“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.”