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Getafe 0, Barça 0, aka “The correct answer to the blame question is ‘all of the above'”

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The rain, the pitch, no penalty, Enrique sucks, Alves …

The quest for blame in the wake of a negative result scatters thoughts like dandelion spores in a hurricane, a fascinating search that often finds them landing in odd places and pollinating certain ideas.

But today’s draw vs Getafe was a great many things all at once, too many to lay at the feet of an individual unless that individual is the Getafe team, which played like lions today. Want to blame someone? Curse them and their moving, aggressive, systematic defense that took full advantage of a Barça team coming off of a very difficult mid-week match against a strong European opponent.

Full credit to a brave opponent, who were it not for a couple of Claudio Bravo saves, could have caused a much bigger upset than the absence of full points for Barça.

Rather than playing the blame game, let’s assess something of what happened today, and whether there are any solutions at hand.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Review33 Comments

Barça 3, PSG 1, aka “Excellence is usually about belief”

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The bracing, all-encompassing majesty of sport is that the best team doesn’t always win. What sells out stadiums as newly promoted teams face championship sides is precisely that, the belief that on any given day, anything can happen. From back when Goliath didn’t see it coming, looking down to wonder what that little dude was doing, giants have toppled.

And yet, the better team usually wins, and with soul-crushing regularity. Regulars gather in bars and living rooms to console themselves with the almosts and what ifs of the vanquished, the magic of retrospect, because that’s easier sometimes than saying that like death and taxes, the better team is usually going to whip your ass.

Paris St.-Germain understands that now, that what happens every now and again is what needs to happen for a lesser team to beat a better one: mistakes must be made, and the lesser team must play exceptionally well. This occurred in their house, the Parc des Princes, as Barça gave up balls, went to sleep on set pieces and the narrative was born that PSG kicked Barça butt as the latter looked a mess.

Only a few, foolish culers dared to say that despite looking at sixes and sevens for most of match, Barça still managed a couple of goals and it was only a heroic intervention on the PSG doorstep that kept a team that played kinda crappy from walking away with a share of the points.

So when that very same PSG rolled into the Camp Nou as the only unbeaten team in Europe, and with its superstar, Zlatan Ibrahimovic back, it took a certain kind of culer to worry. The others were divided into two camps of the same mind: Barça is going to win. It is going to beat a team that is isn’t supposed to and win a group that it shouldn’t, because what else would happen?

One side based that belief in success on the whimsy of the supporter. Of course my team is going to win, because I always expect it to win. The other side based it on logic, that Barça didn’t play very well in the previous match, didn’t have Luis Suarez, made plenty of errors and further, PSG is less well-equipped to defeat Barça with its talisman in the lineup. Further still a result should be expected because Barça is playing better and better, rounding into shape as gradually as would be expected from a team with a new coach and staff, 8 new players and a passel of doubt to overcome, but it is coming into shape nonetheless, and is a better team than the group that lost to PSG.

But another, equally important group of supporters have to also believe, and that is the athletes. Sport doesn’t leave room for doubt. In the milliseconds that can decide the difference between an outstretched toe poking a ball away and a defender arriving just a smidge too late, there isn’t any room at all for doubt. Doubt is a luxury the desperate can’t afford and make no mistake about it, FC Barcelona is desperate.

After a season at the end of which nothing of import could be reported, a season in which doubt was allowed to rear its head in a statement from a talismanic player, you wonder what really happened to bring the team that handful of goals short. Talent gets you some of the way, but belief gets you the rest.

Wednesday, at the end of 80 minutes, a group of players in blaugrana, stroking the ball around, keeping it away from a team of talented athletes that many expected to bring destruction, at the apogee of each one of those delicate passes was belief.

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Barça has a coach in Luis Enrique, who by all accounts isn’t interested in doubt, or what anyone thinks of him. His belief is complete and unwavering. As people wondered whether he was the ideal coach to lead this group of athletes, not many gave any weight to that personal conviction, that ability to make capering millionaires understand that if they do what they are supposed to, the belief that if you follow my system, success will come.

After the match, Pedro’s words percolated with belief. Iniesta said Enrique didn’t allow them to doubt, to not believe, that he knows what he wants. In a world seemingly wracked with doubt and worry, the coach and the players knew, and believed.

So when the starting XI came out today, there was an explosion of sorts, because nobody quite knew what to make of it. Ter Stegen, Bartra, Pique, Mascherano, Mathieu, Busquets, Pedro, Messi, Neymar, Suarez.

–Was Pedro the right back?
–Was Bartra the right back?
–Was this a double pivot?
–Wait, are they going to play a 3-4-3?

Brains hurt as people tried to figure out permutations, while others said this lineup was further evidence that Enrique didn’t know what he was doing. Some media figures suggested that the team didn’t practice with this lineup, based on the scant information they were allowed to gather during their supervised practice session visits — because yes, the team is going to work out its secret plans in front of the press.

Doubt and the necessity to lock Barça into a rigid formation created a carpet of doubt and worry, even as some were excited by the possibilities of a coach who looked at what he had and, whether out of necessity (Dani Alves was suspended) or inspiration, decided to shake things up.

The teams lined up and some screamed 3-4-3! The whistle blew and, because that is what happens when a set of variables is presented with a stimulus, formational rigidity became something like a bowl of marbles. On a team such as Barça, where DMs or CBs bring the ball up and forwards track back to steal and break up attacks, does it really matter what formation it takes before it becomes the inside of a supercollider, except for chalk talks and dudes with telestrators?

What matters to the players is belief and effectiveness. “Play my way, and you will succeed.” So the match started, a pell-mell fury of teams that were purported equals going at each other, but some knew better. Some predicted a Barça win, simply because Barça was the better team. But if you don’t believe that, if your coach, your captain doesn’t believe that, certain things aren’t possible. So when PSG scored an early goal from the precise same kind of mistake that allowed them to win at their house, Enrique calmly pulled aside his on-pitch captain and calmly explained what went wrong. And this time Barça just kept on doing what it was doing, what it was supposed to do, what it believed it could do.

They got chances, we got chances, and when the scuffed, bouncing sort of ball that Suarez will tell his grandchildren was an intentional pass effort fell to the boot of a charging Messi, suddenly it was 1-1. Barça ran even harder, the passes zinged even truer, and the doubt changed shirts. PSG looked increasingly tentative as Barça looked to get fully on the front foot. Possession was higher for Barça, and its players ran and ran. Its star forward ran almost as many kilometers as its hyperactive defensive midfielder. Everyone ran, everyone tried, everyone cleaned up after each other.

After the match, in the words of one seeking solace where it can be found, PSG coach Laurent Blanc suggested that perhaps the new-look Barça lineup confused our players more than his. Of course he chose to ignore the illogic of a team confused by its own taskings putting a 3-1 home beatdown on his team, because seeking solace and logic aren’t always compatible quests.

Belief is a shaky thing. It takes a lot to make it as firm as it needs to be to make a better team understand what it is, and for a purportedly better team to suddenly begin to wonder. Sometimes, it takes as little as a few seconds and a capering Brazilian’s wonder strike to do very different things to belief.

On Sunday, Barça withstood all but a few seconds of a perfect half of football by Espanyol, then a Messi wonder strike changed everything. Espanyol lost a bit of that doubt and suddenly, passes were easier to make, holes easier to find, movement hard to come by.

So it seemed in the aftermath of the Neymar golazo, a dipping piledriver that came at the worst time, just before the half, that PSG slipped a bit as Barça gained a bit. Being a front runner does that, but also looking at the Barça roster and understanding very simple things. They have Ibrahmovic, Barça has Messi, Suarez AND Neymar. They have Luiz and Silva, Barça have Pique and Bartra, home-raised players whose knowledge of how the club plays can bridge an ability gap.

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Barça was the better team and played like it. So when the third goal was bundled home by Suarez, PSG almost seemed to accept its fate. It got corner kicks, but rather than the psychic walkabout that allowed celebratory backslapping at the Parc des Princes, alert defenders cleared danger. PSG went on runs, but tackles and interventions thwarted efforts as for some, Barça played exactly as they were expected to play, did exactly what they were expected to do, which was beat a team that they were better than.

Once again, some social media pundits snarled and scoffed at individual brilliance, as if there is a law against being magical, against top-class players doing what they do. There is a memory, a fading bit of burnished illusion that back in the day, magical midgets would pass a ball up the pitch, perfect triangles forming the springboard for an inexorable path toward goal as flawless little dynamos walked yet another goal into the net. That memory makes athletic wonder seem somehow base, beneath the expectations of the game.

But individual brilliance can also buttress a team, make its resolve even firmer as a genius does exactly what he is supposed to do.

The better team won at the Camp Nou today. It won despite sub-par performances from a few key players, including its best player of all. It won because that’s what it believed it would do. It won because its coach knew that it would, because he devised a system that if it was followed as it should be, would ensure victory. It won because its players executed that plan to a level that was not enabled by individual excellence, but enhanced by it.

And for now, the next test awaits as a team rounds into shape and hurdles mountains of doubt, leaping along with just a little more spring in its step because maybe for the first time this season, this is a group of players that is all in. It was as beautiful to watch as it was effective as it quelled doubt in all but the most committed, for a magical yet logical evening.

“Barça won.”
“Well, duh. That’s what it’s supposed to do.”

psgdef

Posted in Champions League, Messi, Neymar, Review, Tactics, Thoughts70 Comments

Barça 5, Espanyol 1, aka “The aesthetics of results”

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When people snark and caterwaul about the Liga talent gap, today’s Catalan derby serves as an excellent illustration.

More than a tale of two halves, it was as stark a depiction of haves vs have nots as you will ever see.

It’s a fairly easy thing to summarize this match, and the truth lies in that summation: Espanyol played a perfect half of football, while Barça was far from perfect. In the second half Barça raised its level, rendering what Espanyol did irrelevant. 5-1. Done.

Is it really as simple as it seems from that stark paragraph? Well, yes.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Review, Thoughts96 Comments

Valencia 0, Barça 1, aka “Wait … WUT?!”

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FC Barcelona won a match off a set piece. Ball by Messi, from the right. In the 94th minute. Off a header rebound and a put back by … Sergio Busquets, that goalscoring machine.

If you wanted to draw up a more bizarre ending to a more bizarre day, I would challenge anyone to take that task.

It is facile to say that “Matches such as this one win championships.” What is not at all easy to say is that Barça showed something today. Luis Enrique said they didn’t quit, but it was more than that. For me, there is poetry in artists sometimes tripping over the easel, sending the canvas sprawling and landing in their own paint.

And today’s match was the equivalent of that artist rolling over on the canvas, and the smeared paint creating a work that a patron buys. Because sometimes, success ain’t pretty.
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Posted in La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Review, Thoughts82 Comments

Barcelona 2 – Getafe 2: Game, set and ma…

Tito

Before kick-off the Camp Nou paid a final homage to a man who, in all honesty, has simply been more culer than thou during his forty-five years on earth, Tito Vilanova. First we were shown a remembrance video in which several players bade him farewell, which was in my very personal opinion both moving and awkward. Then both teams observed a minute of silence, one that unfortunately was not respected by all attendees. Still, I think it’s safe to say that cancer has taken its (un)fair share of victims around the world, regardless of sex, skin color or supported football club, and no family has been completely spared. I can’t speak for all who were at the stadium, but I found it quite emotional and it gave me goose bumps. I even failed to notice they had kicked off already. In a classy move, Tito’s name was put on the match shirts and I for one would not mind if we did the same next season.

Spot the writer!

Spot the writer

So, are we finished then?

About the match, let’s keep it short. Barça weren’t bad without being particularly good, which on most days means that the team were a lot better than their opponent without creating all that many scoring opportunities. The problem is that we gave up three as well, from which they scored two. Heck, if you watched the game you’d be forgiven for thinking that Getafe passed the halfway line less than a handful of times and came back with two goals, which is kind of like the chorus of this year’s song. We control the match for eighty-five minutes and draw or lose it in five. Now the season is all but over and we can only hope that Atletico prevent M*drid from winning the treble, whether they do so in la Liga, in Lisbon or in both.

Taking the blame

Taking the blame

The blame game

As has become all too familiar, certain people named Martino, Dani Alves and Song get scapegoated for the loss. Dani Alves shouldn’t have given up that foul, they say. Dani Alves should have covered his flank, they write. Yes, but he gave up the foul doing the very same thing we all say our team is missing, aggressively pressing his opponents.

Martino shouldn’t have moved Busi to the defense and taken off Xavi for Song. What an idiot, is being yelled in unison. Funny how nobody lauded him for taking off Mascherano to insert Cesc, a substitution that arguably led to our taking the lead. And are the same people who blast our coach for taking off Xavi the ones who say that Xavi doesn’t have the legs to defend?

When you look at the goals, you have to feel for Tata. For Getafe’s first, Mascherano made up for a mistake with a foul that led to a free kick at which his team got caught napping at a trick play. For the second Adriano and Pinto were left to defend by themselves. I don’t think any coach makes those decisions for their players. I am not saying Martino should stay, but it’s a damn shame nevertheless, because for those first six months of the season it sure looked like we had a Barça coach.

This season nobody is to blame, along with everybody. If you really want to point your finger, I’ll give you a hint. Something flows downhill and it’s brown and smelly. If the board supported anybody else but the board, like our players and our coach for example, things might turn out different next year. As it stands, however, we can fear the worst. Our problem, apart from socis that don’t want to do anything about it, is institutional.

It's over

It’s over

Death of tiki taka

Let me get another thing straight. I am sick and tired of the term “tiki taka”. I never liked it to begin with – it sounds like a cheap Bangkok bar from which the rich and sleazy take under aged hookers with fake smiles and sad stories back to their hotel rooms. If this is the death of tiki taka, it can’t come too soon. What is it anyway, other than the evolution of a football system that uses fast and technical players that like to pass the ball a lot. Tiki taka by and of itself was never “revolutionary” to begin with. It was made so by legendary players and a very good coach. And just how it evolved from something that was already in place, the team needs to keep evolving to move forward.

There are calls for more strength and athleticism, which I agree with, especially in defense. For some reason fans want Reus, forgetting that we already have Pedro, Alexis and Neymar, don’t know what to do with Deulofeu and will hopefully find a way to develop Adama Traore into a first team player in the next couple of years. There is also a lot of noise about the need for an Arturo Vidal type player. Never mind the fact that we are stacked with some of the best midfielders in Europe, and we have Rafinha, Suarez and Samper waiting in the pipeline. As for that bite we lack, we got Mascherano being misused because we never bought adequate cover for Puyol and Abidal. If I were in charge I’d move Masche up a line, Messi back a line, and get a mobile striker who can both head the ball and make runs for through passes. But hey, I’m just another guy with an opinion.

Then there are those want the club to sell half the team and buy half the world. They draw comparisons with Pep booting out Ronaldinho and Deco. Let’s stop right there. Ronaldinho and Deco spent more time on the dance floor than on the training grounds. Today is not yesterday. Our guys, these extraordinary players, have always shown respect and dedication to our colors, up to and including this season in which we have finally stopped winning anything at all. The least we can do, as fans, is to give them the respect they deserve. Make no mistake, Barça has got to change and adapt. The team needs fresh blood and some players might have to go. However, the nucleus for another best team of the world is right there, in front of our eyes, losing the league in five minutes per game.

Posted in Barcelona, La Liga, Review370 Comments

Atletico 1, Barça 0 (2-1 agg.), aka “That fist to the face … who put that there?”

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Well doesn’t THIS feel weird, this feeling of coming home on a big match day from wherever you watched, with that empty feeling, that difficult-to-describe sensation of having watched your team lose.

Seems like just yesterday that we were capering about in glee through throats made hoarse from screaming as we swept the Classics, beating RM in their house.

But today, the best team from the capitol city, without two of its best players, beat us. And today, in another bit of empty-feeling weirdness, our team didn’t have any answers. Make no mistake, however … Barça didn’t lose today. It was beaten by an opponent with a better plan, its own naivete and institutional failure.
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Posted in Analysis, Champions League, Review, Thoughts68 Comments

Real Madrid 3, Barça 4, aka “The space race”

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Wow. Just … wow.

It is rare that a Classic lives up to the billing. At the nexus of all the hype, all the reams of verbiage and speculation have in the past, resulted in high-volume bits of drollery. Even the first Classic this season was, truth to tell, kinda boring unless you were culer. It was 2-1, and Barça pretty much put the match on lockdown.

But Bale was knocked, RM was still finding its way, pundits said. They are playing great right now, and know what is at stake. Bale is fit and productive, Ronaldo is in rare form. Barça on the other hand, is beleagured, set upon even by people who were presumed to be friends. It’s easy to see why pretty much everyone said that RM was going to win today.

I Tweeted before the match that we were going to win 1-2, and would walk it if Alba brought his defensive game today. Why? Because this club has not, this season, lost a big match. And there is absolutely no reason to think that they were going to lose this one, because Barça still has the best players in the world. Is Barça the best team in the world right now? No. But it is a team that is made up of players who are the best or among the best at their position.

Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Neymar, Messi. That is a fantasy football side that you buy if you have an unlimited budget in Football Manager, rather than one that a manager can routinely call upon. People bet against that team, call it inadequate, say that it can’t defend, can’t attack, can’t do this or that. And when it confounds its critics, the cries of “Yeah, but …” begin, nitpicks at this or that player.

I have said it before and will say it again: you go all in with love. There shouldn’t be half measures to cushion the blow should a bad outcome happen. It diminishes the potential joy. Go all in. I believed this team would win because I believe this team can win every match that it plays. Just look at the roster.

As we know, it doesn’t win every match that it plays, because those great players are also human beings. Can’t say that such knowledge will ever affect the belief I have in this team. And it showed why today in a glorious moment, made more so by a very simple fact: win or go home. The Liga is either 1 point, or insurmountable at 4 or 7 with 9 matches left.

So those little geniuses won. But they didn’t just win by outplaying their more physical, bigger, stronger opponents. They won by controlling space more effectively than their opponent. Every key play in the match today was the result of space — taken or created — being used to positive effect. RM ran and slashed, while Barça picked and plucked.

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31 games without defeat. The last time RM was beaten was the last time that they played us. There are now 9 matches left in the season. The big winner today was Atletico, who are now top and have the head-to-head tiebreaker against RM, but they play us in the last match of the season.

“We weren’t always in the right shape on the pitch, and we paid the price,” said Ancelotti. Spot on.

The consequence of being in that wrong shape was opportunity and difficulty.

Space: The contested frontier

In just one example, look at the astonishing pass (14:35) that Xavi puts right on Messi’s boot. When Xavi looks up, he sees that Messi is in between two RM players, with nobody covering the inside. The run is just begging, and when Messi makes it, the ball is already on the way. It lands directly on his boot, and you would have bet your house on Messi making the score 0-2 instead of bending the ball wide. And yet, there it was, space being used and ceded, as only the Gods know what possessed them to let Messi get behind the back line, unmarked.

Truth be told it was a pass that few players in the world can make, a pass that maybe you just don’t account for in your Probability Factors. But it happened, and was another symbolic moment in a match absolutely filled with them.

Look at earlier in the match, when the first goal came. At the moment when Messi is about to receive the ball that he is going to spank to Iniesta for the first goal, if you pause the image (at 6:08), Iniesta is all alone on the left side, trotting with purpose like a sleeper. The RM players are ball focused, with four players around Messi. Bale just let Iniesta sashay past him to begin the run, and when Messi gets the ball he already knows what is going to happen, and so does Iniesta.

Iniesta takes the pass in acres of space, and detonates past Diego Lopez to give Barça a 0-1 lead. Just like that, in the 7th minute. Can RM be forgiven for thinking that Iniesta doesn’t score goals, or did someone not do their job on that run? Either way, space was crucial.

Even before that it was clear the kind of match it was going to be, as Messi (again) laid out a pass for Neymar to run onto, a ball into space created by player movement. In the past, in more violent times, a tighter back line probably cuts out both those passes, or Arebeloa just knocks Iniesta over. In this match, today, a goal was the result, a goal that defined the proceedings.

Carvajal pointed at Bale as Ray Hudson screamed, “The mad magic of Barcelona comes out, with beautiful football!” And so it did as more than 20 passes were strung together, up and back, passes that made a pressing, ball-hawking RM defense move and pay attention, waiting for the sleeper. Neymar on the right was an interesting decision from Tata Martino, almost one that optimists could suggest shifted attention to that side of the pitch, with just a mere creator on the left in Iniesta, while hell raisers in Neymar and Alves were on the right.

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When RM equalized, again space was used and ceded. But rather than making space with passing and control, Di Maria did a slash-and-burn run, facilitated by an exquisite flip pass from Bale. At the moment Di Maria crosses the ball, there are players looking at him. Neymar was trotting back, while Alves was laying off. Space. So Di Maria put the ball directly onto Benzema’s head, whereupon he made space by outleaping Mascherano. 1-1.

Shockingly, the same thing happens again, and Benzema tags us for a brace in less than 10 minutes, all because of space, poorly controlled.

Whenever a goal is conceded, goats are looked for. Mascherano was the whipping post on this goal but if you look at the situation when Di Maria lays in his cross, Benzema is on the dead run, already to the inside of Mascherano, who didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of outjumping the bigger, stronger Benzema. Pressure on the passer from Neymar (trotting) or Alves (watching) might have prevented such an accurate cross but there again, space conceded, and taken advantage of.

“You cannot give Benzema that amount of space,” said Ray Hudson after their go-ahead goal and he was absolutely right. But the space creation started with quality. This pitch was filled with great players. How can anyone really, truly expect this match to NOT have goals, NOT have great plays? Spectacular players make things happen, things that create an advantage for their team.

Genius+space=goals

Pundits mutter that Barça relies upon great individual players doing their thing rather than team excellence. That isn’t a valid argument for me, because why the hell do you have those kinds of players if you aren’t going to let them do what they do? The first Barça goal was team and system. The second was individual wonder, as Neymar and Messi did the kind of craziness that they do, in phone booth-like spaces. The final, go-ahead goal was Iniesta being his own absurd self, forcing an error from yet another world-class player.

Look at that second goal. Messi did a high-speed give and go, bounced off an RM defender, stumbled, regained control of the ball and slammed it to Neymar who somehow controlled it while surrounded by 3 defenders, then did a crazy sort of side-foot pass to Messi, who slammed it home. You can take every X and O in the world, diagram stuff and whiteboard plays in practice. But the goal came down to two top-class players deciding to make some magic.

Rather than seeing those moments of solo magic as some sort of failing, I see it as a broadened success window. If that whole team thing doesn’t work, give it to a genius and let him do his thing. Our geniuses were slightly better than their geniuses, with one in particular standing above all: Messi.

For me the worst use of space by RM was in how much they ceded to Messi. Maybe they read Marca, who said before the match that Messi was in crap form. But pass after pass, when he got the ball he had space to move, space to pick passes and make runs without fear of a rugby tackle or cleat to the Achilles. In one absurd moment (18:32) Messi AND Neymar have gobs of space to play with, as Fabregas runs into his own bubble on the left side. Messi plays it to Neymar, who is stopped by a last-ditch tackle in the box.

Complicating matters is that Barça continued to play as a team that includes the best player alive. And that best player decided that he didn’t care how he hurt an opponent. He scored goals in the run of play. He scored a hat trick, two from penalties. But most impressive for me is the stupefying passes that he laid on, one for Iniesta on his goal, the other for Neymar in the red card incident.

“You don’t need to love these players, people, but you should marvel at them,” says Hudson.

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Tactics and selection headaches

Knowledgeable people say that Ancelotti got the tactics wrong. Culers screamed that Martino got the starting XI wrong. Maybe they are all right. The space was odd, to be sure. But was that because of a system that worked? People always think that teams play in a vacuum. “So and so can’t defend.” Ronaldo makes his living making defenders seem inadequate. Messi makes them seem invisible. These top-class players will wreak havoc with any coach’s game plan.

But boy, were people out for Martino. “Should have started Sanchez,” “Going for name players instead of relying on form.” But Martino knew what he was doing. In a match in which teams can play to a standoff, talented 1v1 players can make a difference. Neymar set up Messi for the tying goal, then drew the penalty that put RM down to 10. Yes, he was laggardly in tracking back in the first half, but clearly got a talking to before the second half. Neymar was decisive even as he wasn’t brilliant, because of potential that was respected by an opponent, potential that created space.

When Pedro was brought on for Neymar, the difference was clear. Pedro got the ball, did a feint or two and passed it back to midfield. That is what he was supposed to do at that point in the match, in a substitution that was as much defensive as offensive.

Was Mourinho right?

Classics under Mourinho were nasty, violent, contentious affairs. And finally, he beat us by playing a different kind of football. It distracted, bowled over and turned talented sprites into unfocused whiners. And it worked.

Ancelotti came into this match riding a 31-match unbeaten streak. The last team that beat them was us. They were, by all accounts in brilliant form, and many people whose opinions I trust had us losing this match. Ancelotti came out to play a football match, because he had football players. He pressed, played a high line, attacked and lost.

There were fouls, but things didn’t really acquire an edge until late in the match, when the outcome was beginning to feel like a done deal. But 95% of the match was two teams, each with their own style of play, running at each other like gladiators.

And Mourinho had to be watching and thinking, “See, told you they can’t be beaten by playing football.”

Controversy

There were three penalties and one red card in this match, a match that was nonetheless well officiated. Culers usually mutter about an official who keeps his whistle in his pocket because it benefits the opponent. But in a more cleanly played, balanced match, that same ref can benefit us as much as the opponent. So it was today.

The penalties are most contentious, of course. When Ronaldo got his penalty, dragging the leg and being clipped by Alves, my first reaction was to suggest that Messi or Neymar get into the RM box at the first opportunity, to force the official to make that same call on the other end. Neymar did, and got the call. Supporters of each club will say that no, theirs was justified. But the Neymar and Ronaldo penalties were pretty much the same, a dragged leg and player looking for contact in the box. Yes, Ronaldo was fouled outside the box, but between continuation and the pace of the play, you try making that judgment call.

The Iniesta penalty was a flat-out mugging. So. Was the controversy that the visiting team got not one, but TWO penalties in RM’s house? That is the only rational contention that anyone could have. All three were penalties, correctly adjudged. Play was allowed to flow, niggling calls weren’t being made and a great match of football was the result. Controversy? There will always be controversy in a Classic. But today’s, for me, didn’t come from the officiating.

Quality in abundance

Individual performances in such a dynamic match are easy and difficult to evaluate. Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets were delights. For a player who is past it and doesn’t make forward passes, I wonder who that was playing today.

Alba continues to be the defender many hoped he would be, holding down that side of the pitch and roaming, a la Abidal.

Pique was excellent today, even keeping Benzema from a first-half hat trick with an off the line clearance.

Mascherano was strong, even having the audacity to take a poke at goal from distance.

Neymar wasn’t great, even as he was decisive, and Valdes, truth be told, didn’t have much to do but did make a couple of fine saves.

Yes, those players all made errors. Of course they did. When you square off against excellent players, they will make you create some errors, but don’t be mistaken: this team rose to the occasion with quality and style.

What now?

Now it’s a Liga horse race in which Atletico has the upper hand. Win out and they win the Liga. It’s simple for them. But they play us the last match of the season, a match that could well, if we win, result in the RM winning the championship. And wouldn’t THAT just be a kettle of crap?

But for now, there are 9 matches left. The top two teams are level on points and the third-place team, Barça, is but a single point off the top. Every match is a final is usually a cliche, but not in this case. 9 matches to decide the league, and we can delight in being fully in love with a team that has found its form.

Posted in El Clasico, La Liga, Messi, Review130 Comments

Barça 2, Manchester City 1 (4-1 agg.), aka “Taking care of business”

cityteam

So much doubt, so much worry, so much anguish all at the roots of a moment of collective human frailty. When Barça lost to Valladolid this weekend past, it was more than a loss. It was like the starting pistol in a race to establish culpability. Something is wrong, whose fault is it. And we know something is wrong, because a history-making football club lost to a relegation side.

Whose fault is it, and oh my, Manchester City is coming to down with “only” a two-goal lead to overcome. By cracky, they can do that in their sleep, especially with Aguero back to fitness and in the lineup. Oh, my!
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Posted in Champions League, Messi, Review, Thoughts133 Comments

Fear and Loathing in La Liga, a review, aka “It has been forever thus.”

book

Joan Gaspart: “Barcelona is the defense of a country, a language, a culture.”

Okay, I’ll buy that. But you know what? I’m not Catalan, and I HATE Real Madrid. At my first Camp Nou Classic, I almost fell over the rail in a froth-mouthed rage. A complete stranger supported me at the waistband as I leaned over to spit invective.

After finishing Guardian journalist and Spanish football authority Sid Lowe’s “Fear and Loathing in La Liga,” I don’t hate them any less, even as I understand them a lot more, because Lowe makes it all make sense.

Jorge Valdano describes the Classic as “a club versus more than a club.” But, it should be added, not in the “mes que un” slogan sense. Barça means more than a successful team to culers and Catalans.

And if familiarity can breed contempt, so too can similarity. Because in so many ways, Barça and RM have parallels galore, as well as differences that are in fact similarities. That this is to be an unusual book is apparent early on, when Lowe takes on the myth of “Franco’s team,” and continues with a messy historical merging.

— The Catalans supply more Spain NT players.
— Barça was founded by a Swiss businessman.
— RM was founded by two Catalan brothers.
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Posted in Book Reviews, El Clasico, Review17 Comments

Betis 1, Barça 4, aka “Plan A, B and C … What sort of madness is this?”

betpdr

“This was an intelligent win,” said the team’s coach, Gerardo Martino.

While it’s always tempting to analyze statements, like when someone says “You look nice today,” and your thought is “What, do I look like crap all the other days,” that analysis is often dangerous. But let’s have a little look at it, just for fun.

This team has been pragmatic, pretty, direct and any other modifier that you want to throw at a football club. But for me, what made Martino’s statement so true is that the club let Betis kill themselves. It used the space they left, the weaknesses they displayed the flaws in their approach. It was a win based in malleability and understanding, one of those wins after which an opponent says “How the hell did THAT happen?”
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Posted in La Liga, Review, Thoughts42 Comments

Osasuna 0 – Barça 0: Spots of Sunshine vs Rumors of Rain

1. This match really doesn’t deserve a full-fledged review, but I will offer up my thoughts anyway. Numbered for easy consumption, you should beware that some might be of the knee-jerk variety.

2. A draw at Osasuna is not the end of the world. It is not even the end of the season. Winning streaks aren’t meant to last, and you can thank the mighty Maker for that. It does mean that we are not going to win the league before Christmas. Heck, come to think of it, only a short time ago I wrote we would be empty-handed come June, a prediction I almost forgot about after the eight straight W’s we started the competition with, but oh well, who’s counting. If you are, our club is still three points ahead of proving me wrong.

3. Three points? They would have been five were it not for bad finishing. El Sadar has always been a tough ground for us, and this fixture was further complicated by appearing after two World Cup qualifiers. On a pitch that looks pixelated in a high definition broadcast, Barça really struggled find their rhythm, especially in the first half. Still, Bartra, Neymar, Montoya and Cesc (2x) all had excellent opportunities to put us on top, which, given the lack of threat posed by the home team, would probably have meant we only ever needed the one goal.

4. It was fun to see Puyol start, although I sometimes thought he looked a quarter step off. Well… that is probably a bit unfair, considering that our capita has spent the last two hundred and something days in rehab, so let’s just say he looked good out there. Marc Bartra must have been thrilled to play with his idol. The kid keeps giving us solid performances, and it will be interesting to see how he does against the likes of Balotelli* if he gets the nod at San Siro. I hope he will play, and against M*drid, too. Time for us to see what he is made of when facing teams that can hurt us. I have a feeling he won’t disappoint.

5. I wish I could say the same of our young right back, however. Obviously we cannot world class players backing up other world class players, and I do think that Montoya is an adequate second choice for his position, but I have yet to see anything to convince me he will one day replace Dani Alves for good. He inspired zero fear in an Osasuna defense who hardly even bothered with him and did not always look assured with the ball at his feet in his own half, either. He did have the bad luck that his one good cross was left unmet by Neymar, who arrived a split second slow. Still, in my opinion, with Messi on the bench and Alexis in the stand, this was not a good game for him to start, because it robbed the right side of our attack of its panache, and predictably so.

6. Neither would I have started Cesc as a false nine, a position at which I never like to see him play, anyway. Then again, I would have been proved wrong had he scored either of his one-on-ones with Andrés Fernandez. As it happened, whenever he wasn’t invisible the sheer awfulness of his misses just underscored how bad he was playing – one he blasted a meter over, and the other he tried to lob the ball over a retreating goalkeeper.

7. Last but not least, I would have brought on Tello a lot sooner. To be honest I wanted him to start him over Pedro, but since he didn’t I would have subbed out either Cesc or P. at half time in favor of señor Speeding Ticket. In defense of Martino, hindsight is king, and anyway Tello didn’t do all that much after he came on, as he is still looking for his first goal this season. A smarter man than myself might be able to tell you the what and why of his so far disappointing campaign, although a certain young Brazilian taking up his minutes on the left flank could certainly have something to do with it…

8. As always Neymar had some dazzling moments. It probably would have served us well had he moved to the center of the pitch where he could influence the match more. He still gets kicked a lot, and we can expect M*drid defenders to get away with murder next week when Iker’s shower buddy is arbitrating the clásico.

9. The midfield did a great job at controlling the match that needed to be taken over. Some well-timed forward dashes were sorely lacking. Were Xaviniesta affected by the international “break”? Neither of them played badly, but on a day where our two of our three forwards did not exactly make things happen, it sure would have been nice for our midfielders to step up some.

10. So what can we expect at San Siro? Will we face a similar opponent as in Pamplona, looking for ways to stop us from playing and on a horrid pitch? Will Messi be fit(ter)? Will we rest anybody with the clásico in mind? Your guess is as good as mine, but I look forward to finding out. Let’s hope we’ll do better than our last two visits.

11. See 2.

 "I'm happy I'm back, they have been tough months, but not happy with the result. We knew it's always a difficult game here" Carles Puyol i Saforcada

“I’m happy I’m back, but not happy with the result. We knew it’s always a difficult game here”
Carles Puyol i Saforcada

* EDIT: Just found out Balotelli is not playing. That’s too bad, I prefer a full strength Milan four days before the clásico.

Posted in Barcelona, La Liga, Review55 Comments

Barça 4 – Real Valladolid 1: Music Minus Messi

The cover

All right. Let’s not waste any time today. Record breaker Tata shuffled through his vinyl collection and selected the following tunes: Valdes, Dani Alves, Bartra, Piqué, Adriano, Song, Fàbregas, Xavi, Alexis, Neymar and Tello. Yes, his favorite hit single no.10 was scratched, which, if it doesn’t get fixed any time soon, might not only effect the Argentine’s unprecedented four-year run at the top of the Billboards, but could actually rob our band of its best lyricist. However, let’s not mind the tango* for now. Today is about samba*.

Gerardo Martino: all about the music

Gerardo Martino: all about the music

The twelve inch version

In a first half that was quite open, Real Valladolid hushed the crowd after fifteen minutes of play.  Both Tello and Ney struck upon a false key and left it up to the Chilean Steven Tyler to seek rock star immortality by scoring an absolute screamer. After forty-five minutes in which Barça riffed back and forth with their guests, both went into the dressing room with the score level. Only one team came out of the dressing room to take over the show however, and with Neymar playing the lead guitar, Barça offered up a beautiful performance. Well rehearsed interplay of Xavi y Los Culés saw the band leader put the home team up by one and, backed by Song’s steady bass line, another two hits were soon added to the repertoire, courtesy of Lex and Ney. That’s all she wrote, folks, four to the one. And although the spectators in the stands who had their five fingers raised were left hoping in vain for an encore,  they surely must have gone home satisfied after witnessing a gorgeous concert in which our team hit pretty much all the right notes.

The standout track (1)

Two goals and an assist for Tocopilla’s most famous son, Alexis Sanchez, certainly makes him joint MOTM in my book. His first goal, an unstoppable nuclear strike from outside of the box, was possibly the finest he has ever scored in our colors and his second was taken with the precision of a poacher. I personally would have preferred him to go for a hat-trick instead of assisting Neymar for the fourth goal, if only for the fact that he was in a better position to score than the man he passed the ball to, but oh well. Some might notch it up as a “team-building” assist and he did end up getting the Brazilian wundermeninho a much deserved goal for his performance. I guess I can live with that.

Last year I criticized Alexis heavily for not scoring. Some did not agree, calling attention to all the positives he added to the team. People also argued that he had never been a scorer at his previous clubs. They were all valid opinions, but in my view very much beside the point. First of all despite rythm-interrupting injuries he scored 15 goals for Barcelona during his debut season, showing us that in a system which affords him plenty of opportunities to do so, he can definitely put the ball into the net. Secondly he just missed way too many chances during that first half of his second season, a simple matter of lack of confidence which I was reasonably sure he would overcome.

He now has four goals and three assists in ten appearances (note: not starts, appearances). By comparison, last year he did not score a league goal until February. Quite a difference.

Alexis Sanchez: jugadorazo

Alexis Sanchez: jugadorazo

A new voice

Did you notice that every minute he spends on the pitch, Marc Bartra pinches his arm to make sure he is not dreaming? He has now started three consecutive matches in the center of the defense and the world has not ended. I am not quite sure why his minutes feel so unexpected, because since the only thing we can reasonably expect from our defenders is that they get injured, Marc was bound to get his chance sooner or later. And while our defense did not get tested all that much by any of our last three opponents, he has certainly performed well as far as I can tell. The young defender looks more confident than last season and he has the support of the Camp Nou, who cheer him on whenever they can. I am still not sure whether he will be a future starter or not, but I certainly feel better about our defense knowing that Bartra is part of our squad.

The sleeper hit

Despite an underrated first season at the club, many culés (myself included) are not convinced about the need of Alexander Song in our squad and would have preferred that money to have been spent on someone else. So ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you, the following Fact with a capital F. According to whoscored.com our Cameroonian midfielder had 110 touches of the ball and a 100% pass completion. Let me repeat.

100% pass completion!

That right there deserved its own paragraph and exclamation point and there is not much that I can add to make this any more noteworthy.

song

100%

The remix

Myself to BFB team, by e-mail, a little more than a month ago:

 “I’m really into the idea of using more video material, something I will get better at as time goes by … I’m thinking of a video comparison between Xavi’s horizontal passing and Cesc’s vertical passing, for example.”

This was right after our game at the Mestalla, where Cesc ripped Valencia apart in the first 40 minutes by attempting an assist almost every time he got the ball. What happened to that great idea, some might ask. Well, apart from unexpected time constraints and very annoying technical issues**, Xavi Hernandez has gotten wise to the idea that not every ball has to be passed to the left or the right. His style, in concurrence with the team’s philosophy, has gotten a whole lot more vertical. That’s right, with a “Daddy’s got a brand new bag full of passes” remix, one of the oldest members of our squad, whose game has looked in steady decline for two seasons now, is enjoying himself like a young dog out there, ready to bite any sleeping defender into the hind parts. I will even go as far as saying that when Iniesta came on it was our captain who seemed to play the most forward role of the two.

The standout track (2)

I saw Neymar play as a false nine several times for Santos last year and was left thoroughly unimpressed. His talent was plain to see and it was obvious I was watching a player of guile and vision, but it was a player who made wrong decision upon decision, which put his team at a steady disadvantage every time I watched them. Was I happy that we bought him? You bet! I had seen (and heard) enough of the player to think the Robinho comparison needlessly facile and too easily employed by the legions of haters out there. Here was a young man with genuinely special talent and the apparent will to make it at the club we all love. But I did not think that he would quite lead Brazil the way he did at the Confederations Cup. Not at his age. Or that he would not only integrate so seamlessly into the Barça line-up but already be one of our consistently best players this early into the season. I honestly did not expect that much, that fast. Surely all the Brazilian ex-superstars who kept telling us O Ney was the greatest thing since sliced bread were just hyping one of their own…

It turns out that even those of us who wanted him to come did not realize how right we were. O Ney led the attack and then some. His dribbles and passes electrified the crowd, who expected the unexpected every time the young Brazilian received the ball. He was directly involved in three out of four goals, which could have been seven or eight. And more often than not, positioned in the center of the attack, he made the right choices.

Some hours after the game I texted a merengue friend of mine that if it weren’t for their incredible luck, they would have already given up their league hopes this season. He answered: “tenemos Ronaldo. El Unico” (we have Ronaldo. The Unique One***). I laughed to myself, because as special as Cristiano Ronaldo is, something only a fool would deny, I secretly wondered whether Neymar was already a better player than the Portuguese superstar who scores more goals than he plays games. The fact that the very question entered my mind, at the start of the 21 year old’s career in Europe, helped me realize how lucky we are to have him at our club.

Worth every penny

Worth every penny

Parental Discretion Advised

Speaking of which, had Neymar worn a shirt the color of toilet paper he would have been awarded two penalties. I’m just saying…

The man behind the band

Gerardo Martino has now started the league with eight consecutive wins. Another year, another record. He has intelligently brought Neymar slowly. He might be the first to get the best out of Cesc (well, other than Wenger) and he has Alexis Sanchez brimming with confidence. His team averages more than 65% possession yet seems a lot more direct than its previous incarnations. We seem to concede less counter goals, although Victor Valdes’ excellent start of the season might have something to do with that as well. He also appears to rotate more than Tito or Pep, which leaves a lot of us scratching our heads as to why Xavi Hernandez still plays so many minutes. His stroke of true genius, however, is to make our opponents think they can score from every corner. Our weakness has officially become weaker. No coach in the world will ever worry about an offensive gameplan that focuses on anything else than F.C. Barcelona conceding corners. After all, any reasonably well taken cross will result in a goal. And then, six months into the season, all of a sudden and without any warning whatsoever, Tata will spring the mother of all surprises and position a player at the first post and another one at the second post to defend the corner kicks. Opponents will know neither what to do nor how to score. Genius, I’m telling you, the man’s a genius.

The encore

So we annihalated another opponent, only this time without Lionel Messi. Strangely enough, I believe it makes for the ninth straight match (correct me if I’m wrong) that Barcelona won without the Flea. Are we better without the Best? Are defenses more focused with Messi on the pitch? Does he press / track back that much less? Are Neymar and Alexis more comfortable without the Argentine superstar stifling their movement or creativity? Or is it all just a coincidence? My short answers are no, no, yes, maybe but they shouldn’t and yes. We are not better without Messi and any professional soccer player is focused when facing a team of Barcelona’s caliber regardless of its line-up. I think Messi still presses and tracks back less but I am willing to make that trade off – when it comes to pressing he chooses his moments more carefully than others and as for tracking back I would prefer him to be fresh when he receives the ball. A lot has been made about how Sanchez plays better without Leo and this might be true – his best performance last season was the 2 goal, 2 assist game with Fab Four hat-tricking from the false nine position. However I believe that Alexis has been playing with more confidence, period. As for O Ney and La Pulga, we have already seen how in a short time they have gotten to understand each other on the pitch and this should only improve. Ultimately I think it is up to the team to work together, and I think we are lucky enough for our stars to understand just that.

"You always miss Messi, for everyone's he's the best player on the planet. The center forward position is his." Neymar Da Silva Santos Junior

“You always miss Messi, for everyone’s he’s the best player on the planet. The center forward position is his.”
Neymar Da Silva Santos Junior

*To people who realize that not even in South America does time stand still and that yes, the 21st century has reached the shores of this wondrous continent also, this should actually read: let’s not mind the cumbia, today is about funk.

** Really, Adobe Premiere can’t handle .mkv files? And Windows Movie Maker shuts down every two minutes? What’s up with that?

*** Ronaldo scored M*drid’s overtime winner earlier that afternoon. I replied that he was an excellent player and certainly among the top five in the world right now. I think my friend lost it a little.

Posted in Barcelona, Review78 Comments

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