La Diada de Sant Jordi, in Catalan culture, usually comes on April 23. Women are given a gift of roses, and respected men are given books.
In an early variant, we gave Almeria a draw. Rather nice (and charitable) of us, don’t you think? People can chatter all they want about officiating, and dives, and unfair red cards all they like, but the fact of the matter is that we played like crap for most of that match, and still came away with a draw.
Which means what? Lord only knows, from our team that doesn’t seem to be able to find a consistent groove.
Coming off of our last Liga match, in which we evinced beautiful, flowing football that made the superlatives flow from pens all over again, we were expecting more of the same. One-touch passing, movement and aggression that resulted in not a ton of goals, but chances galore. (It should also be noted that Ibrahimovic started that match, just something to note for the “We move and play better without Ibrahimovic” crowd.)
But this week was once again, something different. And it wasn’t just a priggish ref who delayed the start of the match because he didn’t like the extent to which Almeria were togged up in support of the Chilean earthquake victims. Guardiola rolled out with Valdes, Alves, Puyol, Milito, Maxwell, The Yaya, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro! and Ibrahimovic, a lineup that should have been more than sufficient to put the wood to Almeria, even in their house. Yet, whether it was the Internationals, or us sitting around reading our press clippings from last season, we started out pancake flat, content to stroke the ball around. Almeria decided that it would do the “United defense,” which is let us play with the ball, but not let anything happen in a position of real danger.
More importantly they, like other sides that we face, have adopted the defensive posture of playing us to be stupid and selfish with the ball. And we oblige them, time and again.
–Messi makes a run, with two excellent options: a pass to a streaking Iniesta or sliding it over to Alves. He keeps the ball, and loses it.
–We get a free kick in the box, and Alves decides to shoot rather than playing it to Xavi, or crossing it to Ibrahimovic. There were 6 men plus the keeper between he and the goal. The shot wasn’t going in.
–Pedro gets the ball, and rather than going for the lob pass to a wide-open Ibrahimovic or sliding it to Iniesta, takes a shot from an absurd angle that didn’t have a chance.
–Pedro again gets the ball just outside of our box and our break is off to the races, but rather than making the immediate pass to Messi or Ibrahimovic, he dribbles and dribbles, until he is intentionally fouled by an Almeria player.
Stupid and selfish.
So what teams are doing now, is crowding the ball. So each and every time that we do the right thing, as Messi began to do when he would make a run just enough to draw the defense, then dish, the player receiving the pass was wide open. But usually, they then proceeded to do the wrong thing with the ball. When people examine the differences between this season and last, there are many, but for me it all comes down to doing the right thing with the ball, and moving.
Note one play in which Xavi receives a pass, and is bracketed by three Almeria defenders. Last year, there would have been people buzzing around him like flies, waiting to receive the ball. This time, Messi was walking around almost in place, Alves was standing on the sideline, doing nothing to relieve the pressure on Xavi. Everybody else was off doing something or other, but not creating space or options. So Xavi was forced to play yet another negative ball.
We really missed Pique yesterday, because of his ability to start attacks from the back. Otherwise, you get short passes from the back line to Xavi or somebody, who has to then bring the ball through that gauntlet, that is bypassed when a defender starts the attack with a good long pass, Piquenbauer style. Why not Txigrinski or Marquez with Milito? Good question.
Another significant difference is our sense of urgency. Last season, whenever an opponent got the ball in midfield, at least two of our attackers were on him like flies, challenging for the ball and making it clear that it was our ball. This season, there isn’t that same energy. Opponents get the ball in the midfield and are allowed to play with it, and pick passes. The problem with that is that our back line then becomes vulnerable, as players running directly at it at full pace are getting free for chances on goal.
Piss and moan all anyone likes about Ibrahimovic, or what we should have done in the winter transfer market, or whatever. The simple fact of the matter is that we are collectively playing (usually) just well enough to (usually) win. It’s mostly kinda crappy, but our crappy is another club’s pretty damned good. And so it goes. Until we get back to the passing and movement that were our hallmarks last season as a team, it won’t matter who is on the pitch. Nor will it matter who this or that week’s scapegoat is or isn’t. Right now, Ibrahimovic is a very fashionable goat. Why not? We spent a lot of money for him, and sent away a beloved player who banged in a pile of goals for us. So it’s all his fault. Riiiight. He told Iniesta to stand around. He also told Xavi to not have any offensive spark to his game, and mentioned to Puyol that for a change, he should try playing out of position so that he will be done for pace.
Team effort, folks, from top to bottom. Ibrahimovic isn’t scoring because he isn’t getting good service. And he isn’t getting good service because people aren’t moving as they should be. They just aren’t. And it doesn’t take a footballing genius to see it. He has a 3-player escort at all times, which should create an attacking imbalance that we just don’t take advantage of. And so it goes.
Oh, yeah. They scored first, and it was simple enough how it happened. Alves played a slack, awful pass out of the back that was instantly converted into an attack. The Almeria man, running full tilt at Puyol, just smoked him and Puyol gave up a needless corner. On the ensuing set piece, The Yaya was bulled off of his position by the attacker, who then outjumped Puyol to head the ball past Valdes.
Say what you want about how a foul should have been called on the attacker, etc, etc. But man-mountains aren’t supposed to get shoved aside so easily. Hell of a cross too, that fell right to the player. Should Valdes have contested the cross? Should Puyol have been in front of, rather than beside the player? All valid questions, and all pointless now, because they scored.
We resumed our stationary movement-based attack. We had lots of possession, hardly any of it meaningful, and Almeria were content to defend with 10 and wait for counterattacking opportunities.
Yes, there were some chances created by our attack. But one Xavi free kick had the right idea, but not enough pace, so it was easily batted away by their keeper. Messi was bulled off the ball in the box, and the ensuing hooraw saw Guardiola sent to the upper deck, where he kept the coaching staff on phone contact for the duration. But usually, Almeria were content to make liberal and effective use of the professional foul to stop attacks. And when that didn’t work, they delayed the match by feigning some injury in the hopes that they could make a meal out of bullshit. Often, it worked.
And we dribble, dribble, dribbled to no avail, finally evening things up courtesy of a sublime free kick from Messi, who actually passed the ball into the net. Their keeper, Bruno Alves, had his wall set perfectly. But Messi’s deft, exquisite ball got past it, and doomed Alves. It was 1-1 at the half, one in which we played like practice pylons. Couldn’t get any worse, right?
We were doing more of the same on offense, then on defense, Maxwell tried a stupid little lob for Ibrahimovic, just the thing for a ball-hawking defense to disrupt, and they were off to the races. Note how their players were always looking up, always in search of the runner, the pass that would break the lock. Sounds like a team we all know and love, right? The subsequent attack again found Puyol toasted like day-old bread, and he tried to deal with the ensuing cross that Valdes had fully covered, by sticking out a leg.
Now, we’ve seen what just sticking out a leg does: Busquets used to do it, and it was usually bad. Pique did it, and it resulted in an own goal, and a draw. Puyol did it, and it resulted in an own goal, and a 2-1 deficit. And I got to wondering, are we talking out there? Did Valdes call Puyol off the ball? In the instances, time and again, where we lost the ball to a play from behind by an Almeria defender, are we saying “Heads up, incoming?” Puyol didn’t need to make a play, and he sure as hell didn’t need to make that play. Because as any experienced defender will tell you, when you stick the leg out, you can’t control what your foot is going to make the ball do.
We started playing with a little more urgency, but still made the wrong decisions. Xavi opted for a shot, instead of rolling it to Messi for the finish. Iniesta hesitiated in chasing a free ball that would have had him dead to rights against the keeper. Man.
And then came a rather odd play, as Ibrahimovic made elbow to shoulder contact with an Almeria defender, who grabbed his face and went down like he was shot, rolling on the pitch in agony. The Deportes announcers thought that it was pretty silly, but they thought that the straight red to Ibrahimovic was even sillier. The Almeria player, by the by, then got up limping, presumably because you can’t really act out a feigned face strike. So “My leg! My leg!” becomes a viable option. And Ibrahimovic was sent off, but he couldn’t join Guardiola in the upper reaches of the Almeria stadium. Bummer, that.
UPDATE. The referee’s match report cites a kick as the reason that Ibrahimovic got the straight red. Not sure when it happened, however, because it wasn’t before the silly elbow. He further notes that Guardiola was screaming in the face of an assistant referee. Guardiola says that he was innocently wondering why in the hell Messi’s getting knocked over wasn’t a penalty.
There was joy in Mudville, as people said “Hark, our movement is so much better without that big, Swedish pylon in the way, messing things up and telling our guys to stand around.”
But what happened instead was that Messi became a one-man army, making runs at the defense, creating chances and yes, still being selfish. He rolled a weak shot at Alves that made this viewer wonder about the Iniesta option. He was open, and running into the box. There was a stretch of the match where Almeria were reeling, and all we needed was one good play to put them under, but we just couldn’t muster the wherewithal to create it. We came close time and again, but a last-ditch play from them or bit of silliness from us kept us at bay. Then when Messi blasted a shot that Alves had to save, their keeper knew what he had to do, and he lay on the pitch as if dying, for about 3 minutes or so. Then he, too, despite the fact that he went down clutching his abdomen, got up limping. “My leg! My leg!”
It killed the momentum, and our chances of winning the match. So a draw it was, one that, after EE beat Sevilla on precisely the kind of late goal that we were searching for, found them top of table based on goal differential, because the head-to-head isn’t final yet. Imagine that! But we are level on points with them, with plenty of matches left. So let’s see. Meanwhile, we have some points to give out.
Team: 2. Just awful. No communication, no movement, no support for each other. Triangles? What triangles?
Guardiola: 4. You don’t get ejected when your club needs you. And why stick with an ineffective Pedro! for so long?
Valdes: 7. Kept this from being a loss, frankly. But he has to call Puyol off that ball. Maybe he did, and Captain Caveman didn’t listen. Dunno.
Alves: 3. Kinda worthless today, and gave away two silly balls, one of which ended up as a goal off a set piece, and the other forced an excellent save from Valdes or it would have been a goal. And too often, his space was a passing lane for Almeria, as he was nowhere to be found. Don’t blame him for trying the dive in their box. That ref had made other stupid calls from a bad position. Why not one more?
Puyol: 3. You can show a tendency to be out of position if you have the pace to deal with it. And check where the keeper is before you scramble and stick a leg out. A panicked defender isn’t a very good defender.
Milito: 7. Tell me again why he isn’t a starter? Oh. Yeah. Never mind. He is so assured, and knows the right plays to make. He also game Ibrahimovic potentially the best service of his time on the pitch, with a lob that just missed our Big Swede.
Maxwell: 6. Still improving with reps. So solid on defense, and isn’t giving away the silly corners any longer. Played to a higher rating, but that bit of silliness that became a goal for them drags the rating down.
The Yaya: 6. Didn’t evince the same kind of command and control that he usually does. And he simply has to hold position on set pieces. Getting shoved aside on your doorstep is inexcusable.
Xavi: 5. A few nice plays, but mostly dull in attack and too heavy on too many passes. Bad decisions are rare for him, but make them he did.
Iniesta: 4. No invention, no flash, no pace and too much individuality. Did Internationals suck some life out of him? Maybe.
Messi: 7. Excellent play in flashes. And selfishness in flashes. But he was our only real threat today, and was looking on for the hat trick.
Pedro!: 4. Wasteful, wasteful, wasteful. If Henry has that kind of a match, people are calling for his Gallic noggin. Pedro will still start over Henry, but he should have been subbed.
Ibrahimovic: 4. Part of good service is making yourself available for it. Ineffective anonymity doesn’t become something so large.
Busquets: 8. A number of excellent defensive and attack-starting plays. Unfortunately, he couldn’t be the attacking force that he would have been had he come on, and we had our full complement of players.
So, we’re even on points with That Other Spanish Team, and already people are conceding the Liga. Nonsense. I warned everyone that this was going to be a dogfight. But remember that they needed late heroics to beat a Sevilla side that we spanked in the Liga. And we beat them at home. Even with a draw at their house, we’re up in the head-to-head. All we have to do is take care of business, and stop playing like gits.
And the fact that I note our deficiencies in no way denotes an iota of diminished confidence in this club. We are still, on our game, the best club in the world. Finding that game appears to be a bit difficult right now, but I have confidence that we will. Did Internationals take something out of us? Perhaps. And Almeria deserve credit, for fighting like lions in their home den. Yes, we gifted them the draw. But they had to convert the gift cards, and did so very effectively.
Oh, and Messi is pichichi, knocking in Barca’s 5,100th goal. That’s a lotta goals.