Barça 2, Athletic 0, aka “I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and … “

Questions, questions, so many questions when the answers are simple. What do we see?

At the end of a match when you have to ask, “Did Ter Stegen have a save today,” things are rarely as they seem. After an absurd first half of football in which keeper Kepa was like a paperhanger in a tornado and Barça could have scored a few more than the two goals tallied, everyone was giddy. For good reason.

Messi was being Messi — except when he wasn’t as he (shudder!) shimmied after his goal, allegedly for missing mate and mate conoisseur Luis Suarez. Dembele continued to show signs of his skyrocketing assimilation rate. His movement, pace, ball control and football IQ are growing by leaps and bounds from match to match. There were more than a few moments where he had multiple options, and chose the correct one. Seeing a 20-year-old who wasn’t raised in the bosom of La Masia playing with that kind of calm and control brings a smile.

Alba is, on form, the best LB in the world right now, at both ends of the pitch, from assists to defensive interventions. Rakitic and Paulinho did exactly what they were supposed to, as both had excellent matches, the former in a key spot as he subbed for a wounded Busquets.

Hot on the heels of the beautiful buildup to the first goal against Chelsea, comes this display. It’s easy to wonder about systems and implementation, but the Barça attack needs a proper winger. Is it coincidence that the attack gained fluidity and danger when Dembele entered the picture? Messi was so giddy after that Chelsea goal because he understands that a deft, flashy winger who is also a goal threat will liberate him. Look at his goal against Athletic as he moved into vacated space, taking advantage of a defense distracted both by Paulinho’s run and Dembele’s slash, having already been set up by a remarkable pass from Sergi Roberto.

That goal was easy for Messi, who only had to pick his spot as the pass from Dembele was precisely placed and weighted. Bang. It all seemed so easy. So what was up with that second half, everyone wondered, which brings us back to the original notion about supporters wondering whether Ter Stegen had to make a save.

There are a number of ways to look at the second half. One is a bigger, more talented boxer, way ahead on points, deciding to finish out the rest of the fight by letting the lesser boxer chase him, then just putting a glove on his head to hold him at bay when things get a little too close to a punch being landed. Or the “Three Little Pigs” story, as they sit in the house of brick, listening to the Big Bad Wolf blow away outside.

Athletic came out in the second half with fire and vigor, running, pressing, hustling like a team trying to overturn a two-goal disadvantage. What should Barça have done, knowing that every last scrap of energy would be essential from this point onward, with most of the players leaving for internationals, only to return to a match every three days? Tried to play like the first half when the team didn’t have to, or just let Athletic run around? The team quite wisely chose the latter. Yes, some defensive interventions were required. Yes, Athletic had some attacks that a better team would have done more with. But Athletic wasn’t that better team, and Barça knew it. So they conserved and saw out a win that seemed difficult only if you count possession, hustle and effort as statistics. Athletic played their hearts out in the second half. For nothing.

Pragmatism is a weird thing in a world of theory and idealism. Playing football the way Barça played in the first half is hard, not only in terms of technical skill. It also requires effort, the constant pass and move, give, move and receive, and run. So much running. With a two-goal lead, it’s easier to sit tight, rely on the foundation and play for the occasional counter, or stroke the ball around to run time and relieve a bit of the pressure being applied by an opponent. But that is hard to watch, because we’re used to seeing the team play full matches, work for every second, continue to strive to perfect the theory of football as an ideal.

We as supporters are closely attuned to that ideal because we have seen football at its mamximized Cruijffian aegis. So what the hell is this crap we had to suffer through yesterday.

Never has a Barça team more challenged our perceptions at the nexus of action and effect. One of the worst stats for me is completed dribbles, because what does it mean? That a dribble against an opponent was completed. To what effect? What if you complete the dribble, then take a stupid shot or clunk the pass to a teammate. Of what value is that dribble? The action of an opponent running with the ball, passing it around and even moving it into the Barça box, fills us with anxiety. I was sitting at home on the edge of my seat, anticipating Athletic scoring a goal because of how conditioned I am by the way Barça used to play. The announcing team of Phil Schoen and Ray Hudson were anticipating the same thing. Athletic was working so hard, running, pressing, challenging, fouling, making runs, trying passes.

Meanwhile, anything that got close enough to trouble Ter Stegen was either kicked away or intercepted and fed to a Barça player, as defenders performed passing drills with their keeper. It’s weird. Truly weird. In bicycle racing, there are moments during a race where a rider attacks and the rest of the pack knows nothing is going to come of it so they roll along. The escaping rider builds a lead, and people are wondering if that rider will win, but the group knows, understands what is reality.

In football, having the ball and making passes isn’t an attack. It’s just possession, which can often lead to an attack. An attack isn’t a goal scoring threat. A shot isn’t necessarily a shot on target. A shot on target isn’t necessarily a goal scoring chance. The perception of them comes in how we react, based on expectation and what our minds want to see, based on what we have been conditioned to see. If Valverde was a philosopher, he would probably be Kant as he sat there with supporters, watching a opponent with the ball and asking them, “Now forget what your mind is telling you is happening. What do you REALLY see?”

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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.

20 Comments

    • georgjorge
      March 19, 2018

      That’s an astonishing interview.

      We now know that Tetris is almost like being a creative midfielder, that he likes Modric a lot, and that he thought Abidal a disaster when he first came to Barca. Oh, and that Xavi’s one of the most obsessed and intelligent footballers on the planet.

      Regarding Kxevin’s article – spot on, really. I thought the same upon rewatching the Chelsea game, the very good chances Chelsea created were far less than I thought when I was watching it live. Luis Enriqué started really solidifying the defense, Valverde has improved it a lot once more, but I still am afraid whenever opponents come near the penalty area in numbers. I think right now we can put a bit more trust into our defense than we did before.

    • Jim
      March 21, 2018

      Fotobirajesh, you’ve just made my day !

      That interview should be committed to memory by every player playing today and should be required reading for kids coming up through academies. Best interview for getting inside his head that I’ve seen. Even at my age I have problems in our Monday night kick about with folk asking me to get the ball forward quicker rather than passing because like all those folk who criticised our midfield they don’t see or understand what is happening. Every pass is a chance for even the best defence to show a gap and you’re in.

      The problem is that he is so used to playing with his head up he has forgotten how hard it is to internalise. That’s why our La Masia youngsters need the proper training. You only build this up over years, and only if you understand its importance, not in the space of a season which is why we allow an assimilation period and why the new arrivals in the last few seasons, including Neymar haven’t really come to grips with our play.

      It’s why I despair about some of our signings and even some coming out of La Masia. They are more about energy and charging about but don’t have the game intelligence to realise that less can be more. It’s also why loans away from Barcelona have always been so stupid. You don’t learn, you lose the touch, the vision and the reading of the game from a Barca POV. That was my beef with the various loans for Samper. He’s still the best I’ve seen come out of this generation at those particular skills which only flourish in a Barca team. You put Xavi on his own into a Mourinho team or even a RM one ( pre Modric, Kroos etc, ) you diminish those talents.

      It’s also why folks tell us that those days are gone, that Xavi and Iniesta were almost unique. Nonsense. They were exceptional but much of what Xavi is saying is possible at some level with enough talent but enough of the right coaching. In the last ten years my ability on the football pitch has plunged off the bottom of the charts but my effectiveness has gone up just down to watching the guys at Barcelona. If I had my time over again I’d be twice the player ( still not great, I give you that). I could now tell you at the end of our kickabout how often I have lost the ball during the evening whereas if you’d asked me twenty years ago I’d have talked about any goals I’d scored or how many people I’d dribbled past.

      Thanks again. A great find !

      • March 22, 2018

        No mention, please Jim.
        When I finished reading that, I thought about you and another young friend of mine. And I know what you mean, if I was playing now, I would have used my brain even more in a more useful manner. All these years of watching Barca has changed my outlook of the game too. In my counntry the philosophy is always around the five elements. For me football is now about Space – Time – Ball ha ha.
        :)-

  1. mvarfi
    March 19, 2018

    “In the second half we relaxed” said Paco Alcacer. Interestingly, that was not by Valverde’s instructions, as he later semi admitted: “It was a strange match… Due to our tight schedule, our players subconsciously thought the win was already in the bag”
    You can not buy or train chemistry of this caliber. That the players were on the same page, regardless of what the coach and fans expected, is simply… happy sigh!

  2. mvarfi
    March 19, 2018

    Also, the boxer analogy is awesome.

  3. Davour
    March 19, 2018

    Thanks, Kxevin. Lovely read. I might be getting used to this, since I felt all calm during the second half. Messi, backed by a solid team, had dominated the first half so viciously, I simply knew there was a source from which to tap more good things, should they be needed – but I didn’t think they would be). I even hoped EV would sub Messi for Iniesta. The defence was so good I felt they could deal with anything.

    I gladly endure a second half like this, on the back of a first half like that. And Dembélé – he has a ways to go, but if he keeps developing, there is no telling how far he will go. There is something special about him; his movement unsettles the defenders easily, and it seems only details of timing and confidence remain to turn him into a potential monster. Coutinho I have less high hopes for; not that he won’t be very useful, and works hard to do well, but I don’t think he will turn into a superstar. A good player, nevertheless. Once he develops better report with Alba, and lets go of the ball more quickly, he will be fine.

    • Davour
      March 19, 2018

      Oh, and Kant. I seem to remember that it wasn’t, for him, really possible to actually experience that “thing it itself”; we are stuck in our perceptions… But it IS there!

  4. =EQUALIZER=
    March 20, 2018

    That first half.
    Best football barca has played this year.
    Without question.
    Wow.
    The possibilities!

  5. Víctor
    March 20, 2018

    Offtopic but: since when admiring Messi has become a cult-like activity? Seems like many Messi fans can’t just stand seeing other players getting media attention. This weekend both Cristiano and Salah scored pokers in their respective games.

    Obviously, the media and figureheads praised them for that. And many Messi-fans reacted to that with belittling attitude and (borderline) hatred. It seems that in their world only Messi can be praised for having an excellent match, if anyone dares to praise another player: damn him, even more if that player is Ronaldo.

    Yes, I know that some idiots compare Salah to Messi and almost put him at Messi’s level, but the idiocy in that is astoundingly obvious that deserve no further comment.

    • March 21, 2018

      It’s intense, Victor. On Twitter, I call them the Sentinels. Sid Lowe was attacked for saying that Ronaldo was having a good 2018 (he is). But that led to Lowe being labeled a Madridista, Ronaldo lover, Messi hater, etc, etc. It got pretty nasty.

      There are people who think that I hate Messi, based on what, I don’t know, and that I want/wanted to sell him because of an ages-ago Tweet where I posed the question that was being discussed by a great many people. The anger is real, and very, very weird.

      I have learned to sideeye people with Twitter handles that include Messi’s name. Self-preservation.

  6. Jim
    March 23, 2018

    Well, what a first half display from Iniesta against Germany. Just oozed class from start to finish. Thankfully taken off at half time. Spain are only a decent goal scorer away from being a candidate for the WC.

    Don’t like the look of Pique though. Taken off after just five minutes of the second half and for me looked to have trouble turning all night. Hope it’s not that knee.

  7. PPos
    March 23, 2018

    Who is watching Peru beat Rakitic and Modric and Croatia? Could Peru be the World Cup’s dark horse??? I hope so

  8. Jim
    March 24, 2018

    Didn’t see that one but I’ve watched highlights of some of the ones involving our players. First of all, when did Messi get a hamstring injury ???? Have we been playing him and risking that? Not clever.

    Coutinho and Paulinho seem to have done quite well. Iniesta, Pique and Alba played well against a very good German side although I wasn’t too impressed by Umtiti for France (admittedly I only saw the goals and short highlights.) I suppose he had the handicap of being paired with Varanne at the back but still the pairing was responsible for at least two of the Colombian goals. Not sure about the first but for the second both were playing far too deep and for the the third Umtiti jumped into the tackle unnecessarily to give away a penalty. France are a strange bunch. I could see them failing miserably or winning the whole thing. With a fit Iniesta I wouldn’t count Spain out though. I thought in Busi’s absence Thiago did okay but he’s not a DM by nature.

  9. =EQUALIZER=
    March 27, 2018

    Can anyone here explain to me why we are so after griezmann?
    Why in heaven’s name are we so prepared to splash the cash for an average player (for Barca) and that too with a profile that doesn’t improve us? I just don’t get it.
    Are we trying to just get french players in now to make domba and titi feel comfy?
    WHAT IS THE THINKING HERE?!

  10. PPos
    March 27, 2018

    I’m thinking the club is just looking for a long term replacement for Suarez since Griezmann is only 26 or something, and Suarez is going to be 31. I disagree with you with Griezmann being an average player. He’s class and still as a little bit of room to grow. What worries me more is that Umtiti is planning to leave if we don’t making pay him in the second most expensive tier for players in our squad. I think he’s earned it based on his performances this season. The man is the future of our backline and I don’t think it’s worth letting him go to Manchester United.

  11. Jim
    March 27, 2018

    Just settling down to watch a couple of interesting matches tonight. Brazil just now but I think I’ll turn over to have a look at Argentina vs Spain. Really disappointed that Messi isn’t fit to play ( although it’s good for us, if a little working that they seem to be breaking it to us little by little that it is worse than originally thought ). I’d have loved to see Messi running at Pique all night. That would have been a hoot – for us if not Gerard that is. Better keeping him well away from Ramos though. I have no doubt he, being the thug he is, would go through him at some point , leading to Pique stepping in and the unsavoury sight of Spain’s team falling out on live TV.

    Anyway, with regard to the posts above I’m not a huge fan of Griezmann either, despite the fact that he is a top player. Not sure how he would fit in. EV isn’t going to throw away the 4-4-2 while Iniesta is here at least, and maybe not ever if he is as conservative as I suspect. If 4-3-3 we are going to need to play Dembele much more, he isn’t gonna replace Suarez any time soon so he’d have to rely at least partly on rotation and that wouldn’t be popular.

    The other issue is money. We can’t afford to run a team where half of them are on the top two levels of pay. We’re already paying a fortune to Pique, Busi, Iniesta, Busquets Messi, Coutinho and Suarez. You can’t sustain that ( never mind the transfer fee itself). Which brings me to Umtiti. The drums are starting to beat in a Neymar like manner for me. Now I know none of us have a clue what is or isn’t true but I am sure the club want this settled before the WC and I’m sure they’ll have offered him a substantial increase already. That it hasn’t been sorted is a sign there might be some merit to the various stories.

    I think there is no doubt that he has performed well enough to merit a substantial pay rise but not one which takes him up to just below Messi. He is a cracking talent full of potential but that will only be released if he continues to want to learn and I still have to be convinced of that. He has made quite a few mistakes this season and I’m really not a fan of his back flicks etc which have started to appear. That’s not what a top defender does as any of them could easily go wrong.

    For me, as a believer that he could and should be world class as a CB (and I know this will be controversial for some ) a huge payday would be the worst thing we could do. If we give him the world he’ll want more next year. The rest will then want more etc etc. I’d rather find out more about his character by offering him an increase commensurate with a couple of very good seasons and a first team regular/ international but as a young player who still has a lot to learn. Maybe even offer a renegotiation at the same point next year and let him work up the pay ranks. Then we’ll find out if he’s interested in trophies and learning from Pique or whether he thinks he’s the finished article or in it for just the money in which case for me he can go.

    Bit harsh I know, and I wouldn’t blame him for demanding top whack but it would tell me a lot about his character. That’s the Neymar problem in a nutshell. He was regarded as the best too early so didn’t feel he had to change his game and now we’re doing better and he’s left with time to count his money and attend his sister’s parties whenever he likes but if anything his reputation worldwide has gone down since PSG’s demise and his injury.

    Anyway, Spain game starting . . .

  12. Jim
    March 27, 2018

    Messi has my heartfelt permission to go down the pub tonight after having to watch this game . . .

    • Jim
      March 27, 2018

      . . . . and my permission to stay there after seeing the state of Pique’s knee. This is madness. Why is he still on ? This injury won’t go away. He needs rest.

  13. passandmove
    March 28, 2018

    Spain are looking slick and confident. You can see in the body language that they’re very comfortable with the way they play. Some of the one-touch passing against Germany was unreal. Argentina, though, were a mess. I feel bad for Messi.

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