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Barça 5, Cordoba 0, aka “Does it matter how the chef stirs the pot?”

cordpedro

Bwahahahahahahahahahahahaha (pant, pant!) bwahahahahahahahaha!

Whew! Now that I am composed, Barça put the hammer down on Cordoba 5-0, to roll into the holiday break with a bang. This was a match was either wasn’t very interesting or fascinating as can be, depending on what you were looking for.

Prima facie Barça did what it was supposed to do in stomping a relegation side in Cordoba. 5-0. So what. Couldn’t they score any more? They put eight past Huesca. Do these guys suck, or what?

What was interesting for me was that Cordoba had 8, sometimes 9 in the box, determined to prevent Barça from scoring. Once Pedro stamped that first notion with a giant FAIL, their plan B was to stay close and maybe nick one on the counter. Luis Suarez’s soft shoe nutmeg put paid to that, and the rest was history.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Review, Thoughts24 Comments

The talent complexity, aka “Having your cake and the patience to let it bake”

adama

Adama Traore. Sigh, swoon, right? Riiiight.

After his goal against Huesca, the hype rose to an even higher level for this astonishing talent who has an even more astonishing physique. But let’s have a closer look at the situation, how it is and what it might or might not mean.

Traore scored that goal against Huesca, a Segunda B side. He should have done exactly what he did, which was own those defenders with pace and strength, and put the ball past the keeper. It’s just as the first team, which won the match 8-1, was supposed to do, particularly as Huesca’s lineup was chosen with its real competition (they are currently top in Segunda B) in mind.

So what do we have with Adama Traore, besides blinding talent in a man’s body?

Don’t know yet. Could be Neymar with power, could be Deulofeu with muscles. But a few things have to happen for us to know decisively, all most likely away from Barça.
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Posted in Analysis, Barcelona B, La Liga, Thoughts14 Comments

Getafe 0, Barça 0, aka “The correct answer to the blame question is ‘all of the above'”

getpdr

The rain, the pitch, no penalty, Enrique sucks, Alves …

The quest for blame in the wake of a negative result scatters thoughts like dandelion spores in a hurricane, a fascinating search that often finds them landing in odd places and pollinating certain ideas.

But today’s draw vs Getafe was a great many things all at once, too many to lay at the feet of an individual unless that individual is the Getafe team, which played like lions today. Want to blame someone? Curse them and their moving, aggressive, systematic defense that took full advantage of a Barça team coming off of a very difficult mid-week match against a strong European opponent.

Full credit to a brave opponent, who were it not for a couple of Claudio Bravo saves, could have caused a much bigger upset than the absence of full points for Barça.

Rather than playing the blame game, let’s assess something of what happened today, and whether there are any solutions at hand.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Review33 Comments

Barça vs PSG … for all the marbles

ibra

Another guest appearance from Peter, with this preview of today’s match.

Here’s one important thing to know about PSG. The Proud Sons of Gaul are unbeaten so far both domestically and in the Champions League. After 16 rounds in Ligue 1 and five matches in the Champions League, Paris-Saint-Germain is the only top team in Europe not to know defeat in all competitions. Let that one sink in. Seventeen matches in Ligue 1, five in the Champions League, PSG have never walked off the pitch without points. Also, they are second in Ligue 1.

No, it’s not wrong math. Apart from being unbeaten, PSG are also the top team in Europe with most draws, eight to be precise. Missing Thiago Silva and Ibrahimovic often can lead to this – T.Silva did not play in six of the eight draws, whereas Ibra missed four of the eight. Here is something even more interesting: PSG drew only once when both Ibra and Silva played – on opening day, against Reims. Ibra scored two goals, in the 7th and the 63rd minute, but it wasn’t enough to overwhelm a stubborn Reims, which managed to withstand the ceaseless tidal wave of Parisian Blue desperately trying to get away with the three points.

As you well remember, neither Ibra nor Silva were in the team which defeated Barcelona at Parc des Princes. I am opening that wound so that you get a real picture of what is really in for Barcelona tomorrow. Thiago Silva is recovered. Ibrahimovic has recovered. The cold truth is this: If Barcelona wants the top spot, it needs to win, against the undefeated Gauls’ finest, come hell or high water.

As mentioned, right now PSG are in second place, one point off table leaders Olympique de Marseille, who are coached by none other than Pep and Tata’s Obi-Wan, His Loconess Marcelo Bielsa. PSG won that match, at home, with a goal in each half, but could’ve gone at least two-nil down in the opening ten minutes. Still, it’s the end result that matters, and PSG took the three points, which maintains them in the struggle for the title.

Laurent Blanc has brought every available player for the match, underlying its importance for the whole team, not just the lucky 18 who will get to suit up for the match.

So how do PSG score their goals?

Like previous opponent Valencia, PSG use their flanks A LOT, even more than Barcelona. This tactic is combined with long balls, both to the sides and to the center. The reasoning is simple – PSG’s attackers have lots of pace (Lucas Moura, Lavezzi, Cavani, Ibrahimovic) and height (Ibrahimovic, Cavani, Pastore) which gives them a distinct advantage in claiming the first ball. From there the ball can be passed wide to stretch the defense and give time to the strikers to get in central positions for the resulting crosses in order to take advantage of Cavani and Ibra´s height; another often used method is nodding down the ball to on-rushing players from the second line, or, if the ball is delivered close to the box, directly attempting to score. Such long balls are often launched either by the defense or by the wide midfielders (Veratti and Pastore) when they are in deep positions, usually when the team is sitting deep and tries to take advantage of the high defensive line of the opponent.

It works very well because Cavani and Ibrahimovic are both very tall and very good at holding their markers at arm´s length. There is lots of space behind the defense, and while one striker(Ibra or Cavani for example) is in a forward position and drawing the CBs, the other is trailing that trio, maintaining a position between the lines and looking for an opening. On occasion Ibra has done a reverse of that – he tracks back and draws forward the CB, who don’t mark him closely due to both his physical superiority, but also because they realize they are leaving the whole central avenue (better said boulevard) wide open. Ibra receives the ball between the lines, controls it and then sends it over the CBs’s heads for the darting Lavezzi and Cavani.

Crosses in the area: A favourite target is the back post, with a steep cross that curves away from the keeper. This fulfills two purposes: the trajectory practically bypasses the opposing CBs, the curvature does not permit the keeper to step forward and claim it, and the steeply arriving ball can be used either for a header or a kick – and it doesn’t require a tall player. Veratti is 1.65.

Crosses to the zone of the near post are usually low, with the intention that Ibra for example will be able to control the ball and shield it, and then conjure up a goal. It has worked.

Another tactic, which relies a lot on the dribbling and pace of Lucas Moura is to send him the ball, have him overcome the fullback and sprint to the side of the box hopefully drawing the left CB out of position and cutting to the unmarked striker in central positions. That’s the basic modus operandi, and in general it works, despite Ibra’s numerous injuries this season.

PSG has a very strong starting eleven in midfield and in attack, and its central defender duo are starting Brazil CBs Thiago Silva and David Luiz, backed by the veteran(35 years old) Camara and Marquinhos.

In attack it boasts The Zlatan, Cavani and perhaps not so talented, but very willing and hardworking player in Lavezzi. In midfield, Thiago Motta is starting anchor, often accompanied by Veratti, considered by many the answer to Squadra Azurri’s problem when at some point Andrea Pirlo decides that he has to retire. Lucas Moura has dribbling, speed and physicality in buckets, which makes him so dangerous out wide. When he plays behind the three strikers, he creates a lot of danger by sliding in the open space behind the backs of the defense, which for its part is focused on the strikers. This allows Moura to receive a cut back pass or a high cross in the area at the far post in direct proximity of goal, with potentially fatal consequences. Pastore and enforcer Matiudi complete the roster.

The main goalscoring threats so far have been Cavani with 12 in all competitions, Ibra with 9 and Lucas Moura with 6, but a total of thirteen players have scored this season, and against Barcelona last time the goals were scored by David Luiz, Veratti and Matiudi. Lucas Moura in particular is enjoying a sensational season. As of today, with less than half the season gone, he has scored more goals this season than in the whole of last. His assists have suffered a bit and his chance creating as well, but that is to be expected when he’s much more the recipient than the creator. Still, Lucas has given more key passes than any other PSG player.

The main assisters, and this stat will illustrate much better the way PSG plays, are wide mids Pastore and Veratti, and fullbacks Maxwell and Van der Wiel.

But on the bright side…

Enough scares? Okay, let’s turn to defensive issues. Yes, they exist. PSG has kept a total of seven clean sheets domestically, conceding 12 goals in the process, and another four in the Champions League. It has conceded in a total of 13 of the 22 matches played.

The Parisians often mark quite loosely, something which will probably change tonight, but a lot of the goals they concede are from leaving too much space for the opposition strikers. The defense suffers when it has to track back under pressure and fast combinations on the move make them very nervous. However, the greatest issue is ball tunnel vision. More than once PSG has been found lacking due to the fact that up to four defenders concentrate their movement and attention on the player with the ball. The problem with that is that they lose sight of the attackers they are supposed to mark, often at the far post. Another problem has been opposition strikers fading away. When a cross is played from wide after a fast counter or a fast attack, the attackers terminate their dash a fraction earlier. Since the PSG defense has its eyes on the ball, the defenders continue their defensive runs until the last moment, assuming that the strikers are still off their shoulder. The result is that opposing strikers have the time and space to concentrate on the incoming ball, which in many cases overflies the PSG defense.

PSG’s defenders are, I believe, susceptible to errors from pressing. Lack of pressing from the opposition strikers allows the fullbacks to run forward and create threats and opportunities, allows defenders to send accurate long balls to the tall strikers up front, with all unpleasant consequences.

A draw is as good as a win

PSG does not need to win. It needs to stop Barcelona from winning. Still, I believe we will see a similar game to the previous one, with a lot of flank attacks, and there will be targeting of the Barcelona pivot. I expect a solid defense under the guidance of Thiago Silva, with the rest of the team dropping back to press and harass.

I cannot really point out a key element in tonight’s clash. They are all vital. Midfield control is important, very much so, but I believe even more important will be the flank battles, especially on the Barcelona left, and increased aerial duels efficiency. If the striker team presses the defense successfully, then Pique and Mathieu, and Alba will have an easier time dealing with Lucas, Cavani and Ibra, but even more importantly, it could mean ball recovery in the defensive third of PSG, which would lead to instability and turnovers due to wayward passing under pressure. Chances are created by that.

Blanc is coming with everyone and everything he has. He has not responded on whether Ibrahimovic will start. Last week PSG’s medics announced that Ibra’s ongoing heel problems will prevent him from playing every game this season and the prevailing wisdom was that he will be reserved for Camp Nou, but then Zlatan started against Nantes and scored two goals after Nantes had gone forward. What Blanc has stated, is that this game will be played with a total of fourteen players. There will be no backing down, from either side.

For the Barcelona players this is an opportunity to show themselves, Luis Enrique, the culers and the entorno that this team is coming together. It’s an opportunity to vindicate themselves from the jeers and the ire of the critics. It’s a chance to show the mettle of Mathieu, Rakitic, Ter Stegen, Suarez and Luis Enrique. To lay a claim and do what no other team has managed so far this season.

This one is for all the marbles. Gut check.

Game on.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Preview63 Comments

Barça 5, Espanyol 1, aka “The aesthetics of results”

espmess

When people snark and caterwaul about the Liga talent gap, today’s Catalan derby serves as an excellent illustration.

More than a tale of two halves, it was as stark a depiction of haves vs have nots as you will ever see.

It’s a fairly easy thing to summarize this match, and the truth lies in that summation: Espanyol played a perfect half of football, while Barça was far from perfect. In the second half Barça raised its level, rendering what Espanyol did irrelevant. 5-1. Done.

Is it really as simple as it seems from that stark paragraph? Well, yes.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Review, Thoughts96 Comments

Welcome to the Batcave, aka “Peter in the house again”

valencia

In the “I could get used to this” category, here is another guest preview from Peter.

Days after it turned out that DC comics does not in fact sue Valencia for its bat image, the team’s home stadium, the Mestalla, was fronted with a giant solar-powered bat that looks orange at day and shines at night, so that lost airplanes at night know they are in Valencia.

Most La Liga teams that are not Barcelona, Real or Atletico have problems after a season that guarantees European competition. Two competitions are too much for most teams, and top clubs and clubs with too much money are forever looking for the game changer. It would be no surprise then that last season Valencia reached the semi-finals of Europa League and was defeated on away goals in injury time by Sevilla at their own Mestalla stadium. Valencia finished last season 8th in La Liga, which prevented them from entering Europa League. And that is a good thing, for Valencia.

After a turbulent and rocky road with lots of curves and turnabouts, Valencia has a new billionaire owner. Peter Lim of Singapore had desired to become at least a co-owner of a football club for a long time, and after he made Bankia a promise they could not refuse, he was sold the club, lock stock and two Mestalla stadiums. Since then Valencia has shot up like a bat on Red Bull.

It is important that Valencia has less exposure this season. It is important that Valencia wins and keeps on winning, because players in a winning team have less desire to move to greener pastures. It is vital for Valencia that the team performs well, because it will mean a happy rich owner, and happy rich owners can bring sponsors, they pay higher salaries and finance the finishing of a modern stadium. A happy rich owner is more likely to try and retain youth academy graduates with promising futures rather than sell them to the highest bidder.

Peter-Lim-Valencia

Lim brought Alvaro Negredo back from City (on loan), purchased Andre Gomes, Rodrigo, Joao Cancelo (who remain Benfica players, but play “on loan” at Valencia and are probably paid by Valencia) and reinforced the squad with young defender Mustafi to replace Mathieu. Together with youth academy graduate Paco Alcacer, this Valencia team has had its best start of the season since many years ago when the club was a real powerhouse. Like with Sevilla, it’s not just schedule that has made it so. Last year Valencia lost its away match vs Espanyol and drew at home. This season it was a 3-1 home win. Last season Valencia lost against Betis, which was mathematically relegated by Round 30.

Not having to travel and play additional matches every other week helps, but the squad is very strong, and this can be shown from other results: 3-1 vs Atletico (last season Atletico won it 0-1), 3-1 away vs Villarreal (last season newcomers Villareal won it 4-1). The team, unlike last season, is unbeaten at Mestalla, went to Anoeta and came out unbeaten, Anoeta where Atletico and Real went to get beaten and dismembered. This is the team which last season showed clearly that something wasn’t working in Barcelona’s engine when it came to Camp Nou and fought back from 2-0 to a 2-3 win.

Valencia suffered two losses this season:

Away to Deportivo La Coruña, precipitated by a Mustafi own goal in the first minutes, Away to Levante, which saw numerous opportunities for Valencia, and the winning goal for Levante was an absolute instant of brilliance by Morales just after Valencia had drawn at the other end.

So no, this is not an easy task for Barcelona, has never been, but this year it could be even more so. The Valencia team is young, with only two players more than 30 years of age – Joao Pereira and Javi Fuego, who are both … 30. They have stamina and motivation in buckets. I am not trying to be alarmist, but Barcelona has come from an away trip to Cyprus midweek and this will be an away trip as well. Alvaro Negredo warned yesterday that Valencia should and needs to take the game to Barcelona. Exactly what Nuno has in mind is something we would all want to know, Luis Enrique most of all, but signs suggest that Valencia would take advantage of the youth and stamina of the team, and the blaugranas’ lack of rest.

What are the strong points of this Valencia team? First of all, and contrary to logic, it’s the fact that there isn’t one single scorer. Alvaro Negredo has yet to score in La Liga, despite showing signs of improvement, but the best goalscorer of La Liga is young striker Paco Alcacer, sharing the chair with mid Dani Parejo, both having scored 4 goals.

negredo

Eleven players in all have scored, which means that Barcelona would have to cover not one single certified threat, but multiple ones. And yes, that includes Negredo. It’s not known whether Paco Alcacer will be available, but if he is, he will be a primary threat. Bat Nr “9” wasn’t called up for the Euro qualifiers by Del Bosque for his fun attitude, but to score goals (which he did, on three occasions). Bats manager Nuno in his media appearance stressed organized pressing as the key point, combined with possession in the forward zones, but even more importantly, he emphatically stated “Tomorrow we have to score. More than score, we have to win. We have to score and not concede. But we have to score, whatever the player, we have to score.”

Strong points are also set pieces and aerial play. Valencia has scored 24 goals this season. Almost one third of those(7) have come from corners, corner plays and crossed free kicks. Mustafi was responsible for three of those(two headers), but others like fellow defender Otamendi, Dani Parejo and Paco Alcacer have each risen to the occasion. Valencia rely a lot on crosses, because they play from the flanks, which enables the creation of one-on-one situations with a followed dash towards goal, or more frequently a cross towards a striker flying in from the blind spot of the opposition defense. Negredo almost equalized from such a position in the 80th minute against Levante. Had he scored, Valencia would´ve taken the point home.

It’s difficult to talk about the weak points of a team which has conceded a total of 8 goals in twelve matches, two of which came from penalties, but there are. Valencia play with possession and have generally played with a high line, so fast counters would generate threats. Second, Valencia play with possession: being on the receiving end of that same tactic could asphyxiate them and leave them without ideas. Third, and quite important, winning the battle on the flanks could be vital. Expect a serious duel between Feghouli and Alba on the Barcelona left if they both start. Same goes for the right flank.

From the evidence we could assume the following: Valencia may try to press and overwhelm, relying on the youngsters and going for crosses to the area, be they from open play, corners or set pieces. If they go for broke, we may see an attacking Valencia team trying to rush the flanks and fighting like mad to maintain and recover possession of the ball, knowing that doing so could put a stick in the wheel of Barcelona. One thing is certain:

This is a key match. Valencia the team know it. The fans know it. Hell, Peter Lim knows it. He announced that he will be present in the president’s box in the beginning of the week and made sure the Bats knew it. If he hasn´t arrived yet in the City of Valencia, you can be sure he is flying in his private jet towards the giant bat light, because it’s important.

Barcelona are coming to town.

barval

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Preview42 Comments

The Sevilla preview and notions of coming home aka “Thanks, Peter!”

suarez

(This is a guest preview from Peter, who if he keeps it up …)

I’m coming home,
I’m coming home,
Tell the world I’m coming home.
Let the rain wash away
All the pain of yesterday.

Bargain of the century?

Less than 48 hours before kick-off, it may be a good idea to speak about Sevilla’s progress this season, and two of Barça’s Lost Boys that are currently learning the trade there. When we talk about Denis Suarez and Gerard Deulofeu and their learning curve in the sweltering heat of Sevilla, amidst lakes of Salmorejo, Sangria and Flamenco dancers, it’s good to first start with some statistics.

Denis Suarez has been in Sevilla since late June, that is five months and counting, during which he had an injury, which slowed his adaptation. He started in Sevilla’s loss in the European Supercup, after about a month in the club. Since then he has played eleven La Liga matches, three Europa League games and one Copa del Rey. In his eleven La Liga matches Denis Suarez has started 9 games, and has been substituted four times, amassing a total of 815 minutes. The players with more minutes on the team are starting striker Bacca with 944, pivot revelation Krychkowiak with 904, and starting centerback pair Carriço (900) and Pareja (894) who have played 10 games.

In those 815 minutes Suarez has scored one goal and leads the assist charts with three, as well as 15 key passes, key passes defined as goal-scoring opportunities that don´t end in a goal. In the beginning of the season he was the attacking midfielder playing in the hole in a typical 4-2-3-1 formation, but as the season has progressed Unai Emery has tweaked with the formation, often putting Suarez on the left wing, whereas the right wing is usually occupied by Aleix Vidal or Gerard Deulofeu, leaving the hole for Banega.

I wouldn’t say that Suarez has been “immense”, but his quality has definitely helped offset the departure of Rakitic. His youthfulness contributes to the velocity with which Sevilla counter-attacks, which the double-pivot formation facilitates. Another potent weapon are his free kick crosses into the area, which have been converted into goals on two occasions. Stressing again, this is after four months with the team. As his knowledge of the game and his team-mates increases it’s almost certain that Suarez’s influence and importance for Unai Emery will increase even more.

He had his best performance in the home victory against Villareal, which saw Sevilla lose the game 0-1 in the 79th minute, until Suarez scored in the 88th and Bacca completed the turnaround with a penalty in extra time. At the time of writing Suarez’s passing rate is more than 81%, and in the match against Villarreal 70% of all his passes were forward. He capped his performance with a goal, and was the reason for the late surge of Sevilla — helped by the vociferous Biris Norte — which ended with a penalty in injury time. The initial run in the area was made by Suarez, who saw his pass intercepted before a Sevilla player was brought down from behind just as he was leaving the box. The resulting penalty was converted by Bacca.

Suarez has been called the revelation of La Liga, quite deservedly so. He pulls more than his fair share of creative plays and even though his tracking back and defensive contributions seem negligible, there is enough evidence to suggest that Unai Emery has instructed him to stay open and alert in order to be able to initiate a quick counter. He is young, and has to learn, but with less than a third of the La Liga season gone, he is fast becoming a starting player for Sevilla.

God made him

Deulofeu went late to Sevilla, after he failed to convince Luis Enrique in the pre-season. Initially he struggled for minutes at Sevilla, and his attitude when he appeared in the first games seemed to be overly demanding of his team mates. Since those early days, however, Deulofeu seems to be maturing. He has started five of the last six games for Sevilla, with a total of seven appearances/356 minutes on the pitch.

deulofeu

His defensive work rate has gone up and with the veteran Coke at his side (author of the 90th minute equalizer last season at Camp Nou) the two have pretty much anchored and barricaded Sevilla’s right flank. Deulofeu took time to adapt, but since finding his feet he has walked, then started running. Right now his most dangerous skill is his dribbling, which he does more than any other Sevilla player. He doesn’t create a lot of chances, but those that he does … For Sevilla, Deulofeu shares the assists top spot with Denis Suarez, providing three assists and four key passes, and has also scored one goal, which was all it took for Sevilla to grab the three points against Real Sociedad. He is also the leading assist maker in Europa League -– two impeccable long-range free kicks found Krychowiak and Mbia to give Sevilla the win against Feyenoord 2-0.

Like Suarez, he is a default set piece and corners go-to guy, and he almost scored a goal from a free kick against Villarreal. Aleix Vidal is often his competitor for the place on the right wing, another Catalan who came from Almeria after a great Primera season. Deulofeu’s match of the season so far was that same game against Feyernoord, in which he tried a whooping 13 dribbles (seven of them successful, practically all inside or just outside the Feyernoord box) and in general created the visiting side’s defense lots of headaches. The two free kicks resulting in goals for all intents and purposes decided the match after half an hour played.

So far …

Sevilla now sits in fifth place after drawing at home against Levante. Had the team won, as it was doing until the 79th minute, it would’ve finished the round in third place, above Valencia and Atletico. Statistically speaking, Sevilla has become better than last season, even after the departure of Rakitic, Fazio and Alberto Moreno. Last year one recurring tactic was to give the ball to Rakitic, who would send it forward for Bacca to chase. This season Sevilla have become (much) more dangerous in the air, already scoring five goals (of 18 total) in La Liga and 2/7 in Europa League in that manner. But even last season Sevilla had very good proficiency in the air, reaching the finals of Europa League on away goals after M’Bia’s extra time throw-in header (which has probably become as mythical for Sevilla as Iniesta’s screamer against Chelsea).

This season, however, Sevilla’s footballers have so far scored almost two times the quota of headers from last season in La Liga (10/69), while in Europa League the levels are almost triple of last season (2/20), already equaling the total goals scored from headers last season. Unai Emery has a more cohesive team, which can devote more time on set piece plays, and the results are a cause for optimism -– last year Sevilla was 14th after 12 games with 13 points, and a goal balance of 20:25. This year the result after 11 matches is a fifth place with 23 points, with a balance of 18:11.

Three important things:

1. Last year Sevilla had already played Atletico, Real Madrid and Barcelona after the 12th matchday. This year’s Sevilla will still have to play Real after the 12th matchday, whatever happens at Camp Nou.

2. A crooked scale that nevertheless could help measure the performance compared to last year’s can be made from comparing the results, where available, against the teams that Sevilla has already played this season. The result, before the match with Barcelona and discarding the results against newcomers Deportivo La Coruña and Cordoba* show +3 points at home (+1 from Levante, +2 from Villareal) and +1 points away (+2 from Elche, -1 from Atletico), with a goal difference against the same opposition 11:9 compared to the 12:9 last season.

3. Sevilla’s starting keeper Beto was injured in the first half of the first game, which meant that the recently signed back-up keeper Mariano Barbossa (who left Las Palmas after the Canaries failed to be promoted after a heart-attack-inducing play-off against Cordoba) had to play his first competitive game on the first matchday. He was then injured during the victory over Espanyol, which meant that B-team keeper Sergio Rico, fresh from Segunda B, had to start in the games against Getafe, Feyernord and Cordoba, and then once again the second half-time of the match against Standard Liege

(*- the only measuring stick available would be performance against last year’s newcomers and last year’s relegated teams, and the point result is the same and the goal difference is similar.)

In other words, schedule alone is not the reason why Sevilla currently sits fifth in the table, at equal points with Atletico. The team is more effective.

bacca

On the other hand …

But it’s not all roses and kisses. Rakitic is in Barcelona and his absence, as with that of Alberto Moreno and Fazio, will be felt. Still, in my opinion it is possible, in fact probable that this year’s Sevilla is a more dangerous opponent than last year’s.

The team doesn’t rely on the Rakitic-Bacca connection that much, and the midfield is substantially stronger both in terms of skill (Suarez, Banega, Aleix Vidal and Deulofeu have been added to compensate the loss of Rakitic and Cherishyev) and muscle (MBia was signed permanently and Krychowiak was signed from Stade Reims). This area for Sevilla has shown so far to be more cohesive, more creative and better overall.

There are more avenues of approach, more routes for the ball, more and different ways to score goals. Maybe the team will crumble more easily against bigger opponents due to the lack of experienced leaders and incomplete cohesion, as against Atletico, but that is disputable. In that instance, it seems that Sevilla was just beaten at its own game, failing to deal with Atletico’s pressing and proficiency with crosses and set pieces.

In terms of the face-off with Barcelona, Sevilla seems more dangerous despite the more solid defense that Enrique has created. Suarez and Deulofeu have extensive knowledge of the principles and methods of Barcelona. What’ss more, the pivot pair of Krychowiak-MBia has been fusing together very nicely, anchoring the midfield and shielding the defence while at the same time putting a lot of elbow grease toward the destruction of the opponent’s midfield as well as building up play.

We may see quite a lot of what was seen last year at Camp Nou, Sevilla defending en masse, looking for an opening and a fast counter and throwing bodies forward for set plays. Suarez is the default executor of corners and free kick crosses in the area from the left side. Deulofeu does the corners from the right, but that’s not set in stone -– Deulofeu got his two assists against Feyenoord from two long, curling free kicks from the left side. The precision of those crossed free kicks is marvelous, but it also helps that both Krychowiak and Mbia are tall, athletic pivots.

Suarez and Deulofeu, along with Vidal and Bacca, possess acceleration and speed that could create a lot of headaches after turnovers, but I think the real threat will be the set pieces. Pay special attention to Mbia, who is having the season of his career so far, with five goals from eight starting games (three headers), which was the total of goals he got last season for the whole season, and has become the second-best goal-scorer with a total of five, after Bacca’s eight, in all competitions. However, take away the goals from penalties, which Bacca takes, and Mbia has scored five goals in 712 minutes, whereas Bacca has scored his five over 1065 minutes.

Tale of the tape

What is the main weakness of Sevilla then? I would say it’s the defense. With the leave of Fazio who went to the green grass and higher salary of Tottenham, the central pair of Carriço-Pareja often need Mbia and Krychowiak to help them. It could be said that the fault also lies in the keeper rotation out of necessity, even though all three Sevilla keepers have for the most part done a spectacular job under the circumstances. Still, Sevilla has kept a total of three clean sheets this season, against Elche, Getafe and Real Sociedad, when La Real were in their worst form.

Marking from the defenders is often loose or entirely missing, especially on the Sevilla left. Coke on the right side has managed to often do it by himself, but on the left the defense has been overrun more than once, because Mbia and Krychowiak normally cover the center approach. In his best moments Denis Suarez has shown the diligence and work rate that is so often seen in wide midfielders that play against Barcelona, in the readiness to press, track back, back-up the lateral and try to isolate the threat coming from the flanks. But at his worst, against Atletico, he simply couldn’t handle the pressure and the experience of Juanfran.

Rakitic could offer some insights about weaknesses of the Sevilla defense, but if Suarez and Deulofeu start and don’t run their tails off, the Sevilla fullbacks could be isolated, which would stretch the defense and provide more space for the Barcelona striker team. This could also cause a chain reaction -– at least one of the central pair would be drawn to the duel on the Sevilla left, which would mean that either Mbia or Krychowiak would have to cover that approach, which would leave them ill equipped to intervene to rushes coming in from the blind spot, as well as shots from the second line. Sevilla’s defense has been caught with its guard down more than once this season, and more than a few goals resulted from opposing attackers losing their markers in the left zone of Sevilla’s box and scoring a vital goal. Sevilla has not lost a game in which it scored the first goal this season.

When Sevilla attack, they usually do so fast, but if they decide to pass and look for an opportunity, the weak spot so far seems to be Mbia, who has been robbed time and again of possession, especially when he has moved forward and left a hole in the defensive net. Sevilla’s defense also has problems coping with a fast-moving opponent that knows what it’s doing -– the majority of goals conceded happened during combinations, in which up to four Sevilla men were seen close to each other, marking nobody. If Barcelona manages to circulate fast and assured, it’s possible that the defense will get overwhelmed and holes will appear.

Barcelona on the other hand would have to hope that the team can both diminish the number of corners and/or crossed free kicks taken against. A probable central pair could be Mathieu and Pique, due to the increased aerial defense. If Mascherano can be spared from CB duties, his presence in midfield will be welcome, because the midfield would be dealing with Krychowiak and Mbia’s muscle, as well as possibly the youthful presence of Suarez and Gerard Deulofeu/Vidal on the right of the attack.

Alba did not feature in the last friendly of Spain, which means that for the last eight days he would have just trained and prepared. He would be fit and we could see a very interesting duel on the Barcelona left, with Alba and either Vidal or Deulofeu trying to get the better of the other. On Barcelona´s right I’d expect Dani Alves to feature again, because hate it or love it, he still remains the best package at RB that Barcelona has -– and he hasn’t played since Amsterdam, which was on the 5th of November. if we’re to judge by the videos he posts, expect him to be rested, fit and motivated. It will surely be an interesting match. Not easy, but interesting. Last season Barcelona won in the final second of injury time. The year before that Sevilla went forward both in the away game and in the home game, and the away game featured a 3-goal comeback with a 93rd minute goal by Villa. The reigning champions of Europa League will not sell their skins cheaply.

Personally I expect Sevilla to play their cards close, massing numbers in the approaches to their box and hope for a quick counter and/or set piece. Barcelona, depending on the line-up, can push and hope for a quick strike, which would oblige Sevilla to go forward in search for goal, which would leave more space behind. Granted, it’s always better to score first, but that holds even more so for Barcelona, given Sevilla’s proficiency in the air. If Sevilla scores first, the task will become very hard.

emery

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Preview, Thoughts25 Comments

The job of Luis Enrique, aka “What the hell to do with these leftovers?”

(Photo by Miguel Ruiz, FC Barcelona)

(Photo by Miguel Ruiz, FC Barcelona)

An interesting quote from Sergio Busquets should, if it hasn’t already, spark some thinking among those who follow, cover and are otherwise interested in Barça.

Busquets said, simply enough, that the best Barça and Spain are never to return, that tactics and the game have caught up.

This isn’t news to anyone who has been paying attention, or reading the writings of some of us who wonder about the nostalgia, and pervasively perpetual quest for The Way. But accepting that isn’t even the biggest challenge. That hurdle is a much simpler, and rather difficult one:

Accepting THIS group of players and its coaches, and getting our minds around the reality of how this team needs to play to manage success.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Tactics, Thoughts109 Comments

Almeria 1, Barça 2, aka “We won, but we still lost … or something”

"What the hell ...?"

“What the hell …?”

“Worst game of the season. (The) second half was a bit better, but more because of the players’ desire than because of our game.

“I don’t know what happened in the first half. The result is the best thing, but the goals won’t hide the things we did wrong”

— Luis Enrique

Even in the aftermath of a narrow win pulled out against a brave, exceptionally good Almeria side, I am still not sure if Enrique was a genius, a jackass, or all of the above.

He started today’s match with a lineup that I confess to liking when I first saw it: Bravo, Adriano, Mascherano, Bartra, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Rafinha, Munir, Pedro, Messi. You get industry from Munir and Pedro, string pulling and attacking from Messi and more industry from the midfield. And if all that fails, you have Bartra and Mascherano, pace and tackling ability, at the back. It was also a lineup that made rotational and meritocracy sense.

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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts131 Comments

Standards and ghosts, aka “Barça and the 1985 Chicago Bears”

bears

The 1985 Chicago Bears won a Super Bowl, the hyperbolically monikered championship of American football, a Roman-numeraled event that was an extraordinary thing.

The Bears had style, the Bears had swagger. The Bears had a long-suffering group of supporters, who braved weather that would make even hardy souls giggle at the notion of sitting around in it for three hours to witness a passel of mediocre giants stumble about.

The 1985 Bears didn’t just do it. They told you they were going to do it, and then did it. The group played one way, and dared you to stop it. The root of the team’s dominance was its defense, a then-groundbreaking “46” defense (that eventually came to be known as the Bear defense) that placed an emphasis on stopping the run and destroying the quarterback. They rang up gaudy scorelines, and didn’t just win … they often humiliated and destroyed, coming within one game of an undefeated season.
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Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Supposition, Thoughts55 Comments

Barça 0, Celta Vigo 1, aka “Hunting season is open”

celmess

“This will be an interesting week. Hunting season is open,” said Luis Enrique, referring no doubt to the massive upheaval that is expected after two losses in a row, both in pretty much the same manner when you really think about it.

— Opponents won challenges, got to loose balls, outfought Barça
— Chances not taken that can console those who crave consolation
— No evidence of a real system, a real way of attack
— Key players not on form

It feels like I have been typing this much more than usual these past few months dating back to the end of last season, but full credit to Celta and the damnable keeper of theirs. The better team won today, successfully taking one of the few chances it had and converting it beautifully. It was a deserved win, a victory forged from effort, talent and more than a little bit of luck, an alchemy that describes almost every victory by a team.

Many will seek consolation in the same libation, Retrospect, that they quaffed in the aftermath of the RM defeat. Then, it was “If Neymar doesn’t rush his chance and Messi converts, it’s 3-0 and a different match.” Today, it’s “If we just don’t hit the crossbar and their keeper doesn’t come up huge, it’s 4 or 5-1 and we cruise.”
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Tactics, Thoughts44 Comments

The ‘Illegal’ Pass Into Space.

Since the beginning of this season, and definitely the seasons before, the ‘Xavi style’ of attack has minimized the risk Barcelona players take when approaching goal. There is hesitance in the style of play. There is a lack of confidence in the pass.

I call it the Xavi style but Xavi is definitely not the only man responsible for this mentality when approaching the opponent’s area. In fact, Iniesta has his share of it as well. And when zooming out of just blaming the players, you notice the bigger picture. Any player who plays in Barcelona’s midfield will suffer the same change in mentality because of how dominant that style of play is in training. You can call it a belief if you may.

“Always pass to the player’s feet, never into empty space”

Who suffers the most from all of this, though?

Neymar: The man has been on great form recently. But one of the main reasons his danger is minimized is because he doesn’t get to run the way he has always been taught. When our midfielder has the ball and sees Neymar running into empty space you can actually notice a look of hesitation on the midfielder’s face. That is, of course, before he rotates his body left or right to look for a safer pass. And Neymar’s hope, along with our attempt of scoring a goal, is crushed.
It is worth pointing out that Neymar is possibly one of the best players who move without the ball and playing to his powers will be crucial for his development and Barca’s success.

A great example on all of this is Neymar’s goal against Atletico Madrid last season in the Champions League:

Neymar 1-1 CL QF

Iniesta’s pass to break the entire defense was one of his best. However, if he just hesitated and turned around like many Barca midfielders do we would have wasted yet another Neymar run.

Suarez: The same things that apply to Neymar apply to Suarez but there is something worth adding about Luis:

Suarez has the ability to physically overcome other defenders. Whether it’s a ground pass or a long ball, Suarez is Barca’s missing physical link in attack. He is the typical striker everyone talks about(with great vision too but that’s another issue). He’ll fight for every ball. Let’s just say if a defender and Suarez were running after a ball with equal chances I’ll have my money on Luis. But again, if we don’t ever provide that ball into space for Suarez then we’ll be minimizing his danger.

Multiple times this season Neymar has waited for midfielders to take that risk and trust in themselves and in Neymar himself but they rarely did.
Actually, Messi has been practically  the only one encouraging Neymar to run into space which lead to the connection we see between them. Because beyond just football, Neymar knows that Messi will push him to the edge while other midfielders won’t. And Neymar, thankfully, responds in a very impressive way to each time Lionel gives him an opportunity.

This has also affected Suarez in his first ever match for Barcelona. He waited for a through ball 2 or 3 times and never got what he wanted.
This kills a player’s enthusiasm. Because, put yourself in their shoes, the constant feeling of rejection is not what a forward wants.

The midfielders:
Yes, the midfielders suffer from not taking a risk as well. They minimize the possibility of being chance creators which is the basic confidence boost to any midfielder in the world. It is almost as if the midfielders enter the field with the intention to pass left of right until the forward pass seems 100% safe and TO THE FEET. By doing so, they minimize the time spent on creating chances and maximize the time spent on just passing the ball around endlessly.

Some may argue: “what about the counter attack if we lose the ball because of a risky pass?”
That’s just looking at the glass half empty.
Because what about the amount of chances these guys upfront  are capable of scoring? They already proved their skills. Time to give them what they need.

Problem here is if Barcelona had mediocre midfielders everyone would understand the need for safety. But Barca can go up against almost any team in the world and say: “we have better passers than you”. With that said, being great at something means you have to utilize it.
We all know that our midfielders can play the safe pass perfectly. They only need to remember that their passing talents never stopped there.

Posted in Analysis, Barcelona, Tactics, Thoughts29 Comments

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