Sporting Gijon 0, Barça 5, aka “Different machine, same result”

So much brilliance and so much doubt, embodied in a single moment during the 0-5 thrashing of Luis Enrique’s beloved, Sporting Gijon.

Ter Stegen came charging out of his nets to deal with a long ball. As is his wont, he grabbed the ball, but his momentum carried him out of the box, just. It was a yellow card (or should have been), and a free kick for Sporting from the top of the box.

It wasn’t a penalty, wasn’t a red card, wasn’t really even a good conversion chance, as the difficulty of getting a shot from there either up and over, or through the wall makes such efforts the equivalent of a shot from the halfway line.

But it was the thought of conceding that sparked a tizzy in the Barça world. Merely giving up a goal.

Of course, Barça sparkled in this away fixture, one in which they were expected to do exactly what they did. It was 0-2 before Sporting’s Lora got a long-overdue second yellow, then the floodgates opened. Some detractors said that they should have been able to do that when Sporting had eleven, even if reality is that Sporting should have been down to nine, thanks to a nasty, quite deliberate elbow that connected with Arda Turan.

But the team’s game didn’t change, and the quality of the goals were such that they would have happened had Sporting had eleven, because of the inevitability of Barça doing what it does. As the match progressed, Sporting went from rushing at Barça in an effort to put on a show for the home fans, then gradually moved toward their goal as legs tired and the reality of facing such a quality opponent began to tell. The strong tackles became weaker, became rash, became lunges as that last little bit of effort necesssary to get into the perfect position is gone, because you’re just so tired of chasing the damn ball all the time.

Barça scores late goals for this reason: rare is the team with enough energy to face the unrelenting pressure for the entire match. Look at the second yellow for Lora, a challenge that in the first half, he arrives with enough time to get a foul, but not a yellow. The Barça energy was high as Luis Enrique rotated for Sporting, choosing to rest a number of key players who excelled against Atleti at midweek. The XI was Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Mathieu, Digne, Busquets, Gomes, Rafinha, Neymar, Suarez, Turan.

Before the match a few of us armchair tactitians wondered about the logic of putting Turan on the right, others said if they put him on the left who would play right wing, as we all ignored the “marbles in a bowl” reality of what happens after the first football is kicked, and the pitch becomes a series of individual tactical duels rather than the numbered precision of which so many are enamored.

The first goal had its genesis in Sporting pressing, as a series of one-touch passes led to an exquisite Arda Turan rainbow for Luis Suarez, the kind of pass that from other players would have inspired sonnets of praise, plucked out by lute-strumming troubadors. It found Suarez perfectly in stride. The Uruguayan rounded the keeper, slotted home and that was that, the match winner, as there really was no way Sporting was going to score in this match.

Of all the things that Luis Enrique has done during his tenure, from building a system to helping improve every player on the team, defense is the most underrated aspect of his tenure. Conceding seems to throw everyone into a tizzy because it just doesn’t happen all that often. Barça isn’t a vault like Atleti, but it isn’t that far off, a team that while never as shaky defensively as legend had it, has improved both from open play and set pieces.

To be sure, there are occasional lapses of the types that truly defensive sides don’t have, such as against Alaves, but there was pretty much zero chance that the Suarez goal wasn’t going to be enough to win.

The 0-1 became 0-2 from a deft bit of triangulation between Neymar, Sergi Roberto and Rafinha as a flawless, Messiesque pass from Neymar found Sergi Roberto in stride, and his cross for Rafinha’s bullet header was just as flawless as the ball that he received. It was a Barça goal through and through, but this Barça, the new one that so many confuse for something other than what it is.

Luis Enrique’s system has evolved away from its first year, which was get the ball to the most dangerous dudes on the pitch, and get out of the way, the American basketball system of attacking, really. Barça now uses the ball as a lever to prise open space as the teams of Rijkaard and Guardiola did, but in different, more dynamic ways. It’s an attack that isn’t as much impatient as it is aware of the complexities of time, that if you give a defense time to get set, it will. So get the ball up the pitch as fast as possible, and make something happen.

In many ways teams still aren’t quite prepared for this, just as many supporters still haven’t moved on from the days of Guardiola and the more regimented, positional Barça attack. Atleti understands how to play Barça, but even as history will show a draw, those who watched know how easily that match could have been a Barça victory. Barça plays fast these days, even as the players aren’t faster, because of how the attack uses space and precision to shrink the pitch.

The third goal was pretty much a repeat of the second, a defense-splitting diagonal over distance from Neymar to Sergi Roberto, who delivered a perfect ball for Paco Alcacer (sub for Suarez), who continued his hard luck by smashing a rocket off the keeper/crossbar, that Neymar walked home.

Speaking of Alcacer, his movement to create the space for his blast was exceptional, and a real sign of why he should turn out to be an excellent acquisition for the team, even as the “should have kept Munir” crowd will pout and stamp their feet. Alcacer made the kind of move that Suarez would have made, which is the precise point of his presence on the team — a player who can enter and preserve the attacking attributes of that piece of the system.

That third goal, and the two that followed came from another aspect of what Luis Enrique has brought to team, which is fitness. Late goals come when you are fresher than your opponent because you have worked your tail off in training. This will lead to those “team malaise” matches, where everyone looks like they’re moving in glue, as against Alaves. It’s part of the cycle, as any athlete will tell you. But this Barça is usually just as sharp and aggressive in the 85th as in the 5th, yet another way in which the pressure becomes unbearable.

Barça’s fourth was a more “traditional” Barça tally, patient buildup leading to an easy strike but even here, the Luis Enrique touch was that more of those easy strikes are headers. Sergi Roberto banged in yet another inch-perfect assist, this time for Arda Turan, who headed home at the far post, a consequence of an attack that not only folds space, but expands it to make things difficult for a defense as the ball moves quickly from center to right to left.

The fifth goal was abusive. It’s illustrative to watch the reactions of the Sporting player as the ball pinged around them, the almost exasperated running with heads down, desperate sprinting yet again, chasing something that is always elusive. Denis Suarez fed Neymar, who made the kind of finish that he should have made against Atleti (still not over it!), a precisely angled shot that found the far corner, with pace.

During the match, Phil Schoen of BeIN sports began to voice an interesting thought before being scoffed down by Ray Hudson, his announcing counterpart: is Barça better without Messi? The answer of course is no, for how can any team be improved by the absence of the best player in the game? But does something different happen to the team, can players occupy spaces that are normally closed, as Messi can go where he wants with the ball as he dictates the attack. It isn’t better, but is it a more diverse kind of danger that revels in the Luis Enrique system more to expand the roster of potential scorers? It’s an interesting question to consider, one that some of us posed last season, when Messi was gone for eight weeks.

Even more interestingly, when Messi returned, it was to a mature team that was rolling along in high gear without him, leaving him with the task of finding a way to slot into it. One of ways that he did so was by enhancing his 10 qualities even more, choosing to augment rather than dominate. It was not only the first real sign of a mature Neymar, that injury stretch, but the first time we could see what Luis Enrique was striving to build, and is continuing to build.

Barça has a hard time of it, in many ways. It’s a team that, because of its reputation, can’t be merely really good. During the match, Schoen and Hudson kept talking about a “workmanlike” Barça, a team without the stardust and glitter of a genius. Expectations are weird. Barça is almost at the point where even victories aren’t good enough (even as they never have been). We must be dazzled. The team has made us football junkies, seeking a stronger and stronger fix. Three goals become four become five become six. It’s golazos and rainbow passes, swerving free kicks and jaw-dropping paases.

The Barça that destroyed Gijon was exquisite, a performance fueled by a sharp team that had a great match. There wasn’t a weak performance from anyone on the pitch, even as Sergi Roberto was justly deemed MOTM by many. Barça was a machine, one that even with new pieces still functioned the same. To continue the habit of citing Ramzi via Twitter, he noted that the Sporting result was Alaves, but with a few more training sessions, which is exactly right. A system should be able to bring around repeatable results as it builds. The 0-5 destruction of Sporting lacked all of the fireworks of the 0-7 Celtic beatdown or the Leganes destruction.

But it was every bit as beautiful.

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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.

7 Comments

  1. Davour
    September 25, 2016

    Thanks. “But does something different happen to the team, can players occupy spaces that are normally closed, as Messi can go where he wants with the ball as he dictates the attack.” – I was thinking the same thing, but along the lines of the benefits from the absence of the Messi-fear-factor, scaring teams into buses and crowding spaces. It might be temporary, as they figure out, again, that Messi-less team is still excellent, but it did seem there was more space than usual. I remember the discussions last year, whether we are more unpredictable and dynamic without Leo, etc. In a sense, perhaps, but in the end it is hard to win trebles without the magic he provides.

    This team is still good enough to win any competition – Neymar, Suarez, Iniesta, Busi and Piqué are all, to me, no 1 in world in their respective positions, while the other gala starters are world class, too. But he main channel of creativity will be Ney; let’s hope he’ll find the same mojo as last year, and that Suarez bounces back from a few less than overwhelming performances, despite goals and nifty passes.

    While Ramzi’s comment rings true, it is also true that LE should have been aware of this… The line-up against Gijon was, after all, stronger than against Alaves.

    • September 26, 2016

      For me, its the same for both Barca and Argentina, teams defend differently when Messi is on field. And I think this kind of a careful defensive plan, when Messi starts the game, came into a common theme ever since the 2010 CL semis with Inter. I still give a lot of credit to Mourinho, even if I dont like him, for that. Those were the times when coaches didnt know what to do with Messi and he showed the way. As simple as that.

      Very good show on Saturday, even if initially we took a bit more longer to look good, until Arda changed the game with his visionary lob. LE need to use Arda more and more that we will see the old Arda playing for us.

      All were excellent, Neymar and Sergi Roberto especially. The latter, I wish, he did this kind of a show in a CL game and the whole world is going to be raving about him.

    • georgjorge
      September 26, 2016

      Didn’t see the match, so nothing to say there. But while Sergi Roberto already showed his value all of last season, the defining moment for me was when he opened up the game against RM with a very clever move and perfect pass to Suarez for the first goal.

      There are players faster than him, players with better technical skills on the ball, and players with more strength to hold off opponents and win aerial duels. But his footballing intelligence is second to none – like someone on here said, he rarely makes the same error twice, and seems to learn about his position all the time. He has some of the ability of Messi to go past players not by doing fancy tricks but just by going to the place where they are not. Two seasons ago I was very sure he was another Jonathan Dos Santos (not good enough but too stubborn too leave), and I’m so happy to eat my words.

    • September 26, 2016

      I remember Masche telling – during his first season with us – that the guy to note from the juniors was Sergi Roberto. He is an excellent runner of the ball and, correct if me am wrong, I cant recollect any other right back who, consistently, ran with the ball towards the opposition half moving further inwards, rather than by the touch line. SR has done this so well so many times this season and it is a delight to watch. Its natural for every wing back to run by the touch line, though, SR with a simple touch goes inside and continue running forwards, increasing his angle to the touch line. I love it.
      By the way, Jonathan Dos Santos looks quite good with Villareal.

  2. Hamid
    September 26, 2016

    I thought that the team executed LE’s plan very well and with minimum effort. «Life without Messi» has always been a touchy subject among Barça fans. A hint that the team can more than hold itself in his absence (a fact proven time and gain) is often seen as undermining to who is indisputably the best player of all times. In those games, one can discern a sense of sobriety and level-headed focus that the team tends to overlook because it can rely on Messi’s out-of-this-world brilliance. The reality is that teams approach Barça with a different set of rules: let’s not get dismantled and let’s use every tactic in the book to stop those suckers. For us fans, this should translate into the need to take and even celebrate unglamorous wins.

  3. dl
    September 26, 2016

    As ‘obviously wrong’ as it is, I think I do see the point of those who wonder if a Messi-less Barca is more or less dangerous. It is a phenomenally talented team, even without messi, and I think if (god forbid) he had to sit out a season we would still be odds on favorites for all the titles, or at least in the finals. I enjoy seeing pressure put on Neymar and Suarez and others to up their games — because they are all capable of leading a team. Rakitic did it for Sevilla, Neymar for his national team, Suarez at Liverpool, Turan at AM…

  4. Tata2
    September 27, 2016

    Anyone has an idea of what Turan and Rakitic were talking about after Turan scored?

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