Barca 2, Maulaga 1, aka “Villarato?! Say what now?”

I did it again. Sweet!

This game, this beautiful game of ours that we play oh, so well, is about doing the right things with the ball. Seems simple, right?

It certainly should be, given that we have so many players with such incomparable skill on the ball.

But we spent much of our well-deserved win today doing the wrong things with the ball. And it was easy to tell when we did the right things, because the ball went into the net in a match in which Maulaga didn’t stop us from scoring, as much as we stopped ourselves from scoring. Despite all of the exquisite football that was so much fun to watch, too much of the time it was like noshing on one of the best meals of your life, only to break a tooth on the last bite.

Yes, I love the footy that we played today, make no mistake about it. But in that first half in which we should have, by rights, had at least two goals, we thwarted ourselves by holding the ball too long and being too easy to play because of it. Yes, everybody loves Messi’s runs, right? But with each step that he takes, we become easier to play because as he gets closer and closer to goal his options are reduced to the point where he has but two options: a shot with 3-4 men in front of him, or a bailout pass with 2-3 men cutting off angles behind him.

So nothing happens.

Iniesta does his lovely little ball controlling dance toward the end line, and you can see the defenders saying to themselves “Just keep going,” because not only is the end line now another defender, but where is he going to go with the ball, with two men in front of his only passing option?

Guardiola rolled out our “joga bonito” lineup of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Maxwell, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro! and Ibrahimovic. It was obvious that passing, ball movement and overall match quality were going to be paramount against a Malaga side that, frankly, was hoping to steal a draw. And we started out rather tentatively, almost as if we were remembering how it was to pass the ball on a pitch that didn’t have chunks missing. We had all of the possession, all of the attacking and no shots on goal.

But again, you could see the wrong decisions piling up:

–Busquets holds the ball too long, dicking around with it in the midfield, then overhits a pass that goes out of bounds.
–Alves passes the ball to a clearly offside Ibrahimovic, because …. he wasn’t going to magically be on. So why pass?
–Ibrahimovic stopped a run that he should have continued, and Iniesta laid in a lovely rainbow pass, thinking that he would.
–Messi, on a breakaway, decided to shoot instead of passing to Ibrahimovic for the easy-peasy tap in.
–Ibrahimovic intercepted a pass that was for the streaking Messi, then scuffs a shot over the top of the net.

Viewed in aggregate, it was no wonder the first half played directly into the hands of a side who were just hoping for a result, wasting all the time that it could, and fouling when they couldn’t kill any more time. A simple yellow card for time-wasting would have fixed all of that, but the official chose not to give it, so Maulaga chose to keep wasting time. And why not? As long as they had the ball, we couldn’t kill them.

We were almost playing a waiting game, thinking to ourselves “They can’t keep chasing the ball the entire match, and at some point, we’re in.” But you know what? They could, and did keep chasing the ball the entire match, and almost salvaged a draw. It’s what happens when you give teams life by not making the correct decisions with the ball.

I know, I know: “Dammit Kxevin, we played so wonderfully today, why do you have to go and screw it all up by being negative and stuff?” 😀

Sorry, but it’s just what I see.

Yes, we were in full, absolute control of this match, with our defenders mostly in the roles of sweepers. Even the rare Malaga set pieces weren’t at all threatening, except for one early, monster free kick that Valdes made a killer save on. But when they had the ball, we closed down in the midfield at the point of the attack and, more importantly, also considered the options. This made regaining possession very easy, and we resumed our command/control picking at the lock.

So it was probably a surprise to everyone in the building that the goal came from a long-range rocket of a shot, right? I was stunned. Because Pedro! took the pass and began moving toward the goal. You could see the defenders begin to drift back, playing him to either continue the run or make a pass to someone, because Barca never shoots from outside, right? Never. The keeper was shading toward the middle, ready to play the pass to a player bombing into the box. Pedro! looked up, said what the hell, and let fly. His form was perfect, his body over the ball and it smoked past the keeper on the near side. It was one hell of a golazo, and was also an example of doing the right thing with the ball.

Shots from distance are only speculative if you are far from goal, and are facing a team playing sound defense. In the case of the run of Pedro!, that shot was the exact right thing to do with the ball, because nobody was expecting it.

But to their credit, Malaga played tough, waiting for the one moment, the opportunity that always, always comes during a match. And when it came, they took full advantage of it.

It all began with a stupid, stupid Busquets header (despite me telling him to never, ever head a ball again …. sheesh!) that went at pace directly to a Malaga player. His pass found four of us playing the ball, apparently with nobody thinking “Hey, a slick little one-touch to an open runner would gut us like a Chliean sea bass.”

Which was what happened. Valdes froze, rather than charging out to cut off the shooting angles, and voila, the match was tied. Unjustly yes, but it was sure as hell tied.

Now usually, I worry about that sort of thing, but this match felt very different to me, because it wasn’t that we weren’t creating chance after chance after chance, it was just those decisions with the ball that were screwing things up. And we were showing signs that we were doing the right thing, so the bit of magic that resulted in the winning goal was inevitable. But it didn’t make the sequence any less glorious:

–Messi smacked a loose pass to Ibrahimovic.
–Ibrahimovic controlled it and sent it right to Pedro!
–Pedro! one-touched it back to Ibrahimovic.
–who one-touched it right back to Pedro!

At this point, the ball is pinging around and the defense is getting lopsided to that side of the pitch. Then ….

–Pedro! pops it to Busquets, who actually dwelled on the ball longer than anyone else in this sequence.
–Busquets slid it to Xavi, who paused for a second ….
–Then slid a ball to Alves on a perfectly timed run that found him wide open, and loose in the box.
–He knocked off the easy-as-pie square ball to Messi, who slotted home for the winner.

We’ve scored many goals this season, but that was one of the goals that turned back the clock to last season, when ball movement was the key. People talk about what’s different this year, blame various players and say Eto’o would have done this, or that. But it all comes down to ball movement. We were banging in the goals because of ball movement and sound decisions with the ball. When we play our one-touch game, there is always somebody running around loose, waiting to receive the ball and raise hell.

Just as critically, every player made the right decision with the ball.

Now, what should have been our third goal was one more example of doing the right thing with the ball, as Pique spotted a fresh-legged Krkic in space and making the run. He popped a perfect pass to Cuddly Toy, who bamboozled his defender and scurried into the box. But rather than making the wrong decision, which would have been to cut toward goal and try some contested shot, he slid the ball to Ibrahimovic, who made the lung-busting run to present the option. Ibrahimovic tapped home from between two Malaga players and it was 3-1, right?

Wrong. He was ajudged to have fouled on the play, an absurd call in light of the chippy nonsense that Maulaga was getting away with, in living up to that side’s derisive nickname. And Weligton (who else?) sold the foul like a champion. The ESPN Deportes announcers were as stunned as the rest of us that the goal was taken away, and having watched it time and again, I still am. Generally, you don’t call a foul in the box unless it either impedes an offensive player’s right of play, or a defender’s right of play. Ibrahimovic can be forgiven for thinking that he appears to be playing under a different set of rules. Yes, there was contact, but the players were leaning into him, and it came just as he was striking the ball, rather than him having bowled over players to get to ball.

Whatever. We won, and maintained our 2-point lead over That Other Spanish Team. And we did so playing marvelously, with much of the grace and style that epitomizes how we approach the game. The biggest reason for that was width, in the form(s) of Pedro! and Alves, whose marauding play made it suddenly a very dangerous proposition to flood the center of the pitch, waiting for Xavi or Busquets to make an error. Width creates space, and playing space makes us unbeatable.

Word.

Team: 7. Even with the boneheaded decisions with the ball at key moments, an excellent match all around. Help was abundant, sometimes to bad effect, as with the goal. And they were all ready to play today.

Guardiola: 8. Right lineup, good substitution. People talking about using Busquets instead of The Yaya, but with our man mountain having just come back from injury, and been festering crap against Stuttgart, he was due a rest.

Valdes: 7. He was on a nice run of form, and that save off the free kick was a delight. But his usual alacrity in shutting down an attacker and relying on his reflexes, failed him on the goal as he stood there, waiting to die.

Alves: 8. Man, was it good to have our Brazilian Hummingbird back. Anyone wondering how important he is to the side need wonder no longer. Yes, he popped in some speculative balls, but sometimes, what he’s doing with those balls is saying “They’re coming in, so get in there.” Our attackers were lax in doing so.

Pique: 7. Didn’t have a ton to do, and nice hustle on the Malaga goal. If Valdes had charged the attacker, Pique had the back door closed. Marquez-quality pass to Krkic, late in the match.

Puyol: 6. His touch was rather funky on offense, and he seemed a little out of sorts today. He should have been the backstop covering the pass on that goal, too. You can forgive the other guys there getting taken in, but not him.

Maxwell: 7. Another very solid match for a player who is rapidly improving with reps, as we all suspected. He’s staying home more with Alves going crazy on the right, which ain’t a bad thing given that he doesn’t have Abidal’s pace.

Busquets: 7. Very good match in his destroyer/facilitator’s role. But he has to understand when he has time, and what to do with the ball. I know he was thinking, on that header, of sending it right back into the mixer. But he had time to play the ball down, and pass with his feet for more accuracy.

Xavi: 10. A transcendent effort from my Man of the Match. And I’m sorry, but that dribbling/ball control exhibition in the 23rd minute of the first half was staggering. The back-to-goal shot was another moment of brilliance, as well as that jaw-dropping pass to Alves for the assist on the second goal. Apparently he’s healthy again, because he was amazing. Yes, Deportes named Messi MOTM. They’re crazy.

Iniesta: 6. Uncertain play on the wing coupled with questionable control to make this not one of Ghostface’s best matches. And I see that the force field is back up, which has to be the only reason that he didn’t score the goal off that quickly taken set piece.

Messi: 6. He played to a higher score, but that non-pass to Ibrahimovic was criminal. He was also guilty of not passing when he should have too many times. Giving him credit for passing ignores that fact. Xavi knows exactly when to pass the ball. So does Messi. He just chooses not to, which too often makes us too easy to defend. And if a teammate has a clear shot, stay away from the ball in the box, dude.

Pedro!: 8. This was his best overall match for us in a long time, the first in which I can truly see him as a starter. I will note that he did a lot of things that Henry gets slagged for, but that’s a good thing. The runs, the crosses into the box, the cutbacks and the helping out on defense all contributed to a great run for him. And what a shot for that oh, so needed goal.

Ibrahimovic: 6. Dude worked like a dog today. I can’t believe the criticism that he takes. Even late in the match, when Malaga had possession, he was doing the pit bull thing in the midfield, helping win back possession. And the energy is also impressive, judging from the effort he expended on that unjustly overruled goal. He played a very solid match, but should have done better with a couple of headers. I also really liked how fast Messi came over to celebrate with him. Those two have to learn to play together.

Substitutes

Krkic: 7. Man, CT played his little heart out for the few minutes he was in. Guardiola clearly put him in to facilitate possession, and maybe take advantage of a tired Malaga defense. His control of that Pique pass was world-class, as was the move to get free in the box. His pass for Ibrahimovic was in the exact right spot, as well.

So. It’s still a 2-point lead in the Liga. But this match gives us all hope. Recall that we had our February funk last season and came out of it like a phoenix, rolling on to dispatch all that was in front of us. We got off to a good start today, and I hope that in the film session, Guardiola shows that second goal again and again and again, saying “See, this is what happens when we play our style. Move the ball! Always!”

–A giant, massive “Thank you” to Eduard, who did an excellent job of running the LiveBlog today. It’s an important feature on match days that everyone looks forward to, and it always makes me happy when one of the family runs it. It’s also much appreciated. Thanks again, Eduard, as well as to everyone who has run them in the past.

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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.

102 Comments

  1. Achraf
    March 1, 2010

    *http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQmu48sZohc&feature=player_embedded
    HAHA! This is the new pepsi advert with messi henry kaka lampard and other stars. The ending with Messi is hilarious He can sure take a joke 😀

    • March 2, 2010

      Awesome. Did Henry touch the ball once in that whole thing? More commercials should be like this.

  2. Jim
    March 1, 2010

    I’m squarely in the middle on Ibra at the moment. I’m certainly not in the camp of the Ibra is lazy (although to be fair I haven’t seen a lot of comments saying that. Those who are berating people for saying that, I’m happy to be proved wrong on this one). I’m in no doubt that he is working his socks off to fit in. However, I’m also not convinced by the Ibra is making a great contribution comments either. I want to see it work with Ibra – it has to, where do we go this season if it doesn’t? At the moment his first touch is definitely not as good as it should be imo – watch the first 16 minutes if in doubt – but I’m putting that down to him becoming anxious.

    I do see signs of him starting to make better runs and of him realising that in our team you have to work to get the ball to come to you – we have many options all the time. I’m also hopeful it’ll come good with a bit more confidence on his part. His “goal” might well have done the trick had it stood. It came at the end of exactly the sort of run I’d like to see him make where the timing is spot on.

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