Yes the picture is big, but not as big as the moment. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, our big-ass Swede, got off the mark by scoring the first of what should be many, many goals for Barca. It came off (yet another) exquisite Dani Alves cross that was deflected by Gregory, the omnipresent Gijon defender.
Watching the play develop, BANGS broke away from his defender into the space left on the uncovered back post and headed the ball in. Pretty easy goal, right?
Wrong. Watch it again, and think about the concentration and skill it took to nudge a deflected ball into the space he had.
This game was all about the future of our attack, ladies and gentlemen. Not only will Ibrahimovic have to adjust to the way that we play, but we will have to adjust to the way that he plays. Keita, so accustomed to Eto’o and Henry, slowed down his run, so when Ibrahimovic made the pass, he was late on the run. Next month, that will be a tap-in for Messi or Pedro!
On the BANGS side, he’s already begun to make the inviting diagonal runs that our offense likes, rather than the Route One football he was playing in Italy last year, and the balls are coming to him. Two shots on goal and one header from which he had to make all of the power, forcing the keeper into a stretch save.
And he isn’t fully match fit yet, so you could see him marshalling his efforts, particularly after playing more than 80 minutes against a very determined Shakhtar side just 72 hours prior, on a pitch that must have been like running in quicksand. He defended on a set piece, blocking the pass and starting things going the other way, and pressured Gijon defenders.
Which won’t stop people from calling him lazy. So be it. I’ll call him a step away from full match fitness and eye-gogglingly talented. We haven’t had a striker such as he in a very, very long time, one that is as capable of battling a defender for the ball in midfield and taking off toward goal, as making a slick, side-footed pass that falls perfectly to an attacking player, to powerful headers and (soon to come) goals from crazy-ass angles in crazy-ass spaces.
And a number of times tonight, we saw the strength that enables him to hold off defenders and do his thing, rather than being pushed off the ball or buffeted about. BANGS is the real deal, everyone. Label him a flop or unimpressive now if you want, but be prepared to eat crow in a month or two. You read it here first.
The Gijon coach made absolutely no bones about what kind of match this was going to be, by saying that a 0-0 would be better than a 4-0. And he’s right. But to lay out such a craven, dog’s belly showing display doesn’t bring honor to the colors. Even 2-0 down Gijon was still playing with 10 behind the ball, venturing forward timidly as if afraid the sky was going to fall.
But good for us, as it allowed the lads to play like a scrimmage, knocking the ball around and rolling about at little more than half-speed, except for those folks playing to impress (Maxwell, Krkic) or who really only know one way (Keita, Puyol). The issue, however, wasn’t in doubt, even when Gijon had a spectacular scoring chance that a better side would have converted. Fatigue allowed us to yield too much space, and their midfielder slid an uncontested pass to a man kept onside by Maxwell, but the Gijon attacker shot high, seemingly stunned at the golden opportunity. And that was that, really.
Our starting XI was not that surprising: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Maxwell, Keita, Busquets, Xavi, Pedro!, Krkic, Ibrahimovic.
Nor was I all that surprised by the clunkiness that we evinced early, as Gijon were essentially playing with 6 men in the midfield in an attempt to gum up the works and prevent Xavi from doing what he does so well. So we kept the ball, bided our time and scored off of….brace yourselves….set pieces! Two of ’em, to be precise.
The first came from a perfect corner from Xavi, dropped onto the head of Keita whose deflected cross fell perfectly to Krkic, who headed home. Looks like we’ve been praciticing set pieces.
The second came from an Alves cross that found the head of Keita, who rammed it home powerfully, for the 2-0.
The third came from the aforementioned BANGS, who nodded home and lay on the pitch in what must have been glorious, glorious relief. The joy of his teammates was genuine, and it kicked off a new burst of energy from Ibrahimovic, who suddenly showed what we are in for. He was smiling, and his head was fully in the game. The result could easily have been two assists, atop his goal.
It must be said here, however, that Gijon were the perfect side for us to see so soon after the UEFA Super Cup victory, that took all of extra time. They let us do what we do, and when we were a sloppy mess, they really weren’t all that interested in capitalizing. So it was about as easy a win as you are ever going to have.
It was also a costly win, as Krkic will be out with a slightly torn muscle for a few weeks (though kids heal fast), and Maxwell will be out for a bit, but should be fine.
The illustration of Guardiola’s assertion that “without the ball, we aren’t very good” was shown time and again, as the midfield pressure that keeps possession for us even when we lose it, just wasn’t there. Nor could it be. The lads were tired. You could see it in their faces and the movement, in touches that are normally precise that wound up clunky. Xavi was giving balls away, Pedro! was showing some control issues as he worked his way into the match.
But it was all good, because Gijon didn’t really want to do anything except try their damndest to keep us from scoring, and if a counter presented itself, they’d take it. A couple times it did, and danger bells were ringing for the defense, which scrambled and scrabbled, doing what it had to do.
At times there was as much action in the stands as on the pitch, and Iniesta relaxed, Muniesa looked like a puppy wanting to go out and play, and Mourinho, on a scouting mission, occupied space next to Chygnasty. But the Special One easily saw that there wasn’t much to scout, and stopped paying attention. Chygnasty, however, looked pretty entertained by what he’s now become a part of, because players know. And I bet you he can’t wait.
Yes there really isn’t much to review. We knocked the ball around, enjoying more than 70% of possession. So let’s get to the ratings:
Team: 6. It was going to be a worse rating, then they turned on the midfield pressure and began moving the ball around. Very nice.
Guardiola: 6. He should have had them more ready to play than he did. Made the right (albeit very obvious) substitutions.
Valdes: 6. He didn’t have a lot to do, but he needs to communicate with his defense better. He had one nice save off a Gijon blast, but got caught way out of his area, battling with a Gijon attacker for the ball. If that dude has any more skill, he rounds Valdes and hits into the empty net. Whew!
Alves: 7. Fine match as our extra attacker. Cross after cross found its way to heads and feet, as he worked tirelessly to create space, intercept balls and space the pitch. He is loving the signing of Ibrahimovic, as suddenly he has a head to play to.
Pique: 6. Would have gotten a higher rating, but for a period of wayward passing that could have been dangerous against a more determined club. He settled into the match very well, however.
Puyol: 7. Effort and energy, but he has to learn to control his need to be everywhere. It forces assignment shifts under pressure as the defense scrambles to cover for him. And he, along with Maxwell, kept the Gijon attacker on for what by all rights should have been a goal for them.
Maxwell: 5. Tentative in possession and giving balls away, in addition being far too willing to give up corners rather than heading away to the sideline, made this not one of his better outings for me. And his offense wasn’t sufficient to make up for his general adequacy.
Busquets: 6. Played himself up from a poorer rating. He holds the ball too long, and doesn’t seem to have that blind side sense. And when he loses the ball he falls down, waving his arms. Play to the whistle, dammit. If you lose the ball, run back as hard as you can to atone for your error. Problem is when he gives the ball away, as he did twice today, it’s in the middle of the pitch, which lets the other side get off to the races. Knock it off. I have to say that I am not confident in anticipation of the time when The Yaya and Keita leave for ACN.
Keita: 9. Indefatigable, playing as hard late in the match as he was at the beginning, roaming to help control the defense, charging the box on offense. He really should have had two more goals to go with his goal and assist. His powerful header found the post, and he will learn to expect the pass from Ibra. I loved the match that he played today, so much so that he is Man of the Match for me.
Xavi: 7. Not bad for a half-speed outing. He lost some balls, which is very much unlike him, and at times seemed a little put out by Gijon’s midfield pressure and willingness to foul.
Pedro!: 7. Disappeared for periods, and was sloppy with possession on a few occasions, one of which led to a dangerous Gijon counter. But played into the match very well, and was all danger from about 20 minutes left, onward. He has a powerful shot that he gets off very quickly, which is never a bad thing.
Krkic: 8. The Kid was excellent today, showing all of the movement, pace and confidence that he has lacked in recent appearances. Scored the nice header, and was a constant danger to charge the box and score. Staggering work rate, as well.
Ibrahimovic: 6. Get in shape so that you can play a complete match, dude. Can’t wait.
Abidal (for Maxwell): 9. I hope everyone saw the difference that he made with his strength and pace. And his offensive forays continue, with some great passing and a cross that deserved to be scored with.
Jeffren (for Krkic): 4. Ran around out there, and wasn’t very assertive. Tentative in the box, when he should have charged the cross, and worried about the offsides call later.
Fontas (for Pique): incomplete. He came in Gijon had pretty much gone belly up.
–Botia looked rather erratic. Don’t forget that one of their back line is on loan from us. He got smoked on a couple of plays, but he’ll get better for them. And don’t forget that they don’t play our kind of system, which is how he was raised, so to speak.
–Damn, we looked good in HD. I could get used to that.
–The England-centric announcers should be ashamed of themselves. The bottom of the Prem is just as determined to play for the 0-0 as the bottom of the Liga. For them to assert otherwise shows a laughable xenophobia.
–Our lads need to play to the whistle. Time and again you’d see players, sitting or laying on the pitch, waiting for a call that never came. Meanwhile, we’re 10 v 11 because they’re off on a counter, and you can’t get back in time.
–I am really, really excited about the future. Imagine a world in which 5 men can’t collapse on Ibrahimovic, when Henry, Messi and Iniesta are out there to complete Murderers’ Row.