Barça 3, Real Sociedad 2, aka “The damage is clear”

The match against Real Sociedad can be summed up in a few sentences:

Thank the stars for Messi.
Welcome, Paco Alcacer.
It’s three points.

The distressing part about the match is that again, Barça failed to perform basic defensive functions. On the first goal, if Sergi Roberto was any softer, he’d be Messi’s first touch. On the second goal, everything was a mess, compounded by nobody marking the runner, who slotted home with ease.

In the second half, La Real played Barça off the pitch, creating attacks, moving the ball around and making danger. It was all dealt with, but the way the match went was worrisome in many ways, as few of the players looked fully committed. Fatigue? Looming coaching change and attendant lack of focus? Too many minutes for key players? It’s impossible to say, but even the most optimistic culer (hahahaha!) will have a difficult time, given the way the team has looked over the arc of the last three matches, believing in miracles.

Let’s look at some bright sides. Messi was spectacular. He made, as near as anyone can tell, a single error in losing a ball. The defense bailed him out, but when you look at the aggregate ledger, the positive bailouts side for Messi is still massive and today was no exception. He scored two goals and set up the third, even tracking back on defense, including clearing a header on a La Real set piece. His excellence masks the underlying difficulties that we are seeing on the pitch overall, difficulties that are in many ways inexplicable.

Another bright spot is that Alcacer looked like … a Barça player. He was involved in all three goals, including a wonderful retention of possession and nutmeg to keep the play alive via a pass to Suarez. And his goal is worth watching. The speed with which he controlled and slotted home looked smooth and easy, but is quite difficult. He’s pressing. Hard. At one point in the second half he lost a pass, and you could see him visibly slump. He seems very worried that any error will consign him to the bench again, but he is playing with the freedom and zeal that Andre Gomes is not.

After the match, when asked about Gomes, Luis Enrique referenced confidence, and that it waas difficult when a player doesn’t have it. Gomes doesn’t have it. He plays like a player who is afraid to make an error, so he doesn’t know what to do, thinking that by doing nothing, he won’t screw up. His situation is in many ways the same as Denis Suarez, who comes on and vanishes. You see both of them moving around, but they are too often behind play, too often not where they should be or where teammates need them to be, to the detriment of the overall attack (and defense).

With the injury to Rafinha, one of those players has to step up. Neither one is, and it matters, because Iniesta needs rest. His substitutes have to be effective in some way, shape or form. Gomes is getting worse, not better, affected by his overall play. He knows how he is, and must be working to change it. Is Luis Enrique giving him chances because he wants him to play his way out, or because he is the best of a bad set of options?

At this point, could Alena be any worse? The continued use of a damaged player is seeming to make him worse, rather than better. Could sitting him down do any more damage to his confidence?

But the problems at Barça don’t just extend to midfield. Recall a recent post likening Barça to a string of archipelagos, islands easily breached by an attacking force because of a lack of unified defense. If you watch the team defend, it’s like when you see dogs being managed by an electric fence — they stay inside a tightly proscribed zone for fear of getting the shock. Noobdy wants to screw up and cause a goal, so nobody takes any risks, doesn’t do anything to cover. Once that first man is beaten, the defense is in trouble.

As many have mentioned, Barça can miss a bunch of chances, then the first attack an opponent gets, they score. This is why. Sergi Roberto, covering the zone against a nonexistent player, just makes a halfhearted stab at marking an attacking player. Pique waves at a ball, telling Ter Stegen to come get it. A sharp, connected Pique controls that ball and plays it forward.

Many have suggested that Luis Enrique has lost the team, but it’s deeper than that. It isn’t as if they have to worry about playing for him, because he’s already gone. Titles won’t guarantee the continued tenure of a coach. But even if he has lost the team — something that is unlikely — the odd thing is that the team isn’t playing like a team. That is the most worrisome part. The team seems to have lost itself.

In the glory days of this current edition, the salad days in which the ball flitted around and magic was being made, the core of the team was linked by academy roots. The more you wind up with transferred players, the more you lose that undefinable something. Does a transfer want to bleed for the colors in the same way that a home-grown talent does? Imagine what Carles Puyol would do, would say to this group. There would be heads on pikes outside the Camp Nou grounds, as an example to those who dared transgress.

Everybody is looking at individual players, but the collective is off. What is the board doing? Is it fiddling while Rome burns? It just announced a new sponsor last week, as it continues to seek its ideal of an economic model that is sustainable regardless of how many trophies the team wins — or doesn’t win. What’s happening in the boardroom? Is there a new coach that has been decided? What about players and a program, something that is waiting on the new coach?

The worst part is that right now, Barça feels rudderless. The team is struggling, and nobody can do anything about it, even as its best player wins matches for them. There are no signs of life, no seeming joy or hope. Is the team seeing the effects of an odd transfer pattern, or just bad luck? The three players who would be most useful at this time are injured or just coming back from an injury. Aleix Vidal was creating danger off the right wing, until taken out in a bit of savagery. Arda Turan is just back from injury, playing his way into match fitness. Rafinha, that essential link in the 3-4-3, is lost for the season after yet another injury. The subs for those subs aren’t up to snuff. Jordi Alba has lost a step, reverting to just a wee, semi-quick defender who can be bullied. Rakitic has too much ground to cover, Umtiti is often hung out to dry, or is making errors because he is being proactive, even if it isn’t always the right decision.

There are plenty of worries, but no answers. Pique says with the team that the club has, it is possible to turn it all around against Juventus, and in the Liga. Talent-wise, yes. Execution and spirit-wise, no. That is the worrying part. Barça is playing like a team that has already given up hope as it becomes every player for himself. “I did my bit, now you do yours.”

That can’t work. A team divided is too easily destroyed as it mimics a factionalized supporter base. And that path can only lead to nowhere.

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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.

13 Comments

  1. Mishti
    April 16, 2017

    Psychological momentum is a really weird and powerful thing in football. It is easy for small things to snowball, and becoming an avalanche. Football being the kind of team game it is, even individual malaise can spread in chain reaction throughout the team. In the three weeks between the two legs vs PSG, the team initially suffered and then managed to build up a positive momentum. That Malaga game, coming at the moment when it came, when the stage was seemingly set for us to take charge of Liga, was a major morale destroyer I feel. The first red card in almost two seasons did not help either. Sometimes players start to feel that luck is not with them, they are just fighting against the tide. I have seen it enough of it up close. During certain points in today’s game, I wished I could go give Leo a hug. But I don’t think his teammates don’t care. Leo has been a pro footballer long enough to know that too. If we are questioning the willingness of ‘transfer players’ to bleed for the colors, that might be a bit harsh. The team is at a low moment morale wise. To me it looks more like a crisis of belief than a lack of willingness to work hard. I am a huge believer in the professional pride of atheletes. It is almost never the case that they don’t care. But low morale hampers concentration, hence execution. I don’t even know that they have given up on the season already. 2007-08 had a very different set of issues/circumstances involving leadership figures in the dressing room, and even the coach’s intensity and focus. Those are much more difficult problems to solve. The current talisman of the team showed today once again that he is as committed as ever. I still believe the team will keep trying. There have been good and bad things about LE’s tenure. But lack of fight has not been one. Not yet, at least. And for all his virtues and vices, LE is not the giving up type either. Ultimately of course it will come down to the ability of players to bring to the field the level of application required. So, we will see. Meanwhile, a big hug for the team. And some milk and cookies 🙂

    • Davour
      April 16, 2017

      Milk and cookies? You mean a round of schnapps and steely eyes daring them to return the gaze – he who avoids shalt not play. Hell, I would beg Puyol to return as a consultant of grit. Give hime 10 minutes in a room with every player. Flanked by Abidal, sitting quietly in a corner, oozing class, dignity and perseverance. Beg Xavi to return and play CM; Samper, Halilovic, bloody Yaya! Abduct Dani Alves in the night, pour knock-out drops in Chellini’s drink. Do whatever.

      And yes, why not play Alena? He has not set the world on fire the few minutes he has played, but one thing he did not do was hide.

  2. lala10
    April 16, 2017

    Rewatching the match. The defence was shambolic. In the second half there was no defensive leadership. Pique and Umtiti looked like they were playing together for the first time.

    Defend like that midweek and its goodbye UCL

  3. omoh
    April 16, 2017

    In times like this one thing I always ask myself is that “what will guardiola do to bring trust unity and concentration back to the game” (man I love guardiola)

    1. Ban the use of cell phones

    2. Make them spend time together by having a team lunch together and other things.

    3. Forbid them from going clubbing or travelling on frivolous journeys.

    This things may look unconnected with the result but they go a very long way. Through his(guardiola) stay in Barca, I’ve read instances from journalists close to the camp nou, Barca sites, and his press conferences where he did those things with the team.

    The basic aim is to restrict their interaction with the outside world and concentrate on building communication and relationships with their team mates.

    • Rami
      April 16, 2017

      The other day i was thinking that if i was the coach, I’ll tell them to pack their bags and come and live in the training center until after the clasico.
      Drink, Eat and breath football, Until their heads get back in the game.

  4. Rami
    April 16, 2017

    Agree with ‘MISHTI’ completely.
    The malaga and juventus not only they were big blows in terms of our la liga and CL chances and the fact they were too close to each other in time for the team to recover, They actually felt somewhat undeserved, Which is exactly why it had such a devastating impact on morale, Nothing makes us more helpless, Than when bad things keeps happening to us no matter what we do.

    There is a confidence crisis in the team, Their reactions after the juventus match for me was different than the PSG, They were much quieter than post-paris, And seemed less enthusiastic when speaking of a comeback, Signaling that they may lose confidence in themselves.
    There also seems to be a lack of confidence between themselves, They seem to be unable to rely on each other, How can the forwarders clear their head and give their all without the confidence that their team defenders won’t screw it up, How can the defense itself function without knowing that each one will watch the other one’s back, How can the defenders give their best without the confidence that in the front they won’t screw up easy chances after easy chances.

    These are the times for the captains to show up and recover the morale, This season can still be salvageable with the correct mindset and desire.

    I feel gutted for enrique, He genuinely want to end his last season on a high note, And truly has confidence in his players, But do they deserve it?, Because the way i see it, The players seem to have only this to say in their minds.

    “Can this season end already!”

  5. ChaoticReaper
    April 16, 2017

    Should Paco start over Suarez in a 4-3-3? Or should we use Paco as our right winger in a 3-4-3?

  6. Jim
    April 16, 2017

    Well, if there’s been a sadder 45 minutes viewing as a Barcelona fan in the last 8 or 9 years I’m not sure I’ve seen it.

    Were there positives ? Messi did what Messi always does and provided a threat, allied last night to a whole bundle of effort that we couldn’t afford him to put in and couldn’t afford him not to. Oh, we also won the game. Got to keep on reminding myself of that.

    On a night like last night you could have a go at anyone because although I normally disagree with Kxevin that a goal is everyone’s fault, the lack of shape was so bad that nobody knew what was happening or who was where.

    I’m gonna start with the midfield – again. Why ? Because they are the heart of everything we do. In a good team they control the passing game, provide support to the forwards and provide cover for the defence. In return the rest of the team tries to help, the forwards by coming deep at times and beginning the press, the defence by moving up and keeping a high line so the amount of area needing to be covered is kept to a minimum.

    What I saw was virtually no contact between our midfield players. Does anybody remember Rakitic even passing once to Gomes or vice versa ? Remember this is what used to be Iniesta to Xavi ! You can’t run a midfield like that. It can’t be coincidence. It must be down to positioning. So no platform of control to work with, giving the forwards time round their box to work their magic and no respite for the defence who have the ball coming back at them more than any Barca defence in recent years. Do you remember Gomes or Rakitic taking the ball and moving with it ? I don’t. In fact I vividly remember SR going on a couple of runs which broke the lines and of course Ini when he came on but not from these two. Can you imagine two slower midfield players at the highest level in modern football ? I can’t. So what are they bringing yo the party ? To play at Barca you need the killer skill for your particular position. All they do is pass on the responsibility to someone else. Should they still be here next year ? Good question. They won’t get any quicker so which skill is going to improve ?

    The defence has now become a worry. As someone said it looked like Umtiti and Pique had never seen each other before. Well, they seldom saw each other during the game, that’s for sure. The incident Kxevin points out when Pique allowed the ball to go past to what he hoped was the keeper is a good one. Pique moves up to close someone down and when the ball is played backwards retreats keeping his eye on the man beside him. Meanwhile Umititi is watching his. Look what then happens. Long ball played, Umtiti’s man runs across him within a couple of yards and Umtiti stands and watches as he races into the gap behind Pique’s back. Pique’s face is of course a picture when he turns to find Umtiti’s man behind him and not TS. Yes, Pique could have and maybe should have taken it but he should have the option because his partner is doing his own job. This happened in identical situation ten minutes earlier. Umtiti needs to commit to following the man he is marking. At 64.45 same thing. SR, in position for once beside Pique, watches his man come short to the ball and doesn’t react causing Pique who is more alert to move forward to close him down. Watch Umtiti. It’s as if the guy left up front is nothing to do with him so rather than covering for Pique stands and ends up with a sprint, which btw he doesn’t win and it should have been a goal. I’m not saying this just to have a go at Umtiti. Folk will know how highly I think of him as a rock in our defence but he needs to keep working at it as he’s by no means the finished article. He should have his head swivelling the whole time right and left yo see what’s happening and he doesn’t.

    Same thing happened on their second goal. I was just about to light the smug cigar as Umtiti closed the receiver of the long pass down.id barely struck the match when Umtiti left him and started to jog back to his position. NO!!! Keep the pressure on him so they don’t get quality time to pick passes. Stall and somebody else should cover. Unfortunately that other person, Jordi Alba decided that he was in ambling mode at that point and didn’t even sniff the danger till it was too late.

    I suppose the words I’m searching for are cover and urgency , both of which are lacking at the moment, even allowing for the fact that a rotten side have 47% possession at our place and carte blanche to run through the midfield at will.

    Ok, negative waves all exhausted. so what now. New man. It has to be Unzue or he wouldn’t be busting a gut do obviously on the touchline. Don’t see why the board deserve a panning either at the moment. I want them to be out there getting money in to pay for the big salaries and I’d be surprised if they weren’t every bit as concerned about the direction LE has taken us in as some of the rest of us. This was always going to happen though from the moment LE decided his new approach didn’t need Xavi because we were going to miss them out. Having suffered myself in the midfield at a low level under such a regime have you any idea how much that saps the energy of the players there who have to cover twice as much ground as the passing approach. I was always taught you go up as a unit and come back as one.

    Ok, too long again already.

    New man needs a vision based on a passing game. I suspect he’s already chosen and the players know. That’s why the discontent is becoming public.
    We need at least one top midfielder arriving in the summer who fits that bill.
    We need Samper as well because he’s cheap, has all the control and passing skills we need and we have to find out if he can raise his defensive game enough.
    We need to clear out two or three of the deadwood in midfield.
    We need to look seriously at what happens the SECOND!!! We lose the ball.

    Btw, anybody know anything about the fallout between Pique and LE alluded to on Sky ? Tbh, for me he should be the next captain and told to impose himself on the team – while staying off Twitter !
    We need our FBs not to both go up at the same time.
    We need our FBs to come inside to help the CBs as soon as they can – at a sprint.

    If we do that we can see out the last years of Iniesta, Messi, Busi and Pique with some trophies. If not, you have my blessing to run the board out of town but I have more faith in Barto than most here.m

    • Rivaldo
      April 16, 2017

      JIM come off the Pique bandwagon for a minute. The guy had a poor game. He is the leader of the defense and provided no leadership. I remember Juve game and Umtiti being livid and he just normal and they go on to play like this today. There is a reason he gets slack he does… he can be brilliant but his focus goes to easily. He should be providing the direction Puyi gave him.

      I find you very biased. Your “facts” are usually your interpretations of events… opinions. Matthieu has been questionable this season played at his best position – according to you.

      Rakitic had a few nice forward runs yesterday actually – one ending in a shot on goal – just too much to cover.

      We need a great right back (and left back – Alba has been poor defensively – he can be a left wing for us but not LB unless we possess a stellar midfield). Roberto would be a great addition in midfield for us – i strongly believe the is his postion.

      And can Suarez play stronger. If he would stop going down he would bully plenty defenders who always seemed shocked at his strength – use it.

      • Jim
        April 16, 2017

        No problem, Rivaldo. As I keep saying it’s all just opinions. It would help me understand yours though if you gave me more to go on than just a bald statement that I’m biased. Care to point out something from any of the games that happened to support your point of view and I’ll happily have a look. ? The point I made about Rakitic is that he is slow and contributes nothing to our creative or passing game. In particular his lack of connection with Gomes and if your two main mids aren’t passing to each other you have a problem. I only remember two Rakitic efforts at goal, a weak trundler at the keeper and the one which nearly hit the corner flag. Not sure which impressed you.

        However, I do agree with your comment that Pique needs to step up and become much more of a leader. None of the current captains, apart from Masche has the correct character to lead Barca imo. I suppose it’s difficult when there are four ahead of you, though. Puyol was a great leader partly because he had the authority as captain as well as absolutely the correct character. The fact that Umtiti is voluble about something is really irrelevant. Just because you shout and scream it doesn’t absolve you from any blame or make you a leader just as not saying anything doesn’t imply you don’t care. It’s like Neymar getting blamed for leaving the Juve game smiling. For me, Pique was raging during that game but didn’t say anything because it wasn’t the right time to have a go at anyone.

        Apparently he made up for it afterwards with LE . . .

        • Rivaldo
          April 17, 2017

          Ok. Fair points.
          It’s just that it isn’t as hard for you to point out Masch’s errors without taking in the other miatakes that happen before him – given his nature of “putting out fires” as it is with Pique.

          Next time it happens I’ll try to remember to point it out.

  7. Jim
    April 16, 2017

    Sorry, bit about row with Pique somehow jumped into the middle of the wrong paragraph. Weird.

  8. Half and Half
    April 17, 2017

    Incoherent chaotic rubbish wasn’t it? Bright spots of Messi digging deep to bail us out and Paco showing promise, Oh and the three points (don’t forget them!!!!!)…….. The rest, individually tactically and whatever, was a mess.

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