Streaks become a burden, like it or not. In the same period that Manchester City’s record-breaking win streak ended, Barça’s unbeaten run ended at 29 matches.
Both coaches can heave a sigh of relief. City lost, which still leaves them with a massive lead over the second-place team, and the pressure is gone. Yes, players think about that stuff. Barça lost the away leg of a two-legged tie by a single goal, with the return leg at home — in a tertiary competition that, were you to put them under truth serum, few Liga big club coaches would be unhappy to see gone.
Hard-hearted culers, and we know who we are, find themselves more vexed by the opponent than the outcome. Losing to Ewspanyol is awful. And the way it happened was even worse, the kind of late goal that a team thinking it is high and dry and can go home to put a tie away concedes. Loose marking, nobody running as they should and a fired-up home team fighting to make a statement to the big kids from across town.
Still in all, there were a number of fascinating things about that loss, that can be dealt with quickly, in bullet points:
Playing with nine
Aleix Vidal is in the transfer frame of some teams, rumor has it. If that match was intended to put him in the shop window, the effort was as misguided as the brain Vidal apparently left back at the hotel. He was a vastly better player before the horror tackle that left his ankle shattered. Since then he is playing like a player who isn’t sure what to do, and doesn’t seem in a hurry to do it. When he should be facing goal his back is to goal. He walks when he should run, runs when he should hesitate. He has lost his ability to read a match in any way. It wasn’t just his worst performance in some time. It was his worst performance in the colors.
An injury can make a lot of players hesitant. The pain, the struggle. It’s hard, subliminal, and right there. Before the injury, Vidal played with pace and abandon. Now he plays like a slowpoke Deulofeu. The difficulty with that is right wing is a crucial area for Messi, who needs a playmate there. Without that, he is too easily isolated and will be forced into Quixotic quests against row upon row of defenders. That isn’t going to end well for anyone.
It also makes life harder for Sergi Roberto, who gets no help on offense or defense.
Denis Suarez is also rumored to be on the market. He is the player many culers love, an honorary Masia kid. But if he had played at La Masia, he wouldn’t be such a mess on and off the ball. He plays like a frightened B-team player trying to impress the coach, rather than a bona-fide first team member. Gomes is getting over his pace of play difficulties, in that his brain has accelerated to keep up with his teammates. It’s fun to see.
Suarez still takes to long to do everything. He takes a pass and controls, holds, turns, looks … He gets a psss in the box and controls, looks, dribbles … He is never certain about anything that he does, which means that on a team where certainty is what makes the motor run, that belief that a teammate will be where you are sending the pass so that one-touch is safe, Suarez doesn’t believe in that same way, so he is always a beat off.
His proponents say that the difficulty is playing time, and lack thereof. Carles Alena started the match and played like a first-team player. But Alena is from Masia, and understands how to play football in the Barça system. He looked the first-teamer and Suarez looked the XI debutante.
At some point, as with Deulofeu, Valverde will tire of waiting for Suarez to become something that in my estimation, he will never become. When Coutinho is fit, smart money says that Suarez’s next location will be on a “remember him?” Barça video.
The kid stays in the picture
Alena was a delight against Espanyol. There was some tentative play, some colt-like excesses, but there were also clear signs of a confident future first-teamer. He would get the ball and make the right play, rather than forcing it to a teammate. He even ignored Messi once, running forward because even as he knows that Messi is Messi, he also understood that shoving the ball to the genius wasn’t the right play. So he made the right play.
There are two things you can’t teach. Well, a lot of them, but let’s not have semantic quibbles. You can’t teach talent, and you can’t teach confidence. It doesn’t come with playing time. You either have it, or you don’t. It’s a quality rather than something learned. Gomes didn’t acquire confidence. Gomes acquired the ability to catch up to a fast-moving train. Deulofeu has confidence. He just doesn’t have anything else mental, that enables him to make a mark at Barça.
Denis Suarez with Sergi Roberto’s football IQ would be something close to what many envision him as: an Iniesta-type midfielder. It isn’t that he doesn’t have the talent. That is the shame.
Hello, I must be going
Ah, Rafinha. When he came on for Denis Suarez, you could see what the position had been missing — the movement, the way the ball pinged off his foot, the way he understood what to do and just did it, without hesitation. That butcher’s challenge that he took not long after entering will do wonders for his mental state, after being gone for almost 300 days.
He is on the block. Inter Milan is very interested, but Barça is playing hardball, as they should with a player who has value, and who you wouldn’t exactly be bummed about having to keep. And this is true even as Coutinho will also eat into Rafinha’s possible playing time.
On the same day that his ultimate usefulness to the team was discussed in this space, he demonstrated that usefulness. After taking a nasty challenge in the first half to his foot, he had to come off. When he did, the attack became noticeably less dangerous. Messi was more stranded, there was no running space, the ball got stuck in midfield a lot as Denis Suarez dithered.
Paulinho moves around. Someone said that they like his game more off the ball than on the ball, which is the reason he had sucn a noticeable effect on the team’s attack. He scores goals. Because of that, he has to be accounted for by the defense. His unpredictable runs into attacking areas destabilize defenses, as well as his intelligent use of the channels between blocks of defenders. That movement creates more room for everyone.
The difficulty with Paulinho is also that minds are made up about him, so it doesn’t matter what he does, which is a shame. He really has been a fine addition to the team this season. His effect became rather clear against Espanyol.
The Alba dropoff
The Espanyol goal happened because of a comedy of errors that began with Vermaelen winning a header, but misplaying it to the feet of a surprised Rafinha. The ball rebounded to Espanyol, who were off to the races. That is a goal that doesn’t get conceded with Jordi Alba in the side. The incumbent is more alert, and pacier than Digne, who let the man with the ball outrun him, and get to the corner.
Once that happened, Vermaelen, who probably reads that play better and makes the interception in the first half, stood there helplessly in the 88th minute. Pique, sensing the danger, turned his body sideways, probably thinking of avoiding a handball call in the box, than squaring up and taking that shot in the chest. Poor Cillessen was just screwed.
Left back is a situation that the club is going to have to solve. With Neymar in the team, the gap between Digne and Alba wasn’t as significant. Now that Alba has full control of his game and the left side, he has become a real force, leaving his positional sub in the distant shade. Cucurella? The summer market? No idea at the moment, but the need is real. Alba can’t play every match. His sub or rotation sub should be at a level that won’t cost the team. Digne isn’t at that level.