Mothers are amazing for a number of reasons, not least of which are all the sayings they equip you with as you grow in their care. “Expect the worst and you’ll never be disappointed,” is one that came to mind as we looked at the lineup for a crucial away match against Sevilla.
Ter Stegen, Dest, Mingueza, Pique, Lenglet, Alba, Busquets, Pedri, De Jong, Messi, Dembele was how the names rolled out, and the reactions were swift. Five defenders, UGH, Defensive, tentative, afraid, etc, etc. We want the worst even before we understand. But Koeman had his own ideas, and the net result was, for the first time this season, him beating an opposing manager on tactics, rather than having the best players.
As a season progresses, a manager learns what he has, learns what he can do with what he has. Some managers take longer than others. If you start with necessities, one of them being Busquets, apparently, then you have to understand how that machine works. You need to limit his defensive sphere of influence. In attack, how do you liberate forwards when teams play a close, physical style against you? Well, you go old school, setting up an attack in which a dynamic forward plays off the shoulder of the opposition defense.
The way the lineup worked in fact, was three at the back, augmented by liberated fullbacks who could apply pressure in either midfield, or roam to make defensive plays (Lenglet especially appreciated this last bit). Spaces were closed, which helped players who weren’t all that swift, either through athletic ability or age, cover space in a way that allowed Barça to have something of a press(ish). Messi didn’t have to drop deep to get the ball, which also limited his sphere of influence in an exceptional way, especially if you think of how he plays now.
On pitch, Messi is like a person waiting for an Uber. He stands around until his ride comes, then hops in and it’s off to the races. If Messi is going back to the CBs to get the ball to make runs, or dropping deep into midfield, your attack is broken. When Messi is waiting for his Uber at the edge of the opposition box, happy times usually ensue. Koeman solved a number of problems with one lineup. He made the defense better, made Messi better, made Busquets better, his fullbacks were no longer defensive liabilities. And it all worked. Same names, just arranged differently.
The first goal was interesting, a throwback in many ways to the heretical Luis Enrique years, when Barça had the three best attackers in the game. “Get the ball to the studs, and let them do what they do.” Barça worked possession loose and fed Messi, who found Dembele on the shoulder of the defense in space, and got him the ball. Dembele accelerated, and lashed the goal home. 0-1, just like that. Three passes. Not 33.
For the first time this season, Koeman used Dembele in a way that maximized his strengths, and the reward was intelligence and danger. Dembele could easily have had another goal and a couple of assists as the spear of a two-attacker platform. Right after he scored the goal, the social media reaction was fascinating in saying things like, “This is what he should have been doing all season,” “This is more like it,” all interesting comments about a new role for the French attacker. This might be as close as Koeman will ever come to giving Dembele the keys to the attack, liberating him in space with the ball at his feet to … (shudder!) … improvise.
One second half run where the ball was fed to him was weird in that it made me think of Dortmund Dembele as he charged at the backpedaling Sevilla defense, angling toward the keeper and moving defenders with him. He stopped, cut, started and laid off a perfect ball for Messi, who arrived in the box. That Messi lashed the shot over the goal was an “Awww, man!” moment, but what the overall play represented was something weird and wonderful in a player being used in the most effective way for his skill set.
Busquets was so effective, like a gangly angel dancing on the head of a pin. Busquets was also a self-contained sphere of influence, in a setup that, when the opponent had the ball, ensured that he rarely had to run more than three or four steps, rather than chasing into acres of space and failing. Opponent got ball, pressure happened, worked ball loose, fed Busquets, who dished.
And this was Sevilla, rather than some Liga minnow, which made how utterly calm this match was even odder. Barça sailed along with the one-goal lead, and there wasn’t all that much anxiety. Sevilla didn’t even have a shot on target until a ways into the second half, when Navas spanked an easily dealt with shot at Ter Stegen. The team’s previous match, against Cadiz, was more fraught even as they had a one-goal lead against a lesser side, because of the way they were playing. Portents were in the air, and the Cadiz equalizer, debatable as it was, also surprised no one. Yet against Sevilla, a second Barça goal always seemed more likely than a Sevilla first. Messi missed, Dest hit the post after a stirring sequence of play, and something weird happened, maybe only in my dark, twisted mind.
It was like Valverde was coaching, watching Koeman’s pragmatic solution to the ongoning problems of a leaky defense combined with an easily stalled attack. Valverde wasn’t a great manager, but he was a great problem solver, the kind of “A-Team” manager who you could trap in a garage with eleven players and door would bust open and out would come a tactical approach that worked. Koeman on the other hand, has always been something of an idealist. “I want to do this, so this is how we’re going to achieve my vision. The Sevilla match was, “I have these problems, and a limited set of solutions. Let’s build something that works.”
There was bad news in injuries for Pedri and Araujo, neither one serious, and great news in that with the match still in the balance, when Pedri came off, Koeman called upon Ilaix Moriba, called up from the B team. And this is the moment that was NOTHING like Valverde. To trust a youth player with a crucial role in a crucial match? Wow. And Ilaix didn’t disappoint, a tidy, elegant player who played a tidy, elegant game. What I love about people talking about him is expectations. You don’t see words like “beast,” or “athletic.” You just see talk about a system-raised talent. Koeman tapped him, and he delivered.
Like everything today, Ilaix was logical, and it was weird to see in so many ways, because Barça is drama and worry, stress and flying Ter Stegen saves. Problems being solved in midfield or at the defense was so … normal. And you know what? From time to time, normal is good.