Barça, my friends, is The Shmoo. For the unfamiliar, this is a character devised by cartoonist Al Capp. Here is an excellent explanation of The Shmoo, from AlphaDictionary.com:
The original shmoos live on air, are delicious to eat and are eager to be eaten. They have no bones, so there is no waste when eaten. They are gentle and playful, and their pelts make fine shoe leather. According to their creator, cartoonist Al Capp, they taste like chicken when fried, like steak, when baked, like catfish, when broiled. Raw, they taste like oysters on the half-shell.
In the wake of the Manchester City match and the attendant hooraw, the reality that Barça is The Shmoo was striking. Whether you want a crisis, signs of life, a team coming together, a team falling apart, good coach, bad coach, anything you like, Barça will give it to you.
After the match, most of the talk was, naturally, about the genius of Guardiola and how he made his dazzling halftime adjustments and suddenly destroyed Barça. People needed to have this conclusion, even as Guardiola himself said that in the first half, his team was tottering on the brink, and a second Barça goal would have killed the match.
Nobody was interested in that, however. Because The Shmoo. Let’s look at the various delicacies that can be had from this match, and this team.
What a mess
Spaces too large, no pausa, no midfield, no positional play. All of this made City press effective because of the lack of compactness. Celta exploited it in its victory, as did City. The press can only be effective when a team isn’t compact, and positional play falls by the wayside. Once the team gets back to playing “Barça football,” everything will be right.
Surrrre. Tell that to the 7-0 Bayern victims, or the bastions of positional play during the time Guardiola coached Barça, teams that got fewer and fewer results as opponents adapted and adjusted.
The wonderful halftime adjustments meant that while Barça stagnated, because it is run by a dullard, City became this wondrous tactical amoeba. Once that happened, Barça was doomed. Even the team’s Dullard-In-Chief said that Barça was “surprised” by the changes made at the half, which many construed to mean “unprepared to deal with,” rather than “taken aback.”
No structure, no capacity for learning, the same mistakes over and over, no nothing. This is a team and a club headed for doom because it has lost sight of the fundamentals. It is only a matter of time.
You heard him say his team was surprised by the City adjustments. His persistence in making the same mistakes, in never learning the right way to play, the Barça way, means that his team will be found out by opponent after opponent. This result proves it.
A team coming together
What an astonishing that that first half of football was. City was helpless, and only the Footy Gods know why it wasn’t 3 or 4-0 at the half. But it wasn’t. Barça hasn’t played that kind of football in a very long time, not in terms of hewing to The Way, but in maximum utilization of the team’s abundant gifts. City had nothing, no answers except to chase, huddle in their box and kick away anything that moved. It was nagnificent.
See? Everything to everyone. Football is subjective. An excellent thinker and writer on the game, Thore Haugstad, said to me after the match that the two games were mirror images of the other, where the coach who got the tactics right also got plagued by individual errors, and lost.
My subjective reading is just as much a piece of The Shmoo as anyone else’s, but never has a coach seemed more prescient than when Luis Enrique, at the pre-match press conference, said that football is often about individual errors. It was against Celta, just as it was against City, for the most part. Was the City press any more intense in the second half? Nope. Did it shift focus and tactics? Yup. Does Barça have the players to be able to deal with that? In their sleep. So what happened?
A great many things, none of which individually are a problem but together they point to something that the team will have to overcome. I was screaming at the television (well, tablet) during the third City goal, becuase of the lack of effort showed by Barça. City essentially walked that goal in. They strolled through the midfield, strolled into the box and nobody tried to stop the ball, mark Gundogan or do anything except watch City score. That was the most vexing goal for me, particularly when you look at how City was able to set the stage for the good fortune that it took advantage of, through hard work.
Fot the entire match they pressed, and ran, and harried, and fouled. It doesn’t matter what kinds of errors a player makes if an opponent isn’t there to take advantage of them. Credit to City. But every post-match narrative forgets one thing: if Barça had played the second half as it did the first, instead of strolling around like disinterested kids, the final score wouldn’t have been 3-1.
The better the opponent, the less the margin for error. When Sergi Roberto stroked that ridiculous pass for whatever reason — some said that Mascherano moved wrong, hanging the ball out to dry — it was the kind of error that a team attacking with everyone can’t afford to make. Giving up that kind of ball essentially on the doorstep is almost always going to result in a goal. It did, and was the lifeline that City needed.
City’s second goal came from a moment of Busquets stupidity on many levels: the opponent wasn’t going anywhere; he was clearly out of the play, making a foul inevitable; the player he was marking was David Silva, who falls if you fart on him too hard, something that Busquets knows because he has watched Silva do it for Spain. So when he fouled him just outside the box, in the perfect spot for a free kick, instead of protesting to the officals, he should have been bending over so that his teammates could kick him in the ass. The De Bruyne free kick was excellent, even as there was a race to blame Ter Stegen. He started one way, leapt back and got a hand to it. Should he have stopped it? Hindsight is genius, and says “but of course.” Reality just isn’t that simple.
Two City goals came from precisely the kinds of errors that Luis Enrique warned about, and the third was just sloppy, laconic play. Beatdown? Hardly. Tactical masterclass? Only if tactics are capitalizing on opponent errors. To the victor goes the spoils, however, and to the result goes the narative, which is why so little time has been expended on the magnificent first half that Barça played.
Some say that even the beauty of that first half laid bare problems that were always going to manifest themselves in the second-half “shellacking.” So it depends on whether you trust the best coach in the game, or an amateur tactician. But as Guardiola notes, a second Barça goal would have put paid to that match because at 0-2 a team has to play differently, has to chase a match in a way that it doesn’t at 1-1. Different tactics are required, the team has a different mindset. It’s too desperate to not give up a third than risk everything to get a first.
Right now, two essential players for the way that Barça plays are mired in the dumps. Luis Suarez is struggling. People will point to his goal totals and say “No, he isn’t.” But he is. The problem with Suarez is that when he is on, he’s everywhere — pressing in midfield, chasing balls, defending, making great runs, banging in goals. When he’s struggling, he’s never in the right spot, struggles to perform even the most basic tasks on a football pitch and when he misses another great chance, seems to spend the next minutes berating himself rather than getting busy in an effort to set up the next chance.
Whither thou goest, Alcacer? Solid question, even as we should understad that the former Valencia striker was always meant to be a sub, but a high-quality one. Even at his best, he isn’t Suarez. The question is whether he is good enough at his best. His coach seems to think not.
Suarez is an essential to the Barça attack because the trident is unplayabale. Remove one part and Neymar and Messi can be isolated, their effectiveness reduced. This makes the Uruguayan as essential to what the team is as another key part that is malfunctioning, Busquets.
Only history will tell us if Busquets is the best DM in the world, and not only because his role isn’t a pure DM. But there is no question that he is ideal for Barça in that “man before the man” role. On offense, he’s often the man before the man who makes the key pass, the font from which an attack flows. On defense, he’s the man before the man, intercepting and breaking things up before they get to the back line. At present, his form has him deficient in both aspects.
We often make excuses for favored players, and Busquets is one of them. It’s the system’s fault, Luis Enrique’s fault, sunspots, etc, etc. But Busquets has played a lot of football, and he has to. He is fundamental for both Spain and Barça. He got a rest on the weekend leading to the City match but still showed signs, because he needs an extended rest.
“He has to cover so much space becasue of stupid Lucho” that he can’t be good any more, is one reasong that we hear, along with “spaces are too large, so he can be attacked directly.”
In form, Busquets makes defenders look like fools, makes a Xaviesque mockery of those who attack him directly. When he isn’t in form, he arrives a beat late for plays, fouls a lot and gets caught in possession.
The essential absence of a pair of Barça essentials means that the attack is going to have problems, no mater who the coach is. Does compressing space give Busquets more immeidate help? Sure, but it won’t give him what he needs, which is a respite from being essential.
There are other difficulties, of course, including the lack of chemistry yet betweeen Neymar and Digne, who functions differently from the injured Jordi Alba. Iniesta and Pique are significant absences as well, but for me, even had those two still been in the side and Barça played the same two halves of football, the score wouldn’t have been much different, despite the gifts that the latter two bring to the side.
But the attack is structured to get Suarez scoring chances, and it does. He just can’t hit the broad side of a barn. Busquets, at his best, dances facing the defense, picking passes with a calm aplomb. What he’s doing now is getting the ball, fumbling a bit at then losing it to an attacker. An effective press can strand a passer, absent movement from temamates to provide passing options. Busquets is too good to be stranded.
It isn’t laying the blame at the feet of two players. Messi, after an incendiary start to the season, has tailed off. Neymar isn’t as effective when Messi and Suarez aren’t, and so it goes. The adage does that form is temporary, class is permanent. Busquets, Suarez and the rest of their mates will find their way out of slumber. What’s important now is to keep things in perspective. Not every problem needs a solution, and not every problem has a solution.
In other words, the team will have to play itself out of whatever this is. It’s easy to blame, people, tactics, coaches. The things that we’re seeing, are things that we don’t see when the team and its individual talents are on form. So what’s the solution to the Barça conundrum? Depends on who you ask.
P.S. The picture above is from the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple. The waterfall is what you can access by getting a bit off the beaten path and descending a rocky staircase. It’s also about the most tranquil place I have ever visited, and not just during the ten days of the Tokyo vacation.