What is luck? Barça drew at Villarreal, a result that in many circles set off a blizzard of recrimination and assertions that the team dropped points. In some more extreme quarters of social madia the vitriol abounded. But it’s important to understand how the Liga standings look right now:
Barca: 76 points
Atleti: 67 points
RM: 66 points
There are 8 matches left in the Liga season. For Barça to let its lead slip, the team that is on a now 39-match unbeaten run would have to lose three of its last eight matches, assuming Atleti runs the table. Even then, Barça wins the head-to-head tiebreaker. So really, Barça would have to lose four of its last eight matches, which would be an epic, magisterial, volcanic collapse.
Barça went into an away ground, El Madrigal, where the following teams have lost: Madrid, Atletico, Sevilla, Athletic. Until subs were made, moves that made perfect sense tactically, Barça was rolling along. Villarreal did what opponents usually do, but aside from the shock to the system less than a minute in, things were looking like (deep breath) a win. So what happened?
Well, it depends on who you ask. This space was an oasis of calm, a refreshing alternative to tumult of Barça Twitter. Because what happened, essentially, is the same thing that almost invariably happens when Barça let in goals: mistakes were made. Let’s break ’em down.
Goal No. 1
This one was crucial because it gave Villarreal life at a time when they desperately needed it. As Luis Enrique once said, when the team analyzes goals, they usually find that it’s a collective rather than an individual failing. And so it began, with a shambles of possession on the right sideline. A recent failing of Alves is that he is too fond of the ball. In the time that he took to control and caress, rather than just one-timing for Rakitic who was running into space, Alves was closed down by a Villarreal player, who deflected the ball into the air.
Alves dutifully chases the header, he and Busquets close down and the loose ball falls, fortuitously, to a Villarreal player who did what Alves should have, which was one-time it to a teammate who was in acres of space. He slides it to Denis Suarez who, on the dead run, evades a mistimed Mascherano tackle effort. Mathieu comes to the aid of Mascherano instead of looking around to cover any loose men. Had he done that, he would have spied, with his own little eye, Bakambu, running free. And he would probably have been able to block the shot, or clear the rebound. Instead Bakambu stabbed home, Mathieu looked bewildered and Mascherano looked frustrated at having missed the tackle on Suarez.
It’s easy to say that Pique would have made some kind of difference, that the Barça defense was funky when he went off, but it’s hard to say whether Pique would have been able, as a right-sided CB, to do much to prevent that goal that was, in effect, a comedy of errors. Garbage in, garbage out isn’t just for technology departments.
Goal No. 2
This one was a whole lot easier, really. It comes down to pressure, and what makes players make the decisions that they do. Villarreal was on the attack, rushing pell-mell into the Barça box. A cross fell to the feet of Busquets, who inexplicably pushed it out for a corner. Yes, there was a man rushing at him that he probably saw. Perhaps he determined that his team has given up precious few goals off corners this season, so that was a safe play. Perhaps he got the yips, even as Phil Schoen, on the match call, suggested that Busquets was the calmest man on the pitch.
On the ensuing corner the ball deflected off Mathieu, who committed the cardinal sin of standing there when the ball hit him. He didn’t kick it, or head it, or do anything at all, except stand there. Damn him! Couldn’t he have been standing somewhere else? Well, no, because we can presume that he was watching for runners from center, a task for which he was perfectly placed. It was just simple bad luck.
Barça had a couple of other chances to put the match away still, including an excellent late chance as Mascherano made a run, dribbled and laid a perfect pass to Suarez who banged his volley wide, capping off a match that makes the above picture rather appropriate, as he was the missing part of MSN. And yes, Messi, though evincing flashes of brilliance, was also less than his stellar self, even as Neymar quite clearly came to play.
Villlarreal is, it’s safe to say, was one of the last remaining difficult matches for Barça this season. Even if you had to crane your neck and stretch your head as far as possible, it would be difficult to find four losses in the team’s run in to the end of the season. Next is the Classic, a match that will be treated with vastly more importance than it in fact has because it’s Barça v RM. Truth of the matter is that it will be after the international break and if RM win, Barça will still have a 7-point lead over them and 6 over Atleti, assuming that they also win. So what?
As tempting as it is to suggest that this Barça, now on a 39-match unbeaten run is flawless, there are many flaws, some of which were manifested today. Arda Turan, despite his fine outing, is still a rather significant step down from Iniesta. Yes, the Turk is rounding into form but he still lacks the instinctive Barça notion of keeping the ball moving. Against a pressing Villarreal, this got him into trouble a few times. He will learn that he can do more with less. Receive and give, keep it moving.
The comfort that the team has on the ball can be exploited by a quick, physical, pressing opponent. If Alves just shuttles that ball on to Rakitic (something Sergi Roberto probably would have done), that first goal doesn’t happen. But it’s instinct for a ball-playing team to want the ball at its feet. In many ways, it was having that instinct drilled out that made the Guardiola teams so difficult to play. Pam, pam, pam, pam. The ball hardly ever stopped, and if it did you heard about it from the coach. Luis Enrique allows more freedom, more opportunity for a player to wait for a run to materialize, or dribble into space with an eye toward unleashing Messi, Neymar or Suarez. Sometimes, that doesn’t work, as today. Sometimes, goals result from that mistake. Because in football, things happen all the time.
Space sometimes can work against a team, so the same openness that allowed the team to move Villarreal around in possession in the first half, becomes a running lane when possession is turned. The value of having the ball has not diminished from coach to coach. Barça is still crap without the ball, something that is true of most teams.
Context is important when considering the “dropped points” part of an equation such as today’s match. Barça is the best team in the world, and is supposed to win every match that it plays because of that exalted status. In real life, opponents have something to say about that. Is a dropped point at a ground where every top team in La Liga has been beaten, really thus? Good question. Here’s another one: Should we be all that concerned about a team that hasn’t lost a match in almost 6 months? Yes, there is the culer necessity to always see doom, and the Liga championship isn’t over until it is mathematically impossible for Barça to lose it. Yet the question stands.
Barça had some bad luck, and some good luck. They were lucky not to have conceded in the first minute, lucky that Pique handball, the proper one, wasn’t spotted by a ref who was, to be generous, shitty. They got lucky on the penalty call for the second goal, a bang-bang play that wasn’t all that clear even after watching many replays. A more neutral observer would say that they were lucky to get a point, that it was a gained point rather than two dropped ones, as Villarreal wasn’t interested in messing about today. Streaks involve luck, and good usually outstrips bad.
The Neymar penalty was an interesting example of this, and also the kind of penalty that culers used to scoff at when RM were given them, but here’s the thing about penalties: you have to be there to win them. As Barça was making elegant curlicues, deciding to mosey into the box from time to time, the opportunities to win penalties were scarce. These days, with Neymar and Suarez treating the box as this magnet to which they are drawn. danger is always present. Neymar took the pass and knocked it past the keeper, who in the perfect vision of the replay, got ball at the exact nanosecond as player. So what’s the correct call there, and did Barça get lucky?
Luck is sometimes made as Rakitic found out in knocking home the first goal, as a Barça set piece resulted in a bit of chaos. The ball fell to the feet of the Croatian midfielder, who made no mistake. Luck? Who knows where a ball is going to fall, right? And yet, by following the play, Rakitic was where he needed to be. Luck is like a contest. You have to be in it to win it. For 39 matches now, Barça have been good, even when being just good enough. They have also been lucky, but even that state is born of quality.