Barça 2, Depor 2, aka “Just like last year, but not”

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.

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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.

16 Comments

  1. ChaoticReaper
    December 12, 2015

    Neymar should win Ballon D’Or. Won the same titles as Messi and scored nearly every time it mattered. Then led Barca to their best form ever WITHOUT Messi and 4-0”d Madrid at the Bernabeu.

    • barca96
      December 12, 2015

      H

    • barca96
      December 12, 2015

      How fickle of you. Two great months doesn’t outweigh one great season (Messi).

    • ChaoticReaper
      December 13, 2015

      Neymar had an amazing season. Opened the scoring against Atleti at the Calderon, opened the scoring against Real at the Bernabeu, Scored against PSG, scored twice against Neuer at the Allianz, scored in the CL final

  2. luisthebeast
    December 12, 2015

    I dont worry.We will win everything!Patience!Full trust the coach and the team!

  3. Davour
    December 12, 2015

    I’m sorry, but what? Hey has been great this fall, and he was very good last season, too. But he has raised his level recently; last season he was miles behind Messi. Did you see the games against Man C and Bayern? Nobody is close the level Messi displayed; he drove the entire team. Ney only now is beginning to do this proper. Next year for him, if he keeps it up. He should definitely be second now, however, for what it’s worth.

    And thanks for the article. Painful loss of points, a real waste. There was, to me, a slightly nonchalant attitude to the team – as if this was a walk, and Depor made clear it was no such thing. Seems the players reacted appropriately afterwards.

    • Davour
      December 12, 2015

      This was in response to chaoticreaper… sorry.

  4. Valdemar II
    December 13, 2015

    Disclaimer: my football IQ drops when watching low quality streams. But there were two things I could not figure out. Why was Mathieu playing so high up the field? Too few men. We lacked coverage for both goals. And why were Alba and Rakitic not rested against Leverkusen? The decision to play them in that dead game cost us 2 league points.

  5. Cyclops
    December 13, 2015

    ‘Its all seems so familiar”… You bet.
    After Valencia’s match i was Livid, after Levekusen, i was Fuming, after these lates debacle, i’m just indifferent.. An belive you me thats the dangerous of them all

    After the Spanish super cup disaster, the players came out with ‘ we’ve learnt our lessons..bla bla’.. but i didnt bought it, i was like, yea yeah, you’ve learnt your lessons, but thats untill its happens again.
    The only thing preventing the last three results from going beyond draws, is simply the quality of the opponent. Swap leverkusen or Depor for Celta of last two months, and you wouldnt rule out another 4:1 bashing.

    Against Valencia, for stretches in that game, valencia practically spray the ball around with lil pressure from barca. Against leverkusen, they upped that performance, and for practically the whole match, leverkusen didnt met much resistance in moving the ball around. people be like, thats a dead rubber game, and i’m like yeah right. and graciously Depor validated that.. I mean, the pressing was non-existent, it was shocking. i was horrified seeing barca retreat into their half each time Depor got the ball. Midfield play dropped exponentially. Time and Time again they’d scamper hither and thither trying to defend Depor attack.

    You say the Subs cost us the game, i say its been coming all game long, LE simply graciously lend a helping hand. I just couldn’t belive how disjointed the team was, lethargic and unimaginative plays all game long. Simple thing is as pointed out, The team aint doing what it does before, and hence the bad results.

    Brings me to the subs, firstly, who the hell would substitute Raki rather than Iniesta? Ini was clearly running out of ideas with every secs that passed..
    And then i just wonder, over time how many points has Playing Mathieu in LB caused us, and just how many more would it cost us. LE could try answering that question in his nexy Presser….
    Finally, its now real clear how much these whole MSN thingy influences the tactical system of the team at its best. But then someone would say, Messi was out and we cope just fine, well that would bring us back to the collective play of the team, it’s been terrible. Just let the team do what its supposed to do, and every thing would fall in place…

    • Jim
      December 13, 2015

      I agree with some of this, although not the suggestion of taking off Iniesta rather than Rakitic.

      From Barcastuff: Iniesta completed 52 passes in the final third against Deportivo, more than any other player in a game this Liga.

      To be fair to Rakitic I thought it was asking a bit much for him to play after midweek but he took his goal well and passing was more accurate than midweek when it was generally awful. You’re right though. The midfield as a whole needs to be able to control the game better.

  6. Jim
    December 13, 2015

    Hmm, another sore one.. I was sitting there thinking that this was one of the worst opposing teams I had seen this season with no discernible plan ( they sat in but left at least two up front who didn’t seem to pressure much at all.). When our second went in I remember thinking well at least that’s the two points safe, now for subs. I guess that’s what our guys thought as well but the slackness was there pretty much from the start. I’d like to buy the angle that we were tired but what have our starters been doing this week ? No, as a player if you have seven days off you should be itching to go.

    Because attitude was pretty much a team issue I’m not gonna dwell on that so much other than to say the flowing football the three matches just a few weeks ago was gone. Mental rather than physical ? Maybe, but I think it started as conservation mode and grew from there. The problem is that as you are content to let them win second balls their confidence grows and they can become a changed team. Still hard to blame our guys as I was thinking exactly as they were, that the match was over and we pass our way to three points. Maybe I should write a scathing review about my attitude on the couch when we’re two up . . .

    However, I must take issue with the description of the goals. Having watched it again today ( there must be better ways to spend a quiet Sunday like cleaning the loos or something) my take is somewhat different.

    Goal 1. I was gonna start by. Bleating on about how Mathieu. Isn’t a LB. and never will be but that’s kinda irrelevant if he wants to play at Barca. He was literally just on the pitch but again you have to come on ready. However, the header was his first touch of the ball and NO way on earth was that ever a ball to chest down. For a start his feet were off the ground it was so high. Kxevin, have you ever tried to chest down a ball that high ? The very least that happens is that it takes much longer to come down which, given there is an opponent three yards away is suicide. That’s assuming perfect control less than thirty seconds after coming on? No blame to Matthieu there, at all. He did as he should which was, given that there was no easy open player to pass to he headed it forward and into the air , the slow trajectory giving his team mates time to get goal side. Next Pique. His positioning looks good to me. He is covering the thirty yard gap in the heart of our defence, hedging his bets between the guy who gets it and the left winger making a run across the front of Alves. Not his man anyway. It’s Mascherano’s who is making th defending difficult by sticking to what should be Matthieu’s man instead of moving in a bit although Matthieu could still have been tighter. So Pique doesn’t. “lunge in” . He sticks out a foot but can’t reach the ball ( which seems to bounce back off him – not exactly sure) . Still no trouble for us as Masche is quite rightly moving out towards the guy. All he has to do is shepherd the guy across the area but he ( not for the first time in his life!) impulsively tries to win the ball. By moving far too far to his right opening up the channel for the pass behind him. Matthieu at that point initially tries to play the runner offside by moving out then realising that’s not working is too late to catch him. Sorry, but if we want to throw brickbats here the main one goes to Masche with Matthieu maybe an honourable runner up .

    Goal 2. Yes, it was started by Busi. Some quick observations. The guy came straight out and blamed himself. Class. Secondly, it wasn’t that much of a lazy ball. The problem was that it wasn’t a great pass from SR and left him with an awkward angle for the pass. He had to open his body very quickly to hit it and as we all know if you do that and don’t get it exactly right the ball leaves the ground and travels less distance and more slowly. Thirdly, the guy gets a complete pass from me as he hardly ever makes mistakes like this and won’t for another couple of centuries. However, . . . . ..

    We are stretched but not in trouble. SR has done a great job to match the run of his man and has him under control. Pique is well goal side of his man and you have to think he’ll deal with that. Masche ignores the free man running into our box entirely to go over and cover Pique. Great if you’re spare but Masche wasn’t . He also manages to get his body turned entirely the wrong way so rather than face the action he’s basically pointing towards his own goal and the scorer gets a free run in on goal. Btw, great finish ! Now, you’d have thought that. LE or the defensive staff would have had a word with Masche after last week’s similar episode when he chose to double team with Pique rather than cover the runner. You can’t afford to do this if you’re needed elsewhere. Assume your colleague will do his job – and do yours. The only thing I will say in Masche’s defence is look at the starting position of the two FBs. They are half way into the opponent’s half rendering them useless if there is a turnover. I’m fed up beating this drum but why are they both up at the same time time at such a stage in this game where Depor are starting to come to life ? It really isn’t hard to look at where your other FB is. Matthieu actually puts in a sprint and a half to get back but from a hopeless position. Not his fault though. This has been drummed into them.

    So, we lost two bad goals and I’m gonna say it again, despite the fact that I know some don’t like to hear it and some won’t want to believe it. Masche is too often at the catalyst for things going wrong in defence. He should not be. pique’s regular partner, any more than Matthieu makes a great LB. there was a perfect example in the first minute of the second half when he fresh aired a tackle on the half way line that he didn’t have to attempt. Luckily on that occasion Jorda Alba wasn’t too far up, ( see where I’m going with this ? ) put on the afterburners and the situation was resolved safely. Although I’m having (another) go at Masche I’m not saying he can’t play CB well. He put together a string of decent performances towards the end of last season where I would say he hardly put a foot wrong. It just doesn’t come naturally to him to think about anything other than winning the ball back no matter what the danger or who he leaves in trouble at the back.

    Anyway, just my tuppenceworth. Despite the disappointment of yesterday I’m still. (pleasantly ) worried about the accuracy of my pre season prediction that we would win nothing because of a non existent midfield and injuries to the front three. We have played some decent football in the midfield and handled Mesi’s injury better than I thought we might, thanks partly to Neymar. I’m not in the slightest concerned about the world club champ so I’d be happy to see Neymar go home for Christmas now and not muck about with a groin injury. Was it groin or leg muscle anyway?

  7. dl
    December 13, 2015

    Another ‘good’ loss — keeps the guys honest and the league a bit more interesting. Really, if everything just flowed like water, where would the drama be? I’ll defer to my betters in the analysis of why the goals happened (Masche, again, per Jim) but I’ll stick by Masche as long as he can walk onto a field — there’s no other guy I’d like to have my back than him. Well, maybe Busquets. Odd how fandom works, eh? Great group of kids and a wonderful team and I just love ’em to death, from quite a distance of course.

  8. georgjorge
    December 13, 2015

    I thought our draw was frustrating, but imagine conceding a goal in the ninth minute and then spending the rest of the match fruitlessly trying to score one of your own, like a certain team in white did just now…

  9. luisthebeast
    December 13, 2015

    Well either we agree that La Liga is a very difficult championship or we blame the team every time!We won away against the second and third team and we will play them at Camp Nou in second round!It s human to relax after a 2-0 and with the mind in Japan!As Ramzi pointed out in twitter(i wish he had the time and will to comment here or post something here)we must enjoy the team!!!After a treble we are top of La Liga,in the 16 of CL and Cup without transfers with bad preseason and with Leo out for 2 Months!!The coaching stuff and the players deserve huge credit!!I feel very optimist about this season!!!

  10. FinallyCrushingBuses
    December 13, 2015

    I listened to the game on Barca Radio on the official phone app. It was “deja vu all over again” as Deportiva caught up. Groan. The announcer said “Matteo” had made a mistake soon after he came on for Alba. I was wondering who he was talking about, then I realized he was talking about Mathieu.

  11. Cyclops
    December 14, 2015

    Well Jim, 52 Passes hardly tells you anything, hardly tells you the right thing.
    Thing with stats is there are kind of Finite…occuring alongside Infinte Events. So you’ve got a Thousand and one Events occuring with the same Stats. 52 passes could mean a player practically shutting down a game. 52 passes could also mean a player doing nothing more than that, where the Passes themselves in the Final Third were as dangerous as my Chihuahua. Really 52 passes it just what is for me; 52 Passes..gotta analyxe the game to glean more facts, if i want

    And doing that, the claim that Raki was fatigue beggars belief.. Man, the team didn’t played nothing against leverkusen, they might as well have been all cozy and tucked in their duvet that night, wouldnt have made much difference.
    If there was ever anything like seeing a Match Through, thats what they did…
    And i would wager a bet that recently Ini has gooten more minutes under his belt than Raki, and as you alluded to he seemed to be having a better game as opposed to midweek, while Ini’s play was regressing- at the closing stages of the game Take note…
    And what this thing, about screaming players are fatigue just after every One Games, its getting too frequent..there are pros for crying out loud
    Raki being fatigue, hell no, aint buying that…Look at Ini circumspectly as that game wore on, IMHO he looks to be the one Fatigued. Sure right from kick off midfield play was lacking, but at the dying stages of that game, it practically dissapeared, and i’d assure you Ini had a Mammoth hand in that.. He wasn’t doing much wrong, but he wasn’t doing much Right either- at the dying stages of the game..and doing nothing much Right, and doing wrong the couple important things he had to do, made the entire play more tiring.

    The claim about Mashe, i’d reallly like to believe that, wouldn’t want to belive that you are actually picking out on him( dont see any sane reason why you would want to) But ah, believing that means a lot of things, and A Lot Of Things are scary…
    I honestly dont think Masche is the perfect CB, but didn’t think he’s that bad either. But if he is, well i’d gotta find out for meself

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