So, rather than Man of the Match, we have Cuddly Toy of the Match, Bojan Krkic. 😀
Just kidding. Our CT is a full-on MOTM, as much for his overall excellence of play as the in-your-face spitting at his critics. Could this be the match that marked his full-on maturation as a Barca attacking force? It remains to be seen, as Athletic Bilbao seems to make The Kid’s nature rise. But I can pay him one of the highest compliments I can pay these days, which is that I thought he was Messi on many a play, such was his alacrity of movement, sense for where the ball was and energy.
But this was an expensive victory, folks.
We have lost Ibrahimovic for the next two matches with a calf tear that was suffered in warmups, and Pique for the next match, with a thigh strain. Of course, Pique wasn’t playing against Arsenal anyhow, but Ibrahimovic sure as hell was. Buzz is that he’s a doubt for El Clasic as well, so let’s hope that he heals quickly. We also lost Jeffren, with an injury of interminate status. Stay tuned for that one.
But we’re grimacing from behind big, giant grins as we kicked the crap out of Bilbao with a team victory that showed one really, really cool thing: As a unit, we are playing spectacular football right now, finding our collective way at the exact right time. Even as individual players are up and down, our excellence is a triumph of the system, one that allows Guardiola the programming luxury to roll out with interesting lineups that will work.
Today was no exception, as we started with Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Txigrinski, Abidal, The Yaya, Busquets, Maxwell, Messi, Jeffren and Krkic.
Man, was there doubt. People looked at that lineup and uttered a collective “What the hell?” Credit Guardiola for knowing his side, and having the advantage of being able to see in practice what none of us can, which is that we are on a roll right now. So The Yaya can function as the World’s Biggest Attacking Mid, Maxwell can roll out as a Brazilian variant of Keita, Messi can play midfield and Krkic can raise hell as a second striker, though I wonder how you can have a second striker, when you don’t really have a first one?
But those kinds of questions are always answered the right way when your club is rocking and rolling like ours is. As a manager, Guardiola rarely makes incorrect decisions, thus spawning the phrase “In Pep We Trust.” And we saw this right away, as during one early attack, we rolled into the box like a jailbreak, with Messi, The Yaya, Jeffren, Krkic and Maxwell all in the box, waiting to make something happen. This is different than usual, as someone commented during the LiveBlog, when there’s usually one or two people in the box. More people mean more options, more options mean more chances that something good would happen.
Midfield was on full attack, as having a defender out there (Maxwell) brought a level of stability to our offensive defense, and a verging-on-spectacular Puyol in the Dani Alves slot helped immesurably. But this match was all about fluency, and, frankly, showing off. But not showing off in an obnoxious way as much as showing off a system in which everybody can handle the ball, and everybody is comfortable with the ball at their feet, from the keeper, who suckered in some Bilbao attackers before dishing off a lovely, attack-starting pass, to Messi, who was making so many correct decisions in his striker/mid role.
In many ways it was a continuation of the Arsenal beginning, and a very heartening sign because the cast of characters changed quite a bit, but the result was the same: Domination. Yes, Bilbao were trying. Hard. But if you don’t have the ball, as the ultimate 65/35 possession stats crow, you can’t play. Yes, they had some danger moments, usually thanks to lax play on our parts, and they even scored a goal that came from a bad Puyol giveaway and the defense being caught up the pitch. But we got the swagger right back, and kept things well under control for the duration.
Another great sign for the club was the return, in full Monster mode, of Abidal, our French Greyhound. With two assists, innumerable stops and yes, an Abidal Moment that resulted in a very good chance on goal for Bilbao, it was one of his more typical matches. He eats up space in a way that makes the entire back line better, and partnered exceptionally well with Maxwell, who might have found his most effective role not as a left back, but as a midfielder as he hardly put a foot wrong.
There just isn’t a whole lot to say about this one, except that we kicked the crap out of ’em because of our movement, passing and top-to-bottom effort in a match that looked like last season’s all conquering side. So let’s have a gander at the goals, one by one.
1. This was my favorite, because it was a team goal, as a Maxwell pass pinged off Busquets and was picked up by Messi. Because of an earlier play in which he tried to take on the entire Bilbao defense, you could see them all playing him for the attacking run. But as Messi paused at the top of the box, Abidal darted into space in a perfectly timed break. Messi released the pass at the exact right moment, and Abidal popped an inch-perfect, one-touch pass that Jeffren slotted home. This goal was all touch and intricate movement of the kind that is impossible to defend. Abidal’s cross was just out of the reach of the Bilbao keeper, but within easy reach of Jeffren.
What this goal also showed is that when Messi makes the right decisions with the ball, it makes us a much, much more dangerous side. In his more midfield-based role, he saw a lot of ball, which in many ways helps quench his desire to play with it so much, which facilitates him making the right decisions, as he did time and again.
2. This was an example of Puyol’s excellence, as he anticipated and pounced on a weak Bilbao pass in the midfield, and made the exact right decision. I’ve often said that greatness is the right thing at the right time. Talent facilitates that, so when Puyol picked up the pass and charged forward, Krkic already knew what was going to happen, and broke for goal. Puyol found him with a flawless ball that Krkic smoked past the keeper on the near side.
This goal demonstrates the value of our high line, and how quickly we can move from defense to attack, because we’re only playing on half the pitch thanks to a compressing style. And Krkic gets his shot off so quickly that if he gets the right amount of space, it’s pretty much indefensible. He probably gets his shot off as fast, if not faster than Messi, usually with blistering pace.
3. This was a goal built from midfield attack and aggression, as a ball was worked loose for Xavi, who slid a pass to Messi. What excited me about this goal is that we all know there are times when Messi would have taken the ball and began a run toward goal, and 4-5 defenders. And sides are now playing him for that, so when he curled a little pass to Abidal, Bilbao were pretty much screwed, because Messi’s run also created space for Krkic. When Abidal found him, Krkic spanked another rocket of a shot into the upper corner for the 3-0 lead, and a brace that was justly earned. It was also the second assist for Abidal, who is working hard to make people forget those days when he was being slagged for not attacking enough from his left back position.
4. Another instant defense to offense goal as high pressure again broke the ball loose to Xavi, who played a perfect ball into space for Pedro, who played an equally perfect pass in for Messi. Now. With the entire net to shoot at, Messi decides that audacity is the best way, so he goes between the legs of the keeper, who was trying to make himself as big as possible, probably never suspecting that Messi would try such a thing. Craziness, and a 4-0 lead.
The goal that Bilbao scored was of the type that we will concede, unavoidably, that counterattacking classic that we also ceded to Arsenal. Loose possession+high line=a goal against. That’s life in the big city, and we really never looked that much like conceding another, except for an Abidal brain cramp in the box, that was parried by Valdes. So let’s get to some points, shall we?
Team: 9. A lapse or two, but pretty close to a perfect aggregate match. Most amazing was that no matter what player came in, things continued as they always did. This is a sign that the machine is firing on all cylinders, and it’s probably a worrying sign to Wenger. Lest we forget, Bilbao is 6th place in the Liga, and we beat them like they were relegation-bound.
Guardiola: 10. The right lineup, the right substitutions and a season-long system that might be culminating in us playing our best football at the exact right time, in the face of the two most important matches of the season. Confidence is at an all-time high.
Valdes: 8. Excellent match, though I’m going to suggest that had you charged the attacker, we might have kept the clean sheet. You’re usually more aggressive than that when confronted with one-v-one situations. But that’s a minor quibble as you had everything else well and truly covered.
Puyol: 8. You were headed for a 10, until that loose touch that gifted Bilbao a goal-scoring attack. Still, what a remarkable match, from your defensive aggression to the skill with the ball, as you constantly schooled Bilbao attackers on that side, with spins, flicks and an audacious sombrero. Glad you’ll be in the house for the Clasic, because we’re going to need you, probably partnering Milito.
Pique: 8. Piquenbauer in full effect today, as your attack-staring prowess was on full display. This was also as good as I have seen you work with the new dude, Txigrinski.
Txigrinski: 8. Don’t let the cules get you down. They’re always hard on new players, but you had a far, far better match than many will give you credit for. You showed surprising pace, alacrity in shutting down space, and made a few plays that showed such agility, you might have been mistaken for Busquets. And a great goal-saving stretch to put Llorente off a sure thing.
Abidal: 9. So last season when you came back from two months off, you were never the same. Nice to see this season is so different, as you owned a universe that stretched from midfield to the left sideline. From defense to offense, passing to calmness with the ball, what a match, and what a cross for that first goal.
Busquets: 6. Good match, and you are the most eloquent spokesperson for why you shouldn’t be allowed too much possession. When you keep it simple, you’re one of the most effective players on the pitch. But when you dick around with the ball, bad things often happen. Yes, you have good foot skills, but they aren’t as good as you think. Oh, and don’t fall down, grabbing your head, when you lose the ball. Man up and chase the play.
The Yaya: 8. Felt good to have the Camp chanting your name, I rather imagine. You did everything except bleed for the colors today. Yes, you threw about some wayward passes, but the gyroscope was repaired at halftime. Your committment and constant willingness to do whatever was necessary were an example to all. But have a care and keep your head. It was only a very good ref who kept you on our side for El Clasic, instead of gifting you with a straight red for the head butt.
Maxwell: 9. This, for me, was your best match in the colors, even bettering your one stint at right back. In midfield, where spaces are tighter, your lack of pace isn’t as great a deficiency, particularly when you have that Brazilian flair with the ball. Unfortunately, we’re used to passing to faster players, so forgive the balls that are always just out of your reach. Like Keita, who usually plays your spot, you had to really watch sometimes to see the magic that you were working.
Jeffren: 6. Too bad about your injury, but a very nicely taken goal should make you feel better as you recuperate from a very good effort that was full of pace and industry. As one of our more defense-minded attackers, your constant harassing of Bilbao midfielders contributed to our incessant aggression. You’re calmer with the ball than your canterano counterpart, Pedro!, and I hope that you don’t go anywhere in the summer. Just sayin’.
Messi: 7. Excellent work in a role that you should have been occupying once Ibrahimovic left the Emirates pitch. You work so well with Xavi (or pretty much anyone else) in the midfield, and your decision-making with the ball has been exceptional. As long as teams have the fear that you are going to make a run, you will always have passing space, as you so beautifully demonstrated today. Keep on keepin’ on, and we will have more silver this season.
Krkic: 9. Yes, you were a little loose with possession at times, but this has been your best overall match in the colors, since you became a full-fledged member of the senior squad. It was all confidence, movement and aggression, coupled with that telepathy that had you always around the ball. Nice brace. If you don’t see time during the Arsenal match, it will be a grave selection error on the part of Guardiola. You read it here third.
Xavi (for Busquets): 8. It was like you were never not in the starting XI, such was the effect of your presence on the side. You made the exact right pass in both our second half goals, and I’m sure you’re looking forward to a season or so with your new partner in Tika-Taka, Jonathan Dos Santos.
Pedro! (for Jeffren): 6. I’m glad you got some time, and you pretty much made the most of it, with an excellent assist to Messi. I do want you to slow your speed of play. You have the talent to play within yourself more, which will place you where the ball is, rather than just past it.
Dos Santos (for The Yaya): 7. Baby, please don’t go. You have a bright, bright future with this club. Your defense and midfield harassing are already exceptional, and that brilliant sequence of tika-taka that you were involved in was a stunner. I’m surprised and pleased that Bilbao didn’t just foul the crap out of you for the cheek. Very nice work.
And there we have it, a trouncing that puts pressure on the EE in the face of Racing, who will probably roll over like dogs and give them three points again. And that’s as it should be, since El Clasic should have it all to play for, by the two best clubs in the Liga. As with today’s Chelsea/United match, it will be a league-deciding (potentially) matchup. Guardiola is right in that it won’t decide the league, but the winner of that match will have an enormous boot up on things. But first, we have an Arsenal side to worry about. We are hampered, with no Puyol, Pique or Ibrahimovic, but so are they, without Gallas, Arshavin, Fabregas or (maybe) Van Persie. Still, it should be a good one.