We have all heard it from a parent, after we made an excuse for getting caught doing something silly, with the wrong people at the wrong time.
“You shouldn’t have been in that situation in the first place. That’s on you.”
Noted Liga scribe Dermot Corrigan said after the match that against Valencia and Celta, Barça played its best football of the season, and drew both matches. There is a correlation to be noted for the observant.
Barça is at its best when playing high-risk football, with everybody pushed up into the attack, pressing the opponent, moving the ball, making wave after wave of pressure. The danger with that is, of course, even as it is pretty and dynamic and chance-rich, it is also risky. And man, was it ever chance rich.
Suarez missed one, Messi missed one, Pique missed one, Paulinho missed one, Alcacer missed one. The list goes on. And these weren’t half chances, pinged from outside the box. These were close in, just hosed it off chances, opportunities that a sharp team converts and keeps rolling. There were also chances against Valencia, moments spurned to create a difficulty that became a grim reality when Valencia went ahead, then again when Celta equalized.
The other part of not putting yourself in a situation that can create danger is doing what you need to do when you need to do it. If you are going to play high-risk, pressure football, possession is crucial. Not only what you do with the ball, but when you don’t have the ball. The first Celta would have been avoided had the back line been paying attention to each other, in a neat little row like you see from teams who prioritize defending. Instead, Pique was playing the Celta man onside, the one who received the pass that led to the bust out. Yes, Pique hustled back to help block the initial shot, but contain was lost on the second man, who slammed home.
Too late, Pique saw the situation and tried to move up to catch the man offside, to no avail. And Sergi Roberto set a template for later behavior by losing track of the free man in the box, who did the damage.
The worst part about that goal it watching Umtiti running, and wondering if someone should have said something, done something. The stiff-legged, hip-rolling semi limp with which he vainly chased play was alarming in hindsight.
Slack possession again led to another Celta break, the one that also broke the Barça back line as Umtiti pulled up injured with a high hamstring pull. As Celta charged forward, Jordi Alba steamed onto the scene, then was done in by some Aspas trickery, pausing when a natural defender would have forced Aspas to do something by attacking the runner. The Aspas pass was his only option, but it still seemed to surprise the Barça back line. Pique ran to cover the line, as is his wont, while Sergi Roberto looked like a man looking for the contact lens that he dropped. When he and Pique performed the same action, rather than Sergi Roberto turning to see if there was a runner, that was that.
The Celta equalizer not only cost three points it the standings. It cost Umtiti for an eight-week stretch, a situation that is also a repeat of last season, when the French defender was in excellent form, then suffered an injury that kept him out of the lineup for a while. The difference between then and now is that on form, Umtiti is the best CB in Europe, and Pique is something of a mess.
Expect to see Barça play more tightly, so expect more of the mutterings about “ugly football” as the team and its coach understand that things need to be tighter because of the fact that the back line is and out-of-form Pique and Vermaelen, who is still working his way into mental match fitness. With a ten-point lead over the team most likely to in Real Madrid, that period is a little easier to manage. With a six-point lead and a late-December Classic on the horizon, things look a bit more complex.
This season, just when culers were getting used to dour football much like its coach, the team opened up, and it was beautiful. With reward comes risk. We saw the analog in many ways, but with a much more negative result, when on the same day, Arsenal faced Manchester United. They outpossessed, outpassed and outshot United, both in total and on target. They “won” everywhere except on the scoreboard, where it was 1-3 United. Arsenal had chance after chance, so many in that first half that all neutrals could do is shake the head, and marvel at the quality of David De Gea.
Barça wasn’t stymied by similar brilliance from a keeper, but rather by its own “There will be another chance” approach to finishing. What Barça does is dare you come out and play football enough to get a goal off them. But because of the way the team plays, and the space behind the back line, if the team isn’t sharp, it doesn’t take much to get behind the defense, as we saw today. Twice.
The focus will be on the goal that was incorrctly ruled out due to an offside call, and that would be a mistake. Barça should have won, just as they should have against Valencia and Atheti. But to do that, you have to score more points, and the tendency for slack finishing will need to be addressed by Valverde. The good thing is that Barça is its own impediment.
The bad news is that teams are willing to take advantage of that tendency. The easest solution? “You shouldn’t even have been in that situation.”