Archive | La Liga

Granada 1, Barça 3, aka “Change is good”

raksua

“Why aren’t people happy with your team?”

It’s an interesting query that I had to deal with the other day on Champions League day, which is pretty the only time that a Prem-centric universe pays attention to those little guys from Spain. It was a struggle to come to grips with the answer, but finally came the distillation: the team is winning, but it isn’t winning in the right way.

What makes the above summary even more interesting is comparing the away match at Granada this year to last. Barça lost away to Granada last season, as it pranged the ball around in a half-assed tribute to a Way that used to be, patient midfield play in the form of a stylistic white flag from its then-coach, Gerardo Martino.

This year, Barça won off of the strength of three goals rooted in a dynamic brand of football. Yes, the passes came from a midfielder, but rather than the possession-based probing, the waiting for an opening and keeping the ball until one came, the pass reacted to the run of a dynamic forward, and struck.

WhoScored.com had Messi as MOTM, a selection that was as hilarious as it was myopic. Rakitic was MOTM in a walk for this watcher as he played a superb, dominant, all-pitch match. He was involved in all three goals as well as defense and possession, he was brilliant along with Suarez, even as the team wasn’t. Even more interesting is his midfielder display at a time when again, some observers of the team are suggesting that Enrique isn’t doing things in the right way.

Sergio Busquets had something very insightful to say on the matter, in a recent Guardian interview with Sid Lowe:

“ … at first under Guardiola, teams didn’t give us so much respect; they played openly. Now 95% of them wait, shut down, and counter-attack. It’s more difficult to play one-touch [so the new style] is partly a reaction to other teams. It’s a mix now. Team-mates are not as close to me, which has advantages and disadvantages. There’s more space and a lot more counter-attacks. We have players that can change the game. Messi, Neymar, Suárez … ”

Do you perform the same task in the same way irrespective of the personnel in place? Farmers don’t hitch carts to thoroughbreds. They have plowhorses for that. Change, and adaptability to change in a footballing world that reveres the past is something worth considering. The game respects the views of past greats on a game that they only see in the stands or on television. And people listen, rather than saying “But things are different now.” This is in part because there’s really no way to catch them out, but also because people want the past.

Just as old people want to be young again, culers cherish the days of the Capering Sprites and the lovely midfield triangles, elegant dissections of mostly willing opponents. It was only when those opponents decided to rise up against the oppression that complexities arose, and coaches took a shot at attempting to solve them. Tito Vilanova opened up the attack to make the game more vertical, a revolution that was interrupted by his illness.

Tata Martino came in and cranked the volume on verticalidad, a move that got him little more than scorn that reached its hilarious, absurd culmination in a 4-0 pasting of Rayo that was “bad” because the team lost the possession stats. And Martino, chastened, backed off the revolution that saw Barça roar into the break a record-setting side, and went back to plunking the ball around midfield against opponents who probably couldn’t believe their luck.

Luis Enrique came in, and didn’t give a damn what anyone said. He had a notion, wanted to not only build a Barça that was adaptable, but also build a Barça suited to the strengths of its attackers. He ignored the dogmatic ruckus raised by those who cherish the midfield elegance of bygone days because like Busquets, Enrique understands that the game has changed, that opponents are no longer willing to stand around and marvel at Xavi and Iniesta as they make curlicues. And even if they were, Xavi and Iniesta can’t make those curlicues any longer. They can no longer meet their own sepia-toned standard as time does what it does. But even beyond that, opponents force an adaptation that a team would be foolish not to undertake. It isn’t wrong to bang a ball to Neymar and let him do his thing. It’s just a different way of responding to a stimulus.

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There were a few Xavi comparisons made to the Rakitic performance today on social media, comparisons that I desperately wish hadn’t been made, because Xavi isn’t the point. Xavi is a brilliant player and a true Barça legend. But he isn’t and shouldn’t be a reference because he is, like he and Capering Sprites, a wonderful one-off that culers should blow the dust off of and unveil to remind people of a more beautiful, stylistic time.

Change is always necessary in response to a stimulus, and resistance to it is illogical. Many scoffed at Enrique for adapting to opponents, suggesting that “Barça has its style, and people should adapt to us.” Opponent after opponent did, and that was the problem. Adding to that is that at this point in time, Barça has the best, most dynamic attack in world football. To misuse that attack in service of a Way would be absurd and frankly, silly.

Look at today’s first goal. Alba banged a lovely, long pass for Suarez to run onto. Suarez just banged the ball into the box, something that I wish our attackers would do more often, a speculative spear of a lash at the ball that essentially said, “Something cool could happen here.” In the ensuing consternation, a defender made the wrong play on the ball and Rakitic slammed it home. A long pass and a cross.

The second goal was even “worse,” as Raktic again worked a give-and-go with Suarez that culminated in a lobbed ball over the top for Suarez to run onto. Then he finished, as the Footy Gods wept.

Speed, pace, versatility and dynamism are never, ever bad things, even at the expense of misguided notions of identity. What did people think of the long runs and dynamic passes over distance of Ronaldinho, or the long passes out into space for Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o to run onto? What did they make of Guardiola’s defenders, banging long, attack-starting passes out of the back? It’s worth wondering again. The short, triangle-based passing game was every bit as much a reaction to a stimulus as the way that Barça plays now is. An old person’s life isn’t “wrong” because they aren’t 25 again.

Granada, at home, came out ready to fight. Ray Hudson described it as an alley fight, which was very apt. They pushed, poked, charged, fouled and tried to make life as difficult as possible for a team that was coming off a high-energy midweek display against a top-quality European opponent. It was a team that Granada suspected wouldn’t be at its best, and it wasn’t.

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As intricate and lovely as the system of the recent past was, complexities arose when the team wasn’t functioning at its best, as the interrelated parts didn’t mesh. At Granada today, really only Rakitic and Suarez were standouts. Xavi was invisible and most ineffective because this wasn’t his kind of match. That was the opponent’s fault, rather than anything having to do with anything that Enrique did. Messi was off. Neymar was dynamic, but not as effective as he has been in the past. And still, Barça won.

That Barça won today in that very different way was no more “wrong” than when the team Barça defeated Atleti by, in essence, playing without a midfield. These situations are just part of the game, which is different from day to day, match to match, minute to minute. Adapt or die. It has been noted before that Barça is less secure and more dangerous this season. There is something about having the ball all the time that reassures. Even if they won’t let us score, at least they won’t score.

But it’s really a question of method vs results. The bottom line for many is that a successful team is objectively doing things the right way. It is only in the subjective realm that things such as not playing the right way enters the picture. The challenge is in defining that right way, applying a model or template to the way that a set of athletes goes about its business. That’s a challenge, because a team and its coaches are always going to adapt. The triangles came about because of a personnel change. Messi as false 9 came about because of personnel change. If a team could keep on winning by playing the exact same way all time, why wouldn’t it?

At what point is the system flawed because of what it is, rather than the people tasked with executing it. And what is the sin in changing that system to adapt and potentially triumph over a new set of demands.

That, of course, depends on who you ask. Granada for example, isn’t all all pleased with the Barça adaptation.

pedro

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts26 Comments

The best league ever, and the failings of a GOAT

None of it matters.

Messi was absent from the UEFA Team of the Week, but Ronaldo was in there. So what.

Some don’t think that Messi is better than Ronaldo. So what.

The Premiership is called by many “best league in the world.” So what.

At the end of a remarkable week of football, in which Premiership teams dropped like flies in a firestorm, comes the blizzard of analysis pieces. “If it’s the best league in the world, what happened?”

The answers are simple and obvious, really. The running and industry that makes for excellent television as people sit down, ooh and aah as they watch a giant, high-def screen and tackles go flying in. The reason that Prem sides used to be better in Europe is that they had managers who understood that you have to play different ways when you go to Europe, rather than suffuse your side with the institutional arrogance attendant to being “best in the world.” Chelsea will go farther in Europe because its manager understands that a team has to play different ways in the league, as well as in Europe. It also has to play differently in the first leg at home, vs the second leg away, or vice versa.

Only a fool would give Barça the space that City allowed in that first half, and Pellegrini isn’t a fool. Is he a manager who believes in his side, to the extent of fully believing that they are equals to one of the best football clubs in the world? Yup. But that’s naïve, rather than foolish. Arsenal didn’t think that Monaco had a chance against them, and played like it. But just because Monaco is in Ligue 1 doesn’t mean they are terrible. It just means that they are in a league with a different set of requirements and standards of excellence.

Arsenal might still turn that tie, just as City might. The broader question, as people snuffle and snort about the Prem’s status, hot on the heels of a giant TV contract, is what does it matter? The Premiership exists in a vacuum. It isn’t the “best league in the world” because of any status bestowed by anyone. It’s the “best league in the world” because people became convinced that such a thing is true. You say it enough times and it becomes so. But if people already know that the Prem isn’t the best league in the world, why the surprise when its clubs get bounced from Europe? Do Prem neutrals find the “best league in the world” stuff just as seductive as Prem devotees?

If this wasn’t the case, the hand-wringing would be largely absent, replaced by a much simpler, “Duh.” Yes, we all like to pick on the rich kid, but the Prem got that status by understanding how to put on a show, marketing that league and not being run by jackasses. The language is also English. Yes, we know that given the dominance of foreigners in the Prem, language is a distinction lost to logic, but people don’t think that closely about the game. “It’s English. I speak English.” And the influential U.S. market becomes a monolingual slam dunk.

The Prem doesn’t have to be the best, people just have to think that it is, and the myopia will build. In many ways it’s like Formula One, a sport whose press is predominantly English, and whose roots are felt by many to be, even as the sport is one of the most truly international at every level.

A story came out Friday about the organizers of the British Grand Prix, which is customarily held at Silverstone, wondering what kind of championship F1 would be without Silverstone. There again, it’s a peculiar kind of myopia that comes from a status bestowed by tenure. F1 did just fine without Spa (Belgium). Why would it somehow be devalued because of the absence of Silverstone? It wouldn’t, any more than the Prem will be devalued because its teams are absent from the European stage.

The Prem is, in the U.S., on a major network in NBC. That means that any, all and everyone can see it. You don’t need cable, or a special sports tier as you do with La Liga. You can just turn on the TV, and there it is, available to people who might not even care about football. “Hey, looka those little guys go!” The matches are broadcast in crystalline HD, and miked in a way that makes “You’ll Never Walk Alone” positively spine-tingling. Meanwhile in La Liga you get vague echoes of what might be the sound of fans in a stadium.

A colleague who doesn’t give two craps about football suddenly stated talking to me about the Prem last season, when matches started being broadcast on NBC. You want marketing? That is marketing. People can snuffle all they like about the technical prowess of Spain, or the packed stadiums and screaming supporters of the Bayernsliga. Nobody cares because they can’t SEE it. It’s the same reason nobody cares about Europe and its effect on the Premiership. Liverpool won’t stop being a storied club because it got bounced out of the Europa League. Arsenal won’t stop being Arsenal because it lost to a Monaco side who will next have to have tryouts among its supporters to find a pair of CBs to rub together.

It doesn’t matter, because reality is what people believe.

The penalty of Messi

In the week’s Champions League football, Ronaldo scored a goal and Messi missed a penalty. Is making the Team of the Week as simple as that? Yep. Supporters crow about the goals that Messi scores. When someone hears that Messi dominated a match, the first question is “How many goals did he score?” “None.” “Then how did he dominate?” Goals are the currency that define greatness. It is in many ways hypocritical to crow about Messi becoming the all-time leading scorer, breaking this or that scoring record then snarl because the Ballon d’Or has been reduced to a goal scoring competition. He isn’t just goals, but the timing of the goals, the creation of the goals, all the stuff that he does in between the goals. Goals captivate, goals are the thing. So it makes sense that the most enduring image from the City match was Messi laying on his face, trying to burrow into the Etihad pitch. Why? He missed a penalty.

The two questions lingering are did that missed PK devalue the rest of his match to a degree sufficient to have him NOT make Team of the Week, and should we care? No, and no.

On an Internet where people can’t even suss whether a dress is black and blue or white and gold, how in hell are they going to parse whether a player is in fact GOAT. Many of them can barely find a picture of a goat. But the Internet has made affirmation more important than ever. It isn’t that we believe, it’s that we want others to believe. We argue, post statistics, scoff and snark. But at the end of it all, we are trying to convince someone that what we believe is “correct.” The Premiership has convinced people that it is the best league in the world, to the tune of a 5bn+ television package. That’s some convincing.

But as long as his supporters believe that Messi is the best, none of the rest of it matters. He missed a penalty that would have put the tie out of reach for City. Does that change anything? Depends on who you ask. If you believe that it does, it does. If you believe that it doesn’t then it doesn’t. The rest is a waste of bandwidth.

What’s interesting is the stat that of the 10 penalties Messi has taken after the 85th minute, he has missed half of them. Is a 50% conversion rate for penalties in the part of a match that makes converted ones potentially the most devastating an acceptable conversion rate for a player of Messi’s caliber? Here’s another question: what if Enrique suggested that Suarez start taking penalties?

When I raised that question on Twitter, the variety of responses was interesting. Some said “He’s the best, why would anyone else take them?” “It would be an insult.” But would it be? If Messi, as rumor has it, doesn’t like taking them, what’s the harm? Would it goad Messi into improving that aspect of his game? Would it pad Suarez’s goal totals now that Barca is getting penalties thanks to its altered playing style?

But there is danger afoot, Dr. Watson! A crisis even, if certain media critters are to tickle our credibility bones. “Penalties are as much mine as my PlayStation, dammit. Rip them from my sleeve-covered digits at your own peril, Asturian Man.”

The other complexity of course is how in the brimstone-scented hell can the Best Player Alive ™, the dude who bangs in massive goals at key times for his club like he’s booting a stray ball off the practice pitch, not also be an infallible demon from the spot? His lessers, the likes of Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic, who blasts rockets into various spots of the goal like he’s playing foot darts, step to the spot and you just look away, anticipating the partisan roar as a keeper dives for nothing. What the hell, Messi?

Is it as simple as a previously mentioned lack of perfection? That if he did all that AND banged the hell out of penalties, it just wouldn’t be fair. And what if he just needs something to work on? Michael Jordan wasn’t always automatic from the free throw line. Work, work and more work bred the player who, late in a basketball game, strolled to the free throw line, looked at an opponent who had been trash talking and said “This one’s for you, baby.” Jordan then closed his eyes and … swish. All net.

Are penalties a question of work, of honing that instinct just like a free throw? No, the free throw doesn’t have a multi-limbed colossus striving to outguess you, to leap to his feet in the aftermath and scream, “Yo gimme just got got, G! Hooooraw!” How is it that a player who successfully manages the audacious with a frequency that renders his merely exceptional goals mundane, pop a shot anywhere a keeper can get to it. Top corner? Sure. Corkscrew ball that curls off through the parking lot, comes in the back entrance and plops into the net? Okay. Off the post and in? Snore, but why not?

And yet, he misses. He’s missed them in friendlies, missed them with a Liga match on the line, missed them against Chelsea in Champions League. Why? Who knows. A penalty kick has never been automatic, never a guaranteed goal. But the percentage with which they are converted by mortal players hovers somewhere in the stratosphere. What’s the deal with the man who might truly go down in history as the best who ever played, for those who crave such a limiting definition.

And how wrong is someone who suggests that maybe, just maybe, a lesser being might be better equipped to grab a gimme.

Posted in Analysis, Champions League, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts29 Comments

Barça 0, Malaga 1, aka “Pin the tail on the donkey”

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There is a children’s game that is loads of fun, if you haven’t played it. You get a donkey poster or stuffed figurine. Then you blindfold a kid, give him the donkey’s tail, which is usually a piece of cloth or something, with a pin through it. Then you spin the kid around a few times, then turn him loose to pin the tail on the donkey.

That game is a lot like what the culer fan base resembles after a loss, as everyone seeks reasons for what happened, almost as if the most obvious ones are too obvious to consider.

It can’t be as easy as Malaga played really well and Barça played poorly, because the necessity for the mental palliatives that serve as supporter placebos is a constant. But let’s get right down to it.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Review70 Comments

Understanding Pedro, aka “Achievement through effort”

pedro

Pedro Rodriguez Ledesma is an odd one.

Few players have been so liked by his coaches, yet so reviled by so many supporters while being misunderstood by those same supporters. Some of that is because Pedro defies traditional metrics, those objective evaluators of a player’s performance. He’s the kind of player who would require the creation of a new metric, probably called “Pain in the ass.”

Because that’s what Pedro is. A couple of nicknames have been born in this space for him, Pedro! and a more accurate one, Pedro Roadrunner. Because he just runs. It often seems that he doesn’t even quite know when, where or why he is running, only that he is, in his perpetual quest to affect the disposition of a contest involving a brightly colored, spherical object. In that particular way, Pedro is as pure as Messi, that simple, unrelenting object. Run. And then run some more.

The problem for Pedro is that for two consecutive years he notched more than 20 goals. As the arbiter of football goodness for an attacker, goals can be a millstone. They hung heavily around the necks of Thierry Henry and Alexis Sanchez, just as they now hang heavy around the heck of Pedro. Because people want goals, and don’t care where they come from. Once you score goals, you are a goalscorer. And when you don’t score those goals again, the thing becomes “return to form,” as in “scoring goals again.” Yet the thing about Pedro is that he was never about scoring goals, even while he was scoring them.

For Pedro, his goals came during the years before Barça was being figured out, as teams adjusted to the reality of an inexorable passing game. Things were still innocent, and Pedro had running room. As Barca marauded, pinging shots off keepers and into the box, Pedro was there to capitalize on any and all loose balls. There is no more Pedro like goal than the one he scored in the manita Classic. It’s a goal that comes from running, from wanting to be around the ball and executing when he gets there. Give Pedro an open shot, and he will get it on target.

As defenses reshaped their approaches against Barça, space disappeared. And as space disappeared Pedro, like most mortal attackers, saw his gaudy scoring totals drop. But the one thing he kept doing was running and working. In the recent match vs Levante, Pedro was in the Barça box, defending, then on the other end, almost forcing an error from the keeper. He was on the left and on the right, determined to influence the match through sheer omnipresence.

So it’s fascinating the comments in various forums and social media that greet his appearance, from “Barça is playing with 10,” to “Pedro? Why didn’t they sub in XXX instead?!”

And Pedro runs in, and has an effect that isn’t quantifiable but is so helpful to his teammates from Dani Alves to Busquets and Iniesta to Messi and Neymar. It isn’t just that he is always there, waiting to become a passing outlet, track back or help on the press. He also, unlike most forwards, doesn’t throw up his hands after making a number of runs and the ball doesn’t arrive, and stop making runs. He doesn’t complain, he doesn’t mutter about playing time or have his agent generate transfer rumors. The only transfer rumors that involve Pedro come from others, who wonder why he is still “settling” for being a sub at Barça when he could go to another team and become a starter.

Pedro doesn’t care.

In many ways, Pedro is the ultimate defensive sub. He helps the midfield press, rarely makes the wrong decision with the ball, prioritizing possession over anything, and can run with almost any attacker in the league. His name keeps coming up when attackers who could be converted to RB is under discussion, and Pedro has said in the past that he’d love to be more forward, but anything that will help him play more is welcome. But he’s a defender who can take a sliver of space, take a pass and convert it into a goal, as another way to think of Pedro.

Neymar tracks back, but not like an attacker dedicated to it. Messi doesn’t fully track back except in rare matches. Suarez has an excellent work rate, but they all pale in comparison to Pedro. He has scored 5 goals this season but is the only player of his kind on the roster. He became a star under Guardiola, and his role began to change under Vilanova as opponents began to adjust. Under Martino in what became a more static attack, Pedro wasn’t being used to his strengths, stuck out the wing where he had to beat defenders off the dribble, which isn’t his suit. And the “Pedro sucks” legend began.

It’s only now, with a more open, dynamic Barça that his value again surges to the fore, even as many supporters still define him by what he used to do rather than what he does. Will he stay in the colors? Good question. It’s a safe bet that no coach in his right mind would sell a player such as Pedro, because those types of players are invaluable. Might he raise his hand and want to leave? He’s 27, fast approaching the time where that jackrabbit quickness will begin to diminish. Is it time for a big fee and a big payday? Only time will tell, but you get the feeling that Pedro just loves being at Barca even if his role isn’t what it could be, loves running and loves doing exacty what he does, which is to affect matches by dint of sheer, unrelenting effort. And that ain’t bad.

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Supposition, Thoughts84 Comments

The art of the pass, aka “This one’s for kosby”

eibxav

Sometimes in a comments thread you see something that deserves to be a post. So it is with a comment from kosby:

Several amazing questions – I won’t be pretending to have answers to all of them. For me, there are two kinds of passes
1. straight to the feet/head of the receiver
2. through pass

For the first kind, almost all of the genius behind the pass comes from the one who passes the ball. The receiver just needs to be present at the spot. The person passing the ball “spots” the player and using whatever guile required passes him the ball.

For the second kind however, both the passer and the receiver need to be perfectly synchronized. This is genius at work, some consider it to be even more wondrous than dribbling ! For this, the receiver and the passer need a special connection, both need to be able to
– process the existence of a passing lane and
– the ball needs to arrive at the same point in space at the same time as the receiver does
Finding a passing lane in the midst of ten players looking to block the ball any which way, itself is a big deal. On top of that sending the ball in the right channel with the right speed at the right time takes genius. Which is why only a handful of players in any team will attempt through balls (another point why I think Barca’s squad is so awesome – Bartra who hardly gets to play these days, stole the ball from Levante and then played a delicious ball to Messi for our second goal the other night. Not a lot of teams can claim to have such talented players) And when you have 2 geniuses collaborate, they can instantly process a situation and a passing lane, a split second before the others. Mind you that’s only half the job done, after identifying the lane, you still need to be able to execute the pass. And that’s why we talk about allowing time for a player to settle into a team. That’s why when national teams play, the quality sometimes suffers – since the players haven’t played with each other as much. Possibly another reason why Spain did as well as they did, for as long, having borrowed most of its core from a single club who know each other.

“Xavi plays to the future” – one of my favorite quotes in football. When most mortals talk about passing, they talk about the next possible pass. Geniuses like Xavi/Busquets think about the pass that would lead to the next pass that would create a goal scoring chance. Its all about how you manipulate space. If you pass to someone such that they attract a defender to them, the defender just vacated an area of space that could be exploited by someone on your team. I cant explain this better since I myself am in awe of how its done.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts39 Comments

Barça 5, Levante 0, aka “An academic exercise.”

"Wheeeeee!"

“Wheeeeee!”

This was such a beautiful match today.

The things that made it beautiful are the same things that make long-time spouses or lovers beautiful to us: everyday beauty, day in and day out, when they aren’t at their best — flaws, unshaven, hair messy — true beauty that comes across in the simplest of ways.

You don’t worry at all that the beauty will abate. You worry more about your ability to appreciate it as time passes and excitement becomes expectation becomes expectoration. “Pah! Nothing to see here!”

The arc of this season’s Barça has been an odd one, from excitement and anticipation to disillusionment and disgruntlement, to mutiny and muttering and now to an odd sort of discomfort rooted in the very simple fact of a basic reality: ain’t no room for wrong. The team still has critics, still has people who aren’t happy with the way that it’s playing, even as it is increasingly difficult for them to articulate the precise root of that unhappiness.

Others begrudgingly admit that something cool might be going on, but will reserve judgment until the end of the season to see what trophies are won, a fascinating complexity that flies in the face of the “Results aren’t the only metric, but how the team plays.” Got it.

How the team played today made a believer out of me. Not a full-on, get me a seat at the victory parade believer, but one who is beginning to think that the silverless prediction uttered at the start of the season was hasty. A lot has happened that was difficult for even the most optimistic culer to expect:

— Neymar has exploded into vibrant life.
— Suarez is coming good more quickly than anticipated
— Messi on the right works.
— Mascherano has become even more of a boss.
— Pique isn’t washed up. Far, far from it.
— Alba has found a new level.
— There is a manageable press that isn’t the hyper-fast press of Treble Barça, but an effective one.
— Malleability has made this team more, rather than less formidable.

This brings us to Levante, a team that placed a very different set of demands on this Barça, one of expectation. Levante was supposed to get the crap kicked out of it today, the only question would be how. And that sort of pressure manifests itself on the kicker and the kickee. Levante decided to deal with it by applying a hybrid of semi-intelligent defense and attacking when possible, a “Damn the torpedoes” approach that displayed an understanding of its role at the Camp Nou today.

Barça had the challenge … no, pressure of having to stomp an opponent, but in a way that didn’t require full energy as there is a date with Villarreal for a spot in the Copa final looming. But there is also the entorno, silent and waiting for any sliver of daylight to leap at a Barça that still isn’t fully trusted, and probably won’t be this season.

The team didn’t have to go all out to beat Levante, and knew it. Lapses of concentration were apparent in runs not made, players standing offside, passes not quite linking up in the box. Messi was giving away balls early like he was Santa Claus. But superior quality is a luxury that allows the better team to indulge its quest for the perfect goal. Because even as Levante started brightly, the outcome of this match was never, ever in doubt. So when Messi laced a pass for Neymar that he one-timed for a stupefying goal, it was more than meeting expectation. It was almost as if two stellar players said “Okay, time to do this,” and turned up the wick just a little brighter.

Neymar’s happy accident was intended to be a pass to a wide-open Pedro, sitting on the doorstep. And this makes perfect sense because nobody has the audacity to hit a swinging drop volley of a shot that delicately landed just over the goal line, more rebuke than pillaging of the kind that occurred on the second goal, when Levante tried to play football. The press worked the ball loose and Bartra did his best Busquets impersonation, lacing a flawless pass to Messi who is suddenly a right-footed finisher.

That second goal effectively ended the match, turning this affair into something more academic, real-time pondering of questions worth asking.

ney

Does Barça have a system?

Some say no, that it’s still “Let the geniuses do their thing.” But a more pertinent question is does any team have a system, or is it a set of athletes who react to a stimulus in the form of an opponent. Barça has returned to a past that it never really left in a pressing back line and midfield, controlling players with excellent technical skills who can pass their way out of a hurricane and a genius player or two up front. Think of the last time that this hasn’t been true.

That the team was proficient enough in that system to calmly and with muted energy dispatch Levante, even though expected, was wonderful to see. That it could do so with its best player scoring a hat trick but not having all that good a match was also pretty wonderful.

What of Messidependencia?

Messi wants to play all the time is a very different statement than Messi has to play all the time. Recent editions of Barça have gone as Messi goes. If he’s brilliant, so is the team. If he’s on that sort of walkabout that he employs to save energy, the team usually struggles. Messidependencia was a psychological as it was physical. But even as Messi wasn’t good today, the team was. Messi scored a hat trick, two gimmes and a penalty, but Neymar was far and away the best attacker today, dripping stardust from almost every touch of the ball, slashing, attacking, distributing and doing that “disrespect” thing he does.

And Barça rolled. Only a fool would say that Barça shouldn’t revel in the presence of the best player in the game, and one of the best players of all time. But a bigger fool wouldn’t be thrilled at the fact that in the here and now, Barça doesn’t need its genius to light up the field for the team to shine.

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What if the trident is fragmented?

Messi wasn’t sterling, and Suarez started the match on the bench. Suarez later came in for Neymar, and scored one hell of a golazo before turning down the wick a bit and helping the team cruise home. It’s easy to say that Barça’s system is give it to Messi/Neymar/Suarez and let them have at it. Harder still is to replace Suarez with Pedro and still have the attack work.

“Yeah, but Messi scored a hat trick, so your theory is stupid.” Okay. But Pedro or Munir could have finished any of those goals that Messi did, which is the beauty of the thing. There are goals that only Messi can score. None of the three that he tallied today were those sorts of goals. Rather they were team goals that found Messi at the terminus of the move.

That is exciting.

In a moment of mirth, it’s easy to notice an inverse correlation between what’s going on with the board and the team’s play. As things slide downhill in the carpeted, paneled boardroom as Bartomeu said “Rosell did it, and what’s more, I signed those things, but didn’t read them,” the team is being increasingly wonderful. Here’s hoping that trend continues.

The team has won 11 matches in a row since the failure at Anoeta. It won today with the motor on idle and a rotation lineup. It has won with an old-school beat, it was won with a modern, non-linear flair that verges on digital. It just keeps winning. The gloom in all the rays of sunlight streaming down is that this club is only a single negative result away from the return of all the crisis talk and the doubt. And that, for me, just ain’t right.

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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts56 Comments

Barça 3, Villarreal 1, aka “Metal circus”

"It's not a blanket. It's a scarf."

“It’s not a blanket. It’s a scarf.”

Barça is metal.

Past iterations of the team, like all the rest, have sung their various songs, from the classical of Cruijff’s Dream Team to the syncopated jazz of Pep Guardiola’s squads. But this team is metal — violent, impatient, in-your-face, romping, stomping and not at all interested in what an opponent does except in dissecting it as a means to destroy.

Like metal, this Barça isn’t to everyone’s taste. Sonic revolutions rarely are even as their presence sets a tone. At the inception of rock ‘n’ roll people snarled about the harsh sounds, craved the soothing, familiar tones of the past. Many stopped buying albums, carped about how “This isn’t music,” but people bought in and the music flourished, guttural sounds less possessed of sonority than an insistent tone, impatience in sound. Eleven times this season, Barça has scored within ten minutes of conceding.

That’s metal, and that’s Barça.

The team that rolled into the Copa semi-final against Villarreal in midweek was on a roll, throwing down power chords, making devil horns and laughing in the faces of those who insisted things were done, that a non-crisis crisis with roots in an accursed away ground was something more than what it was: un jour sans; as the French so elegantly put it.

Easy answers beckon, team meetings and captains this and coaches that, nothing and everything that came down to a team essentially flipping a switch, a team that was there all along and had been showing gradual signs of coming out, signs ignored in the necessity that a rush to judgment forces. This can’t be happening, because it’s necessary for that to be happening. And where once there was a note or two, a riff is now a nasty, distorted, symphonic blizzard of joy, a tune that is a surprise to everyone except those who were paying attention as the drummer kicked in … then the bassist and suddenly a rhythm section formed as the rest of the band coalesced around it.

Teams don’t know what to expect from this band. It’s like a bebop ensemble that decided metal would be more fun. Opponents talk of no longer being afraid of Barça. Some find that their interview room courage becomes on-pitch trepidation and they cower on the rocks of their box like seals in the face of a predator.

Others, such as Villarreal, whistle a happy tune so that nobody will know they’re afraid, and attack because they, like so many others, are still expecting a jazz band. “What is that noise? That doesn’t sound like Barça.” And a mean-faced Iniesta combines with Mascherano of the shaved pate to force a ball loose. The influence pressing of the past is now direct and physical, not as a matter of routine but when it has to be, when the band decides to play a different song. The metronomic precision of Busquets is replaced by the slam-bang action of Mascherano as it seemed the team almost took on the character of that most important figure in Barça offensive lore, the DM that isn’t really, the man who pulls the strings and counts off the beat.

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On Wednesday, at the intersection of tactics and an opponent desire for stasis, a football match broke out in which many wonderful things happened.

The most delightful aspect of the match, from this seat, has roots that can be found in a previous post that dealt with the fragility of the Barca ecosystem, a world without as much margin for error as it had when everyone was what they used to be. This, of course, makes you speculate about what might happen when that system didn’t function at its new norm, when the trident was for whatever reason missing a tine and things weren’t quite perfect.

What happened was a 3-1 victory over a high-quality opponent, a victory that has almost assured Barca a space in the Copa finals.

But strangely, it was a result facilitated by an opponent attempting to be tactical in the first leg of a home/away series and getting surprised. Villarreal came out doing what every away team does: sit back, try not to get killed, and hope to nick an away goal on the counter. In the past, that would have worked against Barça. Sit deep, put Messi in a cage, collect a goal and go home with confidence. This Barça is an anomaly in that it can score goals even against a deep block, and absorbs midfield pressure like a sponge.

Further complicating matters for Villarreal is that Enrique chose to play Mascherano in midfield instead of Busquets because, as he himself said, he wanted to stop the fast Villarreal counters. Further complicating things was the presence of Mathieu and Pique in the back line as well as an in-form Jordi Alba, making defense the base in a tight, pressing, nasty XI that was also designed to not concede any precious away goals.

In other words, Villarreal was screwed as knockout round stasis ran headlong into a coach and a team with a better plan and better players. When a team can stop you from scoring yet score itself, it doesn’t require a coaching genius to know that’s a bad outcome. You wonder what might have happened had Villarreal decided to try to pin Barca back by attacking, using offense as a form of defense. Probably an even more lopsided scoreline. As it was, their conservatism played right into Enrique’s hands because they weren’t as interested as usual in attacking, but were susceptible to a rather savage press when they did try to attack.

The first goal is an excellent example of this. As Villarreal tried to play out of their own end, Iniesta and Mascherano converged, forcing an error. A ravenous Suarez dispossessed the Villarreal player, pushed the ball forward and banged a perfect layoff for Messi to slot home. Messi got the goal, but that tally was the press and Suarez as well as a sign of this new Barca, a team that can play many different ways in defeating an opponent. Two of the three goals came from activation of the press as Barca could sit back and, functionally, attack when attacked. Villarreal would have, in the absence of a pell-mell defending by attacking stragegy, been better off putting 10 behind the ball, 8 in the box and calling it a day.

Another wonderful occurrence is that Barça didn’t play a complete match. This was more a professional dispatching of an inferior opponent, as the team played much like driving a car with a turbo engine. You cruise along until you have to really hit the gas, then fun things happen.

Neymar had one of those days, even missing a penalty that Messi decided to give him, probably as a pick-me-up as overall Barça didn’t play its best match, but it didn’t have to. 70 percent or so was more than sufficient to turn the trick, which delights because it means that suddenly this team has a margin for error. Neymar was fully committed to defending and tracking back to the detriment of his offensive game, a calculated risk that paid off. The down side was the attack didn’t move with the same alacrity as when Neymar is fully involved, but an opponent trying not to lose the tie in the first match helped that cause. There was something of a belief that he had a poor match mostly because he wasn’t his same attack-minded self, and missed a penalty. But he was donkey working all match long, teaming with the rest of the midfield fiends to disrupt, harry and disable.

But man, Iniesta. It’s too early to tell whether his dominating performance was a one-off, or the signs of a return, which would make fools out of many including me. But he was brilliant against Villarreal, dynamic and aggressive in a way different from past Iniesta. He was almost … direct, and even scored a goal as a reward for his work in the press, as a willing partner alongside Mascherano.

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This team and its performance might have been the purest manifestation of a personality change, a taking on the visage of its coach and his titular captain. Mascherano was everywhere as Enrique smiled at his team’s … dare I say it … Atleti-like display, right down to a set piece goal.

The only thing really, that sullied the display was a Villarreal goal, a fluke of a shot that seemed to take a bit of a deflection, a shot that really should have been contested but Messi chose to stand there rather than running at the man with the ball. I reckon he thought that, like everyone else, “If dude can beat our keeper from there … ” He did.

Many culers wanted 4-1 or even 4-0, heading into the away leg at Villarreal. It’s understandable. But Barça would have to lose by a two-goal difference with Villarreal keeping a clean sheet at home. And as with Atleti away in the previous Copa round, it gets more complex if Barça scores. The 3-1 is excellent as the team heads into a rather fraught part of the season that will do a lot to decide its direction. Hosting both Levante and Malaga helps, going into the the knockout tie against Manchester City. Enrique will have decisions to make, but the rotation that was an early-season sign of a coach who didn’t know what he was doing should now result in the payoff of an entire team that is blooded and ready to fight.

As strange as it sounds, this Barça is in with a shot at the Treble, the only one of the Liga big three that can say that. Such talk is extremely premature, particularly from the flying fingers of one who predicted a silverless season. But just like a concert at which you don’t sit in anticipation of the triumphant encore, let’s enjoy the tunes and see how the gig shakes out.

suarez

Posted in Analysis, Copa del Rey, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts17 Comments

Athletic Club 2, Barça 5, aka “Teamwork”

team

There was much irony in the two goals scored by Athletic Bilbao, moments that will make history believe that they were actually, at some point, in this match.

Both goals had as their genesis moments of lost midfield possession by members of a team whose detractors allege doesn’t cherish the midfield OR possession as it should. And the defensive shambles created by those flaws was no more acute than it has been at any time in this team’s storied history, despite what the burnished patina of memory might suggest.

And if you listened carefully, just off in the distance you could make out the groaning springs and creaking suspension of people hopping back on a bandwagon as semantic malleability rears its head from many a person who but a short time ago was banging a #luchoout social media hashtag, or suggesting that this team’s coach, Luis Enrique, was in over his head.

It’s funny what time does to things. Eat a hunk of raw pizza dough and it tastes pretty crappy. Give the chef time to season it, bake it, add the right ingredients and serve it properly, and things are a different proposition. So it is with this Barça, a team that is even defeating my predictions that it wouldn’t come together with quite this level of effectiveness this season, that there were too many questions still lingering.

But it’s worth asking whether that rather routine loss at the already-jinxed ground of La Anoeta was cause or circumstance, as the team has won every match since then. There are, after all, many ways to learn not to put your hand on a fire. Your parent can tell you 20 times, or you can do it once. Both provide the same lesson, albeit at a different price. This Barça didn’t seem to believe that it was as delicate as it was. You could almost imagine them looking at the roster and saying “Sheeeee, we got this,” and not doing everything possible, not fully believing a coach who said not only are you NOT as good as you think, but if you do things my way, I can help you get there.

It took that listless morass of a belly-up to drive lessons home. There were so many thoughts about the match, so many people who screamed for Enrique’s head for not starting Messi, Neymar and Suarez, people who forgot that they were out there in the second half, when they couldn’t do it against a team that already had a scrambled, crazy half of football in its legs. For me, that loss was a symptom of something easier and more difficult to track. It is often said that Enrique was clueless as he coached this team, but you wonder if the team wasn’t also clueless, didn’t quite have a handle on what it took to accomplish tasks with great players who were still great, but had acquired flaws due to nothing more than the passage of time and what it does to athletes.

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The weekend began with an object lesson as Atleti destroyed its capitol city rival in the derby, doing so by applying absurd pressure that destroyed the RM midfield and made building anything close to impossible. That display made it fairly easy to go back and watch the Barça vs Atleti matches and the de-emphasized midfield as the team played with a directness that removed the opponent’s principal weapon. And as people snarled “We have no midfield,” you could be forgiven for wondering if it was a flaw or a tactic? You might further be forgiven for wondering about the lack of patience that is endemic in the game and how it is covered these days.

Today’s headlines blare that “Barça Liga favorites,” and “RM in crisis.” But it wasn’t that long ago that RM was being compared to l’annus Guardiolus and Barça was in crisis. Seems some modulation of that rheostat of punditry is in order, just as there should be of necessity some consideration as a supporter. You don’t have to blindly, unquestioningly support your team. But it isn’t unreasonable to expect time for things to fall into shape before declarations are made. As Xavi said, Barça isn’t as good as many say, or as bad as many say. It’s a football team that is coming into shape and form, that we should deal with using that template.

The best part is that you’re then able to have fun with a match such as yesterday’s, instead of having to wrestle with the back flips necessary to not seem like the curmudgeon sitting in the corner. Barça has dropped zero points since La Anoeta, and the Athletic match was a perfect illustration as to why. This team has become a stylistic amoeba. As Enrique said, you’d be nuts not to take advantage of the space being offered by a pressing team who was also packing the midfield. Atleti did it, and it was the same result. This is worth noting because pretty much since Anoeta, Barça has been becoming the team that many hoped it would become when Neymar was signed, a turbocharged version of Barça football, with liberal doses of “Wheeee!”

Tata Martino started that sort of transformation, then backed off. He seemed to care what people thought. Enrique has no such constraints, and the result is a crazy, hazy version of total football adapted to a front three possessed of astonishing levels of skill on and off the ball. Good luck trying to figure out who was playing where. Busquets was in the Alves role as he spanked that assist to Pedro. Alba had the most passes on the team. Xavi was diving at a submarine header off a Messi pass, Neymar was tackling the ball to make an interception outside the Barça box. Everybody was everywhere in a living, breathing adaptation of the Ray Hudson chestnut that involves trying to nail Jello to the ceiling.

Let’s look at the goals:

— The first was just a crazy free kick that took a deflection or two, and just eluded the clutching hands of the keeper. Messi’s wry grin as he celebrated was pretty much all you needed to know.
— The second was a Pique long pass out of the back to Neymar, who headed it perfectly to Suarez who held up play a bit so that Messi could arrive. He slid the ball to Messi and then hung back, knowing the defense would be unsettled. Messi took note of that, fed a trailing Suarez, who smoked it home.
— The third was born of a midfield interception. A Rakitic pass to Suarez saw the Uruguayan get the ball in the box and draw three defenders, while Messi and Neymar capered in. Suarez crossed, and that was that. It was credited as an own goal.
— The fourth was a Rakitic run, pass to Messi who alertly saw Neymar streaking in and fed him. Neymar made a difficult finish look easy.
— The last was the most beautiful, a blinding passing sequence that even included Busquets getting fouled and Messi holding up play until Busquets could get up and make the run into the box. He crossed to Pedro, who slotted home on the doorstep.

Except for the Messi free kick, these weren’t goals born of the kind of individual brilliance that people like to scoff at. They were team goals, which is the principal reason I won’t march in lock step with the “Messi was wonderful” stories and testimonials that came after the match. He was, but this was as complete a team performance as I have seen in some time, worth celebrating precisely because of that beauty. Yes, Messi was a catalyst and a force. So was Neymar, Suarez, Alba, Pique, Busquets, you name it. But Messi had his team game on display for a few reasons, most importantly because he understands that he is playing with people he can trust.

When was the last time Messi was in the box and didn’t shoot at goal? When he laid that ball off for a streaking Suarez to unleash a piledriver from outside the box, he was saying, with silent eloquence, “Welcome to Barça, teammate.” Does Messi lay that ball off for Pedro or Munir? Not likely. Much is being made of Messi’s assists this season, but he is assisting because it hasn’t been since he played alongside Eto’o and Henry that he had people he could play with in full confidence. No, that isn’t a knock on Pedro and Villa, but it would be inflating their abilities to claim that they were anything other than what they were. In Neymar and Suarez, Messi has two players who are in their own ways every bit as dangerous as he is. Neymar is scoring goals at an absurd rate, because he is, strangely enough, the third of three evils after Messi and Suarez. It’s worth thinking about how open most of his shots are as he capitalizes on the chaos created by the other two tines of the trident.

neym

Luis Enrique has predicated his attack on a very simple thing: You can’t stop all three of them. Say that “Barça don’t have a plan” all you like, but that IS a plan, to structure the attack in a way that capitalizes on the quality of three of the best attackers in the game. As the trio works together and grow in confidence with each other, it’s only natural that Messi will become more and more of a team player. He believes in his cohorts, and he should. There’s no need for him to run at 5 defenders, and no point. So he feints, stops and slides the ball to someone else to do damage. It’s wonderful, and wonderful to witness.

Messi is always worth celebrating, but for me he is never better than when he is doing his genius thing within the team’s framework, mostly because it makes him functionally unplayable. Play him for the run, and he passes. Play him for the pass, and he runs. In the past, because it was easy to wall off Pedro, a defense could control Messi. Even when it was Neymar and Pedro, a defense could take its chance that Pedro isn’t going to be the one to kill you, and wall off Messi and Neymar. Adding Suarez makes that task a fool’s errand.

Complicating matters for opponents is that the midfield is on board with the program. Xavi was here, Xavi was there, Xavi was in the box heading a ball home, Xavi was there, controlling a pass. To be sure, there is less control from this edition of Barça, but significantly more danger. Athletic scored, and Barça scored. Then scored again, for good measure. A significant part of that midfield adaptability was Busquets, who played one of the best matches I have seen from him in some time. In a recent piece in this space, I mused about the possibility of moving forward without the reference in Busquets, who it seems has little interest in being left behind. He was a metronome, and on defense, some shaky moments aside, more of a negative influence than a destructive force, and he was brilliant as the team built its attacks at times in that traditional Barça way that so many still expect.

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Finally, a shout-out for Gerard Pique, who has been enjoying some exceptional form of late. All you need to know about Pique is that he took a blast of a shot in a way that, for a moment left him with an additional and wholly unwanted ball. He lay there long enough to thank the stars for his second child having already arrived, leapt to his feet and intervened in another defensive effort. Exemplary, and yet another example of this game’s willingness to bury someone who isn’t even all that sick.

Name after name came up to replace Pique, who was deemed washed up, an no-longer-effective playboy married to a glamorous pop star. Enrique sat him down, with the option of getting his mind (and thus his game) right. He did. It’s no coincidence that Enrique’s building from the back, with a defensive foundation, has found its fullest flower now that Pique has returned to form.

This weekend begs for comparisons to be made — Messi and Ronaldo, Barça and RM, yin and yang — but you should resist in favor of something vastly more interesting: a football team that now has its destiny in its own hands. The task is simple: win matches, win a championship. Whether that is possible remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure — the challenge will be fun to watch.

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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts33 Comments

Barça 3, Villarreal 2, aka “Is that all you got?”

"Boom!"

“Boom!”

What an extraordinary match of football, one that for me was most interesting in the way that it tested the mettle of this Barça side.

It’s easy to scoff and say that “It’s only Villarreal,” but this was a team that today suffered only its second road loss and was unbeaten in its last 10 before coming to the Camp Nou. It’s also a team of talented, intelligent, well-coached players that will be a handful in the coming Copa semi-final tie.

The challenge for a team is always, “What will you do when you’re punched in the face?” In 3 matches against Atleti, the last most notably at their house, and then at home today, Barça was punched in the face via a pair of goals that were a comedy of errors more than any sort of indictment of the defense, even as culers were waiting for the defense to concede, for Pique to make an error so that the shouts of “A-ha!” could begin, in a world in which even good things are suspect, failure masquerading as success.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts59 Comments

Atleti 2, Barça 3 (agg. 2-4), aka “The Shoe Olympics”

copsua

Do you know how mad you have to be to throw a shoe at someone? Think about it. You’re at work, and something happens. Let’s say someone or thing has been vexing you for most of a workday. What does it take to finally, finally get you to snap and … off comes the shoe.

Arda Turan’s moment really typified what was a bonkers football match today. He threw his shoe at an official in a fit of pique (rather than Pique, who was sublime) over a call not made during a match in which Barça attackers were the equivalent of foot pinatas. Turan’s gesture was about futility, about an acceptance that this was it, and yet it was so much more.
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Posted in Analysis, Copa del Rey, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts38 Comments

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

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

depbsq

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

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