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Barça and the missing midfield


A shoe was thrown, a fullback came face to face with a lineman’s flag, a player was arrested on the way to the match, and Barça put a big match away without much of a midfield. Crazy days.

Rules are nonsense in certain situations, even as they provide behavioral guidelines in others. The danger, particularly when it comes to situations in which anarchy reigns, is in mistaken application of rules or when an idea that works becomes a rule. How else to explain the reactions by some during the Barça dismantling of Atletico de Madrid in the Copa quarterfinals.

“Oh, Lord, what’s happened to my Barça?”

Even before the Atleti match had ended, wagons were being circled with “Where’s the midfield,” “There is no match control,” “I don’t recognize this style,” and other statements aimed at hanging on to something that never was, which I humorously refer to as The Way.

Pep Guardiola was brilliant as he devised a tactic that suited the technicians that Barça had. Instead of big, strong, fast players the team had diminutive technicians and magic-makers. They could control a ball in a hurricane and play it on the ground around an octopus. It was beautiful, logical and a tactic. Not a style, but a tactic.

Over the years, Barça has played many different ways and scored all kinds of goals. But one of the most fascinating editions of the team might be manifesting itself this season, with its characteristics on fullest display against Atleti.

“Just win, baby,” is a base expression bereft of nuance. When the late Al Davis, head of the Oakland Raiders American football franchise said it, he of course meant that he didn’t really give a damn how his team won, just that it did. Barça is different. People want the team to win, but they also care how it wins. Many would even prefer losing with principles to winning without them. So “Just win, baby” becomes something different to consider, mostly as something to be avoided. “Well sure we won, but … “

Over time, football has been evolving. The midfield used to be everything. When Luis Enrique took over Barça, the early matches were something of a mess as the team looked like three separate parts: front, back and middle. Much was made of the team getting away from the Barça style, early and often, along with suggestions that Enrique is messing things up. Rules, even without considering just what a style is. Attractive possession football? Sure. Tell that to Ronaldinho as he made his bull-like runs. Tell that to Messi, who takes on a defense single-handedly. No rondos, no elegance, no messing about but rather a colossus of talent, bulling his way toward goal.

Opponents don’t care about The Way, except as a template for destruction. The longer a team plays in a certain style, the more time opponents have to dissect and destroy it. Adaptation becomes essential. More importantly, a tactic isn’t a style.

Think back to when Barça beat Rayo 4-0, but the biggest story was that Barça didn’t win the possession stat. For many who observe the club, that was the moment when the dogma jumped the shark and style took precedence over results. Martino flinched, and the team seemed in closer compliance with those style dictates even as it was less effective overall as a season was declared “lost” rather than tossed away on the ash heap of neotraditionalism.

Enrique took over, saying whenever asked that he doesn’t really care what anyone thinks. He flailed a bit and the team looked funky. For a while it all looked a mess until suddenly, signs were visible. Then Enrique came at PSG with a 3-4-3 and the Parisians didn’t know what hit them. The final was 3-1 in a match that wasn’t really as close as the score indicated. Enrique detractors scoffed that he was changing the team’s style to fit an opponent in a bizarre world where tactical flexibility from a coach is a bad thing, and a funny thing happened along the way. Out came the Guardiola quote that he played a double pivot during a match while at Barça because beauty be damned, he wanted to win. Messi became the false 9 as much out of necessity as genius. Barça had to adapt. “Just win, baby,” indeed.

The Guardiola quote also put into perspective what Enrique was doing in adapting the way his team plays to the strengths and weaknesses of an opponent. He wants to win. You change your team to win. Adapting isn’t bending to the whim of the opposition, but figuring out the best way to beat it. If you have an opponent who has given up 80 percent of its goals from set pieces and 2 percent from open play, what are you as a coach going to be trying for. You want the win. I can’t remember the last time culers celebrated a pretty loss. The gift of talent and talented players is that they are rarely as rigid as a team’s supporters.

“If you play over there instead of over here, we will win.” Tactical nous isn’t capitulation, and Barça isn’t some relegation side who changes how they play and puts 10 behind the ball in an effort to salvage a draw. But at the same time naïve would be to roll out, play the exact same way and expect it to work every time, against every opponent. It will until smart coaches adapt, and smart coaches always adapt. Then you have a problem.

Reassuringly, Enrique doesn’t care. It was clear how little he cares during the first half of the Atleti tie when Barca functioned without a midfield, essentially. The players were there, but the way that Atleti was playing, pressing in the midfield and fouling aggressively, the game was forced to the flanks and over the top, from back line to forwards. Look at the first goal, and the speed of it. Defensive header to Messi to Suarez to Neymar. Done. 12 seconds later the ball is in the net and a midfielder didn’t touch it.

"Dude! Where you been?"

“Dude! Where you been?”

Third goal: defensive rebound to Messi, run and pass to Alba who crosses to Neymar. Goal. Again, a midfielder doesn’t touch the ball.

A set piece split the two other goals, but that rumble of thunder was the universe being sundered as Barça scored three goals in which the midfield wasn’t involved. Weird and aberrant, even though you don’t really need to go all that far back in culer time to find goals that show that same adaptability. Txigrinski spanks a ball from the back line to Pedro, who scores is just one of them. It’s all about finding out the best way to beat an opponent.

In a larger sense, football is changing. It’s faster and more athletic, and is moving from the midfield to the wings, like it or not, and purists won’t like it. But Neymar, Robben, Messi on the right, Cuadrado, Bale, Ronaldo, all players who can change the game with a single run, are achieving pre-eminence. The midfield still matters as a possession battleground, and it always will. In the second half of the Atleti match the midfield returned to its Barça roots as keepaway was played vs an Atleti who by then had reined their ambition to do anything except foul. Again, that way of play was dictated not only by an opponent but by situational necessity. Time has to run, and Atleti can’t have the ball.

But is this really a glimpse of the future? Alba had the most passes on the team. A Neymar goal was incorrectly judged to be offside, but what was interesting about that non-goal is that it came via long pass from the keeper, Ter Stegen.

“Just win, baby?” Far from it. And we must be very careful not to make any judgments from this one match. That would be as erroneous as the people who made judgements from the early-season matches this team played. But there is an engaging (well, for me) tactical malleability in this team, a pragmatism that might see it surprise this season, and make liars out of the dummies like me who predicted yet another silverless go-round.

Bonus Neymar


Threats, taunting, fouls and brilliance was the story of Neymar’s match. He scored two wondrous goals, and wound up Atleti players in a way that had them making comments after the match, from “He only plays like that when he’s winning,” to “Something will happen to him,” etc. Juanfran held up seven fingers at him, a taunt referencing Brazil’s World Cup dismantling at the hands of Germany and worst of all, the Atleti players kicked chunks out of him. The fouls were so aggressive and excessive that Enrique said he subbed him for the player’s own safety.

Media in Madrid were, naturally, twisting the narrative. “Oh, that Neymar, bringing it on himself,” somehow suggesting, as did Celtic supporters when one of their players had a red mist moment with Neymar, that this is all linked to something he’s doing. And in a way, it is: He’s owning an opponent. To suggest that having chunks kicked out of him is attributed to his playing style runs against the lie of Messi, who suffered three yellow-cardable fouls by the same player in the first half-hour of the match. And Messi doesn’t say a damned thing.

Does Neymar play the game with attitude? Absolutely. Does he get riled up a bit and want to show up an abusive opponent? Yep. “You kicked me? Here’s a nutmeg for you.” He trash talks, battles and generally tries to get under the skin of an opponent. In many ways he is the modern player unleashed in terms of playing style and approach to the game. Iniesta doesn’t trash talk. Xavi doesn’t trash talk. Messi doesn’t trash talk. And they all get kicked anyhow. Against Atleti yesterday, Neymar never backed down. They kicked him, and he kept getting the ball, kept running at their back line, kept doing the work that he had to because his team needed him to.

Brazilians are often thought of as soft. When the spindly Neymar came to Barca, many weren’t sure how he would stand up to the wear-and-tear of the European game. Sure, he was used to getting kicked in Brazil, but this is Europe now, where bigger dudes kick harder. When he first came, he embellished, flying through the air in a way that called attention to every foul he took. He was called a diver, etc, and even during his first season you could see it all toning down. He began running through challenges and putting on weight. Now when he’s fouled, you can see some of the self-preservation of jumping into the challenge, or jumping so that his cleats don’t stick, taking the contact and going down. And he keeps getting kicked, in match after match after match, getting kicked when even Messi isn’t getting kicked.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic rebelled against the “schoolboys” at Barca. Neymar has assimilated, becoming part of the team but doing it in his own way, with flair and style. That style includes winding players up, and I don’t see anything wrong with it, frankly. He plays within the system, tracks back, puts in an honest shift and never shirks from his duty. But he also understands the psychological component of the game. An angry player is a rash player, who is a player more likely to lunge, which makes him more beatable off the dribble. When he was king of all that he surveyed, Michael Jordan was king of the trash talkers, for the same reason: it’s hard to see through the red mist.


Posted in Analysis, Copa del Rey, Messi, Neymar, Tactics, Thoughts11 Comments

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


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

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

Team vs club, aka “A chicken in every pot”

Well, this is weird. Somehow, FC Barcelona has gone from a team that was a clueless, rambling mess that didn’t stand a chance against the Liga champions Atletico de Madrid, to being a goal up (should have been more) and with a leg in the semifinals.

At the same time, an administration is flailing during the run-ups to elections, promising the equivalent of a chicken in every pot. The situation creates a “Yay!” “Boooo!” sort of quandary that needs a little bit of sorting out.

For many culers who disagree with this board and its tenure, a quandary presents itself. Sporting success tends to always buttress the claim of the incumbent. After all, Barça is a sporting project and all the rest is … well … the rest for many culers. Laporta didn’t get in trouble with socis and face a censure vote because of any of his peccadilloes — he got in trouble because of two silverless seasons, and barely survived the vote.

Yes, it’s politics and mes que un club, but the reality is that as long as that club is winning, socis have little interest in upsetting the apple cart that sits at the head of any victory parade.

So way deep down in the hearts of many a culer and soci lurks an awful feeling, too deep and dark to even face the light of day or utter even to themselves … it would be pretty good if Atleti mounted a remuntada, if the club went silverless because then that would mean that when elections are convened this summer, they would be gone for sure.

It is really a situation that, just as we separate the team from the club in thinking about who and what to support, flips itself in that many are wondering if some short-term pain for the team wouldn’t be worth it, for the good of the club.

It’s difficult.

The team has come together, and is playing wonderful football right now. Analyze all anyone likes, but I have just about zero interest in whether it is the team against its coach, the team and its coach against the board, us against them, them against the others, somebody against somebody. All I know is that the team is playing great football right now.

The board, in specific Bartomeu and Cardoner, have taken this opportunity to offer up some nifty keen stuff:

— More than 1k socis who have been on the season ticket waitlist, will get their precious ducats.
— Socis past the age of 70 and below the age of 14 get into home matches free.
— We have a foot powder sponsor! Yay, and phew!

When asked at the press event whether the ticketing stuff was part of the incumbent board’s election campaign, Cardoner (naturally) said “Why no, this is just part of our benevolent social strategy for the club.”

And to cap it all off, Bartomeu is adding fuel to the fire by saying that mean ol’ FIFA is unfair, and he doesn’t think that RM should be punished for their youth player transgressions, because Article 19 is just silly anyhow. And further, there is a transfer ban, but of course we can buy players. We just have to find somewhere to park them until January 2016. So … what transfer ban?

And to cap it all off, like Rip Van Winkle emerging, bleary-eyed from his slumber, Bartomeu is suggesting that hey, there just might be some complexities with the club’s title sponsor, that the situation with Qatar has changed recently, bla bla bla.

Don’t be fooled. I don’t have to go into what this board has done over the course of its four-year demolition project and frankly, I don’t feel like it anyhow, because I don’t want to get mad. But any, every and all things that they have done, from tickets and “Hey, Qatar might be naughty after all,” to appointing Jordi Roura as head of youth football and the latest bit, filling ZubiZa’s job with FOUR dudes, is an effort to say, “Vote for us. A chicken in every pot,” as the Depression-era politicians used to say. Promise everything, and let’s wait to see what we can deliver. Most important is to get re-elected.

Meanwhile the football team stands 90 minutes away from having an excellent chance at winning silver this season. Even though there is no sense counting chickens before any hatching, etc, it’s a pretty safe bet that the winner of this tie will be expecting to make the Copa final.

For me that is a blessing and a curse, and all that I can say is don’t be fooled. We know what was done and how they did it. We know. The real question is whether some benevolence and magic from the football team can be enough to keep a horrific board in power for another six-year term.

I’m confident about the football team, but less so about the board’s chances and the conservatism of older socis, who believe that this board is actually saving the club, but from a business worldview. And even as I will never, ever worry enough about this board to wish failure on the football club, it’s a struggle, a pitched battle between heart and mind, body and soul. Somebody has to win, and somebody has to lose. The problem is that it’s possible for different people to profit from different things.

But. Whatever happens, don’t be fooled.

Posted in Copa del Rey, Elections, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts, Transfers/Transfer Rumors67 Comments

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

"Next, let's help the shoemaker!"

“Next, let’s help the shoemaker!”

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

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

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

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

Barça 1, Atleti 0, aka “Growth program”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The reference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indirectly direct

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

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

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

Everything changes

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

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

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

Good Busi, bad Busi

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

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

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

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

Don”t hate the playa …

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Tactics, Thoughts66 Comments

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


Depor is no longer Super Depor.

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

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

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

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

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

"Do it like this, not like that."

“Do it like this, not like that.”

This is weird.

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

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

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

Strange days, aka “Legends goin’ cheap. Get yours today.”


These days, the State of Messi is absurd. It is the worst part of the entorno as a player becomes, depending on who the person blabbing:

— Someone headed to England, just you wait …
— Like a bauble nobody deserves, so everyone worries about losing it
— An avatar for the Revolution
— A self-centered brat

Every statement is parsed. The day after … the VERY day after he said on Barça TV that he has no interest or intention of leaving Barcelona, he responded to a question posed at a Ballon d’Or event, a query about his eventual future with a reply that featured some existential uncertainty … and it started all over again, most dimwittedly of all, from many of the same culers who breathed sighs of relief after his Barça TV declarations.

Meanwhile the player himself, fresh off a performance that should have left precisely zero doubt about his happiness and commitment to the team and city, had to again explain what he meant. All Messi wants to do what he always does, which is strive to play the game of football better than anyone else alive, even better than himself.
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Posted in La Liga, Messi, Thoughts, Transfers/Transfer Rumors65 Comments

Neymar has arrived, and the train is still running


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future is bright.

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Neymar, Thoughts10 Comments

Space. The final frontier


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

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

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

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

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

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

Attacking the unbeatable

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

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

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

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

Modifying The Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The way forward?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barça 3, Atleti 1, aka “It’s family, and it’s personal”


In retrospect, we all should have seen this coming.

The vileness, infighting, backbiting, rumors, nastiness and savagery, a fanbase turned on itself in seeking something or other all conspired to create something extraordinary, something that to repeat, we honestly should have seen coming. In a post from earlier today, I wondered which team would show up and I guess it was the latter, a unified, angry bunch who will for the first time this season face the team that kept them from so much last year.

As a team comes together a lot of things have to happen, from players understanding what their coach wants to the coach understanding how to deal with the players under his command. Through it all, supporters need patience, the kind of patience that has been sorely lacking in every way. #LuchoOut hashtags fly around Twitter, people express vehemence about notions of Enrique staying on as FC Barcelona coach, saying that he is over his head, fit for a mid-table side, etc, etc. Some even said that they wanted Barça to lose today, to force the departure of Enrique.

What all of the stuff, all of the … crap … seemed to do was unite a football club in that “us against the world way” that in this case is actually true. It isn’t just the Madrid-based media that is turning on Barça. It’s also the Barcelona-based media, club supporters, everything that comprises a vile entorno that wants to rip and tear at this football team. Sprites can only take so much, after all.
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Posted in La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts42 Comments

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