Athletic Club 1, Barça 0, aka “We deserved that”

FC Barcelona is the worst team in football, a club that is falling apart, with an old XI and a terrible manager. So why is anyone at all surprised that they lost yesterday?

As a fanbase, we have spent almost every moment since the final whistle at Anfield lambasting everyone and their mamas, except for Messi. We have been calling for the sale/departure/ritual execution of this person or the other, and everything is the worst. So yes, the karma of the extravagantly veteran Ariz Aduriz scoring the winner off a scissor kick was exquisite, even if you aren’t a neutral. Hilarious, even.

If your assessment of that match doesn’t begin with a tip of the hat to Athletic Club for a great game plan that was well executed, it should, From forcing the flanks to starve the forwards of service to marking De Jong into nothingness, they made their home every bit the hellscape it has been, even with Messi.

Everything about the way that Barça was set up, everything about the way they played, worked right into the tactical plan of Athletic Club. Slow, uncreative forwards who didn’t make runs in behind the lines, fullbacks without the skill to push up, CBs who weren’t bringing the ball up.

Griezmann strolled around on the left as Alba got in his way, Dembele was ordinary, Suarez a mess, clunky, old and slow, also missing an open net, thwacking the ball off the post. The few of us who observed that Aduriz had the role that Suarez should by now have just added to the grim reality of this nightmare trip to a lion’s den.

The fundamental reality of this team is that though it is on paper the best squad in Europe, it is in reality all too easily controlled because of the slavish devotion to a mode of football that is, in the here and how, too easily controlled. The Way needs a rehab.

Ball and player movement were the hallmarks of the halcyon days of the tactical variant that has become conflated with what people ball “Barcelona football.” Opponents figured out that if they stood, contolled a zone and waited, the logic of that approach would bring someone to them. So a treble became a double became a Copa.

Luis Enrique came in with the variant that everyone hated because it wasn’t the outdated Way, and again, treble became Copa became nothing as opponents figured out that instead of waiting around for all the marbles to stop rolling, they just had to wall off Neymar, who was the source of the creativity and drive.

Ernesto Valverde inherited a team with the same players, and the same problems, a team that is stuck between two worlds, being run by a coach who even if he has a better way, doesn’t have the courage to try it or the players to execute it. What people call Valverdeball is a pastiche of failed transfers, veterans who are tenured lineup fixtures and hubris, all of which dictate that we sit around and scream about why something isn’t happening that can’t happen because the tools aren’t there.

Spaces between players were too wide, stranding attackers and mids. makimg life easy for Athletic Club. This was aided by sloppy passing, silly flicks and a mindset that made proceedings feel like preseason. Athletic Club wanted a result more, and they got it. But the same issues that plagued the team last season still plague the team. And while everybody screams about their least-favored player, the collective, from manager on down, is at issue. The problem is bigger than one person, this excellent squad that can’t play the kind of football it needs to in order to get past its difficulties.

In midfield, Aleñá was a hyperactive mess, a shadow of the player he was in pre-season. Sergi Roberto was a rumor and De Jong was stymied. Everybody was excited because Valverde rolled out a new midfield in a freshly promoted Masia player, a veteran promotion and a new transfer in the engine room. The hated Ivan Rakitic was exiled to the bench. Times were grand. But hings were always going to be messy, even as this was the XI that so many clamored for. Patience will be required, even as the only thing that rained down on this new-look XI was bile and excoriation once play began.

We watch, but we don’t see.

Barça is a relegation club without Messi? They lost, so there ya go. Prophesy fulfilled. Live it up, and don’t be surprised that a relegation side lost to a club with a solid shot at finishing Top 5 in Liga, a club that played its hearts out from the first to the last minute. Observers said it looked like the Barcelona players lacked heart. They didn’t lack heart. They lacked a sense of what the hell to do with the striped demon they faced that cut everything off.

No runs, no glory. But with an opponent willing to sit back, play physical football, clog lanes and play off the counter, from Guardiola to Vilanova to Martino to Luis Enrique to Valverde, what is this team supposed to do? Where does the movement come from that makes an opponent shift?

The fullbacks, for one. Look at the way Manchester City uses its fullbacks in the modern football way, as attackers rather than simple overlapping players in the mode of Jordi Alba. But Barça has Alba, so what then? Semedo is more of an attacking, modern fullback on the right, but somebody has to play defense, and protect the increasingly slow Pique from being isolated by quick wingers. So that’s out.

You could have CBs bring the ball up, but you have the extremely veteran Pique in one spot, and Lenglet in the other. One can’t and shouldn’t any longer, and the other doesn’t play that style. So that’s out.

If you can’t build play from the outside in or via active CBs, what to do about building play from the middle, in the absence of a dynamic agent such as Messi, to carry the ball and force movement? You pass it around, and look ineffectual, which is what Barça did on Friday.

There’s a reason Rafinha looked so effective when he was subbed in. He carries the ball. Carrying the ball is one way to create movement through the midfield. But even then, Athletic Club just stood there along with Griezmann, who slid into the middle in the stead of Suarez, who went off with a calf injury picked up just before he missed the open net. Griezmann doesn’t move like Suarez, doesn’t vex and look for space, so he was very easy to play, thus stranding Dembele and the mids with the ball.

The one player with the nous to cause trouble for Atheltic Club, Malcom, is being racially taunted in Russia. Carles Perez isn’t Malcom, so he came on to zero effect, because Barça doesn’t have an effective way to deal with an opponent who decides to play the blueprint for beating Barça. It’s so obvious.

Sure, you could roll out a younger, more modern unit with the likes of Umtiti and Todibo at CBs — both capable of bringing the ball up from the back, forcing movement through dynamism. Your left fullback is Junior Firpo, a prototype for the outside-in mode of attack contained in the contemporary fullback. But Valverde isn’t going to do that, and supporters don’t want him to. They want him to play a football that he doesn’t have the horses for. They want him to reinvent the same old wheel with the same old parts, even though everyone already knows how that wheel goes together.

His decision to run out a new midfield was laudable, but the structure surrounding it is still flawed because it has the same parts. It’s collective question. Yes, individual players were poor, aside from inhabiting a system that sets them up for ineffectiveness. Is there a way out? It’s going to take more than Messi to make it all work.

In the first half, Barça hit woodwork twice, and one should have been a goal, the other was a brilliant save that tipped Rafinha’s (him again) shot off the woodwork. Rakitic had a great opportunity a bit before Aduriz put the knife in, but missed the target, then Lenglet had a chance late, after the Athletic Club goal. They had chances, but one came from an error, one from individual effort, one a scramble and one a set piece. From open play, most of what was created were passes back and forth between mids and fullbacks. You aren’t going to beat anyone doing that.

To top all that, the goal began with a series of stupid, stupid decisions. Ter Stegen booted it long to a team that was living to turn possession and play off the break, or at least for the scoreless draw. So starve them of possession, particularly since his team was playing on something resembling the front foot. And Ter Stegen had easy passing options in Pique and Semedo, instead choosing the long pass to Alba, Dembele or somebody or other, that he mishit.

Alba bit on the throw instead of staying put, thus creating the space for the one-touch pass popped the ball behind him. Dembele desperately chased back, but he wasn’t getting there in time. Rakitic was caught out by the switch, and ran to fill space as Dembele chased the ball carrier, but he was late to the moment so the pass to Aduriz was easy to hit. If you freeze-frame the key moment, Barça had a numerical advantage in the box, but you have to be paying attention. They weren’t. Ball watching is the most common schoolboy error made by defenses and Pique, Lenglet and Semedo were all ball watching. They reacted only to the flight of the ball, and by then it was too late.

Most people who understood where things were and the opponent, were hoping for a draw against Athletic Club. A loss was more likely against an opponent sharpening its swords at home while a money-hungry board had Barça flitting hither and yon to play various exhibitions that are pre-season in name alone, as a jet-lagged bunch of players in unfamiliar surroundings try to do something like work into shape. The Napoli match seduced us, but it shouldn’t have fooled us. Our team has problems, even as it is a great squad in theory. And the same manager has to try to solve the same problems with mostly the same pieces.

It’s gonna be a ride.

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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.