Might as well get this out of the way now:
Ernesto Valverde got the tactics and the lineup right yesterday, individual foibles aside. People aren’t going to like that because of the creepy pathology that has popped up around the Barcelona coach, who is probably being blamed for a stray rain shower popping up at the wrong time.
Stats. Some people detest them, others swear by them. The analytics contingent have a stat called xG, or expected goals. It’s based on a number of factors, most notably shots and where they come from, or simply enough, quality and quantity. It isn’t always accurate, and often doesn’t reflect reality, but it is what it is.
Michael Caley (@MC_of_A on Twitter, also @Caley_Graphics) did an xG plot for the Lyon match that looked like something out of the old Space Invaders game. It was a plot of pink markings peppered around the Lyon goal. The xG for Lyon? 0.6. The xG for Barça? 2.0.
While it’s weird for someone who isn’t all that fond of stats to begin a match analysis with them, this is a case where stats don’t lie. But what stats don’t figure on, much like the Mule in Isaac Asimov’s great Foundation trilogy, the mutant who confounded Hari Seldon’s mathematical formulas, is … well … mutant behavior patterns.
Barça couldn’t finish a croissant in Lyon. The team had more than 20 shots, just as against Valladolid, with five on goal. And that doesn’t count the ones that whistled just past, the ones that on a different day, a player finishes, the ones where the ball got trapped in someone’s foot. Nor does it acccount for the interventions, the moments where collective play found a Barcelona player in the box with the ball at his feet, thwarted by a last-ditch effort from a Lyon defender.
The other weird thing about xG as a stat is that it doesn’t account for craziness. Lyon had a couple of piledriver shots from distance that from most other keepers in the game, are probably a goal. Ter Stegen went airborne, and that was that.
Valverde opted for Sergi Roberto in midfield, alongside Rakitic and Busquets, the thinking being that the defensive solidity of the Masia graduate, as well as his versatility would serve the team well. His decision making on the ball, and willingness to run would also help against a Lyon team that, given its druthers, would play a lot like Barcelona, off the front foot with lots of possession. But Lyon also possess a devastating counter, so Barcelona had to be tight at the middle and back, something borne out by the possession stats of 63 percent in favor of Barcelona, to 37 percent for Lyon.
The midfield was knitted together tightly to prevent the long diagonal balls to Lyon attackers, and there was always help on the wing. Alba played a more controlled, defensively minded match, understanding the danger that the quick, strong Lyon attackers presented for Lenglet. Alba was exceptional, and Pique continues his run of form, alert and controlled, rarely putting a foot wrong.
All that said, the revelation of the match — well, only for those who still don’t rate him — was Nelson Semedo, who was brilliant in defense, passing and the rare attack. He sent a message by making Ferland Mendy, one of the brightest left-side talents in the game, look average. He stood Memphis up, took the ball and strolled away. What makes his game work is that he defends by attacking, closing down space rather than ceding it, as most defenders do. Lenglet did his usual yeoman’s job, his reactive nature only catching him out a couple of times.
Valverde wanted to play it tight because as every coach worth a damn knows, you might not win a Champions League tie in the first leg, but you sure can lose one. Lyon isn’t as bang average as they were made to look. Credit to the players and the tactical system they set out to play.
So why the hell did the match end in zeroes? Because Barça finished like mutants, only from the aberrant persepective. You knew it was going to be a long day when there was a perfect setup for Rakitic, who blazed just wide of an open net. Dembele worked some magic, had the keeper dead to rights, and … just wide. Intricate possession football worked Messi loose, right around the penalty spot, and he banged a souvenir into the first rows. Suarez got balls caught in his feet, stumbled around. It was truly astonishing that Barcelona did everything to win this match, to effectvely end the tie in Lyon, except put the ball in the net.
Even the xG of 2.0 isn’t fair to the quality of the attacks created by Barcelona. Coming off the heels of the Valladolid slog, where five defenders and nine or ten behind the ball sucked the joy out of the game, Lyon played like a team that wanted to win a Champions League match. The game was fast and open, and fun. In that environment, dog’s danglies finishing aside, Barça thrived.
Possession mattered because the less Lyon had the ball, the less danger they could create. Sixty-three percent possession in a Champions League round of 16 match is playing some football, make no mistake about it. It’s worth watching the match again. On live viewing, you came away wondering how Barcelona didn’t win. On second viewing, you’re astonished by that same reality. Zeroes is very far from the expected scoreline.
So what makes a collective finish poorly? A number of things. Concentration, fatigue, a rush to take advantage of an opportunity to put a match away. Lunging defenders. Form. A few of the misses, particularly those from Messi and Rakitic, were quite uncharacteristic. When Busquets has two of the most dangerous shots on target, that says something about the finishing of the Barça attack.
The biggest complexity of the team’s attack right now is Luis Suarez, now on 25 HOURS of football without an away tally. That is a grim stat for a forward who many consider one of the best strikers in the game. What is worse is that Suarez is in a trough of form that he still seems to be working to find the bottom of. Psychologically, when his form is like it is at present, he gets down on himself and can’t do anything. His control goes, he struggles to complete a simple pass, he stomps around and gesticulates to no one and everyone. He understands how he is playing, knows he is better and rages against himself more than anything else, pained expression frozen on his visage.
That Valverde keeps playing him points to something fascinating in the makeup of an athletic team’s manager.
Back when Phil Jackson was coaching the Chicago Bulls, they would have stretches where they played like crap. Turnovers, missed shots, and the opposing team would go on a run. Any coach in the game would call a timeout, let his team regroup. Jackson would sit there, and let his team play its way out of that mini-malaise. Most of the time, that worked. Sometimes, managing is creating an environment where success is possible, even for a struggling team or player. Valverde is clearly doing that with Suarez.
The danger of that is Suarez getting so deeply mired in his funk that there is no way out. His presence and performance are essential to any trophy aspirations that Barcelona has. We can all mutter about playing Malcom or Boateng, but Suarez is crucial. Nobody in football can do what he does, when he is doing it properly. So Valverde plays him, and drives us crazy in the processm the wait for the golazo that never comes. Only futility.
Does Valverde sit him, letting the bench and rest work to get him back into form? Or does he keep playing him, letting a shooter shoot his way out of a slump? It’s a quandary, complicated by the unique set of skills that Suarez brings to the game. The managerial position isn’t enviable. At all.
But Valverde didn’t just rile with inaction. His substitution of Dembele for Coutinho baffled a great many, as the Frenchman was the team’s brightest attacker, especially as Messi continues to show signs that he isn’t at full power since that mystery thigh injury. Coutinho came on and did Coutinho things, which these days isn’t good. For too much of the time, the Brazilian doesn’t seem to have an idea what to do with the ball, a notion contrary to everything that we know about Barcelona football. He just kicks it.
And as much as the substitution vexes, what we don’t know is whether they had a clock on Dembele, still coming back into form from an injury followed by an illness. Coutinho is like Suarez, in a trough, leaving a manager to battle with the idea of letting him play it out. Everything about Coutinho’s game makes sense in the abstract. In reality, he just doesn’t do anything, unless he does something poorly. It’s another problem.
Barcelona is going to need everyone for this stretch of matches, and to realize the ambition of going for all of the trophies. But that doesn’t just mean slumping players such as Coutinho and Suarez. Valverde has to find a way to use Malcom, who hasn’t seen a minute of match time since his fine outing in the Copa against Real Madrid. It will need Boateng, who offers many of the same skill sets as Suarez. Everyone to the pumps.
Zeroes is, as Valverde noted, a dangerous scoreline to take home. Away goals are the big danger, and everybody wants one. Barcelona, against Lyon, did almost everything right ecxept for the most crucial thing. If that isn’t sorted, the brightest dreams of silver will go up in smoke.