Real Sociedad 1, Barça 2, aka “What Anoeta curse?”

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.

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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.

22 Comments

  1. mvarfi
    September 16, 2018

    Thanks Kxevin, as per usual, for the right mixture of clear headedness and affection.

  2. Grindelwald
    September 16, 2018

    Another dose of calmness in the ever calescent culeverse.
    Good game against a midtable team: great game when taken in contest of the international break and our history at this ground.
    EV is a realist who sometimes comes across as a pragmatist, I’ve never had anything but respect for him, but his method and decisions at times makes one reconsider if he’s really the coach to satiate the cavernous hunger of the cules forces. His decision to start Rafinha (who last played 2 months ago) and Roberto (suspect ball handling skills) in midfield against a team that’s sure to press the center of the park, while also playing Rakitic at DMF seems like he undermined his opponent. Rakitic is an odd choice as he’s the player with the most game time since January, yet he’s received no substantial rest!
    Happy for the well fought 3 points though, and the saviouresque Dembele goals at crucial moments, also Suarez improved performances is a sign of good things.

    • ikool
      September 16, 2018

      Your first statement is the perfect summary. We see the faults/ errors but we don’t go running in the streets with flaming torches cos we also see the positives and remember to put things in the right context

  3. ooga aga
    September 16, 2018

    “The pitch looks like a lunar landing” – Ray Hudson, yesterday

    Ugly goals, ugly win, but again, context is everything. Guardiola grounded out lots of results away from home, too, and the team often looked lame after international breaks. I remember that quite clearly.

    Glad I’m not on Twitter and able to relive it through the telling of Kxevin.

    I think we will see a different type of performance at home Tuesday against PSV.

  4. TITO
    September 16, 2018

    Well, after such statements in the begining of the season about the CL im looking forward to see how we will manage it.
    Our away games will tell us a lot. Hope we do win a game here and there.

  5. Jamal103
    September 16, 2018

    Your take on Semedo and absence of commensurate criticism for Sergi’s performance in the first half speaks volumes about your personal biases Kevin.

    • September 16, 2018

      If you are going to come at me, come correct:

      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.

      Yes, I discussed Semedo in this particular instance. He was noteworthy. Other players will be at other times. If you can’t manage to deal with that witihout accusations of bias, maybe this isn’t the ideal space for you. Because it is going to happen again. And again. Over the years, I have been accused of loving and hating many a player. As those sorts of accusations go, you are a short-timer.

      Further, what of what I said about Semedo wasn’t true? We all know his talent. But he is playing like a tentative mess. No idea why, but he will play his way onto the “technical decision” side of things in short order. Valverde doesn’t mess about with that kind of stuff.

      Finally and frankly, I don’t care what anyone thinks about any player. The luxury of not being a fan of any of them gives me a certain liberty when it comes to evaluating them. That is a liberty that I take, and enjoy.

  6. squeen
    September 17, 2018

    Turning your comment on its head a bit: help me understand what folks who strongly favor Semedo see in him (because you are not alone). Yes, he’s a fast runner—but is that all you’re looking for in a football game: a footrace?

    • Grindelwald
      September 17, 2018

      He’s a fast runner, adequately strong, good defensively, has excellent dribbling skills – he’s better at all this than S.R. what semedo lack is end product and his interplay with Messi & other mids, but that can only be improved with prolonged playing time.
      Imo, he should be used in the earlier stages of Copa games so as to build the connection needed and also boost his morale and understanding of the barca game. For now, S.R. is the better option (and that mean we’re doomed against proper counterattacking teams).

      • squeen
        September 17, 2018

        When you say Semedo is “good defensively”. Which set of skills is that? Is it: Getting back quick? Pressuring? 50/50? Tackles? Positioning in the box? Aerially in the box?

        Of the later two (in the box), I have not been impressed. Nor does he seem to make tackles. On a postive note, I have liked how he fights wingers off the ball some times. In that aspect SR usually just “sits off” as Kxevin mentions (with hands behind back)—but clearly he’s been told to do that (as oppose to lunging in and losing his mark).

        I haven’t been able to watch the game because of DirecTV and BeIN sport’s squabble, so I was interested to read from Kxevin that he thought getting SR in right-back helped in the second half, because I had also read (elsewhere) that SR in attacking midfield was ineffective during the first half.

        I do maintain SR at right-back effectively lets Barca have an extra midfielder on the field, much as Dani Alvez and Jordi Alba did/do—both of whom by the way have been equally criticized in the past for their defensive weaknesses—and truly enables playing in the “Barca style”.

  7. Jim
    September 17, 2018

    Yup, the season’s warming up now both here and on the pitch ! So, what if anything have we learned so far ? Well, not much we can be sure about but there are some signs, for me at least.

    The first is a well done to EV for keeping the 4-4-3. At least so far and at an away ground which has caused us problems, plus some players on international duty. You just know he’d rather have a tighter formation but even so no way is the result anything other than a great one. I don’t believe in hoodoo grounds but at this ground and with a pacy decent team fired up this was always going to be difficult. If you’d said to me you will score 8 at home followed by an away win at Anoeta I’d have bitten your hand off. No, the football isn’t flowing yet but that could come once he gets the ( correct!) starting eleven. At the moment it’s more important to shut the back door.

    EV must be having kittens though at the ease with which RS made their way to TS. Tomorrow’s home tie in the CL will be pretty informative for me in how he lines up. My bet is that he ends up going back to the notional 4-4-2. Hope not . . .

    Not that anyone did ask me about the lineup but if they had before the match I’d have said you’d be better off putting the kettle on and settling down with a good book. That was a shocking choice of midfield right from the get go, rotation or not. Rakitic is no Busquets and neither SR nor Rafinha are really Barca standard mids. I was fast becoming depressed by how deep Messi was having to come when in recent weeks he’s been quite advanced for him. It’s just too much for him to do for a whole game. Things improved quality wise with the arrival of Busi and Coutinho ( although Coutinho brought other issues defensively. He’s also going to have to start to vary his shooting. It was comical seeing the keeper flying towards the top corner almost before he’d hit it ! )

    Semedo vs SR ? At the moment I’m pretty much in agreement with Kxevin. Semedo has by far the higher ceiling there but at the moment doesn’t have the confidence to use his pace and dribbling skills in attack. It’s not difficult. EV just puts his arm round him and says “Two choices, Nelson. Show us us the qualities we saw when we bought you and we know you have. If you get the ball in space attack their box, looking for Messi and Suarez but if not go yourself. We have faith in you.” The unsaid would be “or you keep wasting the time and space by turning back and slowing everything down and you join the list of leavers” . I still reckon he can be great for us. Genuine pace, surprisingly strong, better nose for defensive trouble then SR but sadly not better overall at the moment. SR is what he is. Not a starter but better than the other options.

    The goal we lost wasn’t great and it’ll be a long season if we keep losing them. The guy got a run and jump on Semedo who had only a standing jump ( and not a great one at that.) I speak as one who hated corners or set pieces against us because I hated the thought of a head clash or the melee that attends such events. Choices I remember being given by one unsympathetic manager were :
    1. Win it !
    2. Make sure HE doesn’t win it by shoving/ barging/ pulling at the relevant time or jumping in front of him to put him off.
    3. If unable to do 1 or 2, watch for the second ball and get in there quick.
    4. If unable to deliver any of the above, come and sit beside me !

    Semedo did none of the three , SR I have no idea what he even thought he was doing there but he did none of them, unspoken in this so far was Rakitic who was playing the role of Alice in Wonderland – nearest to the man who scored ( should have been marking him) and then when the ball came back tucked himself safely out of the way in the defence. All of which left it to Pique to leave his position in front of goal to attack the ball. Not good and will hopefully be the subject of some discussion at training.

    I thought our goals were good in that they were the sort that only happen if you have alert bodies in the box reading the game. Watch particularly how Suarez muscles the defender far enough out of the road to give himself time to open his body to put the ball into the corner.

    So, to come back to my question at the start. I think I know that

    – Somebody has had a word with EV that more is expected attacking wise this year and he is just in the process of working out how he can deliver this. He’ll need time and space to do this. Good start will help here although mistakes in the CL could prove fatal.

    – Semedo won’t get many more chances to show us his worth. Agree with the comment that EV neither forgives nor forgets

    – Rafinha may have had his last chance. A pity as he hasn’t really had a good run at anything due to injury.

    – Rakitic’s coat, for me, is now on a shoogly peg ( Scottish expression). Sorry guys, I know he loves puppies and is a super role model who never puts a foot wrong but he provided little cover for the defence in the Busi role and it’s a case of ” got here as soon as I could” for the pressing. If you think that’s unwarranted then you need to consider ( don’t dare!) dropping Busi because we’re short of legs with both. At least Rafinha could get about the pitch but his passing is nowhere near as tight as Rakitic’s.

    – Arthur’s time has arrived, possibly earlier than is good for him but it has nonetheless.

    – I’d add Suarez ( and possibly Pique and Alba ) to Messi as undroppable but that is a problem. Suarez in particular as we have nobody who could even deputise adequately. We need to move in the January window to give him a chance for rest in the second half of the season if he’s gonna keep attending the NT. Thought he was great in this game but what an energy expended chasing.

    What I don’t know is what Vidal is being brought on for. If it’s to shut the game down I’m not seeing it. Is it just me? I feel bad as he’s just arrived.

    Anyway, thank God the CL is here and I can have decent coverage of the game on BT Sport. Worth putting up with Michael Owen for the quality of the picture.

  8. mvarfi
    September 17, 2018

    I liked the way EV prioritized.
    He gave Semedo a chance right before the CL starts. He opted to have a more rested Busi and Coutinho rather than a more rested Raqitic for Tuesday. He couldn’t use Denis Suarez as he was cleared by the medical team only on Sunday. Arthur has yet to start. It would have been cruel to have given him his first at Anoeta after an international break. Both Alena and Samper have just recovered from injuries. Vidal is the least assimilated of all the new signings. What other options did Valverde have? If you disagree with the timing of the rotation, that’s fine. But aren’t we all dwelling on our less than ideal speed in mid park, ok, all over the park? Would a slightly more tired Coutinto and Busi have helped matters on Tuesday? Against a team we’ve never played against. Unless you think PSV is a lesser opponent than Real Sociedad, I don’t understand your shock at EV’s choice of midfield. It seems to me he chose to gamble against a devil we know, rather than one we don’t.

    PS. I think he’ll stick with 4-3-3 at home.

  9. Hamid
    September 17, 2018

    What if what you see is all there is? What if Valverde, unlike most us, has a better understanding of the shortcomings of the current Barcelona squad? Kevin has highlighted a few of them in this post and others. The chemistry within the team is a sporadic event, the technical genius is restricted to a couple of players (when they are inspired), players’ creativity is hindered by pressure, squad renewal is taking more time than it should, younger/new players are not trusted, get frustrated and decide to leave. Let’s also add some out-of-the-field factors: a board that is focused on the short term, a financial balance threatened by high salaries, a split fan base, more determined and confident opponents.
    The good news is that despite all this, the team has managed to produce decent football and win trophies we should all be proud of, given the high quality and competitiveness of Spanish football. But my realism tells me that we don’t have the quality to win the CL this year or anytime soon. Fundamental changes are needed and the more we wait, the more difficult they will become.

    • Andh'ol Roin
      September 18, 2018

      i am afraid my young sir that you mistaken what is one of the most creative pond of frogs to some “couple of players (when they are inspired)”, Mind you, this side is unoiled, but once it will be and Vidal, Dembele or Coutinho start finding a consistent form, with a rested Busi and Raki, i think we can handle “the pressure”. My concerns are for Jordi and Semedo, but Semedo will get games and i’ve no doubt SR will play on the left from time to time cause why not.
      But let it gel first.

  10. georgjorge
    September 18, 2018

    That Démbéle goal was glorious. The feint, the pace, the shot…and what is almost as good is that this young player, who seems to interact fine with Messi otherwise, didn’t waste a second on looking for him in that situation but had the confidence to do what he did. Incredible.

    I’ve no idea why Umtiti found it necessary to collect his second yellow after an already unnecessary first one, but maybe it was to show that this Barca can up the score even with ten men on the field?

    • mvarfi
      September 18, 2018

      It’s a pity, but Titi sacrificed himself for a clean sheet.

  11. TITO
    September 18, 2018

    I dont mind his second yellow, but that first one was very stupid.

  12. Jamal103
    September 18, 2018

    Sergi poor again, as per usual.

  13. mvarfi
    September 18, 2018

    Just watched PSG draw a blank against Liverpool. I rooted for the Reds. Their relentless, teenage intensity is both entertaining and endearing to watch, still, not my cup of tea.
    On to watch Inter v. Tottenham now…

    PS. It was remarkable, especially in the second half, to see what Kxevin has pointed out. That the game has shifted to the flanks. There was a giant hole in the midfield.

  14. Hamid
    September 19, 2018

    I was not able to watch the game yesterday. All cable TV carriers in Canada lost CL broadcast rights to a streaming service by the name of DAZN. Any tips anyone? It’s really a pity!!

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