Archive | La Liga

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

Barça 6, Rayo 1, aka “Top of table on a perfect day”

suarez

When RM lost yesterday, gifting Barça with a glorious opportunity to go top of table, it was almost charming the way many culers were still worried.

Pessimism is indeed part of the culer mindset. Barça can be 10 points ahead with two matches left, and culers would say, “Well, the Liga is considering that win is worth 6 points. We could still lose this!

But it’s Rayo, at the Camp Nou. After the story about the worldview of Rayo’s coach, the wonderful Paco Jemez, this past week, the only real question was the final score. Because under Jemez Rayo plays their style, an open, attacking game of football that is always playing to win. Jemez is no more interested in a draw than any good coach would be, and really doesn’t find much difference between a 1-0 loss and a 7-0 loss.

This was always, always going to be a win and so it was, at a canter rather than a gallop. Messi didn’t even play, really, and got a hat trick, even getting a do-over on a penalty that again raises a question about whether he should be the man taking them. Put another way, it’s the 85th minute of a Champions League knockout tie in the deciding leg and Barça get a penalty. How confident are culers, really and truly, with Messi stepping to the spot.

But even before the Messi penalty do-over the match was already 2-0 and done because Rayo, particularly given their scoring record against Barça and the simple quality gap between the two teams coupled with that team’s style of play … this match was a gimme that was graciously accepted.

Much more interesting to me, opponent and death wishes notwithstanding, is what a simple golazo does to a player. Since Luis Suarez notched that bicycle kick he has been unstoppable. The first goal that he scored today was stupefying because of the execution, but also the speed of thought combined with the execution. He pounced on a ball from Xavi and did an outside of the foot finish into the top corner.

It’s a goal that before the bicycle, Suarez doesn’t have the confidence to even attempt, let alone make. But it was a pure striker’s goal, just like his tally against Manchester City in Champions League.

My beyond-the-pitch views on whether Suarez should have been signed have not changed. But these views don’t make me blind to the reality that it has not been since Samuel Eto’o that Barça has had a striker of this quality. And it hasn’t been since that same Eto’o stomped the terra with Messi and Henry that we have had a front three with as much firepower and creativity.

Even more interesting is that Pedro is Pedro when it comes to scoring, a once-confident player who is now a coach’s dream for all that other stuff that he does, and Messi was still singing lullabies to Thiago in his head. This made the attack essentially Suarez, and he still notched that goal. He ran, pressed, passed, assisted, tried to assist when he shouldn’t have, then scored another goal that was quite a bit more difficult than it was made to look. He was my MOTM by a country mile today, Messi’s mostly sleepwalking hat trick notwithstanding, and can be summed up in a simple phrase: Suarez changes everything.

Cannibals on the loose!

Eto’o was wonderful. What made him wonderful was that he was a little bonkers, so you really didn’t know what to expect from him. His genius was either that or madness as he moved wayyy over there to set up a feint that would find him over here, in perfect position to lace home a shot or capitalize on a rebound opportunity. But he moved constantly, which made it almost impossible to play him.

What that movement also did was unsettle a defense, which made the lives of other attackers easier because defenders were always worried about that crazy dude running around behind them. Suarez brings back that kind of crazy. He even scores goals like Eto’o. On his second, he worked play, held himself onside then burst free at the exact right moment to be able to slot home. He created a goal by working a play with Jordi Alba, taking a pass in the box, controlling and holding the ball long enough to find shooting space then smoked a hard, low shot at the keeper. He didn’t score but did create a rebound chance that Messi tapped home.

Confidence is a weird thing. Before the bicycle, Suarez was associative almost to a fault, looking for the pass in the same ultimately frustrating way that Neymar did when he first arrived. It’s almost as if a player wants to prove that they fit into a Barça team whose reputation has been built on unselfish play and beautiful passing. And that need to blend leads to a seeming sublimation of self. We also saw it in Alexis Sanchez, who was most himself when Messi was out and he and Neymar could roam free.

After the goal, Suarez seemed to say to himself “Hey, wait … that’s right. I can do this stuff.” Since then he has been scoring for fun. But more than scoring, he has been influencing the match in ways that give him an indirectly direct effect on the scoreline, even more than before the bicycle. His role in that first goal against Villarreal is a perfect example as he burst into space and made the exact right pass to Messi. Think about how many other players — Pedro is one — who would have gone for the safe pass to a closer teammate, or held the ball up and then passed it back to midfield. Instead, Suarez went for the high-risk ball to Messi because he could see the potential in that pass.

What makes excellent players so isn’t talent, though that is certainly part of it. When Tiger Woods was himself, he hit shots that didn’t occur to anyone else. It wasn’t that other players didn’t have the talent to make those shots. They didn’t have the audacity to even consider them. That’s the difference.

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One year the Chicago Blackhawks played the Edmonton Oilers in the playoffs, during the Gretzky days. Gretzky was rolling up the wing on the break, and a Hawks defenseman had him cold. But Gretzky already knew. He stopped, pivoted and flicked the hockey equivalent of a backheel to a streaking teammate, who slotted the goal home. The pass took an unusual amount of skill, but it mostly required the belief that such a thing existed in your skill set.

Phil Schoen described the situation very well when he noted during a recent match that people were expecting Liverpool Suarez to show up, but Uruguay Suarez showed up instead. At Liverpool he was everything, and had to play that way. For his national team he has players that require a different, more associative all-pitch approach that in the context of a Barça in which everyone does everything, makes him potentially devastating.

Now what?

Barça is top of table. As Mascherano said after the match today, all 3 top teams are going to drop more points, and the Liga won’t be decided until late. He’s correct. Being top of table with 12 matches to go is immaterial. Counting chickens before they are hatched is foolhardy, so the bleating of culers after the Malaga defeat about a Liga being lost when it wasn’t even won, should make you giggle more than anything else. The entorno is happy right now, but don’t forget that at the beginning of the season and well into it, RM was the best team that anyone had ever seen, every bit as good as the great Guardiola sides.

Now, having dropped 5 points in the last 2 matches, RM is anything but. But now the tables are turned and people are overblowing Barça, daring to talk about a league title. Mascherano is right in that it isn’t over until it’s over. One thing that is reassuring is that for yet another match, Barça displayed the kind of level-headed pragmatism that points to a well-coached team.

Xavi and Iniesta were excellent today, which would come as no surprise in a match tailor-made for their skill sets and physical gifts. Xavi picked that assist to Suarez as only he can, and Iniesta was, as Ray Hudson described him in match commentary, “like smoke through a key hole.” Rayo is always the cure for what ails. No physicality, no pressing midfield, no attacking mids directly in an effort to starve the beast of food. Everything today was exactly as it was supposed to be.

iniesta

During the Rayo match particularly in the first half, there were mutterings about goals left on the table, Barça not playing well, etc, etc. From the seat in my man cave, no reason for any stress was in view. It was 1-0, Rayo was about as likely to score as I was and Barça was in second gear. Again, it’s worth asking about the gallon jug of effort that teams and players have, a jug that has to be metered out over the duration of a season in which a team is active in three competitions. Barça could have gone all out, ripped and ran and scored 4 or 5 goals by the half, but why? Rayo wasn’t going anywhere.

Given another, less-willing opponent with less pride, who might turtle up and go for the point that they arrived with creates a different picture. But Rayo was a practice scrimmage in the Catalan sun. Why not relax and save the effort for when it was really needed? I was at the Gamper match in which Eto’o suffered a severe injury while trying to ice the cake of a 5-0 Milan thrashing. My first thought … well, my second was “Well, that was stupid.”

There is a time to go all out and a time to relax and take what an opponent gives you. In many ways, that has been the operating mode for Barça this season, and not only on this lovely Sunday. The team is top of the table, a feat worked by taking what opponents have given. What’s next is a dozen matches, all finals really, when you consider that RM has the talent to go on a 12-match winning streak, just as Barça does.

It is pressure and how a team and its players manage it that makes a champion.

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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Thoughts35 Comments

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

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“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.

neymar

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.

messi

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.

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