That was that.
If you were to be a fly on the wall and sum up Valverde’s post-match talk, it would probably be, “Welp. That was that.”
On BeIN, during the post-match interview, the interlocutor asked Luis Suarez if Valverde was going to be angry with them and Suarez said that he thought Valverde would be quite happy with them.
Sure, dude. As you wish.
The team won. That was good. Jordi Alba was fantastic. That was also good. Suarez was also brilliant, mining a rich vein of form that says a lot about his leadership qualities. The man has been a boss since Messi went out with a fractured arm, sliding into his enfant terrible role of the classic 9.
Lenglet continues to show why the club went for him, even as he has the awful luck of deflecting at some point almost every goal that Barça concedes at some point in the process, which is weird.
But the team, as a unit, was a mess. Were they looking past Rayo to the Inter match, which is massive in that a win ensures they will finish first in the group? For sure. After all, Rayo sat 19th in the table, and this was a team that spanked Sevilla, then Inter, then beat Real Madrid so badly that it was the last straw in the demise of that team’s coach. Little Rayo? Come on, now.
La Liga is a competitive league, and from my chair, the most competitive in football. Any team can, on any given day, take points from any other team. The players are skilled, the ball movement smart, the attacking incisive. And Barça started out like they knew all of this, scored an early, easy goal then put it on cruise control, stroking the ball around and waiting until it was time to hop on the train back to Barcelona.
Rayo wasn’t very interested in cooperating with that approach. They pushed, shoved, fouled, fought, ran, determined to reward their vociferous supporters who turned out to pack their lovely little home in Vallecas, people who cheered as they punched the glamor boys in the nose.
Turned possession, slack marking and suddenly it was 1-1. Repeat the same formula, but this time as another opponent chose to exploit the welcome mat of the Barça flanks, and suddenly it was 2-1. The place was rocking, and Barça was bereft of answers. Stroking the ball around wasn’t going to do it, as the Rayo defenders were moving to cut off every probing, logical pass because … well … logic is easy to suss.
Valverde made changes, first Dembele for Rafinha, then Vidal for Arthur and Munir for Coutinho. And his team went vertical. The match oozed along until very late, when Rayo seemed to suddenly remember that it has the worst defense in La Liga, conceding a pair of late goals that gave Barça the win. It was a win that felt weird, almost like rewarding a naughty child who didn’t do his homework, his housework, set the cat on fire and missed the toilet bowl yet again.
It’s easy to say that scrappy wins such as that one are invaluable for a team looking to win a championship, bonus points snatched from the mouth of failure. The fightback shown was engaging and inspiring as a team never hung its heads and adapted its play. All three goals were quite un-Barça like, long passes that brought good things, rather than a glorious, 30-pass sequence of planes and angles. It was what they had to do because once you go down by a goal in a raucous away ground that felt increasingly claustrophobic as every minute whistled past, the time for patience is at an end. Blast it, and let the geniuses do what they do.
Individual brilliance? You bet. Alba opened up Rayo like a can for that first goal, a two-pass bomb. Rakitic to Alba to Suarez. Goal. The second was a set piece that bounded around. Off the scramble, Pique headed to Dembele, who half-volleyed home as casually as you like. The third was a cross, straight out of the Premiership textbook, to the far-post man, who bundled home.
Rayo will feel hard done by. For about 80 of 94 minutes, they outplayed the glamor boys from the big city, had them on the ropes before they seemed to remember where they were and who they are. They haven’t beaten Barça in forever. The most recent time they caused Barça trouble was when Tata Martino was coach, and they out-possessed the Catalan giants even while losing 4-0. It was cataclysmic. Before and after that, it was a series of spankings. And newly promoted, back in the top flight, this was to be another, common wisdom dictated.
But Rayo puffed out their sashes, and played exactly the kind of match that was needed, rushing the flanks, attackers making late runs into the box, disruptive play that took advantage of smug fat cats just ripe for the fall. If this was a movie, Rayo would have finshed with the lead, would have drank all night with their fans at that famous bar in the center of town.
In real life, highly paid assassins put the knife into those dreams, because life is unfair more often than not. For the way it played, fought and gave everything, Rayo deserved more than a loss, more than to be consoled by disconsolate fans who couldn’t believe what happened.
Sometimes, even as a supporter of the team that won, you don’t feel a result was fair, in that weird, contrarian part of your brain that wanted Rayo to do it, that part that loves an underdog. It seemed unfair that one of the subs should be a player whose transfer fee is more than Rayo’s entire budget, and that sub would score the goal that began the comeback, or slideback if you have a shirt with a red sash where your beating heart is.
It didn’t take a genius to see that performances were poor on the Barça side, from the reliable Busquets, who was misplaying passes and seemed to have jet lag, and Sergi Roberto, whose stratospheric football IQ doesn’t seem to account for defending. “Hey, where did that man come from?” Arthur was diminished because of the diminution of Busquets and Rakitic, except for the odd bit of brilliance, was as off the beat as the rest of the band. Rafinha was slathered in flop sweat and sweat from he effort that he put in, running, defending, always making himself available for a pass, bailing out a teammate. His last official act on the pitch was badly botching a simple square ball for what would have been a Coutinho tap-in.
Of course, he probably didn’t see Coutinho, for common thinking is that he was invisible, though there were rumors of his involvement, shared among culers like an urban legend. Ter Stegen was magnificent. Again. He doesn’t even scream at his defense, just makes the great save and knows he will need to make another, because that is just how things go.
The talk of the post-match was, of course, Dembele, the genius talent whose ennui suffuses his demeanor. He strolls about the pitch like a continental rake, all doe eyes and elegant stride, watching the proceedings as they go on around him. “I should run for that, but someone else probably will. I will just hang out here.”
In my Twitter mentions, someone after the match said that it seemed like Dembele wouldn’t mind just laying on the pitch until the ball came to him, which wasn’t that far off the mark. Yes, he scored a crucial goal. He also gave away possession in spots that twice resulted in dangerous Rayo attacks. Both times he just stood there like, “Huh. Looka that.”
Then he scored a lovely goal, and all was right in the world again, even if it isn’t even if a player who has a pair of coaches, one for club and one for country, who both believes that he needs to understand how much talent he has, how he is now his own worst enemy, and put the hell out.
His proponents say that talent must be nurtured, must be played, the risk must be ignored because talent is talent. The challenge with Dembele is when that talent comes with liabilities. Dembele doesn’t put out. During one first half sequence, Rafinha defended three different men outside his team’s box, forcing an offside as the fought the last attacker, tooth and nail.
Real Madrid substituted their newest starlet, Vinicius Jr., who lit up that match like a rocket. One key sequence found him making a pass to Karim Benzema, then running into the box to provide a playmate. How often do we see Dembele make a pass and shut down, as if to say, “Well, that’s that then. You boys take it from here.” He doesn’t track back on defense, doesn’t make supporting runs, doesn’t play 1-2s, bangs in weird, hit-and-hope crosses, walks when he should trot, trots when he should run.
His talent divides a fanbase even as, aside from the moments of genius that he provides, Dembele provides nothing else. His set piece delivery brought a win against Cultural Leonesa. His goal killed Chelsea last season, and won the SuperCopa this season. he’s an amazing talent who doesn’t seem to know how to, or even have interest in maximizing his wondrous abilities.
And you wonder if he will succeed at Barça, a club that didn’t pay 140m for an impact sub, which is what he is right now. Valverde plays him, subs him in late because of that talent. Valverde rarely starts him because of the liability of all of the baggage that accompanies tha talent. He’s 21 years old. An adult. He sees what to do. Suarez, who is ten years his senior, runs harder, works harder than Dembele. That shouldn’t be.
Both big-money signings were complex. Coutinho is not thriving on the wing, or doing much of anything, And now that defenders have figured out to cut off his diagonal, unleash the Shootinho runs, he isn’t even scoring goals any more.
These is speculation that Valverde is somehow a bad coach for not playing a player who is a liability, even as he might also make the play that will win you a match. That reward and risk have to be balanced. You hope you can sub him in at a point where he has enough time to have an effect, but not enough time to cost you with a silly turnover.
That isn’t the life that was foretold for Dembele, nor is it the life that he saw, looking at entering the pitch in the 60th minute or later, rather than standing in the XI at center pitch, hearing the cheers cascade down.
It’s a shame that thoughts enter my mind such as, having doubts whether Dembele will make it at Barcelona, thoughts that should never be part of thinking about a brilliant footballer. His team got lucky today, and fought its way out of a dire situation on a day when its chief rival dropped points. But team and Dembele will have to get a lot better, and soon. Or both could find themselves in a series of unfortunate events, none of which have been foretold.