I know, I know. What the heck is taking so long with the review? Well, I couldn’t stop watching this match. So sue me. This was an extraordinary display by an extraordinary team. Or should I say, another extraordinary display by an extraordinary team. And it doesn’t get old, primarily because I have watched a lotta lotta lotta lotta footy, and not just this past weekend. Watching Chelsea/Spurs made we want to retch at times. This side, this glorious XI that we have right, that seems to do the same stuff no matter who’s out there, has ruined me.
Another match, another Real opponent, another manita, another side that didn’t have a chance, even though at times they had at least 8 men in the box. What’s going on here? Are we as good as everyone says we are?
Let’s looking at some numbers, shall we?
–Within the same week we set records for most passes in a Liga (938) and Champions League (971) match
–We are the first team to reach 40 points after 15 matches in Liga history
–In 67 minutes, Xavi made 120 passes against Sociedad
–21 led to Messi’s first goal. Think about that for a second. 21 passes!
–We haven’t conceded a goal in the last 606 minutes
–Xavi’s passing accuracy percentage? 97, says Sky Sports
–We have scored 5 goals in 5 matches this season (Panathinaikos, Ceuta, Sevilla, EE, Sociedad). The last time we did that was in (AHEM!) 2009.
–Messi notched his 5th Liga brace this season (seventh in all competitions), and would be tied for pichichi if an insufferable windsock of a footy rag wasn’t the one keeping the statistics
How about some quotes, since perspective can always be found in the words of people in the game.
—Jokin Aperribay, Sociedad president: “As far as their game, this is a historic moment for Barça.”
—Javier Mascherano: “Is this perfection? Difficult to say. We need to enjoy it with modesty. This is a reward for all the sacrifice and hard work.”
And for me, this is the most meanigful stat:
–Trophies won: 1 (Or 0, depending upon how you feel about the SuperCopa.)
We are nowhere yet. We’re top of the table in the Liga, into the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey and knockout stages of Champions League. That’s it. We haven’t won anything yet. So now what?
I think that all we can do is enjoy every single moment of every single performance by this amazing, amazing side. It’s interesting to look back at the dire moments, the 2-0 home loss to Hercules, the draws to Mallorca, Copenhagen and Rubin Kazan. After the loss to Hercules, Liverpool fans were visiting the site to gloat because Mascherano wasn’t all that good in the match, and some of us were worried, while still others of us cautioned patience, because the first parts of seasons are always messy for big squads in World Cup years.
Heck, we couldn’t even score goals!
And now look. The most amazing part of yesterday’s match for me is that not even firing on all cylinders, we reduced the 6th-place side in La Liga to a spectator. They didn’t have a chance. When Guardiola said that we were better than last season, some scoffed. I don’t think anyone’s scoffing now, at least not this observer, who is running out of ways to characterize the things we are all witnessing.
This was supposed to be something of a tricky match. And Guardiola rolled out his “best available” lineup, featuring Valdes, Alves, Puyol, Abidal, Maxwell, Mascherano, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro!!, Villa. And when Sociedad got off on the good foot, pinning us back in our end a little bit, the initial feeling was that this might indeed be a tough one. But it took but a few minutes for us to get the ball, and then for the most part, we kept it. And when Villa notched a goal after what would be the first of many exquisite sequences of football, it seemed that the match was already over. Let’s look at this one in a bit of depth:
–Mascherano (I think) knocked an inch-perfect cross pitch pass to P!!, who controlled and was greeted by two defenders, so he dumped to Alves. At this moment, Sociedad had 6 in the box, and another two on the edge. Both Messi and Villa were in the box, in offside positions. P!! set up, and I wanted to text the Sociedad coach, “Tell your guys not to chase the ball!” Alas, I couldn’t so they did.
–The ball pings from Alves to Xavi, who pauses to allow Messi and Villa to slide back onside. As Messi slides forward, Alves bombs into the box, forcing the defense to shift yet again.
–Xavi slides a pass to Messi, and P!! sees what’s on and takes off almost as soon as the ball released, so Messi pops it back to the right side, where P!! is in full stride. He controls the pass, and knocks a lovely square ball to Villa, who roofs it, and that’s that, because the man chasing Pedro!! is the one that keeps Villa onside.
Ray Ray began a froth-mouthed display of superlatives, and all you could think was “Yeah, that was indeed pretty good, wasn’t it?” Then you stop and pinch yourself, thinking “This is my team. Ye gods, this is my team!”
The reason we are playing so well right now is simple, really: At every point on the pitch, we outnumber our opponents. They have one attacker, we have three defenders nipping at his heels, two of them usually quick-footed attacking players. On offense, we always have a place to put the ball, a place where a defender isn’t. Every time one of our players gets the ball, two others move, giving him any number of places to put the ball, then other players move to provide a soft place to land for those players and their passes. It’s so logical, and at present so unstoppable.
And if you try defending a space, well …. the second goal was worked off the dead run, as Iniesta gained control of the ball, smacked a pass to Pedro!! and ran full-speed into the box. Anticipating his run, P!! just kissed Iniesta’s ball with his heel, using the pace of the pass to just roll it into the attacker’s path. Iniesta didn’t even control the ball, because he didn’t have to, so perfect was the weight of the ball. He smashed it past the keeper on the near side somehow, though the keeper had the near post covered. Or so we thought.
It was 2-0, off another amazing goal. There were so many moments in this match that demonstrate how remarkable this side is right now, but if you still have the match on a DVR or something, roll forward to 34:35, where sMasch intercepts a pass and rockets a header at Xavi’s feet, and the ball just stops, in perfect control with no perceptible effort on the part of Xavi. And off he went. Why Sociedad let him have free rein, I have no idea. They chose to defend rather than pressuring, even though pressuing gives you more of a chance to at least slow us down. That decision led to the 21-pass wonder goal, that culminated in Alves and Messi working a series of 1-2s while on the move. Defend Messi and Alves shoots. Defend Alves, and Messi shoots, which was what happened. The finish was really anticlimax, compared to the buildup.
At 3-0, Sociedad didn’t have a chance in hell, then came the fourth goal, which was all Messi. He slid across the box at pace with the ball at his feet, waiting for the right angle, dragging the entire Socieded defense to the left with him. Then he slingshotted across the grain into the open corner. And again, that goal started with Keita doing donkey work to knock the ball loose, and feed it back into the mixer. And out came a goal.
Krkic, in scoring the goal that made up the manita, worked a very simple run and blasted a shot at the keeper. When the rebound came, he controlled and finished high. It was a well-taken goal and a lovely bit of skill.
This was a comprehensive destruction of a quality side, that just beat Athletic Bilbao in the Basque derby. Even their coach said that they didn’t have a chance, and he was right. We let them have the ball occasionally, yielding three chances for them, three promising attacks, that were all dealt with by our defense. Those odds aren’t going to work for many teams.
So now I get to give everyone a reason to call me a biased jackass even before I give the player ratings. Well two, actually:
–At this moment in time, are we a better side with Abidal at CB than Pique?
–Villa still isn’t playing up to standard for me. What about you?
Team: 8. We were loose with possession at times, a sin that might have been punished by a better side. But there aren’t many nits to pick in a display that featured team offense and team defense. When Xavi is in our box playing defense as Villa/Messi/Pedro!! are stealing balls in the midfield, it’s just crazy.
Guardiola: 10. This is his first perfect score the season. The subs were right and made at the right times, the decision to keep Pique in reserve for the Catalan derby was the right one, and Mascherano got another opportunity to start, in a real match this time. The extra love he gave P!! as he was coming off was exceptionally cool, and judging from the grin, seemed to make P!!’s night.
Valdes: 7. Even though he didn’t have to make any saves, his distribution from the back was excellent. Having that 11th attacker out there allows us to play differently in the attack. I’ve noted before that his improvement in that department has been vast this season, and it continues.
Alves: 8. So my screams worked for Iniesta, now it’s your turn: “Shoot Dani, shoot!” Very strong match, even the few times his defense was called upon. And that Messiesque run of his could have resulted in quite the golazo. Yet another match in which he very eloquently screams, “Pay me! I’m worth it.” Couple that with the series of 1-2s with Messi for the third goal, and you wonder if the shirt deal wasn’t done just so we could give Dani, then everyone else a raise.
Puyol: 8. Think of the adjective: stalwart, indomitable, high-energy, whatever you choose, Captain Caveman was it. This wasn’t his highest-energy defensive effort, but he made up for it in other ways, most notably contributing to our all-out attack. Ray Ray’s comment about Puyol’s needing the pay the club for a season ticket shows that he doesn’t watch our captain closely enough.
Abidal: 9. A couple of wayward balls kept him from perfection, but he had the most recovered balls of any defender (11, one more than Puyol) and broke up play after play. He was on the right, the left, forward, back, helping Valdes, helping Alves, bailing us out when Maxwell/Mascherano screwed the pooch, and doing it all with style. Did anyone else notice how every time Valdes got the ball, Abidal would sprint back to give him a close-range passing option? And he did it every single time.
Maxwell: 6. He’s been better, but he wasn’t as bad as you might have thought as you squinted at the Web stream of the match. He was very instrumental in possession maintenance, with some very good passes. Yes, there were defensive lapses. He isn’t as sharp as he was earlier in the season, primarily because he isn’t getting the reps. And with Abidal’s form, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. What must Adriano be thinking?
Mascherano: 7. Again, a much better match than people gave him credit for. He has really learned to slot neatly into the way that we play football. He had to rein it in a bit after the yellow that wasn’t, but people who said that he wasn’t a good passer and not Barca quality, just be verging on obese from eating those words. He isn’t just a destroyer, much to our delight.
Xavi: 9. Great scott, what a match. When he dishes out a bad ball, it’s such a shock that it’s easy to let it color your view of his match into thinking he wasn’t his usual brilliant self. Wrong. He controlled that match to a degree that must be frustrating to watch. You want the ball, but he always has it. And you can’t get it from him. If you come close, he just slides it to Iniesta, who proceeds to do exactly what Xavi was just doing. Madness.
Iniesta: 9. Speaking of, what a remarkable match. He makes playing the way that he does look so effortless, with the constant movement and repetition of “pass, receive.” But then you watch players who are merely very good, and you understand. That goal of his, by the by, was spectacular, though I’m still not sure how he got the ball between keeper and post.
Pedro!!: 9. Again, some wayward balls kept today’s Man of the Match from a perfect score, but he was like a Tasmanian Devil out there today, winning balls, assisting, tackling, passing and receiving and vexing anyone who came near him. It was one of those stat-stuffer performances that, aside from his assists, doesn’t show up on the stat sheet in any tangible way. Yet his performance was immense, and critical to our mission of destruction.
Villa: 6. I know, I know …. you hate Villa. You betcha. It was a nice goal, and his movement early in the match was very good. I’m not sure whether it’s fitness or tentativeness, but as a match progresses, he stops making runs. What I absolutely loved about his game today, in addtion to the goal, was the constant tracking back on defense. He had a number of steals and interceptions that demonstrate how he is embracing the way that we play.
Messi: 7. Even at 3/4 speed, he’s still amazing. I don’t know why I’m so surprised that someone with that much shotmaking fluency and creativity would also be an amazing passer, but there it is. And you can see the improvement with every match. He’s becoming a leader, though in a very quiet way, and it seems that he can score at will as he makes the difficult look so easy. You try shooting across your body while moving away from the goal, then come talk to me.
Busquets (for Mascherano): 7. He’s just playing so well right now, demonstrating that different type of DM from Mascherano, one that is also a very tidy playmaker, in addition to gobbling up every ball that comes near him. So impressive.
Krkic (for Pedro!!): 7. I thought that CT had a hell of a appearance. He constantly, incessantly makes the runs that Villa doesn’t. Some of that is the energy of youth, some is certainly his better understanding of how we play. He has very quick feet and a remarkable first touch, both of which we saw in his late goal.
Keita (for Xavi): 6. With more time, he would have played to a higher rating. He doesn’t play all the time any longer, but whenever he does play, he gives his all, then waits patiently for the next time. He is always winning to do the donkey work, whether it’s executing a Xaviesque spin with the ball to free up space, making the run or crashing the box.
Y’all know what’s next, everyone: the Catalan derby, next Saturday. So get ready. If we can get through that one unscathed and with full points, sky’s the limit.