Borussia Monchengladbach 1, Barça 2, aka “A change that refreshes”

On a Paris vacation one year, my wife and I were looking for a particular restaurant, got hopelessly lost and wound up, purely by accident on Rue Mouffetard, a half-mile stretch of gustatory overload. We had a great meal, homemade gelato and a lovely experience at the end of all the travail and crankiness.

That was a lot like the Borussia Monchengladbach Champions League outing, in which Luis Enrique started out in search of the wrong thing, got religion and a grand time was had by all. With an XI of Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Neymar, Suarez and Alcacer, it was odd that the Barça coach made a tactical decision based on individual excellence.

On paper, Neymar, Suarez and Alcacer doesn’t work, mostly because it creates imbalances elsewhere on the pitch because Neymar becomes the superstar who will shirk on the donkey work, while Suarez and Alcacer will spend the bulk of their time in the opponent box. It leaves the other eight outfield players with too much space to cover, should a turnover happen at the wrong time against a pressing, counterattacking team such as Borussia … which is exactly what happened.

Busquets ran into a vice, turned the ball over and the mess began. At the moment Mascherano makes the pass to Busquets, there aren’t any options for the gangly midfielder. Iniesta is moving away from him, Rakitic isn’t positioned well and there are three Borussia players within five yards of Busquets. They converge, and there was only one outcome. The subsequent Borussia counter had then running at a fully exposed Barça defense. Every Barça attacker is outpaced. Pique moves to cover for the dead in the water Sergi Roberto, Mascherano moves to cover the Pique space, leaving the complexity of something you just don’t consider: Jordi Alba was left for dead by his runner who calmly slots home, leaving Ter Stegen to muse about the capricious nature of a homecoming, and just whose party this was, anyhow.

It was 1-0, and the Park was going wild even as it heaved a sigh of relief, as this counter came in the wake of a blown Neymar opportunity when he stroked his shot directly at the Borussia keeper, the first blunder from him on a night filled with them. It was at this point that the XI decision went from briliant to way wrong, because that isn’t the group to chase a match against a pressing team when two of the three attackers are having nights to forget.

For 89 and a half minutes, Neymar was the precise player that his detractors revel in. He dribbled into danger and lost the ball time and again, argued his way into a yellow, misplaced passes and had the kind of match that probably made Robinho say, “Hey, don’t call him Robinho II. I never sucked that bad.” And because the unbalanced lineup had Busquets too deep thus isolating Iniesta which also isolated Neymar, the pressing Borussia players could just rush to the ball whenever Neymar got it, and dispossess him because nobody, not even Messi, can dribble multiple defenders regularly.

But that didn’t stop Suarez from trying to do the same thing whenever he got the ball, stumbling at a pair of Borussia defenders like a baby mastodon taking its first steps, losing the ball then glowering at the futility of it all while standing there, watching Borussia players capering away with their easily won prize.

Alcacer couldn’t even yell, “Hey guys, I’m open,” because he wasn’t. Because there was nobody to get him the ball, a reality that reduced him to spectator. It was a mess, and people began to predict another Alaves, and talk about how everyone underestimated this Borussia side, who were tapped to be nothing but trouble, unless you ignore the fact that most of the trouble Barça faced was of its own making.

So, like that lost-as-hell couple in Paris who decided, “To hell with that restaurant, let’s just eat here,” a change of plans brought about something wonderful. At halftime, Luis Enrique pretty quickly deduced that his “genius” program was being sabotaged by clods, so it was on to Plan B. In the 60th minute, Rafinha came on for Rakitic and Arda Turan came on for Alcacer. A lot of stuff happened with this pair of subs:

— Iniesta got a playmate
— Busquets could move up the pitch, as he wasn’t so isolated in defense thanks to Turan and Rafinha
— Borussia’s defenders had two players to track who could move with and without the ball
— Suarez had the box all to himself again, and could get a pass where he could do damage, instead of on the edge of the box
— Barça could press with all the outfield players, which blunted any Borussia ambitions
— There were two players who could move into space and score, rather than being easy to mark
— Neymar had working space

It all seems so simple when you look at it that way, but look at the result. Busquets received a pass almost at the edge of the Borussia box and fed Neymar who, rather than having to beat 2-3 defenders before he could do anything, could breathe and make something happen. He lobbed a rainbow to Turan who, rather than being the kind of attacker (Alcacer) who occupied a position and waited for the bus to come, could pass and move, running to a spot. Neymar’s inch-perfect pass dropped at Turan’s feet and suddenly it was 1-1 in a world of puppies and rainbows.

If you look at when the pass happens, the run dictated it. Neymar could see it because he wasn’t fighting to retain possession and Turan was already at full tilt running onto the ball. It was an easy, logical goal (and one that Ter Stegen probably doesn’t concede because he rushes that Neymar pass so that it never finds its target, but that’s another story) that seemed as easy as it was. It was also a satisfying goal because it came from subs, a tactical change and an embrace of the system, rather than “Hey magic men, do your stuff,” something that Barça now has the depth and quality to move away from.

Luis Enrique won’t get a lot of praise or credit for making the decisions that turned that match around. Typically, he deflected attention to his assistant, Unzue. Luis Enrique isn’t a celebrated coach, nor is he considered a genius in the way other coaches are. He’s considered a hard-working coach like the player that he was, not that he cares. His team understands, and rewards him.

It’s easy to wonder why Barça seemed so calm, even when down 1-0 away in the Champions League. It was more than “Well, it’s the group stages.” The team knew that it had enough quality to overturn the result, as 1-0 was … well … nothing. The equalizer also had the effect of psychologically damaging the Borussia side, as often happens when a team with something to play for suddenly has a bit less to battle for. That half step is all that the Barça attack needs. There were passing lanes, the Borussia players were easily dispossessed when they were loaned the ball, and Barça moved up the pitch to play from its comfortable spot, the front foot.

The second goal was, in part, the happy accident. It was a set piece that worked exactly as planned except for an off shot from Suarez, who found himself exactly as it was all drawn up by Unzue. He was unmarked just above the spot as Neymar’s pass, rather than a lofted ball into the area as Borussia expected, was a ball along the ground at a pace set up for Suarez to strike through. His one-timer was parried, then spilled by the keeper and Pique was there to mop up. It was 1-2, and Borussia was done. So was the match.

Last season in the same situation, Barça probably doesn’t pull one out of the fire because the bench was rather a different prospect. This year, an in-form Turan and a razor-sharp Rafinha were just begging for insertion. Last year, Luis Enrique seemed stubborn not because he was, but because what could he do, really? Sandro? Munir? This season he not only has the tactical nous that he had before, but the players to implement his ideas. It was as clear to him as any of us that his front three weren’t working, but you give any decision a half, because of the players you have. Suarez could be terrible for a match, sparkle for 30 seconds, score a brace, then retun to invisibility. Neymar is always capable of something extraordinary.

Neymar has been at FC Barcelona for going into four seasons. In that time he has tallied key goals, highlight reel moments, assists and has learned to track back on defense and work doggedly. He has selflessly slotted into a superstar front three and has never at any time not been deferential to its leader, Lionel Messi. Messi isn’t getting kicked as much because Neymar is getting kicked — pretty much all the time. He used to exaggerate. Now he mostly gets up and gets on with it, unless he wants to call a laggardly official’s attention to systematic abuse. He accelerates the play of Barça in a way that makes its attack much more dangerous and in the eight weeks that Messi was absent last season, Neymar became the engine that drove the squad. Without those efforts, the Liga isn’t won.

Despite all of that, too many supporters lay in wait for him like semantic thieves in the night, leaping upon any and all failures, forgetting that other players have crap matches as well. Without question, Neymar was so poor yesterday. Yet, like Messi who will be crap for most of a match, then pop up, score two goals and walk off with MOTM, Neymar was integral to both Barça goals against Borussia. Why he continues to have detractors, why he continues to have to deal with a double standard, only they know. But of the many things that make the world of Barça social media so absurd and unfathomable, the dislike of Neymar is one of the more noteworthy.

Meanwhile, Barça got some breathing room in the group, thanks to Celtic doing the lord’s work and drawing Manchester City. While no match in that group is a gimme, Barça will go into the remaining ties against Celtic and Borussia (Camp Nou) with a degree of confidence. And if City defends against Borussia as it did against Celtic, the job of winning the group will be a bit less daunting for Barça, who demonstrated the calmness and will of a champion. Just as it reassures us to see players such as Busquets, Iniesta and Neymar, it must do wonders when you’re working with them on the pitch. It’s easy to say that quality will out in the highsight of 20/20 and a come-from-behind victory, but an adage isn’t just made up. The more talented team played well enough to win. Championships are built from those kinds of bricks.

By Kxevin

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.


  1. I for one criticized Neymar’s decision-making, first and foremost, in this game, but adore him as a player. My disappointment was that he has such amazing ability, that running into a wall over and over should not be necessary. If he hogs the ball, the advantages of the Messi-less Barca are diminished. But we should be balanced; as you point out: many are the times when Messi strolled no-man’s-land for most of games, failing to execute a proper dribble, then scored a few (he is really a more consistent, if less explosive, player these days). Good points on how the set-up isolated Neymar (and others), but I feel that is not the whole story, of course. We’ll se how he picks himself up next game (he will).

    Also, fair to give LE cred for the subs – I was not delighted with the starting 11, but I can see the logic in giving Paco a run (and difficulty to bench Suarez in CL), and had Ney buried that chance, the narrative – as always – could’ve been different. LE reacted and improved the team. And finally: let’s give Paco some time – we have seen the steepness of that learning curve so many times, it is baffling that so many are still surprised!

  2. I login a wp account to do my 1st comment here, long time reader here. I work hard to build a football career in Hamburg. Sorry on my English.
    I think this article is little trying to cover up the issue of Neymar, very apologetical to him I think.
    If he did not give the pass to Turan, he was only 2 star for this game.
    Sorry, I did not hate Neymar. Me a fan also..
    In the 1st h. MGB did not keep any strict park bus. There was lot of space, but our creators did not use.
    Neymar do not think all time, try just independently In simple moments also. he did not pass. In many game also he do this, not first time.
    And Turan goal is not easy or simple goal. It is very difficult finish. If you play you shall know it is no easy finish.
    Which position you play Sir.

    1. Sorry, but how exactly am I trying to cover up for Neymar? From above:

      For 89 and a half minutes, Neymar was the precise player that his detractors revel in. He dribbled into danger and lost the ball time and again, argued his way into a yellow, misplaced passes

      If I still did player grades, he would have gotten a 1 (out of 10) from me. Not aware of any other issue with Neymar.

      Neymar was bought for his creativity. So yes, he will keep the ball a lot of times when he should pass. So does Messi, so does Suarez. It drives me crazy when any of them do it, especially if they pass when they should keep it, like Suarez did against Borussia.

      — From that spot, for a player of Turan’s quality, that is an easy goal, even as we understand that it’s never easy to strike a ball with a shoe-covered foot and know where it is going to go. But that is why Turan is Turan, and not a substitute for Sporting Gijon — because he has the talent to make those goals “easy.”

      — I don’t play football, I race bicycles.

  3. Thank you Kxevin for another impeccable and insightful analysis. «Well enough to win» pretty much sums it up. In a season when the team has to play countless games, on many fronts and against teams who bring their best (and worst) against us, we need to temper our expectations. Barça often struggles when it has to chase a match (even with Messi). Yesterday was a game we could have lost given our history. We did not. The players came back from half-time with clear instructions: avoid stupid mistakes, keep the ball and be patient. The 2 subs proved shrewd and timely. A shot at early qualification to the knock-out round (after City’s draw) looks like Mission Accomplished to me.

  4. Football can be a very simple game if you make it so. If you try to complicate things, then it becomes a complicate game.
    That’s where i have an issue with some of our players.
    Of course they can and will make mistakes, it’s part of the game, but, making the same mistake over and over game is very naive if not foolish or even stupid. The coach need to talk with them about this, they need to understand that needles dribbles or unecessary possesion of the ball will only harm us.

    1. I was screaming at the TV. But the larger issue was spacing. Everybody had to dribble to do anything because ball and player spaces were open. Once subs were made and everything closed up, it all worked a lot better.

      But giving Suarez the ball at the left edge of the box and expecting him to do anything except lose it, is fiolly.

    2. I have no issue whatsoever when you try that at your opponent’s box, more so i expect a player like Ney, Messi, Iniesta, Suarez to.try something on their own.
      But, when they try that in no man’s land, than i scream as hell because i know what’s coming. And i believe no coach wants to see that cause there’s a high probability that you will get punish. We have been punished in the past, im sure that it will continue so, i just hope it wont matter when it happens.

    1. I think he was a) hoping the ball would go into the box more and b) and Suarez and Alcacer would play more together. Neither happened, so it was just a mess. I hope he tries that front line some more. Potential is high, with Suarez taking and passing off for Alcacer, or the reverse. Each can sow chaos with movement, do wall passes and bang in goals.

  5. The Internet irks me. I watch a frustrating match that ultimately ends up with a gritty, hard fought win and then read opinions about it afterwards and end up even more frustrated.
    People, and not you Kxevin, have been on Neymar’s back constantly because he’s not God, well Messi.
    In this match, in which he and the entire team underperformed, his role from the outset was to create and he did. He made two goals and should have had an assist if Suarez hadn’t made a bad decision then a worse pass at 0-0. Suarez had a stinker too and his job is to score goals which he failed to do but gets a by because of the effort he puts in? I saw bags of effort from Neymar even if it was misplaced and ill-executed.
    Every time he received the ball he was surrounded by 3-4 BMG players and yet there was no one else open due to the utter lack of movement and chemistry from Paco.
    Rakitic was AWOL in the first half and never showed for the ball leaving Sergi Roberto with only defensive duties in the half.
    Suarez didn’t know where to move as Paco was in his way and Iniesta played almost in isolation.
    Busquets also shoulders a lot more blame than he’s getting for the goal as he could have laced the ball back to Masch or even further back to MATS but decided to do what he normally does when he’s not at 100% and over played.

    I was surprised at Alba losing a foot race so easily but in that situation he should have taken a yellow early in the move and killed the attack by holding back Hazard. A move that I would more easily see Digne doing.

    Lucho’s subs fixed practically every one of the first half problems and if they had played a further 90mins I couldn’t have seen BMG coming back. I expected Gomes for Busquets to be another sub in the match but overall it was very good game management in the second half from Barcelona

    1. I also expected Gomes for Busquets as that third sub, particularly as part of the plan was to move Busquets forward, which was right in Gomes’ wheelhouse.

  6. Good article Kevin, except that you think Arda’s goal was easy. Even for any world class player its not easy from that angle with a player on him. Am afraid, when you say you have never kicked a ball but insists that it was easy finish, it sounds strange, no?

    The way MGB played, am considering spending more time to watch some German league. MGB, BD they all seem to pass the ball so well. Very pleasing to the eye I must say.

    Celta, with the past history, I cant wait for this game.

    1. Didn’t say I have never kicked a ball. You assume that as part of the arrogance endemic to the attitude you and many others have that if you don’t play the game, you can’t understand or relate to it.

      I have kicked many a ball, taken part in more than my share of kickabouts. I don’t play the game in that I am a cyclist. That’s what I do. But I am VERY aware of the uncertainty involved — as I quite clearly note above in a comment — in lashing at a ball with a boot-covered foot.

      But as a formerly elite athlete in my sport, I am also aware of the different standard at that level. We made making a bicycle go 45 mph look easy. It wasn’t, but it was the standard. We did it. Race after race, day after day. It was automatic.

      If that goal, given the complexities of the foot-boot interface wasn’t, in that context, automatic in that elite athlete way for Turan, he wouldn’t be at Barça. It’s why attackers from lesser teams put those shots over, or don’t even try them.

    2. I used your own words, not from this article or comment, but you have said it here before in a post or comment that you have never kicked a ball.

  7. When you guys talk about internet and Neymar bashing, you are talking about every other blog or site except this one?
    Because i didn’t noticed that someone here talked nonsense about him.

    1. I only follow this blog and nothing else due to the quality of writing of the bloggers and readers. here.

  8. Just back from my boys holiday playing golf in Vilamoura, Portugal. Hadn’t realised what a business golf is there. Walking round poolside in the hotel before heading off there were about a hundred folk round it on loungers and all female ! Apparently their other halves were all off playing golf. Bizarre.

    Spent most of our midweek match dashing round the marina looking for a pub which was showing our match – and despite TVs everywhere showing CL matches, not one ! I berated the owner of one Irish pub for this only to be told that Barca are too good and he wasn’t expecting a contest

    So, didn’t catch the match as Internet was too frustrating in the hotel. Only seen the highlights which didn’t look disastrous so I’m guessing I missed a lot of the huffing and puffing folks have been describing. Goal wasn’t a highlight for us but I’d have to agree that Masche doesn’t really deserve a lot of flack for the goal. As Ciaran says the obvious ball for Busi was to return it to Masche – we do it all the time so maybe his step slower start to the season is continuing. However, I’m gonna say pique should also have done better. He kept peddling backwards giving them loads of room to run into and time to pick a pass. He’s a good five yards deeper than Masche throughout which makes offside difficult. Have to say his goal was better than it seemed. He was first to react, had the strength to muscle past the defender, the skill to take it away from the keeper in one swift movement – and that’s from a CB ?

    With regard to the discussion on Neymar, for me he is already the second or third best player in the world ( depends where you put Ini) . Messi can’t play forever , so if you don’t think Neymar is our next best hope, who do you think ? He’s young, he makes lots of mistakes, didn’t come up through La Masia and is Brazilian so he’s gonna make a lot of wrong decisions. But he HAS to be worth encouraging and giving leeway to because he has the lot. He obviously admires Messi so hopefully he is watching him closely and gradually taking in the value of a nicely timed pass rather than a dribble. His pass for Turan was awesome vision. I think it’s okay to point out these wrong decisions but as part of an overall appreciation of what we have there. I have to agree that I haven’t seen any real bashing of him here but since Barcastuff ceased ( the new one is a bit disappointing although I loved the tweet about Figo which started “Figo (Traitor) …..” Nothing like being objective huh ? ) I’ve been popping over to Kxevin’s account which seems to have as good an account of what’s going on news wise in the Barca world as anything I’ve seen .

    Kxevin, do you do any work ? Mind you, at least I’ve found something we agree on. Long term Jam fan, me !!!

    From limited visits there it seems there’s a whole new nasty world I’m not ready for. The spouting of wild views with no attempt at justification for them would infuriate me but explains a lot about the current level of debate in our world. It was so peaceful in O’ Neills Irish pub last week , just singing along. And drinking while watching Celtic give Man City a hard time. And it won’t be a lot different when we go there. Wild on European night. Hope we have Messi back.

    1. I would not expect internet discussion on any other big clubs to differ that much from what you see about Barca, which is why don’t fully buy the whole “Only Barca supporters see doom everywhere and can’t appreciate beautiful games” narrative. I’m sure that within five minutes I can find a LOT of supporters complaining about the coach and players of Manchester United, RM, Bayern or whatever you have. It seems to be part of arguing football on the internet, which often attracts certain people and leads to spaces framed in a certain way.

    2. This account is ok info-wise regarding news:

      On Neymar – he should be given plenty of leeway, benefit of the doubt and encouragement and whatnot. There is no other player in the world that is even close to his level and potential as a creative force (excluding his teammates). Perhaps his level last year, when Messi was injured, increased expectations to an unreasonable level. Suarez is not as effective as a partner, either, at this point as last year. The will both come around, I am sure, and Ney has been plenty good this season already (and Luis has scored, if not played great).

  9. Jim – “and is Brazilian so he’s gonna make a lot of wrong decisions” – lol, yeah.

    Arda’s goal – its a funny debate, because it is hard to classify that as an easy or a hard goal, irrespective of whether you play football or not. I do and I think that he would’ve been criticized if he didn’t hit the target from there by the same people saying that it is a brilliant finish. At the same time. he would’ve been given the pass if he hit it straight to the keeper by the people who think it was rather normal for his standards.
    It’s one of those goals that just come off without much design, sometimes they don’t even after a lot of deliberation. Random, you know

    But Arda is fully sharp and ready to take over Rakitics starting position – that’s the one thing that the goal proves for me. The idea of an Iniesta, Arda and Busquets midfield is mouth-watering.

  10. What Kevin writes about the team depicts what they really do on the pitch that day ney was whack forgive my words but assisted and preassisted two goals so on a whole I think he should be left of the hook a bit

  11. RM are becoming real masters at drawing games. It’s been a while since they’ve actually won one…a strong game from us tonight and we’ll be top of the table! Can’t wait.

  12. Tonight’s team

    Ter Stegen, Roberto, Pique, Mathieu, Alba, Gomes, Busquets, Rafinha, Arda, Suarez, Neymar

    Hmm, no Iniesta ?

  13. That was a rough half, wasn’t it? Team can’t handle Celta’s pressure and create proper attack – looking sluggish, again. Suarez’ bad form continues, Rafinha is not having the greatest of games, but looked good last game, deserved a start. Arda has improved immensely, but he needs to learn to trail back when he loses the ball – he is CM, dammit! Still, rotation, to me, is not the issue here. This team should be able to do better, no doubt. Lacks intensity.

    And whatever is the matter with Busi? I am slowly getting worried he is playing injured or sick or some thing. He is not himself.

  14. That sucks, just when I’m sick and in bed the whole day, with nothing to look forward to but the Barcelona match…well at least now we’ve got the worst match of the season behind us.

    That Mascherano guy though…now he’s even giving up goals when he’s not on the pitch! Outrageous!

  15. Too bad with the ter Stegen hick-up, but who knows if we would have made that third goal otherwise. all in the stars… The team is not in a good spell – two horrific first halves in a row, looking slow and out of ideas. Neymar is trying, and Iniesta is still class, but Suarez has become a place where attacks come to die – like the early days Luis again, zero confidence. Together with a Busi out of shape and new players, like Gomes, still not fully integrated, well… Central defence, to me, did alright; I am mostly worried about our mid not working and attacks not clicking. We had trouble holding up the ball, even.

    Need to snap out of it; had a bad spell around this time last year, too. It’s nothing Messi can fix on his own, so let’s look elsewhere. And rotation is necessary, so let’s skip that discussion, too. The alternative is not an option, even if individual selections can be questioned. It is hard to find the balance.

    And hope MAtS shakes this. He will need to be a bit less risky, perhaps; at times I feel he is making it more difficult than it has to be, like making a point. But the basic idea must not change. This is what we have.

    1. Oh, and let’s not forget the second half. Good spirit, even if first did not show that. Something to build on. But something must be built. No way but working through it.

      And did Denis perhaps overtake André again in the pecking order?

    2. Very good comment!

      Suarez…well he always had both, the situations where he made the easy seem hard, and the situations where he made the impossible seem easy. But this season we only saw the first of the two from him. He’s fighting, running, trying everything but it doesn’t work.

      Still, a team meltdown in the first half rather than just a couple of individual bad performances (that Ter Stegen “clearance” aside). Sergi Roberto got overrun on the flank, Mathieu had laughable passes, Busquets again tricking himself into bad situations, Rafinha clueless etc. Nothing worked, and I wish I understood enough about tactics to know why.

    3. Thanks! Yes, as long as Luis keeps trying, it is bound to work out sooner or later. I’m not tactics expert, either, but I’m not even sure that is the issue. Rather that players can’t seem to execute properly (though we did start rather well, I think, first 10) – sloppy passes, or late passes, not being able to hold off opponent, some uncertainty regarding movements within new constellations…

  16. Well, that was one bummer of an evening’s viewing. I’d decided that if we weren’t doing well in the Ryder Cup I could always turn over and relax watching Barca. Then I saw the team sheet with no Iniesta and I had a feeling it was going to be a long night.

    Best thing in the match ? Seeing Jordi Alba go over and pat TS on the back. Good on him.

    The rest ? I was flicking about between the two events so will probably watch it again tomorrow but nothing looked right till Iniesta came on and that was self inflicted.

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