It’s appropriate that this review and attached video highlight should begin with the Bilbao red card, because that moment changed the match.
Interestingly, the non-thinking footy fan snarls and says that the ref handed us the match with that red card to Amorebieta for Iniestabuse.
The thinking fan, however, realizes that the ref in fact gave Bilbao a lifeline and a road to a point in their house. They didn’t get it because of a team putting its foot down and playing like the best club team in the world.
When Bilbao strode onto the pitch of their Fortress San Mames, it was with the intention of playing football, and taking points from the defending Liga champions. And we took advantage of that bravado, creating chance after chance, near miss after near miss from our lineup of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Adriano, Busquets, Keita, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro! and Villa. Keita put one at the keeper that was beautifully dealt with, and somehow, amazingly, Villa hit the post after being put in with an exquisite, millimeter-perfect ball from Iniesta.
Then came the card, and up rolled the bus. You could see how it went from Bilbao rolling forward into our end with 4 or 5 players, to no players except for a hopeful forward, looking for a counter opportunity or bad pass. Handing us the match? Hardly. No team plays well against a bus.
Nonetheless, this was a pretty easy match folks, and one that was relatively drama-free. Experiencing it during the LiveBlog can often skew perspective. Time of possession was 77-23, corners were 8-1, shots were 25-11, score was 3-1. It was that kind of match, one in which everyone wondered what would happen. We were without the best player on the planet, Lionel Messi, who was still recovering from the foul-induced injury that made Antonio Lahoz so quick to show red after the challenge on Iniesta. It was a big match in a tough stadium, on a weekend during which giants were falling like rotted redwoods. Bayern to Mainz, Arsenal to West Brom, Chelsea to Citeh, EE held by Levante, Inter to Roma.
We stuck out our chests, played exactly the match that was laid out by Guardiola, and easily took the three points. As Guardiola said, we neutralized their height, in the attacking presence of Llorente. Really, they were only going to score against us via busted play (they did) counter attack or set piece. This meant that the premium was on disciplined, positional football that took away space and angles, rather than going after the ball with challenges that yielded free kicks and potential corners. So we attacked them with position defense and pressure, never allowing any of their attackers any comfort on the ball. Usually, one of us would arrive at the same time as the ball. More often than not, two would arrive, taking station in a way that funnelled their attacks into the maw of our possession game. The defense would take the wayward pass, feed to Busquets or Keita, and off we went into their end of the pitch.
The intelligence of this team was on full display, in a match that might be the purest reflection of its coach. It was all passing, movement and pressure to create space for more passing, movement and pressure. Our defenders were invariably where the ball was going to be because of the inexorable logic of the attack. So a player gets the ball, our defenders note where the nearest available opposition teammate is, and just cut off that route as another defender rolls in to harass the player with the ball. It sounds so simple, but it requires a work rate that is off the charts. Hats off to Guardiola for making a team that has won everything play like one with everything to prove, almost from top to bottom. It was, in many ways, illustrative that the worst players on the pitch were the newcomers, Villa and Adriano, who don’t yet understand. They haven’t been assimilated into the system yet, but they will be.
And I’m not that big a fan of tactics, because as with battle plans, once the first bullet is fired, they usually go to hell. But Guardiola, anticipating that they would try to cut off the head (Xavi) so that the beast could die, decided to make Keita the shadow. As he and Xavi moved around as if on a tether, usually the way that Xavi does with Iniesta, this did a number of things:
–It gave Keita the ball in dangerous positions, we saw as he should have, could have had 2 assists this afternoon.
–It gave Keita the cut-and-attack option, which we saw in his goal as he took the pass and finished.
–It gave Iniesta freedom, and he proceeded to raise hell.
–It allowed Xavi to play a bit farther back to survey more of the field, and use Keita as a safety valve as he moved forward into the attack, leaving Keita as the distibutor.
What you saw was a team that effectively didn’t know who to chase or foul, so they just chased the ball, like dogs in a park. But because the ball moves faster than players, that approach was doomed to failure. So when Bilbao rushed at Xavi, he slotted the pass to an on-the-move Keita, who was only a curled shot away from making it 1-0 very early. Villa slid neatly into the box and Iniesta curled a ball around two defenders right into Villa’s feet. That he amazingly hit the post was almost as remarkable as the pass, a pass that came about through rapid movement of players and ball.
So Bilbao saw red, and began to play defense. Things were looking pretty stultifying in the muddy, rain-soaked morass of the San Mames until suddenly, Iniesta to Villa to Keita found the back of the net, in a play that would have shredded a defense with 12 men. It wasn’t just the movement, but the pace of the passing. The pass to Iniesta was hard, the pass to Villa harder and the one-touched ball to Keita absolutely flawless, so that all Keita had to do was roll it into the empty net, empty because Keita and the ball arrived so quickly that the only option was to try to snag the ball before the shot, an impossible task.
The second goal was simple brilliance, as Xavi just decided there was an opening for a shot, and smacked a ball that took an ever-so-slight deflection off a Bilbao player and past the keeper. At 2-0, the match should have been done and dusted. From then on, it was a simple matter of playing man-up possession football. Then David Villa had to go and take umbrage with a bit of on-the-ball roughhousing, throw a punch and get a straight red, only his second direct red of his professional career. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Now this was potentially a match-changing red card, because Bilbao went from a side with no hope, to one who could scramble and, in the 8 or 9 minutes left, maybe even salvage a draw.
And they attacked. Valdes stopped a header on a play borne of our defensive uncertainty and Bilbao’s aggression, buoyed by 40,000 screaming mouths in their stadium. But the ball caroms to a Bilbao attacker, who puts in the square ball for a 1-2 match. Heads that were drooping were lifted, eyes that bore the sullen opaqueness of the defeated sparked into life, as they charged.
Then we killed ’em once and for all as we stopped an attack, and an alert Keita one-timed a brilliant, cross-pitch pass to a streaking Pedro!, who did exactly what he was supposed to do and found an onside Busquets, who finished into the roof of the net, and finished Bilbao once and for all. It was, like the first goal, a piece of quality with its roots in movement. Pedro! saw what Keita was thinking and began his run even before Huh? What? got the ball. He was running into acres and acres of space, and a lesser player would have run at the defense and the keeper, thinking “I can do this, dammit!” P! opted for simple perfection, and the sure thing. And that was that.
In consecutive weekends we have taken full points at two places in which we have most recently seen frustration: the Calderon and San Mames, in both instances from full-strength sides determined to rub salt in our wounds. And the club isn’t playing at anything like its potential yet. So stay tuned.
Team: 10. This is a match that almost forces you to reevaluate a scoring system, maybe going for an 11 or something. Team victory, team dominance, attack and defense in layers. Spectacular.
Guardiola: 10. From tactics to timing of the substitutions, he was hard to fault today. As soon as the match was without a doubt, off came Xaviniesta. How was he to know that Villa would screw it up?
Valdes: 7. He didn’t have a lot to do, and mostly did it well. I’d accuse him of resting on his laurels as he palmed away that header, rather than getting ready for the next shot. He almost made it, though his cleats didn’t have a chance in that mud at the goal mouth, churned up by our first-half assault at that end.
Alves: 8. His defensive skills are continually underrated, much to the club’s benefit as he made some stellar defensive plays today. And why teams keep giving him so much room in which to operate is beyond me.
Pique: 9. He wasn’t perfect today. There were some wayward passes, and I’m not convinced that he did all that he could to keep that ball out of the net. I might have marked that loose man more tightly. But still, what a whopper of a match from a guy who Ferguson must watch highlights of, and throw stuff. He defends, brings the ball up, crashes their box, helps with possession in midfield and goes out for snacks. He’s Gerard Pique.
Puyol: 7. Very strong match from our captain, though he was much outshone by his central defense partner. His positioning and charging up the pitch to start attacks helped to unsettle Bilbao, who were waiting for the defenders to simply dump the ball to Xavi, lord knows why.
Adriano: 3. A few solid plays, but he lost almost every ball that came near him today, showed signs of not being fit and was a general mess.
Busquets: 10. An astounding match from a player who was everywhere, from box to box, passing, tackling, heading balls away and battling for possession like a demon. He always seems to be two steps ahead of play.
Keita: 10. That first, crucial goal, countless runs that were rarely rewarded with the pass and a series of great passes that deserved better finishing were the hallmarks of his Man of the Match effort today.
Xavi: 8. A very good match for the brains of the operation, with his usual precision passing and elegant movement. The goal from distance was a benefit. Another contender for MOTM.
Iniesta: 9. The only thing keeping him from perfection is the echo from my shrieked “Shoot, Ghostface! Shoot!” still bouncing around the house. He’s unselfish to a fault, but his passing, movement and control were superhuman. He gutted Bilbao with pass after pass, as Xavi moved back a bit in the first half.
Pedro!: 7. Damn, what a stat-stuffing match. It’s hard, sometimes, on the little Web stream to understand when a player who doesn’t score a goal nonetheless kicks out the jams. But on the big TV, P! was easy to find: Just look for the guy moving faster than anyone else on the pitch. He played defense, made passes and jerked their defense around like marionettes, creating space for Villa to exploit.
Villa: 1. He was an inch-perfect assist away from a zero. Chance after chance blown, a goal that I still don’t know how he didn’t score, walking when he should have been running, runs not made all topped off by a stupid, stupid straight red that will probably deprive us of his services for two matches. Nice work.
Maxwell (for Adriano): 7. He came in and put his world on lockdown, understanding that his usual marauding runs on the left side needed to be done away with, in favor of exceptional position defense and midfield help.
Thiago (for Iniesta): 5. He looked much better when we were possessing the match away, than when Bilbao got its feathers up and started attacking. That was where we missed the iron-clad control of a player such as Xavi. But man, is this dude’s future bright.
Krkic (for Xavi): 3. Ran around, looked cute, didn’t really do very much.
So. Next up is Mallorca, a match that is (thankfully) at home, since we will be Villa-less for it. We will also be Messi-less for it, and coming off of a midweek Champions League away leg to Rubin Kazan. Who said that greatness was easy?