Oh, thank the heavens for Depor, who came into the Camp Nou and decided to be brave, to put their heads on the chopping block as an object example for all teams.
For all of the rage and doubt that culers expend upon their team, Depor came to play, and play they did. They attacked valiantly, and died valiantly. Because if you come at Barça as an equal, you will be in trouble. Valencia knew that, Sevilla knew that, Atleti knew that, Celta knew that. What has kept Barça from having an even gaudier lead atop the standings is, just as it was the reason that the 4-0 wasn’t something like 10-0, finishing.
Barça, particularly Messi, finished for crap against Depor. Suarez hit the post. Twice. Messi had a hat trick of posts, four excellent chances that he usually buries, and a missed penalty. Paulinho, not to be left out, hit the crossbar.
And Depor, bless their dimwitted souls, kept on charging, kept on acting like they were playing a fellow cellar dweller instead of Barça. Perhaps, like Paco Jemez at Rayo, their coach, Cristobal Parallo, felt whether you lose 1-0 or 7-0 matters not in the standings. It was an approach that probably has a lot of sporting directors today Googling “Sidnei highlights,” as their CB was exceptional, including making Messi his lollipop on a few occasions.
But Barça was always going to win this match, even if the last time they played Depor, still drunk from the 6-1 sot, they lost. Depor knew this. Because football comes down to talent. One team has it, the other team doesn’t, or doesn’t have as much as the other team. That makes the game simple, right? There are those rare days when everything goes right for the underdog, and everything goes wrong for the superior team. Those times are much more rare than history and hope would have us believe. Depor probably got off the bus thinking, “How much will we lose by,” because athletes are optimists and professionals, but they also aren’t fools. So why not have some fun, and have a go at the big boys?
Despite that, there are things that we can take from this match, in handy bullet points:
Right side vulnerability
The right side is always where an opponent can go to find the welcome mat rolled out. This is especially true when the turtle twins, Sergi Roberto and Pique, are in the house as they were against Depor. Every team knows this. Marcelo will roll onto the pitch loaded for bear, a reason that makes us fairly certain Valverde will opt for Semedo and his pace. The substitution that Valverde made (one that surprised a lot of folks for some reason) in Aleix Vidal for Paco Alcacer was an easy one. He had to get some help and pace over there. Vidal’s presence liberated both Pique and Sergi Roberto and the latter sparkled, including delivering a lustrous assist for Suarez to tap home.
Thankfully, the long-term solution(s) are working their way back into fitness in the person of Dembele and Rafinha, the former for his pace and ability to shift the pitch with his pace, and the latter for his defensive effort and work rate, which is why Rakitic will be sideeyeing hell out of the talented Brazilian.
Hola, Luis Suarez?
Not so fast, even as there are signs. The Uruguayan is moving better, running better, and demonstrating once again, the ability to be where he needs to be to take advantage of opportunities. His first touch is still erratic, and he still seems sluggish and emotional when he should be calm, including one instance where he lost the ball and had an on-the-spot tantrum instead of swinging into action to win it back. Often, the player who loses a ball, because of proximity, has the best opportunity to regain possession, or at least slow the counter enough to give teammates time to get back. It isn’t the time for exasperated gestures.
Suarez is reading play better. The associative run that he made, expecting the ball from Sergi Roberto, is one that he wasn’t making a few weeks ago. Whether his knee is feeling better or his confidence back since the Villarreal tally, who knows? We will know for sure his prognosis in six days.
Either Valverde is a genius, or Barça is better without Neymar
Better points tally, better goals against, more security in both attack and defense. It seems weird to think that a team could be improved by removing the second-best player in the game from its roster, but that is what has happened at Barça. The whys are easy enough to suss. Neymar was always, and will always be a risky player. He will make runs, try stuff, lose balls and not always be diligent in tracking back. When he tried something while Jordi Alba was thinking that something was going to work, it left both of them high and dry. This year, in giving the left side wholly to Alba, the Catalan left back is able to use the brain many presumed that he didn’t have, knowing when to attack and when to defend. His role is also clear, which has made him an all-pitch presence in defense, and a willing partner for Messi in attack.
The other thing Valverde has done is to restore the value of possession. Luis Enrique’s “Wheeeee!” has been replaced by a more solid notion, even as Luis Enrique was clearly looking to head in that direction with his transfer of Andre Gomes. If you have possession, bad things can’t happen to you because you have the ball. This makes sense, but implementing it is hard. What makes it easier is a genius such as Iniesta, who was magnificent against Depor. Many questioned why Valverde chose to lean on the ephemeral magician, but it is clear now. Iniesta always has the ball, and he keeps the ball. When fools like me called him an adapted Xavi, reckon Valverde had the same notion.
Rakitic is better than you think
Valverde chose to rest Busquets because of Lahorse and his seeming fondness for giving yellows to Busquets. Into that breach he inserted Ivan Rakitic, who had a fantastic match. The Croatian midfielder has become the new whipping boy of Barça Twitter. Yesterday showed why so much of that bile is misplaced. He wasn’t Busquets, but he was a Barça DM, proactive rather than reactive, driving play when necessary, making insightful passes and helping in defense. He also had many an intervention at a key moment. It almost makes you wonder if he and Busquets should switch positions, something I wonder if Valverde won’t be thinking about when Dembele and Umtiti return to the roster.
Rakitic is a smart midfielder who has lost a step. Being in the hole gives him more time to read and act. It’s logical, which made it no less a delight to watch.
40m well spent
There has not been a more initially baffling transfer than Paulinho, particularly for fans of history. Went to Spurs, sucked, lost confidence, was flogged to China for big bucks. It is here where a lot of people lost track of him. Brazil coach Tite didn’t. As Paulinho regained confidence he became part of the XI for the Selecao for the same reasons that made Valverde say, “Get me him.” He is a completely selfless player, who understands that he exists solely to help the glamor boys. He does that for Brazil and Neymar, so why wouldn’t he be capable of doing it for Barça and Messi? What is seen most about him from detractors is that he isn’t “a Barça midfielder.” That is a lot of why he works. He rumbles around, reading the match, helping apply pressure and delivering smart forward passes when required. He had a number of fine ones against Deportivo. It’s also worth noticing how Busquets’ life improves with Paulinho in the XI.
The biggest difference Paulinho makes is that he makes the runs that nobody else will. A lot of Barça attackers spend time watching a play develop, seeming to think, “Man, that sure is pretty.” Or their roles in the buildup leave them out of position for rebounds and putbacks. Paulinho, when something is developing, thinks, “Get into the box in case something happens.” He scored two goals yesterday from that thinking, just being there when the ball fell to him. He has six goals, more than any Liga midfielder and more than many Liga forwards. That 40m is, in the context of today’s market, a bargain.
Messi didn’t score, but was fantastic against Depor, thriving in the kind of open match he enjoys. Passes, movement and actual running, as in that turbocharged dynamo we presumed age and time had removed from us, Messi was on form at the exact right time, promising something special in the Bernabeu in a handful of days’ time. He missed some shots that he usually puts away, but was there so early, with such complete command of his gifts, that you know the next time he is in the same situation, mark it. That situation will be at the Bernabeu. Soon. If you aren’t excited, you should be.