It’s easy to look at the scoreline, to look at the second half of the Inter match and think that everything is fine, that the team is just some correct personnel decisions away from being fine and dandy.
You can have your slavish devotion to football Never Never Land, and believe that it’s just a matter of formations, and using beloved players in the right way.
In the first half, Inter played Barça off the pitch, and the exact same difficulties that we have been seeing all season manifested themselves again:
— Acres of playing space in midfield
— Almost direct access to the back line in just a few passes
— Able to defend Barça walking, because play is so slow
— Vulnerability off corners
And the reactions were predictable, slamming Semedo, who was playing out of position on the left, for not being Dani Alves, not attacking in the right way, that fullbacks are so essential to the way the team plays, thinking about a halcyon period when Pique was fast, Busquets could run and Abidal held it all down. People wanted to see Semedo’s pass maps after the match to see if they were as bad as they suspected. Meanwhile, he saved two goals with key interventions in the box. He was also much better in the second half, after the inclusion of Dembele because suddenly, a threat on the ball with pace means that opponents have to put a lot less into their counters, lest they get smoked. A quicker player also gives a fullback a place to put the ball, particularly a quick one such as Semedo.
When team speed is down, as Inter and many other opponents have shown, a host of other problems arise, all exploitable by a halfway decent coach. Inter was all over Barça, and only Ter Stegen and Semedo kept the match from being out of reach by the half.
Barça didn’t have a first-half answer because their play was a possession-based ooze. Inter would run to defend, then realize they could trot, then realized they could just walk. So they did. Messi ran at them, they converged. A series of passes dragged lugubriously toward the Inter box, and the defenders almost seemed to say, “How should we deal with this. There’s plenty of time.” It was grim to watch. People blamed Valverde. It was only partly his fault, even though he is the scapegoat of the moment. There are so many problems, too many to solve. If you didn’t notice how much faster Barça played, how much more secure in possession the team was after Vidal entered for Busquets, it’s because you didn’t want to. If you consider a double pivot a defensive thing only, and didn’t enjoy Arthur and De Jong doing what they do, it’s going to be a long season for you.
And speaking of blasphemy, here’s the weirdest thing about the match yesterday: Valverde.
We sighed as Arturo Vidal warmed up for Busquets. Why replace a rapier with a sledgehammer? What the hell was Valverde thinking? Well, the same thing Phil Jackson would think when he subbed on Dennis Rodman. Both he and Vidal are players who essentially have a single task, and they do it well. In doing it well, they also liberate other players to be more effective at the things that they do well. Rodman got the ball and gave it back to Michael Jordan. Vidal chases everything. Everything. He’s annoying, omnipresent and about as close to a “classic” Barça midfielder as he is to an astronaut. But Valverde saw that his skill set was needed, and it worked.
We screamed that Suarez was crap, that he was where everything good goes to die. He fought, flopped, pushed, shoved, argued, pleaded for calls, fumbled balls, did everything to make the Shithousery Hall of Fame in a single half of football. What the hell was Valverde doing even starting him, much less leaving him on. He took Griezmann off instead of Suarez? Fool.
And then came the simple pass across the box from Vidal, and Suarez unloaded with a perfect volley. Suddenly the match was tied, and Barça was taking advantage of the presence of Vidal and Dembele, the other Valverde sub, to keep Inter bottled up in their end. And then Messi decided that he was going to be unplayable, and flipped a pass to Suarez who unleashed a flawless first touch as perfect as any you’re going to see, then slid the finish past the hapless Inter keeper. 2-1 and just like that, the makeup of two great players doing great things managed to hide a lot of flaws.
How interested you are in accepting them is a personal choice. But this team, presently configured, doesn’t have what it takes. It got played off its home pitch in the first half, and needed two perfect moments to defeat an opponent. Yes, Inter was rampant, sweeping all before it until Suarez and Messi.
Barça, for it to play the way people want (whether it should or not is another question) needs:
— A trio of forwards who can press, a la Henry, Eto’o and Messi
— A CB who can bring the ball up, bypassing the first layer of opponent pressure
— Forwards making sharp, constant, incisive runs
— A CM who is picking out those runs instead of battling an opponent press
— One fullback who plays offensive football, while the other defends
— Another CB who can press up, sweeping instead of defending
— A press that enables the back line to just mop up loose balls and feed the mids
How many of the above does the current team have? What, then, of the way that we think it should play. Yes, Valverde too often gets his XI wrong, is too often reactive instead of proactive. But his team also has to play that way, because it no longer has the structure to play proactive. Pique is too slow, Lenglet not skilled enough to play up the pitch. If Alba is up, Semedo needs to be back, and his passing maps don’t matter. Forwards have to make the runs off the ball, rather than running with the ball. So much has to happen.
What we have instead is a clunky mess of a squad, with key players in their dotage and a manager too afraid to make the bold decisions that might pay off. Suarez got it done. What if a better XI meant that Suarez didn’t need to get it done, that another player would have gotten it done? Questions abound, but what we have at the end of it all is an illusion. Barça beat Inter, therefore …
Makeup convinces us of a lot of things, a grease-painted Rigoletto in his pomp until the makeup washes away to reveal an old tenor, using vibrato like Vocal Helper, a shadow of the great singer he was, propped up by an opera company too invested in his presence to move on. But illusion works because we want to believe.