Athletic 2, Barça 1, aka “What did you expect?”

Bilbao, in the Basque country, is a spectacular city, brimming with local sights and glittering architecture. Of course, the city’s jewel is the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum, all bronze and festooned with art to die for. The lustrous hamlet also has a Metro system by Norman Foster, a Calatrava airport, even a local hangout designed by Philippe Starck. It’s a magnificent place to visit that should be on your to-do list.

It’s also a fantastic city in which to take a nice, leasurely stroll, which must have been the program for Barça, who oozed into the San Mames house of horrors for a somnambulent sashay. The arguments for a one-legged Copa del Rey elimination round have been long and loud. If this had happened, the view would be that Barça deserved to go out. As it is, a stank-ass display was rescued by a single moment of magic, a stellar Messi free kick that gave Barça a precious away goal.

But only two players of Luis Enrique’s XI covered themselves in glory: Samuel Umtiti, who made a case (again) for being part of the gala XI, providing a partner for Pique of a fit and finish not seen since Carles Puyol, and Neymar, who was absurd.

The noise after this game — the refereeing performance and alleged exaggeration — should in no way detract from a poor display by a holiday-sotted Barça, a team with legitimate problems thanks to underperforming transfers. Luis Enrique, before the match, said that he was happy with the physical condition in which his players returned from vacation. Their mental state, however, left much to be desired. Before the match a Catalan website posted images of Neymar from September compared to while on vacation, noting a lack of leanness in the Brazilian forward. It’s safe to wonder how they felt watching his MOTM performance of yesterday in which everything of danger flowed through him. He also got two Athletic players sent off thanks to his dynamic, aggressive movement, even tracking back on defense like a fiend.

It’s a shame that only N of the vaunted MSN showed up. Suarez is still riding abysmal form and Messi was plagued by suspect decision making in front of goal, running when he should shoot, passing when he should shoot and losing the ball when he should pass. Suarez was typical recent Suarez, the place attacks go to die.

The XI was Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Messi, Suarez, Neymar, the vaunted gala XI that, if it was awake, would have been more than sufficient to handily dispatch Athletic, who started the match with the usual thing against Barça that is all the rage, an aggressive, physical high press. The usual tactic is to isolate Iniesta and Busquets, then take advantage of the space created by that isolation as the forwards stand around, waiting for service. This was the source of the first Athletic goal, a study in half-assedness.

Iniesta loses the ball thanks to an ill-advised pass (hey, it would have worked if the Athletic defenders were blind and immobile), and the entire team seems to take a moment to react. Meanwhile, the Athletic players are streaking toward goal. Jordi Alba, rushing back from being caught up pitch, picks up Aduriz and points to an onrushing Inaki Williams rather than leaving Aduriz for Umtiti, who now has to rush over to cover Williams instead of being able to stay home and deal with Aduriz. It’s Williams run that is the can opener. He drags Umtiti over and Pique is ball watching, a schoolboy moment for such an excellent defender. Aduriz just sashays into the open space created and nods home the pass. For a team that is supposed to attack and defend with eleven, nobody picked up Aduriz, who was moving with all the alacrity of an ocean liner.

Nobody on Barça was moving with any urgency. Rakitic comes sashaying in after the damage was done, Alba and Iniesta might as well have bought tickets. It’s like Barça doesn’t train when responsibilities when a midfield turnover creates an opponent break. In an ideal world, Alba moves over to cover the wide space (from where the assist came), Rakitic runs into the box for post cover and Iniesta helps out the centerbacks. Instead everybody chased the ball like kids in a park.

The second Athletic goal was just as ridiculous. Jordi Alba tries a silly pass over distance, choosing to ignore the much simpler pass to a man who is also wide open. An Athletic player instantly sees the danger and heads to a teammate who notes that Williams (again) is standing in space, unmarked. The one-touch pass to Williams is drilled home.

In attack, Barça was plagued by the usual sins that have defined lost points this season, in poor spacing created by poor movement, true even when Athletic went down to nine and Barça stroked the ball around midfield as if they were up by a goal instead of being down by one. There were many cries of the team being too wide to create, but the larger problem was starting wide and staying wide. Movement with pace was going to open up Athletic, and there was precious little of that.

A trio of incidents have been dominating discussion on Barça Twitter: the penalty shouts for Pique and Neymar, and Aduriz giving Umtiti a chop near the Adam’s apple.

For the folks who suggest that Umtiti was exaggerating as he rolled around, gasping for breath, a suggestion: have someone whack you at the base of the throat, just below the Adam’s apple. Not even as hard as a a fit, strong footballer would do it. Have an ordinary person do it, and see what happens.

umtiti

Pique was a penalty, and Neymar was as nailed-on a penalty as you will ever see. Neither was called by a ref who was, in fairness, equally crap even as the side most aggreived will most vociferously point out his deficiencies. A chart was released by some Twitter outfit named La Liga Referees, which notes that Barça received only 3 of 9 penalties it was “due.” The other eye-opening stat is that Barça opponents were 0-for-3 in penalties “due” and subsequently awarded. Hmmmm …

Pique wasn’t getting that call, however, because like it or not, keepers have a different officiating standard. If a defender makes that same challenge, it’s almost certainly a penalty. As for the Neymar incident, that is a case of a player’s reputation dogging him. Someone is going to have to hit Neymar with a bus for him to get a penalty shout, and if the Barça forward keeping having matches like he had yesterday, hitting him with a bus will be the only way to slow him down.

The strength of Neymar isn’t goal scoring. It’s his associative play and ability to make the game easier for everyone around him. When he’s on the pitch, he’s getting kicked instead of Messi and Iniesta. His runs create space for Messi and Suarez, the way he turns the corner and slides in crosses creates scoring chances. He is leading the team by a good margin in assists and key passes, even as people focus on the goals they claim he isn’t scoring and therefore, he’s being poor. Nothing could be further from reality. Had Messi and Suarez played up to Neymar’s standard, the return leg would be a dead rubber, like all except one of the other Copa ties this round.

The focus on officiating does the team a disservice in that it detracts from people pointing out how poor they were as a unit. Questioning the XI would also be fair, in the face of a two-legged tie and a big Liga match against Villarreal looming. There are players for Barça who are in form, and weren’t jetting around the world over the holidays. Would this have been a match that called for a rotation XI, say something like: Ter Stegen, Mascherano, Umtiti, Digne, Gomes, Raktic, Denis Suarez, Alcacer, Neymar, Turan? Hindsight is always 20/20, but now the damage is done. The XI ground away against a physical, resolute opponent. We’ll see what the damage is on Sunday.

Barça has problems, but they are problems of its own making. People are absolving Suarez of complicity in his poor form, saying that he needs service. Yet when you watch him last season, he was moving much more, finding spaces in the defense, making himself big to demand the ball and playing with a confidence and precision that he has only rarely displayed this season. That ain’t tactical. Messi has had more than one spate of bad decision making on the ball this season. That ain’t tactical. Some point out that Barça depends too much upon Messi. Those same people chafe when everything on the team doesn’t run through Messi. You can, from time to time, see signs of Barça working to play a complete system, and the result. We saw it in both Champions League matches against Manchester City, also saw it early in the season in the SuperCopa and against the likes of Betis and Hercules as well as in flashes against other oppoents such as Sevilla and during the almost comeback at Celta.

The team has it in them, but part of ending Messidependencia is having Messi himself work on playing the game differently. When Barça is in danger, Messi takes the ball and does his thing. The automations that were in place during the apogee of the Guardiola days haven’t had a chance to form, and aren’t being given a chance to form. Some of that is in the different ways that Barça approaches the game, based on opponent. But some is just reflex. Neymar was, from my seat in the man cave, exhibiting his ideal role for the team, a sort of modified Henry with an all-pitch presence that relies upon pace and the ability to get the corner to create danger at the attacking end. But Barça is still a team in process, a process that would be helped a lot by coming to a match in full possession of its faculties, something that hasn’t happened all that often from start to finish of a match this season. We don’t have to wait long for another chance to watch the team’s progression.

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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.

2 Comments

  1. RT
    January 6, 2017

    You mean to say people actually think Umtiti was exaggerating? It boggles the mind. In any case, he was wonderful. After the incident, and after having confronted Aduriz and received a yellow card, I was praying he would keep his composure since he was one of the better players on the pitch. And he did. He’s really been a great signing.

    I wish Neymar had scored a goal. Not because he wasn’t wonderful (he really was). Just sick of everyone pointing out how he’s been goalless for a long time and how he’s having a rubbish season. He really isn’t, but there you go.

    I think Iniesta had a dodgy pass that lead to the first goal. Oh well, he can’t be flawless all the time. And I think Messi was still jetlagged. Nothing to say about Suarez. He tends to get a pass from the fans for all that he has done.

    Athletic Bilbao was ferocious. No point complaining about the horrendous refereeing.

    • Anders
      January 6, 2017

      I got hit by a tsunami of downvotes on r/soccer when I expressed that even though the replay may not show him getting hit directly in the throat, the moments aftwerwards where Umtiti was literally choking were most certainly not fake.

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