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.