Football has a problem with the way it perceives events.
Girona came to the Camp Nou and got pasted. This team is one of the pleasant surprises of La Liga this season only if you view them in the club’s historical context of a small Catalan club, rather than a small club that got a big infusion of cash and player talent from one of the richest clubs in football. Girona also sits seventh in the table, mining a vein of form that is surprising, again in the context of the former, but on schedule in context of the latter. And their coach was a fool, who put his team’s neck on the chopping block with an unfettered glee that might delude culers looking for signs of something of their team being other than what it is: a work in progress under a new coach.
The XI was very attacking, and very dangerous. Girona scored first precisely as a consequence of that danger, as Valverde rolled the dice in thinking his attack would be able to score more goals than it gave up. This is exactly what happened. The high press of Girona that forced the play that led to their goal, allowed them to submit to the play that led to the equalizer, as well as the play that led to the other five goals. The biggest thing the Girona match proved, absent any other stuff, is that every other coach who plays Barça like a kid in a fort during a snowball fight, peeking over the frozen parapet and waiting for springtime and safety, is smart.
Playing Barça open, with a high press is the definition of folly, no matter what team does it. Real Madrid, Atleti, Girona, Chelsea. So the scoreline isn’t a surprise. What is there to be taken from this match, a match in which the Girona players, who apparently don’t watch other leagues, allowed Coutinho to score the exact kind of goal that Coutinho scores, with a reliability that everyone except Arjen Robben would envy.
Messi was in absurd form, one of the noteworthy things about this match, even from a team dedicated to keeping him from playing football. His match highlights would have been a season of glorious moments for any other player, including playing three passes that nobody in the game, now that Xavi is gone (yes, including Iniesta) could have played. Then he scored a goal by making four defenders dance before smoking a shot that the keeper knew was coming, past that very same keeper. To say that Messi had a match would be an understatement.
Is there anything else that can be gleaned from this match, other than “Holy crap, that No. 10 is good?” Sure, as long as we accept that they aren’t long-term evaluations, but simply possible trends worth taking a longer view of.
— Dembele: This was far and away his best match in the colors. Was he brilliant? Nope. But he was good, even as he was erratic. Two things can happen in this game, it is worth noting. His assist to Suarez was one of the precise things he was acquired for, and one of the things that if Deulofeu could do, the Mbappe rumors might have been more than rumors. His movement on and off the ball, as well as ball control and sense of what is going on around him, befits an immensely talented 20-year-old. But we shouldn’t forget that he is 20 years old. He made a mazy, crazy run that was thrilling, even as you said to yourself, “That is a run that only a 20-year-old would make, because he has no way out once he gets there.” But it was fun to watch.
Dembele shows that he is already capable of playing at the mental and physical speed required of a Barça player. The reason that Gomes and Denis Suarez will be watching most of the rest of this season from the bench is because they do not have that quality. The other thing that really helps Dembele is having pace alongside him, so that he doesn’t make those runs to nowhere because nobody else can keep pace with him. Semedo being in the XI gave Dembele a fellow gazelle, and the two gave fleeting glimpses of what we will be seeing more of next season as both become more permanent part of the XI. Their interplay created danger, a quality that players such as Messi will be able to capitalize upon. Rakitic can also slide into the space created by their chaos, to do what he does.
Watch Dembele. Judge him, postitively or negatively, at your own peril. He hasn’t played enough matches yet to do anything except show signs of his quality. The rest will come over time, provided he can keep fit and avoid the terrible luck that has scuttled his season.
— Rakitic: Valverde has decided to play Rakitic in the role of supplemental Busquets, which has all sorts of benefits, including liberating the lanky, stellar DM to supersede his role on the team sheet. Busquets has been magic this season. Part of that has been because Rakitic has been mining a new vein of form, a renaissance that almost precisely coincides with many supporters saying that he isn’t good enough for the colors. Long passes, short passes, intelligent runs — Rakitic has, of late, been playing matches like he has already seen the DVD. Much of this is because lying deep, he has more time to read the match than farther upfield, where his deficiencies playing at the blinding Barça pace become more apparent. Rakitic needs a bit of time to read things.
This lack of time is what spelled doom for Gomes and Denis Suarez. Both are quite talented, but incapable of playing at the pace necessary to make what Valverde wants to do, work. Luis Enrique kept playing and hoping with Gomes. Valverde played and evaluated, then sat Gomes once it was clear that he wasn’t going to meet his requirements. Valverde also has other options at his disposal that Luis Enrique didn’t have, which is why Valverde’s predecessor had to keep trying to force Gomes into a series of holes, figuring that one of them would work.
The difference between Rakitic needing a bit of stillness for the match to come to him, and the contextual slowness of Gomes and Denis, is that Rakitic takes the right action once he assesses a situation. His long passes in particularly were exemplary against Girona, making it seem a shame when the talented Croatian mid moves on this summer in search of a more stable situation.
— Semedo: Wow. He has been in and out of the lineup this season, and the brutality of his world is that after one of his best outings (even as he has been in beast mode of late), he went down for five weeks with a hamstring injury. As an isolated force, Semedo seems less certain in that isolation. Having Dembele capering next to him suddenly provided options for one-twos, or runs he can make with the ball because a pacey player has his back defensively. No knock on Sergi Roberto, but the Catalan whiz isn’t the most fleet player in the game. Semedo is both quick and fast. The challenge for him will be sustaining the form he has been showing of late. Valverde is working him in gradually. We should almost think of Dembele and Semedo as symbiotic, as the characteristics of each brings out the best in the other.
— Coutinho: As he said after the match, he and Dembele will need some time to assimilate, as it is difficult to play for Barça. But, and not to bang on a dead horse, Coutinho has the speed to play for Barça. His feet and brain as well as his skills let him work in a high-wire act. His goal was, while typically Coutinho, one of the many things that showed exactly why the club bought him, and exactly why Liverpool was so resitant to the idea of letting him go. He took the ball, controlled, dribbled, ran, ran some more and almost off the dead run, curled an unstoppable shot into the far corner. Liverpool, in its summer resistance, damaged the Champions League aspirations of a potential rival in the tournament. Don’t think that didn’t cross their minds.
— Valverde: We have seen many different teams this season, from the dynamic instrument of destruction witnessed on this day to a more pragmatic group happy with getting the job done. Other coaches will land the plaudits. But from my chair, from getting the best from a not-ideal squad to allowing the best player in the history of the game a platform from which to become even better, no coach has done a better job than Valverde. This doesn’t mean that he is great, perfect, or any of the other things that people construe from praise. But if you look at what he was handed compared with what he has done, it’s difficult to argue against him.
— Messi: There is nothing to say. Just watch him.