Barça 4, Depor 0, aka “Same ingredients, different dish”

For Barça and the rest of the big three, the weekend’s La Liga action was just what the doctor ordered. Instead of the usual post-internationals vulnerability, the title-contending trio all laid up gaudy scorelines.

Barça, however, had the most interesting storyline, not only because of the focus of this space. Although it seems I quote Ramzi a lot, it’s because he makes so much sense. After the Alaves match he said that a month or so later, and the same lineup would bring about a different, more positive result.

The evidence of that was clear against Deportivo. It was a rotation XI again, as in the social media universe that revolves around Barça, people didn’t like it. The XI was Ter Stegen, Pique, Mascherano, Mathieu, Digne, Busquets, Turan, Rakitic, Rafinha, Neymar, Suarez.

Of course people didn’t know what to think of this lineup, or a possible formation. Barça Twitter was rife with pre-match speculation about who the RB might be, with a bonus: lots of grumbling about Luis Enrique’s XI, how “he hasn’t learned his lesson,” “too much rotation,” “a 3-4-3 won’t work against Depor,” etc, etc. And to be sure, the team was just coming off its crapshow at Celta as well as knocking the detritus of an international break off its boots. And because the last two outings against Deportivo both ended in 2-2 draws, a bit of apprehension could be forgiven.

Yet this wasn’t just rotation for the sake of it. Alba and Sergi Roberto are dinged, Messi was coming off an injury, Iniesta and Umtiti will be needed for the midweek Champions League clash. It was the strongest lineup available, upon further consideration. This was an XI that was not only the right thing to do but crucial for the team, short and long-term.

The differences between Deportivo, Alaves and Celta were execution. The ball wasn’t stagnant and neither were the players. Spaces were not only closed, they weren’t present because nobody was making silly possession errors as against Celta, or making solo runs against banks of defenders, as against Alaves. Barça needs for its football, on boht ends of the pitch, to be controllable. The team is still kinda janky without the ball, and its players aren’t the fastest. If the game isn’t in front of them problems ensue, as we saw vs Celta.

Luis Enrique’s midfield-heavy lineup was proactive rather than reactive, designed to control problems with redundant layers. Turan and Rafinha could slide back as Mascherano slid forward, giving this team the potential to flood the midifeld — there were even glimpses of Rakitic and Busquets doing the double pivot thing, as a further acknowledgement of the necessity for control. The formation was tighter thanks to the entra ball handlers, and the result was a calm, assured runout in which the team could do its job.

The astute observer might have been thinking that maybe Luis Enrique did indeed learn some lessons, judging from the team setup. But so did his charges, as they were controlled and cautious with the ball almost to the point of drabness at times, an approach that rendered anything Deportivo tried irrelevant. Even though they hover around mid-table, there is, rather than a quality gap between them and Barça, something more resembling a chasm. Their only hope was to defend, be physical and foul, and hope for a lucky break.

The early goal killed that notion. It’s easy to speculate that the Alaves match might have gone differently had Neymar not scuffed that early chance, but hindsight is always 20/20. A lead lets Barça play on the front foot and makes an opponent have to chase the match. Even at a single-goal lead, with the lineup and formation Luis Enrique opted for, the hope for playing off the break was mostly eradicated because of the midfield pressure.

Notice how much less distance passes had to cover, Deportivo vs Celta. Even a pressing, physical opponent can’t deal with compressed space and skilled players, so the only option to control an attack becomes the foul. If the ball moves quickly enough, even that isn’t an option.

Notice the third Barça goal, in which everything happened too quickly for any reaction. Neymar played a perfect pass off the dead run, whipped in to Suarez who controlled with ease and slotted home, great pass leading to rather difficult finish. It was 3-0 and Barça looked to be in third gear.

And like the match last season in which Messi returned from injury, Barça was rolling, having put things away even before their talismanic No. 10 entered. 0-4 last year, 3-0 this year.

Form is also crucial. Rafinha quickly went from uncertainty to essential. His gradual return to full fitness from the knee injury, coupled with a passel of midfield acquisitions in the summer, made many wonder about his fate. But there were previous glimpses of what he could bring to the side in that Messiesque role — in a more dynamic adaptation that finds him working box to box.

A great many people also said of Rafinha that he was a comfortable player for Luis Enrique as the two have ties from Barça as well as Celta Vigo. But the first two goals demonstrate the reality of Rafinha — he is a unique midfielder, his only approximate analog being Sergi Roberto, who is a little busy these days.

Look at the first goal, where Rafinha applied not only pressure, but physical strength to work the ball loose. He then made the run into space to capitalize on his aggression, and fired past the keeper.

His second goal was not only opportunistic but again, typical. Rafinha can play like a midfielder but also track the ball and attack like a forward. His build and strength let him hold his own in the box against defenders as well. When he prodded home after a goalmouth scramble, this match felt rather different from the previous outings in which Barça gathered a two-goal lead, only to falter. One significant difference was the absence of Lucas Perez, the excellent Depor striker. Another difference was the clampdown.

Luis Suarez’s Uruguay edge seems to have shaken him out of his funk a bit. His movement was sharper. Neymar was electric, with a MOTM performance and a shout-out for Mathieu, the player Barça Twitter loves to hate, who was right in there with a shout for MOTM with a brilliant outing that included a wrongly disallowed goal.

Before the match there was worry. After the match, it was “only Deportivo.’ But it was also “only Alaves.” The team is playing better right now, sharper and with more purpose. There would be no 2-2 on this day, and good sings were everywhere, from the press and aggression even though the team was up 4-0, to the way Messi lifted off that rocket of a goal he scored. If there is any residual groin problems, that shot doesn’t have the pace that it does.

All that Barça can do is play the opponent on the schedule. This week, it was Deportivo, who had been something of a bogey team the last two outings. The expectations and demands are high for this group, which many consider to be the strongest team in world club football. Those expectations and demands are also malleable.

It’s difficult to know what to think about this Barça at times. It can look a desultory mess against Alaves and a side that can do nothing right against Celta, then destroy Deportivo at a canter. After a period free of injuries and international breaks, we should really get to see what Luis Enrique is working toward with his team.

Pray for Paco

Whether it is a voodoo doll or just simple rotten luck, you have to feel for Paco Alcacer, a player who is doing almost everything right except having the ball to into the net. He moves with alacrity, but keeps hitting posts or having keepers make astonishing saves against him. Eyebrows are starting to raise, but clearly, the goals will come. Luis Enrique, it’s safe to say, will say to him “Keep doing what you’re doing, and the goals will come.”

When the former Valencia subbed in for Suarez in the second half, it was the right move (again) from Luis Enrique. It lets Suarez leave on a buzz, gets him some rest and gives Alcacer a safe runout. And Alcacer could quite easily, with a few breaks, have had a hat trick instead of a dejected, empty-handed stroll of the pitch.

Tellingly, players such as Rafinha came to his defense, saying they know that the goals will come. And they will.

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Written by:

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.

15 Comments

  1. ciaran
    October 16, 2016

    People ignore Lucho’s tactical abilities but the differences between the 3-4-3 in this match and the last were very important.
    Arda and Rafinha were swapped and were both better for it, adding flair and energy to both lines as well as the goals from Rafinha.
    More importantly Pique’s positioning when ter Stegen had the ball was completely different. Last time out he held his position at the right side of the box like he would in a 4-3-3 meaning that ter Stegen had 1 less passing option. This time he stayed central allowing Masch that side and Pique was positioned as Busquets normally would be, splitting the centre backs.
    There was no option to effectively press for Depor and the match was well managed from there on.

    Great substitutions also, giving Paco more time to find his feet and giving rest to those who needed it. A great match all round.

    • October 16, 2016

      Umtiti seems to be part of the XI. What he brings to the attack is so important, not just for playing out but for Pique’s actions. Can’t wait to see this team against City.

  2. TITO
    October 17, 2016

    Goals will come for Paco.
    As my father says, scoring goals will come eventually, the problem is getting yourself a chance to score, that’s more difficult.
    And since he knows how to be at the right place at the right time, i’m not concerned, he will start scoring goals, and i believe they will be crucial this season.

  3. Davour
    October 17, 2016

    Thanks for the break-down! Some lack of control, initially, but no real mistakes – ter Stegen didn’t face a single shot on goal. You could sense Busi’s increased alertness in distributing the ball in time; he has had a good talk with himself on that topic.

    Lovely to Rafinha rise. Hopefully he will continue and provide a creative outlet with, to my mind, more dynamism and unpredictability than e.g. Arda , to fill in when Messi is out or resting (!), and to be able to change the face of the game. Obviously, his game, with its fine margins, is built on confidence, so let’s hope for a good roll!

    Paco is young, but not green; he must know that these things happen and it passes. He’s making progress.

    Will be great fun on Wed – to me, we are massive favourites; I can’t see City beat us playing ball (and that they will), bar some great luck or a simple twist of fate…

  4. ciaran
    October 17, 2016

    Great atmosphere on a Monday night at Anfield but God the football is terrible. I still don’t know how Fellaini is a professional footballer

    • Jim
      October 17, 2016

      Yeah, sitting watching it with something approaching boredom, Ciaran. Mourinho looking for a set piece late on in the game I’m guessing but until the last ten minutes Liverpool have been pretty cautious as well.

      Had to watch our game against Depor on my iPad with a poor connection so didn’t see it all but we never looked in any danger. Defence looked solid and Neymar looked up for it. I didn’t see enough to know whether the setup worked well or not. It looked to me that it wasn’t your normal three at the back but I couldn’t figure out what we were doing. Also, it looked to me that their press wasn’t really very determined. It looked like they were giving Pique a free pass when on the ball but pressed Masche and Mathieu when they got it.

      Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see how we play ( can’t believe three at the back but you never know). It’ll also be interesting to see who plays CB. For me it’d be Pique / Mathieu in a heartbeat but it may well be that LE will shove Umtiti in. No great complaints about that. He’s the future and on the ball he looks great although Im not sure he’s the finished article defensively quite yet .

      Some interesting decisions apart from that. I’d expect Alba back if he’s fit, plus probably Rakitic although apparently Rafinha did well. Didn’t see much of him in the match but then with that connection I didn’t see much of anything !

      Will be very interested in whether and how they press us. Looking forward to it.

      Meanwhile still nothing happened in this best league in the world match . . .

    • October 18, 2016

      Umtiti is, for me, vastly preferable to Mathieu or Mascherano. Faster, quicker, better in the air, better with the ball at his feet, less inclined to make a rash decision or dive in. Really is an excellent defender, and still improving. His fee was a legit steal.

      A lot of why Depor’s press looked ineffective is because the ball rarely stopped long enough for them to bring it to bear. It really was a showcase in how to play against a physical, pressing team. Just keep the ball moving, and that solves the problem. Seems simple, but once errors are minimized, problems are solved.

      Speaking of errors, Celta did against Villarreal what we did against Celta. That’s how easy it happens.

      United v Liverpool was a shit match, from top to bottom. Insufferable and unwatchable. They couldn’t even string passes together.

    • Jim
      October 18, 2016

      I’m doubting that Umtiti is better in the air than Mathieu and I’m sure he’s not as quick but I take your point and I’ve no problem with him playing. All I’m saying is that he was shaky in a couple of the Euro games in terms of letting his man go . That was youth and I’ve no doubt he will become a great CB for us. However, Mathieu has never let us down in that position. In fact, when he plays there we look more solid than we have been since Puyol . He had his meniscus removed to come back quicker, he has quit France so he’s not gonna be tired by international duty and to be frank he has had to watch. Masche, a vastly inferior CB , hold down that position . I would just rather we give Mathieu a run in that position , which he has never had, and let Umtiti gradually assume that position. He could do with watching the way Pique and Mathieu move as one, always offering cover and very rarely caught out of prime position.

      However, as I’ve said before he is a great CB and it’s no problem for me should. LE choose to put him in. I suspect LE may have a healthy disregard for Mathieu’s smoking habit anyway ! Either way, Umtiti at the moment looks a great steal as you say.

      Didn’t see the game well enough to say about the pressing but if as you say the ball was pinged around too quickly, great. Agreed on the doo doo coming from Annfield. What I particularly disliked was that twice when a Man U player went down after a tackle the nearest player went over to him to encourage him to lie there and get treatment. That’s Mourinho through and through and it’s not accidental.

    • Davour
      October 18, 2016

      Boring game… I have not watched a lot of Liverpool, but I can somewhat see why Coutinho has been mentioned as a possible signing for us (“replacement” for Ini, when the day comes). He played deeper than I thought, and showed very good control, though was also sloppy at times. Potential, for sure, but may not have the defensive skills for our 433.

      Too bad Liverpool didn’t go for it proper; they had the game.

  5. Jim
    October 17, 2016

    I spoke to soon. The madness of the current sweeper keeper no matter what craze almost strikes again.

    • Jim
      October 17, 2016

      * too. I should be horsewhipped by the society of English teachers !

  6. luisthebeast
    October 17, 2016

    After a long time nothing changes in barca world.First some thoughts:I remember people wanted back in time FDBoer for Coach.Yeah i look at Inter and i say thank god.Then there are some crazy guys that wants Oscar Garcia.lol.Crazy world.And what about Samper,Munir e.t.c?Stupid Lucho dont care about Masia.Because Rafhinia and Roberto are aliens.Well,expecting saint Pep i want the team to play great and thrash City and i am sure they will do it.We have a great team and a great coach.Haters will suffer this year again.Well at least they have twitter to say their stupid antilucho bullshits.Some of them they will be sad Wednesday night when Barca win.Thats life.

  7. luisthebeast
    October 17, 2016

    Oh and we all know what they will say if by miracle City make a draw:Genius Pep.But if Barca win 4-0?The players.Not Lucho.Yeah.With lucho is the players.Always.When we win.When there is a Celta game,Lucho is stupid.And offcourse we see Busquets that he is very bad in recent months but he is from Masia.Lucho s problem is to find the player to play DM because it will be a shame such a great squad to suffer all season for one player bad form.

  8. luisthebeast
    October 17, 2016

    What i want to say?Give Lucho the credits he deserves.He won two ligas not only against madrid like Pep but also against a very very good Atletiko.La Liga is much stronger now than in 2009 or 2010.He won CL that is a stronger than back in 2009.He dont have the best Leo all the time cause he is injured now after he played in every fucking minute under Pep.He dont have mastermind Xavi.If u ask me maybe he is not best coach in the world.But he is ideal for us.He is brave he rotates he works he have soul and passion.He make mistakes he is stubborn but nobody is perfect.I trust him full.

    • dl
      October 18, 2016

      Ah, Luis! Nice to ‘see’ you again!

      We’re all eager to start the year well, and in that regard let’s all remember to post comments to the appropriate site. Yours above seem to relate to a different discussion than Kevin’s post here. Perhaps one that was happening on twitter?

      Here’s hoping for a season of great football!

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