Athletic Club 0, Barça 0, aka “Sant Ter Stegen”

There will be chagrin, and horror, and narratives but this match, dropped points that were in reality a salvaged one in a lion’s den comes down to, at its essence, one team willing to give everything for a result of any kind, and the other team looking diminished and weary, with but a few bright spots.

Any match chronicle that doesn’t give massive credit to Athletic Club and acknowledge that it was only a German wall in Marc-Andre Ter Stegen that allowed Barcelona to escape with a draw is a flawed one. The young keeper was exceptional, flying for one save, evincing astonishing reflexes for another. Both are goals at the mitts of a lesser keeper.

Athletic Club drew up a smart plan. It’s easy to watch tape, see that Barcelona XI and salivate. Without taking shots at anyone, reality was clear that it was Messi and two empty shirts. The Argentine clearly wasn’t at 100 percent but he shouldn’t have needed to be, when his attack mates are in form. They weren’t, and neither Suarez nor Coutinho has been for a very long time.

In midfield was Busquets, Rakitic and Vidal, which left the team without a reference as time after time Vidal passed then ran toward the box, stranding the man with the ball. Raktic, in his role assisting Busquets with defensive duties, had his own chores. This meant that the midfield, usually a reference for Barcelona, was a disjointed mess.

The only bright spot of this match was the defense. Semedo turned in quality work subbing for Alba on the left, Pique was brilliant in harnessing the speed and fury of Inaki Williams and Lenglet had his best, most authoritative match in the colors, as proactive as he has ever been.

And then there was Ter Stegen.

Athletic Club didn’t come with any surprises, a full-pitch press that looked to deny Barcelona playing space, taking advantage of a flawed XI rolled out by Valverde, who also took far too long to rectify his errors. It was a solid-but-conservative coaching move to let his XI play through its funk, but it should have been obvious to anyone that such a thing wasn’t going to happen. They played better at the start of the second half, but never really well enough to bother Athletic Club. One shot on target is the grim testimony to that.

There is much made of the Barcelona midfield, a thing that exists in the mists of myth and legend. When people snarl about it, they often aren’t clear about what they mean, what they think is missing. What is missing is a central point for the ball to exist, a reference that grounds the play of the team in an accessible zone. And this is true even as such notions are antiquated, a team locked into playing a style by its venerated core.

Of the available midfielders, only Busquets was capable of playing in that manner, a manner more necessary but also more futile than ever against an Athletic Club team that closed down the middle, the zone of Messi. Problems abounded in Vidal, giving balls away and playing them without a purpose or idea where a header or punted ball might land, and especially in the face of a pair of grim performances from Coutinho and Suarez, for quite different reasons.

When Suarez is in poor form, everything about his game is clunky: control, passing, movement, decision making. He is then reduced to a workhorse, a guy running around trying to create chaos, hoping for a golazo along with his team’s supporters. He glowers, screams, makes bad passes then gesticulates in exasperation, negative body language to accompany negative results.

Coutinho is a poor fit for this Barcelona team. So many moments illustrated that, but one in the second half stood out: Barcelona worked the ball loose, and it fell to Coutinho. Semedo, knowing exactly what to do to take advantage of a pressed-up Athletic Club, was off to the races. Alba would have hit him with the pass. Busquets, Rakitic, Pique, Messi, any of the Barça players would have played that ball into space to be run onto.

Coutinho dribbled, then tried a risky pass to Messi in the center of the pitch, sacrificing any advantage the team had at the one way to get at a defense drawn up like Athletic Club: jump the flanks.

Messi was not 100%, but didn’t have anyone to play with, didn’t have anything to do with the ball. He knocked off some elegant passes, had a few moments, but he was below his usual standard, even considering the injury that he is playing with. In a telling post-match comment, Valverde said, “Messi is convinced that he is fine.”

Valverde made the right decisions to correct the flawed XI, coming in with
Aleñá and Dembele, and while this ameliorated some of the problems, you still had a team moving sluggishly, and a ball that didn’t move quickly enough to create danger. A clearly not fully fit Messi became the easily controlled focal point of the attack as he ran into crowds of Athletic Club defenders at the top of the box. One bodied him, another took the ball, and that was that.

There will be screaming about this or that, but the fundamental reality is that Barcelona got outplayed — again, for the second match in a row, and yet another draw.

The club acquired depth in summer and in January, but it is going to take a more adventurous coach than Valverde to take advantage of those players. Boateng was picked up to sub Suarez. So do it. What is there to lose? Now that Dembele is back from his injury/illness, expect Coutinho to sit, but Malcom should have been in use long before Dembele returned, or Aleñá in midfield and Malcom up front.

Both draws came as a consequence of having no attacking power on an opponent’s vulnerable flank, which is the way into a team’s soft spot in the modern game. People clamor for football the Barcelona Way, but the game has passed that notion by. It isn’t 48 passes. It’s scything runs up the flanks by fast, deft wingers, with Messi rumbling into the spaces created by those efforts. When Barcelona has had success of late it has been in that manner, unleashing Dembele, Alba making overlaps. A midfield-based attack when the mids are incapable structurally or technically of playing that way is madness, and it played right into Athletic Club’s hands.

Barcelona has a six-point lead in the Liga table, a gap that seems as fragile as a one-point lead. Real Madrid is charging, Barça is waning, everybody seems to be injured or out of form, with no help on the horizon. Lyon is the kind of young, hungry club that can get at Barcelona, and with a pair of matches, both at the Bernabeu, against Real Madrid, Barça could easily find itself out of the Copa del Rey and gasping for air against the grim pressure of an in-form opponent.

There is always, with a negative result — even one that is something of a positive, as Barça deserved to lose today — a rush to blame. The unfavored will find their way to the trending side of Barça social media, but this was a collective effort, from the wrong XI to slack effort by every attacking player and a mess of a midfield.

It is a time lke this when the club needs a swashbuckler rather than an accountant, but it has what it has. Valverde will ride or die with Suarez, will keep giving Coutinho 160 million chances to come good even as it is clear that he won’t, will roll Messi out in a wheelchair if he has to. A less risk-averse coach would have seen what Suarez was doing, and pulled him at the half, wouldn’t have started Coutinho at all, would have figured out what Athletic Club was going to do and created speed and danger with Malcom (also on his favored left side) and Semedo. Valverde did none of this, and he won’t. If we don’t understand this by now, will we ever?

When people complain about various things about the Barcelona coach, it is his “when in doubt, do nothing” worldview that is the most potentially damaging. This is a tired club, and looks it. Thankfully there are six days until the next match, against Valladolid. Most of those days should be devoted to rest for a group that needs it, particularly Messi and Suarez. Lots of other things should happen, even if none of them will.

Barça was outplayed by a resolute, hungry opponent. The right subs were made, but the flawed core of a miasma of an attack was intact, which meant that still, nothing was going to happen. There will be matches like this. People are saying it was ugly, boring, unacceptable, etc, etc. I was on the edge of my seat, waiting for the goal that my culer soul believed was coming: a Messi run, a Suarez golazo, something.

At the end of 95 hard-fought minutes, all that was left was reality, a dog-tired, outplayed team with an injured talisman, a staunch defense and little else except a sigh of relief at at valuable point gained.


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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.