You longtime fans of American basketball will probably remember a Detroit Pistons player named Bill Laimbeer. As a Chicago Bulls supporter, I HATED Laimbeer. Everyone whose team played the Pistons hated Laimbeer. Why? He was a wind-up artist who played with a perpetual sneer on his face. He fouled, talked crap, fouled some more. He pushed, pulled, did everything he could within, and often outside the bounds of the game. And his teams won, often because he wrecked the mentality of the opponents, who got so busy being outraged that they forgot the reason they were there.
But, Laimbeer also understood exactly the kind of game that he had to play to survive in a league filled with players who were more talented, faster and could jump higher. Laimbeer makes me think of the Getafe player Allan Nyom, of whom a lot, entirely too much, is being made. Nyom gets after it. Every match. He’s part of a coterie of players who make opponents think, “Oh, crap … HIM!” when their team comes to town. Pepe was one, Casemiro is another. So is Raul Garcia. In the case of each and every one of them, it isn’t that they are bad footballers, which people forget. Nyom wouldn’t be a starter for Getafe if he couldn’t ball. But what these players also understand is that in a game where so much of its mental, getting any advantage that you can is essential, and can elevate you from squad player to starter.
Ansu Fati deservedly got a lot of props for getting up and getting on with it after Nyom fouled him, then stood over him and talked crap. And it’s worth noting that Nyom didn’t get wrecked by Fati, and that wasn’t because of any crap talking. Nyom is good at his job. But most crucially, we don’t have to like how a player does his job, but we should respect how he does it and how he maximizes his abilities. It’s the extra sauce. Nyom is Nyom. He isn’t going to stop being Nyom because people are flooding his Insta page with comments, or snarking about him in the media. He’s playing the game the best way that he knows how. And as with Laimbeer, his team won.
Perspective is important, and it finally took Koeman to bring it about the return of Dembele to the XI against Getafe. He said, in essence, Dembele lost a lot of balls, but that’s how he plays. He tries to make stuff happen. He got better in the second half. The end.
That manager’s view matters because people seemed to be expecting Dembele to NOT be a player who played his first competitive minutes in two season, to play like he hasn’t had a litanry of injuries and is tentative, to play like a player who, training displays aside, will need to get up to match speed. Koeman, as a former player and manager with perspective, understood all that. He almost certainly knew, in putting Dembele into that crucible, the kind of match he was going to have because of the kind of team Getafe was. That Dembele picked himself up and kept playing, kept trying to makes stuff happen, is to be lauded.
And as with Nyom, Dembele is going to be who Dembele is. He’s never going to be the kind of player who has a 98/100 passing accuracy with 0 lost balls, etc, etc. That isn’t how he plays the game. You know who else isn’t going to be a player with those kinds of stats? Messi. Or any other player who acts as a catalyst. Catalysts are supposed to take risks, supposed to make stuff happen. That’s part of what you get when you sign those kinds of players. Koeman gets that, and we should, as well.
Yes, Dembele was as rusty as a kitchen knife unearthed at a construction site. What fool was expecting anyting else? The encouraging things about his performance was how he worked into the match, how he popped right up after taking a hard foul, how he kept playing his game. That is what Koeman will have liked, even as so many others line up to bellow, “See? Told you he doesn’t have it.” He isn’t a Masia player, and is never going to be. He’s never going to have the football IQ of a Masia-trained catalyst like Iniesta, who also had a lot of his efforts come to naught, for the record. He isn’t going to play the game like Sergi Roberto, or Pedri. But Barça wasn’t buying that. They can get that from the B team.
Dembele is, if he keeps fit, going to get better. A LOT better. But no matter how much better he gets, he is never going to be the player that people are expecting him to be. We often treat players not meeting expectations as the player’s fault, rather than the fault of our own expectations. Maybe it’s time for something different.
Speaking of expectations …
Griezmann, amirite? He was, by any reasonable measure, poor against Getafe. He’s been poor all season, and will probably continue to be poor, no matter where Koeman plays him. A lot of the reasons why are laid out in this recent post. None of this is Griezmann’s fault. He’s the player that he is, which seems to be a theme of this omnibus post.
Back when Griezmann was first elevated, coming off being Real Sociedad’s Messi, essentially, he would have been a fanastic signing for FC Barcelona, if they didn’t already have Messi and Neymar. There were rumors about Griezmann and Barça, but nothing about that signing would have made sense. Just as nothing about his signing, as a very different kind of player, makes sense now. Griezmann does what he does.
We all have people who don’t like us, for various reasons. A lot of those reasons are just because of how we are, and we aren’t going to change because someone doesn’t like how we are. Personalities are part of a person’s makeup, part of why we get along with some and not with others. Players and their abilities are the same way. You can scream at the board who made the decision, you can scream at the technical staff that watched Griezmann play and decided that he would be worth splashing 120m on. But you can’t really scream at Griezmann for being the player he is. It works for Les Bleus, worked like a charm at Atleti. But it doesn’t work at Barça for so many reasons, and it’s hard to see it working.
The weirdest post-Getafe chronicles have been pairing he and Dembele, as if they have both been fit the whole time, etc, etc. Those are every bit as wrong as the ones who somehow make it Griezmann’s fault that Barça signed him and that he is the player he is. Koeman will keep trying him, because he will want to make him work. So strap in.
Ya boys got punked
Koeman has shown his first bit of real weakness in making much of things that Nyom said to him, which is odd, and uncharacteristic. As a team takes on the mien of its manager, that’s the wrong message to send. I would have expected Koeman to give it right back to Nyom as hard as Nyom threw it. Luis Enrique would have, which is why his Barça team had the mentality that it did. It’s funny that Pedri, the smallest player on the pitch and the one people have said is the least physically equipped to handle life in the Liga trenches, played strongest against Getafe. He just ignored all the crap, and did what he did. When he got kicked, he just got up and did it again. Didn’t whine, didn’t grouse to a ref who wasn’t going to do anything this time because the template was set. So let’s just get on with it.
Getafe took Barça completely out of anything like a game, anything like a continuity that would have enabled the team to just play the football that it knows how to play. They’re to be lauded for that. You do what you do. Koeman should be madder about his players letting that happen than what a wind-up artist said to him on the sidelines. The famous Mike Tyson quote that “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face” has never been more apt than it was on Saturday. Getafe took that match from Barça, and Barça let them. That ain’t on Getafe. That Cadiz showed more heart and spine in beating Real Madrid, a team whose entire pay packet could be covered by Messi’s, with money to spare for parties and a new bus, should vex Koeman and make the pretty boys do a mirror check. And as with any bully, there will be more Getafes, more Sevillas, until someone punches back. And not any “eye for an eye” fouling, but rather by playing their football, and winning.