The challenging thing about home matches right before a big Champions League knockout tie a few days after is motivation and focus. Barça didn’t have it, even as a few key players, most notably Messi, did. And that was enough.
Football is a crazy old game. Barça was below par, but got it done. Real Madrid played a delight of a match, winning in every statistic except the one that mattered, thanks to a bombazo of a golazo from Jose Morales that finds Barça atop the table by two points. If you had to script an ideal day of football, it’s hard to think of much wrong with this one. Messi busted out of his “drought,” and Real Madrid lost. And individual brilliance decided both matches.
The Eibar visit, as far as planks in the Setien revolution goes, is one to put in the throwaway pile, but it was always going to be that. Passing was sloppy, play was loose, had Eibar been a better team, they would have nicked a few goals of honor out of this match, but were never going to get a result for the simple reason that they aren’t good enough. And Barça has Messi.
When people talk about the imbalance in La Liga, it has no purer demonstration than this match. Eibar played its heart out, running, working, fouling, running off the counter, doing everything possible and they were down 3-0 by the half thanks to Lionel Messi. He scored two improbable (for mere mortals) goals that looked so easy, too easy. Both goals were spectacular, and for any player other than Messi, they are career highlights. For Messi and his standard? Mostly forgotten by halftime.
On a day when overall team play lacked to a degree that would be worrying had the team not been showing consistent signs of improvement under Setien, individual quality was enough to turn the tide. Football is a team game, but every now and again a team needs a player to say, “I got this.” It was Messi. Again. And arguably, his focus was there because even as he has been decisive in the last three matches by providing assists, you could see the scoring urge making him press, take chances, hold dribbles a fraction longer than he should, than he would were things normal.
The biggest problem with the perception of Messi is that he is a goalscorer. He isn’t. He is a great all-around player who can also score bags of goals. That Messi went three whole matches (shudder!) without scoring is, rather than any concern, still superhuman. Think about how many ordinary players would kill to have scoring stats like Messi’s, yet go a few matches without goals. They would shrug and say, “Look at my damn nunbers, fool!” Our expectations for Messi are outsized. Every touch should be magic, every pass perfect, every free kick danger, every shot at goal a clinic. But that just isn’t how it works, even as Messi himself was getting uncomfortable with his continued “drought.” But with four goals, it’s safe to say the drought, even in the most liberal sense of the word, is over.
Messi didn’t have a great overall match. His stats were poor overall, but he was decisive. He needed to be, because the rest of the team was distracted, clearly with Napoli on the brain. And to be fair, imagine going into a Champions League knockout tie with the last two seasons hanging over your head. It’s a wonder they could even get focused enough to move against Eibar. The only things to really look for in this match were trends, and there were a few interesting ones.
Oh, man, those fullbacks
Nelson Semedo and Junior Firpo started, and both were merely okay. They each bring their own problems to the position, but the one thing they have in common is a poor first touch, one that Eibar players quickly figured out and would pounce as soon as the pass arrived, with more than a little success. The biggest problem with a poor first touch is that it compresses time. When you control the ball right away, passing angles are abundant, pressure scarce. With a slack touch, you already have pressure facing you as you struggle to control the ball, compounded by needing to get rid of it before you lose it. Semedo’s body shape when receiving a pass is still poor, and Firpo is entirely too casual on the ball and lacks confidence. Modern football builds from the wings in, usually at the feet of the fullbacks. It’s going to be difficult for Barça to do much this season, absent an immense infusion of confidence in the fullbacks, or some sudden injection of form.
De Jong at DM
De Jong subbed on for Busquets, and looked immediately at home. Passing stabilized, the attack stabilized, control stabilized. The problem with that is that there is a legend already in the position in Busquets. This forces De Jong to learn other midfield positions on the fly, which is a useful skill for the continuation of his career. But given that Busquets is better with rest and De Jong is exceptional at DM for a club stuffed with midfield talent, is a rotation one effective solution? It gets the incumbent quality rest, while also grooming the replacement. The way Barça plays isn’t going to be ideal for De Jong, except when he’s playing DM. Setien will have some stuff to work out.
About this Braithwaite person …
When Barça was granted the dispensation to make an emergency signing after Dembele was ruled out for the season, the club moved to deposit the 18m clause for Martin Braithwaite, and there were lots of opinions, few of them good. It screwed Leganes. And it did. But the rule exists, and if LFP decides to fix it, good on them. But as it stands, Barça could make the move, and did. There was talk of a paltry goal output, etc, but a few things are worth noting: 18m isn’t all that much money in the modern transfer market. Also is it possible a good player just never got a shot at a good team? Braithwaite came in for about the last 18 minutes, and was instrumental in two goals. One came via quickness and skill, leading to an assist for Messi. The other, more interesting aftershock came as he took a pass and moved with pace, strength and alacrity into the attack, able to get a good, hard shot off, even being held by the defender. Arthur tapped home for the rebound. The clearest need for Barça was pace on the wing and in the center, a player who could shift a defense. Barça hasn’t had a 9 that exploded into action like that since Eto’o. Let’s be clear, here, that this was one match, and about 18 minutes against an already demoralized opponent. There is more to this story. But if Braithwaite continues to demonstrate the attributes he showed during his cameo, that will be an 18m well spent. P.S. Unless it helps Espanyol stay up, then damn them for the move.
Handkerchiefs and other symbols
Wave ’em if you got ’em, and a lot of people had them, the handkerchiefs, accompanied by whistles to signify dissatisfaction in the current regime. But some things to note are that there weren’t all THAT many, compared to how many people were in the stadium. But Eibar isn’t going to draw out the socis, making it unfortunate that the next Liga match against Real Madrid isn’t at home. As the fallout from SocialMediaGate continues to roil, hopes that Bartomeu is going to step down change by the day. Messi giving an interview to Mundo Deportivo, and an exclusive one at that, is interesting. Why accede to a request from the club mouthpiece? Was he asked? Did they ask? Either way, for Messi to give a wide-ranging talk that includes him saying the team wasn’t good enough but he wasn’t going anywhere, and the social media thing was “strange,” sent a clear message. Messi only talks when he has something to say. But thankfully for the people who love this team, as eloquent as he was in MD, he was even more eloquent against Eibar. And as talking goes, four goals are really LOUD.