When this game was first announced I knew it would be the perfect opportunity for me to redeem myself to my father and brother, having missed both of their birthdays this year. What could be a better trip for a family of soccer nerds than a trip to see the two best teams in Europe last season? It was the game of champions, the ultimate revenge match, it was essentially the Champions League final being played over again on American soil… What’s that? It’s only a friendly?
Sir Alex said it best after the match, “To be honest, both teams made a lot of changes so it’s difficult to gauge exactly the importance of the result.” I’m one of those people who is not fun to be around when my team loses, especially when they are beaten but my old man’s team. Yet this game left me with a lot to be happy about, and if I had to give it an alter-ego I’d call it “The Good, the Bad, and the Lovely.” Let’s start with the good.
Jonathon Dos Santos isn’t a right back by choice, but his future in the team will depend on how well he plays there. With the team having a packed midfield already, and the threat of Fabregas looming, being versatile and dependable is Dos Santos’ path into the first team. He had a great game – intercepting, making himself available, making smart passes, and getting up and down the line well. I was ready to write him off and take a couple million for him before this match, but after this performance I think he should be given a chance to earn the “hatchet man” role in the team.
The young players impressed me in general. I’m not going to say much since it’s hard to keep Cuenca straight from Cormona straight from some other random youngster when you’re in the stands straining your neck to see around the tall bald guy in front of you while trying to drink your third beer. I will say that Espinosa was a livewire for the five minutes he was on the field. The best part is that many of our most promising prospects weren’t even there…
For the bad, let’s start with Busquets. Suffice to say he didn’t have the best match. More importantly, his poor game is symptomatic of a much deeper problem we could be facing this season – a lack of pace in the back. Both of United’s goals came from quick counter attacks. The first could be attributed to an offside trap mistake, but the second (and a potential third that Owen missed when it would have been easier to score) were the result of United outpacing our back line. Guardiola has a lot of options for centerback – Busquets, Abidal, and Mascherano can all fill in but none of them should be considered permanent solutions. Judging on how difficult it has been for center backs to acclimate the past couple of years, this should be a top priority for the club.
My old man noted after the game that “Barcelona dominated the game, but rarely really looked like scoring.” I ignored his effusive praising of United that directly followed, but I thought he was spot on with this analysis. I didn’t think any of the first team forwards played well, but can’t put my finger on any common cause. Missing Messi? Maybe. Pedro annoyed me the least of the three. Like a cog in a machine he is essential when the machine is running well, but if another part of the machine is broken he can run and run as much as he wants – the machine will still be broken. Meanwhile Afellay was doing his best central midfielder impersonation. He played two phenomenal balls into the box (I’ll get back to this in a second) when he stayed wide and high, but he spent the majority of the time trying to give Thiago a hug. That, coupled with that fact that he runs into the end line way too fast leaves me thinking his best position is still center mid. Add on that he hurt himself at the worst possible time, and it wasn’t the best game for Afellay. Villa, Villa, Villa. He is more frustrating to watch in person than on TV. I was so confused by his positioning all night (and not the I’m a defender and I just got tricked confused, more the WHY THE HELL ARE YOU STANDING OFFSIDE? WHY AREN’T YOU ANYWHERE NEAR THE BOX FOR AFELLAY’S PERFECT CROSS? confused). For my money, Villa was the worst of the three.
The game also highlighted one reason we were so keen on signing Sanchez. We have lacked a forward who can spearhead a counter attack since the footballing demise of Thierry Henry. Several times we had chances to counter but didn’t have a quick, direct forward to make it happen, and those chances died. Sanchez will provide us these opportunities if we want to take them, and it will be nice to see a little Blitzkrieg added into the trench warfare. Finally – without Messi there it is painfully obvious we lack an attacking focal point. It might seem like a luxury now to have a forward who con occupy the opposition center backs, but later in the season it may become a necessity.
The lovely came in two completely different packages Saturday night. One player who is so nondescript you wouldn’t pick him out of a lineup of Asian players, and another who plays with the bravado of a swordfighter from a Dumas novel. Fontas can make the extraordinary look boring, while Thiago can add flair to the simplest of passes. They both played fantastic. Fontas won basically everything that came his way with a simple nonchalance. Thiago has the Midas touch of late, and I would be hard pressed to name many players that were more dominant throughout the game than he was. It’s going to be a joy to watch them this season.
I’ll leave you with some quotes from the guys sitting behind me:
“I’ll know who all these players are and what their numbers are when FIFA ’12 comes out.”
Guy 1: “Number 2 just came on the field… that doesn’t look like Dani Alves.”
Guy 2: “It has to be Dani Alves, he always wears 2.”