Espanyol 1, Barça 0, aka “Perfect losses”

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.

Ugh.

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.

Oh, Paulinho

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.

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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.

4 Comments

  1. Jim
    January 18, 2018

    Yeah, streaks although great carry an increasing baggage making your eventual defeat carry even more weight then it should. So this matters not a jot to me. They played well as a team and got a lift from the penalty miss just as their pressing was starting to cause fatigue.

    I wasn’t able to record the match as I usually do so there was no stopping and starting so comments are kinda rough. I gently questioned the lineup beforehand with just a half a forward in the eleven and suspected it might be a midfield battlefield and it kinda turned out that way. The first thing that struck me was that we played essentially six midfielders (if we count Messi) and yet at no point did we control the midfield. I’m guessing we played a lot more passes than them but never felt that it was going to lead to anything. I think it was Hilal who asked in the last comments if it was coincidence that our threat was significantly reduced when Paulinho went off but Inhave to say I didn’t see anything significant about our attack all night.

    We were awful – but it didn’t matter. It’s almost not worth discussing individuals because of this. If our guys aren’t entitled to a mental night off in the first leg of a Copa tie ( Espanyol don’t have it as a bogeyman for me really. They’re not good enough, just a bunch of thugs against us. ) then I feel sorry for them. It isn’t as if it improved when Suarez came on either.

    For what it’s worth, nobody caught my eye at all, well maybe SR’s enthusiasm and destabilising runs in the second half , but that’s all. Busi had a few Busi moments which was nice but after that I’m struggling. No, Denis and Vidal weren’t good but they haven’t been since they came. I’m sorry but Alena was the same for me. I can’t think of anything he created, a decent dribble, a threaded pass … What I saw was a pretty physical looking, lively player with good control struggling to get into the game. I understand that a kid can’t be expected to carry his malfunctioning elders and Im not drawing any conclusions from this game especially as he was often in a decent position and the ball never came, but I’m struggling to see what he will offer when he does settle in. I’ll confess here I don’t watch B games so I’m genuinely up for hearing what type of player he is going to be but he’s not ready to step to a three man midfield in La Liga yet.

    The goal was poor and Kxevin calls it right although Digne hadn’t done much wrong up to that point and the guy looked really quick. My bigger question was whose man was it who scored ? It looked like either Rakitic or Vidal who didn’t chase back but I couldn’t be sure. Pique had another man so it was one of our midfielders. I would agree that maybe Digne has had enough of a chance but you could say that of
    Turan
    Denis,
    Vidal,
    Rafinha ( ish)
    Gomes,
    Deulofeu,
    Paco.

    When, for me, you could add Rakitic to that list of not pulling their weight that is an amazing amount of our first team squad not really hacking it at this level. I think Barto is acknowledging as much with the splurge this season. That also means a weight currently being carried by a few which isn’t good. In our starting side last night I always felt there was only going to be one man who could create a genuine chance. Roll on Coutinho, Dembele, Iniesta Messi and Suarez in the same team. Can we play them all in the same team ?

    Anyway, Pique has re-signed which is excellent if unsurprising news. Can’t be president if you leave the team, eh ? Buyout of 500m ??? Is there not a specified link between salary and buyout ? Daft idea for me. Just puts Spanish teams at a disadvantage.

    On a recurring theme see our ex pal Neymar was whistled during an 8-0 WIN ! for not allowing Cavanni to take a record breaking penalty ? Not making many friends is he ? He is so going to Madrid in the next year or so. He seems to have the DNA.

  2. squeen
    January 19, 2018

    Everyone looked a bit tired and slow, especially in the moments before conceding the goal. Was it the cold rain? Not a very good showing from anyone after the first 10 minutes or so (except, as Jim points out, Busquets and Roberto)..

    Also Kxevin mentions the need to score 3 in the second leg. Shouldn’t that just be 2 (without conceding)?

    Anyway, Kxevin, three articles in a week—you spoil us!

    • squeen
      January 19, 2018

      Also, we’ll have to agree to disagree on Gomes. Still looks mentally slow and plodding to me—also has a tenancy to over hit or under hit a pass while trying to keep possession. Maybe if he was used solely as a defensive midfielder, his mental-sluggishness might not be as noticeable, and his size could be an asset. Don’t think he knows how to read a game though, so maybe a bad idea. I dunno. No other player’s presence on the field (except maybe Vidal) causes me as much trepidation.

      Agree about Denis—Alena looks more comfortable on the pitch than he. (although, as Jim said, I haven’t seen a single “wow” moment from him either to-date—but I sure felt aweful for him when he slipped and face-planted!). D. Saurez is overeager with more locomotion than meditation. Maybe he should move in with Iniesta for a few months and work his winery in the off hours.

  3. Davour
    January 21, 2018

    Thanks for the thoughts! On LB, possible EV could put a winger on the left for the games Digne plays. Perhaps that would enable him to remain a more traditional LB, which he manages ok.

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