Villarreal 1, Barça 4, aka “A lovely, meaningless circus”

Football is back, blablabla … nah.

In the wake of the 1-4 win over Villarreal yesterday, everyone, including me, asked where this football was since the resumption. Barça played a lovely match away from home, something that has been rare, the ball moved with alacrity, everyone talked about how well the team played, how we didn’t want the match to end. Few talked about a naive opponent that made all of that possible. Hay, Liga? Far from it. Villarreal was a mess and Barça took full advantage.

Look at the structure, pressure and intensity Celta played with, how the team committed to allowing nothing at all. Shutting down, backing up teammates, this was a group that was playing for a result, and got it. Sevilla decided to sacrifice full points for a structure that again, allowed nothing while showing how easy Barça is to control. Just let them take their touches, stroke the ball around, take the zeroes and go home. We don’t have to say anything about how Atleti played. They were Atleti. Compare that with the way Villarreal just let Barça pass the ball around, always finding unfettered space in which to play. It was a naive performance by a team that willing put its neck on the chopping block. We can appreciate the spectacle, but to read anything more into it is hasty.

The goal they conceded illustrates where Barça still is. When Chukwueze gets the ball Barça has its usual high line. Alcacer is in front of Pique, Lenglet is free and Alba, as is his wont, decides to let the player make the pass. Chukwueze does. Alcacer takes, controls and everybody is chasing, the play already broken. Lenglet is running around trying to put out fires as teammates trot, rather than sprint back to assist. When Ter Stegen makes the save, all someone has to do is pay attention to the loose man in the box, and mark him. Vidal should have done that. He trotted, stopped seemed unaware of the presence of the Villarreal attacker until after he stroked the ball into the net. Nobody closed down or did anything except run around like it was a fire drill with all the exits closed.

Football isn’t back. Far from it.

Being old enough to remember the howls of displeasure every time Paulinho got anywhere near the pitch create a striking contrast by how many seem to have accepted the chaotic, technically and tactically flawed presence in the XI of Arturo Vidal. Football isn’t back because this team is too many disparate parts, running around, seeming to make it all up on the fly. A trained team works in systems, understands what it has to do and does it. Working in training makes the game easy, in a way that a conductor works the orchestra before the big night, so that the performance is just fine tuning. The group is on autopilot. This Barça has precious few of those automations, as seen in a couple of examples:

— Vidal with an opportunity for a sure goal via simple square ball, controlled, caressed and blasted it directly at Asenjo.
— Suarez, with an opportunity for a sure goal via simple square ball, kept running to try some oblique angled shot that failed.

Does this sound like “football is back?” Not to me. What made the Guardiola teams so extravagant, so exceptional was that not only was the football elegant and all-conquering. It was simple and logical. 2+2=4, this sequence of passes leads to a goal. Passes were made when they should have been made, or the player heard about it. Imagine Vidal or Suarez making those moves under Guardiola, and the volume of his screaming from the sideline. Football works because open men get the ball when they need to.

After the match, Gary Bailey, amid all the effusion, quite correctly lit into Setien for the various structural, tactical and managerial flaws he has evinced this season. Sid Lowe had another point worth making:

Barça is a mess of a team playing out the string, surrounded by institutional chaos, with management as undisciplined and too often reckless as the team is. And Bartomeu, post match, decided to smear the atmosphere with some populist palaver, snuffling about VAR and calls, sounding like a supporter Tweeting from the basement at Mom’s. In all of the screaming about VAR, about various penalties and calls not given, about Real Madrid getting the same favorable calls they always get only this time there’s something at stake, Barça has taken the gun, pointed it at its own foot time and again and pulled the trigger. Sure, VAR should have had a look at that Rafinha leg drag/semi dive. But the question still stands about Pique’s tactical awareness. With one Celta player offside, everything else in front of him and help steaming in from the flanks, why dive in there?

You make your own bed. If that call is overturned, people scream, then Barça is much closer to Real Madrid, who would be just a slip up away from gifting Barça something that it doesn’t deserve. VAR didn’t cost Barça the league. Barça cost Barça the league. This team isn’t good enough to win any silver. Champions League is still in play, but who honestly thinks, the way this team is playing, that they have anything like a shot in that tournament, even in the single-elimination structure. Everything is a mess, and being allowed a lovely, goal-strewn kickabout by yellow-clad enablers changes nothing.

Time after time this team has squandered opportunity after opportunity. What if a lot of the joy that we witnessed at Villarreal was the swan song of a team with nothing to play for in league, strutting about with no pressure, like the tennis player who hits a between-the-legs winner when down 2-5, 40-Love in the deciding set of a match. The crowd cheers, but it’s meaningless.

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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.