As bogey teams go, Malaga is a classic bete noire. Season after season, them and their defense stymied FC Barcelona in ways that, overall, affected the outcome of a season.
I hate Malaga.
Barça right now is a weird position, described in a couple of notable ways. BeIN broadcaster Phil Schoen commented that it wasn’t a sparkling performance. Someone on Twitter said that they were, of late, finding things to do other than watching their team.
What do we want from sport? Why do we follow a team? Barça won today, and presently sits eight points in the Liga table ahead of Real Madrid, who play on Sunday. The two goals were, to say the least, less than ideal. One came from a blown call that led to a elegant finish from Deulofeu. The other came courtesy of a deflected Iniesta shot.
And Barça won. Should that be enough to make us happy, particularly in the context of how the team sits at the moment. Ernesto Valverde is a pragmatist, skilled at getting the best from a team in any way that he can. This season, he understands as much as we all do that the roster isn”t what any of us wants. So how does a coach fashion a successful team from a group of players supporters say mostly suck, except for Messi and a few others.
And if Barça has a team that doesn’t fill us and our hearts with song, how should we expect them to play and perform. The days of capering sprites are gone. The days of Paulinho coming in to shut down the midfield and display an uncanny quality of interaction with Messi is now. Neymar is gone and Dembele is injured, so Luis Suarez, a player mining a vein of truly horrific form, is playing out of position.
Meanwhile, the job that Messi has will vary by opponent and situation. Against Malaga he was coming from deep, in full midfielder mode. He moved forward once stability arrived in the form of Sergi Roberto and Paulinho. And Valverde tinkered.
The subs were Semedo, whose arrival allowed Sergi Roberto to move to midfield where he sparkled with drive and inteligence; Paulinho, whose drive and physicality kept Malaga on the back foot; Paco Alcacer, who arrived on the scene once it became clear, after a ridiculous Suarez miss, that something had to be done as the team was, in effect, playing around him.
Those subs changed the match. Malaga went from getting the ball and rolling forward, probing at the Barça defense to, with the additions of Sergi Roberto in midfield and Semedo at RB, hardly ever seeing the ball, or even getting out of their end.
Is winning boring, or is it that winning ugly the part that isn’t acceptable. If we are not entertained, do we even watch Barça?
The team is fascinating this season, in ways that it hasn’t been in a very long time. Usually, the roster is stuffed with talent, and a glittering XI that is the envy of any club supporter. This year, things are more fraught, more complex, the sine wave of talent with greater peaks and valleys. And the team is winning. It isn’t elegant at times (even if at times it is beautiful, indeed). It’s riding luck, riding key goals, riding magic that last season we envied at it graced Real Madrid.
Barça isn’t entertaining all the time, isn’t pretty to watch much of the time. The team goes about its task with the mien of accountants. We don’t like to watch them work, but we love the results at tax time. What is entertaining about the team right now is the visible struggle and the ways that Valverde is working around them. Against Malaga, it was the press, nipping and picking at them as they brought the ball up. Any leaks were mostly dealt with by a spectacular Mascherano and Umtiti, whose role was more expansive in the absence of Pique. And it worked.
Mascherano showed that as long as he can keep play in front of him, reacting in fireman mode as the great Puyol used to, he is a force. The interceptions, key defensive plays and interventions were something to witness today. He even bailed out Umtiti, who had a loose pass stuffed back in his face by an aggressive Malaga attack. And Digne was among the players who was solid. Solid. That word is fast looking like the descriptive of the moment for Barça.
But beauty? Look at the buidup to the Iniesta goal as he and Messi struck sparks. Look at the wonderful Sergi Roberto run that led to the incredible Suarez miss, or the way the team spanked the ball around as it got on the front foot against Malaga, in front of supporters who were precisely that — making themselves heard on a difficult day in Catalan politics, cheering Paulinho’s entrance to demonstrate that he does indeed have support. No whistles, no disgruntlement, no wondering where the fireworks were.
This, right now, is the Barça that we have. And it’s a team that wins matches. We saw champagne football against Olympiakos in midweek, even when Barça went down to ten. But we won’t see glitter bombs all the time. The team doesn’t have the personnel for that, something acknowledged by anyone who can see, from supporter to pundit to broadcaster. To expect it is, therefore, Quixotic.
What’s fun to watch are moments. Look at how Umtiti is becoming one of the best CBs in the game. Look at how Sergi Roberto compensates for his lack of physical gifts at RB compared to a gazelle like Semedo with energy and intelligence. Ter Stegen is undergoing a renaissance, and it’s impossible to know what fountain of youth Iniesta has sipped from.
The collective, the overall way of play is as calm and dour as the coach who is creating it, the pragmatist who understands what he has to do. A press doesn’t need a coterie of brilliant players to make it work. The press needs energy, and attention from a coach. The Busquets sub came as it was becoming clear that he was lagging at the moments Malaga had the ball. Barça is a hard-working team, even as it isn’t workmanlike, and has too much talent to ever be.
Lustrous football is missed by one and all. The team that we have been seeing this season has been effective, even in the face of some very obvious problems, most notably Luis Suarez. Barça doesn’t have a shot at significant titles without the Uruguayan. Valverde will have to manage that situation carefully, as the striker looked perturbed at being subbed off for Alcacer.
Messi is a bit grumbly at the service he is (or more correctly, is not) receiving. Iniesta is playing entirely too much. It’s a level that isn’t sustainable, but the team doesn’t have a player who can do what he does. Ditto for Busquets. We can’t be entertained by the football all the time, but the active problem solving on the pitch and on the bench will have to be the entertainment. That, and smiling when we look at our team atop the standings in both Liga and its Champions League group.