Eibar 0, Barça 4, aka “Impressive if not completely pretty”

It wasn’t long ago that things would have happened today, and Barça would have dropped points. That was then, and this is now.

Now is Barça rolling into the house of a top 10 Liga side, a cramped space with a pitch more sand than grass, suffering a key injury within the first tem minutes of the match and winning 0-4. Now is a midfielder unappreciated by too much of his team’s fanbase, slotting neatly into the injured player’s role with aplomb.

Rakitic made himself available for Ter Stegen in the same spaces as Busquets, did the same things with the ball, playing the position in the way that is most effective for the team in a team victory.

Now is the starting keeper having 56 passes and many a glorious moment, including one where with an attacker bearing down on him, he calmly chested a ball down, played it to feet and out from the back.

Now is a magnificent player deciding that today was going to be a passing day because his position and the team’s tactics demanded it. So he dropped diamond after diamond at the feet of teammates — Suarez, Neymar, Turan, Suarez — passes that were apparently so far beyond belief that his teammates didn’t know what to do with them. To have a passing display such as that not end with an assist is positively Xaviesque. But Messi was stupefying today, and his goal was a wonder of control and delicacy.

Now is an oft-maligned left winger who, despite the view of him when he arrived, has become the ultimate team player, one who has become an exceptionally hard worker on defense, helping the incumbent LB hold down the left side, even to the detriment of his offense. The focus is on Neymar’s goal scoring rather than marveling at how his game has developed, from associative play and movement to defending. Yes, Neymar scored today, but notice his defensive work against Eibar, a match many (including me) picked as a difficult one for Barça.

Now is a player who, when his midfield presence was announced in the Barça XI, evoked groans of agony because consensus, one formed without sufficient evidence to support it, that he was poor in midfield. Then Arda Turan proceeded to boss it in midfield on attack and defense, working selflessly to ensure that his team not only could attack with style and verve, but keep the clean sheet.

Now is a coach who, even as so many in the Barça fanbase want that Bielsa disciple who is coaching Sevilla to come as fast as he can, took the absence of an essential player, and made tactical changes that allowed his team to continue mostly unimpeded. Eibar came out like a house afire, and Barça was always going to have to weather an early storm. The team did, calmly, even as many noted that they were being pinned in their own end. They were at times, but to little effect except consternation. And the moment Eibar flagged, that team put the knife in. And that was that. When an opponent is pressing, get the ball to the forwards rather than spending time making curlicues in midfield, waiting to get kicked.

Now is people who observed that, against a better team with better strikers, Barça might have been in trouble, in an odd kind of creative trauma that needs something to happen that didn’t happen. Eibar was the opponent. Barça kept a clean sheet against that opponent, as that was the team they were scheduled to play.

Now is the continued rediscovery of Aleix Vidal, who entered the match for Sergi Roberto and immediately made a case for his presence on the pitch with pace and improved defense. He also got his second assist in as many matches. When there is a pressing opponent, having an FB with pace who can make that overlapping run to get behind the press will always create trouble. Vidal is fast shaping into a difference maker at the precise time the team needs him.

Now is a lineup that included an LCB who played as an RCB today, and an ancient Frenchman who many think is terrible, but is actually quite a fine professional. And the antique Frenchman played his butt off in doing his job, while the new RCB played with style and vigor, passing, winning headers, pretty much doing the same stuff that he does on the left side. There was a particularly lovely play as, with a defender on his back, battling for the ball, he had to use the deftest of touches to not have an own goal as the outcome. He did. It wasn’t remarked upon by many, but it was a brilliant play by a still relatively new player. Both CBs, Jeremy Mathieu and Samuel Umtiti, were key to their team winning today, with emphasis.

The first goal came from a broken play, and a ball that found the foot of a summer addition who must have wondered what was up when the greatest player ever cleared space as if to say, “Do it, kid.” And Denis Suarez did, smoking a low, hard, direct shot that eluded the Eiber keeper and took the wind out of their sails. It was a brilliant strike from distance and a perfectly timed goal. It was also enough to win.

The second goal was this amazing bit of footballing extravagance as Luis Suarez stroked a flawless pass over distance that took advantage of a run that he already knew Messi was going to make. The pass was so perfect that Messi just had to caress it into the net, just in front of the charging keeper. A too-long pass is caught by the keeper. A too-short one gives Messi too much to do. This pass allowed no time to think, no time to do what mortal players might, which is to try controlling it, rounding the keeper and most likely losing the ball. Messi’s supreme confidence argued for just slotting home off the first touch.

The third goal was a nasty, brutish thing that came from grit and hustle, rather than beauty. Suarez attacked a defender in space, forcing the turnover as he bulled the ball loose, before smashing it home on the near side. It wasn’t 44 perfect passes or anything elegant. It was smash-and-grab, and it was brilliant.

The fourth goal, well into injury time, was the classic Neymar sprint onto a perfect pass, then calmly slot home.

All four goals were exceptional, and all had the distinction of not being “Barça goals” in that traditional sense, which makes them all the more noteworthy and makes the team all the more dangerous.

This wasn’t a match that will inspire poetry, but a team doesn’t get that many of those over the arc of its useful lifetime. But there is much to be learned in looking at Leicester City, a team who hoisted the Premiership trophy last season and will be lucky to escape relegation this season. From last season to this one, opponents studied them and figured out how to play against them. And Leicester City returned to earth.

Since 2008 opponents have been studying and adapting to Barça and the way that it plays. And since 2008 the team has been adapting its own ways of approaching things and has remained the best team in club football, even if it hasn’t always won the trophies to prove it. It’s hard enough to get to the top much less staying there because you always get everyone’s best game. Eibar played well enough to beat most of the teams in Liga, and better than I have seen them play at any point in this season. And they lost at home 0-4.

In many ways, watching this team put Eibar to the sword was satisfying in a way that prettier, sonnet-inspiring matches aren’t, because the team had stuff to overcome. This wasn’t Rayo, standing around watching Barça dance on ice and score a seven or eight goals. This was a proud, nasty, aggressive opponent who got in the team’s face, who forced changes and adaptations and that got its ass whipped.

Eibar was an odd match that seemed more fraught than it was as the opponents didn’t use space properly, just as Barça changed the way it played, slotting longer passes over space to players already on the move, with Messi in midfield as the architect of destruction rather than the finisher. Barça is more adaptible now than it has ever been before, in the faces of opponents who do nothing but assess how to derail that train and get a result. And it’s impressive, even if it isn’t always pretty.

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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.

16 Comments

  1. Mishti
    January 23, 2017

    Good point about Eibar not using space properly. I thought their press was not compact enough; one line pressed high up, but there was a lot of space between the lines for Messi et al to exploit once the first line was breached. The first goal was a result of 4-5 Barca attackers being allowed to operate in that space freely. Second goal, even more space. We did have a good share of shaky moments in central defence. I thought Ter Stegen’s composure and impeccable positioning was key to the clean sheet (plus their strikers really sucked). The thing I was most happy about, oddly, was that the team dealt with the physicality well. Raki and Arda being on the pitch helped. Arda’s hook tackle on the edge of the box was a beauty 😀

    Neymar on the other hand, left me scratching my head. His touch and passing in the final third made me cringe at times. And the ease at which he kept getting dispossesed! I know he carried his share of the workload. But that’s not the standard I judge him by. Boy, did he anger some Brazilian football gods today 😛

    Luis I thought had a pretty good game (in his case, sloppy touches/passes every now and then doesn’t shock me that much I guess ;))

    No words for Messi. Once he got going after the first 20-25 minutes, that was that.

    All in all, a good win. MATS my MOTM.

    • georgjorge
      January 23, 2017

      I pretty much agree with everything you said. Oh, and great article by Kxevin!

      Neymar worked a lot, but he kept misplacing relatively easy passes and wasting good chances at scoring. Of course, I know that he CAN do these things a lot better, so some of it probably also comes down to wanting to force things rather than to what comes naturally.

      Ter Stegen was perfect with the ball at his feet, better than anything I’ve seen. You have to wonder about some of the passes to him though, especially the one from Suarez Minor which was more of a shot at goal than a pass.

      The third goal was vintage Suarez. Incredible force and willpower to get the ball away from the defender without a foul, and score.

  2. Mishti
    January 23, 2017

    Forgot to give a shout out to Umtiti’s softly steering the ball away with the barest touch of the knee and avoiding an own goal. That was class.

  3. January 23, 2017

    Messi has grown into something else. I couldn’t believe it, how one can make make so many beautiful passes, one after other, in a single game. There are those who wont agree Messi had a good game, unless he scores 2, assists 2 and dribbles 10 and make slaloming runs throughout. But this was completely different. Busi going out seemed like a wake up call and he was something else after that.
    Jim, I would love to hear from you on Mathieu and Umtiti partnership. I think the French pair would work well.
    And Arda deserves a huge applause.

  4. Jim
    January 23, 2017

    A strange game for me although I’ll certainly take the points which, with Iniesta and Pique out and Busi being removed early rates as a good result. Not sure we can read too much regarding future form into it as we will meet better presses and better finishing but as we keep saying you beat what’s in front of you.

    Them first. They aren’t a very talented side and their press despite being a bit hit and miss also didn’t last long and when it faded boy, did we see the difference. Loved Albert Ferrer’s analysis of our approach to playing our way up the field which was that we do it because if we just clear it upfield we aren’t actually wearing out their press quickly enough. We need them running like dogs the first 25 or so minutes not getting a rest while their defence mops up long balls. To be fair to them the chances they managed to create weren’t great compared to ours so a clean sheet didn’t surprise me. The difference for me was that they didn’t manage to catch us short or out of position when we turned the ball over. All of the back four lost possession at some point but when they did the other three were in good position to pick up the slack. I’m telling you there has been a fair amount of work done on that in the last month or so.

    For us, it is difficult for me to assess the overall team performance because , again, all roads lead back to Messi. At times he was even doing Busi’s job ! One of the most complete displays I’ve ever seen from him and this has been going on for a while. He seems to have decided RM. aren’t going to walk away with this one just yet. It’s no exaggeration to say with a bit of luck he could have walked away with four assists.

    Of the rest of the team I didn’t think anyone played badly. TS I thought had a great game handling wise. That’s what I want to see. And most of his passing was good but not great as I’ve seen talked about elsewhere. I counted three long slow high passes to a marked Jordi Alba, a few of the same to SR and some just straight to the opposition. I’d rather see those heading for Suarez but that’s just me.

    In defence I thought it took Mathieu fifteen minutes or so to get his bearings but that wasn’t surprising given the length of absence. After that I thought he had a great game. Umtiti also made a few mistakes but nothing that suggests he’s not gonna be great for us. I think he’s still confusing trying to look calm with playing too slowly (Pique is a great lesson in this. You think he’s the slowest ever yet he never gets caught with the ball ). Umtiti has also misjudged the flight of a few balls in the last couple of matches , getting underneath them but that’s minor.

    Fotobirajesh, I think the two of them will work pretty well together. They give us height, pace, Both know how to work our offside game and both regain their position quickly after being drawn away. Add that to neither of them dashing out making rash unnecessary tackles and you have a partnership. It’s not one which will blossom though as we can’t afford to leave Pique out against top sides. What I would say is that either could partner him but for games against a press my preference would be Umtiti as he’s the better passer. it should be difficult to see where Masche’s next game is coming from but I’ve a feeling LE won’t see t that way..

    Rakitic played very well at DM in keeping it simple but then he wasn’t pressed very hard. He didn’t make himself available as much as he could have for passes from TS but fair play to him taking over from what looked like a badly injured friend. ( Btw, how lucky I’d Busi ? I’m hearing a couple of weeks ? Look at the pics of that. Whenever someone caught my ankle, forcing it to roll outward quickly at that speed it was torn ligaments and six weeks. I’ll be shocked if he’s back in two. )

    Going on too long but I have to put in a word for Suarez. I just don’t get why people can’t see what he brings to the side in terms of stretching defences. I don’t think there’s another player in world football with so many aspects to his game. His pass to Messi wasn’t the touch of a tall CF. it could easily have been Xavi. His run on that move to stretch the defence was excellent. He was unlucky with a great effort off the post and his own goal was just down to his great qualities. First of all imagination as he saw the guy dealing slowly with the ball, strength in muscling him off it, pace to stay ahead and superb finishing as tere wasn’t much space to put it in. Great play.

    Neymar ? He’ll come good, he’s too good not to but I’d still love to see Messi rested one game soon ( ( with all the rest of our first eleven on ! ) and Neymar given a freer Brazil NT role just to let him stretch his legs a little and feel better about himself. I felt a little sad that he didn’t really celebrate his goal much because it was the fourth. As with al ball players confidence is everything. His take behind the legs in front of goal was breathtaking.

    Bottom line ? As long as we can keep our position defensively we won’t lose many goals. Our defensive players are too good. That is the platform for taking pressure off our forwards and I’m heartened that we may be starting to see the light there.

  5. January 23, 2017

    This is a Ter Stegen distribution video from the match. It’s difficult to get a sense of how a keeper does because the play to and around him is so sporadic, so this video is useful.

    https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B3LH6d_qKDQ_cFh6LXB2ZUFZZFk/view

    What fascinates me about Ter Stegen, and I will have to go back and look at the matches where Umtiti did NOT play, is how symbiotic the two seem. Distribution like Ter Stegen’s also changes the way a press can deal with Barça and its attack. It’s nice that the outfield players have figured out that he will always lead them with a ball, and if they move then the ball is right where it needs to be. For too long they were standing still, watching the ball go to the “wrong” place.

    Also note that Ter Stegen is two footed, and equally adept with both. Impressive.

    • Jim
      January 23, 2017

      Thanks for the clip, Kxevin. As you say it’s hard to get an overall impression of a keeper’s game . While watching it the first thing that I noticed was that for the first time in ages a team decided to follow in to the keeper resulting in a man less to carry out the press. Not the best idea.

      I wasn’t having a go at TS’ passing ability, though. I think he’s as good with his feet ( both as you say ) as any keeper I’ve ever seen. I’m also on record as saying that I think the midfield has been pretty poor in providing easier outlets for the GK and CBs

      What I was musing about was the judgement of some of the passes he made. Hitting a ball like that over thirty / forty yards in the slow looping manner inevitably ensures that the recipient will have company by the time it arrives and the video essentially makes that point. In passing, I notice it omits all the passes which went directly to an opponent, in at least three or four of these clips we are fortunate to retain possession under heavy pressure and on at least three occasions he has cause to appreciate Jordi Alba’s beautiful technical skills in bringing a ball from a long way away under control immediately.

      I did however, like the first clip with the quick release ( dare I call it a hoof ? ) to the front three and would rather he adopted that more often. Even if it goes to an opponent our front three are right on top of them. Not a huge point, just an observation. ( The long slow ball to me when I used to play was my pet hate and guaranteed to get me raging – and often hurt – so maybe I’m biased ! )

      By the way, I m not sure what you mean by the symbiotic comment regarding TS and Umtiti.

      • January 23, 2017

        Oh, that Ter Stegen seems to really like playing the ball to Umtiti, sometimes using him as an agent. Umtiti’s ball handling also speeds up play, and provides another way of playing out from the back. More than any other CB, as soon as Ter Stegen gets the ball, Umtiti will sprint out to the side to give Ter Stegen an outlet and clear passing angle.

        Mascherano does this as well though not to the extent of Umtitl. I would also suggest that Mascherano doesn’t have the feet of Umtiti.

        I posted the video more because it’s rare to see a keeper isolated like that in a video. It was fun to watch.

        • Jim
          January 23, 2017

          Thanks. Yeah, I’d watched the whole game twice and hadn’t even noticed they were pressing the keeper !

          Umtiti’s skill with the ball at feet is the main reason I’d prefer him to Mathieu. I would say, though, that Pique is as quick as anyone to make the right angle and has done so since the days of Puyol. I think we are fortunate to have such ball playing CBs as Pique and Umtiti and maybe won’t ever give them enough credit for the difficulty of it – until one of them makes an error that is. Then it’ll be the end of the world.

          • January 23, 2017

            Someone noted on Twitter that Umtiti is a perfect pairing for Pique, and the best one since Puyol, particularly for the mature Pique, who no longer needs someone to yell at him to pay attention.

            I also like Mathieu’s game, and always have. As you know, I think he has been unfairly maligned for a couple of erratic performances at LB. Now suddenly, his name in the XI guarantees doom.

            I will always respect what he did for this club to be able to come back more quickly to help the team, as well. His dedication is impressive, as is his pace.

            Pique’s making space is smarter than Umtiti’s. It’s less lateral and more angled toward continuing the progress of the ball to the attack. Umtiti will get there with coaching, for sure. The result of that is that Umtiti will often wind up playing the ball back to Ter Stegen, as more of a breather valve. Where Pique takes the ball and 99 percent of the time, sends it forward.

  6. January 23, 2017

    Luis Enrique transfers: Ter Stegen, Douglas, Rafinha, Rakitic, Bravo, Suarez Major, Mathieu, Vermaelen, Vidal, Turan, Suarez Minor, Umtiti, Digne, Gomes, Alcacer, Cillessen.

    Now that Vidal seems to have come good, the number of flops on that list is impressively low. Douglas. Vermaelen is a debatable one and the jury is still out on Alcacer. The debate will be about who to attribute that success to. Certainly the scouting department and sporting director have quite a lot to do with that as well. But it’s pretty remarkable, even if you put Vermaelen in the “failure” category.

    • georgjorge
      January 23, 2017

      I agree, that’s a pretty good list. No superstar players apart from Suarez Major, but a lot of depth and versatility, which was needed.

      Enrique also managed to suck the goalkeeping skills out of Bravo right before he went to Manchester City and give them to Ter Stegen, impressive ; )

      • January 23, 2017

        That last part of your comment makes me wish for a “like” button in this space. I think that Bravo shows how a good keeper can get screwed by a leaky defense, even as I think that Ter Stegen is significantly better. City’s porousness is doing Bravo’s stats no favors. Makes you realize that the Barça defense was pretty good when he was here.

        And I don’t think Vermaelen belongs in the “failure” camp, FWIW. He played well when he played, and scored an immense goal for the team.

        • Jim
          January 23, 2017

          Agree with this . Bravo is no bad keeper but the defence in front of him is shocking.

          With you on TV. The guy was unfortunate with his body. It happens and there’s often no way to tell if it will last. Was worth the gamble at the price for me. He used to be a real footballer.

  7. luisthebeast
    January 23, 2017

    Very interesting statistic that with Umtiti in starting eleven we have 10 wins in 10 games in Liga and without him 2 in 9.

    • January 23, 2017

      I can explain some of that, even as most of it is the luck of the draw. I’ve written before that he is a link closer, a bridge between back line and attack. Yesterday, when he looked and looked for an outlet but Eibar was pressing properly, he just ran into the space vacated by them pressing, based on the theory that the defenders can’t be everywhere. He sometimes loses the ball on those forays, but more often than not, he either creates danger or winds up getting fouled. Both are just fine.

      He understands space in a way that surprises me even from having watched him at Lyon. He’s also a mature defender, even though he’s young. People focus on the few errors that he makes and make declarations about him, because defenders and keepers are rated for their few errors, while attackers are rated for their few successes, because that’s the game, fair or not. But goals scored or conceded often comes down to a single action. More often than not, and more often than a defender his age has a right, he chooses the right action.

      He wins every header that he contests, which removes a prise into the Barça back line. Still can’t believe the club paid only 22m for him. Thank the stars we did that deal before Euros. Aulas must be kicking himself.

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