A party of three, all found wanting

Errors. The results of the top three, the fanbases of each with a valid reason to say “We dropped points,” all came down to an error.

— Real Madrid got Ramosed.
— Atleti had a slack moment on a set piece.
— Barça had a slack moment on a dead ball situation.

The reactions, of course, were also quite different. Real Madrid said, “Whew!” Atleti said, “Yay!” Barça said, “Boooo!” Expectations can be brutal, and Atleti is still adept at doing the non-underdog underdog thing. The reactions of the three managers were also quite different.

— Zidane chased the match against Villarreal, making attacking substitutions and almost turning the tide.
— Simeone went for the attack, bringing in Angel Correa (who scored the goal) and Thomas Partey, who is a … party.
— Luis Enrique went for the draw, reacting to the losses of Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets by, in effect, choosing to stand pat.

Retrospect is a fun game to play because you can never be wrong, but wouldn’t it have been interesting to sub in Paco Alcacer, move Neymar central and give Suarez and Alcacer the run of the box? Maybe. Or even, move Neymar to the right so that Arda Turan can be in his wheelhouse. In many ways the substitutions demonstrated which manager has the most to lose, even if the standings don’t reflect that. Zidane is in Las Vegas, having had a nice run of cards, playing with house money. He isn’t supposed to be where he is, really.

Simeone is exactly where he is supposed to be, a human tumult throwing rocks at the apple carts of the big two. Many will suggest that by not going for the win at the Camp Nou he erred, but if you chase a match against Barça, you might as well go home. History has shown that, and Simeone is no dummy.

Luis Enrique froze, and didn’t want to lose to a bitter rival at home, opting for stability, a decision that might have cost his team points. But the Barça entorno is savage, and can make even the boldest manager have second, third and fourth thoughts. Winning by a goal is like a draw, a draw is a loss and a loss is catastrophe. That’s enough to make any manager tight, stifling things such as the sheer agression that might have turned the tide with a bold managerial decision.

Was Luis Enrique as stunned at the rest of the culerverse by the minute from hell, in which the team lost Busquets, then Messi, then the lead? Quite possibly. But as a fanbase went into meltdown, the circumstances were, and still are fascinating, and worth a closer look.

Barça is nursing a 1-0 lead against an Atleti that hadn’t really been all that threatening. A shot or two, but nothing of any substance. When the foul came, footballers from when they are schoolboys all see the same thing: an opponent tries to start play as quickly as possible, to catch the opponent unawares. Yet, when Atleti does this, look at the situation:

— The nearest Barça defender is a few yards away from the scene of the foul, and about ten yards away from where the Atleti attacker takes the pass. Defenders, or pretty much any pleyer, learns to stand over the ball, then look around to make sure their teammates are ready before allowing play to resume. Take a yellow? Okay. But you don’t take a goal.

— When the play begins, Pique is standing right on top of Torres, but pretty much nobody is marking anybody else. When he gets nutmegged by Torres, Correa is just running into space. Pique has two men to mark, Mascherano has none, and a choice whether to leave the left side unattended, or trust folks to do work.

— At the moment of the pass, Turan is over there, Iniesta is over there, Sergi Roberto is over there. They all act surprised when the play begins, and all are out of position. Pique is doomed, Mascherano has to try to dart over to mark Correa, slips and falls. At that point, even as a few wondered if Ter Stegen could have done better, the keeper is screwed. It’s like a penalty. You have to guess. Go one way, shooter goes the other.

Barça Twitter was a fascinating beast because the instant reaction was to start beating on Mascherano, who is this season’s whipping boy now that Mathieu wasn’t play, Douglas and Vermaelen are gone and Adriano in Turkey. The two goal theories are, of course, who was the last man with a shot at stopping it, or if you’re an electronics nerd, GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). Most supporters are the former, most coaches the latter. In the film session, you can bet your house that Luis Enrique will find a nice way to say, “What were you assholes doing on that restart?”

Oddly enough, Mascherano was about the only one doing what he was supposed to be doing, which was to keep an eye out for leakers from his side of the pitch. Everybody else was a mess, and Atleti scored from the only real opportunity they had to score. That’s efficiency.

After the match, one media outlet ran a headline noting that 10 points from the first five matches is the lowest points total in that period for the team since … The astute will fill in, “since the first treble season.”

The shame of the Atleti goal was that Barça had been razor-sharp until that point, but reeling after watching a pair of essential players go off the pitch. Hats off to Atleti for capitalizing. Errors can kill. Alaves scored from a pair of well-taken goals, both with roots in Barça errors. Perfection is inpossible, What a team wants to do is not have imperfection at the wrong time, such as close to your box with a fresh attacker just entering the match. Barça did, and that was that.

The attack generated chances, near-misses and almost chances. Neymar shaved the post, then Pique pushed a header just wide. Rakitic was too hard with a smacked pass for an open Neymar, then time expired. Retrospect is such that we can question Luis Enrique’s actions in the wake of the result, but if players do what they customarily do, he looks a genius and we are all breathing a sigh of relief at a hard-fought win.

Reality is that if any of us had been told that Messi and Busquets would leave injured and the result would be a draw against Atleti, any of us would have taken it. It was quite the contest, and brilliant to watch for neutrals, and heartless ghouls like me.

Man up, coach

Busquets came off, something that was a surprise, since he was running fine, not limping or anything. It was later discovered to be something intestinal, and he looked pretty ashen coming off. This was known before the match. When Messi pulled up lame, clutching his groin, this was also known before the match. A culerverse went into meltdown, but only a few had the temerity to suggest that Messi brought the injury on himself and that further, if the coach knows players are nursing potentially injurious stuff, why is he playing them?

Barça went to the market in the summer, and purchased depth that has build the strongest team that any of us have seen since the days of Cruijff. Yes, Messi is the best player in the game, but he’s worthless if you run him into the ground. He wants to play all the time. Duh. He will get upset if you don’t play him all the time. Duh. But at some point, the coach is the coach. Argentina worked the junkie stick to get him playing despite being injured. He raced back to Barcelona and featured in a match, a loss against Alaves, mere days after leaving Argentina’s second qualifier because he was injured.

Now he is injured for real. This isn’t the first time that this has happened to Messi. He was out eight weeks previously, whereupon Neymar and Suarez proceeded to go hog wild. The bulk of the 0-4 Classic shelling was accomplished without Messi, who entered for a cameo after things were already decided.

Right now the club says he will be out three weeks. Messi should remain out until he is completely, and thoroughly healthy. The team has talent enough to get along without him.

Messi is like a drug. It’s nice having him at your disposal if you are a coach, and supporters love having Messi on the pitch, even when know that Messi shouldn’t be on the pitch. “Oh, he can manage himself,” is one of the phrases used to justify abuse of a footballing icon. No. He can’t manage himself. He’s an addict, and football is his crack. A grownup has to say “No,” to force an intervention. With careful management, this could have been a match, maybe two. Instead it’s three weeks, maybe more. And given that once a groin is torn it could scuttle an athlete’s season, who knows how long this injury could affect Messi? Everybody wanted their fix including the player himself. Now nobody gets any for at least three weeks.

Doom!

Barça end this Liga round where it started, three points adrift of table leader Real Madrid. If we apply some context here, there isn’t any cause whatsoever for worry. It takes time to build things, and Luis Enrique is still building something potentially world beating at Barça. As with the first treble team and that influx of new bodies, the gelling process takes time and effort. We should give it that. The seductive route was “This is the best Barça team ever, and they will kill everybody.” The reality is that the team got a pile of new bodies over the summer, and will need to not only integrate those, but then build the machine necessary to take fullest advantage of those talented additions.

Andre Gomes kicked out some jams in the hole as a sub for Busquets, just one of many positive signs. Iniesta was excellent, and Rakitic is liberated by not having to babysit Dani Alves, thanks to Sergi Roberto stomping the terra. There is one hell of a team there. We just have to relax and let it happen.

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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.

9 Comments

  1. Davour
    September 22, 2016

    Thanks for the article. First, I am baffled that anyone could even suggest Ter Stegen was at fault – how the devil could you stop that shot? It would be pure luck. If Masche stays on his feet, they have it covered. But neither is it Masche’s fault – no way. It is hard to see why context is such a difficult concept. Messi does not win the WC on his own (neither did Maradona or anyone else – though Higuain did lose a few singel-handedly!), and Masche did not cause that goal; he shouldn’t have been put in that spot in the first place. I was taken aback myself; it did not look like the FK had been taken, but if the ref allows it, it had.

    It is true LE took the safety option – but the team was shaken. And there were chances to finish it anyway. I feel Turan was the wrong choice, would have preferred Rafinha coming off a great performance, but Arda perhaps was rewarded, trusted, for long term reasons, too. Confidence building, though it is not likely that was the outcome (he caused the fatal FK with a sloppy challenge).

    Let’s hope the team comes together like last year in Messi’s absence. Neymar seems on his way to good form, showing some incredible moves, but Suarez needs to step up a little, losing too many balls in dangerous positions. Still, el capita Andrés looks more than ready to lead and take names. Has he ever been better, more all-round? Amazing, truly amazing. That ghost-move before the cross for the goal… So simple, so divine.

  2. Jim
    September 22, 2016

    Ok” once again this won’t be popular and because it’s happening so often I either have to assume I’m getting crus tier as I get older or folks genuinely see it differently. Here is where I am at the moment.

    LE rotated far too much a few weeks ago and consequently lost points we shouldn’t have lost. Yes, I know no guarantees but that was folly. Messi came back, quite obviously now carrying a niggle and wasn’t rested. First quibble – I thought we were told LE was the mister and he was determined to rotate ? Well, I wasn’t thinking of Rakitic when we talked about that. I was thinking Pique, Messi etc. So we either accept that our fringe players can’t hack it ( at least at the moment) or we look at LE and say so what happened ? Messi shouldn’t have been near a game until last night imo. His rotation is a bit of a sham if he only rotates those who don’t mind it or don’t need it. Strike one.

    Next, and we’ll come to specifics later, but Masche hasn’t been with it all season so far. Even the diehards must see that. So why, given that we’re up against two speedy forwards and he has no real pace or height was Mathieu not played ? Answer ? I suspect not because he doesn’t trust. Mathieu but rather LE feels Masche is essential to the team. Strike two in my book. He’s not learning.

    Thirdly, when Busi had to go off , despite my dislike of Masche at CB , I wouldn’t have minded him moving to DM . He’d have attacked anything that moved and that would have been useful. Likewise when Messi went off our creativity suffered. I’d agree with Kxevin’s suggestion about Neymar central. He’s looked good there before and would have been better than the acceptance of a blunted attack, although I’m starting to get impatient with Turan. He’s better than we’re seeing at the moment. . Strike three. I’m not up on this. Is that all you get ?

    The goal. What follows is just the way I see it. For a goal against us I look at three things. Was the person in the correct position to start with? How did they respond to the threat? Did they show the level of skill in defending I’d expect from Barca ?

    Pique first although I’m struggling to see what case he has to answer.

    Was he in the correct position? Yes, he was marking his man, goal side. In fact, as Kxevin says he had two to mark. Secondly, did he react in the correct way to Torres going short to the ball ? Yes, he followed him out. I suppose you could argue he could have been a yard closer. But that would have made Torres’ flick more likely to succeed than less. His job is to make sure Torres doesn’t turn with it . Now I can understand the sentiment of The ” nutmeg” – except that’s not a nutmeg in my book. A nutmeg is when you are facing the player , stab it through his legs run round him and collect it. This was a backwards flick.

    To be clear Torres had no idea where it would go. He didn’t even look back at who was coming with him or where he was till after the flick. He did as good attackers do – he took a chance and it paid off on this occasion.

    Thirdly, the skill level. Should Pique have prevented it going through his legs. This, for anyone who has played football is the ludicrous one. Try this at home. Run five yards full out. And half way through it try to shut your legs instantly. It’s hard enough when you’re facing the man and you know it’s a possibility. You can’t stand with your legs shut for goodness’ sake. A non starter. I’ve got a growing feeling that we have wasted Pique’s best years by not giving him a partner of sufficient quality.

    How about Masche ?

    Was he in the right position ? Not even close. The context is that we have just lost two of our best players including our DM so it’s fair to assume our defence is going to be tested. Cornea has just come on with Torres so AM’s intent is clear. So the FK is taken at 60:39. At exactly this point Masche extends his arm to point to the fact that Pique has two men to mark. I’m assuming he wants Gomes to drop deep to take one of them ? He. Is more than ten yards away from Pique with a hole the size of two double decker buses between him and Pique, he sees Gomes isn’t paying attention yet he doesn’t move one step to cover. No, he isn’t marking some great threat about to swoop from our left wing as nobody is there. The two nearest players there are Alba and Iniesta. He’s just in completely the wrong position.

    Secondly, does he react to the threat ? Us, but only once the ball gets to Correa’s feet. Ask yourself, what did he think he was marking that was more important than covering one of Pique’s two men ? There is literally not an opposition player in sight.

    Thirdly, did he show the skill required ? Well, that didn’t really come into it. He was so far out of position he was forced to sprint across, the forward sees him coming and steps back inside him and Masche goes down. The only thing he wasn’t responsible for I of was the slip. It was inevitable the speed he had to change direction at.

    Now I’m not excusing others here. Yes, Turan should have stood over the ball, yes Gomes didn’t even glance behind him for danger, yes Pique should maybe have shouted for help. However, that’s where you have to credit AM. They took a great quick FK and luck was with them. Goal whiich they never looked like getting – which in turn is why I’m sounding so hacked off. But it’s more than that. Masche made the same mistake in the CL for Torres’ goal last year, delaying getting back into position to cover Pique when he had to advance to stop a forward coming into our box unopposed. It keeps on happening !!!

    I’m happy for anyone to tell me where I’m wrong and what Masche was actually doing throughout all this or what Pique could have done better but have a look first. It’s bound to be on YouTube. And the best angles are the full pitch or the sideways one.

    Having incurred the wrath , I’m now about to do a runner to Portugal for a week’s golf. Could do with calming down there, I know. And I know we have a strong squad which will get better but they are no more than just a rotation option. I’m not sure who we have bought, Umtiti apart, who looks like a Barca first teamer at the moment. We seem to have a whack of good midfield players who can all do everything a little bit but none of whom carry any real threat.

    Doom ? No, but then I wasn’t one of those who was saying this was the strongest Barca squad ever. As usual, our season will depend on the form and availability of three or four players and, I suppose whether LE has any intention of rotating the players who matter.

    Apologies as usual for the length of the post.

    On the bright side I thought we saw one of the best CB performances I’ve seen for years from Pique and I’m just rewatching something Iniesta did on the touchline that I didn’t even notice until now. I’m laughing out loud ! Also, we still have the best team in Europe and I fully expect another trophy or two.

    • September 23, 2016

      Its not a long post Jim, in fact I thank you for it.
      I agree with everything you said about Pique. With Masche, I thought he panicked for a moment seeing Correa, knowing very well the qualities of his young countrymen. How many times have now Correa come in as a sub and scored an important goal for Simeoni? I dont have any proof to this, but I think Masche panicked a bit realising its Correa who will have it and thats it.
      Messi and Busi, along with Iniesta and Pique are the four pillars of this team and losing 2 of them with more than 30 minutes to play against an AM, might not have gone well with our players, and they were still trying to get back their focus. Atletico were lucky to get that moment at the right time and they seized it.

      Anyways, am not really worried at this moment with season still a long way ahead. I was worried when Busquets followed by Messi left the pitch. I also didnt think LE really didnt want to win. We were still looking fine. It is quite normal that, especially against big teams, our attack is very different without Messi. It wasnt that LE didnt want to win or he settled for a draw.
      I would say one thing though. Neymar shouldnt think he can pull off a match by himself, May be he needs some lessons in La Masia on that aspect. A simple pass a bit early might save us the ball and also some kicks on him and who knows what else. Seeing this a lot, from him, in almost every match I wonder if he will be a worlds best player. I also dont under stand (lots of British people especially) people calling Suarez as the best player in the world now, because he works hard. True, he does, but the kind of simple passes or moments he destroy because of wrong decision makings or lack of skill, is not befitting a worlds best player. I say this with all my love and respects for both these players.

      With Messi out now, we wont face stubborn defences for the next games and if we hold on well Neymar and Suarez can score lots of goals.

    • georgjorge
      September 23, 2016

      I agree that Masche is not doing his best in that scene, but I think dissecting it like that also has its limits. In a game of 90 minutes, every player will make mistakes, and the one that lead to goals conceced are not necessarily worse than others.

      Iniesta lost the ball, and Gameiro took it and ran towards goal – but our defenders bailed Iniesta out by slowing him down enough for him to tackle the ball away. In that scene, Masche was bailed out by nobody (common enough for centrebacks). Does that mean his error is so much larger than anybody else’s? I say no, and I say that while still having preferred Mathieu to start alongside Pique.

      I fully agree on the disappointment regarding the lack of rotation. Key players like Iniesta and Pique do get some rest, but the front three probably never will. Maybe Enrique isn’t as tough a mister as we thought when it comes to that area. It’s disappointing because we now actually do have players who can play there (Turan/Alcacer) and I just know at some point in the season one or two of the front three will become exhausted and it will cost us games.

  3. lala10
    September 23, 2016

    Masche needs a rest or something. He has not appeared himself these past couple of games and has been uncharecteristically shaky.

  4. September 23, 2016

    Pretty much the only thing I wonder is when Mascherano and Mathieu leave, who the new whipping boys will be.

    Let’s say Masxherano dashes over to buttress Pique and Correa dishes to an attacker running into the space Mascherano has just vacated. He still sucks, is still a waste of space. Instead the LCB did what he was supposed to do, which is to play his space and not chase the ball. But he still sucks and is a waste of space

    Mascherano has been off form this season, but the knives that people are grinding on him are unwarranted. Hey, I get that Pique is Pique, but he got skinned, along with everyone else over there. It’s why Correa was laughing as he celebrated the goal, because he couldn’t believe a team of Barça’s caliber would fall for that schoolboy nonsense.

    I won’t defend Mascherano. It’s pointless, and there’s no interest. But I would have killed to be a fly on the wall in that film session as Luis Enrique broke down the comedy of errors that led to that goal. And I would bet a year’s wages that his focus woukdn’t be solely on Mascherano, who by that point was almost as screwed as Ter Stegen.

  5. dl
    September 23, 2016

    Absolutely love Masche, but I think he has been ‘off’ so far this season. Pique, on the other hand (and particularly last night) has been immense. A draw is not the end of the world, and we have a deep enough team to handle virtually anyone without Messi. — we’ve in fact already proven that. The season is young, and I’m sure we’ll find a great deal to enjoy!

  6. Davour
    September 24, 2016

    It is a bit tiresome, this hunt for scapegoats. The team was hit by a shit storm, and Masche’s slip was just the final blow. Maybe he could have done better, maybe he should not have been put in this situation at all, and hence did not anticipate it.
    Collective breakdown in a team in temporary confusion after losing half its spine. Let’s leave it at that. Masche had a good game otherwise, though his season has been slow so far, and stopped a chance similar to the one he never got to against Levanes.

    Now, in other news there are actual problems if the rumours on Messi’s injury are true: further relapses may need to be corrected by surgery, meaning 3-4 months out. I fear the knives brought out for LE’s lack of rotation if that happens…

    Hoping for a good game this afternoon – time for Arda to step up, Suarez to focus, Neymar to chose his moments… and I hope Busi manages his CM-youngens well!

  7. Davour
    September 24, 2016

    Well, that was pretty solid – a 4-1-3-1 + Ney doing whatever he damn pleases?. Good thing Ney got on the score sheet, Paco showed some quality and Gomez, I think, will become a very good signing once he really finds his feet. Defence=a wall, and then SR (wonder boy) even provided 2,5 assists!

    So, let’s find a complaint. Early on, several players (Arda most obviously, otherwise quality game!) dropped to the ground assuming a FK that was not given, and caused potential danger. Cred to the ref for not buying that bullshit from either side.

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