What has happened in your life that was amazing? A graduation? A marriage? Some epic event that not only kept you up until all hours, but drained you emotionally and physically, made you a wreck.
How effective were you at work the next day? Maybe you called in sick, because you knew you would suck, so why bother?
Now imagine being Barça after the PSG match on Wednesday.
It’s a safe bet that Depor coach Pepe Mel watched that match and thought to himself, “We got this,” because was no way a team — even the players who didn’t play — were going to come out of that match ready to do anything at all for the next week. Sunday was too soon, even for professionals.
As a consequence, Barça was pancake flat against Deportivo, and lost a match that a few days later the team would probably stroll with ease. Emotion and psychology do that to teams, to players. Football wasn’t canceled. And while Barça was running its asses off against PSG and performing the impossible, Depor was training, and lying in wait.
What’s more, Depor deserved the win. The team sits in 17th place in the Liga table, but is a different group since Mel took over. They have taken points off Atleti, who didn’t even have a Roman orgy of a midweek match to blame.
So what happened? The team performed below par, from minute 1 to minute 93. It’s as simple as that. Passes that usually connect didn’t, plays that usually work didn’t. Luis Suarez had some excellent chances that he hit directly as the keeper. Sergi Roberto had a shot that he should have taken, that he didn’t. Paco Alcacer had a chance that he should have controlled and shot. Instead he tried hitting a header to a teammate.
What’s fascinating about the last two sequences is that both were players unaccustomed to being The One. Sergi Roberto, against PSG, was The One by accident. His usual role is the guy who makes the pass to the right guy. Paco Alcacer doesn’t have enough of a track record to know what to do, except try to screw up. Take the shot? He still isn’t quite sure where to stand, much less what to do when the team is flat and he’s substituted in to make a difference.
Luis Suarez, in roughly the same place and situation as Sergi Roberto, slammed his shot home, because that’s what players who are used to being That Guy do. Ter Stegen was another one who is fast becoming used to being That Guy. He saved yet another match for his team, with a trio of brilliant saves, including a 1v1 that would have made it 3-1 and done, just as he did against PSG. Only this time, his heroics were for naught as his teammates weren’t as up to the task as he was.
After the match, the usual culprits were the target of scorn on Barça Twitter, that unrelenting crucible. Mascherano was the one most people were looking at, because he didn’t make the clearance on the first goal, and was in the neighborhood when Jordi Alba got punked — straight-up ass punked — for the second goal. But the entire team, excepting Suarez, Ter Stegen and Busquets, was going through the motions, and Deportivo took advantage. Messi was out there, for all that was worth. Poor. Iniesta came on as a second-half sub. Poor. Gomes? Sleepwalking. Nothing was working because nobody was where they needed to be.
Look at the first Betis goal. Mascherano whiffed on the corner, which created a loose ball that Ter Stegen had to pounce on. It was wet, and the ball slipped from his grasp when he slammed to the turf. There was a moment, an agonizing moment, when the ball was rolling free. Sergi Roberto stood there, seemingly paralyzed by the moment. The Depor player wasn’t, and slammed home. It was a mess of a goal.
The second Depor goal was worse, and not because it was the result of a corner kick that shouldn’t have been. The pass went directly to the attacker, who just outmanned Jordi Alba, leaping over him like he wasn’t even there. Because he wasn’t. He didn’t try to body the attacker, didn’t really mark him, just hoped that by standing there, his towering 5-foot-7-inch height would carry the day. The header was easy, and Ter Stegen was screwed.
The XI was Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, D. Suarez, Turan, L. Suarez, Gomes, Messi. It should have been enough to beat Depor, even with the rotation that saw Umtiti, Neymar and Rafinha left out of the squad. But the team was still an amotional wreck, so it wasn’t. That didn’t teach us anything new. Neymar was said to be injured after the PSG match, with pain in his left adductor. No doubt some will doubt that injury because even after he essentially saved the Champions League for Barça, he will still always and forever be suspect. Lightweight. Diver. Faker. Not fully committed to the team. It’s also a safe bet that none will question Rafinha’s gastroenteritis, which is the standard player sick day excuse. Nothing new.
What is new is that Barça is dependent upon Neymar and Umtiti in ways that might surprise many culers, given that so many want one sold and still don’t fully rate the other. Barça has won every Liga match that Umtiti has started. All sixteen of them. Without Umtiti? The eleven matches include two wins, three losses and six draws. Umtitidependencia is real.
What does he do as a player that no other CB for Barça does? For one, he is a facilitator and a circuit closer. For another, he lets Pique roam because his range means that there is a backstop. He receives passes from Ter Stegen when opponents are pressing, and ferries the ball to midfield. Rather than attempting a risky action, as Mascherano did with his scuffed clearance before the first Betis goal, he influences play, shielding the ball, walling off attackers, making a play by indirect action. He wins every header that comes near him and anticipates play in a way that makes him move to balls like a grizzled veteran.
He was the best defender against PSG, as well as the most influential. And then there’s Neymar.
Without Neymar, Barça was sluggish and seemingly bereft of ideas, having control of the ball but being like a bear with the car keys when they had it, even aside from the clunky, sleepwalking play. Jordi Alba had to be pressed into duty as a nominal LW when Turan wasn’t filling that role, or defending because Alba was attacking. Neither option worked because overlaps were the basic option, rather than the pace and creativity that come from Neymar. Neymardependencia is also real, particularly as Messi steps back into midfield more.
Without Neymar, teams are free to mark Messi because it essentially leaves him with one option, since the run is out, even when Messi is fresh, sprightly and focused: an inventive pass. Against Depor, those efforts were overhit, hit to the keeper or just off target. And because Messi isn’t That Messi any longer, Barça can be controlled by a hard-working opponent. Usually the team will still boast enough quality to squeak past, but not when their mental circuits are blown.
We as supporters forget that players are human. We forget that they feel the same kind of elation that we do, multiplied by a factor of ten. I was a mess at work on Thursday, just grinning and screwing stuff up. Imagine how they were, even on Sunday. As noted in the previous post, Depor took advantage of the opportunities presented them. Bad call? Okay, but they were still pressing, banging a shot off the post that presented the officials with a decision. And they converted the chance. That’s football.
Pique said after the match that had you asked any culer before Sunday if they’d rather have advanced against PSG in a historic comeback and lost against Depor, most would have taken that choice in a heartbeat. Luis Enrique was calm, the players were calm, because everyone knew what happened and how powerless the team was to prevent it.
The only things this match taught us is that after a massive win, even the best teams can be vulnerable, and two players that many culers don’t think a lot of, are in fact essential. Only one of those things is a surprise.