So what have we learned today, children?
Psychology is a difficult thing in sport. It’s very difficult to motivate players sometimes, particularly during times when they know that they can be complacent. Like when they roll into an away match of a two-legged tie with a 5-0 lead. This means that just to send the match into extra time, Betis would need to score 5 unanswered goals.
And you wane. You can’t help it, but you wane.
This means that the effort isn’t as high and the sharpness just isn’t there, because there’s functionally no way in hell that Betis was going to score enough goals to win that tie. Even their coach admitted that. They wanted to win the match, even if they lost the tie. We didn’t care because we knew they couldn’t score that many goals against us, and we played like that. Team win, team loss.
Guardiola rolled out with pretty much the expected lineup of Pinto, Adriano, Pique, Milito, Maxwell, Mascherano, Keita, Xavi, Afellay, Messi and Krkic. What wasn’t expected was the desultory way that they rolled into the match, during a first half that saw Betis with 45% possession, 3 goals and a lot of ire on behalf of cules everywhere. But it’s pretty simple, really.
Our high line needs pressure to work. With the right pressure, teams get stupid with the ball, and mistakes are forced, which means that our defenders are all really sweepers, picking up loose balls and feeding them back into the attack. Against a pressing, hyperactive, energetic Betis, goals were going to be conceded. And it’s easy to hang those goals on Milito, but you know my “garbage in, garbage out” theory. By the time the ball gets as deep as the defense, a significant breakdown has occurred. So Milito will be blamed because he screwed up, but everybody screwed up. Let’s have a look at the goals:
1. Milito makes the initial defensive play, overruns the ball then gets whistled for a foul on the comeback. What should be a routine set play instead finds Pique and Xavi watching the man run between the two of them, for a wide-open boot at the ball. Easy, and silly.
2. Mascherano lunges for a ball and gets caught out of position. At that point, Betis are breaking at speed and it’s a fire drill. The attacker is allowed to just get the ball and run with it, something that (it must be said here) would never happen in the Premiership. Easier to take your chances on a free kick. The dude runs past Keita, past Pique and Milito, and Pinto sits on his line for way too long even though he should have come out to close the angles and make him at least think about the shot. He came out, but way too late, and that was that.
3. Silly, silly goal as the Betis free kick comes in, and Pinto comes off his line to take it but Milito heads it away, directly to the foot of a Betis player, who takes the shot. Pique turns away, perhaps not wanting to risk mussing his face for Shakira, and Keita just misses getting there to clear the ball off the line.
The excoriation for Milito during the LiveBlog was savage, and incessant. And watching a crappy Web feed, you could be forgiven for thinking that everything was his fault. T’ain’t so. Here’s another bit of delight for you all ….
We didn’t really play that badly. There were a few loose moments that Betis took full advantage of, and the side is certainly guilty of underestimating the venom with which Betis was going to come out. Why, I couldn’t begin to tell you, since a team with nothing to lose is very, very dangerous. But that’s what happened. Yes, we played like a club missing key parts from the machine, which didn’t do all the things that it was supposed to. But we quickly regained control of the match, grabbed possession and that was that, as Betis began to worry about conceding more, after Messi scored on a brilliant piece of individual work in fighting off a passel of defenders, retaining possession and smacking it past the keeper.
That goal scared the crap out of Betis, and they began to play a bit more tentatively, after being caught on the break. And our “defense” began to work even better.
I don’t have to explain how our defense works, but I will, briefly: We keep the ball, the other team runs around chasing it, we break a man loose and he knocks the ball into the other team’s net. The end. Defenders don’t really enter into the picture, except as overlapping runners on the wing, or fielders who scoop up the increasingly desperate long balls pumped at the lone forward being played by the other team. Possession statistics are something around 70 percent for us, because we play best with the ball.
Once that begain to happen again, things stabilized. As Guardiola says, we’re crap without the ball. And so we are. Even worse, we’re crap without the ball, and a half-step behind the other side. The lack of real pressure from our forwards didn’t help, as Messi and Krkic weren’t helping the cause. Yes, Messi scored a goal, in a 5-second burst of brilliance. And then he went back to sleep, secure in the knowledge that even at 3-1 down, Betis needed 4 goals just to force extra time. And we hung out the “closed” sign.
In the second half we played better, in part because Betis ran out of energy, and switched to “Let’s just say that we beat Barca” mode, but also because we began moving better, passing better and taking control of the match. And so it ended.
And if any loss can be characterized as “good,” this one was it, for many reasons:
–It told the side that it can’t just show up.
–It knocked some complacency out of the gang, I guarantee you
–It ended the 28-match unbeaten streak, the pressure of which kept building
–It gives Guardiola the opportunity to say “See? See? Told you you all could be beaten!”
And we lost, but won. Even better, we got to see a starting role for our newest acquisition, Ibrahim Afellay, who was a standout performer. For the reasons, see the ratings below. Meanwhile, we are through to the semis against Almeria. Only a crazy person would bet against our making the finals.
There was lot of doom and naysaying during the LiveBlog, and there shouldn’t be. This signifies nothing except an example of a disjointed side, playing a match that was functionally impossible to lose, thanks to hard work at home. So in many ways, the aka part of this title, “winning by losing,” is so true.
Team: 5. There’s pride at stake. Betis is a Segunda side, people. Our team stepped up nicely, shook off the cobwebs and made sure that things didn’t get out of hand.
Guardiola: 5. Coaches can get their teams motivated for matches like that, he didn’t. And I would have flanked Messi with Afellay and Pedro!!, for the latter’s work rate and energy. The look on his face seemed to know that Betis were going to go crazy, and probably win.
Pinto: 3. Pinto had a clunker today. Two of the goals could have been stopped by him, one with more alert play and the other by calling off Milito since he had the play on the ball for the catch. Instead it became a mess, and a goal. No, he doesn’t play enough to fix those things, but that’s Keeping 101.
Adriano: 2. He needs reps. He wasn’t as horrific as everyone thinks, but it’s clear that he’s out of his element. We sent a Swiss Army Knife to do the job of a scimitar, with the expected results. He plays too quickly, and isn’t sufficiently decisive with his movement or his passing. Let’s hope that changes.
Pique: 5. A series of excellent defensive plays, and seemed to sense that the best thing to do whenever he could, was just boot it out. But he was on the scene with a chance to stop two of the goals, and failed to do so.
Milito: 3. Again, not as horrible as everyone thinks, but his sloppy foul led to the first Betis goal, and his inept header led to the second. Don’t head a ball away on your goal line, unless you are heading it out for a corner. Simple. Yes, he’s guilty of being slow, but so is Pique.
Maxwell: 4. Um, how about some offense from the left side? Just a little. Thanks much.
Mascherano: 5. A solid match, with a number of excellent steals and interventions, but the lunge to lead to the Betis jailbreak for the second, then the foul for the free kick for the third were both plays that a sharp El Jefe doesn’t make.
Keita: 7. A highlight, with his tireless work rate. A number of times he was stranded with the ball and got into trouble. Not his fault. You just can’t leave him by himself like that, with nobody coming back for the ball. Just one sign of the disjointed side today.
Xavi: 5. His command and control were way off today, and he was giving balls away, which is uncharacteristic. Again, a sharp Xavi doesn’t do those things. He’s also used to having help against a pressing, physical attack. But Mascherano was playing deep and Keita wasn’t going to be a cohort.
Messi: 2. He scored the goal, but took most of the match off, and that penalty miss was ridiculous.
Afellay: 7. Another first half highlight, as he took the ball and got forward whenever he could, attacking, passing, moving and even playing defense. Also had an excellent blast from distance that surprised their keeper. I’d love to see him with the A side in a match in which everyone is sharp.
Krkic: 2. Chance after chance he gets, and doesn’t make anything of them. He said after the match that he was satisfied with his game. Don’t see how. He wasn’t making runs, wasn’t doing any of the work that an attacker is supposed to do. He gave balls away, couldn’t hold his position and didn’t help press. Ow.
Busquets (for Xavi): 6. He was playing to a higher rating. His pace, nimbleness and agility with the ball really stabilized the midfield.
Abidal (for Afellay): 6. He came in, and the drama pretty much ended. Pace fixes a lot of woes, people. And calmness on the ball.
Jeffren (for Krkic): incomplete. He didn’t really get enough time for a rating, and didn’t do much when in the match.
And that’s that. Yes, we lost. Get over it. We aren’t going to win every match, and if we have to lose, a match such as this one is perfect. Betis were playing for pride in front of their fans. That keeps a side going for a while, then the better side will usually take control, which is what happened. Next up is Almeria, for a trip to the Copa finals. Visca Barca!