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

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atmlead

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

Mes que un stadium, aka “Truth, social media and what we know”

Image via fcbarcelona.cat

Image via fcbarcelona.cat

Armageddon happened yesterday, set to the sound of cloven hooves clad in Gucci loafers. Or not. It all depends.

FC Barcelona is a lot like sex, or a hot fudge sundae — pretty hard to mess up. So when socis went to the polls on Saturday to vote for … something or other that was going to cost, more or less, EUR 600m, the logic was in fact rather easy to see:

– Boy, do we need a new stadium
– We’re a big club, and need one of those fancy big-club stadium complexes
– Barça will be fine
– What’s Twitter and tweeting? What do bird sounds have to do with Barça?
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Posted in Team News, Thoughts84 Comments

Anims, VV!

valdes

So Barça played today, and won 3-0. Atleti played today, and won 1-0. RM played today, and lost 2-1. The Liga is ours for the taking, if we just win the final 8 matches of the season.

But I can’t say that I feel like doing much except echoing what Javier Macherano Tweeted, which is “Nothing to celebrate. Get well soon.”

This game is, too often, a kick in the face for those who don’t deserve it.
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Posted in Injuries, La Liga, Team News, Thoughts169 Comments

We Need More Dakka : RM 3-4 Barça; A (Tactical) Battle of Firepower

So Kevin already summed up the majestic affair from yesterday quite nicely so you can read it here (if you haven’t already). This here will be a sort-of breakdown of the general tactics and other such things.

It went something like this:

1. Barcelona came to the Santiago Bernabeu in a decisive game.

2. Barcelona won at the Santiago Bernabeu.

3. HAHAHAHAHAHA.

Okay, okay. It was a tad more complex than that, I’ll give you that. Maybe it was a more like:

1. Ancelotti comes with a game plan that plays to his team’s strengths and the other’s weaknesses.

2. Martino comes with a game plan that plays to his team’s strength and the other’s weaknesses.

3. Neither really adjust to each other.

4. Quality of players proves to be the difference.

The last point is often debatable. The old football adage is when teams win it’s down to players; when teams lose it’s down to the coach. On the whole, that’s sadly true. But in the case of this specific game it was really down to the individual brilliance of the players and their ability to overcome system deficiencies through sheer force of will.

They came against a faster, stronger, taller team that was tailor made for their downfall and essentially said, nope. We’re winning this one no matter what. It’s a team of champions and the ability to compete at the highest level and come out on top is nothing short of extraordinary.

But enough of that. Let’s get down to game. :D

Overloading the right flank: Di Maria runs rampant

Ancelotti’s game plan was this: use Di Maria’s pace to flood Barca’s right flank – that’s traditionally been the most offensive-minded and thus the most vulnerable – and take advantage Mascherano’s short stature. Xavi lacks the speed to keep up with him, and mostly likely doesn’t want to get dragged too wide, and with Alves defending Cristiano Ronaldo (supported by Mascherano) he was left to run amok mostly through his dribbling and crosses. The idea to play an extra midfielder on the left (who was initially supposed to help track Di Maria in the first place) ended up playing into RM’s hands.

Tata largely didn’t have a response. Once it was clear Di Maria would be supplying crosses, it would have made more sense to switch Pique and Mascherano,  the former’s height an obvious asset in defending crosses. But perhaps Tata didn’t want Pique against CR – whose pace is often a problem for a slower Pique and  was often marked by Puyol (when fit)as a result, which was why Mascherano was suited up against him in the first place – and felt he was better suited to match up against Benzema. Perhaps he just had faith his players would take advantage in other areas and left it alone. Either way, it was a risky decision and almost cost Barça the game.

Let’s take see an example here:

RM 2-1 Barcelona; Lilliput Under Siege

It starts with Di Maria receiving the ball in space.

Di Maria crosses the ball

Di Maria crosses the ball. CR and Benzema make their runs.

Who’s marking him? Good question. In theory it should be Xavi, but with Di Maria that wide that goes to Alves. Meanwhile CR temporarily switches to the left and makes a run so Pique tracks him. That leaves Mascherano with Benzema, who is behind him, to defend the incoming cross. We know the result.

(courtesy of Twitter)

You could argue Pique just stopped, and many have, but it’s not actually Pique’s job to defend that. He’s marking CR and he can’t simply leave him to deal with it. It’s on Mascherano’s side (i.e. the ball side defender) and it’s on him to defend it. That said, RM know Masche is not the tallest so they purposefully go for crosses on the right side. It would be ridiculous to bash Masche for being short. If he could grow a couple of inches, he would. But it is a weakness, the exploitation of which became the basis of RM’s game plan.

Ancelotti leaves spaces between the lines uncontested: Arrivederci Xabi, from Messi with Love

But football is a chess match and while Barça did concede the right flank to Madrid, Barca were given acres of space on the left flank as well as between the lines;  areas where Barca process the two best players in which to take advantage: Messi and Iniesta.

Bale tracks Fabregas, leaving Iniesta open.

Bale tracks Fabregas, leaving Iniesta open.

Way open.

Waaaay open.

Coming in to match, RM expected to blitz Barcelona and it showed it the way they set up their team: none of the double pivots we were used to seeing nor any CBs moving to the midfield to deal with Messi.

And that’s the thing. This was the first game we’ve seen in a while where Madrid didn’t really do anything to stifle Messi (outside the usual). Ramos, Pepe, and Alonso were the usual culprits in trying to defend him but there was none of the narrow play that was commonplace in other Clasicos. I could almost hear Ancelotti thinking, “Leaving spaces for Messi to play in? Eh. We’ll just score 6 billion goals. Ain’t no thang.”

Underestimate Lionel Messi, will you? We’ll see how that goes for you.

In fact, let’s see that in action:

RM 0-1 Barcelona; Undone by Positional Play and Genius Passing

This goal came off a lovely 20+ pass move. (Just as an aside: when people wonder why Barca ‘pass the ball around’ so much it’s for reasons like below. They move things around so players are out of position, markers don’t know who to mark, and spaces open up.) I’ll start towards the end of the sequence with Pique stepping up from defense to play a pass into Xavi.

Pique passes to Xavi.

Pique passes to Xavi.

There are 4 things I want you to focus on and remember when Xavi receives the ball:

Xavi's got the ball.

Xavi’s got the ball.

Which I’ll highlight in next four screenshots.

(1) Ramos moves up to track Neymar.

Tis Ramos y Neymar. Check out that nifty arrow. Aww yeah.

Tis Ramos y Neymar. Check out that nifty arrow. Aww yeah.

(2) Messi makes a run across. Pepe tracks him.

Pepe stalks Messi.

Pepe stalks Messi.

(3) Marcelo keep an eye on Fabregas (underlined in red) supported by CR (underlined in yellow) who is also mindful of Alves (underlined in blue).

How do you like them primary colours? Eh? Eh?

How do you like them primary colours? Eh? Eh?

(4) Bale marks Iniesta.

Iniesta 'marked' by Bale

Alright. Now that that’s set up, in this next screenshot:

Just watch this magnificent trainwreck unfold.

Just watch this magnificent trainwreck unfold.

You’ll see Cristiano has committed to Fabregas so Alves prepares to make a run. Xavi sees the space between Carvajal and Pepe open up and starts a run as well. Carvajal, seeing this, moves to close down the space. Meanwhile Bale points to the space he’s supposed to defend.

What happens next:

¡Corred, cabrones, corred!

¡Corred, cabrones, corred!

Xavi continues to make his run. Newcomer Modric tracks him. Fabregas passes the ball to Messi with Alonso, Pepe, Ramos all in and around him. Meanwhile on the left Marcelo has to keep his position with Alves free in space. Iniesta makes his run. Bale stands ineffectual.

The madness (which clearly has a method only Barca understands) continues. The result is the RM defense collapse around Messi. We’ve seen this one before. Messi does what he does best and plays in Iniesta with a perfectly timed pass.

A familiar image....

A familiar image….

Iniestazo occurs.

...with a familiar result. You better be afraid, Ramos.

…with a familiar result.

(via Twitter)

RM 2-2 Barcelona: And Messi shall pass Ramos. Again.

So much to say but I’ll just leave it in video form (courtesy of HeilRj):

(Gets body checked by Ramos, still scores.)

Making Sense of Cesc

I spent some time keeping an eye on our #4 trying to understand what exactly he was doing most of the game. The consensus seems to be he was playing a free role, like he tends to do in these games, which I agree with. He was there for basically two reasons; to wit: for his skill in the counterattack and to be (essentially) an extra player in the zone he happened to be in and the zone largely depended on where the ball was.

(1) Cesc in offense: plays a beautiful ball from deep for Messi.

That's Neymar on the ground btw. Got poleaxed by Pepe lol

That’s Neymar on the ground btw. Got poleaxed by Pepe who runs from the scene of the crime lol

(2) Cesc intercepts a pass from Modric and plays a great ball for Neymar in a quick counter attack.

Cesc to Neymar

Cesc in defense: right place at the right time to receive Di Maria’s pass. (hehe)

Cesc Di Maria

no more screenshots after this

Cesc wasn’t actually marking a specific player. At times he was supporting Neymar and Messi (the only two forwards) up front, at others supporting Xavi and Iniesta (who often dropped back to add an outlet on the left side of midfield) as well as helping Busi help the defense. (A wise choice.) That has its pros and cons: if Cesc doesn’t really know who exactly he’s marking, the opposition has no idea either. But it also meant he wasn’t particularly dangerous offensively since he was just there as an extra man and he wasn’t decisive defensively since, again, he was just an extra body.

That’s not to say he wasn’t helpful (he dragged defenders away from our forwards quite well, as shown in the first goal) but it means that his impact was pretty minimal. Playing Alexis you would’ve had the same effort but with the bonus of having an offensive threat on the LW where there was so much space, particularly after the red card. (Then again with Andres scoring goals now….)

A free role work great for Liga sides where Cesc’s intelligent runs offsets his tendency to give away the ball, so it won’t be a glaring issue. But against top sides it’ll be more noticeable.

Neymar Negligible?

One of the talking points of the game was whether Neymar have enough of an impact to warrant his starting position in the game. I thought that while he didn’t have much power or accuracy in any of his shots, he was quite adept at getting behind the defense and Ramos was certainly concerned about him for most of the game, probably remembering how Neymar scored the opening goal and assisted the winning goal last time around, so it makes sense he solves that problem by getting sent off, eh….

So the verdict for me: not bad but not match fit, so his substitute should have came in earlier.

Don Andres Iniesta

I’ll be completely honest with you. I sat for a good ten minutes trying to write a short paragraph/eulogy in honour of him. I just couldn’t get anything down.  It didn’t seem like enough. I’m truly speechless.

Just a saying: an Iniesta that scores goals….

Xavi and Busquets

They didn’t get much notice in the post game but I thought they were fantastic when called upon. What semblance of control Barca had were largely down to these two. Xavi had more passes than most of the Madrid midfield combined and while some will dismiss that as common “sideways” passes, let me remind you what the lifeblood of the sport is. That is how you control a game.

Xavi had more passes (105) than Xabi Alonso, Modric and Di Maria put together (101). Maestro. [via Opta]

Piquenbauer and San Valdes

An excellent game from Pique who had to deal with RM taking advantage of our short squad. We expect our defenders to be able to handle Cristiano Ronaldo one-on-one (contrast that with Messi who we expect to be able to defeat 3-4 RM defenders). Just because CR or Di Maria get the better of them doesn’t mean they suddenly suck. It just means that the fact they had often had them under control  in the past should be praised.

On the same note, it was Valdes’ last game at the Bernabeu in Barça colours. I’m glad we could send him off if not with a clean sheet then with a thrilling victory.

A Bad Day for Arrogance

Madrid players were talking the other day to El Pais that they feared Iniesta or Eto’o more than Messi and that they would essentially destroy Barça.

(via @Emenderk)

The cycle continues. :D

(Although it could really use some help, stupid board)

Posted in Analysis, Barcelona, Classic Matches, Thoughts136 Comments

A Classic preview, aka “For some, this colossal event is also the end of the road”

clasmess

We have it, they want it. It was always going to come to this, when you really stop to think about it.

This remarkable team that to date has yet to lose a big match, faces on Sunday one that is immense. Cliches abound: all the marbles, season at stake, etc, etc, but what it really comes down to is that for this wonderful team of ours to have a snowball’s chance in hell of repeating as Liga champions or finishing a comfortable second place, even, it must win against its eternal rival, in that opponent’s house.

A more fitting challenge for this remarkable group of athletes escapes my thinking.

Sid Lowe wrote a lovely piece in which he makes a case for something akin to a fin de siecle, a completion of tenure. Valdes is leaving in the summer, and so is Puyol. Many speculate that Xavi, who always prefers to keep his cards close to the vest, will also be stepping down. This would mean, as Lowe so eloquently posits, that the three captains would all be leaving in the same summer, thus marking the end not of a cycle (which has been over for some time at any rate), but of the tenured Masia influence as embodied in those three giants.

As such, this could be the last Classic for three amazing players. We know it will be the last one for two of them, only one of whom will be taking to the pitch for sure, as Puyol seems to wrestling with the same kind of injury that Eric Abidal had late in his last season.

So it is that when people ask me how I can continue to not be a fan of players, it is matches and moments such as this that illustrate the partially protective nature of my reserve. Like Pep Guardiola, the struggle is with getting too close to them, to having players mean so much … too much, really, that when they leave, get injured, suffer and finally move on it becomes something more than what it is, which is a changing of the guard for a football club that you love.

clasxavi

In a world where we only have so much extraneous love for objects that you can’t hold in your hands or arms even as you can hold them in your heart, the struggle would be to hang on, to read something more into a situation that is simply Time, doing what it does. So even as I sit back and say Puyol, Valdes and Xavi are moving on, it is impossible for this match not to feel final in a weird, abrupt kind of way.

The last Classic.

It is also one of the most confounding, because we don’t really know which Barça will show up, even as we are confident that Big Match Barça will pop in, rather than Whatevs Barça. This is a big match. Win and we are within a single point of the top, piling on the pressure. Lose, and we are seven points adrift and ready to put all of our eggs in the Champions League basket in a season that threatens to shape up in a fashion similar to Guardiola’s final year — the Copa isn’t so bad after all, is it?

And it won’t come down to who wants it more, who had more heart, silly cliches that make me want to throw a shoe at my television set. Both teams want, both teams have vast reserves of talent, both teams cherish the prize at the end of the season.

This match will come down to execution, to staring a moment in the face and holding bedlam at bay by dint of quality. Both teams have players who can do that. Do I like to be consoled by the fact that Barça has a system of play that at its best verges on automatic? Sure, even as I know that they also have a system of attack, even if some people they just run around, pell-mell, toward the opponent’s goal.

Moods and things

The situation for the first home Classic was different. We were rounding into shape and they were still finding their way, without a system to base their behavior on as the team came together. They, like us, had a new coach, but bereft of on-field generals such as Valdes, Xavi and Iniesta, their task was more daunting as they came into our house. The result was a 2-1 scoreline that but for an error, would have been 2-0. This time, things are more even.

clasvald

They are playing some fine football, pundits tell me. Bale has found his way, Ronaldo is banging goals in and Benzema had rounded into the attacker that his substantial price tag called for. Midfield is solid, and they would seem to be primed to wrest the crown from us with style.

But we have some stuff going on as well, our team that is coming off of a dispatching of Manchester City, a team that was supposed to be our Waterloo, then slamming 7 past our last Liga opponent. More significant than that gaudy scoreline was the fact that for the first time in a very long time, the team played like it didn’t care about Messi. More specifically, it played as if Messi was another player on the team, rather than the player. Yes, Messi notched a hat trick, but the goals flowed out of the overall team play. Nothing was forced, and if a pass wasn’t available to Messi, the team didn’t make it. Pedro got his, Sanchez raised hell, Iniesta was decisive, Xavi was in the box to take potshots at the keeper.

Barça was s TEAM that included the best player alive. That is a team to be feared, no matter the opponent.

With both teams on form, you begin to look at wild cards, things that will decide the match one way or another. Obviously, there’s Messi and Ronaldo, but they are known quantities. This will be the first time this season that RM has seen a fit Messi, rather than the sweating cypher parked on the right wing. If those two cancel each other out as they often do in terms of production, it will come down to the other players.

Lee Roden makes the case for the positions of Bale and Neymar being reversed, with the latter struggling to regain form while the former has found his. Will that be the thing that decides the match in RM’s favor, as Neymar did in the first, scoring a goal and delivering the assist for the other one?

For me, a few things are key:

The midfield

classini

This will be where the match will be won or lost. Look for Martino to roll out with four mids, almost certainly Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and Busquets, in an effort to control the match and blunt the effectiveness of their slash-and-burn attacks on goal. Possession will be absolutely essential, with two thoroughbreds who will be itching to take a run at our backpedaling defense. If possession is turned in a dangerous part of the pitch they will be most of the way to our back line, as chasing midfielders try to catch up to the play.

And that ain’t happening. So the ball will need to be controlled and not turned over. But of course, it ain’t like their midfield sucks. Post-mortems on Sunday will, I think, bring it all down to control of this key area.

Set pieces

Limiting them is key for a few reasons, not least of which is the height differential that will make set pieces against almost any team that isn’t Juvenil A a danger. But set pieces will also mean that they have the ball in our end and are presenting danger sufficient to draw fouls or corner kicks. If that is allowed to happen repeatedly, we are in trouble.

The other guys

The reason I am convinced that Neymar will start on Sunday irrespective of form is that he is, next to Messi, the most dangerous 1v1 player we have. His ability to destabilize a back line is significant, and a known quantity. He will also be the one on the pitch least interested in having it become the Messi Show. He is also capable of making it into the Neymar Show. Pedro can’t do that, and neither can Sanchez.

Both Pedro and Sanchez can indeed capitalize on space created by others, but they are too easily walled off so that Pepe and Ramos can focus on keeping Messi from being a difference maker.

For them, Bale, Benzema, Di Maria, Modric are all more than capable of standing a match on its ear, which is what will make possession, and lots of it, imperative. In many ways this argues a bit for Pedro, who is very careful with the ball, more than willing to pass it back to Xavi rather than taking a risk that might result in a break in the other direction.

But Pedro doesn’t inspire fear. Fear from someone other than Messi will be required in this match.

clasney

I see an XI of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Messi and Neymar.

As for a predicted scoreline, it’s so tough. It could be a manita in either direction or a scoreless draw. I don’t think there will be a lot goals in this one, as both keepers are too good. If you held my feet to the fire, I will say 2-2, making Atletico the real winner in this contest, assuming they can keep winning their Liga matches.

But I don’t think the 2-2 will be a tight draw, as Martino will have to go for it if he wants to win. Obviously he will anyhow, without question. But risks will need be assumed, risks that will make culers uncomfortable even as they might potentially decide the match in our favor. I worry more about the form of Iniesta and Neymar than Messi, who is always Messi, for lack of a better descriptive.

And culers, do me a favor. Whatever happens, no matter how it happens, be proud of your team. Not arrogant if they win, or filled with recrimination and blame if they lose, but proud. This is and has been an exceptional group of athletes. As the runs of some players end and other prepare to slide into seats that have been kept warm by the backsides of true greats, their efforts are worth celebrating. They are going to give their all for us. If we want to honor them, the best way is to be honorable … and proud.

What a team.

clasteam

Posted in El Clasico, La Liga, Preview, Thoughts21 Comments

And so it continues, aka “Who do we have to kill for just a moment’s peace?”

stag

Just a moment’s peace. Is that too much to ask?

I don’t presume to know, why, what and how. And I do know that politics, backbiting and infighting are part and parcel of life at and with FC Barcelona, where often the most virulent enemies come from within. But here’s the thing: when Fate herself is putting a boot in the club’s groin at every opportunity, why do others feel compelled to join in?
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Posted in Thoughts101 Comments

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