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Espanyol 0, Barça 2, aka “Fully operational Death Star?”

messi

As an athlete, you structure a training plan. It begins with an ambition. Then comes the structure of what you need to reach that goal. Then you implement the plan. Usain Bolt doesn’t start his season running 9-second 100 meter dashes. So when FC Barcelona, under its new coach Luis Enrique, started the season clearly building something, why wasn’t the long view taken, why wasn’t the necessary time granted?

Rewards have been coming thick and fast from this football team, against Sevilla, Valencia, Manchester City, PSG and today, probably in its fullest flower so far, the Catalan derby against Espanyol.

I have knocked heads in debate with people who have said that Enrique’s Barça, even when playing well, has been not exactly right because there wasn’t the required positional play, the kind of player and ball movement that makes an opponent and what they do immaterial. My contention has been that you have to account for the opponent, blablabla.

I have never felt more wrong than today’s match against Espanyol, as Barça played theoretical football. To be sure, it was against a mid-table side in Liga, a side who even with the match of its life probably wasn’t going to get much more than a draw, but nonetheless … for the first time this season, Barça played sustained “To hell with you” football.

During the heyday of the exceptional San Francisco 49ers teams in American football, their coach, Bill Walsh, had a certain number of plays that he would start the game with, and he never deviated from those plays. His belief was if we execute these plays as we should, the people on the other side of the ball don’t matter.

As a positional ideal, Barça football uses spatial control to be successful. Whether the opponent is RM, or Sevilla or Espanyol or Almeria, if you take the ball and strike it so to this player who does exactly this in this way, something good will happen. The opponent reacts to you and what your players do with the ball and how they move. Properly implemented, positional football is as indefensible as the two Barça goals were, even as the second was “sullied” with a bit of individual excellence from Messi.

There were runs into space, pinpoint passes that accounted for the run of a teammate and one-touch grace under pressure, confidence rooted in belief built on the training pitch that a teammate is going to be where you put the ball. For the first goal, Suarez dummied a pass that he had an 80% probability of scoring from, because Neymar had a 100% probability of scoring. That was an extraordinary thing, a little tribute to our late Mister on the anniversary day of his passing, a man in Tito Vilanova who always emphasized team football and the whole being stronger than the individual. In a fitting bookend for this match, it also occurred on the birthday of Johan Cruijff, who brought a total footballing idea to Barça, an ideal on vivid display today.

What makes that Suarez dummy even more extravagant is that he is an 81m signing who was brought to Barça to score goals. He has been The Man wherever he has gone. At Liverpool, there is no question that he takes that ball, and the shot. At Barça, he dummies it for Neymar. When we think about the work that has gone into building an excellent football team by the coach and his staff, it isn’t just the movement and passing, the Xs and Os that define match theory. It’s the psychology of being part of a team: making the extra pass, trusting a teammate, building the belief that if you build it, they will come.

neysua

In no player has that transformation been more noticeable and electrifying than in Messi, who essentially played as a 10 today. Think back to the days when Messi had to score 70+ goals in a season, because that was what his team needed. Flash-forward to now, when he can decide what his team needs because he has players such as Neymar and Suarez, who are fully capable of allowing him to play as a 10, delivering otherworldly passes hither and yon. His cross-pitch bomb to set up the first goal wasn’t even his best of the day as he created chances out of nothing, putting a ball into a spot because of the confidence that he has teammates of sufficient quality to not only know what he is planning, but be there to execute the plan.

Espanyol is a good football team that was rendered helpless today as the two goals that they shipped could have easily, were it not for crap finishing by Neymar, been 4 or 5. A ball was spanked full speed to Suarez who just flicked it, one touch for Neymar who was in stride because he knew what was going to happen. That he skied the finish isn’t as important as what happened, as the fruits of the labors of the team and its coaching staff were on full display today. Espanyol didn’t even get a shot on goal until almost the 80th minute.

At the beginning of the season, with the rotations, and experimentation with different ways of attacking, and pragmatism and the gradual building of a program, even those who demanded that Enrique be given time to build his team, could not have foreseen what he was building. It’s easy to wonder what the “Lucho Out!” crew is thinking now, that Barça is playing the best football in Europe, but that isn’t what matters here.

What matters is that a team, a group of players have the capability of doing something that few teams have the capacity to do, which is make football theory into reality. “Okay. Neymar, you start running, because Iniesta is going to hit a pass to Suarez, who will be holding off two defenders, here. Luis, you will flick the ball on … now, a one-touch play is crucial here, or Neymar will be offide. Make sure your flick lands right at Neymar’s feet. Got it? Okay.”

It was exquisite play that, it bears repeating, makes an opponent irrelevant. The second goal was some sort of Druid ritual in the Espanyol box that resulted in a pass falling to Messi. Any other player in world football, receiving a ball at the far post, almost on a path parallel with the goal mouth, decides to reset the attack. Messi shot, and scored. The worst part about that goal is that he does that kind of stuff so regularly we don’t even flinch any longer, never mind falling off our chairs and muttering gibberish.

But as much as the goal, notice the buildup. A long pass is played for Suarez, who is surveying his options as the ball comes to him. He moves toward the box, still looking for options. And there is Iniesta. Suarez pings it to Iniesta, who uses his first touch to pop the pass up so that his next ball will be above the busy feet of the Espanyol defenders, then volleys a ball back to Suarez, who volleys a lob over for Messi. But because the keeper is charging out at him, Messi can’t just slot it home. He has to control the ball in a way that keeps it right on his feet, or the keeper will smother it, then hit a shot across the face of goal with just enough curve to get in, but not so much that a defender can clear it.

iniesta

On video, in real time, it’s just a Barça goal. But to think about and accurately describe what had to happen elevates into something that must make an opponent say, “You guys are assholes. No really.”

Barça has played the kind of football that it played today before during this season, but in fits and starts. More heartening for culers is that the sustained duration of this quality of play is building. Our culer paranoia is reduced to, “Oh crap, they made three straight passes! Doooom!”

Unlike the Sevilla match, even when sent down to 10 men thanks to a stupid Jordi Alba and a preternaturally inept Lahoz, Barça remained in control. Alves was excellent, Mascherano continues to laugh at the people who have to keep making semantic castells of contentions against his presence on the pitch. Suarez was omnipresent and almost always dangerous, and it’s safe to say that Neymar’s slump is over, even as he needs to concentrate in front of goal. He could easily have had a hat trick today, and against a top European side you won’t get many chances to score.

This wasn’t a perfect match for Barça, but such things are impossible. But it might have been the best match that the team has played this season because of the football, and the moment. If this team wants to win the Liga, every league match is a final, as there is no breathing room. Espanyol came into the match on a streak of excellent football, with clean sheets in 5 of its last 7 home matches. They were owned today, by a team whose playing style didn’t care who they were.

Barça did this under the pressure of the knowledge that there is absolutely no margin for error. It is extraordinary to think that the team is a bad Pique pass away from being able to win out the season. It is also extraordinary the way that this team has come into shape as a training and building plan has paid off. From Pique to Iniesta to a still-evolving Messi, this team is playing football at its finest. Even more correctly, it is playing Barça football.

"Hey! Hey! Pretty good, huh?"

“Hey! Hey! Pretty good, huh?”

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts2 Comments

Barça 2, Valencia 0, “A fraught, “easy” win”

enrique

A clean sheet and two goals as the home team strolled to a comfortable w …

Not so fast. This is a match with a scoreline that will in no way reflect how complex things were, making it almost a reverse of the Sevilla match in which the scoreline wasn’t reflective of how much Barça was in control.

It will also be considered for many an Enrique vindication and an example of the learning process that a coach goes through as he comes to grips with the immense task of controlling a world-class side. That Enrique has a capacity for learning is as without question as the unwillingness of too many to allow him the opportunity to get a handle on things.

Last week at Sevilla he made some controversial changes. Leaving aside the glaring errors that had more to do with the final result than anything Enrique did with his lineup, the focus of the culerverse is such that often the obvious is ignored for the more, shall we say, subtle. Pique cocked up the pass but the larger story was that Neymar was subbed off, as the one player capable of making Sevilla play more honest and press less because of the danger he represented in running behind their defense as they pushed forward.

Xavi was also controversial because he came on as Sevilla had decided that flooding the midfield with a pressing batch of as many as 8 players would be the way forward as on the key error, Busquets was stranded high and dry with one shot to influence that play. He just missed the ball, Reyes danced past him and that was that.

This week against Valencia, Enrique played a (shudder!) double pivot with Busquets and Mascherano, something that was a topic of discussion during the match, and deemed a failure by some because of the spirited Valencia display in that first half.

Yet what people fail to consider is what might have happened had Iniesta been in there instead of Mascherano, a player who, it is worth considering, might have made a difference against Sevilla last week. People also find it easy to lay failure at the feet of the aberration, but Adriano in effect had Barça playing with 10. Valencia decided the war would be fought in the midfield and after picking themselves up off the canvas in the wake of an absolutely stunning early Suarez goal, they set about grabbing the match by the scruff of the neck.

To say that they put Barça on the back foot would be an understatement, and they did it — as did Sevilla — in a way that demonstrated the necessity for change. If you have a midfield-based system and somebody presses the hell out of it, not allowing a clean pass, cutting off passing angles and contesting not only the passer but the receiver, what is a team to do besides evolve? People can have semantic daisy chains and chalkboard dissertations all they like, but Sevilla and Valencia showed exactly why Guardiola, Vilanova, Martino and now Enrique were experimenting with adaptations of the system that worked so well against a world that was unprepared for it.

And it wasn’t just Xavi, as once again the difference between running him out against fresh, pressing players vs tired ones late in a match became clear. It was the whole team, as well as a fundamental plank of the Barça attack going awry when Pique picked today of all days to have a poor match, falling prey to that unreliable beast called form. From a penalty to another wayward pass that almost resulted in a Valencia goal, this just wasn’t his day, even as he also turned in key interventions in the air and on the ground.

But because the defenders are key for attack starting at Barça by playing the right ball out of the back, this also makes that part of the Way subject to attack by a pressing opponent, particularly when the back line becomes the Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight.

Despite all that, the biggest part of the problem was the passive defending that reared its head for some inexplicable reason, as Barça cowered on the rocks of its own box like a Segunda side being stalked by a Primera predator in an early-round Copa match. Guardiola said that “we are crap without the ball.” The secret is that most teams are crap without the ball. Give an opponent enough shots at you, and one of them will probably work. It was only luck (a post and poor finishing) that allowed Barça to take its 1-0 lead into the locker room, making halftime a fraught time for culers.

mathieu

And then — and the veracity of this will depend on your view of the Barça coach — Enrique changed the match with a series of subs. The first was a sub and a tactical change: Rakitic came on for Adriano, Mascherano moved to the back line and Mathieu became the left back.

These three changes yielded a completely different match because the right side gained the defensive solidity that Rakitic brings when he is on the pitch as a true box-to-box midfielder (rather than the non-Xaviniesta that many scorn him for being). He worked with Alves and others a number of times to dispossess, slow down and break up Valencia attacks, regaining possession. He also helped control possession with runs and passes, and picked up a key yellow card to stop a Valencia break that was leading to a golden scoring chance.

Mathieu at LB didn’t just mean that we now had a functioning FB on that side. It meant that we had, in effect, a giant Alba out there, an LB who can get up the pitch with speed to lead a break, make the right cross and defend with facility. No looping balls over the top of his big ass, either. On three occasions he sparked breaks, and crosses that resulted in corners for Barça, putting Valencia on the back foot and giving them another thing to worry about, which they didn’t have in the first half as Adriano functionally did nothing.

Mascherano to the back line gave Pique what he needs when he isn’t being a boss: a fireman. Puyol ran around and put out fires when he stomped the terra for Barça. Was he a great CB? In the traditional sense, some might quibble even as in the fullest sense, nobody would argue for a microsecond about his greatness. But his greatest attribute for me was an essential rightness. Right spot, right pass, right intervention, right tackle. Mascherano, despite the assertion of many that he doesn’t have any real business playing CB, brings many of those Puyol-like qualities to the back line.

His fitness for being in the XI was being debated as he was making play after play, one described by Phil Schoen as a clearance “off the S on his chest.” More than that, Mascherano also brought some more Puyol to the dance as he brought the ball up to disarm the Valencia press, rather than passing it up.

mascherano

Enrique got the moves right which meant that where Valencia enjoyed the run of things in the first half, that team was now facing a complete Barça, with attackers on the right and left as well as a solid center that was as willing to battle for the ball as the flank players were. And there was also danger from all three directions. Distances were compressed, which meant that there were fewer spaces for Valencia defenders to chase balls, and the Enrique version of match control took full shape.

After a mess of a first half fraught with danger and complexity, the second was something of a assertive stroll through the woods in a match bracketed by goals in its first and last minutes.

That first goal was magnificent, and as sumptuous a warp-speed bit of football as you are likely to see this season. From the back line to Busquets to Messi to Suarez to the back of the net, each player dwelling on the ball for a fraction of a moment. The ball from Busquets to Messi was about as flawless a pass are you are going to see in football this season because it gave Messi all the time in the world. He didn’t even have to slow down, and he didn’t dally as he fed Suarez. The striker’s finish was unstoppable because he took it first time rather than controlling and waiting for Diego Alves to get set. Again, it’s the quality of the pass for him from Messi.

suarez

The second goal was a consequence of Valencia (my hands keep wanting to type Sevilla) pressing for the late equalizer, and Messi getting behind the defense on a bust-out.

Another player who showed a capacity for learning is Claudio Bravo, who is as much in the running for MOTM as Mascherano. Guess who didn’t fist any balls away this week, coming at the world with palms out? Pique gives up the penalty and Enrique turned away in disgust, which turned to delight when Bravo made the save. And he didn’t just make the save. He caught it. Yes, it was a crap penalty, but lots of crap penalties go in if the keeper guesses wrong. Bravo nailed it, and two other immense saves today.

bravo

Speculation about whether he is the right man for the job has long since dissipated even as he understands that he is a place holder for a young, talented German named Ter Stegen.

As I write this, it is with no idea if the points gap at the end of the Liga round is going to be 2 or 4 for Barça, but it doesn’t matter, because the only people this team need depend on share a locker room. This week, a Mathieu quote made news as he said, “Luis Enrique is a special person. He doesn’t talk a lot with us. We know what to do, but we don’t know what he thinks.”

There are many ways to interpret that statement:

“He isn’t cuddly. We don’t know if he likes horror movies or action films, but we know what he wants us to do on the pitch.”

“He tells us what we need to know to get the job done.”

“He doesn’t talk to the players. Told you his man-management skills sucked.”

The way that a culer chooses to interpret that Mathieu quote will of course depend on worldview, even as the results that the team is having this year as well as the way that the team is going about getting those results, points to a clear, communicative coach both on the pitch and in the locker room. It’s been said before, but set pieces and defending aren’t individual brilliance but work in a system.

Getting results is about clarity of vision, respect and execution. All three were on view today at the Camp Nou, and the result was a fraught-but-effective 2-0 win that keeps the slim Liga lead. And the team has to depend on itself to see this out. As with any other talented group, it’s hard to imagine they would want it any other way.

P.S. 400 goals for Messi. Holy crap. He’s only 27.

messi

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts126 Comments

Sevilla 2, Barça, aka “Moments change a lot”

suarez

Everything in sport comes down to a moment, sometimes less. Races are lost in hundredths of a second, a moment’s hesitation allows an opponent to get free. A moment is nothing, but sometimes it’s everything.

Barça’s draw to Sevilla came down to a trio of moments, all of which went Sevilla’s way: a Suarez miss, a Bravo misplay and a Pique giveaway. Another time, those plays go differently. Against a lesser opponent, the counterattacks don’t have the precision that Sevilla’s did. But on this day, these three moments were decisive.

More fascinating is that the moments and the resultant mistakes all have roots in how an exceptionally talented player is, which will directly affect the decision that he makes.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts115 Comments

Believing the unbelievable as the countdown begins

Fate owes us.

At the end of what seems an interminable cycle of fear, loathing and heartache, that damsel has some blaugrana debts to pay.

The notion of a team or group of supporters being “due” is an odd one, but for the record and from this chair, Fate owes the hell out of us. And as the team heads for Sevilla tomorrow, 4 points in the Liga lead with 8 matches to go, the Pollyanna in me just refuses to believe that Fate intends to be that cruel.

It has been quite a travail being a culer these past seasons. And whether Job and his trials, Sisyphus and his quest or any other figure of legend you can think of in an analogous fashion, it ain’t been easy. Let’s exclude the difficulties of the board’s own making and just manage things such as illness, death, personal tragedies befalling players and injuries galore. This stuff all combines to leave a culer wondering just when in the hell our beloved club is going to catch a break.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts58 Comments

Celta 0, Barça 1, aka “Sprites troll the world”

mathieu

FC Barcelona kept a clean sheet, and its lone goal came from a set piece.

We should pause a moment to let that sink in …

FC Barcelona kept a clean sheet, and its lone goal came from a set piece.

No matter how many times you repeat that, the absurdity of the statement won’t be in any way ameliorated. And it must be said that in some quarters, that statement is wrong. Barça doesn’t win matches like that. Excellent defending, a few last-ditch challenges and a set piece? Ugh. Can we give the win back?

Thankfully, no. And on a day that RM dropped 9 goals on an exceptionally compliant and distracted Granada, people kept talking about that match, and would it affect Barça, and was it on the players’ minds, blabla, etcetc. My guess is no. Because unlike Granada, Celta Vigo was a real team and they were at home. It was also the first match after the international break, a match in which Barça usually play like twice-filtered dung.

So what happened? Essentially, the same as La Real, the crisis inducer. Messi didn’t play the first half, and a defender headed in a goal. Only it was into the opponent’s net rather than our own, so instead of losing 1-0, Barça won 0-1. Everything else was the same: rampant opponent, poor play, a team that couldn’t string two passes together, an elevated game in the second half. But the difference between a win and a loss is just a few bounces of the ball sometimes.

After the match of course, Barça Twitter lit up with all the ways in which the team could have lost today. Here, various things were discussed, reasons why the team didn’t play up to its usual standard. Fact of the matter is that the team did play up (or down) to its usual post-internationals standard, so the reason for surprise is difficult to fathom. Anybody who wasn’t expecting a mess of a match just hasn’t been paying very much attention. And that’s okay, because this has been a season of shifting expectations and desires.

In the aftermatch picking over the carcass, a memory of an early bicycle race comes to mind, and a crazy situation that prompted me to say, “I almost crashed!” A more seasoned racer said, “You either crash or you don’t. There’s no such thing as an almost crash.” Same with dropped points. It either happens or it doesn’t, and we can breathe a sign of relief or not. Easy when you think about it, particularly in light of the reality that all three of the Liga podium are going to drop points this season. It’s unavoidable, given the fixture congestion.

What’s more interesting to me is how the team won this match. Essentially, Celta came out playing like a house afire, and Barça was awful. Social media would point to various culprits but really, except for Pique, Mathieu and Bravo, everybody was poor. Messi set up shop in the middle of the field, which left Rafinha wondering exactly what his job was. Alves was … if anyone has any ideas, please send them my way. Iniesta was giving away balls like Caga Tio, only nobody was hitting him upside the head.

But when the first half ended 0-0 after that Celta onslaught, smart money said that Barça was going to win because they couldn’t play any worse, and Celta couldn’t play any better. That’s what happened: Barça raised its game, and Celta came down to earth a bit. More interestingly, Barça was again the fitter team, finding its collective legs as Celta’s players were flagging, amid growing frustration that manifested itself in a red card for a Celta player for throwing something or other at Busquets.

This wasn’t only the second time that Barça have driven an opponent to throwing something. It was a symbol of what this team has become: a massive pain in the ass.

Earlier this season I said, even as people giggled at me and questioned my sanity or whether it was even a good thing, that Barça was taking on the character of its coach. It was becoming a tough, hard-edged, pugnacious bunch that would take a blow, stick its chin out and fight back. Today’s match, just like the Classic, was an example of a tough, fit, resilient team that can not only outplay, but outwait its opponent, taking advantage of a moment of weakness to gain an advantage.

The Suarez goal in the classic can be scoffed at as the old, evil individual brilliance. But the Mathieu goal in the Classic and today for the match winner, is just another example of what Enrique has been doing with this football team, because set piece goals happen on the training pitch. Last season, culers bemoaned the fact that opponents were scoring set piece goals, but Barça had not a chance. This season, Barça is scoring set piece goals, and not conceding them. This is a good thing. So is the fight in the team.

There is still talk of Enrique not being close to the players, etc, whatever in the hell that means. But they don’t have to gather around the campfire and have milk and cookies. They have to work together and respect each other enough to give of their best. That is this Barça. No sane culer should really give two craps that the team isn’t blasting Coldplay in the locker room, watching “Gladiator” videos and getting hugs from a weeping coach. That was the past. In the present, this team is a nasty bunch. It fights, tactical fouls and gets under the opponent’s skin. Arda Turan didn’t try out for the boot throwing Olympic team because he was a happy lad, just as Orellana didn’t sidearm a bit of fauna at Busquets out of barely controlled delight. Both players were pissed, and Barça was the reason. Again, this is good.

Change has been coming for a while, the kind of change that used to spark wistful sighs and talk of a tougher team, as some opponent bullied our wee ones. Well, they’re tough. And that’s cool. Celta had chances, and those chances were dealt with. Barça had chances, that were mostly screwed up until Mathieu’s most excellent use of his noggin that was, by the by, a very difficult goal. And the team won. It sounds simple, and it kinda was simple even as the match seemed fraught to many, because that’s what matches do.

But whatever you feel about the win and the way that it was obtained, assessments that will line up culers on either side of a divide, the hope is that we can all agree on one thing: Barça is badass, and that’s good.

"I'm so bad, I don't even have to close my fly!"

“I’m so bad, I don’t even have to close my fly!”

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Tactics, Thoughts132 Comments

The rest of the season, aka “Dancing the sardana through a minefield”

So. The Classic win was immense, leaving Barça with a 4-point lead in the Liga standings and culers with much rejoicing. But here’s why you shouldn’t be planning that victory parade yet.

The rest of the season for Barça is a nasty collection of collisions. Let’s have a look, and compare to the RM run in later.

5 April, away to Celta
8 April, home for Almeria
11 April, away to Sevilla
15 April, away to PSG in Champions League
19 April, home for Valencia
21 April, home for PSG in Champions League
26 April, away to Espanyol
29 April, home for Getafe
3 May, away to Cordoba
10 May, home for La Real (we owe them one)
17 May, away to Atleti
24 May, hope for Depor
30 May, Copa final

If, and that’s a significant if, given the fixture congestion, Barça get past PSG, the semi-finals are 5-6 May and 12-13 May, putting them before La Real and Atleti.

Many declared the week that just finished, with City in Champions League and then the Classic as season-defining. No. The season-defining stretch is the two weeks from Celta to Valencia. In a dream world, Barça would get through those 5 matches without dropping points. If that happens, expect me to sprout wings and be able to save money on airfare by flying myself to Barcelona for elections this summer.

Celta will be right after international break, and Sevilla will be in their house, where they are unbeaten this season. Get past them and there’s a resurgent Valencia and of course, PSG waiting. RM has a comparative cake walk.

5 April, home for Granada
8 April, away to Rayo
12 April, home for Eibar
14 April, away to Atleti in Champions League
18 or 19 April, home for Malaga
22 April, home for Atleti in Champions League
25 April, away to Celta
28 April, home for Almeria
2 May, away to Sevilla
9 May, home for Valencia
16 May, away to Espanyol
23 May, home for Getafe

The days of the Liga “gimme” are gone, but I don’t think any culer would rather be looking at Granada, Rayo, Eibar and Malaga in league, than Celta, Almeria, Sevilla and Valencia. I’m sure that conspiracy theorists will be having a field day, but picking lineups that can get the job done while preserving key players for key matches is going to be a nightmare for Enrique. The news that Thomas Vermaelen trained with the squad today is of pretty much zero help, because in a system that bases its magic on its three forwards, you kinda need those dudes all the time.

Messi wants to play all the time anyhow. Suarez is actually benefiting from his ban that essentially makes him a half-season player this year. Neymar is the worry point, because his game doesn’t allow him to rest within matches as Messi’s does. He’s either going fast or he’s ineffective. An effective system that incorporates Pedro will need to be devised, and look for Xavi and Rafinha to play increasing roles as the season progresses.

The only consolation for culers will be that RM is going to drop points as well, but we shouldn’t forget that 8 matches ago, Barça was 4 points down to RM in the standings, and people were saying the Liga was lost. So, moderation in everything with the operative phrase of one match at a time. Personally, I will be feeling better about things if Barça can manage to survive the 4-match stretch from Sevilla to Espanyol. With 5 days rest before “traveling” to Espanyol, that should be a less fraught encounter.

What will happen? If I knew that I would put some money down on something or other. I have some ideas, though:

Wins against Almeria and Celta, though the latter will require some energy, leading to …
A draw against Sevilla in their house
Away draw at PSG
Home win against Valencia
Home win against PSG
Win at Espanyol, but it will be close, fraught and nasssssty
Win at Cordoba
Win against La Real (could be a draw if the Champions League semis happen.)
Loss to Atleti
Win to close out the season against Depor

You math majors will see that if RM runs the table for the 10 remaining matches, and assuming a win vs La Real rather than a draw, that would make RM Liga champions by virtue of the head-to-head goal differential at the tiebreaker. But if they run the table they would, frankly, have accomplished something extraordinary. So are you worried yet? Don’t be. One match at a time and as usual, speculation, caveats and quibbles are welcome.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, La Liga, Thoughts40 Comments

Barça aesthetics: The judges have decided to give it a 2

enrique

After the cheering stops … no sooner have the echoes of the exultant roars of the very last goal dissipated than the ripping at the carcass begins.

Cruijff likes the result, but didn’t like the football. Various post-match recaps describe Barça as more RM-like than RM. Another says that this Classic put the knife well and fully into tika taka, and assuredly killing off that phrase wouldn’t be at all bad. On Revista the topic is the RM resurgence, how they look like a good team again with Luka Modric back.

Which side of the 2-1 scoreline was Barça on, and has it really come down to theoretical football? In the wake of everyone and their mamas talking tactics and formations, it seems that Barça didn’t really play football before 2008. In those Dark Ages the team stomped around the pitch like mastodons, working off cave drawings instead of actual formations.

In the wake of a Classic that Barça won to go 4 points ahead of RM, hunks are being flayed from the team’s hide from all quarters. It doesn’t even matter that the beast isn’t wounded, or damaged in any way. It COULD have been and WILL be.
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Posted in Analysis, Champions League, La Liga, Thoughts33 Comments

Barça 2, RM 1, aka “A tale of two matches.”

mathieu

This is the part where the joy dissipates into a blizzard of muttering, whining and beating on unfavored whipping boys. But I am impatient with that kind of stuff, so permit me to present a wee bit of perspective at the end of a fascinating, tiring, fraught day.

As one of my favorite Twitter accounts posted, Classics are to be endured, rather than enjoyed. If you are a supporter, you don’t enjoy them. You can’t. There’s just too much in it. You fret, you scream, you pace, you sweat, the anguish is almost a palpable thing in the room. But this was an extraordinary match for so many reasons.

This was really a tale of two matches and two very different sets of tactics. Barça started out the match in the wide-open, let’s do this style that lets Messi, Neymar and Suarez do their thing. The danger in that approach, however, was multifaceted. That style of play takes a lot of energy, because there is a lot of running. Spaces are bigger, passes are longer, runs are more constant. The sharpness and awareness necessitated by this style means that if any part of the machine isn’t at all sharp, things are going to look a mess.
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Posted in El Clasico, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Tactics, Thoughts39 Comments

Classic tactics, and just how important IS the midfield today?

Mere hours away now, as that weird feeling starts to build. For me, the left corner of my mouth begins to twitch involuntarily, a stress reaction. So let’s think about some stuff, to take our minds off.

A great many things were different when these two teams last squared off. RM was the best team that anyone had ever seen except for maybe Guardiola’s Barça. Ronaldo was BdO rampant and Kroos was daisy-fresh.

On the Barça side of the aisle there was much uncertainty. Suarez started, even though he was nothing approximating match fit or confident, and Enrique was still figuring out the parts that he had to work with.

My, how times change. Time to look at some key battlegrounds for this one, and try to suss what might happen.
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Posted in Analysis, El Clasico, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts60 Comments

El Clasico: the biggest, most meaningful match that doesn’t matter that much

The big one.

It’s almost time for the biggest match of the season that doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as people think it surely must, the Classic, Barça v RM, top of table vs second place.

You can ladle on all kinds of stuff, Messi/Ronaldo, Bale/Neymar, midfield vs midfield now that Modric is back, that flank battleground that tipped things in their favor as Marcelo ran rampant. TV stations are filling up hours and hours of coverage and supporters of both sides are worried sick, creating all sorts of ways that their team will lose, they all assert publicly as in their own fevered imaginations they are creating victory scenarios.

History needs this match — big, nasty and undiluted by the incessant frequency of recent seasons, when the two Liga giants seemed to be knocking heads every other week. How in the hell is anyone supposed to get ramped up to face a team in the Most Giantest Match EVAR, when just last month you faced that same team in … well … the BIGGEST MATCH EVAH!

This season, fate has conspired to return hyperbole to normal. Two Classics, home and away, unsullied by Copa or Champions League meetings, as it should be for two opponents made bedfellows by history, rancor and shared excellence.

At the beginning of the match, Barça will be sitting with a 1-point lead in the standings over RM, a lead that culers are worried about because they have already forgotten how they deemed their team a downright mess, a crisis-laden lot that would be lucky to finish third in the Liga. That’s in the past. In the present is a Liga that is in the balance, a Liga never won that was declared lost time and time again after an Anoeta assault followed by Malaga madness.

And so it will be again should Barça lose on Sunday.

But the reason that this match doesn’t really matter as much as so many people suggest is that it’s just another match in the standings. This isn’t like the Super Bowl of American football, a hype-fest in which gibbering loons slather a Roman-numeraled gladiator fest with mammoth piles of excess. The Classic is a regular-season match that history and animus makes into something more than it actually is.

Win or lose, both of the main title contenders (but don’t be shocked if Atleti makes that late-season run) will drop points this season. The Classic isn’t going to decide the Liga. The Mestalla is, the Sanchez Pichuan is, a host of other little grounds have the potential to upset the apple cart of expectations. Sevilla has not lost at home this season. Valencia is sitting and plotting, resurgent and rampant under its coach, Laurence Fishburne. There is worry at every weekend, disaster potential made all the more acute by Champions League quarterfinal matches that throw a Wednesday match in before a Saturday match.

The Classic is the big one. Let’s understand that. But it’s the big one for reasons that really have precious little to do with a mere 3 points in the standings. In the past, the situation of the Liga truly was minnows vs giants. When Barça and RM faced off in a world in which draws were the new losses, scoreboard stasis was the only hope that lesser sides had. The Classic WAS the league. Win that, and the lead, standings permitting, would be sufficient to make the victor’s supporters ready to plan victory parade routes.

These days, the Liga isn’t interested in rolling over and showing its belly. Some of this is due to giants hobbled a bit by form and aging superstars. Some of it is the talent assembly line that is Liga academies creating home-grown troublemakers. Pressure, form, injuries, rotation all combine to make the Liga more a gauntlet to be run than a procession to be enjoyed. It’s not only a lot more fun, but in many ways it robs the Classic of its league-deciding import even as the historic aspects of the match remain, and those are sufficient to made us giddy with anticipation.

Just look at the roster, man! Any team would be thrilled to have even one of the names that will be sitting on the bench for either side in this match, never mind the starting XIs. These are the best of the best, players who combine to make an everyday XI seem a fantasy football league where you got the cheat code and an unlimited budget in Football Manager. How can two groups of players of that quality meet, and that match NOT mean everything in the world.

The Classic is a victim of its own hype, and the supporters of each team fall prey to that inflation. It’s 3 points in the standings. Win the Classic and lose the Liga? It’s very possible as each combatant has three or four matches that could prove its undoing, even after this clash that will decide the fate of the world.

So should you worry about the outcome of this match? Well, hell yes, you should. It’s Them, the eternal rival, the Aging Peacock and the Cafeteria Lady, buttressed by the return of the Accountant and He Who Hits No One. RM is a very dangerous football team, made all the more so for having strengths that play to Barça weaknesses, multiple threats that can all scrabble at the lock of a defense that defends more by influence than actual defending.

But you should worry because you hate like fiery Hell to lose to that team, rather than because it will mean winning or losing the Liga, because it won’t. Win or lose, it won’t. Win, and Barça is 4 points to the good, with visits looming to Atleti, Sevilla and Valencia, not to mention the Catalan Derby. If RM win, Valencia is coming to town, not to mention that visit to Sevilla or a faceoff against traditional bogey team, Getafe.

I will bust out my luckiest kit, scream until I am hoarse and fall from things. But it will be because I hate the opponent. Not because I think winning or losing this match will be truly decisive.

What will happen?

It’s hard to say. On paper you have to favor RM, who was sitting at home watching Barça run around and press like crazy Sprites on Wednesday. Around the 40th minute is when that reality might start to creep in, and around the 70th minute is when the advantage might show for the fresher team.

When these teams first met, Barça was still this embryonic force fraught with uncertainty. Neymar scored early, then he and Messi missed bang-on excellent chances that had the potential to make that match a very, very different affair. That’s easy to forget, even as the Potential Game dooms us to speculative Hades. The 3-1 loss was closer and more interesting than the scoreline indicated.

For this match, form is an interesting thing. Some suggest that they are trending down while Barça is trending up. That remains to be seen. What isn’t in doubt is that the two most important players for each side are the secondary superstars, Bale and Neymar. If either has an exceptional match, I suspect his team will win. Jordi Alba will have to be at his Yaya-felling best, and Neymar will have to develop the swagger that he had in the early season, and edge that saw him scoring almost for fun.

Neymar will be Barça’s key player. Messi will be big match Messi. Count on that. The real question will be the effect that Neymar can have on the RM defense that still doesn’t quite know how to deal with his disruptive effect. If he has a good match and scores a goal, it’s easy to see a 3-1 Barça win. If his recent scoring form holds, things become a lot more complex.

An added problem is that the wide-open Barça attack will have to be reined in to keep from playing into RM’s hands. Want to play run-and-gun football? Whee! Let’s do this. The beauty of our team being able to play many different styles is that it will need to shift gears and keep the damn football. This won’t be easy against their midfield, which will feature a fresh Modric just back from injury, and a rested Kroos, not to mention the constant threat of Isco. Culers who discount their threat do so at their own peril.

I love this match, even as it fills my gut with bile and my heart with fear. Rationally, it’s only three stinkin’ points. But the Classic is ruled by irrationality, and that’s what makes it so beautiful, so compelling as a sporting event.

Posted in Analysis, El Clasico, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts21 Comments

Take what you need, need what you take

In my day job at the Chicago Tribune I often work with our film critic, whom I tease with some regularity about his “job.” “You go to movies and interpret what you saw. That ain’t no job. That’s Saturday night.”

He takes it in good humor because he’s a super-nice guy, and he knows I’m kidding. But I got to thinking about interpretation and seeing what we see when a spate of “We still kinda suck” broke out like a brush fire, in Barça Twitter.

Interpretation is fascinating, because of the different experiences that people bring to a situation. You go to dinner and order a steak, with a salad and steak fries. It comes. You eat it, pay your bill, pat your tummy like a sated bear and drive home.

At the table next to you is a dining critic, who orders the exact same dish. He eats it, and in the weekend paper is a piece about the low-grade dog food that caused you to coo in contentment.

Both perspectives are perfectly valid. In a way, we return to the notion of subjectivity always being right, no matter the view. More interesting to explore is the idea of need, as in what do people need from a thing such as Barça. At its basest level, it’s validation. We follow this team and it wins, therefore we are better than you.

Adding layers of complexity to this is the Internet, with its blogs, comment spaces and social media, where suddenly people who until now were limited to haranguing friends with their views on Messi and how Barça is playing, have a forum. It’s fun, but it’s also the profoundest nonsense that too many take entirely too seriously. The professional journalists are working. Everybody else is just wanking.

But that forum also gives us a textbook example of expectation and how it affects what we see. Take as a for instance, when Barça dismantled Atleti at the Camp Nou. Atleti packed the midfield, ready to do battle there on the traditional battleground upon which football matches are won or lost. The midfield. Like the high ground of war textbooks, to win it is to win everything.

Barça bypassed the midfield. Or did it? Necessity or talented happenstance? Dependent upon what you wanted to see, it was tactical nous that outsmarted an opponent by simply bypassing the midfield, or you sighed into your martini at how Enrique has forsaken the midfield, the thing upon which Barça football is based.

It all depends on what you need from the team. Was Pep Guardiola a genius, or a good-but-lucky coach who parachuted into a team that was primed and ready to explode, a coach who couldn’t continue to get results as his team aged and opponents caught on? What do you need? In a recent poll, 16% of respondents thought that selling Messi was a good idea. So is it that 84% of people want to keep Messi, or 16% are crazy? What do you need from the Messi situation?

To be a football supporter is in many ways a prescription for perpetual unhappiness. A win is never just a win, a loss is never just a loss. Right or wrong ways are always part of the debate, again based on what someone wants to see. There is no right or wrong. When the dining critic says that the meal that you just had sucks, it doesn’t invalidate your perceived quality of said meal, or the satisfaction derived from ingesting it. It’s just another view of the same event. Back when I reviewed concerts, my favorite huffy response began, “I don’t know what show you saw, but … ”

“We won, but they got at our defense way too easily. The keeper had to make three saves. If he doesn’t do that, the match probably has a different outcome. We could easily have lost.”

An attacker is on a break and at the last instant Mascherano wins the ball with a slide tackle. One announcer will say, “Brilliant intervention by Mascherano, to win the ball and stop the attack.” Another announcer will say, “Yet another rash challenge where he dived in at the last. That could have been a penalty.” Funniest of all is that both assessments are right and wrong. They are subjective assessments of a reality. Only Mascherano knows what his intention was, and he ain’t talking about it.

There is a need to have Barça be something, represent something. When Tata Martino’s side beat Rayo 4-0 but lost possession, it was as if the scoreline didn’t matter, as something fundamentally off had occurred: Barça didn’t win possession. It is still, to my view, the absolutely apogee of football navel-gazing taken to its most absurd conclusion, and simultaneously the most flawless example of need-based analysis. But that need had a great many layers, all rooted in an extraordinary stretch of football by an excellent team that won everything.

The biggest flaw of Martino for many is that he wasn’t Pep Guardiola. He didn’t play the Guardiola way because he wasn’t Pep Guardiola. He saw the necessity for playing a different way and tried it, but he wasn’t … you know. So the Rayo match was a win that became a loss because of the need that people have to get something from a situation, so the situation is shaped to meet the need.

Xavi is correct when he says that Barça is neither as good as people say, or as bad as they say. Gary Neville, who has seen and played just a couple of football matches during his time, wrote a piece for the Telegraph that was more of an ode, a sonnet to the beauty of the way Barça played against City. Just the day before a Daily Mail columnist, Jeff Powell, wrote a column that in effect called Messi a flat-track bully beating up on a crap City, a never-will-be who hasn’t won a World Cup and isn’t even as good as Cristiano Ronaldo.

Two very different views of the same match, making it important that we think as much about what we need to see as what we actually “saw.” When Messi nutmegged James Milner, what did it mean except that Messi isn’t getting a holiday card from Milner? Interesting question.

So when people hold forth — including, and especially me — with views on what happened at a Barça match and what they think they might have seen, read it, but whistle the Bullshit Song while you do because again, reality is the scoreline. Everything else is interpretation.

Like legal action against the club, “Hey, wait, this team ain’t all that good” pops up right at the times when supporters are most happy and euphoric, linguistic cold water in giddy faces. “Stop that, fools. Things are far from being that good. Don’t believe results.” There is talk of the Treble, talk of a win on Sunday meaning the league, views that meet a need, in this case anticipation of a good event.

You go on a job interview and you think it went really well. You have your office picked out, and wonder how your first day will be. You’re negotiating salary in your mind, and mapping out the best transportation route to your new place of business. Then one week becomes two and you wonder if they somehow lost your phone number. You call, and hear that the position has been filled. And that’s that. Anticipation of a good event led to misunderstanding what actually happened. Maybe your dazzling answers to interview questions doomed you as too glib. Maybe your resolute, business-like quality was interpreted as being dour and sullen, making you a poor fit to be part of that group.

You will never know, but the need leads to an interpretation of a situation. The players are winning in spite of Enrique, or Enrique has created a situation in which the team can play a new, more dynamic way. Take what you need, just don’t misinterpret that acquisition as something other than what it is: your needs being met.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts15 Comments

Eibar 0, Barça 2, aka “An acceptance of active stasis”

sr

Football is funny, because it likes nothing more than to confound us, to giggle at vehement prognostications and assertions that issue forth from bile-flecked keyboards.

This season has been something of an object lesson in that, no matter its eventual outcome. From notions that Messi is past it, to Pique being a worthless playboy and Enrique being a prat who needs to be fired, to his team not having a snowball’s chance in hell of beating Atleti to the latest, that Sergi Roberto is just a pile of hair and a smile.

Vidal Sassoon started today, in a spot that many speculated he might, in the hole that is usually occupied by Sergio Busquets. That he had an excellent match, including the most passes on the team (91) and a stellar completion rate on those passes (82 of them) was a surprise to many. But it’s just par for the course, when you think about it.

Yes, it was Eibar. As Sergi Roberto himself said, he always seems to play against Eibar and he wishes that Barça played them more often. But the thing about playing in the position that he occupied today is that it is opponent proof in many ways, because that position often operates independently and irrespectively of what an opponent does.

That position dictates tempo, picks out that first ball that starts an attack after taking the pass from a CB and serves as a relief valve. Though that player can be subject to direct pressure as he moves up the pitch, a tactic employed by some opponents against Busquets, as he sits there in the hole, the job is the thing and Sergi Roberto performed it quite well today. There were even some who liked his performance better than Mascherano’s in that same position, though there are certainly a different set of skills that Mascherano brings to the table, along with gobs of destructive force.

When we usually see SR, he’s in one of the more advanced midfield positions, the danger zones in which his skill set: physicality, picking out a nice forward pass come under all kinds of pressure from opponents and expectation. Anybody who fills that role should be named He Isn’t Xavi Dammit. Because when they aren’t, for who is, they are almost immediately deemed a failure. That even includes Rakitic, who continued his streak of excellent play today.

rak

Enrique won’t get credit for the squad management that allowed a tactical and player shift, but putting SR in the hole means that suddenly he has time and a broader view of the pitch, two of the things that can benefit a ‘tweener like him. It took an injury to a key player and a particular set of difficulties — Mascherano being one yellow away from suspension — to create the set of circumstances that resulted in his opportunity, a moment that should give culers pause and reflection.

A player is rarely as terrible as legend makes him out to be, mostly because the people whose job it is to make those kinds of decisions aren’t stupid, but also because the bar is absurdly high, almost jaw-droppingly so. Someone can sub for Xavi, a reference at his position, or Busquets, hailed by many as the best DM in the world. Or maybe Iniesta, Mr. Big Goal. So as SR stepped into the spotlight for his command performance, it was a role that was easy to enjoy as long as you had nothing invested in its outcome, i.e. “He sucks and that’s that.”

This was also true of the team’s performance today, a delicious bit of pragmatism that impressed, again if you let the expectations relax just a bit. This was never, ever going to be glittering football, nor should it have been. Teams have standards, and those standards exist despite the pragmatism of coaches and players. The blessing and the curse of Pep Guardiola is, frankly, those standards. The team played exactly the same beautiful way, and rarely relented, rarely played just good enough to win. Guardiola drove them, harried them and always, always demanded of their best. It’s the stuff that makes for legend coaches and storied team. But it’s also a psychological deep fryer that will eventually produce toast.

Enrique seems to have given the team carte blanche to be good enough, to understand that with the players that it has (large roster that is actually limited at the top, against top teams as is true of most squads) care must be taken if his charges are going to survive the pressure cooker that is this season, one on the perpetual brink.

In a rather surprising development, prompted by a Tweet from someone that really put it into perspective, I have come to accept Walking Messi as a reality of a complex situation. He wants to play all the time, and no coach wants to be the one to risk the wrath of Angry Messi. But much more than my objections to that is a reality that this year’s Barça and its pragmatism have shaped for me, broadening my view to encompass being good enough. This year’s team seems to have one standard: winning. All the rest is theory, semantics and gilded legend.

This fascinates as you watch a match such as Eibar, or Rayo last week, and see the social media hue and cry about things not being pretty and “this half sucks,” etc. But the match was exactly as it needed to be: a few moments of elevation to bring about a desired result, then enough effort to bring the result home.

The first goal, even if you allow that it wasn’t a penalty except in the technical letter of the law, came after one of those sequences of elevated play, a remarkable exchange of passes that found a heretofore staunch Eibar defense suddenly flummoxed and out of position. And Messi took the resultant penalty like a player who now understands that penalties matter. It was a rocket of a shot and an unstoppable PK from a player who until that point had missed 5 of his last 11 penalties.

We can even allow ourselves to giggle at the reality that Messi became pichichi on a penalty, a way of scoring that seems to be disdained by culers who nickname his rival for best in the game Penaldo. That Messi’s second goal came off a submarine header is just him trolling the football universe. Lost in the ruckus over that goal will be the flawless corner from Rakitic, a rainbow that wound up exactly where it had to be as Messi trailed the box ruckus to head home.

And then Barça resumed playing like a team that has not one, but two “season-defining” matches in the space of a week. Eibar hit the crossbar on a shot that really should have resulted in a goal, and Barça kept a clean sheet. Would Enrique have been vexed at the 1-2 scoreline? Probably not as much as culers who have unassailable standards that often butt heads with a shifting reality. Walking Messi is okay but Pragmatic Barça isn’t. Yet both are necessary realities for an ambitious team as once again, good enough to win is fine and dandy.

messi

HolycrapXavi!

When Xavi subbed in for Rakitic, who was pulled with the mid-week clash against City in mind, that was his 750th appearance for Barça. You sit, you think, you try to do math and you struggle with that kind of bonkers reality that a player has played 750 matches for the club that he loves. It’s remarkable.

Even more admirable is that even after those 750 matches, Xavi comes in, straps on the captain’s armband and does What Xavi Does. It’s even hard to explain what that is. Simply enough it’s passing and tempo control. But because Xavi had made it so much more and performs it at a level that will never be matched by any other player, it’s something that you don’t need to explain. It just happens.

It’s like That Run Messi made today. That run, like the way Xavi plays, is an inexplicable reaction to a set of circumstances, rooted in an extraordinary skill set that makes the exceptional just another day’s work.

That’s Xavi, and that’s awesome. Happy 750th, Maestro.

"I don't need that diagram. I AM that diagram."

“I don’t need that diagram. I AM that diagram.”

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts50 Comments

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