Barça put five past Betis, Messi scored twice, Dembele looked like the player everyone has been waiting for and all is right in the world just before the team scurries off for the international break. Happy times.
Let’s start with the crap news. The tackle that earned the penalty that Griezmann wasted also injured Ansu Fati. who suffered a meniscus injury. The treatment path will be discussed on Monday, but surgery is on the table. The challenge was just one of those football things, nothing malicious about it. Just a hard break for an amazing talent. He’s 18. Kids heal. The question will be how long he’s out, for a team that had begun to develop something akin to Fatidependencia. No estimate on how long he will be lost, but just a rough blow for a young talent who had the world on a string. We should all wish him well.
More bad. Griezmann is playing like a player without confidence, and it’s a worrying thing. The penalty that resulted from the Fati challenge was weak, tentative and easily parried by Claudio Bravo, who is also quite good at dealing with penalties. Compare the quality of that penalty to the one that Messi took later, a blast into the roof of the net. Griezmann missed a trio of other excellent chances, and just looks like a player lacking that last sliver of self belief. He works hard, and if 99 percent of scoring goals is getting into excellent positions, it’s impossible to fault him for that. Finishing is a confidence thing, and once it’s damaged that makes it hard.
The larger worry about Griezmann is now that Fati is out, his presence becomes even more crucial. He’s going to need to get his mojo back — even if he has never really had it at Barcelona.
Even more bad. The Barça defense, in particular the right side of the defense. When Nelson Semedo was the team’s right back, he was spit roasted for not attacking properly. He had pace, defended well (and stop with the Davies run in the Bayern match. You know better than that.), but didn’t attack, so he was crap. When he was sold in a nice piece of business for the club, that meant Koeman had a 19-year-old kid who wasn’t starting for his Eredivisie team, and Sergi Roberto. Against Betis, he played Sergi Roberto, and it’s no coincidence that every serious attack came down that side.
Something easy to notice about Ter Stegen and goals being knocked past him are the quality of the chances. When he first arrived and for a while, he was able to save shots because they were usually not gimmes. He got a hand, a leg, a foot to them. The to Betis goals today, like so many others being conceded by the defense, leave a keeper helpless. And that isn’t on Ter Stegen. Like it or not, Sergi Roberto has lost a step. Never the fleetest of foot to begin with, now he’s a real liability on that side for any counter with pace. And there’s acres of space once you get past him, because Pique has, again like it or not, become a reactive CB like his back line mate, Lenglet. Waiting to die means that … well … you die.
Nobody can make the right decision because they’re scrambling. On that first goal, Pique tried some weird back heel clearance because that was the only option. Lenglet just stood and watched, because he, like the rest of them, was out of position, a condition forced by and utter lack of pace and physicality. The midfield is a cow’s pasture because Busquets and De Jong are too slow to chase anything. So unless a forward does a lung buster to get back (Griezmann often does), the defense is sitting there, wide open. Ter Stegen can’t save all of ’em.
The second goal was even worse, a lost ball that resulted in Barça players standing around in an almost bewildered state as Betis was off to the races. Again, an easy chance, put away. Real Madrid isn’t a particularly good team, and they knocked three goals past Barça, who knocked five past Betis because that team is even more open and disorganized on defense than Barça, the hard work of Pellegrini notwithstanding.
Barça defensive problems are comprehensive. They’re structural, physical and tactical. They can’t stop an opponent counter of any quality. One fullback isn’t a fullback, the other is a rinsed headless chicken. The only reason opponents don’t attack down the left is because the right is so easy. Koeman will have to find a solution for this, and fast. Dest and Pjanic help. A fast, mobile CB would help a lot more. When Araujo returns from injury, it might be time to consider a changing of the guard on the back line. It’s bad. Barça will win its Champions League group, as expected. But the first time they face a team of any quality in the current defensive state, it’s going to be ugly.
But lest we think everything was bad, Messi as super sub was brilliant. He came on and almost immediately helped to create a goal. Then he scored a brilliant penalty. Then he scored again, a blast that felt like an exorcism. He was creative, dynamic and popping up in danger places rather than making runs at the defense, 1v3 or 4, and was so successful playing a game that suits his current physical condition. He isn’t That Messi, but now he’s more than capable of being That Other Messi, just as dangerous, but in different ways.
Pedri was brilliant. Again. It’s a continual source of wonder that a 17-year-old can be so smart about the game of football. He isn’t fast or strong, and is about as big as a minute. But he uses space and reading the match so well. He defends well because he understands the flow of play and rarely has to chase, able to keep play in front of him. And he moves constantly, always ready to receive a pass. He opened his goal book today with a run and slot home that wouldn’t surprise anyone. There was the ball, and there was Pedri. He scored, and strolled away like it was the most natural thing in the world.
Even if his incentives kick in and his price rises to 25m, he’s still an amazing bargain. He’s also an example of a made player in the mold of a David Silva. Not fast, not physical, but always smart on the ball, reads the match like a book and unerringly makes the correct decision. And he works. One time he lost a ball and chased back as hard as he could to correct the error like it was the most natural thing in the world. It isn’t.
And speaking of new discoveries, meet this version of Ousmane Dembele, the one who is beginning to scratch the surface of looking like the kind of player that a club would spend 140m for. As a sub against Dinamo midweek, he exploded the match into vibrant life, and almost scored a golazo. Against Betis he did, lifting off a shot with such force and fury that though it was medium range, Bravo didn’t have a chance. He fired another rocket that resulted in the handball, or he would have had a brace. He’s been smarter on the ball, taking care of possession, making the right pass and using his physical abilities to make space so that he has time to make decisions.
That it’s been a change mostly unremarked upon is disappointing for a player that so many seem to expect the worst from. And when he does something well, the target is moved. Strong attacks, dribbles and runs, become, “Man, he defends so badly.” He can’t seem to win, but it’s worth remembering his chronology. Came from Dortmund, got injured, lost for most of the season. Came back late, got injured again. Came back, got injured again, for almost all of another season. Came back from rehab, got injured. Two surgeries, and a host of other injuries. He sometimes looks like a player who hasn’t fully assimilated because that’s what he is.
But he is starting to play his game, staring to trust his body. Against Betis he lost a ball and chased back, hard. The run against Dinamo where he dribbled, lost it, hurdled a tackler then made an explosive run is a player who is starting to feel it. And not a hint, or twinge, or anything to prevent him from continuing to grow. He won’t keep fit, just because it’s impossible over the course of a long season for most mortal players (the Messi caveat) to keep fit. But you hope for a normal injury with him, a pull or something, rather than another breakdown that requires surgery. Not only does he not need that, but he might not come back from it, psychologically. The game is becoming fun for him again, and that’s something we should all want.
Besides, we gotta have some joy, since it’s usually misery and anxiety when opponents have the ball.