Celtic 0, Barça 2, aka “Good and boring”

My heavens, poor Celtic.

What comes to mind are the old Looney Tunes cartoons that feature Pepe Le Pew and that hapless cat who got marked by white paint, and becomes the wholly undesired amorous object for the titular skunk.

The cat runs and runs, fast as she can while Pepe lopes, smile on his face and hearts popping above his head. No matter where the cat runs or hides, no matter how fast, Pepe is there, to cuddle and whisper sweet nothings. Celtic huffed and puffed, ran and fouled, got an A for effort but Barça had that match well in control.

Some Barça matches are suspenseful, even though the team has a lead. The proceedings seem rather fragile, almost fraught. Not this one. Not only was Celtic not good enough, but Barça was more than good enough. There was a lot to be learned from this match, most notably that the only team that can beat Barça is Barça. Every loss this season has been due to a comedy of errors. The best chances that Celtic got came from Barça errors. The difference here was that the errors were dealt with by a team that is slowly, surely beginning to come into form.

There was a lot of talk about this match about Barça not playing well, and something in this space about the win being “undeserved.” On what planet? Hell, if Messi brings his normal shooting boots, it’s three or four goals for Barça, not to mention the chance that Suarez headed right to the Celtic keeper.

Perhaps Barça has finally reached a point in its development where its legend is so immense that even it can’t walk in its own shadow. The passing was calm and incisive (mostly), the run dictated the pass, with Messi’s first goal being the most opulent example of that elegance even as time and again, movement demanded a pass and a Barça player usually obliged.

There was talk of “no midfield,” even as Barça calmly stroked the ball around the midfield, Neymar to Gomes to Busquets to Rakitic to Sergi Roberto to Messi to …

This match was so calm, so in control that it was almost boring. We should, of course, deal with the reality that Celtic isn’t a European powerhouse. Yes, they drew Manchester City in their house, but they were never, ever going to trouble Barça, a significantly better side than City.

Most reassuring for long-time watchers is that the press was back. Note the difficulty that Celtic had playing out or playing at all for most of the match, as Barça players triangulated on the ball, with another having their back to scoop up anything that trickled out. And that wasn’t even a full press, as Messi took part intermittently, and Suarez lost interest once proceedings got too far from the Celtic box.

Busquets was given time and space because the Barça movement kept Celtic too busy for them to focus on one player. Attack Busquets directly and as long as he doesn’t commit the sin of holding the ball too long, he will find a runner, and your team will be in trouble. Because that’s what Barça does.

The other interesting wrinkle was the interchangeability at times of Gomes and Busquets, even as the former is still but a shadow of the latter, a player still finding his way into comfort with the pace, both mental and of the ball, of play at FC Barcelona. Note that Arda Turan had the same problem last season, and adapted nicely. So don’t go writing Gomes off yet, even as now you can clearly see his struggles at times with where to be and how quickly to be there, or the pace of a pass that is spanked to him.

At other times, you can see glimpses of the player that Barça paid a king’s ransom for, the silky moves and clairvoyant passing of a player who seems, once he adapts, to be fully capable of playing at the level required.

Luis Suarez is finding his way out of his funk even as he is still in it. On form, he’s always around the ball, always making the right run, linked to his teammates in an uncanny way. Off-form, he’s the player who watched Neymar make a run into the box and didn’t move for the ball, so Neymar’s pass for him, the rare Barça pass meant to dictate a run, rolled harmlessly for a goal kick, instead of into a goal celebration.

The penalty that he drew was a masterwork of the black arts. He had his marker’s arm locked with his, pulling him into his body as he went down. The defender screwed up by getting that close, by trying to body Suarez in the box. Suarez finished off the sale by going down in the classic, arms outstretched posture. He bought that penalty, even as there was contact sufficient to bring him down. Messi shrugs that contact off and creates a play that makes everyone coo at its proximity to genius. Neymar would go down, but not get the call.

Neymar will get stick. Neymar will continue to get stick until he leaves Barça next summer, and then he will get stick for leaving. It will only be when Neymar is gone that people will understand what he does, how he does it and his value to the team. And we will see it when Barça plays his team in Champions League, and he roasts our fullbacks the way he roasts those of other teams.

He accelerates play. Note how often a player slides a ball to him and he outruns the fullback to control and advance. We take it for granted, but it doesn’t happen when he isn’t in the match, or when he isn’t on form. Look at his pass for Messi on that first goal, a ball lofted over distance to the exact spot at the exact right time with the exact right amount of pace for Messi to run onto. To be sure, Messi’s finish was magnificent. But how many players in the game can make that pass?

Run after run, setup after setup, Neymar tormented that side of the Celtic defense. There was a lot of focus on his yellow card incident with Lustig, but might as well get it over with. You force harmless contact, glower a bit and get your card. Sit out a dead rubber and have a clean slate for the knockouts. No shame in that game. Notice how calm Neymar was as he talked to Gomes after receiving his booking, and how controlled his play was after. We have seen “red mist” Neymar, and that wasn’t it. But it is easy to focus on that incident, rather than the quality of Neymar’s match at both ends of the pitch as he tracked back like a yeoman, helping out on defense time after time.

It’s easy to understand why Neymar gets stick. If people ask, it’s easier to explain, even as it’s very difficult to understand, given his immense value to the team. What he does is irreplacable. He makes it look easy, so observers believe that it is. It’s only when you watch another player try what Neymar does routinely, that you realize.

Even as the team isn’t playing all that well all that consistently, it’s worth noting that Barça is playing a different way now. What will have to happen is simple: people will have to adjust to way the team is playing — or at times, trying to play, or resign themselves to being perpetually unhappy, leaving a light on in the window for a style of play that will never return. That’s a call that nobody can make for anyone else.

At times that style of play will seem chaotic, at times it will deemphasize the midfield, at times it will play direct football in an effort to get the ball to the players that can do the most damage. The Barça glass is almsot always half-empty. We have seen, in the wake of the Celtic match, stories about how Neymar hasn’t scored in X minutes, even after the match where he tied the single-season assists record for the Champions League in five matches.

People want Neymar to score goals, even as Neymar wasn’t bought to score goals. Neymar was bought to create goals, whether he scores them himself, or assists them, or makes a key run to create space for one. Suarez was bought to score goals. Messi was created by the gods to score goals. Barça will score goals. None of the transfers this summer have scored a goal. That should worry you only if you like to worry about stuff. But those are the same people who are stomping around and insisting that Barça didn’t play well as they stroked Celtic around their home pitch. And those people can’t be helped. No, it ain’t bunnies and rainbows. But it isn’t a disaster, either. As always, reality is squarely in the middle.

Meanwhile, Barça is a mess of team that won its Championns League group, and sits four points off the top of its home league, despite having been generally clunky and erratic for the season to date. And yet, win the Classic and Barça is one point off the top of the table without even coming anywhere close to form yet, except during brief stretches.

What a mess.

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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.

9 Comments

  1. luisthebeast
    November 25, 2016

    Pique seems to have a problem and he is doubtful for Sunday.Time for Marlon to start?Or time for Lucho to try 3-5-2?I would try that:Roberto-Mache-Alba Raki-Busi Gomes-Leo-Ney Paco-Suarez.

  2. luisthebeast
    November 25, 2016

    Paco is a new player and must have a lot of time to adapt.That cant happen with the 4-3-3 waiting to sub Suarez in 70 minute.Also with 2 forwards and with Ney and Leo at midfield the team can create easy many chances.Offcourse 3-5-2 have problems in transition phase when the team loose the ball but having 5 high quality mids that make passing better and safer.I am not a coach or an expert but looking Allegri Juventus last years without the top quality i wonder what a team with our quality can do with that system.

  3. November 25, 2016

    A few quick thoughts:

    — When I go to a restaurant and it sucks, I don’t return. And I certainly don’t sit in the dining room and talk shit about the chef. I find another restaurant to eat at. Thks comments space is open to anyone who registers. We set the site up that way. But personal attackx lead to nonsense. Nonsense won’t be tolerated here not because critique isn’t tolerated, buf because personal stuff turns a discussion into crap. If we have to, user names will be banned for repeated violations. There’s no other way to keep a room clean.

    — I don’t write a piece based on anything except the match that sparked it. So if stuff feels or reads the same, don’t take this the wrong way, but I really don’t care. Barça beats itself, usually in the same ways: by doing stupid stuff. So yeah, when the same stuff happens, why find new ways to say “Dude screwed up.” I don’t have the time or energy to reinvent the wheel. It’s a wheel. There it is.

    — I don’t defend anyone. I do strive to provide a counterpoint. Some say “no midfield.” But maybe after the 14th time someone says that, it might be time to consider that maybe something else is going on. A coach with a trebke and a double in two seasons doesn’t need defending.

    — They do fantastic work at TotalBarça, Barça Blaugranez and Grup 14. I recommend those spaces highly to anyone. This blog isn’t the only game in town, which is as it should be. There ars also writers such as Sid Lowe, Graham Hunter and Phil Ball, to name a few. Plenty of places to get an English-language Barça fix. But this space is as it is. And until such time as I tire of it, of other voices contribute, BFB will be what it is.

  4. georgjorge
    November 26, 2016

    I fully support Kxevin’s view that Barca wasn’t bad at all against Celtic. It wasn’t spectacular, but then it didn’t need to be. I also love what Neymar brings to the pitch.

    Regarding the last sentences, I am definitely looking forward to the Clásico, but winning it is no small order this year. RM is very very good right now, and it seems as if either Zidane or someone else from the coaching staff has found the secret to making their players work together. Scoring three against Atleti in their own house without conceding is incredibly hard to do for any team in the world. Does anyone know whether Iniesta will be fit again for this match? We need him there.

  5. Davour
    November 26, 2016

    Thanks for the review – always appreciated. I feel the criticism you received a few posts back were polite enough, supported and argued for. Fair? That is interpretation, and you should of course write according to what inspires the words to come – but criticism can, as you know, also spark reflection. God knows your articles often do!

    Regarding the “undeserved” mention – I don’t know if you meant my comment (only mention of the word I can recall), which only commented on the second gaol, which came in the middle of Celtic’s best moment. The win, as far as I’m concerned, was undisputed and solid.

    It is obvious that LE has another view on the function of the midfield that many Barca traditionalists, and also that some of the new ones are not ready to carry a Barca mid – the ball gets stuck on the wings and it creates problems for the team on several occasions. We’ll see how things will progress, especially when Iniesta returns and alleviates some of the pressure on the new kids on the block. I agree that Gomes at times have shown glimpses of potential, and it would be foolish to write him off already! Still, to my mind he has been below par even so, in terms of basic footballing skills. Perhaps it will all shift once he is more comfortable. Arda, to me, is not a role model – I don’t see him (Arda) ever becoming starter.

    Again, we’ll see – and exaggerated negativity should certainly be criticised, though I feel many voices also unnecessarily give flak to the ones of us who want to express concern and ventilate our impressions (admittedly, often proven wrong). But this is not a space that is dominated by doom, nor by unpleasantries. I, for one, appreciates it immensely!

    • Davour
      November 26, 2016

      Also, I still think Neymar’s behaviour was unnecessary – even as I love him as a player and would not dream of wishing him to leave.

  6. PPos
    November 26, 2016

    Did anyone see that Pedro stunner? That’s what we are missing. Alcacer needs to take notes. To put it simply, we have to break the curse at anoeta. We are up against the wall.

  7. Tata2
    November 27, 2016

    “There was talk of “no midfield,” even as Barça calmly stroked the ball around the midfield, Neymar to Gomes to Busquets to Rakitic to Sergi Roberto to Messi to…”
    This hasn’t been my problem, my problem is the midfields struggles with intense pressing from very good sides. Tell me they would have stroke the ball around midfield under the kind of press man city employed against us. Being a barca midfielder entails more than being able to pass(safe passing) the ball around midfield, it’s your ability to link defense with attack and thrive under intense pressing constantly playing your way out of trouble, we keep on hitting on this cos we know what happens when teams stifle the get-the-ball-to-MSN tactic. We resort to passing the ball at the back until we lose it and concede.
    Against EE, I am not expecting them to come out to press us, they will just sit in a mid (and at times low) block and hit us on the counter. We will be needing more than midfielders that can stroke the ball around midfield. We would be needing mids that will destabilize the defense with intelligent dribbles and runs…

    • georgjorge
      November 27, 2016

      I agree with your post very much in general. However, I don’t think the main issue here is that the players (at least Rafinha and Turan) are not capable of it but that LE – at least most of the time – gives out a plan different from playing out the back with short passes. It may be “get the ball to MSN however you can”, or it may be “give the ball to Ter Stegen and have him bypass the press with a perfect pass”. These don’t seem like they are done because the players can’t do otherwise but because they were told to.

      In general, I think it’s valid to have other plans than short passes out the back, because if the opponent commits enough the midfield becomes too cluttered for that (at least without Xaviniesta on the pitch). The game against Atleti one or two seasons ago, where we hit them on the counter multiple times while they were pressing, was a perfect example where we gave up on that and won. The loss against ManCity was another game where it would have made great sense to do it but for whatever reason we persisted with the short passes and got caught many times.

      Maybe these tactical approaches will help the team a lot in the end. It’s clear to me that some alternatives are needed, it’s just that at the moment they don’t seem to work very well.

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