Barça 4, Sevilla 0, aka “Expectations met”

This edition of FC Barcelona is a confounding football team. That it won 4-0 against a Sevilla side that many assumed would give it trouble doesn’t tell the entire story, in a match that was light years closer than the scoreline indicated.

But this was also a match that meets the fundamental need that people have from Barça, which is to worry about it, and find solace in believing that the club didn’t somehow deserve a good result. It was a 4-0 win that wasn’t “convincing,” mostly because the team was a bit ropey at the start, and Luuk de Jong had as many scoring chances himself, all spurned or saved, as the entire Barça attack.

Football will always crave defining something by a negative. “They could have lost” is much more gratifying than, “They were ropey at first, found some excellent individual plays, then stabilized the match to see it out.” Because without worry, would football really be any fun? The other great things about the “almosts” is that your team’s don’t count. So excellent stretches of play don’t really contribute to the aggregate that makes this a “bad” 4-0 win.

Probably the last bad 4-0 win the team has was under Tata Martino when they won the match but lost the possession stat battle.

Ousmane Dembele might be the poster child for this erratic Barça team that at times goes on walkabout, that rarely meets the lofty standards that we have for it. Dembele had a typically Dembele match, with some great moments of skill, a lot of hard, very good work on defense, some foolish giveaways and at the end, a dimwitted yellow card that resulted in his sending off.

There is an weird reassurance when Dembele does the things that people expect of him. Him having a good match is almost unsettling, because there are things that are expected from him, so everyone just sits and waits until he delivers. The “A-ha!” is almost an exhalation of glee in a sport that defines so much by a negative.

Jean-Clair Todibo is another example, having a fine match but there was focus on the two times that he lapsed in concentration, because he is a 19-year-old CB who came on a free, so it’s necessary to value him as such. Interceptions, won balls, headers won, smart passes, bringing the ball out from the back, injecting the back line with badly needed pace doesn’t really count all that much. He had two lapses in covering his man, so he wasn’t very good.

With Barça, it’s easier to remember the de Jong chances. He even hit the post. “Against a better team, dooom,” is the reassurance that we find in a result in which Barça wasn’t as bad as many would have you believe, even as they enjoyed a lead thanks to exceptional individual play. But here’s a pro tip: Exceptional individual play is why you buy exceptional individuals. Because even when the team isn’t at its best, one of your players can do something magicsl. Look at the goals:

— Suarez chilena
— Flawless pass from Arthur for Vidal
— Dembele run and golazo
— Messi free kick golazo

Not a single goal came from the run of play, from the buildup that we all associate with Barça football, that we need to see or the team isn’t playing well, or is playing like Real Madrid in not playing well and still winning. Everyone focuses on the Anfield result against Liverpool rather than the Camp Nou result, to fit the conclusion that Barça is doomed, hopelessly fragile and just the right opponent away from being utterly destroyed.

Accepting things as they are is hard. Dembele is an amazing, and amazingly talented player. Dembele is also a mental mess at times, who will lose the ball via silly giveaways and boneheaded errors. But Dembele is never going to be That player, that Barça winger who is smart and secure in possession. He is always going to be Dembele. Whether we choose to accept that is another matter altogether, but he is what he is. Will he improve? For sure. But can you ever imagine a Dembele who doesn’t dribble into a defense because he has full confidence in his skills? Nope. What we choose to do with that reality is up to us, but Dembele is gonna Dembele. Just like Barça is going to Barça.

For a team that didn’t have a proper preseason and had key players injured for significant stretches of time to start the season, being two points off the top of the table going into the second international break is pretty amazing. Without seeing the table, few would have predicted, knowing what we know about the team, its injuries and preparation, that it would be where it is right now. It’s hard to accept. Easier to accept is saying that it doesn’t deserve to be there, that they won 4-0 but it wasn’t a good win, that the team didn’t play well, whatever that means.

Inter had some great chances. That was another bad performance that was a win. Betis was naive, Villarreal flawed. Sevilla finished poorly, Inter didn’t put Barça away when it had the opportunity. Every successful result has to be flawed. It can’t be that great individual players did what great individual players do, which is keep a match close until other great individual players can win it. That doesn’t meet the needs that we have, including a need to judge a team that is nothing like in form, because of the messy preseason and lots of injuries.

Semedo was brilliant against Sevilla, something that many admitted almost begrudgingly, because not rating him is all the rage. “He’s … playing so well. I don’t know how to deal with that.”

If Sevilla had taken all of its chances, what would have been the result? 4-4? Who knows. All that we know is what happened. It isn’t blasphemy for a team to acquire great players, and then for those players to make a difference in a match. This wasn’t the most convincing 4-0 in history, but it wasn’t as horrible as many would suggest, either. It was a team that, like one of its incredibly talented players, is trying to find a way to accomplish what it wants to, almost needs to, while working through the issues that hamstring it.

Yes, Sevilla could have scored every shot on target that they took. Yes, Dembele could have been flawless in possession. But that isn’t Sevilla’s personality, nor is it Dembele’s. When Dembele gets the ball, we watch and have no idea if it’s going to be a turnover or a golazo. When Barça takes the pitch, we don’t know what will happen. Could be truth and beauty, could be a disjointed crapshow.

My needs start with my team winning. I can then sit down at a keyboard and parse what I saw. There are good wins and bad wins. It’s a struggle. This was a fun match, open with lots of chances and an opponent that didn’t pack it back and wait for Barça to pass itself out, and the goals were all amazing. But even this match was a mixed bag, because the referee, Mateu Lahoz, needed the spotlight, sending off two Barça player, one for a straight red, the other on a second yellow.

But even this was a blessing, as it means that we can worry about Eibar, the first match after the international break, and who will play CB, who will do this, who will do that, if Eibar come to play they can hit eleventyteen goals past Barça. But that probably won’t happen. What will probably happen is another match that will drive us crazy with worry, before, during and after.

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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.