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Elx 0, Barça 6, aka “The elf power edition”

"Next, let's help the shoemaker!"

“Next, let’s help the shoemaker!”

Credit is a weird thing, because even when it would seem clear to someone where it’s due, worldview can affect a lot. In this vein, a comment in the Atleti post was fascinating and inspiring, so here it is to get things started:

Kxevin, its quite unfortunate that you are hell bent on crediting every barca victory on paper to Enrique, our turn of form and consistency has been as a result of that feud.
You might not see it but Enrique does not have a system, its funny you even think Enrique’s barca could beat athleti without him trying to tweak a thing or two. We have certainly reverted back to the old ways and system, no more tweaking to fit the opponent.

Players might be rested or subbed or not included in the matchday squads by Him but this transformation and how we play now doesn’t relate to Enrique’s genius.

Let’s play around with that a bit, shall we, and try to deal with today’s match without even considering anything that Enrique might have done.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts42 Comments

Barça 1, Atleti 0, aka “Growth program”

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You can learn a lot from a simple match of football. For example, you have to be really, really smart to be dissatisfied with the way that Barça played yesterday as regards the esoteric minutiae of today’s hyper-enlightened fan. Positioning, formations, heat maps … ordinary dullards struggle with looking that deeply, preferring to marvel at the fact that … Barca beat Atleti again. What. The. Hell.

And Barça didn’t just beat Atleti. It beat the best Atleti. Last match there was no Miranda, nor was it their top choice at RB that Messi was tormenting. But at the Camp Nou it was different. A great many things were different and yet the result was the same: Barça won. Even more interestingly, a top-level opponent had to react to Barça, rather than the reverse, yet another Enrique myth put to bed.

What an extraordinary match of football. I rather imagine that neutrals had a great time because this was a battle royale between two teams who probably realize that this tournament is their best real opportunity for silver.

The pace was absurd and the pressure unrelenting. We know what Atleti is because they are unchanged from last season, a vibrant fist of a team that is improved this year. They’re scoring more in addition to being able to attack teams in the same way defensively, even as they are now understanding what it’s like to get an opponent’s best game.

We also knew that their coach, Diego Simeone, would make adjustments from the last time the teams met, which resulted in a 3-1 drubbing that really wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.

But I wonder if culers are fully aware of what has transpired over these last two matches.
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Posted in Analysis, Copa del Rey, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts24 Comments

The Busquets file, aka “Moving forward without losing the Reference”

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The reference.

Yesterday’s Depor post didn’t deal with Sergio Busquets because he warrants a much deeper look than could be afforded by a paragraph.

When many think of Busquets, it is this way: the reference. The player who embodies the way that Barça should play, and would like to play.

Some of that is because of his streak of extraordinary accomplishment as the invisible man in Guardiola’s Barça. He isn’t a physical specimen. If you walked past him on the street you wouldn’t immediately identify him as even an athlete, much less an international football superstar. This fits. But in this odd nether world of influence, of spaces closed and moves anticipated, Busquets is king.

I was trying to explain what Busquets does and how he does it to someone, and it was a struggle. Because he doesn’t do anything per se, even as he does everything. He isn’t a DM in that destructive sense, even as this is the nominal position he plays. He isn’t really a CM, because the tasks of delivering balls to forwards is the job of another. He plays too deeply to be an AM. And yet he embodies elements of all three in his role of … essential midfielder. When Guardiola’s Barça was inspiring sonnets of praise, Busquets was at the apex of every midfield triangle.

It’s easy to draw Guardiola analogs, but he isn’t that, either. He doesn’t dictate play the way that No. 4 used to in a role that can best be called an embodiment of Xavi and Busquets. And it’s easy to say that Busquets just is. To say he’s an extraordinary player would be selling him short, because the best possible Barça in recent years has only been possible when Busquets was at his best.

When he was introduced in 2008, promoted by Guardiola, many wondered what in the hell his job was. When he began taking playing time from Toure Yaya, the howls were long and loud because it’s easy to look at this praying mantis capering about the midfield and wonder how it was going to stop a napkin blowing past, much less an attacker. Then Yaya was sold, and all hell broke loose. The move was stupid, until it wasn’t. “Now we don’t have a DM. Hmph!”

But that DM construct is limiting, because there is a breed of player who influences a match without having a direct effect on it. Xavi can dominate a match without a single assist or goal. Iniesta can control a match by doing that thing he used to do where he just keeps the ball, and decides to give it to an attacker only when that person is in a perfect position to do harm.

Indirectly direct

Busquets is another one. In many ways he’s like a great rendition of Brahms Symphony No. 4 and that exquisite, waltz-like opening movement. A great conductor lets the space between the notes linger. It’s still on the beat, and that non-music is an irreplaceable part of the music. That space, that absence of notes, is Busquets. The great facilitator, the man who lives at the base. If you want to understand Busquets, this video is excellent:

He’s usually open because he lives in that realm between an opponent’s midfield and their attackers, one in front of him, the other behind him being tended to by the defense. For a long time, he wasn’t appreciated. He’s also done some things to harm himself: the “peek-a-boo” incident, the allegation of a racist taunt directed at Marcelo and the accusations that he went down entirely too easily, with a default setting of clutching his face, even if kicked in the ankle.

What is probably more difficult to understand for his supporters is that what’s happening to Busquets now is in part a consequence of a team’s tactical evolution, with an outcome still to be determined. Busquets isn’t as effective as he used to be. He’s only 26, so it ain’t like time is passing him by via the inevitable diminution of skills that befalls every footballer. Not at his age. So what is happening?

Everything changes

Simply put, Busquets is living in a world in which his playground is being taken away. We first began to see signs of it when opponents finally figured out that a big part of what Barça does lives in Busquets. So they began to attack him directly via a physical midfielder with pace, to mark his incessant little movements in search of the open spaces that always found him at the base of the attack. In doing that, it cut off the head in many ways as Busquets could pick passes, spring wingers, act as a safety valve, alter the direction of the attack … pretty much everything, all the time. Remove Busquets and you could also isolate Xavi, while making Iniesta chase the ball. The overall effect would be to move the Barça attack away from an opponent attacking zone as everyone moved back in search of the ball. That’s how important Busquets is.

But other things happened. He was hampered by a couple of nagging injuries that contributed to a lack of effectiveness, but they were nothing like what the damage done to him by verticalidad. It’s no coincidence that some of his decline in form and return to form came in the schism that was Tata Martino’s season, the “Get ‘em!” phase, and the return to The Way. But because of the unruly qualities of Cesc Fabregas to name just one, Busquets was too often deprived of a destination for his passes so he had to hold the ball, sometimes too long.

Another thing that Busquets is doing, often to his detriment, is playing for the foul. He has always had a propensity, thanks to his extraordinary facility with the ball, to draw fouls and cards on opponent midfielders. This helps Barça because that player then has to be more tentative. But this, for Busquets, has become something of a thing. It used to come as a consequence of his dishing and receiving. Now it’s almost as if he seeks the foul. He gets in trouble, will feel the contact and go down. But increasingly officials are having none of it, and the result is turned possession in a dangerous part of the pitch.

Good Busi, bad Busi

It’s easy to excuse Busquets as systems change, but if you watch Busquets when he’s playing well, he always takes the ball facing the attack, head up and waiting to distribute. When Busquets isn’t playing well or is being pressed, he takes the ball with his back to the attack, or perpendicular to it. So he has to take, settle and then do what he does. Everything becomes less metronomic because the timekeeper is a beat late.

As Barça press for a more direct approach, as fullbacks create width in the attacking third, Busquets finds himself in a world of yawning chasms where his half-spaces used to be. Never all that physical, fast or direct, he struggles to cover those spaces. A lot of what we’re seeing from Busquets that has people questionting his form is tactical. The game is changing around him, and he’s struggling to keep up with it. Iniesta is having many of the same difficulties.

Eric Abidal’s departure didn’t just hurt the defense. He was Busquets’ best friend in a tactical sense because Abidal wasn’t all that interested in attacking although he would from time to time. He was interested in hanging out the “Closed” sign on the left side, exhibiting a pace and range that let Busquets focus on doing what he does best. Compare that to now, where the back four is deep, Alba and Alves are up the pitch and Busquets essentially is a DM with way too much acreage to account for.

The difficult questions abound, but at their root is what needs to change to get the best Busquets back, or have tactics and the evolution of a system bypassed a player who at another time, was crucial to the team’s attack. Rakitic is off toward the box, Iniesta is making curlicues with Neymar. Does the current Barça argue for a more traditional DM with passing skills like Mascherano, rather than the more cerebral influence of Busquets?

Don”t hate the playa …

It’s hard to get the mind around next steps for Busquets. Yet the biggest caution should be to not blame Enrique because his system is in part making a reference point struggle, because as the Enrique system approaches something close to its tactical ideal, Busquets is also returning to a familiar role as the midfield tightens. His role will never be the same because the game isn’t the same; not as played by Barça and emphatically not by opponents trying to defeat Barça. He will have to adapt.

Busquets has moved up the pitch as Mascherano fills that hybrid DM/CB role, dependent upon what an opponent is doing in attack. Just as Puyol did, essentially. Against Atleti Busquets was often his old, metronomic self. He needs time to read play because his physical skills won’t allow him to deal with an attack with pace and physicality. But if he can read play and anticipate where things are going, he can be there to stick a foot in. The difference between a successful tackle and a foul or card for Busquets is often the pace of an attack and how much time he has to read it. Destructive improvisation isn’t his forte as it is Mascherano’s.

At one time many assumed Busquets to be the heir apparent to Xavi. Both have the same magical knack for evading pressure and picking out a pass. But Busquets hasn’t evolved into that more offensive role. It is unfair to have expected him to? Valid question even as we acknowledge that the need for a Xavi analog is pressing. Not Iniesta’s modified Xavi, but the full Xavi.

But we also have to ask whether than role has validity in an Enrique system that scrambles the forwards and in many ways reduces the midfield to messengers rather than direct influencers as they shuttle the ball between the lines and help with the press. If you watch the Atleti match, there are extended periods where Busquets doesn’t touch the ball as the attack has moved forward, outside of his sphere of influence. And every time someone passed to Busquets, Mandzukic would charge him hard. So the ball would move from Mascherano to Iniesta or Messi, from Pique to Rakitic.

Has the game passed Busquets by? Far from it. Sunday’s match should still be fresh enough for us to remember that exquisite ball that sprung Messi loose for the second goal. Busquets. As Barça played out of its own end to start the rush for that third goal, Busquets was the can opener.

The game is cruel in that there is often a rush to declare something past. Many want to see more Mascherano in midfield. That is certainly a tactical wrinkle, but one of the biggest tasks that Enrique will have is how to retain a successful and Barça and evolve the style, while not losing the best parts of a player who has been for so long, its reference.

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Tactics, Thoughts66 Comments

Depor 0, Barça 4, aka “The revolution continues”

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Depor is no longer Super Depor.

In a trip to an opponent wallowing around the bottom of the table near the relegation places, the visit to La Coruna wasn’t really on anybody’s list of important fixtures, even as it was a huge one for many reasons.

Barça’s home form has been formidable and away form dodgy, to be generous. Fraught and uncertain, road woes have been the tenor and tone of this season, from a scoreless draw with no shots at Malaga to a pair of losses. The most recent loss against La Real in January was also the one that set the “crisis” bells ringing, in a match result as overblown as it was unsurprising. The team always struggles at the Anoeta. Why would anything more be expected from a group its supporters expect so little from?

All of this made the Depor visit crucial for the first team, particularly in light of all the Liga title rivals having already won. That Barça pasted Depor wasn’t as noteworthy as how Barça pasted Depor. In addition to the half-speed drubbing, it was clear in yet another match that this was a team with a system, a way of playing. After all the snarling that Enrique didn’t have a clue and didn’t have an XI, he repeated a lineup:

Bravo, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Iniesta, Rakitic, Neymar, Suarez, Messi
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Tactics, Thoughts14 Comments

Elx 0, Barça 4 (9-0 agg), aka “Is that something visible taking shape?”

"Do it like this, not like that."

“Do it like this, not like that.”

This is weird.

Yesterday’s fascinating Copa match came in the wake of a recent conversation that in the here and now of 140-character blasts, self-curated football knowledge bases and the YouTube immediacy of the modern game, a patient, long view is not only unrewarded but unwanted. (As an aside, this piece by Seb Stafford-Bloor on that very thing, is essential reading.)

Back in the day, someone could call for patience and there was no choice, really. So when events transpired to make that person seem like a seer, it was cool. Today, nobody wants to admit they don’t know, so everyone acts like they know.

And as I was watching the away leg of the Copa tie vs Elche, a dead rubber in which Barça already had an insurmountable lead and even the Elche coach said before the match, “I know what I’m supposed to say, but this is impossible,” I got to thinking about the long view and its unrewarding nature.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Tactics, Thoughts36 Comments

Neymar has arrived, and the train is still running

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Appreciation is an odd thing, as are assessments. Neglected it seems in all of the Barça circus this season is Neymar and his emergence.

We all know the details of his signing, even the legal ones: late-night negotiations in Brazil, mystery payments divulged in the club accounts, Jordi Cases, etc, etc. Neymar almost has as much fame for being the player who brought down a president as for his footballing talents.

When he came to the club, many, many people snarled. “YouTube sensation,” “Why are we signing him instead of players that we need,” “He’s a coach killer,” “He isn’t that good, wait until he gets to Europe,” “Hmph! Robinho 2,” and of course, “Diver.”

Some cautioned patience, that blasphemous “wait and see” attitude that gets people branded “defenders,” etc, but there are times when patience is rewarded.

It goes without saying that Neymar has become an essential player for Barça this season. His goal tally is not only already ahead of his total for last season, but the things that he brings to the game: intelligence, associative play, an almost too-reverential view of teamwork, toughness and of course, absurd quality have made him more even than those who believed in him suspected. He’s even tracking back much more effectively this season.

Neymar started striking home goals and nobody seemed to take much note, almost like he was simply meeting expectation. A few of us, when he came in as a sub, noted how play accelerated. The reasons are clear: like Ronaldinho, he uses his bag of tricks for good rather than show. He’s getting around a defender, getting a teammate the ball, making a clearer path toward goal. But there is also that wildness that has been mentioned in this space before.

It isn’t blasphemy or a bad thing to say that La Masia raises its products with reverence for a certain way of playing football. It’s the same way that a naturally talented tennis player is often not as ultimately successful as a less-gifted player who must rely on learning the game, hitting thousands of backhands so that shotmaking becomes reflex rather than this bit of glib inspiration. Would Xavi have become what he is if he was 6’1” and ran like a gazelle? Interesting question.

And the Masia way breeds a certain predictability, something which has in the past been capitalized on by opponents. Do keepers have great games against Barça because they raise their game, or because the logic of the team’s attack means that you can figure out where the ball is, more likely than not, going to end up?

Neymar has no interest in predictability. And like Tiger Woods when he considers a shot, his abilities mean that new possibilities come to him. These possibilities destabilize a defense in remarkable ways. They also speed up play because he’s only interested in moving toward goal, almost viewing a back or lateral pass as something of a failure to be avoided at all costs. He has 17 goals and 3 assists this season, many of them with roots in that unpredictability, and desire to always move toward the goal. A prototypical Neymar goal from this season was his piledriver against Paris St.-Germain.

When Neymar gets the ball he is already in space. He controls it and immediately drives toward goal. He is bracketed by 4 PSG players, and none are sure what to do. Two are closing from behind in case a pass comes, another is lurking in case he tries to slide it over to a waiting Messi. From within the box of PSG players, with hardly any liftoff that would notify the keeper a shot was in the offing, he smacked a curling, dipping ball into the far lower corner. Those kinds of goals happen. But he was running so fast that the defenders didn’t even have time to figure out where he was going to go, much less account for the possibility of a strike. It was, dare it be said, a Messiesque goal.

It has been some time since Neymar was called a diver but it’s a pretty safe bet that his toughness is a surprise for many, even as those familiar with him spoke of his durability in spite of the abuse he took, week in and week out in Brazil. Some of that is because he has learned how to take a hit. The flying through the air that makes people accuse him of embellishment seems to be self-protection, almost jumping into the contact to ensure that he is never caught with his spikes planted. He gushed blood from an ankle wound against Atleti, the team’s biggest match of the season, plugged the hole, pulled up his bloody socks and got back to work.

Yet it was in the Atleti match, the biggest match of the season, in which precisely the kind of player that Neymar is became clear. He was as unstoppable as Messi, elusive perpetual motion machines on both flanks, one performing with power and drive, the other with that elusive “Wheee!” factor. Because of the tricks that he does, the strength of his game often gets overlooked, just as it did with Ronaldinho. The great R10 had this remarkable ability, thanks to powerhouse legs and a low center of gravity, to all but ignore tackle attempts that would send other players sprawling. He had a reputation as this grinning, lovable trickster, but Ronaldinho was a thug with the ball at his feet. If he couldn’t get around you, he would run through you.

Yes, there are still times when Neymar will choose to go sprawling, rather than riding out a challenge as we have seen him do, time and again. We can only speculate, as on Sunday when he was the most-fouled player on the pitch, that he does it for protection. Calling the offical’s attention to it is the only way to stop it. But there is also bottle to his game, a backbone that lets him get in the face of his opponents, unsetting their game because they want to grab him a choke him. He even blew a kiss at one of his Atleti tormentors on Sunday, in a delightful moment of winding up. Red mist can obscure vision just enough to give Neymar an opening.

As with Henry, Eto’o and Messi, Messi, Neymar and Suarez are fast becoming an essential trio that needs the others to complete it. We have seen Messi and Suarez without Neymar, and it’s a more labored beast. We have also seen this season the times when Neymar came on and immediately sped up a match. It isn’t just because he requires two men to mark, but also because he is always running toward goal – and fast. Keep up. He makes the team play as fast as it is capable of, almost the antithesis of its thoughtful, incisive nature.

It’s hard to know the reason for the Neymar explosion this season. Surely some of it is that usually, an attacker’s second year at Barça is when this complicated world starts to click. But given the coaching instability at the team, it isn’t as though systems are assimilating. But don’t forget that Henry also took off like a rocket under Guardiola as the French striker got comfortable at the club. But is there something more going on with Neymar?

He was named captain of his national team at the World Cup this summer, as not only the best player on the team but the player who made Brazil go. He is fast growing in maturity, an old man of 22 years old who has been in the spotlight in a football-mad country since he was very young. He understands pressure and demanding fans, comprehends and soaks up people who in many ways are almost willing to revel in failure.

Not playing football in Argentina in many ways protected Messi from that same kind of nastiness as a youth player. He was brilliant and lauded at Barça, and carried astronomical expectations. But Messi was allowed to grow up around Ronaldinho. At Santos, Neymar was The Man. For Brazil, Neymar was The Man. He is very poised and polished, never saying the wrong thing. When asked after the Atleti match who runs the club, Neymar quickly replied, “Bartomeu.” Journalists waiting for him to say the wrong thing had better not hold their breath.

It would be arrogant to say that Barça is the most demanding football club in the world, but it is certainly right up there. When you drop a high-priced transfer into that environment, and tack onto that legal complexities and the resignation of a president, the pressure would be sufficient to make a lesser player wilt. But as a product of football-mad Brazil, Neymar just smiles, throws out some Instagram shots and gets ready to play on the weekend.

Luis Enrique also deserves some credit in the Neymar surge. As Jordi Alba has rounded into form, the aggressive, more open style of play that the team is favoring this season is allowing Neymar his head. And with Messi on the right wing a lot of the time, when he cuts into the middle to morph into a playmaker, that space isn’t occupied. He has a willing foil in Messi, a player who has every bit of the talent that Neymar has and a pile more in reserve. Neymar plays fast, Messi can accelerate that tempo as they work together in a way that two absurdly gifted composers can write songs that nobody is quite prepared for.

The addition of Luis Suarez has also created playing space for Neymar, because suddenly there is a predator running around, so teams can’t dispatch three defenders to deal with Neymar. Do that and a couple of flicks later Suarez has the ball and Neymar is darting toward goal. Like Messi and Suarez, Neymar wants to win. If he has to assist, assist an assister or score himself is immaterial. And that’s what makes certain players dangerous. Ronaldo is more dangerous now because you can’t play him for the shot automatically.

All that said, Neymar isn’t a great player. Yet. But he is an astonishingly talented attacker with more than enough of the necessary qualities that over time, certainly provide the foundation for him to potentially become a “great” player. Whether that final blossoming will come at Barça, only time will tell. But in the here and now, it is clear that Neymar has not only arrived, but become much of what many expected of him in the process.

The future is bright.

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Neymar, Thoughts10 Comments

Space. The final frontier

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The post-mortems have started coming in about the best Barça performance that anyone has seen in a very long time. I have watched it three times now, and I keep coming back to a very simple thing, summed up in one word: space.

The key to the excellence of Atleti has always been the way that it controls space, with and without the ball. With the ball, they come in overlapping waves this season, an intelligent attack that is also cognizant of possession. But it is without the ball where they truly excel.

When they beat RM in the Copa, it was with a heavy rotation squad, but the space control ideas were the same: funnel attackers into zones with ball pressure, where they can be controlled. It seems simple, but it’s so very complicated because nobody can take a moment off.

Barça has tried to manage space before over the years, and the Guardiola Treble team was most effective at it as it destroyed opponents with geometric precision. Without the ball, defenders converged from 2 or 3 points to ensure that no matter what, the person with the ball had a difficult time getting past that wave of pressure. The option would be to hoof it long, where defenders were waiting to scoop up errant balls, or try to play it out among a group of 6-8 pressing attackers.

On offense, the Treble team controlled space not only with triangles, but with pace. The movement off the ball of Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o was extravagant and effective, a constant wave of action that coupled with the passing triangles to always present Xavi with an option. Atop this, you had Iniesta making his runs at the defense with the ball, a non-scoring scoring threat, and Messi … always Messi.

The net result was that opponents weren’t allowed to play football at either end of the pitch.

Attacking the unbeatable

As Barça evolved (or more correctly devolved) and deficiencies became clear, opponents chose different ways to manage space against our team. Going over the top became in vogue, in an attempt to get directly at the back line of non-defending defenders. As solutions were found for that, a different way of space control manifested itself, most typically by Bayern Munich and to a letter extent, Paris St.-Germain in their home leg against us in Champions League.

Both teams make the flanks their battlegrounds, deciding that using those areas against the Barça attacking fullbacks was the way forward, and both had success in doing that while also exposing deficiencies in the team.

When Luis Enrique took over the club this season, leaving aside the cries that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, doesn’t have a plan, etc, etc, some of that plan became evident in the string of clean sheets that the team began to amass. Defense wins championships, and any win starts with not conceding. Seems simple enough, but that method of thinking isn’t part of the Barça Way. Yes, the team has had excellent defenders, but when a coach prioritizes defensive structure, that is something significant.

Pique was benched, and a clear message was sent: raise your game or sit. He raised his game, and is back to being an excellent defender. Jordi Alba is in his salad days, never having been more effective as a defender, and Jeremy Mathieu, his yips when it comes to clearing the ball aside, is fast, tall and agile, with vertical and lateral coverage capabilities. Add Mascherano to that as the fireman, and by just adding one player and helping the starting LB develop into his role (time in grade also helped there), the back of the pitch is as solid as can be, right down to the drama-free opponent set pieces this season.

Modifying The Way

The attack of Messi, Neymar and Suarez has its own space management complexities as it relates to the midfield, particularly against low blocks. Simply put, the Barça Way fails when there aren’t spaces to pass and move into, when the intricate give-and-gos run into waves of defenders. But even this season, the team has been making chances against low-block teams. La Real wasn’t a loss because of a lack of chances, but rather poor execution of those chances. In each of the four losses this season there have been opportunities squandered, moments in which a player just didn’t get it done. It’s easy to blame to coach for those, and Enrique is certainly part of the team that plays the match. But to lay the blame exclusively on him, as so many have done, ignores the simple fact that he isn’t the one squandering the chances.

The midfield has always been the complexity with the linking of the three Barça systems. As I said in the “preview” before the Atleti match, Iniesta would be the key, or potentially Raktitc, someone to bridge that space gap between midfield and the attack so that each system can do what it does. This is, in many ways, the exploitable weakness of Enrique’s structure — it is capable of being defeated by isolating its various parts, and the only way around it is for the team to do what it did on Sunday in making everyone part of all three phases of the game, even as this is an approach that also requires a complicit opponent.

Atleti came into the match expecting the calm, logical Barça that it saw all last season. What it got instead was throwback Barça, a team that truly attacked and defended with 11, that managed space on its own terms through a number of very simple ways:

— Ball technicians can thwart a pressing opponent. Barça has just a couple.
— Width, real width rather than Pedro standing around on the right, makes the pitch too big to control.
— It’s difficult to stop a moving Messi.
— Neymar took the reins from time to time.

In addition to all of that, there was the shuttle player. Suarez could occupy the Atleti CBs, leaving FBs to try to deal with Messi and Neymar as other players tried to deal with Rakitic and Iniesta, both of whom had excellent matches, the latter as an elegant, incisive Modified Xavi.

In attack, the space between Neymar and Messi was usually wide at the start of an attack, but rather than the usual spacing we have seen in which opponents can just play passing lanes and isolate Barça attackers, a more conservative Alves meant that Rakitic became a midfielder again, a dynamic presence which meant that Busquets could return to his spot at the base, a reference point for the two midfielders. Busquets also had his best match in a long time, and in many ways it was because past became present as the team that beat Atleti played a lot like Treble Barça.

Neymar was trickster Henry, Suarez played the Eto’o role and Messi featured as himself. With Rakitic and Iniesta moving, there were simply too many spaces to control, too many gaps to fill. Anyone wondering why coaches decide that putting 10 behind the ball and 8 in the box is the way to play Barça need look no further than Sunday’s match. Atleti didn’t know what hit it, just as culers didn’t know what they were seeing. Hell, it took me a while to figure it out.

The way forward?

Suarez AND Neymar were on the doorstep for that first goal. Perhaps if Juanfran doesn’t whiff on the clearance, things are different. Maybe if the early aggression of Atleti had resulted in a goal, things would have been different. But as the match proceeded it was a simple exercise in space management as for the first time we saw something of what I reckon Enrique’s Barça is supposed to look like, though I rather imagine that when Mathieu is healthy there will be difficult decisions to be made, as Enrique considers Mascherano a necessity.

We are also getting a sense of what Enrique’s gala XI is. It was the 27th different lineup in 27 matches, but this time only one player was different, in Iniesta for Xavi.

When coaches devise match plans, they do so based on not only the capabilities of their team, but the opponent. Atleti was surprised by what they got. So were culers, if they are being truly honest. I sure was. It wasn’t the drive and intensity, though Simeone commented after the match that threw them for a loop. It was also the logic of the approach. It was a match plan devised for Atleti, and it made perfect sense. It also worked.

It didn’t work because of individual brilliance, though there were many brilliant plays made by individuals, as there will be when you have talents such as Barça has. But there was a system … three phases joined by ball and player movement. The first goal started with Claudio Bravo. It didn’t take much to remind you of when Barça goals originated at Victor Valdes.

Is what’s old new again? In some ways, yes. Then as now, there are three dynamic, world class, creative attackers. But this Barça potentially has an extra dimension in Neymar, who is as capable of shifting to a central playmaker’s role as well as his usual slot on the left side of the attack. Notice the times that Rakitic was standing in the Atleti box, in space. As with Guardiola’s first year, a system such as that works best where there are simply too many targets to hit and space is managed through effective movement between phases on the pitch.

It seems so simple when you lay it out like that. Why we haven’t seen it before now is due to, frankly, who the hell knows? As Sid Lowe wrote in his top-class after match report for The Guardian, coach Juanma Lillo said, “Sometimes people tell me reasons why my team have lost, when even I haven’t got a clue.”

The same is often true for why a team wins, or decides that today is the day that it will all come together. Anger? Okay. The chance to finally slay the demons that plagued these players all last season? I’ll buy that. The necessity of a 9 becoming so abundantly clear? For sure.

But it’s sport. Just as the same tennis player can do no wrong one day and miss every line the next, the margins are slim. Think about it too much, and you start to be in danger of missing out on the wonder of it all.

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Tactics, Thoughts18 Comments

Everything to play for

To say that today’s match against Atleti is huge would be an understatement. Is it even bigger than the last time Barça faced them at the Camp Nou, with the Liga title at stake?

Quite possibly, because there is more at risk than a championship here as you get the feeling that the club is tottering on the brink of an abyss. A loss to Atleti is the absolute last thing the team needs right now, as well as the last thing that the club needs right now.

Diego Simeone is relishing the challenge.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Tactics, Team News, Thoughts40 Comments

Elections and a return to normalcy

Ahhh, that’s more like it. For longtime culers, a happy, consistently victorious Barça was kind of weird. So it’s in many ways reassuring to find that the team and the club have returned to its old, infighting, backbiting self.

— Factions within the board? (Check)
— A superstar unhappy with the manager? (Check)
— An allegedly lost dressing room? (Check)

As we all know now, current president Josep Bartomeu announced today that elections would be convened in the summer of 2015, to rid the club of the stress and uncertainty. And to adequately discuss this, we need to separate personal views from a broader, club-centric view.

Personal side

This group has been a pox from the beginning. Back when I was against them and the effects of the reign weren’t as apparent, I was constantly asked why I wasn’t being fair, what I had against Rosell, etc, etc. Well … this. From false austerity to shoving aside players in heartless ways, from selling the shirt to misunderstanding the human side of managing a sporting club, the list of their flaws, from my very personal perspective, are many.

The prospect of an election makes me giddy with rapture, because it is the opportunity to vote these people far, far away from any semblance of Barça elected office. It’s also something that Bartomeu, rather than hiding behind the shield of club bylaws, should have done at his soonest possibility. These elections should have been last summer, when the club was throwing hundreds of millions of Euros around in an effort to save its collective hide by buying players galore. It didn’t work, and it didn’t work because of a series of meltdowns. “I am David Moyes, destroyer of worlds.”

It obviously isn’t just Moyes and the loss to La Real, any more than it is just Messi and his “blue flu.” It’s everyone all at once, gathering to ensure that the right thing has finally been done. They have done some good, but nowhere near enough to outstrip the bad, for me.

So no, I don’t like this board. But more importantly I like the notion that the voting members will be deciding upon its future.

But is there really a choice?

At the moment there are four potential candidates, only three definite: Victor Font, Agusti Benedito, Bartomeu and Joan Laporta. But as with it was with Rosell, there is really only one candidate, should he decide to run: Laporta.

In a Sport poll of possible candidates, Laporta got something like 89% of the vote. It’s doubtful he would even have to really mount a campaign. Just show up. I don’t believe that to be a good thing.

Jimmy Burns made the Laporta reservations very clear in a very good column posting. And make no mistake about it, Laporta had complexities, even as they paled in comparison to what this group has done. With the club in rather a delicate state right now and transfer banned until winter 2016 window, it is necessary … no, crucial to have a firm, steady hand guiding things.

Laporta would skate in because of the positive memories of his tenure. No, not the two silverless years when the team was a mess under late-Barça Frank Rijkaard, but the Guardiola years, before the Great Slide began. Those memories make Laporta a slam dunk, and in effect there is really only one candidate running, so we have as little choice as we had when Rosell was the 1000-pound gorilla. Would any of the others be good presidents? Good question, and as immaterial as it was when Alfons Godall and the rest were running in 2010.

A iron-clad mandate is a dangerous thing. Rosell took his whopping victory to mean unfettered control. What’s to keep Laporta from assuming the same? Nothing. What does this mean for the club? No idea, but to think that it would automatically mean victory parades and cava for everyone isn’t entirely correct.

Mitigating factors

The next Barça president will have to deal with hiring a new coach, assembling a board and taking the reins of a sporting project that has banned youth players who are stagnating, a first-team transfer ban and an actual first team with aging players, untested ones and a cranky superstar. It’s a big job, even when there isn’t an impatient bunch of supporters breathing down your neck, expecting miracles and wonderment. In reality, this could even dissuade Laporta from taking on the job, though I rather doubt it. Any culer who thinks that elections will solve the problems are as misguided as the ones who think that firing Luis Enrique will solve them.

From club membership to a shirt sponsor who many allege has ties to questionable organizations, a lot needs to be unraveled. Putting the sporting project first at a time when nothing really can be done means what, exactly? It’s important to take a clear-eyed view of what elections in summer will mean for Barça the club, and Barça the footballing side, even as the reality is that we don’t know. Would Enrique be shown the door in a show of solidarity with Messi? The latest rumor is that Messi is uncomfortable with Enrique remaining as manager of the club, and will be for as long as he is there. So then what? Don’t forget the bombshell from the Enrique presser. When asked if he felt it still true that Messi was “delighted” to be at Barça, he answered that things change over time, and the press corps should talk to the parties involved. New manager? Who? And what OF that shirt sponsorship? It’s pretty easy to get hooked on 30+m flying over the transom every season even if it isn’t coming from whatever Qatar deems worthy to offer up for the shirt front. Don’t forget about that stadium project, where the fiscal magic will enable the club to spend 700m and not incur any new debt. “Enrique out!” “Barto out!” Okay. What now?

Lots of things to do and questions to answer for an organization that is a club, but really lives and dies by the exploits of the football team. It’s crucial that culers and socis not view this presidential election as a high-profile attacker transfer, where everyone expects eleventy bajillion goals because “If he scored 35 for his old club, imagine what he will do at Barça!”

But the biggest thing is that finally, finally there is a chance to choose the person who is to run this club. Because players come and go, but it’s the club that endures. That club right now is in trouble, and needs more than anything the right hands guiding it. Those hands will be chosen by its members, for better or worse. As redemption stories go, the act of choosing is a great start.

Posted in Analysis, Messi, Team News, Thoughts9 Comments

Then as now, aka “Respect my authority!”

rm enrique

“Luis Enrique will do a better job than I did.”

— Pep Guardiola

History is most interesting when we forget it. In using the “where there’s smoke …” adage, it’s doubtful that anyone continues to use “alleged” when discussing the alleged rift between Messi and Enrique. Is there something in fact going on? Again, we don’t know.

People say Enrique is “arrogant,” “difficult,” “in over his head,” “can’t manage at a big club,” etc. These things are said without knowing, because we don’t see what goes on. Most of what we know is his Vito Corleone-like badass face at pressers, where he rasps answers from behind a jutted chin. From that, people get arrogance, etc.

But it’s worth going back to happier times, when Pep Guardiola rolled into the club after the days of Frank Rijkaard.

Speaking of Rijkaard and history, what’s interesting is that many suggest that his tenure went off the rails when he lost Henk Ten Cate, who was his pit bull. So that authority, that person who would say “Shut up and deal with what we are telling you,” was lost. From there, the locker room descended into anarchy. Once a coach loses the locker room, there’s no way to get it back, and that coach is on a very, very short leash.

Guardiola came in and laid waste. Unlike his successors, he had full and complete authority, and knew what he wanted. People also forget that he wasn’t interested in dissent. It was his way or the highway. He leavened that stern nature with hugs and was clearly a very human coach, but Guardiola was going to get his way.

When he took office, the first thing he did was clean house. The wholesale clearout that transpired included Ronaldinho and Deco. It was easy for many to accept those moves, because R10 wasn’t what he once was unless at a party, nor was Deco. More interesting was Samuel Eto’o, a fearsome striker at the peak of his powers. Guardiola wanted him out, and said you can do this my way, or leave. Eto’o stayed, and was an integral part of that legendary Treble side. When he lapsed he was gone, in favor of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The warnings about Ibrahimovic were many, and pretty much all of them came to pass. He eventually left the club. Toure Yaya wanted more playing time, wanted things from his role in the team that he wasn’t going to get, mostly because Sergio Busquets fit what Guardiola wanted better but also because Guardiola didn’t want anyone who wasn’t fully on board with his program to be around, getting in the way.

This is exactly as it should be. A coach should have full and complete authority to run him team exactly as he likes, and it shouldn’t matter who that coach is. The role should come with that presumption. Management styles differ and can be debated about, but what should be etched in concrete is that Coach is Mister. That the traditional Mister role has disappeared in the face of modern players and superstars is another matter for another day.

I’m not speaking to him

Guardiola ran his team.

Allegedly, Messi and Enrique aren’t speaking. My mind immediately returned to the allegations that Guardiola didn’t speak to Eto’o, Ibrahimovic or Yaya, and I got to thinking about what the differences were. I got to thinking about how back then, people said it was stupid to even consider that a coach wouldn’t be on speaking terms with a player on his team. It’s more than results because when Guardiola cleared house the season hadn’t started yet. When he wanted Eto’o gone, the team had not yet become That Team. And Guardiola’s only coaching credentials were that he had great ideas, and kicked ass at Barça B.

But Guardiola had the authority to run his team. That team also didn’t have a superstar of the likes of Messi. Ronaldinho was brilliant, affable and a great player. Would people include him in a list of 5 greatest players ever? Maybe his Mom, but that’s pretty much it. But even if he had been he would have been gone, because Guardiola wanted him gone. He relented on Eto’o because the player convinced him, but as soon as that full confidence was lost Eto’o was gone, as was Ibrahimovic.

Back then, a few brave souls said that Guardiola seemed to have difficulty managing superstars and their egos. In that context, draw what you will from his assuming the helm at a Bayern team that lacks that real superstar, iconic player who is also near the top of his game. He could sell Robben or Ribery in a heartbeat and few would bat an eyelash.

When Guardiola sold Ronaldinho, people said “Okay, but your crap had better come out smelling like roses.” It didn’t, and the muttering began. Then the team started winning, and Guardiola’s authority grew even stronger, to the point where the only real issue that most had with the sale of Ibrahimovic was price, rather than that the most talented striker in the game was being sold because he and his coach couldn’t get along. “Zlatan’s just an arrogant prick.”

“He got benched for Krkic!” Yes, because he checked out. The player that was benched by Guardiola wasn’t the same player who started the season, it was clear. Why? All we have is what Ibrahimovic has been saying in his book, pressers and pretty much whenever anyone asks, painting himself as the free will among the passel of choirboys.

Obviously, Guardiola and Enrique are very different managers. One has a role in Barça iconography, the other might not even finish his first season. But just because the two can’t be compared doesn’t mean that there aren’t commonalities, and one of the most noteworthy is their authoritarian styles.

But to do this you have to step back and look at the situation. How possible is that when it involves Messi? Enrique is automatically wrong. For those who say that he isn’t getting results, he is. So the issues become his rotation, seeming lack of a system (compared to what, it should be asked, and what role does poor execution play in that alleged lack of identity) and his “arrogance.”

Who’s the boss?

I can’t say that I agree with those notions. If a coach in American football plays a beautiful, offensive game and all of his players love him but his team finishes 2-14, that coach is gone. If a coach plays an ugly, defensive style, butts heads with his players and wins the championship, that coach is secure as can be. In many sports, it is all about results. The rest is window dressing.

Many have a difficult time understanding the idea that many culers would rather lose a match playing pretty, than win it playing ugly. But it’s at the core of the Enrique complexity. He’s getting results, doing so with a squad that unlike the squad that Guardiola was given for his first season, isn’t anything approaching ideal. It’s aging icons, a superstar who’s lost a step, role players and promotions still taking shape. Enrique has taken that group and has them second in the Liga and to the knockouts in Champions League after winning the group. That team also cruised (yes, it was Huesca) in the Copa. It really has been an impressive start from a results worldview, even as it has been at times a failure from the other worldviews.

And that’s the difficulty. The past is impossible to escape. Note that Tata Martino (who used 17 different lineups in his first 17 matches, by the by) is never used in Enrique comparisons. Why? He didn’t win anything. But that comparison would probably bring about a bit more patience, a bit more willingness to have patience with Enrique. Yes, the team has 3 losses in Liga. The Treble team had 7 losses, even though some came when the league title was all but done.

I don’t know what Enrique does or how he manages. The only thing I have to go on is what I see on the pitch. I haven’t watched training sessions, haven’t watched him interact with the players or staff. Because I have seen none of that, I am ill-equipped to make the same judgments that many are making about his fitness to continue coaching FC Barcelona.

But I can look at history, find similarities and speculate about why past is present but that present is perceived differently. Guardiola won everything under the sun for one great season, kept winning for a while, won a Copa and then left. The results weren’t there for the same reasons that the team isn’t doing all that it can right now: a neglectful board.

His successor, Tito Vilanova, won the Liga but nobody really cared because he screwed up and didn’t use Thiago Alcantara enough so he left for Bayern, legend has it. “He didn’t need those 100 points, and only wanted them because RM got them the year before. Hollow victory.” This was really the marking of the first return of how Barça used to be, the Barça that we’re seeing now, of the infighting and nothing ever being good enough. That season was defined by the Bayern beating, and always will be.

Martino came in, got an absolute mess of a team within 5 goals of being in with a shout for the Treble, and it’s immaterial. And in this situation results matter, in a deft malleability of grading standards.

And now we have Enrique, whose sins are:

— Arrogance
— Too much rotation
— “Ugly” football
— Poor man management
— Has lost the locker room
— At war with Messi

He was getting stick for his previous sins, even beFORE the alleged row with Messi. And from my perspective, all of the other sins are nonsense inventions by people looking for a reason to dislike a coach. But if he has lost the dressing room, that’s fatal. A coach can be forgiven a lot, but not that. Because if the players won’t play for you, results are impossible.

It’s why I struggle to understand why the Messi thing has suddenly blown everything up. Prima facie, the alleged situation involves a coach’s authority over a player. And if we believe part of the allegations then we have to believe all of them right, which includes Messi getting a case of the “blue flu” and stiffing sick kids because he was having a pout.

“Oh, but Messi wouldn’t do that.” Yet Enrique is the monster because Messi is angry. It isn’t assumed for an instant that Enrique might have just as much reason and right to take on Messi as Guardiola did Eto’o, Ibrahimovic or Yaya. That thought doesn’t enter anyone’s mind. It can’t, because Messi is involved, and so Enrique is automatically at fault. He has to be, because all Messi wants to do is play with Thiago, his PlayStation and a football.

It shouldn’t take a cranky old journalist to point out the complexities in that approach to the situation.

If you stomp your feet and scream “WHY ARE YOU DEFENDING ENRIQUE,” then you haven’t been paying attention. The point isn’t Enrique’s suitability for the job that he has. The point is allegations, what they mean and a coach’s right to run his team the way that he sees fit, to do the job that he was hired to do. If he’s bad at that job, judge him on that, rather than a bushel basket of “allegeds.”

It’s a complex matter that I have struggled to get my mind around, but it seems to me that a lot of it is perception of two men, both wanting results and success and going about it in their own ways. And now they are allegedly butting heads. If that player is say, Jordi Alba, does it matter as much? When Enrique sat Pique for whatever reason he sat Pique, people defended Pique but really it wasn’t that huge a deal because Pique wasn’t getting the results on the pitch in that he wasn’t as consistently excellent as he has been in the past. News flash: Neither is Messi.

But none of that matters, because Messi is the Best Player Alive and Enrique is just some coach with no credentials, riding herd over a directionless team that is playing ugly football. And now he’s fighting with Messi. Lucho OUT!

What if he is fighting for the way to run his team as he likes? What if at the other side of all this alleged allegedly stuff is a fist of a team that takes shape and kicks the crap out of everyone. What if, what if? What if nobody can see any of the other “what ifs” because heels are embedded into the ground because we aren’t seeing exactly what we want to see from Barça, which makes everything suspect.

You can ask all the questions you like, but without asking the right ones, it’s difficult to solve a dilemma or get past a crossroads.

Posted in Analysis, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts48 Comments

Vocational training, aka “Be a reporter”

These are worrying times for our football club, when the din is threatening to shut everything out.

The people who want Enrique gone are screaming the loudest right now, and people who might be considering a different view retreat in the face of vehemence. People who say the wrong things are being attacked, and it’s getting personal.

Meanwhile, rumors fly about practice rows. Messi and Enrique had a fight because Messi wanted a foul called. In a practice match. The player who doesn’t go down, who gets chunks kicked out of him with equanimity, decides to draw the line. With his coach. In practice. Neymar and Mascherano had a fight. That they are the kinds of rows that happen all the time in a competitive situation is immaterial. Right now, they are different. Why? Because they need to be?

Labels abound. “Cheerleader.” “Gloomy.” “Negative.” “Bandwagoner.” And everyone rushes to have the last word.

And that’s just among the fanbase!
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Posted in Analysis, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts52 Comments

The first shoe drops, aka “Don’t be fooled”

zubi

I was watching a TV show called “Fool Us,” featuring the magic duo of Penn & Teller. The premise is that magicians come out to do their thing in an effort to find a trick slick enough to fool two of the best magicians ever.

It’s pretty hard to fool Penn & Teller. The question will be, now that the magic trick of getting rid of Andoni Zubizarreta has been performed, whether this board will be able to fool us.

I hope not.
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Posted in Analysis, Soap Box, Supposition, Team News, Thoughts33 Comments

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