One year in Paris my wife and I got lost, hopelessly so, while on the way to somewhere else. It was that kind of pre-GPS lost where you see couples hunched over a map, squabbling like henhouse roosters.
In that process of getting lost, we found the magnificent gustatory paradise of Rue Mouffetard, had a fantastic meal, homemade gelato and a ton of joy. The lesson here is, when you arrive somewhere really good, does the journey matter?
It’s a pertinent question in the wake of Barça’s 1-2 win over Atleti, a boon that includes a pair of precious away goals. If the result is everything, then there is not much more to be said. But as we all know, that isn’t the case, and wasn’t the case for this tale of two halves, of coaches making adjustments and tweaks, of one coach getting it right and one getting it wrong.
Luis Enrique got it right initially, coming at Atleti with a “gird your loins, savages” lineup of Cillessen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Mascherano, Rakitic, Gomes, Suarez, Neymar and Messi.
After Atleti came at Barça with an early burst, it seemed apparent that the Barça tactic was to out-Atleti Atleti, to play tight and wait to kill them on the break. Even the most wildly optimistic culer could not have expected what happened in the seventh minute when Mascherano made like Busquets and hijacked the ball from an Atleti victim. Once the ball fell to Luis Suarez, stuff went off the rails for Atleti.
What was weird about this goal was that Barça became Atleti and Atleti Barça. Suarez took the ball and ran past defenders, bulling his way into open space for a lustrous side-footed finish. It was 0-1 and and everything was crazy.
In the past Atleti would have just put Suarez on his ass first chance they got, then waved and gesticulated as the ref brandished the deserved yellow. For whatever reason they made like Barça, who we watch time and again and scream, “Just foul him!” They never do, letting an attacker dash along as they pursue all manner of fair means to stop him, before said attacker makes something good happen for his team. Maybe Atleti took role reversal too seriously? Either way it was a wonderful goal, but one that wouldn’t have been scored against proper Cholismo.
From that moment on Barça grabbed control of the match through effort, industry and pace. Everything was fast, and Atleti had no real answers. When they had the ball, Mascherano, Rakitic or Umtiti took care of matters. When Barça had the ball, either Neymar was speeding up the wing or Messi was prancing and dancing, thus presenting the first Barça quandary for the Devoted.
Where’s the midfield?
In Barça tradition of perfect football, capering sprites keep the ball as if dancing around the Maypole as hulking, thuggish brutes try to crash the party. This is what is usually meant by “no midfield,” as past standards of play and glory are applied to current times. Against Atleti the midfield was mostly, as Simeone uses it, an extended defense. The creativity was meant to come from Gomes, who mostly made like that inflatable thing at the goal end at Camp Nou. He had some moments, but the invisible industry of Rakitic and yeoman work of Mascherano combined with a busy front line to raise hell.
Atleti had no answer. Messi was moving like he was electrified and when that happens, there is no way for an opponent to cope. Barça, again from midfield effort, created another great chance that was thwarted when Suarez received the ball on the left side of goal with an open lane and decided to pass to a covered teammate. The attack fizzled, and the question of the moment on Barça social media was, “Why in the hell did he pass there?”
His idea was clear, and an example of his brilliance in many ways. As he, Neymar and Messi darted at Atleti, Suarez had the ball, Neymar was central and Messi was, unfathomably, running free on the right. Suarez was almost certainly thinking that Neymar would take the ball, do some Brazilian magic thing and give it to Messi, who would seal the deal. Instead an Atleti defender just got a foot in and the great chance went begging. A striker less capable of seeing the sweep of play probably would have scored there. That’s football.
The second goal was stupefying. It was a simple 1-2 with Rakitic. Even as Messi fed him the ball his head was swiveling. The return ball found him at the top of and just outside the box. Atleti, again wearing their Barça hats, just kinda traipsed over, thinking, as we have seen Barça do time and again, “No way he’s going to … crap … ”
Messi found space and unleashed a rocket of a shot that slashed across goal for the improbable, unfathomable 0-2. It was an absurd goal that was a perfect shot, glancing off the far post just a smidge to land inside the Atleti net. The margins were so fine that if the shot hadn’t been hit so hard, cut with such a fine knife, it’s a spectacular save by Moya (who made one off a Messi free kick that was destined for the roof of the net). That goal in the 33rd minute was the capper to a half of wonderful football.
Look at first half stats. Barça was 7 to 4 advantage in corners, 36 interceptions to Atleti’s 27 with 8 shots, 4 on goal, to Atleti’s 4 shots, none on goal. Barça also enjoyed 61 percent possession. Stats can often lie, but here they were a clear sign of how well Barça played that first half of football.
What happened in the second? Is it as simple as Luis Enrique subbed Denis Suarez on for a tired Rakitic? Should the sub have been made? Yes, given how rapidly Rakitic tails off when he’s tired. Why was Rakitic tired? Just look at one sequence starting from 8:23. Rakitic is tracking Messi while keeping tabs on Sergi Roberto, glancing back to track the Atleti players around him, always alert and tracking play. He forces a ball loose. Mascherano heads out. Atleti play it in. Rakitic wins another header, chases the ball, wins yet another header, chases some more, tracks play, affects an Atleti cross effort on the right side, then heads the ball away on an ensuing Atleti set piece. This is just about 90 seconds of action for the Croatian dynamo.
In that same period watch Gomes, always trailing play, trotting along like someone waiting for scraps. The one time he gets the ball in any pressure he loses it, and becomes a Maypole for Atleti players. Give Gomes the ball in space and he does the right things, even if a beat off the rhythm. But the difference between when a Barça player takes the ball under pressure and Gomes is night and day. It’s too often the differeence betweeen a dribble and pass to an open man and turned possession.
When Gomes plays with alacrity, he is fully up to his incumbent teammates. It’s just that he so rarely does.
Given how Raktic flags when he’s fatigued, it’s hard to argue against the sub even as you wonder if Denis Suarez was the right player. On paper it made sense to bring on Miniesta for some midfield control, that kind of pass-and-dance that everybody wants to see. Atleti showed why Guardiola and subsequent coaches were trying to adapt that system. Suarez Minor might be man enough for this match next season when his testicles drop, but not now. He doesn’t have a fraction of the industry or spine of Rakitic, and Atleti made hay in that absence.
Rakitic went off at 57:30. Less than a minute later Atleti was back in the match because there were two players lagging behind play, Suarez and Gomes, leaving Mascherano with too much space to cover. The foul that led to the set piece from which Atleti scored? In the first half Rakitic is in position to head that ball away. In the second, it’s already over Gomes’ head and Suarez is standing there watching. No movement or industry. The difference was significant.
Mascherano erred again on the goal by chasing the ball instead of marking a man, so Griezmann was easily able to get to the header to nod home. If you watch the sequence, the entire time Mascherano is fixated on the ball as Griezmann tracks into the space behind him. It isn’t until far too late that Mascherano sees the danger.
There will be squabbling about the Atleti goal and how Suarez was grabbed in the box and went down. Many felt that the goal should have been disallowed for that contact, which struck me as minor. If Suarez has the ball in their box on the attack, he plays through that little grab. Black art? Sure, but no less so than when late into injury time, Mascherano had almost the same contact on an Atleti attacker, who went to ground in the box. No call. So the ref was consistent in that aspect.
Things got even messier after their goal. In just one segment of play Mascherano is chasing the ball while D. Suarez lags behind play. On the amazing Cillessen save that he didn’t know much about, when Sergi Roberto moves, Rakitic darts over to cover his space. But D. Suarez lost his man, Felipe Luis, who ran into the zone vacated to feed the teammate who, thankfully, shot directly at Cillessen. To the credit of Luis Enrique he noted the error and subbed on Rafinha for Gomes, adding some industry to the Barça midfield and stabilizing the rocking ship somewhat.
Rafinha’s movement earned the foul that led to the Messi free kick off the bar. He was also part of a sequence leading to an excellent chance that an exhausted Neymar put over the bar. It was a sub as astute as the D. Suarez was clunky.
Atleti was on the front foot because Simeone realized the same thing that we all did, and his demons attacked the Barça right like an all you can eat buffet as Barça made error after error. Cillessen threw the ball directly to an Atleti attacker. A napping Mascherano got dispossessed at the top of the box. It really is something of a wonder that this match ended 1-2 instead of 4-2. Griezmann missed, twice. Torres missed, twice. Gameiro missed, twice, all excellent chances that on another day Atleti put away — again like Barça in squandering excellent chances.
The Rafinha sub stabilized things and the two teams fought to a hard-won Barça win. There was quite a lot to be learned from that match, including the value of Ivan Rakitic. Slate him all anyone likes for not being Iniesta or Xavi, but what he does for Barça should never be more clear than it is right now.
Umtiti was also exceptional, second place in my MOTM balloting. The only reasonable explanation that can be offered for the way Umtiti wins headers is that his dome is magnitized. He was breaking the Atleti lines more capably than Gomes. During one sequence he plays a perfect pass to Neymar’s head, then during the ensuing turn of possession tracks the ball, then darts forward to intercept and play it right back into the attack. During play, he moves with Pique as if on a tether, so that his back line mate always has a backstop, and notice how quickly he moves to give Cillessen a left-side passing option. It isn’t that difficult to see why Barça has such success with him in the XI.
Messi was astonishing at both ends of the pitch, defending with as much zeal as he attacked, finding teammates, challenging play and creating chances galore. He was clear MOTM in a Barça performance that was weird but easily explained. Players matter, even one player in a position as crucial as midfield.
Who wouldn’t have taken a 2-2 draw with a pair of precious away goals in an elimination tie? 1-2 win? Fantastic, even as it was fraught. The picky could say that had the team brought even a fraction of the energy and drive they did against Atleti against Betis, that would have been a different story. But that’s football. Against Atleti, Barça got there. And even if the road was bumpy, the destination was fantastic.