Ah, the cursed international break and a match that filled many culers hearts and minds with trepidation: a trip to Anoeta to face a resurgent La Real, right after the break.
Messi and Pique didn’t travel to be with their teams but pretty much everyone else did. And Messi always says that he is a little rusty after a break, even a rest period.
Meanwhile, La Real is playing fantastic football this year, pressing, taking advantage of opponent errors created off the press and scoring smart, timely goals. The team that finished mid-table last year will definitely be higher this season if their current form holds, something that makes the view of them as a pushover, or this being a flawed win, rather surprising. It was a good football team that played a smart match to take advantage of opponent weaknesses.
Of course La Real scored first. The script called for it. It all began with a foul that shouldn’t have been, for my money, when Sergi Roberto went shoulder to shoulder with a La Real attacker, who went down as if poleaxed. The ensuing set piece saw Semedo outjumped and a carom fall directly to Aritz Elustondo, who stroked home.
That their goal came so early was quite a good thing, as it gave the team and Valverde time to figure out just why in the hell everyone was so desultory, seemingly committed to little more than making life as easy as possible for La Real and its press. Even as the team was drawn up intelligently, with a closed-off midfield and choosing to leave Semedo alone on the right, the ball and players still moved entirely too slowly for Barça, making the press as simple as strolling rather than running. Cliches such as a team wanting it more abounded, but it was true. La Real had that lead and was playing to keep it, and everybody was off for Barça with a few (thankful exceptions).
Dembele was making like Caga Tio with his giveaways, and even Messi was being dispossessed with alarming frequency as the La Real press closed down any thread with alacrity. Suarez, who had a rather good match, was a firestarter, making like the human wrecking ball that he customarily is when on form. Those Uruguay goals seem to have done his psyche good, as he is at the phase of his career where confidence matters as much as skill and execution. He has to believe, or he gets down on himself and a hole gets deeper and deeper.
There wasn’t any midfield fluency because, again, everything was too slow and La Real was closing it all down. To Valverde’s credit, he understood exactly what was needed. The second half began with a sub of Coutinho for Semedo, an moving Sergi Roberto over to right back. Both instances accelerate play, the Brazilian exactly the right thing needed as he made runs at the defense with pace and creativity, and Sergi Roberto made the right side an active part of the attack.
Semedo is an odd case. He is faster, has more ball skills and attacking flair than Sergi Roberto. He also defends better. Yet in the match yesterday, he was a tentative mess who justified the decision of Real Sociedad to leave him alone. When he got the ball his reaction seemed to be to run counter to his instinct, even of last year, which was to drive at the box. He was quite poor, and if he doesn’t raise his game, could end up on the failed transfer ledger.
The difference Sergi Roberto makes was quite apparent. Link-up play improved, as did forward passes to and from the right side. Suddenly the La Real defenders had more space to cover. Then Busquets replaced Rafinha, moving Rakitic forward and forcing La Real to contend with the Gala XI. They couldn’t. The goals were scrappy and ugly, but a byproduct of pace and creativity, and pressure.
That said, Rulli, the La Real keeper, didn’t cover himself in glory on either goal. In the first. a missed clearance off a Pique header from a set piece, saw Suarez lash home. The team celebrated as Pique made like Puyol, urging them to get back to work as the job wasn’t finished. Three minutes later it was, as again a scramble in the box saw a poor Rulli clearance attempt from another set piece, and Dembele smiting a deflected goal.
The easy thing is to say that the additions of Busquets and Coutinho made the difference, but that was only part of it. The larger picture saw Barça coming into the match late in the first half, as Pique had a pair of excellent chances go just over the bar and just wide of goal. The team was accelerating play and finding a way into the match even before the subs.
What will also be missed is that where La Real’s keeper let down the side, Ter Stegen turned in a man of the match performance with a trio of spectacular saves in open space, to keep his team from going down 2-0 and almost certainly putting paid to the idea of full points. His ability to make the right move to not only close down an attacker but then evince the reflexes to make the save is remarkable. He was MOTM, and nobody else was even in the frame.
The other difficulty is seen with the addition of Coutinho, which brings into the frame a fourth attacker who, along with Dembele, Messi and Suarez is slack on defending. Any lost possession will bring a jailbreak counter of the type we saw repeatedly from La Real, and will see again and again until Valverde figures out how to solve it. One way will be to play tighter, even as the people whose minds haven’t moved on from 2009 crave something different, don’t understand the difficulties in playing The Way now, in a game that has done so much to adapt to that threat.
For one, the Guardiola teams attacked and defended with eleven. Not seven or eight. Yes, those teams defended with possession, but they also had proper defensive players that could correct errors, in addition to an active press that helped hold up any counterattacks until the defense could get set, or Abidal could come in to save the day.
In the here and now, when Dembele or Messi lose possession it’s usually at a point on the pitch where defenders are pressed up and Busquets, never the fleetest of foot, often has to make a gamble to intervene. If that fails, the attack is at the back line, usually with numbers as Barça players scramble to get back, but lack the overall pace to do so. It’s why defending often seems so desperate with Valverde’s side. Because it is. Possession numbers are usually in the 60s and 70s, but it’s what happens when possession is lost that is so different today.
Valverde’s last sub was Arturo Vidal, presumably to add some stability to the midfield, but the modern game has moved to the flanks, where opponents, whether they choose the left or right side of the Barça defense, will always be able to find playing space. So many views of the complexities of this team are excessively simplistic, rooted in notions such as possession football, or the vaunted juego de posicion. The game is more complex. Just take, for example, Sergi Roberto. His quality in attack is without question. But as a right back, he lacks both lock down pace and defensive qualities, so he has to sit off the opposing winger. This means the pass is always completed, and then the defense has to react when the ball, as it invariably does, goes into the box. Or the winger just dribbles past him.
On the left, Jordi Alba is an easy physical mismatch, so he too, for different reasons, usually plays off his man, so again, playing space is available on that side, assuming the winger just doesn’t dribble past him. Mids aren’t as active in defending as they used to be, so the result is that lost possession, or pretty much any possession at all, is significantly more dangerous that it was in the days of “Run, you bastards, run!” And numerical mismatches abound, as do late runners who are unmarked. It’s math. And the roster is, in a word, slow. The only player in the XI with real pace is Dembele, who defends like a Parisian with new shoes in a field of dog poop.
The “Valverde out,” or “Valverde lacks big-club mentality” crowd finds the easy solutions as they crow about a coach not playing with balls, without understanding just what playing with balls means in the context of an eleven-man roster with ambitious opponents who play off the counter, four non-defenders and a bunch of turtles in the XI. Compare now to then. Alves was fast, Henry was fast, as were Eto’o, and Abidal. Xavi helped with the press, and Iniesta was quick. Messi was a demon when an opponent had the ball. None of that is true now, and it is a problem that Valverde is going to have to solve to help his team reach its potential.
Meanwhile, Barça has a 100 percent record. It has romped, played in a cabbage patch and survived the curse of Anoeta. Champions League begins midweek (another reason for the slight rotation attempted by Valverde), a challenge that will present a different set of difficulties to be solved.