Barça 2, Malaga 0, aka “Luck works, too”

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.

By Kxevin

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.


  1. this post is spot on kxevin, he’s making things happening without the sets of genius that we usually field and as I said earlier if there’s one quality EV have,it is on field tactician and someone that adapt to every situation he find himself which makes him a good coach for the phase we are going through at the moment… I’m curious about how pep team will adapt to xavi not delivering invisible pass or iniesta not been able to make ghost run like they used to produce every match or perhaps how Luis Enrique will react to Neymar and Suarez not been at there best leaving only leo to do the job and keep winning like this team is without the second best scorer in the team not been what he used to be and still managed to sit Atop of the league above the world champion… let’s give him a break at least he is delivering with what he has at his disposal even the most adore pep need a season to assemble team that play slicky football at Manchester wether they will cap there performance with silverware is remain to be seen…I wonder what our reaction would be if he starts loosing..

  2. Suarez’ discontent at being subbed must have to do with his wish to not lose face. He, as a top footballer, must know he is in a deep slump (or at least, we – and he – hope it is a slump), but he might have a different idea about how to tackle this. I would be very curious to know what Messi thinks, privately, about all this. He is trying hard – too hard? – to scaffold his friend’s play, sometimes at the detriment of his own scoring, I would say.

    This is, as you point out, Kxevin, a delicate problem in terms of 1) man-management, and 2) our need to have a functioning striker on the pitch. Without Suarez, we lack the quality to be top-top; Paco is simply not good enough to fill those shoes long term. So, EV adapts his tactics to let Suarez come back to a more central role? Con: width and Messi’s false 9 role would be challenged. EV benches Suarez? Pressure on Paco would be immense, and Messi possibly (but not surely) displeased. For this, we would either need a new 9, or buy a sharp winger for the left and skip the real 9. Possibly, this can be tried out when Dembele returns.

    Suarez deserves our respect and and 2nd and 3rd chance, but if nothing happens, pragmatism must reach even his domain at some point. The same goes for Rakitic, who also seem to ride the wave of routine inclusion, despite being slow and often lacking creativity. I’m sure EV considers him a balance to Iniesta and would feel Andrés and Denis would be too weak a pairing defensively. But let’s hope EV took note of Roberto’s cameo at CM, and compares Rakitic’s performance with that of Paulinho against Olympiacos. For now, I would put Ivan as a back-up to Busquets, when applicable, and leave it at that.

    But it is still early in the day, and EV is not a revolutionary; he must build on what is there, and slowly find his way of doing things. We can be sure that he has thought about everything that we discuss here, and balanced it against other factors, such as the reality of training sessions and squad-management. People are complaining he is not bringing in more youth, but this is probably wise, until things calm down. Priority, I would guess, is to phase in Semedo and Paulinho first, and make some hard choices regarding midfield and Suarez. We’ll see what January brings, and how he reacts to B-players doing well in the copa.

    We might not win something big this year, though I think we have a good shot at the Liga, less so at CL, but let’s enjoy the journey that this is, exciting in itself, beyond silverware: process.

  3. I think Suarez needs to be benched. He’s trying too hard. Sometimes in football when you try super hard to score, you don’t like CR7 lately. He’s trying so fucking hard to score that he’s not relaxing, when he needs to. You can’t score if you don’t relax at the right moment. Maybe I’m being too harsh because there’s not Timo Werner behind him to nip at his heels, but Paco Alcacer. I wish Arnaiz the promising Barca B player plays against Murcia. Competition gets the best out of excellent players.

  4. Just watched most of the match again. You have to say, as Kxevin has, that we’re getting the job done at the moment. The result here was never in doubt. Even if it’s the poorest Malaga I remember. We must be approaching some kind of record ?

    Things I liked in no order of importance. First, Iniesta smiled ! Yes, that means a lot to me. He doesn’t often on the pitch. Secondly, he played the whole game. Again, for me this is important. I’ve no objection to rotating him when we feel he needs it, and he will soon as he’s been used a lot but I’d rather listen to Iniesta who says he doesn’t like not playing as much. Warning ! That’s what Xavi said in the second half of his last season. If Ini feels he’s fit, he plays for me. That was another outstanding, just outstanding, display for me. He changes the whole feel of our passing game while carrying threat every time he touches it.

    Another good for me was the display of Masche at the back, yes I said it. This is the Masche he should always have been, more concerned with position than attacking the ball all the time. He still did attack it ( and I winced when he made that all or nothing tackle when last man back ) but was generally much cleverer about when.

    There were a few downers for me though. First, Deulofeu. We didn’t bring him back to play safe on the wing. He has ferocious pace, great control of the ball and the ability to fizz the ball over distance when passing. At the moment it’s all way too safe. Whoever the third person in attack with Messi and Suarez is has to offer loads in creativity or we’re sunk. He needs EV to take him aside and tell him so. He has the skill but just needs to know he won’t be dropped if he loses the ball occasionally doing it.

    Second small thing. I didn’t actually think Umtiti had as great a game as some seemed to. I thought he was a little up and down – not commanding in the air and a mix of great stuff and quirky moments. Just mention it as I said he was brilliant last week. He’s still learning and we need to help by not weighing him down with expectations.

    Suarez ! Where we stand for me is that he had a knee injury expected to keep him out for a month at the start of the season but he was back in a fortnight. Why? Because we needed him and couldn’t afford to leave him out. His touch was clunky and confidence wasn’t great. However, he did keep making his runs and assisting our attack by occupying the CBs and making space for others.

    Now he has three goals from six La Liga appearances. His touch is much better and he’s still both creating chances for himself and scoring important goals. None more so than last week which got us a draw against top opposition. In this match, since we’re being asked ( rightly) to look at the beauty of the build up to Ini’s goal, have a look at how Suarez made Iniesta’s goal possible by taking the defender who got the deflection away for a vital second or two with his run. Without it he blocks Ini’s shot every time. So we’re down to one very bad miss and folk want to string him up. Didn’t hear anyone slag Messi for completely failing to control a great through ball from Rakitic ( if he did this more often he wouldn’t be under threat !) yet Suarez misses a good chance and its huge.

    To be clear, there is hardly ever a very easy chance when you still have a keeper to beat, even for an elite player. He could ( for me on his weak foot should) have put his foot through it but instead pulled it at the near post. Wouldn’t have mattered had it been on target as the keeper had guessed right anyway. Still, a bad miss but no more than that and not worth the wailing and gnashing of teeth going on.

    The bigger issue for me is that he didn’t have more bad misses. Why are we not creating more ? I’d be more worried if he’d had five or six chances and missed them all but we’re not creating good enough chances. As we’ve said he’s becoming the new David Villa in being played far too wide ( for sensible reasons). If he’s hanging widish a fair amount of the time, Deulofeu isn’t taking people on, Messi is playing midfield we aren’t gonna create much and he’s not gonna get many chances. As for the idea that the team are somehow avoiding playing the ball to him in favour of Deulofeu, Rakitic, SR, Digne and the like, I find that rather fanciful to say the least .

    There is however no doubt that Suarez is fretting about not scoring more and the question legitimately comes up of whether or not a rest helps. I’m not sure on this one. There’s a bit of me thinks that rest to get over the knee injury, because it doesn’t have to be bad to affect your movement , would be a sensible idea. However, whenever I came off annoyed that I hadn’t played well or been subbed I couldn’t wait for the next game to show everyone. So, don’t know on that one except to say that, sadly, if Paco is the alternative, it’s here’s your boots get a move on for Suarez.

    Btw, sad to see Neymar getting sent off for childish behaviour and Cavanni scoring a great last minute free kick wasn’t it ?

  5. So Ronaldo won the FIFA world best.

    On FIFA site, It was stated that players performance are to be judged between 20 November 2016 and 2nd July 2017. Just 7months?

    Co-incidentally, this happened to favor only one player. THE WINNER.

    He was largely anonymous during the first months of the season August to December and only started scoring in the knockout stages of the CL till his team won the CL.

    Same thing is happening this year again. He has only one goal in La liga till date. By the time he gets his Rhythm, it will be around January. Just in time for the duration FIFA recognizes while other players that has been in top form since the start of the season will have to compete with someone who just started scoring in January.

    So next year, the same thing can still repeat Itself if Ronaldo picks up form in January which is most likely. Hmmm

    I have the screen shot but I don’t know how to upload it here.

    1. Same thing can happen in-spite of the fact that he has only one league goal since the beginning of the season.

  6. Another thing. I also discovered that fans can also vote for their best best player which will account for 25% of the total votes. Journalists 25%, coaches 25% and captains 25%.

    1. Don’t worry about this silly award. You can tell Messi doesn’t. His smile when CR was announced wasn’t even fake. He knows. It’s a marketing stunt and seems to have been reduced to awarding the most famous player of the CL-winning team. Players vote for their friends/teammates (Messi did, too), fans vote for winners and focus on goals. There is little analysis behind this; rewarding winners and a few moments, rather than consistent quality. It is obvious to anyone following teams through the season. I watch a lot of RM, and to me it is all too obvious that Modric is their stand-out player. Without him, they would not win. And he had Messi second (as had Ramos); he knows…

  7. For me Suarez continues to start & continues to play a full 90. Let’s not forget that he is still playing himself into shape after an an injury. He has been dreadful. I’ll be first to admit it. His touch is gone, control non existent, & he’s prob cost Messi 4-5 assists already this season. However, I find it hard to believe he’s past it or he won’t find form soon. He certainly won’t find it on the bench. The positive for me this season is that the past few games we’ve struggled to break down teams or ball movement & speed is not sharp enough, we are still winning those games. Last season we don’t get the breaks or our bench doesn’t step up to help out our first 11. I love the way this season has begun. Can’t wait for the basque’s this weekend.

  8. kxevin, thanks for another wonderful and upbeat post. It’s almost as if the game is not complete until I’ve read you nicely balanced perspective.

    I totally agree on two points:

    1) There is a new sub-drama taking place this year. A cross-generational tension—will Barca be able to successfully pass the baton and preserve their identity? Was the “Golden Generation” (Pep’s squad from La Masia) a one-time freak event, or some realization of the Cryuffian ideal way to teach the game that can be sustained? Roberto is the cast as the dutiful son, and Deulofeu the black sheep (come home). Can they keep the dream alive? Messi, Odin-like, abides in judgement. Iniesta connects them all. The Neymar saga a warning of what happens when you stray from the path.

    2) Paulinho reminds us why they must always be a Brazialian on the team. Juego bonito, and a grinning joy of the game. Perhaps that’s why he amazingly shows up looking like he already knows how to play with Messi–there *should* be fun, risks, and tricks in the game.

  9. Just watched our CDR match. Generally not hugely exciting but good to see some of the upcoming talent and a solid win. Wasn’t watching too closely but in general I liked the look of Arnaiz up front. Good pace, decent shot, took his goal well although probably keeper error if I’m honest but an absolutely brilliant turn in their box under pressure. One to watch over the next year or so. Nice to see Paco get a goal.

    However, for me, the most heartening thing was watching Deulofeu having a go at their defence over and over. That’s exactly what I asked for in the last article. Still a lot of so so play but I can live with that. He’s no use to us playing safe but his ball for Paco was world class. That’s what he used to do for Lukaku. Right on Paco’s head with a heap of swerve. Just as good was his own goal where he beat three defenders and the goalkeeper ( bit of luck with the first defender but quality all the way). Until Dembele comes back he’s all we’ve got for that position so we need him confident.

  10. Wow, what a strike by Arnaiz, I knew he was a great talent and exactly what we need at the moment, someone to nip at Deulofeu’s heels while Dembele recovers. Now we have to stave off the vultures A.K.A Darth Sidious himself, A.K.A Florentino Perez. The rumors are that Madrid want to snap him up. They’re also fighting us for the Marseille promise Maxime Lopez who people say could be the next big thing in the midfield. I hope he arrives at Barca, but Bartomeu and Robert kind of suck at negotiating so I’m not keeping my hopes up.

    Is anyone else worried that January is approaching and Messi still hasn’t signed a new contract? Could he be planning to leave Barcelona this upcoming summer after the World Cup? As the month, go on and on, I grow increasingly worried with the pass of time. He could leave for free. Leo Messi will no longer be a Barcelona player. It makes me shiver just thinking about it. Maybe he’s going to pressure Bartomeu to resign as a necessary condition for signing his contract. Who knows?

    1. No way Messi will leave Barca. The non signing of the contract should be something else we dont know. May be he is trying to make life difficult for Bartomeu and co, as most reports speak about players not being happy with the current board.
      Unless Barca get relegated to Segunda, which will never happen, there is no way Messi will leave the club.

    2. You realize it’s almost November and come January first he’s going to be able to sign a pre-contract with other clubs right?

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