Barça 6, Girona 1, aka “That chopping block is pretty on you”

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.

By Kxevin

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.


  1. The first Messi goal. Moving crab-like from right to left, passing defenders until there is a gap for a shot. How many times have we — and the opponents — seen that happen? You could see that helpless look on the faces of Girona players: it’s going to happen again.

  2. Thanks Kxevin for the great article. It’s always a pleasure to read.
    This season, I find a weird sense of calm when I watch the team play. Not sure if its due to the extreme turbulence of last season or the solidity provided by this team this season. Maybe it’s the change in expectations too. With MSN, I watched every game thinking we are going to demolish the other team but with this one, there is just this sense that we are not going to lose this one. Well, hope I don’t jinx it as we are playing two games in a span of 72 hours. But be what may, this season has made me happy.
    As someone mentioned in this very blog long time ago, this season has been one of those, where you just broke up with a flamboyant girlfriend (aka Neymar), that u were finding hard to keep up with and just when you thought everything is a nightmare, u find the sense of calm in ur single life that u thought was never possible. Well I might be exaggerating here, but the point stands.
    And Kxevin, thanks again for all the work you do. I sometimes wonder though how u manage to be a cule and an optimist at the same time. Rare breed u are..

  3. Yes dembele is very young.
    Yes he needs time to adapt.
    And maybe he has that killer talent that is apparently obvious to see, but I haven’t seen it. He does have some pace to go past players.

    But here’s the thing about him that disappoints me. You see, it is ok to be lacking in confidence and being cautious as there have been long term injuries. But any new Barca recruit, let alone such an expensive player, will want to show effort. He seems to be taking it soo easy, lackadaisical almost in approach. Lazy in possession. That really confounds me. That match where he gave the ball away so cheaply consecutively was shocking to see. More shocking was him not caring to win ball back or anything. Look, I can always understand if something doesn’t come off. But the desire or the seeming lack of it is something that is not great to see. In fact in Barca, it is almost unforgiveable. I am sure he will come good. But his nonchalantness worries me.

  4. EQUALIZER, I do find your comments a little harsh. I think a lot of that can be chalked up to caution and trying to find his form. It is brutal having back to back injuries like this. I think he’s a question mark still, but if he can become a more Barca like, and with that pace, I’m excited to see what he could be.

    Against Chelsea, and others, you really get the sense that we need something else. Neymar was certainly something else, and was a big loss, but at times his fancy dribbling seemed to just delay the pass back rather than really open up new avenues (at the worse of times it actually allowed some teams time to setup more as opposed to threading together several quick passes in the most Barca way possible). I hope Dembele’s pace, and ambidextrous nature, will open more avenues up. We saw prior to Barca, on a very different team, he could do some brilliant runs and assists. At 20 years old it’s just too hard to know what EXACTLY you are getting, with the benefit of still having some time to shape the outcome.

  5. Good day to you guys, Kxevin I really like every article you write and post on this blog which makes me always read it online; kudos to you.
    I will start on Valverde this coach deserve credit the way he manage the team is generally different from those coach that have managed the team ahead of him, people like Pep guadiola, Luis Enrique, late Tito Vilanova and Tata Martino. those coach shows we culers different way and tactics of coaching a football team everyone of them brought success to the team except Martino. When Luis said he will resign last season i was disturb about it, in mind that which coach are we going to appoint that will help the team into great level and winning ways, after announcement of Valverde some comment on him, but today he is now receiving praise from us because Barcelona fans are always cules that always demand success, even apart from depart of neymar he manage his squad and gain good point and improve the squad. Changing from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 amaze me but now i trust any thing he does because it is profession and he is competent coach

    Dembele arrive in short period of time that he cant train in the preseason period with the team, moreover he has set back with injury that disturb him about 6-7 months since his signing, although he is 20 years of age he have alot of time and years ahead of him because our board sign him with aims of replacing neymar the dubious, but with the coach we don’t suffer the lost of neymar to psg and lost of dembele to injury, glad that he played the way we expect him in previous game although started slow but little by little he will regain his fitness and pace because he is talented player with very good future he is going to render good service to the team. he and Coutinho are going to prove those said we spent the money we gain on neymar lavishly, but they are mistaken because our board invested highly on them because they are future players.

    Semedo will render a lot of quality because he is eager and calm to play when his time comes he will shine, his combination with dembele will produce a good result, they understand each others in next season we are going to play in another dimension and we will see how he will link to the others on the field and the way he will defend against a counter attack teams.

    Rakitic is a good player that is inform and doing great job at the moment, but generally, it depends on how coach use players that will prove they are better and depend on how they adapt to the formation and the tactics the coach is using, rakitic is standard player because he brought something different to the team and i can’t compare him to others such as Xavi the legend of our club and they are different player with different profile and stats.

    Messi the greatest and outstanding player of all time, i haven’t witness maradona, pele, cyruff, and others to mentioned a few they are all legend of football great players, role model to Young’s ones but in Messi he is different because when you thought there is nothing for Messi he will prove you wrong by doing the best and recreate an history in any moment, am still reading my dictionary to find a word i can use for Messi i haven’t see any word match him. Messi is messi. Okay maybe i can use this word for him at the moment Messiah of football that always play under different coaches and does well in those time, even if i tried to be coach of Barcelona and messi is one of my player we will won alot of trophy once the squad is good there is nothing to be scared of. Morinho said in couple of years back that if any team in England possess messi they will win champions league so we are bless by the God that sent messi to Barcelona when the team is in good positions and you have messi with you guys, the winning will be with hands down he so unique and dynamic player

  6. Very good article Kxevin, thanks! I’m with you on the development of the team, and think we are not even that far apart on Dembélé…

    That first goal from Messi was incredible. Without support in the box, four professional defenders who know what he’s going to do around him, still no way to stop him. No other player can make you think “hey, even I could do that” because it all looks so simple and easy. Only when I see all the other professional footballers at the top of their game, none of whom can do what he does, do I realize what I have just witnessed. It was as if Girona said “Hey, that Messi guy is not getting any younger, maybe he’s not as good as before” and Messi just did what he does.

    I actually like Atletico regaining their strength and giving us a run for the league. It’s sad that they had to have their bad form in the beginning and dropped out of the Champions League, the way they play right now they would cause problems for all of the big teams in Europe. They even have started scoring more than one goal a game! I think it will be fascinating to watch on Sunday.

  7. Going stir crazy here. It has snowed heavily for the last two or three days and can’t get out ! Even my Sky dish cut out due to bad weather just as I was watching news about how Neymar’s surgery will mean he will only return two weeks before the WC. Starting to feel sorry for him just because of the number of different problems he has and because I never like seeing players injured . . . but I’ll get over it. Shoe in for RM in that tie now I reckon.

    With regard to this article I agree with most of what Kxevin says. Valverde has done a great job so far. My only quibble in this match was whether Pique should have been anywhere near the pitch. Does anyone know what is wrong with his knee ? If it’s anything at all to do with ligaments that knee will be much weaker and all you need to do is turn the wrong way for it to turn into a season ender. I trust Umtiti and TV ( despite a few wobbles recently from the former) so I’m looking for him to get a night off tonight.

    I also agree that unbelievably we’ve almost come to the situation where we have no words left for Messi. As was said, some of his passes I can see even Xavi sitting nodding in approval at and no (despite being a huge fan of Iniesta ) he couldn’t play some of those.

    However, if we are genuinely running out of words for him , I’d like to suggest we could use some of them for Suarez. This guy is playing his socks off, week after week scoring not just goals but vital goals for our season. His movement is so good it ends up looking easy but when you replay it you see the sheer intelligence of his moves. Yes, he’s still on the edge of offside all the time but with support up beside him the balls come quicker and he becomes a different player. He is also still unbelievably sharp considering how much he has been played and he is in the worst position, having to accept getting clattered from the back several times a game. I’d actually rather take the hits Messi does any day than those that Suarez gets. Nothing worse than a hit when you don’t know when it’s coming. Can’t prepare. So just saying a little love wouldn’t go amiss . . .

    Can’t believe Dembele is taking any flack at all at the moment. Leaving aside the fact he has played virtually no football for the most of the season, plus the price tag, plus the adjustment needed to play for us, plus the thought haunting him that the injury hasn’t fully healed ( you always have that with a hammy ) he is only 20 and you can’t expect a 20 year old to carry an attack. For me, I hope we settle the league quickly then get him playing regularly. Later on in the CL if we’re in trouble stick him on where he’s not gonna get pelters for it but that’s all. To be clear, for me he wasn’t just okay first half, he was awful, but who cares. The guy has natural talent in abundance and ( if he wants to) he’ll learn very quickly at Barca when and how to use it for best effect but it will be in a different way than he has been used to. My questions at the moment are more about his mental state rather than technical.

    For the rest I agree with the assessments of the fringers. What surprises me is that folk can’t tell these weaknesses much earlier. If someone doesn’t have the superb technical skills needed to play for us ( as Coutinho obviously does and they didn’t from day one ) they can’t learn them so there was never a chance that Vidal, Alcacer, Denis, Gomes or even Rafinha were going to stick. Perhaps the better question was who sanctioned their transfer ? ( in the interests of full disclosure I was wrong about Turan. Still don’t know what happened there. )

    I’m gonna say that despite Rakitic looking better in his new position it is a sign of our continued need for a midfielder that he is still starting. Same ( almost ) goes for SR. He hasn’t been tested at RB yet but will soon and could be found wanting. He’s not really at our skill level but the guy is so gutsy plus runs so well with the ball that he is covering his deficiencies brilliantly at the moment. It’s why I still lament the case of Segi Samper. As an old fella nostalgia comes easily ! Just as for me the deficiencies in those summer transfers were obvious straight away, I’ve always said he has what we need in spades, yet never got two games in a row to show it. Yes, a big part of it, as Kxevin says, is the Masia grounding but you only have to look at his control of the ball and passing vision to know that within six games with the top teamers he’d be a shoe in. Still, assuming he can come back, all is not yet lost as he was only on loan when other youngsters were sold on. He’d no chance at the start of this season with so many midfielders we had actually brought in and paid for. Sending him away temporarily was the easier decision for EV while he assessed those who couldn’t be loaned easily.

    Speaking of coming back (and nostalgia) I’m gonna say yet again keep your eye on Thiago in the summer, despite the supposed signing of Arthur who sounds good but I’ve never seen play. I know folks have said constantly it ain’t gonna happen but good passers want teams that play their style and win trophies. He ain’t winning CLs there and needs the sun on his back injury wise ! There’s also the possible barrier removed that his return would mean cheerio for his brother.

    Looking forward to tonight but also to Sunday. Win both and it really is all over. Really curious to see how we play Sunday ( despite knowing in my bones that it’ll be 4-5-1 again ). That’ll be one hell of a press from them so I’ll excuse the quicker ball forward 🙂 Just lets not leave Suarez on his own again or it’ll be a long 90 minutes.

    Last thought. Saw a picture the other day of Messi on the school run picking up both his and Suarez’ kids. Apart from continual amazement at what a humble and normal person he seems to be, It struck me that the staff could have one hell of a team for their annual staff vs pupils match in years to come.

  8. Ok, no Pique. Good. However, bit of a roll of the dice playing Suarez isn’t it ? Especially with this referee.

  9. That ref is handing out yellows like if they were candies… better get Suarez out of there, I think he’ll eventually do something to get a yellow…

    Besides, wtf? That wasn’t a penalty, but alas… it was bound to happen…

  10. I dont get it, i really dont. No matter the outcome, why is Coutinho on the bench, he needs games, he can only play in La liga, and Vidal gets the minutes???? And you introduce him when you have to chase the result, when the opponent is closing down. I dont get it.

  11. I just realized that Valverde is utterly terrible in away games. He is clueless when it comes to it. And that MIGHT be why we might not… I don’t wish to say it

  12. So, 5 point lead right now… I mean, it’s not a bad lead… but next game is very important and Atletico is in great shape now. While Barcelona today looked… not very good. Losing against them isn’t apocalype either, but a defeat can cause mental havoc on the team… and extra motivation to Atleti who, in that case, will know ending in a point tie the direct results will gonna benefit them…

    Valverde isn’t an idiot, he is not gonna play an all offensive against Atleti, just like he did with Chelsea, he is gonna pull out a plan that doesn’t expose our defense so much… is gonna be a very interesting game on Sunday.

  13. Meanwhile, Arsenal got defeat twice by Manchester City… 3-0 in both games. It seems that Man City had some pity at half time and decided to not make the scoreline worse for Wenger.

    Both Barcelona’s and Arsenal’s twitter are like crazy right now for their team current results. However, only Arsenal’s is justified… their team really needs a fresh start. Their team is in a real crisis.

    Barcelona, on other hand, is more of a warning sign than anything else… the team is just coming from a long series of matches between January and February, it is normal to struggle at this point and see the players not being at their best. Is really important for the team to stay calm at this point… a win against Atleti is practically winning La Liga… so, they should focus on that right now.

  14. The disappointing draw cost us two points, but I choose to be an optimist about it. We will go into Sunday’s match against Atletico hungrier.
    I will not lament the fact that Paulinho started, though I do tend to involuntarily hold my breath when he gets the ball. He’s done enough for me to feel loyal. But you can’t start both Paulinho AND Vidal. The team can’t carry them at the same time. Starting Dembele would have made more sense especially following his improved performance against Girona and despite his ‘Bambi in the headlights’ moments. He could have then been subbed with Vidal at some point in the second half, while Rakitic came on for Paulinho. What a missed opportunity.

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