There is always a degree of guilt attendant to shrugging off the excesses of yet another international break. People whose teams are in it and who are deeply, deeply into national football of course, view folks like us as self-centered churls.
And we’re pretty fine with that.
The specter of sending your fresh, shiny players off to do battle for their country, subject to the slings and arrows of the Macedonias, Colombias, San Marinos and the like is akin to watching your loved one board the bus for battle. “Love you! Don’t be a hero!”
International football shreds hearts, souls and loyalties, as some watch the matches, prayer beads clutched in hand, thinking good thoughts about their club team’s players. Because it’s club football that gets us going, and it’s back. Barça, of course, because of the quality of the team, scattered players hither and yon like dandelion spores: Spain, Turkey, Croatia, France, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay … But thankfully the next international break isn’t until March, because Barça has some stuff to work out:
Systems and woes
No midfield, blablablurgh, positional programming, yadayada. The season started, then shortly after came the first international break. Shortly after that, came the most recent international break. Barça has had injuries to Alba, Pique, Sergi Roberto, Rafinha, Iniesta, Messi, Turan, Umtiti, Ter Stegen, and probably a player or few that we are forgetting. The difficulty with such a setup is continuity. You can’t refine a system. You can’t even fully play one, even though you can have moments.
There have been two halves of football that have hinted at the possibilities of the current Barça team, the one that its coach said is the best side that he’s ever had occasion to run. The first half against Manchester City and the second half against Sevilla were things of wonder. Anad this is true even as some say “Well, they still didn’t play the right way.” Of course not.
We don’t know the team that this assemblage of talent can be yet, particularly with Luis Suarez mining a vein of form that is bone-dry and frustrating. Which is reality, the two halves of brilliance or the clunky, junky bunch. It depends on what you want to see.
The team will have to solve midfield control issues, how to attack with 11 and defend with 9.5, camouflaging the deficiencies as its stars intermittently track back, thus damaging overall effectiveness of the press that is often employed with great success.
It also has to evolve the way that Neymar plays within the team. At present, he is still doing most of what he did last season, accelerating play by taking on his man. He and Alba still don’t have the synchronization necessary to make that pairing truly effective. He and Digne function as complete strangers. He displays a tendency to hold the ball too long as well, breaking up the rhythm of the attacks sometimes. Is the answer to give him more freedom? And if so, what do you do with Messi?
Non-Iniesta stability isn’t an issue because of that Xavi role, but because the attack loses that shuttle player that moves between Busquets and the attack. Rafinha works as that player, but obviously not to the same effectiveness as Iniesta. Compounding matters is that he and Pique are injured at the same time, which means the player whose role would change in the absence of Iniesta is also gone.
This all makes Messi have to become a midfielder. Fine. He’s brilliant, but why put the Ferrari in the field instead of on the track? Get him close to the box, get him the ball.
Transition defense will always be a problem because of the way that Barça plays, but the team can improve so that every time possession is turned in midfield, a goal almost or does result. A lot of that has to do with the stars tracking back, so that the first layer of the press doesn’t become the last. Having to beat Messi and/or Neymar with Suarez nipping at the heels is different than having to beat a shrug of indifference, as Busquets tries to display range that he doesn’t have.
The team will also have to find a way to be effective even when one of its key players is slumping, such as Suarez is right now. Like it or not, and you should like it because it’s the system that the team has, the star system is based on getting the ball to the trident as quickly as possible. That isn’t going to change just because of some snuffling about positional football. Sorry.
Pretty remarkable that with all of those issues, Barça is still the best team in the world, eh?
Malaga comes to town with a new look, one that is potentially daunting. The team sits 10th in the Liga table with 15 points, a new-look side that has been, over the past few seasons, a legit pain for Barça. It is a team that is very difficult to break down, and if you get past that, keeper Carlos Kameni boasts huge range and excellent reflex stopping abilities, the two things perfectly capable of vexing the sometimes all too logical Barça attack.
Castoff Sandro Ramirez has five goals for Malaga this season, having found his striking form with steady playing time under Juande Ramos, a coach who is no dummy. The aggressive, open Malaga won’t be anywhere to be seen at the Camp Nou, even if Barça can manage to nick an early goal. Tight, with the counterattack in mind is the only way to play against this Barça side. Expect to see that from Malaga, especially given that their midfield is decimated with injuries.
Meanwhile, Barça is oozing its way back to full fitness. Mathieu is back, along with Pique and Alba, and the Sergi Roberto knock has been dealt with, leaving the only players in dry dock as Iniesta and Umtiti — and Vidal. Also absent will be Suarez Major, who is serving a one-match suspension. A tricky thing will be Neymar, who is a yellow card away from suspension. As much as you don’t want to advocate a player picking up a deliberate card, particularly as the next match is away to the wilds of Anoeta, but Neymar needs to be on his best behavior so that he doesn’t have to miss the Classic.
Key Barça players are in great form, as Neymar helped drive Brazil to continue its perfect record in South American Cup qualifiers, and Messi single-handedly lifted Argentina. The great uncertainty is Paco Alcacer, who will be starting, Luis Enrique announced a full day before the match. No pressure.
Alcacer is an odd one, because people like to rip and tear at him because Munir has scored goals, and Sandro has scored goals while Alcacer has yet to open his account. The problem with that sort of false equivalence is that Sandro and Munir aren’t playing for Barça. Playing space is rather different vs the best team in the world. Another thing people are forgetting is the malleability of results and how they are perceived. Barça is winning but not playing correctly, so good results don’t matter. Alcacer is doing everything right except putting the ball in the net, which is a good thing negated by a negative outcome.
Ninety percent of scoring goals is being in the right place to score them. Alcacer is getting to those places. With patience, the goals will come, and let’s hope they start tomorrow.The match will be tight and nasty, and the only prediction possible to make is that Barça will win, not because they are supposed to, but because in a strange way, club football is much less pressurized than international football.
Club football. is back, and our lives, our weekends, are better for it. Visca.