Fat lot of good it did Deportivo La Coruna to play turtle, as they still got a four-spot dropped on ’em. Yes, better that than a manita, right? Maybe. I wouldn’t presume to speak for that club, but judging from the reactions of their fans as they were playing at 0-2 as if protecting a 1-0 lead, probably not.
But that’s what we’ve reduced sides to, the notion of “losing with honor,” as if such a contradiction in terms were possible. A loss should gall, stick in the craw like a barnacled artichoke. Instead, people see the Blaugrana shirts and think, even at 0-2 down, “Let’s not lose by any more.” It’s psychological, and brutally so. There are many, many matches that we win even before the first ball is kicked, as teams think about us and what we bring to the table, and say “Okay, play tight and let’s see what happens.”
Heck, we all know what happens.
If you sit back, you cede possession to us. When you do that, a number of things happen:
1. We will score, eventually, barring a superhuman effort for 90+ minutes
2. You won’t score, because we have the ball
3. The rare chance that you get you will probably choke, because you’ll be shocked and play too quickly
4. And we’ll redouble our efforts to never let you have the ball
As Deportivo went, so goeth many of our matches this season, a year that I can so far label The Terror. Because it isn’t just that we have some of the greatest offensive players in the game playing for us. Pep Guardiola has instilled an insatiability that has as its progeny a willingness to work. Hard. So Villa tracks back, Messi tracks back, Pedro!! tracks back, just as the fullbacks run at you on offense and mids create suffocating pressure that eases the job of our defenders, who just scoop up loose balls and feed them right back into the mixer.
This system isn’t impossible to play against, because we’ve seen sides have success against us. But now that we are taking every match seriously (can’t wait for that Hercules rematch!), our system is pretty close to impossible to play against, because it’s rooted in constant movement, on and off the ball. Do you play a zone, and mark spaces? Or do you try to choke off the midfield with aggressive man marking. With the former, a moment of brilliance kills you. With the latter, Messi drops back to become a playmaker, and everything shifts. Either way, you die.
Deportivo chose a defense in depth, hoping that they could do something Guardiola’s XI of Valdes, Adriano, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, Mascherano, Keita, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro!! and Villa. After all, the Puppetmaster isn’t out there, right? Iniesta can’t be as good a playmaker as Xavi, can he? Close up those spaces and see what happens. For just over 20 minutes, it worked, but then something remarkable and inevitable happened. Mascherano made a defensive play, gangstering the ball from Deportivo, and played it to Pique, who was being rather lackadaisical about play. Mascherano called for the ball, because he saw that Deportivo had a numerical imbalance, and Messi was enjoying that rarest of things, a puddle of pitch all to himself. Pique played to Mascherano, who played a quick, hard pass to Messi, who found Villa sitting just on the shoulder of a just-reset defense, between two defenders. A subtle look was exchanged, Villa made the run just as Messi released the ball, leaving the two flat-footed defenders for dead. He played between the legs of the charging keeper, and it was 1-0.
It was yet another goal from us that had its roots in defense, and also a demonstration of why, when Maradona was asked about his ideal World Cup XI, said “Mascherano and 11 others.” El Jefe was spectacular today, in a way that I can’t ever remember us having. He takes balls from people. We have had The Yaya, a planet-sized defender who can win balls, and Busquets, who plays exceptional position defense, winning balls with anticipation of play patterns and being in the right spot. But the appropriately nicknamed sMasch just strolls over and takes it. Sometimes its a standing steal, other times a slide tackle. Still other times it’s just making life so difficult that you’re loose with possession, then he or someone else steals it.
It’s also a style that’s perfect for a Xavi-less midfield, because rather than the metronomic precision of our Maestro, Iniesta brings a bit more daring to the role. The results are roughly the same, but midfield play will be a bit looser. When that happens, you need someone to fix a problem. That someone is Mascherano.
That we got to the half only 0-1 up was surprising, after an Eric Abidal goal was correctly ruled offside, a goal that was yet another example of how amazing Messi was being when he wasn’t vexing the crap out of me. He spanked a pass into space for Abidal, who was playing like a forward at the edge of the defense, waiting to make the run. The pass took into account Abidal’s pace. It just didn’t take into account the speed of his takeoff, as our French Greyhound was off by a shoulder lean.
But 0-2 was inevitable, and beautiful. Messi worked the ball loose with a battling burst of one-man pressure, and was off to the races before having his shirt grabbed by a Deportivo defender to stop his breakaway. So Messi shook Villa off of the ensuing free kick, and unleashed this curlicue of a ball that had the poor Deportivo keeper throwing up his hands in frustration. It was an unstoppable shot that seemed to bend twice in the air, for a 0-2 lead that might as well have been 0-20, given how much Deportivo threatened our nets.
It was also a goal that removed all hope for Deportivo, which meant of course that more were to come, even as they switched to damage limitation mode. Our third goal was, like so many of our goals, rooted in the hard work of someone who is not the scorer. Pique battled Deportivo defenders for the ball, retaining possession like an attacking midfielder or forward with such grace and fluency, a newcomer could be forgiven for wondering why we had such a tall mid out there. He regained possession and smoked a pass to Iniesta, who drifted left and unleashed a savage snap shot that was in the back of the net before Arranzubia could even think about it.
The force field was still down, and the difference between Iniesta and Xavi, even as they play the same role, was clear. Its simple definition can be found in the adage “with risk comes reward.” Iniesta is always an attacking player, even when he’s the distributor. Xavi always has the steering wheel in his hand, and sometimes looks to distribute to a fault. Both are magical, but in very different ways. This match made it abundantly clear, at least for me, who the successor to Xavi is.
The fourth goal came shortly thereafter as a Messi-led fast break found him being absolutely cleared out by a Deportivo defender, only to have the loose change fall to Pedro!!, who chipped in a deft shot for number four.
Taking nothing from Deportivo, this was a routine victory from a side that has yet to lose on the road, a mark that is yet another sign of its steel core. It takes a lot to roll into another club’s lair and slap it in the face. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This is an amazing, special club that we need to celebrate every time that it plays. Even when not at its best, as it was today, there will still be moments of beauty that take your breath away: a perfectly weighted Iniesta backheel to Messi; a one-touch midfield interplay at full speed; a spin that leaves a defender for dead. Our beloved club won’t always be this amazing, and I’m happy to be around to witness it all.
Team: 8. Exceptional group effort in a destruction of a defense-minded side. Breaking buses takes extra work and movement, all willingly provided by a group of players never content to rest on laurels. It’s defense and attack as a team, and all-out efforts to get the ball back.
Guardiola: 8. A good rotation that worked like a charm. The match was decided by the time he made and subs, but it was nice to see the future get some playing time.
Valdes: 7. What I liked so much about Valdes’ match today was his distribution, that was well thought-out and hit with accuracy and power. And what a save in extra time, to deny Deportivo its consolation goal.
Adriano: 5. Very solid. People who were finding much to dislike about his game today will also, upon futher review, find much to like. His pace and work rate are exceptional, and he had any number of first-rate, very intelligent passes. Also note how well he switches the pitch. It wouldn’t take a lot to imagine, in a world in which Dani Alves moves on in search of filthy lucre, more reps turning Adriano into a right back that wouldn’t lose us all that much from Alves, and gain us some pace. He would be a different player from Alves, so they couldn’t be compared. That said ….
Pique: 4. Still slumping for me, with those long diagonal balls that never work, uncertain play and movement on the defensive end and a laconic approach to his play that, when we turn possession, sees us losing the advantage of a defender playing the ball quickly up the pitch.
Puyol: 6. The defense was a little sloppy on a few occasions, and he has to get his mates’ tendency to head the ball aimlessly into the air to clear it, under control. That can lead to sure danger. Mostly good, but guessed wrong a number of times.
Abidal: 8. Another exceptional match, and the goal would have made it even better. But he and Mascherano just owned their patches of the terra today. He is, right now, in addition to being our best defender, the calmest defender with the ball.
Mascherano: 9. Held back from perfection only by a few loose passes, El Jefe is a player that needs to get more time in the side. His defense is exceptional, his passing world class and his transition from defense to offense can catch many a side off guard. A remarkable player, who is looking like a bargain at his price, given his quality.
Keita: 8. Keita is that guy, like that friend you have that is always there for you. He makes runs, steals, defends, harasses, passes, tracks back and does everything that club needs to win. You can see why Guardiola is so fond of him when he plays as he had these last two matches.
Iniesta: 9. He was extraordinary today in his holding creative role, keeping possession when necessary, attacking when necessary. A beautifully taken goal capped off a stunner of a performance. I still don’t know why some say that he isn’t the Xavi heir apparent, particularly after a match such as today.
Messi: 7. His work rate kept him from being rated lower for selfishness. He ignored teammates on too many occasions, even as he also accounted for three of our four goals today. Dribbling into 3 or 4 defenders is rarely a recipe for success, despite what the highlight reels tell him.
Pedro!!: 4. Despite the goal, his weakest match ever in the colors, as he just couldn’t do much right except for work his butt off. Even when you can’t score, you can still work to track back, be available on the runs and make movements that create space for teammates, all of which he did.
Villa: 5. Better today, but still making the wrong runs. You could see Messi correcting him on more than one occasion today. He’s still finding his way, learning when to make runs and when not to, what side of a player to be on and how to move. It will come. A very well-taken goal, that took into account the running keeper’s stride length. Crazy.
Krkic (for Villa): 2. Nothing good, yet again. Made a few runs, got in the way effectively on the run leading up to the 4th goal.
Afellay (for Pedro!!): incomplete. Not enough time to rate, but more than enough time to anticipate this dude getting more time. He moved, passed and received as if one of us already. It’s easy to see what Guardiola means about his “flawless” assimilation.
Thiago (for Iniesta): incomplete. Watching Thiago and Afellay demonstrates that the former is still a work in progress, but the end result should be stunning. He has confidence, but not assurance. That will come, along with improvements at reading the match and learning when to take risk.
Next up is the first Copa leg against Betis. Not sure who will play for Guardiola, but as noted before, I want to see me some more Afellay. This dude, for 3m, could turn out to be the bargain of the century.
P.S. soccermomof4 asked me to translate this sign, as part of the review, that was shown when Krkic entered the match: Bojan, te cambio tu pantalon por un pimiento de Padron. And frankly, I can’t. I can do a literal translation, but my colloquialism needs work, particularly when I realize that Pimientos de Padron are little peppers that are served in bars and restaurants, sort of a fun delicacy in which you never know when one will be hot. Kinda like Krkic. Or there might be a jibe at his testicular capacity. Padron is also a small town in Galicia. So my willingness has been quashed by my lack of full knowledge. Anyone?