Public squabbles can sometimes be funny, sometimes spur a player on and sometimes get credit for spurring a player on, when that player was great to begin with.
But when Marc-Andre Ter Stegen spoke up about being tired of waiting around to play for his Germany national team, and Manuel Neuer spoke up, it began a back-and-forth in the press that lent a very interesting underscore to today’s opening Champions League group stage match against an excellent, very worrying Dortmund side.
That Barça not only came away with a point, but was a Luis Suarez correct decision on the ball away from coming away with full points, was due entirely to Ter Stegen, who many quipped was in Germany to demonstrate exactly what he meant about his quality. He charged off the line to deny one great chance, blocked another, stopped a penalty then the rebound chance, calmly catching it and continuing play, then made a remarkable double save that left watchers scratching their heads.
That it was such an astonishing performance will surprise no one who watches him regularly. That it was so crucial to get his team off to the right start, getting undeserved points in a match away from home, made his stepping up all the more remarkable.
Ter Stegen is often thought of as a ball-playing keeper rather than a shot stopper, one of those consolation prizes that makes people say, “Sure, he’s a great keeper for Barça, where they need him to do stuff with the ball, but Oblak, or (insert keeper name here) … ” Nah. The young German made a stand that said he is not only one of, but if you consider all-around play, might be the best keeper in the game. Rare is the match in which he was as essential as he was for Barça today, which makes those days all the more noteworthy. He calmly goes about his business even when he makes a spectacular save, always a rock when all else around him is madness. That he was man of the match by streets goes without saying.
That he was so desperately needed was distressing because what we saw against Dortmund has been a knock against Barça for years, which is that the team is too slow in every phase of the game, particularly when Suarez starts. Teams press up, secure in the knowledge that nobody is going to beat them at the back, and space becomes compressed for Barça, which makes keeping possession essential. Every lost possession slices through midfield with ease, and requires some sort of intervention at the back.
Ansu Fati, the teen phenom, started the match but on the right, where he seemed uncertain and ineffective as Griezmann flitted about on the left. When Valverde swapped them it was to improved effect, but this will still be seen as a coming to earth for Fati, confronted by quicker, faster, more physical opponents.
The moment that everyone was waiting for, the subbing on of Messi, didn’t bring much more joy. Lack of team movement in attack and overall quickness meant a lot of ineffectual balls played to the flanks, as the Dortmund defense just shifted. When Messi tried a run, they just met at a point just outside the box, where they could dispossess him without worrying about having any sort of penalty called. It really was entirely too easy for them. And even when Barça had possession, as the team did for long stretches, the only thing really taxed was the ability of the home supporters to whistle in disapproval for that long of a duration.
Nelson Semedo had an exceptional match, his one glitch in giving up the penalty on the second move notwithstanding, and even that wasn’t really an error as he just planted his feet at the exact spot the opposing player did. A circumstance more than a glitch, even as the long knives that insist he isn’t good enough to play left back for Barcelona, silent when he was in beast mode, were now vocal, never missing an opportunity.
But overall team speed is going to be a problem in the Champions League this season, just as it was last season. Even when Barça keeps the ball, the buildup on offense is so slow that Mats Hummels, playing out the string at Dortmund, can boss it in center because it’s too easy to guard a ficus tree named Suarez. Everyone took too many touches on the ball as it oozed around lugubriously. Must have seemed like slo-mo to the Dortmund defenders, who parried every attempted 1-2, every trick and flick like it was nothing, because everything about the team is too slow. The opponents reached almost every loose ball, won most 50/50s, used their pace to create chance after chance, often leaving one Barça defender, or Ter Stegen, as a bulwark.
On this night it worked, but that doesn’t mean that the problem isn’t real, and acute, and vulnerable. Ter Stegen won’t always be in superhuman form. On another night, Dortmund might have put three or four past him, not even counting the one from distance that pranged off his crossbar, as even inanimate objects entered the fray on the side of the German keeper. And when Rakitic came on for Busquets, the problem got even worse as a player who shouldn’t still be at the club couldn’t find anything to do, seemed a step behind everything in attack and defense. The press that confronted every Dortmund attacker with a triangle of men in the first half, didn’t exist in the second, leaving Barça players either chasing ineffectually, or backpedaling desperately.
Dortmund was fantastic at denying playing space, running just as hard in the 90th minute as in the first. They took away passing lanes, took away spaces full and half, presented the turgid Barça attack with a moving wall that seemed to be able to turn possession at will, then suddenly find itself at the enemy gates, where some hero turned them away, yet again. Dortmund played more than well enough to win, and they will curse Ter Stegen in their homes.
There will be lots of “the team didn’t play well” today, but the team did about as well as it could in the house of Dortmund, outpaced at every turn and backed by a miracle worker of a keeper. They played well enough, got lucky enough, and got a point. But Valverde has some issues to solve, some things to think about, most notably how magisterial Frenkie De Jong was at DM, the usual home of one Sergi Busquets. Will he be considering, particularly in light of the quality turned in by Arthur yet again, how good those two would be with an attacking mid such as Carles Alenya, who didn’t make yet another team, even on the bench?
What of left back, now that Jordi Alba picked up a hamstring pull and will be out for a few weeks? Firpo? Sergi Roberto, deputised tonight because Firpo didn’t make the bench? How can they increase the pace of play against quick teams, and what to do about Lumbering Luis?
Lots of worries, lots of questions, lots of issues. But before all that, an exceptional, well-earned but wholly undeserved point. “We should have lost,” many culers will note after brows were wiped clean with relief. And they would be right. But football isn’t always fair, and great players can become exceptional and make a result unjust. And depending on where you sit, that’s the beauty, blessing or curse of the game.