On another matchday where Camp Nou denizens saw their team put two goals past an opponent, there were significant differences even as there were tactical similarities.
On Tuesday, against Sporting, Barça won. Barça was always going to win because the peculiar tyranny of football is such that talent will almost always win. The stronger person lifts more, the faster person runs farther. This Barça team, even as so many of its players cause supporters to grumble, has more talent, so it gets a better outcome.
This is usually true even if on the weekend we saw that talent also needs a mental component — the concentration that keeps defenders focused, that keeps goals from being conceded, that limits opportunities with the benefit of making the rare chances fraught and pressure packed.
When Celta scored the equalizer, compare the preternatural calm of their attacker with Bas Dost of Sporting, who had pretty much the only two legit chances for his team to score in a meaningless Champions League fixture. Where the young Celta player paused, then struck, Dost snatched and flinched. The pressure got to him. The Celta strike was rare for a lesser team. Usually the player will snatch at the shot because there is so much riding on the moment.
Better teams are also prone to pressure of the moment. Look at the late chance that Paulinho had against Valencia, where he headed over. We watched the replay at home and realized that he had time to let the ball come down, then strike with his foot. But late in the match when your team needs a goal applies a peculiar pressure that the rare player is immune to. Haste makes waste.
Even as the outcome was inevitable, despite the furor caused by Valverde once again resting Messi, who came on as a second-half sub, there were some interesting things during the match.
If you visit Barça Twitter, Ivan Rakitic has become pretty much the worst midfielder to ever wear the colors, an exaggerated legend based in an odd set of necessities. He isn’t as bad as that. But what is also true is that he isn’t as good as he once was. Like Luis Suarez he is 29, with a great deal of football in his legs. Never the fleetest player, he made his name in Sevilla by being the man who forced the action, the midfielder with the ball at his feet. This made him proactive, rather than reactive.
This changed at Barça, where he was pressed into duty as a reactive player. He babysat Dani Alves, with a strong set of defensive-oriented functions on the right side of midfield. Or he had to keep Busquets from having to cover too much ground, diminishing the effectiveness of the great Catalan mid. At Barça, he has had to do pretty much everything except what he is best at, because he has better players in front of him, who are better at those jobs.
The problem with a player being reactive instead of proactive is that 30 is brutal for a footballer. Rakitic has always been known as a player who, when he tires, performance drops precipitously. What is happening now is that the fraction of a step seems to have been lost, leading to another player who knows where he needs to be, but can’t get there.
Rakitic, running forward with the ball at his feet, looks just like the player who came over from Sevilla. But in his usual role, he looks diminished and uncertain. Mids cover a lot of ground in the Barça system, something that takes its toll. So many were surprised at the stats showing the ground that Xavi always had to cover, because it looked like he was just standing there, passing the ball.
Many ask why is Rakitic still in the XI. It’s mostly because his skill set is unique. There is no other player for that role, a role that as long as Busquets and Iniesta are in the XI, will be required. The closest player to what Rakitic does is Rafinha, who is still rehabbing from his most recent surgery, with no expected timetable. Even Sergi Roberto, legend that he is, isn’t as effective as the less-effective Rakitic in that right mid role.
So Raktic plays. Few like it including, we can probably surmise, the player. Players know when they aren’t doing it. I guarantee you he watched that Valencia equalizer and felt awful. But he’s also what we have, a diminished man on an aging team. People will continue to snark about him, treating his diminished performance as something that he is somehow doing to spite team supporters. But as with the next entry in this chronicle, stuff just ain’t his fault.
Vermaelen is back
Don’t look now, but Thomas Vermaelen is the real deal. The peculiar cruelty of a fanbase as regards fragile players has never been more virulent than in the case of this Belgian center back. He delivered a dazzling defensive intervention against Sporting, that was greeted mostly by silence in the crucible that is Barça social media, which seems to be on tenterhooks, waiting for his body to fail him again.
He has been in the side for an extended period, working his way back into full match fitness, mental and physical. In a few weeks, he won’t make the defensive error that he made against Valencia, because that is what form does. It’s also what regular playing time does for a player suddenly in the spotlight thanks to Umtiti’s busted hamstring.
When he is fit, Vermaelen is class, and streets better than Bartra, or Marlon, to name a couple of examples of players offered as surrogates. The caveat is also the issue.
Players don’t like being injured. Really. They don’t like rehabbing, and setbacks, and not being able to do their jobs. The reality is that some players are injured more than others, for whatever reason — bone structure, muscular development or density, fragility of fibers. Vermaelen has been one of those players, a status that has frustrated him. It isn’t his fault. He isn’t doing it to spite anyone, or because he likes watching Barça play from the sidelines. It sucks.
He wasn’t fit when Barça bought him, something more the fault of the technical staff than the player, even as in his first season with the club, Vermaelen delievered a crucial goal that helped the team to the treble, before beginning a series of setbacks.
Are his travails over? He has been on an extended run of play with his national team as well as with Barça, and has been the player that the team thought it was buying: a quick, calm player who knows what to do with the ball at his feet. He is also the exact kind of player you need when a key CB goes down injured, a veteran with quality that verges on XI level.
Don’t hate him because his body is fragile. That isn’t his fault, nor is it his failing. He didn’t make the club sign him, didn’t make his calves or hamstrings frail. He is what he is. Accept him for that.
The glow of Suarez Minor
The Denis Suarez sightings have been more consistent of late. And while the player’s performances are still erratic, it’s easy to see the confidence building to a level that will make him an effective rotation player for Barça. He, like Deulofeu, was below standard in the Copa. But against Sporting, in a role more suited to his skill set, he was a sharp, incisive attacking midfield presence. His set piece delivery for the Alcacer goal was impeccable, and even as he had moments, passes he would like to forget, his overall game brimmed with confidence, even as caveats are in order.
Sporting was never going to apply the kind of attacking pressure that shows up his tendencies to be a defensive pylon in midfield, so he could always be on his best behavior. It’s weird that Suarez is the same age as Deulofeu, as the latter seems so much older because of his time in the club spotlight. Both are players who are still developing, both with the potential to be effective squad players at Barça even as both also don’t possess the kind of quality that will make them fixtures in the XI.
Calm coach, calm team
This was another pragmatic performance from a team that understands necessity. The Barça fanbase, despite the many who claim that results are for the weak, wants the team to win everything even as it often doesn’t take into account the pragmatism necssary to go after that brass ring. Under Valverde, Messi has not started two matches — outings that he didn’t need to start because the team didn’t really need a result other than a calm, controlled outing.
Barça didn’t need to win against Sporting or Juventus, which makes those matches perfect occasions to rest Messi. The team, as a consequence, played differently, with more open spaces to tease Sporting defenders into as the possession game was more expansive. One match observer noted that the spaces between players was tighter on the defensive end than on the attacking end. Well. Yeah. Different needs. You don’t want exploitable spaces on the defensive end as you play the ball out. On the attacking end, you want to move the ball around in safe possession zones, bypassing the typically clogged midfield of opponents looking to counter the Barça Way. So you ping longer diagonals to open players, make the defenders chase, use the DM or keeper as a reset button as the mixer prepares to churn again.
It’s the luxury of not needing a result, thanks to work put in early in the group stage. Some called it boring. But as Ramzi, a favorite Twitter voice, said “We are playing like being 0-1 down and almost being knocked out. Good to see.” The team was sharp, pressing and controlled, even late in the match when a tie the team would rather not have played as it doesn’t matter, can slip away. This is good.
Barça isn’t the team that any of us wants. It isn’t the team that the players want, nor is it the team that the coaches want. It’s important to note that: nobody is satisfied with the performances, even as there have been hints of the quality that is (hopefully) to come. Meanwhile, this was another match where the team was what it was, was what it had to be to get a result. And even as results are something sullied by aesthetics in the hard-edged world of FC Barcelona football, results win matches, group stages, leagues and eventually, trophies.