The thing about bragging, is that it ain’t bragging if you can back it up. This is how the weekend was supposed to go:
–EE break out the whippin’ stick on Hee HON at home, then kick back in their Barcaloungers (oh, yes …. and I know) to watch Villarreal torment us.
–We, lacking a fully fit Messi, Abidal, Xavi, Puyol and Pedro!!, then drop points to Villarreal, thus saying “Game on!” for the Liga championship.
But the script was flipped, by identical scorelines. The Moustache pulls out a stunner in the Lair of Evil, and Pique bangs in one humdinger of a goal to do the dirty deed against Villarreal, and we got a shout-out from Ray Ray (Thanks to Jnice for the upload!). This match was immense, and in the wake of Luke’s excellent post-mortem, I wanted to throw a few thoughts out, mostly to remain in practice, since it’s been some time since I’ve watched a match in anger, so to speak.
And yet, all I could do instead of taking the usual copious notes, was smack myself upside the head and think “Man, Thiago is gonna be good.”
Usually when you roll an effectively untested player out to give him a start, you do it against a lower-table side so that if he screws the pooch, it really won’t be that damaging. Rarely do you see a player such as Thiago rolled out against a side that HAS to win to stay in the race for the last automatic Champions League spot, is in third place in the Liga and has the kinds of players that can put the knife in, pouncing on any moments of silliness or indecision.
Guardiola did, and his decision was rewarded with a highlight reel match from Thiago Alcantara. Now, let’s throw all of the caveats out there right now:
–He will have bad matches until he settles
–The hype shouldn’t go crazy
–What will happen when defenses figure him out
In many ways, Thiago, Afellay, Dos Santos, etc are what make Guardiola’s staying another season or two crucial. He has a knack for getting the most out of young players. Has anyone seen Krkic playing with as much freedom and fluency as he did yesterday, in Deu knows how long? Exactly. I shudder to think of what a new coach might mean for the development of Thiago, who if he keeps his head on straight and gets the right coaching, is going to be a staggering midfielder.
Is he the next Xavi? No. If you watch him right now, he really has a very difficult time standing still. Xavi’s fluent-but-compact movements mean that the offense always has a focal point. As Thiago runs around and Iniesta does his thing, you could see times when the person with the ball wasn’t sure what to do, since the usual bulwark was absent due to biggus mouthus cronicus.
Thiago’s long-range and aerial passes are a true delight to watch, as well as the spin he puts on balls, curling them to meet the run of a player so that all the player has to do is collect and move. This is his most Xavi-like quality, to me, along with his comfort in close spaces. You folks with the match on DVR should find your way to the 37:20 mark of the first half, in which Pique throws a weak pass to Thiago, who is surrounded by 5 Villarreal players. He calmly takes, dribbles, fakes and slides the ball back to Pique. Craziness. Youth is audacious, because that’s what being young is for. And he’s a tricky little sucker. But like Ronaldinho before the wheels came off, Thiago uses his trickery for good, and he isn’t flamboyant, just effective.
Right now, he is a high-risk player, who chooses to attempt the passes that Xavi shakes his head at. That will change (or not), dependent upon his role in the side. He has pace that enables him to get up and down the pitch, making a steal on the defensive end then taking the ball in midfield to control the attack. He also has extraordinary foot control, that lets him curl and bend balls through passing lanes to find the right players. But that high-risk nature also makes him careless with the ball at times, a dangerous trait to a side that plays defense through possession, as we do.
This match for me, was full of little moments. Another one that spoke with eloquence was when Thiago just one-timed a chip that found Alves in perfect stride. Messi stabbed a pass to him, and Thiago didn’t even have to control it, seeming to control the ball with the simple action of passing it. Impressive.
Yes, people uttered many of these same words about Bojan Krkic when he debuted. And Guy Assulin was supposed to be the divine crack, right? Things could go wrong, potential could go unrealized. Look at Gio Dos Santos. But from what I have seen of Thiago, and if he stays in the right hands, the future is bright, indeed.
Finally, as usual, hats off to the wondrous Allas of YouTube fame, who has this Thiago compilation. Don’t know where our Barca-loving lives would be without this person:
Some other stuff from the match:
–Those wondering why Pique and Busquets switched positions, need only look at what happened with Rossi in the first half (when he could have, and probably should have put us 2-0 down by the 12-minute mark), compared to the second half. Just as I thought “What the hell is Pique doing over there,” I then thought “Hey, where’s Rossi?”
–The only thing that kept Mascherano from being my MOTM was Valdes. Mascherano does what a DM is supposed to do, first of all: stop the ball. Think of the attacks that Villarreal mounted through the middle of the pitch, wherein the player with the ball had to either stop and regroup, or got obliterated by a sliding tackle. Enough of those come in, and mids start getting happy feet. This might not have been his best match for us, but it was certainly his most effective, as he just owned the center of the pitch. And recall the early chance for Villarreal in our area that Mascherano just stonewalled with one of his classic sliders. His passing is also fast improving.
–Villarreal got tired, and sat back a bit more in the second half. This was a huge help as their high, intense pressing was causing all sorts of complexities in the first half. It also showed the fitness of our players, who can press like that for an entire match.
–Those who say that Guardiola’s lineup and match strategy wasn’t altered by the EE loss should reconsider. Suddenly, even a draw was okay. Yes, our all-out attacking was hampered by the notable absences, but there is comfort in knowing that your side can lose and still not lose.
–Lionel Messi is a presence, even when he isn’t at his best. When he came on as a substitute, suddenly life for Villarreal got a lot more complex because we had another passer, creator and scorer on the pitch. It also brought life to a spot that wasn’t being covered by glory by Keita, who rarely does well in a match that fast-moving and pressure-heavy. At least not without Xavi. He was probably thinking, “Why won’t that damn kid stand still?”
–Santi Cazorla is a monster. He almost killed us three times, twice with passes, once with a shot that Valdes had to pull an amazing kick save out of his butt for.
–The title isn’t done, but let’s look at our remaining schedule: H-Almeria; A-EE; H-Osasuna; A-Sociedad; H-Espanyol; A-Levante; H-Deportivo; A-Malaga. That’s right. Except for Espanyol, there are no real bogey teams on that list of fixtures, one that would essentially need to see us drop at least 9 points in 8 matches to lose the Liga title to EE, who have to run a gauntlet of: A-Bilbao; H-Us; A-Valencia; H-Zaragoza; A-Sevilla; H-Getafe; A-Villarreal; H-Almeria.
Stranger things have happened, but if you were to ask me who’d be more likely to drop points in these last 8 matches, it’s a no-brainer.
And mostly for the sake of the KRS, here are some player ratings:
Team: 6. Playing at part-throttle for much of the time, possession footy was on full display. Those saying that we weren’t doing much with the ball on attack, should note that we didn’t have to. If we had the ball, Villarreal didn’t, which means that they weren’t going to score.
Guardiola: 10. Right starting XI, right subs, right game plan and the right switches in strategy to bring the demonic Cazorla/Rossi tandem in check.
Valdes: 10. If I could give a 16, I would. He had an astounding match. Yes, there is an element of luck in goalkeeping, but it’s also reading a match. He was as sharp as he knew he had to be, making match and potentially, season-saving stops. I still don’t know how he got hold of that late Cazorla blast. Man of the Match, locked down and tied up.
Alves: 7. Missing his partners in crime made his less effective, but his runs into space were still destabilizing. There’s a degree of irony in the fact that a player named Catala had such a good match on Alves’ side of the pitch.
Pique: 7. Easily his best match in some time for us. His forays up the pitch were decisive and controlled, and he was everywhere across that back line. Then, lest we forget, what a goal! A player with less control and skill gets that ball nabbed by the keeper.
Busquets: 7. Early on, Rossi took advantage of his tendency to roam for his defense-busting runs. The switch let Busquets not get caught on the wrong side of Rossi (as he did on that first run). The rest of Busquets’ game was excellent as usual, from anticipation of attacks and passing, to getting gangly limbs into passing lanes for attack-starting steals.
Adriano: 7. Still some positional issues that reared their heads once or twice, but it seems that he has become the left back of choice (we’ll know for sure when Maxwell gets fully fit). Pace, physicality and strong passing are a few reasons. He even did an Abidalesque walrus header, when he stumbled and fell while running to clear a ball.
Mascherano: 9. Dude had bleeding cleat holes in his knee, and limped back onto the pitch to continue destroying everything that came near him. Busquets is a more typical Barca DM, but there will always be matches where you just need a destroyer. No, sMasch isn’t just a destroyer. But rest assured that his business cards say: Javier Mascherano: Breaker-up of stuff
Thiago: 8. He made errors, to be sure, but his list of attributes and how his game went are all noted above.
Iniesta: 7. Fine match, though curiously subdued by his standards. He also missed a number of runs that Xavi probably wouldn’t have, a consequence of an attacking player rather than a pure creator (Xavi). His work rate was incessant, and he always seemed to be where the ball was, like magic.
Keita: 5. He struggled today. Xavi in particular provides him with a linchpin that rarely finds him stuck with the ball, as he was many times during this match. The aggressive pressing of Villarreal caught him out.
Afellay: 6. Solid and effective, as one play showed his real value to us as he blitzed up the wing to run onto an outlet pass and wreak havoc. He’s still finding his way, and struggled a bit with a more limited role on the left side. Made some good crosses, including a couple that you just know Messi, had he been in the match, would have run onto and tapped home.
Villa: 3. Profoundly ineffective, which wasn’t entirely his fault as the left side of the attack was a wasteland, and Iniesta/Thiago weren’t giving him the service that he’s used to. But when he did get that service, he seemed to be running in quicksand, missing no fewer than 3 glorious chances to run onto a ball. He doesn’t do well as a lone striker, but this time he didn’t even come to life when Messi entered the match.
Messi (for Keita): 6. He didn’t play all that brilliantly, even as he had a deep, lasting effect on the match. When “Uh, oh, it’s the little guy!” happens, everyone’s lives get easier.
Krkic (for Villa): incomplete. Didn’t get enough time for a full rating, but he really is starting to look like his season might not be a total loss. He wasn’t even getting knocked off the ball as he usually does, and his runs were strong and purposeful.
Dos Santos (for Afellay): incomplete. A couple of really nice moments, but not really enough time to properly evaluate.
P.S. Huge congratulations to our own Don Andres, who has spawned. He’s a father, and his daughter’s name is Valeria. Probably explains why he wasn’t all there yesterday. Who would be?