Atleti 1, Barça 1, aka “Maybe, just maybe … “

On a Saturday that started with an ocular canker sore of a match in Liverpool, as Jose Mourinho once again proved the “value” of playing not to win, the same day that Manchester City caused orgasmic spasms by knocking seven goals past a powerhouse Stoke side, the biggest match of the day for some held massive promise.

The coaches traded gustatory quips, but there was much at stake here for Barça’s first visit to a stadium called Wanda and ultimately, much to be learned from a result that flattered whichever team a given supporter’s narrative wanted.

Atleti supporters will say that had Griezmann been more clinical and Ter Stegen less adroit, the match would have been over in the first half.

Barça supporters will say that had Suarez showed up to play a full match and Messi been given the penalty that he justly deserved, their team would still be rolling on a winning streak.

Reality is that on a day during which a heavy-legged, mostly drab Barça played like a shadow of the businesslike team that did what it had to do until that match, effort and willingness sapped by international duty, they showed what many already knew: Atleti isn’t as good as Barça, on paper or on the pitch.

The biggest problem for Barça is a lackluster first half, was possession — more correctly, lack thereof. Sloppiness with the ball led to chance after chance for a team that still has a difficult time scoring goals. Laxity, and Raktic taking a pair of gambles that both came up snake eyes allowed Saul to stroke in a golazo, a magnificent, curving beast of a thing that gave Ter Stegen not a chance in hell. It was 1-0, the Wanda was roaring, and everything seemed a mess for Barça as everyone picked their chosen fiend, leaving Rakitic and Andre Gomes neck-and-neck.

Reality is that neither of them were as bad as most of the team was. Jordi Alba was brain dead, nobody was moving to passes, preferring to wait for the ball to arrive, which played right into the hands of a ball-hawking Atleti defense. Suarez stumbled around like a drunk looking for his car keys, which left the only real option to be Messi, running at a pasel of Atleti defenders in the center of the pitch, something that was never going to work.

Iniesta was sparking with the ball at his feet, but leaden without it as Atleti found playing space both in the center and on Alba’s side, as they quickly figured that trying Semedo would bring little joy. Umtiti was dazzling, for a time looking like a lone bulwark at the back, and Barça stood firm, thanks to Griezmann being the really good player that he is, instead of the elite player that many believe he is.

Valverde came at Atleti with the odd decision to run Andre Gomes out on the right side of proceedings. And while he wasn’t as terrible as legend would have it, he didn’t add much either in an XI that raised eyebrows for a pair of notable absences in Sergi Roberto and Denis Suarez. There are, naturally, two ways to look at any situation, even as reality was that it was next to impossible to parse any individual performances when the entire attack was flat, much to Atleti’s pleasure.

Even if halftime didn’t bring about the subs that many were craving, it did bring about a Barça that seemed to have relearned the value of possession and ball control. As soon as they stopped giving gifts to Atleti, the tide of the match turned. Messi found a bit of space, ball and players moved with greater purpose and alacrity and Atleti found itself in a familiar role of being bunkered in as little people caused consternation. Then Valderde completely changed the match.

Sergi Roberto and Gerard Deulofeu were substituted, both to quite dramatic effect as things got even more dire for Atleti. Sergi Roberto showed the intelligenge and industriousness that make him invaluable, placing a flawless pass on the head of Luis Suarez, a ball so good that it was impossible to mess up, and it was 1-1 with Barça on the front foot.

People muttered about the subs coming too late, about the two difference makers starting instead of subbing, forgetting that if they started, Deulofeu against the fresh legs and brains that might have neutralized his advantage, and Sergi Roberto would have been playing right back instead of Semedo. And who, then, are the difference makers to bring off the bench? Valverde played that one right, and his subs made a difference, even Paulinho coming in to calm things down in midfield, enhancing the control and opportunities that Barça was creating against a by then fully battened-down Atleti.

Deulofeu found joy in the slightly tired legs of the Atleti defenders, using his pace and ball skills to unsettle, eventually leading the break that had the winning goal at the feet of he and Andre Gomes. But the turf and Luis Suarez didn’t cooperate as the ball from Gomes took an unruly hop on the cabbage patch called Wanda, as the groundskeepers functioned as a twelfth man. Simeone had the grass mowed as soon as the match ended, feeling like the tactical battle of the turf had been won.

Messi hit the crossbar with a free kick and should have had a penalty, as he was fouled twice in the box, but Lahoz was uninterested in anything denying him a clear view of a rapid-fire play that confounded even the slo-mo replays at home, until there was an angle found that made the infraction clear. Both teams played well enough to win and lose.

Barça can’t be a crap team with only Messi as a player who is any good, then have failed to get the win against Atleti, a fantastic team. Pick one. The coach, an idiot for many supporters, again made the right subs to turn the tide in a match, and almost pull out a win. Atleti is good. Really good. Barça wasn’t better or even equal to them for most of the match. But for the period that mattered, a period defined by almost complete match control from Barça, we’re left to wrestle with some interesting thoughts, notably the notion that Barça and its coach might both be better than we thought.

As people wonder about the technical side of a game, the formations that make a team so difficult to score or concede, laying the first half performance at school figures instead of ass moving, here is something else to consider: We all watch a lot of football, and are smart enough to be able to talk about the game, about positions and what athletes might be better for them, but we don’t have a years in coaching, don’t understand players, don’t see them in training.

Sure, we can have fun speculating. Why not. But we stil have no real skin in the game, and hardly any knowledge compared to the man who is coaching the football team that we love. He will get some stuff wrong, get some stuff right. But there his team is, five points ahead of its eternal rival, with a very difficult match in the rear view mirror. Dunno about you, but some of us are giddy.

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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.

7 Comments

  1. Jim
    October 17, 2017

    First of all, agreed on the match in Liverpool. Heartening to know that Mourinho is still most of what I hate about football.

    Secondly, there is no way this isn’t a great result and one I’d have taken before kickoff. Atleti is still a very decent side, able to keep the ball and dangerous on the break although I don’t think they helped themselves by being slightly negative.

    However, Im really not sold at all on the 4-4-2 system we are playing or to be more precise the way we are playing it. With someone, Gomes on this occasion notionally playing on the right, It leaves Suarez too far out on the left at times and Iniesta with too much to do. We also had a completely out of sorts Alba, barely able to pass the ball on the day but quite right to have a go at Valverde regarding the overloading of right sided players to the detriment of him and Iniesta, Suarez is a great forward but not suited for a left wing position.

    After a first five minutes where we threw everything at them it became clear that we were struggling big time to make progress. Partly down to the ( deliberately) awful pitch which is a leveller but mainly because we limited Iniesta to that left side. Once Valverde (presumably) gave Gomes license to come inside a bit it freed Iniesta and we saw the benefits for the rest of the first half. He is vital to our circulation of the ball.

    I said at half time that SR and Deulofeu had to come on and so they did but for me for the wrong two players. Rakitic was awful. It’s being polite to say he took a gamble. What he did was completely forget his job to go with his man and attacked a player that Semedo had in his pocket. He was booked later for another situation where he was caught wrong side of his man but I could easily point to four or five other occasions where he was too slow to get into the right position I’ll say it again. I don’t really want one but if you feel we need a CM who can break up the play at least let’s have one with some pace and ability to hold the ball. For me, Deulofeu should have replaced Gomes and SR replaced Rakitic to give a little bite and ball carrying to the midfield. To say it was the right decision to take Semedo off because SR slung across one cross ball is , for me, guilding the lily a little.

    All of which brings me to Suarez. I could envisage a review which said something along the lines that we were getting nowhere until Suarez ( having been allowed back into the correct position after the manager stuck him out left ) saved Barca with a beautiful move to evade both CBs and struck a perfect powerful downward header which the keeper had no chance with . I could have made do with less than that. But what do we get instead ? Had Suarez showed up to play a full match ? Like a drunk looking for his car keys ? Come on. To me, he created two chances himself out of nothing, scored a great goal ( our only one ! ) and should have had another if Gomes had the technical ability to hit a pass properly.

    Look at the slomo of that one. Awful awful technique. He actually hits it into the ground. It’s not good enough to say that the pitch was responsible. Look at the passing of Busquets Messi and Iniesta ( that perfectLy struck through ball was incredible ) . Their passes beIied the poor quality of the pitch and Gomes’ was one of the easiest. You see that in his face afterwards and Suarez’. Now, in fairness I have to say Gomes in general showed a bit more when moved centrally than he has before but the speed of Suarez’s movement for it in the 87th minute should have been another goal.

    Suarez had a great match . His movement all night was spot on and what about his ball to free Alba in the 49th minute? The drunk seemed to find his keys momentarily then although Alba then seemed to channel Dani Alves with his cross.

    Finally, the CBs. I think we have a great pairing now and older folks will know I’m harder to please than most when it comes to this. I thought Umtiti had a great game but so did Pique and saved Umtiti’s skin twice inside five minutes in the second half ( around 51 mins) when he made mistakes. ( The first was slightly worrying for anyone thinking Umtiti has great pace. Have a look. )

    However, the best thing about these two is that they are starting to cover well for each other and should be regarded as a partnership. In fact look at the beautiful way Semedo is clever enough to see what’s happening and come in at pace to cover for Pique who is covering for Umtiti. Great stuff ! I’ve said often in the past we have wasted Pique’s talent by not allowing him to form a decent pairing with a top quality CB. Well, now we have it and if we win big this year a large part of it will be down to a very solid back four.

    All in all, a continuation of our great start. I’ve reservations about the 4-4-2 but if Valverde is any good and I think he is he’ll have seen the issues and go about solving them. It was interesting for me that we started to look more balanced when Deulofeu came on, whether or not they were tiring and I’m not sure we’d done enough to make that happen. I can’t get away from the idea that 4-3-3 still suits us best although I appreciate the issues a slow midfield can cause.

  2. October 18, 2017

    We shall see how it goes tonight, and I would need to see again the match, but it seems to me that right now Valverde´s first and foremost issue is the lack of attacking players that can play on the left and destabilize. Dembele´s injury combined with Rafinha’s do not help. The left side was left to Jordi Alba, who may have already been experiencing the discomfort that has ruled him out of tonight´s game, and the void was welcomed by Atleti, who could defend narrow on that side, using it as bait and trap, while congesting the center and wherever Messi went.

    Again, completely preliminary.

  3. Messiah10
    October 18, 2017

    Thanks for the article Kxevin. I agree with your opinion that the biggest issue was ball movement or lack there of. Passes needed to be faster & we needed more movement & runs. Gomes for me was an interestIng selection up front. I can see what EV was thinking. However, Gomes just doesn’t have the speed we need up front and the ability to break down a defence. He didn’t have that bad of a game. He just can’t make an impact in that position. Not his fault. 2nd half was better. We had chances to get the win. I’m completely satisfied with a point. Tough team, tough atmosphere, brilliant architecturally appealing new stadium even if it’s out of town & not the same hot box the Calderon was.

  4. lala10
    October 18, 2017

    What a borefest of a half. Add Pique’s utter stupidity and its a potent banana skin. How such an ecperienced player can be that stupid is incomprehensible.

    Pique has been way below par this season. Gets turned easily again and again and then resorts to fouling. Something is not right with Pique. He needs to be benched. Unfortunately there is no cover for his position.

  5. October 18, 2017

    Bit of a meh game, but one thing I have been seriously impressed with is Paulinho’s progression. I mean wow. He had 111 passes today and pass completion of 97.4% and I reckon MOTM. I was really hoping he would prove all of his doubters wrong, and for no reason other than I want to see every single player who wears the Barca shirt succeed, but I was not expecting him to adapt and adjust to our system so quickly.

    Another player who looked very good today was Deulofeu. Really hope he continues like this, was a danger all game, taking on players and creating plenty of chances. Needs to work on his final ball a bit but he also seems to be coming along nicely. We will need him because Suarez continues to kill every attack that comes his way…. he really needs to get himself out of this funk.

    • October 19, 2017

      I was even thinking we could use Paulinho as a false 9. He is so good in and around the box. For a Barca midfielder he is not at all near the best, but in the final 1/3rd, he has been really excellent.

      So so impressed with Deulofeu too. He is really growing in the team. Saw so much of the ball, all the team mates seems to trust him now and am very glad to see him getting more confidence. Seeing Messi applauding him, for his ball which ended as the own goal, might have given him lots of positives.

      Suarez is a so so. For one good thing he do in a match, he has 12 moments where he was just disappointing.

  6. squeen
    October 19, 2017

    I think that I understand, at least to my own satisfaction, what is different about Saurez’s finishing this season. I believe that he (possibly at the urging of Valverde) moved from the center to the left in order to make room on the right for the younger players (Deulofeu/Dembele). Honestly, I think this is a very ‘selfless’ act for a player of his stature.

    While this might now seem like a big difference at first blush, he is a very right-footed player. You can see this in the way that he will often make outside-of-the-foot passes with his right, when a left-footed pass would be more natural. During a 1v1 with a keeper, he almost always drifts to the right. And he is very good at keeping a defender blocked (to the left) by using his body, in order to shoot with his right. Moving to the left is a huge change for a 30 year old, world-class player, and it is not surprising that it has thrown off his game.

    Add that to the fact that he has a lot more territory to cover on the left than his is accustomed too, and I think it is understandable why his is struggling. Barca clearly needs a natural left-wing to replace Neymar. Saurez is hampered in the role, and Alba can’t cover all that ground every game. Ironically, it’s the inverse problem the team had last season. Perhaps a forward-looking solution would be if Messi dropped into the RM role (Xavi’s old spot), and the front three become (TDB)-Suarez-Delembe (sorry Rakitic!).

    Honestly, I think he should be commended to taking on this new role without (public) complaint. It cannot feel at all “normal” to him. Almost all of his missed chances are happening on the unfamiliar left-side of the goal.

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