Well, that was a mess, wasn’t it? And what have we learned in Copa Class today, besides that suffering is life and life is crapicious?
Nothing is as it seems, no matter how much we want it to be.
Luis Enrique said, “I didn’t like the first half. We didn’t look like the team that we usually are.” Scream “Lucho out” all you like, but dude ain’t blind. That Barça took a lead into the locker room at the half defied all logic, as if the football gods decided to reward the ability to suffer as they did in last year’s Champions League semi against this same Atleti. Barça wasn’t good. The Devoted beat their chests and rend their garments as they scream about this or that, about standards and how could anyone be happy seeing Barça like this, not understanding that nobody is. Espectially the coach, who knows most of all how good his players can be.
Suffering isn’t solitary. Whether a team or a fanbase, suffering is collective and make no mistake, everybody suffered in a match that was, to wallow in euphemism, moderately incident-filled. Barça finished with nine players on the pitch, due — despite those who will say the ref blundered — solely to player stupidity. Messi struck a free kick from somewhere near La Rambla that pranged off the bottom part of the crossbar. Busquets got a yellow for kicking a second ball off the pitch. Kevin Gameiro made Madrid’s contribution to the manned space program with a penalty kick. Atleti had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside.
Just an ordinary day in what has become the new Classic.
Atleti came to the Camp Nou knowing that its best chance at silverware was the Copa del Rey, and that Simeone and his charges would have to go through Barça to do it, a Barça that had a 1-2 aggregate lead buttressed by a pair of precious away goals.
They came out with an attack-oriented lineup that included Barça’s personal tormentor, Fernando Torres, and attack they did, pinning Barça back and turning a Copa semi-final first into a track meet then into a midfield Trojan War. Suarez got an excellent early chance and after that it was dig in and suffer time against a pressing, physically aggressive opponent who sparked the same worries as Athletic Club on the weekend.
Oddly enough, the first half went the same way as against Athletic on the weekend. Barça was outplayed, yet went into the locker room with a lead on the day (1-3 on aggregate). The goal was simple enough to explain. Messi donned his cape, obliterated the Atleti defense and smoked a shot at goal, which was spilled by Moya. Suarez pounced on the rebound, and that was that, the odd end to a first half of pain and suffering, both physical and aesthetic.
An inability to move on explains a great many things. People seemed surprised that Atleti played so well against Barça, a team that has played 11 matches in the past 34 days. And in the past five years, Atleti has been to more Champions League finals than Barça. The team also improved over the summer. Barça entered the match without Neymar, Iniesta or Busquets, the absence of that first player being most crucial in how things progressed.
Speaking of absences, does Oblak give the rebound that Moya did? Worth an ask before returning to a notion about absences and the effect for Barça, short and long-term. Neymar is crucial. Even as people want to rush him out of the club, the Atleti match made his invaluable qualities clear. He breaks a press by taking a pass and running up the wing. He relieves pressure on Messi to be an attacking threat and ball carrier. He tracks back, which relieves the Barça left-sided mids of as much defensive duty, while also helping the LB and LCB. You can hate his hair, his Instagram, his social media presense and his marketing. But it is no longer possible to deny what he brings to Barça as an essential player.
Atleti was able to take advantage of that absence by flooding the midfield, clamping down on Messi and isolating Suarez. The one time Messi slipped the leash he made them pay. Their flooding the midfield also meant they were able to create chaos there, then work the ball loose to attack the vulnerable right side of Barça, as Sergi Roberto demonstrated once again that a Swiss Army knife is a great tool to have in a pinch, but a specialized tool will always be better. He was abused by yet another opponent, which made the life of Pique more difficult.
Jesper Cillessen to the rescue. In an MOTM performance, Cillessen made the case for being one of the best second keepers in football with saves and most importantly, great hands. He doesn’t spill rebounds. He also understands what to do and what not to do with the ball, even in a world where nothing is going as it seems. Midfield chaos could be bypassed via a long pass to a player such as Suarez who would hold things up until the attack reset in the new location, to bypass the midfield quagmire. Where is the midfield? See that “No Vacancy” sign? It’s over there.
One of the things heard a lot is that “Barça can’t handle the press.” Here’s some news. No team can handle a properly executed press from a high-quality opponent, whoever the coach might be. A good team will devise a way to find success despite the opponent action, which is what Barça did. And it advanced to yet another Copa final. Results aren’t everything, except to people whose jobs it is to get them.
And if not for Cillessen being MOTM, Andre Gomes would have a shout at that honor. Not only was he the best of the Barça mids, but he continued to show the progress that begins to make that pricetag make something approaching sense. His control, turn and defense-gutting pass to free up Messi for his run was lustrous. He was almost consistently physical and creative, after a shaky start playing with the pace that matched the team ambition.
Another crucial player was Umtiti. He won headers, made interceptions, passed, ran and late in the match, put his body in the way of a shot that had “GOAL!” written all over it.
But late in the match was chaos, as first Sergi Roberto, a player known for his intelligence, was so stupid as he laid in a crunching tackle and picked up a second yellow. But Suarez might have been just as stupid for going for a ball with his arms up, brushing the head of an Atleti player with his elbow. The resultant yellow was soft. Premiership devotees would laugh at the love tap. But a player knows how a league is officiated, and every time you go into a player’s head with the elbow up and out, it will be a card, barring ref error. Suarez screwed up, and will miss the final as will Sergi Roberto, assuming Suarez’s second yellow isn’t overturned on appeal.
Going down to 10 and then 9 amped up the suffering factor, and contributed to the madness. There isn’t a place for stability, for those keywords in a Barça drinking game that would hospitalize you if every time you heard “midfield,” “structure” or “positional play” you took a shot. Those days ain’t those days.
A team moving on is part of life. What’s also an unfortunate part of life is the acknowledgement and realization, only after they are gone, what great players brought to the side. Players such as Alves, Xavi and Abidal are gone, because of the passage of time and the need to move on. When they were with the club, people were anxious to move them along, to play Thiago over Xavi because it was time, or snarking about Alves’ defending and the erratic quality of his crosses. Abidal didn’t attack enough for many culers.
Yet it is these three players whose absences are the most acute, and affecting the notions people have most severely. Those three were crucial in making what so many have come to think of as “Barça football” possible. Xavi was the metronome, a constant, dancing presence, a place where the ball was happiest. He ran a lot but rarely moved, always seeming to be in the same place as a fulcrum for the lever of the Barça attack. There is no Xavi replacement. Never was, never will be. The team is facing that reality.
Alves wasn’t just an RB. He was also an RW and RMF, with a varied skill set that allowed him to be everything to everyone, in addition to the life of the party off the pitch. This meant that his midfield mates didn’t have to run their legs off to compensate for him, which allowed Rakitic to be world-beating Rakitic more than babysitting Rakitic.
Abidal was a human wall with sideline-to-sideline range. Pique isn’t the fastest CB in football, which is something of an understatement. When he was caught out of position, there was Abidal. When Busquets lapsed and let a ball through, there was Abidal. When anything happened that wasn’t supposed to, there was Abidal, a player who liberated the left side of the pitch. Iniesta didn’t have to track back, because there was Abidal.
As people clamor for a return to “Barça football,” it is with a lack of understanding of both player and tactical realities. The Great Barça Myth is that tactics exist and are executed independently of player quality and opponent input. It’s a byproduct of the Cult of Coaches that has popped up, that has people discussing tactics without the full understanding of player roles in those tactics. Sergi Roberto isn’t Dani Alves. This means that Rakitic can’t be Rakitic, and Pique can’t be Pique. Because Rakitic can’t be Rakitic, Iniesta can’t be Iniesta, and Busquets has to cover more space, so he can’t be Busquets, so Ter Stegen has to hold the ball a beat longer because Busquets isn’t being Busquets.
Whatever tactic anyone talks about starts with players. Tactics are lovely, but if you bring the proper tactics and positional play and start Barça B against Atleti, that team will get a beat down. “Barça football” needs players of a certain level to properly execute it. Lose one of those players and things are funky. Lose two and stand back. Three? Against Atleti, Barça had precisely none of the spine that made the football the team played so wonderful. Busquets and Iniesta were on the bench. Even more worrisome, something that many chose to ignore, is that match control and level of play decreased when Busquets and Iniesta entered. This was to be expected as both were working off injuries, but this was yet another match where Rakitic went off and things went all to hell.
Structure is important. So is calmness. So is suffering. So is winning. Barça had precious little of the first, even as they started off the second half looking like the team they could be. They had lots of the second and plenty of the third. And they did the fourth. As we have been saying all too often this season, it wasn’t pretty, but it got done. Is that the new normal? With a match every three days for the foreseeable future, probably.