Barça 1, Alaves 2, aka “The good loss”

“We thought we might be comfortable. We thought wrong.”
— Denis Suarez

There will be stress, there will be panic, but there should be nothing at all except nodding in acknowledgement as once again a Barça team is brought low by an international break, new bodies and overall messiness.

But it was also a loss that came down to a pair of errors, both of which led directly to goals. Is that the fault of rotation, sloppiness, pressure or all of the above, in addition to an opponent just making the right plays at the right time. And even if your defense cocks up and lets in two goals, shouldn’t the hottest team in world football be able to knock more than a single goal past a Liga newbie?

So many are blaming rotation, and the defense, but what did the offense do? The only goal was scored by a defender. Teams win, and teams lose. As a team. It’s eleven players, not some who were fine and others who were crap. It’s eleven players. If all of them do their jobs, something good will usually happen. Alaves proved that today.

Newly promoted Alaves came into the Camp Nou a bit like a slave in the lions den, as the throngs anticipated seeing a bloody meal. Luis Enrique, quite correctly, opted for heavy rotation with his XI: Cillessen, Vidal, Mascherano, Mathieu, Digne, Busquets, D. Suarez, Rakitic, Neymar, Turan, Alcacer. (Bench: Rafinha, Alba, Umtiti, Masip, Iniesta, Messi, Suarez)

The starting eleven should have been sufficient to take care of Alaves. But with all of the talk about this being the best Barça team ever assembled, and all the destruction they sowed in the first two matches and the SuperCopa, there’s a reason you play the matches.

There will be snarking and snarling about how the coach got the lineup wrong, this happened and that happened. But simply enough, Barça was crap today. The result was fair as Alaves worked its asses off, defending as a compact block, running, diving, leaping, giving absolutely everything that they had to get a result against the defending Liga champions.

Meanwhile, Barça just swanned about like a bloated, smug wastrel wating for the limo to show up while the poor kid stole their luggage. Every now and again, a team needs to get punched in the face, to watch an inferior opponent celebrate on its home pitch as though they won a championship, to look at the sweat-soaked shirts of the victors and wonder what might have happened had they put in the same effort. Too often Barça mids were stranded with the ball, because nobody was moving. When the ball did move, it was too slow. Alaves had it easy defending today’s mess.

This Barça and how people are viewing it reminds me of a cycling adage: “There are no fast bikes, only fast riders.” One year in a big race, with almost everyone on carbon fiber this and aero wheels that, a guy came out on a borrowed, vintage steel track bike with conventional wheels. He forgot to oil the chain, so the squeaking sounded like an asthmatic trying to suck in air. And he won. Beat everybody like a gong. Was it harder for him with that bike? Yep. But he didn’t know it was, so it wasn’t. All he knew was the work that he had to do, just like Alaves.

The long knives will be out, because nothing bad can ever happen without a hunt for blame. Most people will find the most unfavored person to blame. So the anti-Luis Enrique crowd will go on about lineups, and systems, and ways of playing. The anti-Mascherano crowd will say that he isn’t a CB. The anti-Mathieu crowd will say that he missed that sitter for the second goal and damn him to hell. Everybody will have their turn in the barrel.

The reality is that a packed schedule and a poorly timed international break meant that players came rolling back in this week, already with miles and tiredness in their legs. New signings had to debut, and the cohesion was lacking. Alcacer was invisible, but when Suarez subbed in for him, he was also made invisible by the hard-working Alaves defenders. Some in the Barça Twitter crowd were snarling about Neymar dribbling too much and running into brick walls. Then Messi subbed in and dribbled into brick walls. Alaves played its asses off after Barça made the cardinal error of giving a team with nothing to fight for, something to fight for.

In the first half Kiko Femenia, purchased for Barça B and eventual promotion before being discarded for not meeting standard, snookered a pair of Barça defenders along the touch line, and whipped in a perfect cross. Deyverson timed his run perfectly, leaving a prone Mascherano as he slotted home the game’s first goal. It was a goal that was too easy, a goal from a team with fresh legs and minds against a team whose players had mostly been playing in either European or South American qualifiers. Would Mascherano have gotten smoked had he not just played two matches, then traveled back to Barcelona? Probably not. We have seen the evidence of what he is like when sharp, but that day wasn’t today.

Barça got one back, to equalize from a well-worked set piece with Mathieu heading home, but the signs were evident as Alaves started to get more and more dangerous runs and possession, and Barça just kept marking time, minute after desultory minute. Alaves began to believe and then, just after Messi was subbed in — a decision with which only the misguided would agree — Alaves went ahead, this time for good and deservedly so.

There were chances. Mathieu somehow pushed a shot wide of an open net. Vidal shot over, Neymar headed wide. There was gobs of possession, that was mostly ineffectual as the Alaves players just dashed from side to side, putting out fires and wondering if the team they were facing, the opponent that they knew was better than them, was ever going to wake up, ever going to start playing like the colossus that everyone said it was.

Some will say that Luis Enrique doesn’t learn from his mistakes, that he can’t rotate that much, etc, etc. But if you look at the “performance” of the team in the second half, when the XI was Cillessen, Vidal, Mascherano, Mathieu, Digne, Busquets, Iniesta, Rakitic, Neymar, Messi, Suarez, nothing changed. Still no penetration, still no real danger, just a different set of players walking around like zombies. So what mistake should he have learned from?

It’s the same at the “Crisis at Anoeta” when after an international break Luis Enrique chose to rest starters, and the team lost. People quite conveniently forget that once those starters were subbed on, the team still played like crap, and still lost. There are days when a team, an entire team, is crap. This was one of those days. On a different day, against a more compliant opponent, they might have been able to get a result. Not today.

This was a good loss because every team needs to be reminded that its shit stinks, that it is beatable on any day, by any opponent, even a newly promoted one whose entire lineup could be purchased with Messi’s annual pay packet, with change left over for quite a bit of nice stuff. It was a good loss because a smug fanbase needs to understand the same realities, that Barça can’t just show up and walk stuff, that there are opponents who will want a result as much if not more. Talkin’ ’bout a treble when you can’t even put more than one goal past Alaves? Sheeeeeit!

From this chair, the only mistake Luis Enrique made with his lineup was making the subs that he did. If you want to live with rotation, then die with it, as well. If you leave the training wheels on the bike, will the child ever learn to ride? Nope. Subbing on Messi, Suarez and Iniesta essentially says “We don’t trust you guys to get a result.” But hell, at least the rotation XI was working on a draw before the big guns came on. Yes, draws are the new losses and losses are the new end of the world, but bringing on tired and half-injured players did precisely what? If you rotate, then rotate. The point of rotation is to get rest for key playerse, a statement that you are wiling to trust other players to get things done.

Further, what are the options? Who do you play, in a month with 7 matches over about 3 weeks, necessitating the long view? Messi? Just off an injury. Suarez? Tired. Iniesta? Just off an injury, maybe a few minutes. Rakitic? Yup. Pique? No. Needed for bigger matches. Umtiti? Yep, but didn’t. Alba? For a bit of time, sure. It’s easy to go down the list, but evidence isn’t altogether certain that Luis Enrique had a whole lot of choice in his XI. It was a lot of rotation, but just off an international break with a couple of players coming off injuries (Messi, Iniesta), it’s hard to think of better options. And all but two players in that XI have played well for Barça, with only Alcacer and Cillessen being new to the team.

But there were new lows by almost every member of the XI. Mascherano was horrific, last man standing for both goals, Vidal an uncertain mess who lost every last physical challenge, including a key one before the second Alaves goal. Digne turned in his worst performance in the colors, even Busquets was off. Rakitic was running around aimlessly, and Turan kept getting caught in the corner with the ball, trying to outdribble a triangle of defenders. Denis Suarez looked a confused kid in over his head. Everybody pretty much sucked. The subs came on and were ineffective with the exception of Iniesta, who had some magic.

If anything the team was worse when the big boys came on, something else that points to signs other than the ones everyone so conveniently are pointing at. “It was him.” “No, it was HIM.” Maybe it was just miles and miles, and minutes and minutes, and an opponent who just plain wanted the match more. People will panic, but it’s a loss in a Liga season where there will be more of them, by everyone. Just look at the back half of last season to understand that lesson. Or look to the year of the first treble, with started with a draw and a loss. Or look to the year when everyone on the planet said that RM had the best squad anyone had ever seen, and were playing lights out football. There is abundant evidence against panic, or blame, or anything except saying, as Luis Enrique did, “It’s an ugly result for us, against a rival you have to praise.”

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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.

14 Comments

  1. Tata2
    September 11, 2016

    A nice write up and personally I feel the season is too long. If we are to make mistakes then it should be now. One more thing, oh Lawd! Vidal is crap, a waste of space and money and maybe even worst than Douglas

  2. Davour
    September 11, 2016

    Good points. As I noted in a comment on the last post, this team (this sport!) cannot be fixed by the introduction of their superstars in a game that does not work. If the system is out of function, one or two parts can rarely fix it (apart from the odd free kick or something). I really regret that LE relented and made does subs; that was, as you note, the big mistake. Denis quote really says it all. NEVER assume you will be comfortable. I was disappointed by his statement, and feel it reflected an unsound team spirit that LE needs to quench (if this loss didn’t already). New players can bring fresh attitudes, but might also be star-struck, playing for Barca, thinking that wins come automatically (as that’s how it felt playing against Barca, or watching them on the telly).

    Fatigue, hubris and lack of familiarity within the team (Ney) were, to me, the reasons. LE has part in this, but rotation is not to blame. I would only have replace Digne with Alba to allow Ney one mate he knew well close to him.

    Let’s hope this becomes a good wake up call, the proverbial blessing in disguise.

  3. mr.undercover
    September 11, 2016

    I m quite sure that result was a mishap, they will comeback stronger against Celtic. My only concern is only Vidal, the lad looks horrible, misplacing passes, awfull defending, pacing up and down like a headless chicken. This was generally a team failure not an individual one, if only digne and matheiu managed to close on kiko femenia before he crossed the ball which led to their first goal masche wouldn’t have suffer to opt for a last ditch block(which he fails) to prevent the goal,the 2nd goal was clearly masche for failing to clear, Vidal with a shambolic blocking that Ibai gomes disposed easily and slot the ball home. Our midfield seemed non-existent, denis proved once again that he cannot play CM, looks lost, misplacing passes and disposed easily off the ball, besquet need a rest, a long one if possible,I don’t doubt his talent but when he is tired he is literally disastrous, arda was decent upfront, couldn’t link with his wide man(vidal) because the later was clueless, Neyamar tried to do something in the middle but it was too difficult to penetrate a packed defence with a slow rakitic infront of him and paco who barely complete a rondo session before his debut.

    The season is long so no need to panic

  4. Jim
    September 11, 2016

    Well, where to start ? Maybe by what this isn’t ?

    It isn’t a disaster. Disasters have long reaching implications and this shouldn’t have.
    It also isn’t something to sweep under the carpet and put down to a one off , international duty or bad luck.
    It isn’t a sign that they wanted this more than us. They didn’t ( that’s an insult to our players and I saw no evidence of that ) and they weren’t better than us but we gave them a lead and they held on to it which is actually not impossible, no matter how poor you are. It gives your legs the energy to keep chasing and hounding.

    What is it ? For me, it is a sign of some more long term issues which have, and will bubble up from time to time and just possibly make it more difficult for us to win the trophies we should.

    The selection. I’ve no problem with rotation but the one thing I thought we had definitely learned was that you can’t do too much all at once. Was there anyone who looked at a completely new defence and didn’t think I hope they don’t get too much of a look at this ? To be fair, I still thought we should be good enough but if you’re leaving Pique out you pay a bit of attention to the other positions. Not a time to rely on Vidal suddenly coming good and Digne ( who I thought wasn’t great but has only just joined us so has the get out of jail card for me ). So SR who is a decent RB and Alba would have been in. After that Mathieu is a shoe in , for stability as well as height and it’s a case of whether you go for Umtiti or Masche for the last position. Folks will know my position on this but I can understand LE who has ( had?) faith in him giving him the nod. Masche knows how we play and That should’ve counted with Pique not there. As it turned out Mathieu had a near flawless game and Masche made one typical error for him ( the first) and one which could have happened to anyone having a bad day with the miskick. Not sure what the suggestion is about Digne and Mathieu in the post above regarding the first goal. Mathieu was where he should have been and miles away from anything to do with it and Digne, for me, was unlucky iwhat was actually a pretty good ball went over his head . He was in the right position so no blame. Though it pains me to say it Busi is also not up to speed yet. He’s too good for this to last but I’m sure it would come more quickly if he had genuine competition for his spot. Oh, wait. . . . Btw, I also didn’t like his comments about us not deserving to lose. Maybe, but we certainly didn’t deserve to win and that smacks of complacency.

    Which leads me to the biggest omission for me. Why on earth, given that you have destabilised the team in defence do you leave a fit Iniesta out of the starting eleven ? Now I’m assuming here he is fit. He gives you the control and creativity you’re gonna want to make sure that the other side are too busy chasing you . Which leads to one of the bigger issues I alluded to at the start. The midfield. I said in a post in the last article that I actually dozed off in the first half . I genuinely wasn’t lying and had to go back and watch the first half again this morning. That was awful ! I’m sorry to repeat myself but there is something wrong with our midfield , in particular Rakitic and Suarez . Don’t get me wrong. Suarez. Gets the same jail card that all newcomers get in their first season with us. He just shouldn’t be starting as much. The guy is lost in there and has been pretty much every game. Rakitic. Is slow on the ball and we’ve gone through all the possible reasons for the last couple of seasons. He’s a workhorse ( true but a slow one) , he’s been covering for Dani ( OK, but Alba goes forward as much and I don’t hear anyone saying Ini can’t do anything because he’s covering for Alba and he has a great shot. Sorry? When ? Not questioning his commitment to the cause or his short passing but what we need in there is the ability at times to create and carry the ball through the defensive lines and he doesn’t have that. So I’d be interested in who exactly LE thought was going to do the creative bit to break down what was always going to be a tough defence.

    Not gonna slag Neymar for this one. He’s just back and his way of trying to make something happen was to try to do it himself. Maybe a bit disappointed he seemed to tire / disappear when Messi and Suarez came on but for a long time he was our only hope of something happening.

    Should Messi and Suarez have come on ? I’m not sure. Bringing them on sent the message to the rest that they weren’t up to it, despite all the fanfare about us having the strongest squad ever – but they weren’t. Messi obviously wasn’t at top speed so equally obviously he’s not done himself any good by playing again while injured.

    However, and I’m sorry to go on about LE but what exactly was the point of putting him on the bench at all ? Especially when you play a completely new defence and leave Pique in the stands. Surely he could look ahead and see that if things didn’t go well he’d have to put Messi on or take a mountain of criticism ? No, it’s either or for me. Play him or leave him out. I’d have supported either but would have preferred to leave him out. LE has also dented his chances of MSN accepting as much rotation as he would like. Were I Messi I’d point to that first half display and say ” I don’t think so boss !”

    For me, the longer term issues are the main ones LE needs to think about. Masche should no longer be a starter above Mathieu or maybe even Umtiti . ( I’d have been really interested in an Umtiti / Mathieu partnership yesterday. It’s not a problem for CBs being right or left footed although I suspect Umtiti May be better with his right than Mathieu.

    Secondly, and I have no answer to this, we may have a wealth of midfielders but I’m not. Seeing the qualities I’m looking for in most of them. Early days for some but just putting that out there. What if Ini were to get a long term injury ?

    Enough already but before I go one last beef. When are we going to learn about holding far too high a line on FKs ? We saw Bravo in the Manchester derby have to come 15 yards to collect a ball under pressure ( admittedly from his own player !) and we were six inches from losing yet another goal in our game. You can’t afford to leave such a big gap between keeper and your defensive line that any half decent player can throw a ball into and create chaos. Your defence are having to sprint back to where they should have been while you are giving the opposition yards into which to time a run . It’s not hard when one set are moving back towards their own goal and the others are running towards their target to see who the favourites are.

    Anyway, on to Celtic. They can’t defend either so it should be a good ( and easy) game . Nothing like a good bit of complacency is there ? 🙂

    • September 11, 2016

      You have to field that lineup for that match, because the team has 7 matches in three weeks. So you don’t start a fit Iniesta, you rest Pique and Sergi Roberto because there are going to be matches in which they will be essential. Alaves at home shouldn’t have been one of them. In a few months, this same XI would be able to handle Alaves easily. Today wasn’t that day. Iniesta, Messi, Suarez came on and Barça still couldn’t handle Alaves. In the search for blame, whose fault was that?

      Last year just a week or so later, Celta beat Barça 4-1. Here was the XI:

      Ter Stegen, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Mathieu, Sergi Roberto, Busquets, Iniesta, Messi, Neymar, Suarez.

      Same panic. Hardly any rotation and the team still got its asses whipped. Luis Enrique has built a team for the long haul, and he has to trust that team. Too many rotations? Not enough, for me. If Gomes was fit, I would have put him for Busquets, or put Rakitic in the hole and started Rafinha in midfield.

      The defense was fine except for those two mistakes, when Digne, then Mascherano got smoked, then Vidal/Mascherano got smoked. The question is, do those goals happen if there are different personnel on the pitch? Good query. If a larger, more physical Digne couldn’t stop that excellent Kiko Femenia cross, what makes anyone think Alba could have? Deyverson timed his move perfectly. Maybe a younger, sharper Umtiti makes the play, maybe not. Maybe we just have to say that was a perfectly taken goal.

      On the second goal, Vidal got used like a turnstile and Mascherano whiffed on the clearance. Had it been Sergi Roberto and Pique, the second goal probably doesn’t happen. But that’s hindsight. Maybe it does. Look at how hard the Alaves attacker fought for that ball.

      Retrospect is an easy game to play. The common conclusion is that Luis Enrique rotated too much. But a coach has to take a risk with his team. We all saw the zombies staggering to the finish line last season, due to a short bench and squad. If we want the same thing, we should sit, stomp out feet and demand the gala XI for every match. But it’s L.E.’s job to take the long view. I’m glad he did.

    • Davour
      September 11, 2016

      For me, Alba should have started for attacking reasons, not defensive. Apart from that, rotations made sense, but Denis’ comment didn’t!

  5. MSN
    September 11, 2016

    I like how people forget our shortcomings every new season. LAst season it was that 4-1 loss to celta. in 2010, 2-0 loss to hercules, at camp nou, under pep, messi playing, etc. It happens, it’s part of the game.

  6. Jim
    September 11, 2016

    Not saying there shouldn’t have been rotation, Kxevin, as is clear from above. I’m with him in that. Just a careful one, done over a number of matches. I’m also not saying this can’t happen no matter who is on the pitch. Just minimise the chance of it by not making too many changes.

    Maybe rest two or three maximum per game and all of them in Copa matches. I’d even have gone along with all the South Americans minus Neymar, if Iniesta starts. In his defence, I’m sure Masche could also sensibly have done with the day off. My beef with him at CB is a longer term one that this just emphasised.

    It’s not retrospective. It was dangerous before the game started. Game after internationals should set alarm bells ringing but you’re right. It is still alarming that the selected lineup couldn’t handle it.

    I don’t really know if the defence was fine or not. I’d go along with that being pretty much all they were asked to do the whole match. On the first goal I’m still not sure why Digne is getting a hard time. He was where he should have been and no, Alba wouldn’t have made a difference there. Is someone suggesting he would have ? Suarez on the touch line was beaten too easily for my liking and because offside was out of the question Masche should have given himself a yard on the attacker, goal side . He gets far too close to the man he is marking. Always has.

    The problem in bringing subs on in the second half when you are down is that the other team has something to hold on to and is twice as difficult to break down. We had also not done much to tire them out first half. Add an injured Messi and the subs had a hard task in the limited time.

    Nobody’s asking for the gala eleven., I don’t think. However, we’ve also only just started the season for goodness’ sake . Nobody should be shattered already. You’re right to point out these games will happen from time to time and don’t settle anything. It’s the longer term issues that give me pause.

    It’s probably a good game to have next and actually one where I reckon we could afford some rotation. Celtic aren’t a great side at the moment ( doesn’t mean I wouldn’t worry about Parkhead) and they will still try to get forward exposing their very shaky defence so it should suit us.

  7. Dar_vincy
    September 11, 2016

    While not intending to apportion blame, the focus of my comment will revolve around Vidal and our proclivity for misplacing priority. For all his contributions going forward, he seem more a liability defensively, from what I have seen so far in all the games he’s played. Would one blame him? The club wanted an Alves-esque attacking-minded RB and they got one, albeit defensively incompetent. And such approach and trend worries me, greatly. Until recently, our preference of players have often heavily tilted more to their offensive ability than defensive. I’d have love a scenario where one of our fullbacks is more conservative than adventurous – helps team’s balance alot. Glad we now have a gem in Roberto. Still and all, it’s my desire that the defensive part of his game be greatly worked on by the coach, cos, for me, his defensive duties still remain a PRIORITY, attacking contributions notwithstanding. In the long run, it would be counterproductive to get carried away with his attacking brilliance while his defensive game is not yet rounded sufficiently. All will be revealed when the big games pop up.

  8. mr.undercover
    September 11, 2016

    In Reply to Davour.

    I don’t think Alba would have made any difference if he was in. Attacking-wise, he depends on pace, but Aalves Barely give you that chance and space to run behind their defence due to the way they play, they played compact and deep enough and managed their space excellently, that is why Vidal couldn’t make any impact when surging forward.

    • Davour
      September 11, 2016

      Perhaps. My thought was rather that he knows Ney’s movement and they have an established collaboration. Who knows if it had made any difference? Probably not, but Alba wouldn’t have made that final shot to the skies…

  9. Hamid
    September 11, 2016

    Hello everyone. My name is Hamid and I’m from Toronto, Canada. I have been reading this blog for the last couple of years and I am impressed by the quality of analysis and writing. I have turned to this blog to celebrate victories and “accept” defeats.
    I agree with KXevin that this loss raised the question of rotation or no rotation. LE made a justifiable decision and should have assumed it all the way, instead of trying to change course halfway and creating a mess. The recent massive recruiting will eventually bear fruit because it is an investment in the mid-term. There will be ups and downs down the road. The challenge for culers like me lies in our readiness to accept the consequences of this transition.
    It was a sad day nonetheless!

    • September 11, 2016

      Welcome, Hamid, and thanks for the kind words, but a house is only as good as its foundation, and that’s the people here. They challenge, and hold our feet to the fire as well as calling BS when necessary. I think it makes the space and the content stronger.

      Glad you found us, and please don’t be shy about moving furniture around. Thanks again and again, welcome.

  10. Tata2
    September 12, 2016

    I just watched the united vs city game and I am pretty confident we will do just fine against city in UCL. It was fun seeing Pep park the bus with a 5-4-1 in the final 10mins

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