Wow! Our Man of the Match, Lionel Messi, should decicate more goals to the daughter of his cousin. What a knockout match by our little wizard (eventually), and what a display by our team (again, eventually).
Believe it or not MOTM wasn’t easy. Could it have been Victor Valdes, for his three goal-saving efforts, including an absolutely massive 1-v-1 stop against Nicola Zigic? Yes. Could it have been Thierry Henry, for his injection of whatever in the hell it was that made the difference in the second half? Sure. Could we have broken precedent, and given MOTM to a non-player in Tito Vilanova, who either read the players the riot act, or put Guardiola on speakerphone in the locker room? Why not?
But Messi it is, because he played the kind of match we’ve all been expecting of him for so long, one that included defense, battling for midfield possession, timely passes, goals galore and timely one-on-one play. For me, it doesn’t vex me when Messi is self-possessed. Sometimes, he has to be. It’s when he’s selfish that I get all bothered.
The difference, is that self-possession is “There aren’t any better options, let’s see what I can do.” Selfishness is “I don’t care who’s open. My ego tells me that I’m the best option.” Huge difference. The former finds him getting a deflected ball in the box, seeing nobody moving to help out and having him swing into action. The latter finds him on a break with a certain big Swede, and ignoring him for a shot that didn’t have a chance.
But even more importantly than Messi, in the second half we looked like a team again. People will say that Valencia were undermanned defensively, and the red card really killed them, there were sunspots, whatever. Valencia were playing pretty darned good in the first half, and might have even deserved to be ahead. Fact of the matter is that in the second half, we took it upon ourselves to play the kind of relentless pressure-based football that made us the best team ever last season, a team that puts pressure on you whether it has the ball or not.
It just took a while to get there.
Guardiola (because let’s not kid ourselves here about this one) rolled out with a lineup of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Milito, Maxwell, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro!, Krkic. I predicted the attack, because there was no way in hell that Henry was starting, despite the comments from Guardiola about the excellent week of practice that he had, etc, etc. And so it went.
And we were awful, completely bereft of ideas on attack, content to let Valencia pass the ball around in the midfield, something that put our defense in grave danger. Yes, we had possession, but we didn’t do a damned thing with it, as our only decent chances on goal came through Valencia errors or deflections. We created nothing of our own, and didn’t look as though we would.
Because we had absolutely zero wing play of any consequence from the right of left, Messi was easy to mark out of the match, as we couldn’t devise a way to get him the ball. And even when he did, he was surrounded by defenders, because Iniesta was also pretty much invisible. Dude needs to understand that Ghostface means pale, not ghost-like as invisible. So Xavi was doing his thing to no avail, and we were all bunched up in the middle of the pitch. So when Valencia began to gather confidence and push the lines up, we obliged by making shitty passes out of the back and being generally lackluster. Maxwell was doling out atrocious clearances, Pedro! was killing attack after attack, Krkic was finding out what it’s like to play against full-size defenders, and everything was a mess.
All of the poor decisionmaking that had been manifesting itself this season, came to the fore. We were keeping the ball too long, there were no triangles on attack or defense, the entire club was a desultory mess that deserved to be down, going into the locker room.
Most critically, there was no aggression. Not only weren’t we creating good chances, we didn’t look all that interested in creating good chances. So we walked when we could run, and stroked the ball around as in practice. It was pointless, and annoying as hell.
So what happened in that second half?
For one thing, aggression. Just look at the posture of our players from half to half. In the first half they were on their heels, tentative and uncertain. In the second they were on their toes, constantly moving forward. Ball pressure both in and out of possession made a Valencia side that gave us such a difficult time in the first half, look much the inferior side in the second half. It was more than the introduction of Thierry Henry, though tactically, the threat that he posed in place of Krkic changed a lot offensively. But just look at the differences, on and off the ball.
First half, we stand around with the ball, with negative passes and dead in the water attacks by isolated players. Messi hardly has any touches, and none of real merit, in the first half. In the second half, with possession there are stacked triangles, so that every player with the ball has at least two attacking options. The number of negative passes were dramatically reduced, thanks to runs on and off the ball. Players were running into space and creating attacking options, rather than waiting for the pass, then trying to dribble down the entire Valencia defense.
And we were getting Messi the ball in areas where he could do damage, close to the box and on the move. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Messi is easy to defend when he gets the ball in the midfield and runs at the defense. It’s just a matter of stacking enough guys in front of him. Now look at the first goal, as he took the pass just outside the box, in an area that immediately sowed panic. They had to play honest on Pedro! and Henry, and you couldn’t play Messi that tight or physically in the box, lest he fake you out and draw a penalty. Sure, he faked Valencia’s defense out of its collective jocks and broke some ankles to boot, before smoking it past the keeper on the near side. But still you at least make him take the shot, right?
Defensively, we were still on our toes, tracking the ball and most importantly, doing it with triangles intact, so that there weren’t the same wide-open passing lanes for Valencia to exploit. They had to pass more quickly as the pressure was coming from everywhere, so we kept working ball after ball loose in the midfield, which also meant less distance for the offense to travel to reach the Valencia box.
We have looked good this season, and have looked much like our old selves. But this was the first match where I could honestly say “This club could beat any club in the world right now. Period, full stop.” And that was true even before Valencia went down to 10 men.
Tactically, there is a simple explanation, really. Iniesta moved to the left wing in place of Krkic, and Henry moved to the center, to give our offense a focal point. So we had three real points of danger (Iniesta, Henry, Messi) instead of one (Messi). The space created meant that we could run riot. But more than that, our attitude switched. We moved more quickly, and played more one-touch. Everybody started moving, and playing where the ball was going to be, rather than where it was.
The second half also came down to a key moment in the 68th minute, when Zigic was turned loose (even though he was offside) on Valdes for a one-on-one break. Valdes made a killer save, thanks in part to Zigic cocking it up and shooting too soon. But you’d better believe keepers can look in an attacker’s eyes and think, “Punk. Give me that damned ball.” Valdes did, and that was that. Because if the match goes to 1-1, maybe things are different. Maybe that aggression and confidence transmute into a bit of doubt.
But Valdes stonewalled his ass, and we went back to battering them with pressure, until Henry laced a cross-pitch pass to Messi, who controlled it and raced into the Valencia box, before smoking an exquisite curler into the far side. Suddenly he had a brace, and rather than it being 1-1 and Valencia feeling as if they had life, it’s 2-0 and the match is over.
And the goal was all Messi, right? Wrong. Yes, Henry’s pass was one that almost any Barca player can make. The difference, and what made it such a good pass was the situation and the timing. He dropped that ball right at Messi’s feet from the opposite sideline, in an arc that put it over the head/leg of a player who could have intercepted it, and in a spot where Messi could control and move. No, that was no ordinary pass. Yes, Messi did all the rest of the work to score the goal, but if that pass is lower, it never gets there. If it’s higher, a defender gets there at the same time as the ball.
But damn, that shot was magic. The keeper didn’t have a chance. It was 2-0, and ESPN was busy reveling in the replay as Henry and Messi decided to team up again. Iniesta popped a loose ball perfectly to Henry, who controlled with his chest and stabbed a lunging pass to an on-the-move Messi, who doled out a cheeky little chip over the keeper for his hat trick. Henry had two assists, in addition to chasing that damned ball all over the pitch, and could have had two more, had Xavi had his shooting boots on.
It was as delightful a second-half display as it was a desultory first one, and we win. Yay! Most importantly, look at the goal celebrations, and the joy present in them. Football was fun again, at least for a half.
Team: 6. Would have been higher, had they played a whole match, the lazy bums. But when they started to play …. wow!
Vilanova (Guardiola): 5. Wrong lineup at first. How in the hell could you think that an attack of Krkic, Pedro! and Messi would do the trick against a real side? We need at least one grownup out there. Nice salvage with the Henry insertion.
Valdes: 9. Are you freakin’ kidding me? Dude looked like all-world today, making up for the frailties of his defense in an immense way. If he’s any less of a keeper, we’re walking into the locker room at halftime down by two goals, and life has immense suck. And stonewalling Zigic was gargantuan.
Alves: 6. Solid. Good defense, got better on offense. Has had rather a heavy first touch of late, leading to fouls or loss of possession. But overall, he played well enough.
Pique: 9. Leader. And I might be so bold as to suggest that our best center pairing is he and Milito. Blasphemy, I know. But I’m opening the discussion on that one. Intervention after intervention, and standing up to Zigic like that was all man, all the time.
Milito: 9. Wait, this dude was injured how long? Between heading balls to safety, covering for Maxwell’s well-toasted ass, clearing balls and standing up attackers, what a match.
Maxwell: 5. Played much better in the second half when Valencia wasn’t a threat, but his side was Route One for their attack in the first half. Dude was like a Camp Nou turnstile. At least make them pay on offense, but he didn’t even do that.
Busquets: 8. Busquets the Destroyer was in full effect today. He broke up more attacks, and worked more balls loose …. amazing. He tried to get a little fancy at times, which brought his aggregate score down, but what a match.
Xavi: 7. He’s been sharper, but he really picked it up along with the rest of the team in the second half, when he turned into the command/control monster. Sometimes, the way he controls the ball when all else around him is chaos, just blows me away.
Iniesta: 5. He just wasn’t very good in the first half, and improved enough to get him a middling mark in the second, with midfield effort and those little runs up the left wing that don’t amount to anything, but create much-needed space and width for us.
Pedro!: 4. Where good attacks went to die in the first half. In the second, he didn’t see the ball as much, which made his lack of tactical sense less of a liability for us. He holds the ball too long, and doesn’t know what to do when he meets resistance. Pass and move, dude. Pass and move.
Krkic: 1. He was just terrible today. People have been clamoring for pitch time for you, and this is what you do? No movement, no ideas except that weak drag dribble that doesn’t work against any defender, no nothing. You want time, earn it.
Messi: 10. Staggering match. He didn’t show a lot in the first half, but even then, every time he touched the ball, he was dangerous. He helped on defense and midfield pressure, made runs and was a full-on dervish. He’s now got a 3-goal lead in the pichichi race. And now I will bring a bit of downer to the proceedings. He has to learn to play with Ibrahimovic the way that he plays with Henry. Another point of discussion, that will be helped by the observation that no, it ain’t all Ibrahimovic’s fault.
Henry (for Krkic): 10. I can’t think of a recent substitution that has made such a difference. Not only did he assist on two of Messi’s goals, chase the ball, battle for midfield possession, harass the keeper, make runs and do everything short of emptying out the Camp Nou trash cans, but he made a case that for getting back into the starting lineup. Oh, and Xavi owes him two assists.
Jeffren (for Iniesta): incomplete. Not enough time to really do anything at all except run around and get loose.
The Yaya (for Messi): incomplete . The sub was just to give Messi a chance to get his well-deserved standing ovation, and the genuine affection that passed between he and our man mountain was cool to see.
Now, I’m not going to say that we are back to ourselves. We’ve said that before, and look where it’s gotten us. I’m learning to take each match as a little microcosm. I think this is going to be an up-and-down remainder of the season, and we should all just enjoy the beautiful footy when we get it, and hope that we can grit it out when we don’t. Next up is Stuttgart in the Champions League. Isaiah wrote a bitchin’ preview, then forgot to send it, and left his laptop at home. He sucks. So Hector or I will dole out some rather emphatically un pearl-like verbiage that will have to suffice. Word.
And finally, thanks so much to Yogesh for running the LiveBlog. I’m sure it all went well, because the family that we have here means that Isaiah, Hector and I always have surrogates who can carry on, and keep everything all smooth and stuff. It’s much appreciated, and I hope that it was a fun LiveBlog. Rock on.