What watching the decline of a great football team has forced us to do is redefine expectations and assessments of a good performance.
Back in the day, an excellent Gerard Pique performance was when he was in Piqenbauer mode, striding up the pitch, ball at his feet, making open pitch tackles and pre-emptive interventions that fed the ball back to the midfield maelstrom
Today’s Pique has an excellent performance via last-ditch, reactive moments. Today’s Pique has more yellow cards in a season than he used to get in two seasons. That the Pique performance against Real Sociedad was so laudatory for all the wrong reasons is one of the more noteworthy things about the match, one in which a well-managed team got the best of a poorly managed one for most of the 90 minutes. It also exposed football theory and reality in a fascinating way.
La Real played like so many Barça supporters would like their team to. The press was high and unrelenting, forcing balls loose that pressed right back into the attack. A dazzling midfield talent ran the show, running, dishing and distributing. The team was outdone by two moments of counterattacking brilliance, which was the pity, football purists might note, which also realizing that’s what we used to say about Barça.
The XI that Valverde rolled out with was Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Lenglet, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, De Jong, Messi, Griezmann, Suarez. What immediately stands out is that there is only one set of young legs out there in a team festooned with youthful, capering talent. Two players, Carles Alenya and Jean-Clair Todibo, just impressed midweek against Inter Milan. One was discarded, not even making the match squad, the other a late substitute who showed why, for anyone interested in looking, why he should have been a starter.
Both have unique skill sets well-suited to mask some of the dysfunction of FC Geezer, complexities laid bare every time La Real got the ball and strolled through a midfield that defensively, seemed more like training tackling dummies than real opponents as they offered a cursory resistance to the runs of Martin Odegaard, as wide-open wings made picking a perfect cross as easy as a training exercise.
People point to the road, and the lack of intensity present in this year’s team, but road woes are more than that. They face a team buttressed by its home pitch and home supporters. It used to be that the system, the quality of the team silenced crowds early and often. Now, the Gold Watch Brigade has to stab and lunge. So much of how the team plays is precarious and last-ditch. Someone sticks a leg out to stop a goal, or a 1-2 in traffic has to happen because the team can’t develop play in attack through passing and movement. Everything is high risk, from players whose best days are behind them.
Pique was exceptional, for a 32-year-old centerback who has lost a couple of steps and has to play the game like a smart veteran. He and Lenglet work for Valverde’s gala XI because Barça CBs who play the game as we used to be able to expect would be exposed by a nonexistent press, slow mids who can’t defend, forwards who are spectators and fullbacks who are more like wingers. Reactive, stay-at-home centerbacks are the only way that works, defense by the lunge and stab.
The problem with precarious play is that it doesn’t take much to change proceedings.
La Real’s first goal came from a penalty, as Busquets was judged to have pulled an attacker’s shirt. In the debate about the penalty, what was missed was how easily Suarez lost the ball and didn’t much care. Nobody else did either as La Real rolled up the pitch in acres of space, damage done by a winger who had all the time in the world to pick a cross to his unpressured teammate in the box. That the penalty was debatable wasn’t the point, but rather the ease in which the situation that resulted in the penalty developed.
Same with the second La Real goal, an easy attack that again found damage coming from the wing. A last-ditch effort at intervention by Rakitic deflected the ball in a way that caught out his keeper, who had the cross/shot lined up. But in a precarious system, noobdy believes that anyone functions as they are supposed to. So rather than having time to assess the situation, the only thing Rakitic could do was stab at the ball. The deflection was parried away by Ter Stegen, but fell right to Isak, standing unmarked, unharried in the box. He stroked home to equalize. Compare this to the other end, where a well-drilled team had a defender in place to clear a certain goal off the line, and prevent 1-2 from becoming 1-3.
Barça has become a counterattacking team that defends reactively, and uses possession to keep the other team from threatening, rather than because there are any ideas on the ball. As modern football moves outside in, at Barça Alba gets the ball, but because he can’t do anything off the dribble, his only option is to make the overlap and throw in a blind cross. On the right, the player who can make runs, dribbles and dynamic moves in the box is an error away from being sat for Sergi Roberto, an Albaesque presence on the right. Run. Overlap. Cross.
The problem with precarious dysfunction is that it drags everyone down. De Jong was poor, but how could he be anything but in that midfield setup? Messi was poor, in part because he was off but in part because La Real diagrammed how to disrupt the sole option that Barça has near the box, the 1-2 between Suarez and Messi. That the team seemed like Pique and the Rest was a consequence of poor decisions and use of personnel.
Valverde has the players to solve all of the problems his team faces. He has a dynamic, ball-controlling midfielder who can carry the ball. He has fast fullbacks who are also good on the ball, and can create danger from the wings. He has a forward with quick legs, feet and the energy to press. He has a centerback who is quick and fast, with great closing speed and can carry the ball. All of these players can press. He has everything required to play modern football, Barça football. But his preferred XI is a few bad plays, a last-ditch stab just missed, away from a beatdown. La Real exposed this quality, a team missing key players but still having youth and a system.
The oddest thing is that both teams were lucky to escape with a draw. La Real played beautifully, outdone on the counter. They will rue the attacks that went awry at the end via speculative shots and final balls that were just off target, particularly from Odegaard.
But Barça will also feel like it should have won, that a more blatant penalty shout on Pique in the box as he moved into position for a header should have been called. Football is a funny old game that way, leaving us to watch two teams knock heads for 90 minutes and take what we can from the result. This result, like too many others, sits at the end of a fraught match that leaves us on the edges of our seats not because of any magic that might happen. Rather because as the veteran wire walker performs his daredevil stunt on a windy day, the odds of bad things happening vastly outstrip the potential for good ones. When they don’t it just feels like a delay of the inevitable.