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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

The return of the King (of Catalunya)

RAC1 image

RAC1 image

This is a guest post by Isaiah, founder of The Offside Barcelona and who dragged me over to this enterprise with him. It’s wonderful to have his voice back in the space, albeit on a semi-quasi, one off, emeritus status and all that jazz.

This was never supposed to be about Joan Laporta. Not really. It was a damsel-in-distress-saved-by-knight-in-shining-armor-hashtag-fcblive narrative that conveniently included a side plot involving the character assassination of an ex-friend.

I imagine a post-victory scene — an immense mahogany room, plush carpeting, the victors lounging with ties hanging around their necks having just finished a meal of lobster and steak, the top two buttons of their expensive shirts undone, and puffing on Cuban cigars. Toasts of the finest cava are being tossed up like confetti, and then there’s a hush as one man … who knows who, as the moment is lost to time, silences the crowd and says, “But wait, what if — no, hear me out! — what if we also got Joan to pay restitution for the losses incurred during his tenure? He’ll never know what hit him!”

There is laughter, a smattering of applause, someone seconds the motion and there are more toasts.

That would be a scene worthy of any soap opera, but the reality is probably sober boardroom discussions, a subtle suggestion, a few nods and a PowerPoint presentation. Joan Laporta, he of the late-night Luz de Gas party scenes and odd pool party decisions, was an easy target in some ways, but he became an unhealthy obsession for an administration supposedly dedicated to the re-emergence of a club from financial disaster into a brave new world of modern financing. The sideshow became the main event and everything else became irrelevant. On-field success was only a means to greater institutional change.

And, indeed, on-field success was virtually expected when Rosell took over, but still there were recriminations and legal actions. In some ways, it comes off as pathological, as a need to take revenge for past slights. It’s hard to square with the reality, but as Ramon Besa explains in El Pais:

Rosell se preparó para dirigir a una entidad desde la miseria, y de ahí su apoyo a la moción de censura contra Laporta. No varió de estrategia ni siquiera cuando asumió la presidencia en un momento de esplendor deportivo, personificado en Messi y Guardiola. El entrenador se entregó a la causa azulgrana hasta que se dio cuenta de la trampa: la deuda heredada era la excusa perfecta para justificar la acción de gobierno de la directiva de Rosell.

[My own translation:] Rosell was prepared to lead an organization [Barça] out from misery, hence his support for the vote of no confidence against Laporta. That strategy did not change even when he took office at a time of sporting glory, personified by Messi and Guardiola. The coach stuck with the Barça until he realized the trap: the inherited debt was the perfect excuse to justify legal action by Rosell’s board.

Rosell turned a personal vendetta into an institutional assault on a private individual, alleging tens of millions in losses covered up with creative accounting and used the power of one of the world’s largest sporting institutions to pursue the case in court. He was then forced to resign due to allegations of financial malfeasance, which was for many a fitting end to a regime that started by publicly declaring financial shenanigans just days after taking office.

In an October decision, a Spanish judge largely agreed with Joan Laporta’s financial statements and rejected those of Sandro Rosell’s administration, citing a 4 million euro profit from the final year of Laporta’s time in office. Laporta had claimed an 11 million euro profit while Rosell had claimed a 70 million euro loss (sometimes mentioned as 80 million euros). These were not minor differences, and are also a testament to how accountants can manufacture pretty much any number out of thin air if they so choose. Amortization, dates of payments, all of these factor into the final numbers, but they can moved around, as Rosell’s original number showed when the fee paid for Yaya Toure was moved from Laporta’s profit column to Rosell’s.

Beyond the Joan-Sandro spat, though, lies the current board, a group that despite Rosell’s departure, has maintained the court cases. And that is the crux of the current problem: Josep Maria Bartomeu is hardly a rank outsider. Under Laporta, he served as the basketball team’s director from 2003 to 2005 and subsequently joined Rosell’s board at the beginning as the first vice-president. He and his board have continued to push an agenda of personally destroying Joan Laporta for his perceived and real failures and the perceived and real failures of Laporta’s administration. It felt hollow from the beginning and it maintained its hollow sound whenever it was examined with the simplest of taps throughout the ensuing years and court cases.

And now we stand at a crossroads, with Bartomeu seemingly electing to take the path toward appealing the ruling in favor of Laporta. This is merely a doubling down, a re-commitment of the club’s resources and time in an effort to personally skewer a one-time ally. The socis have been left with little recourse, with Rosell having forced through an increase to the number of signatures required to hold a vote of no-confidence, from 5% threshold to a nigh-unattainable 15%.*

Among the many moves Rosell and Bartomeu have made, including selling the shirt front, the vendetta against Laporta ranks very high in the Waste of Time, Money, and Goodwill Department. It’s notable that this is the administration that has achieved a transfer ban for failing to properly achieve FIFA/UEFA signoff for youth products, yet it continues to harangue a former president over what amounts to roughly half of Luis Suarez’s transfer cost. The club continues to extol its economic sustainability while hemorrhaging moral authority on the global stage. From the Neymar saga and the alleged lost millions to cuddling up with Qatar (from the Foundation to the Airways), there is neither transparency in their actions nor rigorous scrutiny from a cowed electorate that is no longer allowed to actively participate in General Assemblies.

It is not a particularly great stretch to say that Joan Laporta laid the foundation for all of this and that he is by no means an angel descended from heaven, but it is also not a great stretch to say that he has come out of the porta-potty that is this court case, smelling of roses. It would be surprising if he didn’t run (and win) the next election. Maybe he’s a bit of a loose cannon but it won’t matter, not after he emerges victorious in the appeal and drops another charismatic interview in which he rightly points out how successful the team was under him. Just please don’t bring back Hleb.

*The latest Barcelona annual report indicates membership is at 153,458, meaning a vote of no confidence could be achieved by obtaining 23,000 signatures. Given that Sandro Rosell was elected with a record 35,021 votes, obtaining 23,000 signatures seems a tad much of an ask.

On a fairly unrelated personal note, I have moved on from writing regularly for and commenting at BFB, but I can guarantee you that I continue to love this team and I continue to watch on as regular a basis as my schedule affords. I have recently moved to Frankfurt, Germany and if you’re around those parts, I would be thrilled to have a beer with you during a match. Feel free to tweet at me (@rockofthune) and we can go to the local Penya. And if you speak German, I’ll buy you a beer for translating for me.

Posted in Analysis, Elections, Team News, Thoughts11 Comments

10 post-Classic points, aka “It ain’t over, but many things should be over”

"Okay guys, we sucked. Next question."

“Okay guys, we sucked. Next question.”

So. Barça got its collective tails handed to it yesterday. What does it mean, and what are the implications, moving forward? Here are 10 thoughts about just that.

1. Exorcismus Guardiolus: Time to eradicate all things Guardiola. Cries for “What Guardiola brought us, blablabla,” are pointless. That team, that system existed in a moment in time. Nobody was prepared for it, but people got prepared for it. It affected Spain just as it is affecting Barça. Time for the team and culers to move on. The question is “What can Enrique bring us?”

2. People seem somehow surprised that RM attackers ran past Iniesta and Xavi like they weren’t even there. Why? They weren’t, for all intents and purposes. It isn’t about triangles and possession. Not with the players that Barça have. It’s about getting the damn ball in the net. The play is slow because the players in charge of dictating it play slowly, then can’t help when possession is turned. Enrique has to solve that. Pedro is one possible solution. The Cuadrado desire is becoming more clear.

3. Enrique should figure out what the hell he wants to do, and then do it and not waver. You don’t set up a system, buy players and then decide in the biggest Liga match of the season to go conservative. The lineup was illogical, and turned Barça into Celta. It shouldn’t have happened. It starts with the coach. If only there was half as much focus on Enrique as Mathieu …

4. The change that has to happen to the team is hamstrung by the looming transfer ban. It’s also a case of hanging on to players too long. Should the team have sold Iniesta by now? Good question. Xavi is still effective against everybody except the types of teams Barça have to beat on the big stage. So why are both players still there? Why is Busquets still an automatic starter? Iconic players make a coach conservative.

5. If Barça is no longer going to defend with eleven as it attacks with eleven, changes have to be made in the way the team defends. At present, when attackers pierce the nonexistent press and slow mids, the back line is going to have problems. It can get away with them against lesser opposition. If Neymar isn’t going to track back, sit him down until he figures it out. Enrique shipped out Deulofeu for defensive deficiencies. The player can’t be blamed for wondering why him.

6. I don’t care how hard the players work in practice if they go on mental walkabout in matches. Barça has conceded six goals (PSG, RM) through stupid play. All six goals could have been prevented. You can say that even as you can also acknowledge that Barça was outplayed.

7. Like every Barça coach since the Ascendancy, Enrique doesn’t have the nerve to yank Messi. He should develop that nerve. When Messi goes absent he never comes back, even as he might sometimes find himself in a position to do something wonderful. “They defended him really well,” say supporters. When the hell has a focused, alert, charged Messi been able to be stopped? Early in the season, Messi set the tone, running, pressing and leading by example. Those days seem to be gone.

8. You have to fail before you can succeed. There were moments when (in attack) Enrique’s system worked. But if you are going to have a lineup that needs possession, you can’t be sloppy with it and you can’t leave big spaces, which means exploitable passing lanes for a top defense. It didn’t look at times like players knew what they were supposed to do, and that’s on the coaches. There were also too many speculative passes that went to RM players, when somebody didn’t make an expected run. For the run to dictate the pass, the run has to happen.

9. This board failed the team and the supporters, but was it ever going to be allowed to make the kinds of significant changes that would have been required? I reckon that it would have been pilloried if it had. It was time to sell Ronaldinho and Deco (past time, actually). Many culers are romantic, and believe that this team can still beat top sides with Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets running around. I am as romantic as the next guy, but the game has moved on. RM demonstrated that very clearly.

10. Retrospect. Even with that beating, there was a very real chance that it could have been 0-3 20 minutes into that match. This team has quality. What it doesn’t have is a margin for error. Pace and athleticism give you that margin for error, because fast, strong players can fix their own mistakes. Even as we moan into our libation of choice and hunt for reasons, in looking at the team that we have, it can compete against top competition. But its coach is going to have to make some very, very difficult decisions.

Posted in Analysis, El Clasico, La Liga, Thoughts182 Comments

A chat with the other side, aka “Bassam talks Classic”

Miguel Ruiz/FC Barcelona

Miguel Ruiz/FC Barcelona

In advance of the Classic, we talked to Bassam Dgheim of Real Madrid Football Blog, about 10 things. Bassam, who many of you have interacted with in the comments space here, is good people, and a reminder that we fans are all human critters. It’s the teams and clubs we dislike. I have done my part, which is now up (thanks, Bassam!) at RMFB. So with many thanks to Bassam, here we go:

A Barça win will put us 7 points ahead. How big a dent would that be to RM’s title hopes?

Yes and no. It’s still very early in the season. Major shake ups in the squad have gotten us to the point were we are 4 points away. But I would be worried more about us in the long stretch than right now, because that’s when the team will be a well oiled machine. Right now we are doing well because we have great players. But little hardship might steer the ship the wrong way. So while 7 points away will be rough to come back to, I don’t think it is the end of the league. We meet again at this season and have another chance to pull it back.

To beat Barça, Madrid needs to take advantage of (enter Barça’s weakness and/or key match-up in favor of Madrid)/To beat Madrid, Barça needs to take advantage of (enter Madrid’s weakness and/or key match-up in favor of Barça)….

To beat Barca, Madrid needs to take advantage of the left flank. With Bale set to miss the game, the team will adjust more and more towards CR running the show. Alves is good, but he has his moments, especially in defense. With Rakitic and Iniesta putting in leg work in defense, but not actual positional defense, I think the combo of Modric and Kroos will need to exploit that and spring the ball well to the left flank.

To beat Madrid, Barca needs to do the obvious: Attack from the right flank. Marcelo is brilliant going forward, but he is god awful in attack. And similarly, without Alonso in the center, Messi is gonna have a lot of space dropping deep. If RM don’t control that, then they might be in big trouble.

How has Mourinho leaving affected the clásico, and is Ancelotti too much a pragmatist to care about the hype?

How has rain fall affected the drought? Very well I would say. I’ll keep this more general than just the clásico: Mourinho leaves and we win the double, including the far awaited 10th CL title. And had it not been for poor decision making, RM were easily looking at the treble last year. Ancelotti brings in a aura of zen and calmness that we have not had since VdB. And he knows that one game won’t define his season. With Liverpool done like they were on Wednesday, I think pressure is really off Ancelotti in this one.

Which Barça player(s) do you despise?

Alba. Alves. I used to really dislike Sanchez. Not fond of your manager at all for the all so obvious reasons.

Is the team better without Bale in reality, against Barcelona?

Yes and no, again. Against Barca, the team might miss Bale much more than against any other team. He has the work rate to drop back and form a 442, while maintaining a dominant a quick threat on the right flank. Under any other circumstances, I would say he’s a huge miss. However, his replacement is a guy with the name Isco, and I rate him extremely high. Iniesta with more goals and less assists is a good description. Has improved leaps and bounds since last year, especially on positional play and work rate. Turned from a player that needs the system to be centered around him to a player that is capable of fitting into the system well. I feel more comfortable with him coming in.

What’s the biggest change in this year’s RM side from last year’s?

We no longer need to hear bout La Decima every second. So that’s a big change. Alonso and Di Maria leaving are the other two big changes both personnel and formation wise. With Di Maria gone, we lose that extreme work rate and assist machine. But much more importantly is losing Alonso. He was the anchor in midfield. Organized the defense very well and orchestrated the attack brilliantly. Our defense has suffered most in his absence, as he was the leader in that domain. He was the equivalent of the coach on the field. No surprise that Pep picked him up.

Has Casillas got the support of most merengues? Do we only hear from his detractors because they scream louder?

Getting Mourinho as your manager is like getting a tramp stamp. You might remove it, but the essence and memory of having gotten it is still there (think Ted Mosby from HIMYM). While Mourinho is gone from the team, there are many who supported him that still linger. Chelsea fans, Porto fans, Inter fans, they are all Real Madrid fans. And all want to make sure we never forget we ever got that tramp stamp. So for me, it is definitely a case of detractors scream louder. Let’s not forget, the Ultra Sur gave Mourinho a trophy of appreciation during his last game for us. And they were the only fans he went and bid farewell.

What has Kroos brought to the team that wasn’t there before?

It’s a tough question to answer. The main reason behind that is because Kroos is playing a position he has never had to play before. While he grows into that position and while the formation changes to adjust to his strengths and weaknesses, we are seeing more and more why he is so highly rated. He obviously brings the vision on the ball, the mobility in the center of the field and of course, the football IQ. He adds more of a short directness to our play as opposed to the long directness that Alonso had. I think the best is yet to come from Kroos as he adjusts.

What RM line-up do you expect to see start the classic?

I think we will go with Iker-Carvajal-Pepe-Ramos/Varane(depending on fitness)-Marcelo-Kroos-Modric-Isco-James-CR-Benzema. In possession, James will occupy the right flank, drifting to the middle often. In defense, we will shift to 442, with CR slight on the wing and Benzema waiting to get the ball to spark a counter attack. I would watch out for Carvajal on the right, as he will have a lot to do in attack with Bale out. The dude is fast.

If Alonso had stayed, do you think that he would have fit into this season’s RM?

I think we would not have seen a similar style had Alonso stayed. Ancelotti had to change a lot in order to accommodate for Alonso leaving, even though the general formation is still the same. I worry that this game against Barca is where we will miss Alonso the most, especially with dealing with Messi (from an organizational point of view).

Posted in Analysis, El Clasico, La Liga, Thoughts103 Comments

The Good, the Bad and the Suarez

This is the post I promised Valdemar II, the winner of the World Cup predictions thing who asked for:

“A post about the possible starting elevens and alternate formations for [this] season”

Well, the transfer window wasn’t closed at the time nor was the squad finalized so I thought it would be better to hold off it. Which ended up being a good call since we didn’t sign Cuadrado after all.

Now that we have a couple of games under the proverbial belt, I figured there’s enough material to work with to give a brief overview of the beginnings of the Lucho era.  That, and I’ve been slacking so I hope Kevin, blitzen, Lev and co. don’t revoke my membership.

What I find really interesting this season is the glut of (very good) tactical posts and blogs available on the ‘net these days. (That includes here, Kevin print/tvscreens for the win!). I don’t know if it’s just Barca-centric or if it extends to other teams, but it’s very impressive. As for me, that means rather than give a broad overview I’m simply going to list bullet points of the pros and cons from this growing project Lucho’s begun. A little snapshot if you will.

Also, Suarez.

Except he hasn’t played it yet so it’s really Liverpool!Suarez Continue Reading

Posted in Analysis, Thoughts112 Comments

The Andoni Zubizarreta Show has ended, aka “Now we wait and see”

Photo by Victor Salgado/FC Barcelona

Photo by Victor Salgado/FC Barcelona

Even though it’s early days, it is safe to say that that man in the middle of this image, Andoni Zubizarreta is, along with folks like Ed Woodward and Jorge Mendes, one of the winners of this summer transfer window.

I know … he finally did something, right?

Wrong. It’s because in grading the Barça transfer window, my vote is for a B. What keeps things from an A … two things, actually:

— Vermaelen risk
— Douglas who?
Continue Reading

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Thoughts, Transfers28 Comments

A nou season, with hope and uncertainty, 2014-15 as foretold by …

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Barcelona 2014 – 2015 as foretold by Levon

Last summer I predicted we would be trophyless at the end of the season (I was a wrongfully disallowed goal off) but that it wouldn’t matter as we would have a transition year. Which we did, until we stopped transitioning halfway through. Since enough has been said about who’s to blame, this post is about looking forward to the 60+ games to come.

It’s easy to become optimistic after a transfer kitty excavation operation that rivals our eternal enemy’s most ambitious summers. Contrary to public opinion, Zubizarreta gets things right more often than wrong. This time round I’m not so sure. For the record, I think we’re idiots for letting Alexis go so easily and for wasting money on the likes of Claudio Bravo, Vermaelen and Douglas, money that would have been better spent on quality rather than quantity. Jeremy Mathieu could have been got for less than half the price 12 months ago, so there’s that, too. I’m on the fence about Suarez, happy for Rafinha and happy with Rakitic, a player I was against coming two months ago but already looks like the guy to watch this season. Marc Andre Ter Stegen and Alen Halilovic seem like the only transfers that were planned at all. Take from that what you will, but those last two have a Z for Zubi written on their foreheads. 

The most significant transfer of course is Luis Enrique. Much has been said about Tata, who seems like such a good person it feels immoral to criticize him too harshly, but he messed up the second half of last season so much I really want to use another verb instead of “messed up.” If nothing else, Lucho inspires leadership which is something that was obviously missing last year. Whether his tactical acumen is up to par with some of his more successful predecessors remains to be seen. People love to compare this upcoming season to Guardiola’s first, but La Liga has changed since then. Every draw didn’t feel like the coming of the apocalypse and Pep didn’t yet have to compete against an Evil Empire so studded with stars you have to glint your eyes when you look at their shirts (or Gareth Bale’s teeth). Still, I’m optimistic about the Lucho era, and even more so after his first press conference and especially after the way he sent Deulofeu packing. If Luis Enrique manages to infuse a team this talented with the fire of its leader there’s no telling what they can achieve.

Of course life, and even football, is about more than just results and trophies. The first Barça match I remember watching live was the 1989 Cup Winners final against Manchester United in which Mark Hughes scored a monster of a goal to seal our loss. That was more than 20 years ago and I already supported the club before that match, but it just so happens that this is the earliest game I remember vividly – where I was, who I watched the game with, how I felt and yes, that Mark Hughes goal. Here’s the rub. I was just a boy of, I guess, nine years old. Who ran the club didn’t mean squat to me. Now this was definitely a good thing since the man in charge Josep Nuñez. As far as I was concerned, Johan Cruijff was the boss. Mes que un club? Never heard of it. Heck, at nine years old I’d never heard of Catalunya either, for that matter. I thought Barcelona was in Spain. It wasn’t until much later when I learned about our club and its history that I fully understood how special Barça really was… and still is. I like to think that I felt this before I learned it. And I like to think the club is special despite of its directors rather than because of them.

Thank God we got rid of Nuñez and Gaspart. We should really thank Laporta, Johan Cruijff and Sandro Rosell (yes, Rosell). In this case God came in the form of a blue elephant, which I guess means that in some corners of this wondrous world people can say “see, we told you so.” The Laporta administration had more than its fair share of mistakes and who knows the state our club would be in if they had continued. But Sandro and Bartro have given us Johangate, Qatargate, Guardiolagate, Neymargate and Babygate. The biggest one of all is probably the new Camp Nou renovationgate except we won’t know it as such because the corruption many suspect behind this potential scandal will never see the light of day. Anyway, the idiots even flirted with Messigate and the next time our brilliant new striker sinks his teeth in a defender’s biceps we’ll have Draculagate. The only gates that have remained firmly closed are the ones a top notch defender was supposed to walk through at some point during the last four summers. Oh well.

2016 is, after all, an election year. If we don’t win anything this season the chronies will not survive. All of the “gates” for which they are responsible will come back to haunt them. But if we win the Liga (who knows) or the Champions League (even more doubtful, but who knows) they can play their favorite “poor us the whole word is against Barça but we are such great directors we still managed to give you a winning team” card and they will be re-elected. Whatever happens, I hope those in charge will keep Luis Enrique on as our coach for the foreseeable future. Nothing good ever comes from the usual hiring and firing. Besides, I like the sound of it, the Lucho era… The Lucho Era. Let the Lucho Era begin.

Barcelona 2014-15 as foretold by Isaiah

A season we will all fondly remember as the year we finally lost our faith in everything. Or, I mean, maybe not, but that’s certainly how it feels to me, going in. Let’s start here, where we should probably always start when we’re talking about mes que un club: the official sponsors list is nothing short of a list of kind of shady corporations that do pretty much the opposite of stand for Catalan identity or the concept of morality. Nike is a global brand bent on unifying everyone under the roof of similar footwear and viral marketing videos and Qatar Airways is the state-owned airway for a small country currently accused of killing thousands of workers in an effort to turn a desert into a preening World Cup resort destination. At least La Caixa is a local-cum-national bank that has an extensive social program and non-profit status including a charitable foundation, but the overwhelming sense is that Barcelona is not a club moving towards its motto, but away from it. Luis Suarez might be an incredible player, but then again, he’s also a violent racist. A club that once proudly boasted Lilian Thuram in its ranks has gone so far as to hire a guy who would call his compatriot a racial slur and refuse to apologize about it.

FBL-WC-2014-MATCH39-ITA-URU

If I sound somewhat depressed about all of this, I do blame Suarez and the terrible hangover from watching that slow motion insanity develop into expensive, court-case-laden reality. It brings back memories of the Busquets “mucho morro” affair where the club dodged all responsibility for what was likely a similar situation to what Suarez perpetrated. Or maybe Busquets did use an outdated term in the middle of a heated match. And maybe Luis Suarez really does mean his racial terms affectionately. And maybe I’m stuck in the past and this is just the new Barcelona, where social agreements are that I pay money and they let me watch Messi, with no consideration for the long-term investment in youth for the sake of youth (but for marketing purposes, sure, and for transfers later, sure). It’s not that Barcelona was ever the thing it billed itself as under Laporta, but under Laporta there was at least the homage to the idea. At least UNICEF made it onto the front of the jersey. I wonder what Oleguer thinks of the club he left behind. I wonder what Thuram thinks of the club he left behind. I wonder what Abidal thinks of the club that left him on the wayside, collateral damage from world conquest.

And Lucho. I don’t know what to make of Lucho just now. He smiles in the pictures he posts on Twitter. He bikes a lot. He was a glorious captain (who also played for Real Madrid at an earlier time that we should never mention again). And he seems to have brought some energy to things, but that’s what we said about Tata as well. Maybe I just miss Tito, maybe I just miss Pep. Maybe I just miss the days when it was all so unexpected, when winning was a thing maybe we would do and then when it would happen we were thrilled. Now it feels like there’s an expectation of success that doesn’t quite mesh with the reality of what it means to watch a team play. Imagine if we lose to Elche on Sunday. It wouldn’t be the groan of “Aw man, that’s too bad,” it would be the merciless cry of crisis, of Lucho fuera, of I told you so. And then imagine if we draw the next match. Imagine. 1-0 to Numancia would be absolutely unpardonable now. Sure, I mean, Madrid aren’t carrying the dead weight of Christoph Metzelder and Royston Drenthe around, but we’re not wondering where Keirrison fits in the plans either. I mean, this preview is hardly a question of how we bloggers (if I may still call myself such) think the season will go, but ratherhow many trophies will we win.Last yearI made no particular prognostications, which was probably for the best since I would have said we would win one trophy (and I would have been wrong, just to remind you), so this year I’ll go ahead and stick my head in the frying pan:

This team is stacked. Stacked like pancakes in a lumberjack breakfast hall. But trophies? None. Whatever, call me pessimistic or call me lacking in faith, but I don’t see this team being anything but what it was last year: fantastic to watch and overburdened with the needs of its fan base. But yes I’ll be watching whenever I can and I’ll celebrate every one of our goals. Except maybe the Suarez ones. I still haven’t come to terms with that and won’t have to until much later, thankfully.

Barcelona 2014 – 2015 as foretold by Linda

  1. Post-World Cup seasons are by nature unpredictable.
  2. I don’t like predicting things.
  3. But I’m here to try anyway.

I won’t pretend I have no doubts about Luis Enrique’s brave new world. Quite the contrary. But there are also many reasons to feel optimistic. Whatever Lucho’s flaws as a manager who is still developing and learning, his appointment is a step in the right direction. He knows the club, has allies both in the club and in the local media, and seems to be convincing the players of his ideas. I hope he feels supported, and free to implement his vision, and that the fanbase as a whole is kind to him if the team start slowly.

enrique1

Many things went wrong last season. There was a total breakdown in relations between the club hierarchy and segments of the fan base, the club and several important players,  the players and the club media, and ultimately, as a consequence, between the fans and the players. (Not to mention the club’s relations with the authorities.) All this just a few years after we all glutted ourselves on unprecedented success. It’s a very Barca story, going from one extreme to another. But lost in all that is the fact that there wasn’t that much wrong with the team. The squad was too small to cope with demand and injury, and wasn’t always used in the best way, but it had a reasonably good backbone. It just needed a jolt. And it needed supplementing.

Thankfully, the people in charge of the club have seen fit to do that. As a result, I feel much happier going into this season than I did last year. There’ll be injuries, and we’ll be horribly short-handed occasionally, but there are less gaps than before. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I can’t see all the new players integrating immediately. There will be mistakes. We just have to be patient, because I think we’re going to have fun this season. And yes, win a title or two.

But only if all of us – fans, media, club hierarchy, Lucho himself – refrain from turning every draw or defeat into a crisis. Otherwise, we might be out of a manager by Christmas.

Kxevin says …

We raise the curtain on yet another season of uncertainty. It seems like it has been a very long time since things have NOT been uncertain, so you’d think we would be used to it. Instead, besotted on a wondrous season of excellence, the ghosts of the past have become the burdens of the future, and everything is the “next” something … next Messi, next Puyol, next Treble. And culers turn on someone, anyone. It’s Martino’s fault, it’s the board’s fault, it’s Song’s fault, as if any one of those things was the complexity instead of all of them, and an additional set of circumstances to boot.

So people crack jokes about Song, who didn’t play all that much, instead of riding the folks who DID play all the time and who, as Dani Alves said in his Friday presser, didn’t meet standards. Because that’s easy, and who wants to kick the golden goose, even though the only player who was consistently at standard when it counted, and even he had a crappy first part of the season, was Iniesta. Last season was a mess.

It’s worth noting again that the natural state of a footballing club is to not win. Even the best sides don’t win everything, all of the time. Tito Vilanova stepped in after Pep Guardiola, who failed to meet his own lofty standards as the team started to slide downhill. Vilanova picked them up a bit, then fell prey to that awful thing called Life. Then Tata Martino came in to work his minor miracle of getting a damaged, mentally and physically hammered team to somehow, within 5 goals of being in with a shot at the Treble.

Martino’s feat last season speaks to the quality of the core of this team, an astonishingly talented nucleus that, like that flawless cut of steak, needs only the right garnishment and a well-chosen wine to be perfect. So the board, terrified at losing those posh seats in that wood-paneled office and facing the specter of a two-window FIFA transfer ban, went hog wild in the market this summer, adding (yet another) new coach and plenty of side dishes to accompany that tasty main course.

Which all means, of course, more uncertainty.

This club, and this culer, have a love/hate affair with uncertainty. Only a madman would predict championships galore at a club with a new coach and eight (count ‘em, EIGHT) new squad additions. I am a crank, but not a madman. Let’s look at what has the potential to upset the apple cart, shall we?

Enrique: What does he want? How will he get at it? How will his charges react to his high-energy, high-effort style? He put the hammer down on Deulofeu, sending him off to Sevilla for the crime of not impressing and needing more time. That move also sent a very clear message to the squad. The pressure on him is immense, and it’s difficult to think of a hotter hot seat in world football.

Vermaelen/Mathieu: A broken-down has been and a chain-smoking derelict, right?. THESE are the players those idiots signed to fill our centerback slots? Fools all of them, right? Well, maybe. Mathieu has been very, very good this pre-season and a healthy, on-form Thomas Vermaelen is an excellent center back. Or they could suck, leak goals and the Liga will be lost by December.

What’s funny is that for all of the whining about inadequate center back signings that should have been somebody else, the real complexities with Barça defense have to do with a short, easily bullied midfield and more importantly, still no replacement for Eric Abidal, who was the key to that back line. He made Pique better, he made us all forget the times that Puyol was off being fireman and caught out of position. He saved Alves, saved Valdes, working beautifully as a human eraser. Forget about CBs. I want me an Abidal.

abi

Messi: We still don’t know which Messi we are going to get, the sulking dude out for a weekend stroll or the rapacious battler who reared his head some during the Gamper. This is Messi’s team. As he goes, so it will go, despite the steps taken to end Messidependencia. If he is on — not goals, necessarily — with committed, fully involved play and he stays healthy, look out.

Neymar: The Brazilian legal complexity is fit, stronger, more mature and based on the little we have seen this season, ready to be an even better and more effective part of this team, unless, driven to star cravings in the presence of Messi and Suarez he reverts to the occasional ball-hogging, attack stopping logjam that he was at times last season.

Suarez: The club paid 81m for a player who won’t be able to kick a ball in anger, or even moderate vexation, until the end of October. He misses not only pre-season, but match fitness, on-pitch sync and other complexities. We might not even get the opportunity to really see what the club has paid for until late in the season. Will it be too late? In four months away from the competitive side of things, you can train and train, but match fitness will be many, many weeks away when Suarez can finally play for Barça.

Reasons for optimism

Weaknesses have been addressed: Team speed is up, team height is up, strength in midfield is up and the press is back. Everything that caused complexities last season are, at least on paper, improved.

Iniesta: Swagger, style and a more than capable slot into the playmaker role are all the reasons that anyone needs to worry about getting your ass kicked by the team led by Iniesta.

Great players: On paper, a 3-man attack of Neymar, Messi and Suarez is devastating.

And so?

Despite all of that, I think that Barça will be out of the running for major silver this season, marking two seasons in a row in which that has occurred. It isn’t that they don’t have the talent — far from it, as this team is STACKED. But I think that with so much new, and a key signing not being able to play with the club until November essentially means that performances will be erratic, and the front three will have a difficult time gelling.

But, we will see some entertaining, at times remarkable football, and as with last season, the team will come oh, so close to something big.

blitzen weighs in:

So here we are again. Seems like we have been waiting forever, but finally in a few hours a whole new season begins. We have a new coach, a new captain, and practically a whole new team. This has been a summer of slash and burn, and although it has been painful at times, it had to be done for the good of the team. Our legendary captain Carles Puyol was finally forced to admit his own mortality and retired with honour. Victor Valdes was halfway out the door in search of pastures new when a devastating injury threw him out the window instead. Cesc was seduced by the Dark Side, while Alexis Sanchez went to fulfil his destiny at Arsenal, much to the regret of many. The club cut out some dead weight and loaned or sold players like Tello, Cuenca (dammit), Afellay (DAMMIT!), Bojan, JDS (OMG finally!), & Oier (you forgot about Oier, didn’t you?), and even our resident madman Pinto was let go (BOO!). For some reason we still have Song.

In terms of signings, the most important one is our new coach Luis Enrique. It’s no secret around here that I am a huge fan of Lucho, not just as a player, but also from the days when he was coaching the B team to a 3rd place finish in the Segunda for the first time in their history. I wanted him to be appointed as coach when Pep quit, and I knew it would happen sooner rather than later. People have doubts about his lack of coaching experience at a high level, but to me that doesn’t matter. Pep only had only been coaching the B team for a year when he was appointed. Lucho has the drive and personality to take this team to the top. He demands everything from his players, and I believe he will help this team recover the intensity they lost over the last 2 seasons.

As for the incoming players, I am happy with all of them except for Suarez. My objections to him are longstanding and I won’t go into detail here, but suffice it to say that I think he is unnecessary, overpriced, and in need of psychological help. I am encouraged that in his last presser Suarez mentioned that he is working with professionals in that regard. I hope it is true and that we see no recurrence of his reprehensible behaviour. So far the best signings seem to be Rakitic, who looks like he has been playing at Barça for decades, and Mathieu, who hasn’t put a foot wrong in his appearances so far. Ter Stegen is nerveless, and Rafinha is an absolute monster. Bravo needs a little time to calm himself, and Vermaelen is still unproven, but personally I think he will fit in well. We may also still have a “surprise” signing to come, considering that we will very likely not be able to purchase any new players until January 2016. I’m giving this transfer window an 8/10. Well done, Zubi!

To my delight, most of the top top top pundits have already written off Barça’s title chances for this season. This makes us underdogs for the first time in many years, and it’s really quite refreshing. I am coming into this season with no inflated expectations. It would be crazy to expect a team with this many new players, that has lost so many key components of their past success, to win trophies or even be really competitive for the major ones. And yet…I can’t help but be excited after watching how this team has come together in the preseason and how they are all working so hard for Lucho. I have an overwhelming feeling that I am really going to enjoy watching Barcelona play this season, which to be honest I didn’t most of last season. We may not win any trophies, but I am sure we will play attractive attacking possession-based football, and that is all I really ask.


My predictions:
I think we will come second in the league to a Madrid-based team, but it may not be the one you expect. :P But I think it will be very close again, like last year. I think we may very well win the Copa del Rey, but that will likely be our only trophy. I don’t think we will be anywhere near winning the CL this year–I predict a quarterfinal exit, with honour.

Player to watch? How about players, plural? This is going to be the year when Barça goes back to basics and draws on the cantera a great deal. We already know from the preseason that Lucho counts on the youth and is happy to give them first team opportunities as long as they work hard. With Suarez banned until the end of October and various other injuries bound to happen, players like Munir, Adama, Samper & Grimaldo are certain to get ample first team minutes, and I expect them to excel. Even Lucho’s most vocal critics have to admit that he has a special way of inspiring youth players to give everything for him, and this batch of B teamers are more than ready to meet the challenge. I believe that Munir and Samper especially will make their marks this season.

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