barça listlessly allowed Depor back into the match through individual, preventable errors. While the team doesn’t have to play perfect football to win, it can’t screw up that badly either, particularly against a quality opponent. Cordoba makes the wrong kinds of decisions with the ball, doesn’t have the players with the quality to finish good chances. Not so with Depor, and a 2-2 is the result.
As a unit, Barça needs a break, even as it now has to jet off to Japan to take part in the Club World Cup. A mess of a pre-season had the team coming into form late, then losing Messi for two months meant more dysfunction, particularly for a group that was still struggling to come into form with Messi in the lineup. It’s easy to forget that the team hit the rockets while Messi was recovering.
The Neymar knock was another poorly timed injury for Barça. Just as Sergi Roberto would have been very useful against Valencia, Neymar would have been very useful against Depor. The left side of attack was a desert, which made the task of defending easier. Suarez isn’t going to beat you 1v1, which means that you can mark him loosely until he gets the ball, focusing everything on Messi. It’s why the second goal was such an open shot for Rakitic. Depor was defending the danger guys.
The value of Neymar to the team has never been more clear. Something else that has been clear is the need to find a way to replicate what Busquets does with enough regularity to keep from running him into the ground. Presumably, the other CBs could be used so that Mascherano could slide forward into the role he plays for his national team, but between injuries and form, that hasn’t been a viable possibility as often as we can presume Enrique would have liked.
All that said, at absolute worst, Barça will end the weekend tied for first place with Atleti. Anyone who figured that a six-point lead was going to be enough for the team to sashay through the rest of the season, hasn’t been paying attention. For all of the talk about the Premiership being a competitive cauldron in which anything can happen, people have forgotten about the overall quality of La Liga. Minnows are forever thus, but the quality of the teams in the middle of the table is very high, more than sufficient to capitalize on a top team having a bit of form slip, or making silly mistakes.
None of this means the Liga is lost (even as I predicted Atleti to win this year). It means that in the world of biorhythms that govern individual and collective performances, Barça is in something of a trough at present. And even as there is some bemoaning of the quality of the subs, who subs for three of the best players in world football? Yes, there is a quality gulf between Neymar and Sandro, for example, a gulf into which a legit player can enter. But who wants to come and sit on the bench? Players who are potential transfers look at substitution patterns. If a coach doesn’t sit players who occupy your position, why would you go to that team? Victory parades. Players want to play. Players of the quality necessary to not see that large a dropoff from XI to subs, want to start. It’s the nature of the beast.
But the bottom line is that the watch phrase of this season was always “Hang on until January.” The team has done better than that. Most likely, it will enter the period when Aleix Vidal and Arda Turan come available with a share of the top of the table in the Liga, and in the knockout stages of the Champions League. Perspective changes a lot, but if anyone had given the Barçaverse that scenario coming into the season, it would have been gleefully accepted.