Javier Mascherano can be forgiven for thinking “Hey, wait …. I signed up for this? Some freakin’ debut, dudes!”
Newly promoted Hercules, the club with the ambitious name, took on the Liga giants of Barcelona and kicked mud in their inept, ineffective eyes with two goals that could easily have been more. Watching this one twice was painful in the extreme. I really don’t want to see this match ever again, or this kind of effort from my beloved club.
Simply put, we were terrible, with a few notable exceptions.
–Some will blame the international break.
–Some will blame chickens coming home to roost.
–Cruijff will say “See, I told you so. Yell “Shit” for so long, and the club starts to play like it.
–Still others will blame the luck of the draw, and “On any given day.”
Personally, there is plenty of blame to go around for a shameful defeat to a club that we should have dusted off by the 10th minute, and put to bed. Guardiola rolled out with a lineup of Valdes, Adriano, Pique, Abidal, Maxwell, Mascherano, Keita, Iniesta, Messi, Villa and Krkic. For my money, this was the wrong lineup. Hercules tottered into our house with fear in their eyes. You could see it in the early tentative play. If I’m Guardiola, I resolve to play the real boys for 20 minutes from the start, then start pulling key players. As it was, Hercules saw our No. 4.5, and started laughing. “Hey, they expect a toy to lead the line! Bwahahahaha!”
Actually, we didn’t have anyone leading the line, since Messi was running around sleepwalking, Villa was flitting about on the wings somewhere (when he wasn’t getting called offside) and Krkic didn’t even bother showing up. In my estimation, the advantage was lost when Krkic didn’t turn that chance. It was a difficult chance, to be fair, but he tried to get cute with it, instead of just stopping and steering the ball home. The pass from Maxwell (an amazing effort) was coming right to him. He tries some fancy-pants flick sideheel nonsense, and missed.
Then Hercules got confident, and began exploiting the middle of our “attack.” Sloppy possession meant that Mascherano was facing a jailbreak, and took not one, but two fouls for the team. On the first, Valdez (theirs) was off to the races, being supported by Trezeguet and Drenthe. If Mascherano doesn’t give the pullback, the defense is dead in the water. So he did. Hats off to him. He took a yellow, but that’s what you’re supposed to do. Watch the sequence again, as Messi slaps an awful pass to Iniesta that the Hercules defender takes and slots directly into the attack.
On the second, a horrific Messi free is functionally a pass to their defense. Drenthe takes off on the break, and he does exactly what you’re supposed to, which is to run directly at the defender and make him do something. He sold the foul but again, Mascherano took one for the team. Should he have been off on that second foul? No way. What he should have been doing was getting on his attackers for being so wasteful and silly against a side whose only real shot at hurting us was off the counter. No DM alive can handle a jailbreak, kids. I know that we’re all into getting on the new guy, but I don’t care who’s playing DM …. The Yaya, His Mama, Busquets, whoever …. he’s taking a professional foul.
The first Hercules goal came about as a direct result of this sequence. Drenthe whipped in the free kick, and we were ball watching as they headed the ball toward our net. Valdes slaps the first effort away and as Maxwell falls down for some inexplicable reason, their Valdez spikes the return ball off the pitch into the open net. Meanwhile, all of our defenders, eveyone is standing around. Should someone, as soon as they saw how the play was busted have run to the goal mouth to kick or head away the leaking ball? Sure. Instead, Abidal is standing around as though he’s waiting for a bus, Pique is hailing a taxi …. no, wait …. he’s hoping for an offside call on the play that was clearly onside.
And by the by, we can learn something from Mascherano. Take the foul. When Abidal lunged for that steal and missed it, leading to the second Hercules goal? Position your body so that if you don’t get the ball, you get the man. Foul his ass. Yes, you take a foul. Better than taking a goal.
There was no fight in the club today, which was even more appalling than the loss. Some would say can we really expect such things, this early in the season? Rosell has been calling into question everything about the previous regime, regime that encompasses every goddamned player on the pitch, and their coach. There were three new signings and a passel of departures, not all of them pleasant. There was the World Cup, the attendant vacations/late arrivals, then straight into the season and an early International break.
And meanwhile Hercules sits, watching us rack up frequent flyer miles, thinking “You know, they’re going to be tired, and we can beat them.” And so they did, with a display that deserves full credit. They defended like lions, took their chances when they came, and were stonewalled by an extraordinary Valdes performance between the sticks. They could have had a few more goals today. 2-0 is bad enough, but think how 5-0 would have been, eh?
A loss, no matter how many goals, still counts for three points. We weren’t top of table going into today’s match and we sure as hell won’t be tonight, no matter what EE does against Osasuna. Do early matches matter? Not really. If you’re going to cock one up, might as well do it early. We started the treble season with a loss and a draw, lest people start panicking.
I am much more concerned by the broader deficiencies that this match manifested in our club, which I will break down as simply as possible:
—Villa can’t lead the line. People called me an ass when I said it the first time, and I stand by that statement. He just isn’t that kind of a striker, and he never will be. Without a grownup to create space for him, he’s ineffective.
—Iniesta ain’t no Xavi. Will he ever be? Good question. I’d say yes, once he learns patience. He still thinks like an attacker, even when he’s playing creator.
—Krkic ain’t no 9. Yes, he’s wearing the number, but you need a forward who can do something other than lose the ball every time he comes up against a defender.
—Without Xavi, do we really have a midfield attack? We kept possession, but didn’t do anything with the ball.
—We have no stylistic versatility. Against a club with only one real way to hurt us, why not play back a little bit more? What’s the harm? So the cules whistle derisively as our back line sits back more. Fugg ’em. We were caught up the pitch time and again by a club that counterattacked with increasing bravery.
—We have no versatility in attack. Say what you will about Ibrahimovic, but you could knock the ball to his big ass, and have him do something with it. That option is gone. When Villa is the tallest man on your front line, you’re going to be facing some issues (and some ribcages of taller players).
—Squad depth is going to be a problem. I mean real squad depth. You need somebody better than Krkic to bring in, and you need a Xavi surrogate, to keep the offense popping in the absence of our midfield maestro.
—The psychology of this club is damaged. It seems that like many of its fans, it doesn’t know what to do in the face of adversity, so it panicks. Long balls, impossible passes and silly one-on-ones are not the way to break down a disciplined, energetic side.
Was this one of those matches in which the doors just came off? Sure, in part. But there are more International breaks coming up this season, as the interminable qualification process for Euros continues. Add friendlies to that, and the complexities aren’t going to be resolving themselves any time soon. We looked like a tired club out there, and there was nobody to bring us the energy or cutting incisiveness that creates goalscoring opportunities. And so, we lost. Further, brace yourselves, folks, as we’re going to lose some more this season, one that is going to be more competitive than a lot of pundits, fans or cules realize right now.
Why? Because the big teams are exhausted. Us and EE effectively sent every player that matters to the World Cup. Just back from that and it’s Euros already. This isn’t the case for the Atleticos and Sevillas (or Herculeses) of the world. This is where quality squad depth enters the picture. And we don’t have it.
Team: 1. Terrible, terrible display. No help for each other, no energy, no clue. You attack as a unit and defend as a unit. One-on-ones, such as Mascherano saw twice and others still even more, are signs of a tired club. Second match of the Liga is way too early to be showing that fatigue.
Guardiola: 1. You can’t play the match for them, but you can dictate how that match goes with the starting XI, which should have had more firepower. You took Hercules lightly. Shame on you. How do we know that, despite all your natterings, you took them lightly? Because you didn’t put our best squad out there. I’d rather see Dos Santos as playmaker than Iniesta. Yes. I said it.
Valdes: 7. Two got past you thanks to your defense, but every shot that you had a shot at, you stopped. Thanks for not allowing this to become truly shameful. Best keeper in the Liga? Good question. You keep making arguments in your favor.
Adriano: 6. You had a 7 going until that shameful dive. Just because you’re on the right side doesn’t mean you have to act like the incumbent. I loved your energy, effort and ability. The crosses were excellent, and you battle for loose balls like a champion, and it still surprises me how fast you are. You also played defense a lot better than the incumbent, who should perhaps be reconsidering his difficult negotiating posture. We have a viable replacement now, and are blooding another one in Dalmau.
Pique: 2. You had two great scoring chances that you screwed the pooch on. And you have to marshal your defense better than that. Yes, Valdes had the captain’s armband, but don’t kid yourself. You were too passive when your defense was falling apart, and positionally, you were struggling with that whole right place, right time business. Oh, and you can’t stand there and watch the guy take the shot that will kill you. Now do you understand how good Puyol is?
Abidal: 2. Don’t know why in the hell you were tired. It wasn’t like you had to play any Internationals. Lunging for balls that you should have run for cost your team. No, you don’t suck as much at CB as I’m sure that some will say, but your positional sense needs some work. And if you’re going to go for the steal, make it or foul the man to stop the attack. Your being out of position created an imbalance that led to the second goal.
Maxwell: 5. Solid in a crappy overall team effort, with fine attacking prowess. Your effort on the pass that should have resulted in a goal for Krkic, was remarkable.
Mascherano: 5. You were playing to a higher rating before Guardiola pulled you to protect you from that second yellow. The hustle and tenacity were there, and who said you can’t pass? Our team definitely lost something when you went out, and Hercules exploited it. Your positional sense is already strong, and you will get the hang of where to be in this side. And the attack won’t usually hang you out to dry like that.
Keita: 3. Sometimes you’re quietly effective, sometimes you’re just quiet. The usual pace and energy of this season were absent, making you a liability on the pitch, particularly when Mascherano went out, making you the DM. That position needs boundless, constant energy.
Iniesta: 2. Run the offense when that’s your job, as it was today. A directionless mass of people is calling for some organization, someone to set the tempo, hold and distribute the ball. Don’t play as quickly when you’re occupying that Xavi role. Take the time, make the right pass that won’t cede possession.
Messi: 2. You showed a bit of hustle, a lot of mediocrity and more than a little selfishness. Again, for the record, if you have four men on you, odds are that a teammate or two will be open. So pass. Now. And when you aren’t passing, move without the ball. Your unpredictability makes you dangerous. Sluggish Messi is way too easy to control. Thsi is your team. Lead by example. Hustle, get in people’s faces and put the hell out. Don’t just sulk around and make runs at the defense.
Villa: 2. I don’t care if you ever again do another backheel. To hell with the folks in the stands. Play effective, offensive football and put the damned ball in the back of the net. Like Pedro! used to, you were running around like a headless chicken, which is not what our offense needs. If you don’t make yourself available for the passes, how can you expect them to come your way?
Krkic: 0. We were playing with 10 men today. I know that we’re supposed to give you time, and be patient, blah, blah, blah. But the display was horrific today, when your club needed you. You got the number, so play like a “9,” not a boy playing dress-up. Just because you’re half the size of your predecessor in that number, doesn’t mean you have to play like it. Get good, or get gone. There was, as with Villa, no direction to your play. And you lost the ball against a defender every time. I counted exactly one good run from you, which is ridiculous.
Pedro (for Krkic): 4. You struck an early spark, but stop trying to play above your ability level. You aren’t going to be beating defenders in 1-v-1 situations, nor are you an effective crosser of the ball. You score goals. Make the moves and do the things that enable that. Speed of play is a good thing, playing too fast is a bad thing.
Xavi (for Mascherano): 4. We gained a little solidity when you entered, but you missed a couple of very good chances, one with a horrid shot, the other with a woeful touch in the box.
Alves (for Adriano): 2. You’re the starter, and are supposed to play better than the substitute. This just wasn’t the case today, as you left fellow defenders stranded, were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and flat-out didn’t hustle as you usually do. Malaise is team-wide, it seems, but on man can also pull them out. You had the chance to be that man, and you blew it.
Well, we got this one out of our systems. Next up is Champions League play, against Panathanaikos. If you thought that Hercules were dangerous, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Let’s hope for a better display.