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


“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?”

Although not every match will be reviewed this season, this was rather an odd one for many reasons. FCB visited Betis, a great ground peopled by great fans and a team with heart that can be measured in the ton. They were also absent 9 of their gala XI, something which might have played into a laudable decision by their embattled coach, Pepe Mel: Let’s play football.

So rather than the counterattacking turtle approach to matters, Betis came out to play. They pressed high, played a very high back line and decided that being at home, they would do the opposite of many teams. What Barça usually see is a team playing for the 0-0. So there are two ranks of 4 with a packed midfield, a single striker and the other players with an “all hands on deck” mentality.

Betis came out with an approach that found Martino getting the lineup right: Valdes, Alves, Bartra, Puyol, Montoya, Song, Xavi, Messi, Neymar, Pedro, Fabregas. It was the right lineup that became even better when a player was injured, but that’s another notion. Meanwhile, when Betis decided to be brave, to press and go for it, death or glory was really the only option.


The result was 1-4, and could have been 0-4. The possession statistics weren’t gaudy (57%), even if they weren’t quite the “disaster” of Rayo Vallecano, a match that was similarly open and resulted in a similar scoreline. But more interestingly, it was a match that dictated a very direct approach to matters. Direct. This meant the jackrabbits up front, as Martino adapted his charges and approach to the opponent. Nor should we forget the green-painted cabbage patch that passed for a pitch today, that made a ground game impossible.

In the past there has been “The Barça Way”: possession, triangles, curlicues and elegance. Ah, nostalgia. SWOON! There was passing, probing and an inexorable build toward an eminently logical goal. But against certain opponents, teams that packed it back, it often resulted in possession as a road to nowhere.

But along the way, something happened, as the team recognized that with opponents figuring out how to play against tika taka, verticalidad had to enter the picture. Vilanova opened up the war chest last season, even as he didn’t really have the players to do it. Then, with the addition of Neymar, everything changed. What the club purchased in that willowy Brazilian, was a Plan B.

The traditional Plan B people have been clamoring for has always been a 9 to lump it in to. Now for the life of me, I can’t figure out how feeding a 9 who is surrounded by opposing defenders is going to be any more effective than passing the ball around outside two banks of 5, but that’s just me. I’m silly that way. But Plan Bs can come in any number of ways, something realized by Vilanova, even by Guardiola when he had jackrabbits such as Eto’o and Henry, who could run onto balls fed out from the back, or over the top.

As I have written in the past, tika taka was a tactical reaction to an available toolbox. A coach would be a fool if he didn’t adapt a system to take advantage of the available players. Martino has done this, even as people carp about the team moving away from “The Barça Way.” There is talk of lost edge, diminution of quality, blablablabla. Meanwhile, this team is unbeaten. One Liga and one Champions League draw are the only instances of dropped points.

People want to find things. One pundit said that today’s win was a reliance on individual brilliance, an approach that would seem to be suicidal in Europe. This of course ignores that history of success that was in fact based in individual brilliance. The Iniestazo, the Henry goals in the 2-6 Classic. The Eto’o toe poke that came against the run of play against United. Messi’s dolphin header into the opposite corner. Goal after goal that was a direct consequence of individual brilliance. That’s what gets a team over the top in a world of equals in European football.

Betis was running, working, playing its hearts out and then in a two-minute span, it all went pear-shaped for those bravehearts.

In the first goal, it was 35 minutes in and looking like a goalless draw rolling into the half. Pedro ran onto a long pass from Bartra, and chipped into the hands of the keeper. In the very next sequence, Song laid in an absurd pass that split two defenders, in a perfect place for Fabregas to run onto. He slid the ball across to a running Neymar, who tapped home into an open net.

As Mascherano said, if you can score in three passes, why take 20? That goal was two passes.


In the second goal, Bartra headed the ball clear for Pedro to run onto. He tapped the ball to himself on the dead run, slashed past the Betis defense and curled home. Again. Two passes and the keeper is picking the ball from the back of his net.

Both goals used pace and pinpoint passing to take advantage of the way an opponent was playing. Barça has faced high lines in the past, but things were different, because the defense was always ready and willing to collapse onto the one player who could take advantage of that high line: Messi.

But in one of the stranger things, something that really isn’t all that strange any longer, when Messi went off the pitch, the team became more rather than less dangerous. We have all seen how in the past, Messi goes off the pitch and the team becomes this collection of wandering midgets looking for inspiration, really doomed to have to try to pass the ball into the net, because the pace AND the individual scoring brilliance, embodied in one man, went to have a seat.

When Messi went out against Betis, ALL 11 players became involved in the match. No knock against Messi, because we all know how he plays in this day and age. But arguably, all 11 players involved at both ends of the pitch makes the team more dangerous and more in control of a match and its opponent.

The team also became more dangerous because with an star-studded offense such as Barça have, having one player who is The Threat sells those other players short. Xavi isn’t going to beat you and score a goal. But Xavi can ghost in and pick off a pass to slot home. Pedro isn’t going to kill you, but give him a ball to run onto, and he can raise hell. And now, the team has a jackrabbit straining in the traps in Neymar.


Time after time after time, real danger originated in the efforts of number 11, a player who at the other end, tackled to win a ball, then ran onto the long pass from Fabregas, then slid the pass to Pedro, who just missed scoring thanks to the intervention of one of the cadre of indefatigable Betis defenders.

Now have a look at the third goal, tidy, elegant interplay from the feet of Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas as the ball pinged around before falling to Montoya, who slid the cross in for Fabregas to tap home. It was tradition, and it was beautiful.

The fourth goal was again, simple and direct, using space that Betis chose to cede to Alves. So a long pass from Xavi to Alves, then from Alves into the box for Fabregas to run onto and bang.

So there you have it: a fast break, a counter, a tika taka delight and a long pass for a headed goal. In three of the four cases, the goals were very direct, aggressive and, rather than working gradually toward goal, slashed and burned. It’s difficult to not laugh ruefully at quips about Martino, post-match, having to explain why he took advantage of the way an opponent played.

“And once again, Ray,” says match announcer Phil Schoen, “we’re coming to the end of a Barcelona match in which they have been far from perfect, but the scoreboard is dominant in their favor.”

“We’re spoiled, is what it is,” replies Ray Hudson.

This is exactly right. But more than that, the complexity of memory is such that we don’t want to remember bad things. Knife fights with Espanyol, a diving Henry header than salvaged a Champions League draw at Lyon, the Estudiantes battle that was decided late, only when those warriors began to tire, coming in the form of a submarine chest into goal from Messi. Memory lets us forget those matches.

But then as today, an opponent took the fight to Barça, worked like dogs, battled to win the midfield and took an ass whipping. Culers will scoff that teams play anti-football, choosing to turtle up and play on the counter. But as an opposing coach, what the hell would YOU do? I know what I would do, and that’s give my team the best possible chance to win. And that means the turtle counter game. You can’t play an open match against Barça. I don’t think that any team in the world can win an open match against Barça. I think that our club has the best collection of direct attacking talent in the world.

Do other teams have different ways of scoring, and more ability in a method of attack? I’ll buy that. But if those teams come at Barça without a controlled approach that is rooted in defense (yes, Bayern did this last year), they will get their throats cut.

The end of Messidependencia?


Isn’t that a good question. Recall what happened last season when Messi was injured against Paris St. Germain, dragged his semi-healed bones out for the second leg and changed everything. You heard it then, that Barça can’t play without Messi, that there was this psychological albatross that will eventually doom the team. Then Messi reinjured his leg, and never featured against Bayern.

Moving to the Liga, Messi continued to rest and heal, and something happened. Barça found ways to win without Messi. Other players scored, Alexis Sanchez began to blossom into the confident hellraiser that he now is. The summer of Neymar came and suddenly, Messi returned to something very different: a complete team. It needed him, because what team doesn’t need the best player in the world? But it was also a team that wasn’t paralyzed by that need. That is the difference between then and now, and it’s a wonderful thing.

Messi is best when he’s part of team. Argentina has Messi, Aguero, Higuain, in addition to the other talents on that side. It’s a team on which Messi is the best player. And that works. Barça is, once again, that kind of a team, and I love it.

For me, I do sincerely hope that this is the end of Messidependencia. He is spectacular. But the fact that we are getting it done and with style without him, is a great sign.


Speaking of revisionism, there was a great hue and cry to play Marc Bartra more last season, that he was the future and the club was going to “do another Thiago” and lose him by not playing him enough to satisfy his demands. Statements such as these came without having a clue about what those demands were. Meanwhile, the process continued, and a young player matured.


We saw him with Pique, a player who for my money isn’t ever going to be captain material. The on-pitch shaping that was necessary from a back line general wasn’t coming. Bartra looked better with Mascherano. Then when Puyol returned to the side, suddenly he had a back line partner. Our Capita isn’t the player he was before his immense laundry list of injuries, but he still knows what to do and where to tell a player to be. He makes Bartra better, and is helping to complete the maturation process in that delightful thing: a home-grown Barça CB.

Was he ready last year? Nope. Is he fully ready this year? Still, no. But he is a lot closer to fully ready because of the process that brought him along, that worked him into a team without forcing him in to satisfy playing time dictates of pundits, media critters and supporters. He and Barça are better for it. He was magnificent today, and put Puyol in the shade

Same old Song, but with a different beat

The team had two matches in which Sergi Busquets was played over Alex Song, and the “waste of money” talk started. Martino has to be able to count on him, etc, etc. Meanwhile, we were starting to realize that we had a coach who shifted lineups and personnel based on the opponent and their style. But here’s another thing:

You can replace Busquets like you can replace Messi. That is, you can’t. Expecting Alex Song, a world-class player, to be the equal of Busquets and slagging him because he isn’t, is the pinnacle of unfair absurdity. Song is the player that HE is, not the player that Busquets is. He’s also the exact type of player who would thrive in a match such as Betis played today. Martino knew that, which is why he rested Busquets by not even having him in the squad, and tipped Song to do well in the pre-match presser.

And Song was exceptional today, as tunes changed, when people mentioned him at all. Because some have so much invested in him being a waste of money that they would rather be silent than acknowledge that he played an excellent match today. And that’s okay. People need security blankets. But here’s another thing: Song has NEVER been as bad as his detractors allege, which is why he still has a spot on what, for me, is still the best club in the world.

“He isn’t a center back.” Duh. He was purchased as a player who COULD play center back. His first outing was pretty craptastic, but subsequent ones were much improved. In the midfield, the “crap CB” dogged him, or the other convenient brickbat, “lack of positional sense.” This one is easy, because saying it imparts the person who says it with Knowledge. It also ignores the fact that somebody told Song where and how to play when he was on the pitch, because that’s what he did.

Contrary to popular belief, players don’t decide “Hey, I’m going to do this.” They are part of a match plan, and an overall system. And they improve as they work in to being fully part of a team. Song is doing this, even down to the Barça Way of farting around with the ball in our defensive end, rather than just hoofing it the hell out.

And people say, “Song is improving,” or “this was his best match for Barça.” Nope. He has had excellent matches before for the team, and will have more excellent matches for the team. He isn’t Busquets, and he isn’t a CB. What’s more, he is never going to be. Busquets is never going to be Toure Yaya, but people don’t give him crap for that. Because he is what we need in the role that we use him. The same is true of Song.

Next steps

While people dump on Barça for not being a team that it never was to begin with, Gerardo Martino is going about the task of building a club that can win trophies. We know that he assumed the reins of a club that won the Liga last season, and did it in record-setting style. The nucleus is there. But what he is adding is confidence, flexibility and adaptability. He makes adjustments, scouts and comes up with a game plan for each match.


Within those plans, personnel will change. He has a favored XI. We know this because Fabregas isn’t part of it, as he said in some post-match remarks, adding that he wants to work to add himself to that XI. Good on him.

The team is fragile, and always has been. That is what happens when you have truly great players at so many positions. “The Xavi replacement.” Xavi is only the best offensive/playmaking midfielder in the history of the game, to my view. There simply IS nobody to replace him. Who the hell do you replace Iniesta with? Or Messi, Busquets or Alves. Or Valdes, for that matter. The club buys players, slots them in and they do okay, even as they pale in comparison to a player who is one of the best in the world at his position. Duh.

Martino understands all that, and adapts the system in a way that allows the players that we have to be as good as they can be, in their context. Pedro can’t beat defenders, as he has to when the club plays tika taka. But he can sure as hell run onto the end of a long pass. “Where has this Pedro been,” people ask. Looking at two defenders and passing the ball back to midfield, is where. In space and with running room, the old Pedro is back.

Having a coach who comprehends this, who sets up a game plan that allows the players that we have to work within its context is a wonderful thing. Fabregas isn’t a tika taka player. He gets impatient, and takes risks. Neymar can tika taka, but why waste him doing that, unless you want to control the match with possession.

There is no one formation, no Way of playing. And yet the club wins. You can see the tinkering, fiddling that sometimes doesn’t go exactly as it should and the team turns the ball over or Valdes is forced to make a save. Martino is still figuring out how to use the players that he has, but if fast getting a clue. Fabregas, for example, has looked good in the first half of the season in previous years. But there is a comfort and confidence to his game. Same with Sanchez. Busquets is being pushed into becoming a DM with an AM way of thinking, a destroyer who creates.

We shouldn’t assume that this Barça is a finished product, and find that product wanting. It’s a hunk of raw material that is being shaped right before our eyes. Players are coming and going, and key players are right now dealing with injury complexities, most notably the club’s best player. We haven’t even seen anything close to a fully operational Death Star, yet people are already prophesying its doom. It’s something that I don’t understand, because I see a work in progress, and am loving watching that progress occur.

What’s the deal with Messi?

Lawdy, how the speculation is going on. “He doesn’t seem mentally or physically into it any longer.” “Why is he hurt so much?” “Whose fault is it?” Etc, etc, etc.

I sure am glad people can detect a player’s mental state just by looking at him. Some of Messi’s best matches have come when he appears to be sleepwalking, with that “Whatevs” face. That is his demeanor, but people are going to read into that what they will. But it’s the physical part that interests me.

“He never got injured under Pep Guardiola.” This is interesting, because Messi has a history of fragility. When Guardiola took over the club, part of his approach was a systematic way of dealing with players. It was diet, preventive maintenance and strengthening, a wholistic approach to making a modern footballer.

I saw an MD story that said Messi is “now” working with a nutritionist. The word nerd in me reads that sentence as he hasn’t been hitherto, and wonders what changed.

There was a recent story on Olympic athletes and what they ate, and people were stunned. Why, I don’t know. My time as an elite-level athlete wasn’t all that long (it never is, really), but I can tell you that for me, functionally, there was no such thing as a bad calorie. BUT, there was a way of eating in place that worked best for my body, that fed and hydrated the muscles, etc. ALL athletes should have this.

Why is Messi getting hurt now? Everything, even from the player himself, is speculation. You wonder if a wholistic approach is no longer being taken, if as Messi moves from Lionel Messi to Messi to Greatest Player Ever, if shortcuts are being taken, if muscles suddenly aren’t getting the care and feeding they should. Martino said this is the other leg, not the one he has been wrestling with since last season. This means it’s more than bad luck. What it exactly is, we have no idea.

We can also speculate that fatigue has something to do with it, because tired muscles are more easily injured. Messi has had rest, but Messi hasn’t had a break. When he isn’t playing football he is preparing to play football, rehabbing, preparing, doing something. Maybe he’s a player who, more than anything, needs a break. Rest those legs and let them heal.

Maybe it is the prophylactic thing that has fallen by the wayside, that he isn’t taking care of the motor as he should. Constant vigilance is hard, even for the most driven, committed athletes. Day after day, doing this thing you have to do. Parties, dinners, PlayStation, fun stuff has to wait because the task, the maintenance, is more important. And that crap starts to wear on you.

The biggest joy of not being an elite racer was waking up on a Sunday morning, rolling over in bed to look at my wife, then going to breakfast. No weight training, no motorpacing, no drills, no nothing. Just pancakes. And it was wonderful. I can’t imagine what Messi’s life must be like, but can only imagine the impossibility of adhering to a regimen.

Don’t forget that when Guardiola was coaching the club, it still wasn’t the Greatest Show on Earth. So the demands weren’t as numerous or as acute. Messi is also a father, and an adult with a lot more responsibilities. He is no longer playing with Legos or PlayStation, being tended to and playing football. It’s different now. Is this new life part of the matter? Again, who knows?

What I do know is that these injuries he is suddenly dealing with are no more anyone’s fault than anything else. Life breaks us down. Why is Adriano suddenly much less injured this season? Like Messi who is the reverse, who knows?

Man of the Match

This is an easy one for me. Victor Valdes. A keeper is crucial to a club. Duh. But playing keeper is also complex. Xavi can make 200 pass attempts in a match, have 5 go awry and he still had a brilliant statistical game. A keeper might have fewer than 10 chances in a match to deal with the ball. Every last one has to be exact, or his team is down on the scoresheet and has to atone for his fallibility by scoring a goal themselves.

A keeper can also keep his team in a match, keep things calm until they find their stride and score some goals.

Valdes was all this and more today. He even launched accurate long passes, and charged out of the box to play CB when Puyol unleashed a real stinker of a pass that led to a Betis attack.

The praise is coming fast and furious, and people are saying “How will Barça ever replace him?” But it wasn’t so long ago that he was dodgy, and had nicknames like Exxon Valdes. Now, it’s difficult to think of a keeper playing better than he is right now, even as in far fewer months than we would like, we will have to start thinking about a different face tending our nets.

For now, all we can say is gracies, VV. Keep it up.


By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. Great post. Agree on all counts, especially your assessments of Bartra, Song, and Victor, both for this match and in general.

    The flexibility is crucial, but is there a trade-off? With most things in life there usually is. While I don’t believe the score flattered to deceive, we’ll have to play sharper than that to beat teams with better players. Is the relative lack of sharpness, the ever so slightly slower passing (assuming I’m not imagining it), a necessary tradeoff to a more flexible approach that makes it more difficult to get the repetition necessary to hit that “flow” at the highest level? I don’t really know. Just musing out loud. I actually thought our best “flow” this year was the second half of the Celta Vigo game, and come to think of it that was with the “double pivote” and Cesc playing – so maybe “repetition leads to flow” is not such a good theory after all!

    What’s your assessment of Montoya so far? IMO he’s started poorly the last few games he’s started, but played himself into the games as they went on. I find his performances a bit hard to judge. Was disappointed in Dani, that assist notwithstanding. Too many giveaways and poor crosses, full stop.

  2. Brilliant analysis. Thanks be to jaysus you are back, Kxevin, thought you had flown this coop.
    ‘Willowy’ Neymar – delightful; you should patent that.

  3. Well written article – couldn’t agree more with all you pointed out.

    Just quietly is Cesc having his best season for us this year?

  4. And what a review it is… every sentence radiates “this is my club and dont you dare doubting!” Hope for many more to come, you rock Sir!

    I agree on most points except maybe Martinos lineup choices. As much as I love his straight forwad approach I think he sacrificed too much control with yesterdays elven. Cesc and Montoya did not offer enough stability and it wasnt until Iniesta came in that the game changed.

    In regards to Messi one might not underestimate psychological reasons as the cause for injuries. Even Pique once said that it’s easier to play with a smile on your face (scientific proven), which I haven’t seen in a long time on the fleas face. This lack of at least visible joy and the “lone-warrior” mood he seems to carry arround (eg. when walking on the field) might or might not have an influence on his physical condition. On a sidenote … whats up with the awful amount of spitting?? Hope that he fully recovers this time.

  5. Messi out for 6-8 weeks. He just can’t catch a break, what a disaster 2013 has been for him. I hope he recovers once and for all, his injuries are heart breaking. =/

  6. The match has been fun to watch, and this review even more fun to read. Pretty much like the season so far. Yes, we are a work in progress, and the expectations were pretty low to begin with. In the meantime, Martino is leaving his mark on the team, our game is evolving, players are finding form and we are still winning.

    To answer some of the comments here, yes, if we played a game like yesterday’s against a top team, they surely would have made us pay. But this is not how we play against top teams. First, those games take place on better pitches (not potato fields painted green) that allow for short passing and control. Second, Tata has shown time and time again that does his homework in studying and game planning for the other team’s strengths and weaknesses. Rayo and Betis play pretty football, but their bark is bigger than their bite. They struggle finishing moves and give up too much in defense, so giving them the ball and allowing 14 and 16 shots on target, respectively, doesn’t spell disaster if we can get anything we want in transition. Player selections were also spot on: Betis is a flank team, overloading the left flank, in particular, so Song plays and provides side-to-side presence in defensive mid, and Montoya gets his chance to contribute on the left (their right). Perfect moment to rest Busi and Adriano, and get the best out of their backups. Pedro and Cesc were also ideal for this type of open game.

    We are a very different team in important games against top teams, both tactics and personnel-wise. In the CL, we have 68.2% possession, 90.2% pass success rate, and concede a mere 6.3 shots per contest. We also play way more short passes (697 and attempt way fewer long balls (48) than yesterday (572 and 71). Bayern, PSG and Madrid have looked better in Europe so far, but it’s winning that matters, and we have been doing that.

    1. I was planning on writing the same thing.

      At this point I cannot predict how we will play against Bayern or BVB or any other top team. But I am sure that it will be a well thought out plan based on careful analysis of their game. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Baby steps!

  7. Good news is that Fabregas is only out for a week and will not travel with Spain. And our very own incredible Bartra has been called up in his stead! The kid can make his debut for the senior team!

  8. Another brilliant post! One with which I agree on everything, especially the section on Song. Why he gets so much crap is beyond me, his play has ranged from acceptable to exceptional, I have yet to see him have a really bad game.

    Messi out for 6-8 weeks is really sad news. Poor guy. I really hope they find a way to fix this. He was like this when he was younger and then he went on a run of almost 3 years without getting any serious injuries. Whatever he was doing back then to avoid injury he better start doing it again!

    I guess the positives to take are that we will continue to improve the way we play without him and also that aside from Villareal at home there aren’t any games in the 6-8 weeks that we should not be able to win quite easily without him. Athletic away could be a bit tricky, but they are not the same force this season as they have been in the past.

    I suspect we will not see Messi again till early next year. I say rest him properly. Let him have a nice long break and really heal. No sense in rushing him, we are a different team without him this year. Goals are coming from everywhere and we are not so reliant on his brilliance to win us games. Obviously we will miss the best player ever, but I really feel like this is going to give the likes of Neymar and Sanchez a platform to shine. I expect to see a lot more of them in the coming weeks. Then hopefully Messi will come back fit and raring to go early next year. It might actually be better for us to see his best form at the business end of the season, unlike last season where we got the reverse!

  9. Why does Cesc say that he is not part of the Gala XI? He started the Clasico, and Messi was moved to the right for that purpose…

    1. No, he was speaking in general: “”sé cuál es el once preferido del míster y sé que no estoy en él.” This came up when he was talking about the Milan game, but this statement is more general.

  10. This morning I was arguing with a friend that said that Bartra could be in the extended squad for the WC. Knowing VDB’s record of sticking with his people I was convinced that this would not happen. A couple of hours later Bartra gets called up. And I realized that with all my reading and researching and watching games and knowledge of people, I still know nothing. One thing is sure: there are no absolute truths in football. Anything can happen.

    1. LOL! I’m really happy for Bartra, he deserves it. He has always performed well for the international youth teams. I can totally see him becoming Puyol’s long-term replacement with La Roja (and if he keeps on getting games, maybe even knock Albiol out of the team).

    2. I’m very happy for him too. He deserves it. And I never really understood why Albiol was getting all those selections so maybe Baby Marc will replace him. I still don’t trust VDB enough to really believe this….

  11. 90000 km of travel in 40 days in the Summer, 17 different flights and a whole bunch of charity matches. Talk about killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

    As far as Barcelona and the upcoming fixture list goes, not a lot of important matches that I can think of. But I’m just worried that Messi might not be/ might never be a 100% again after this latest setback.

  12. Thanks Kxevin! and just so you know i was reading closely, the last paragraph in the “Bartra” section seemed out of place and like it belonged elsewhere in the piece.

    Fantastic read!

    1. Because it did. Thank you for being so perceptive. I sometimes jot thoughts down wherever I am in the text because for the most part, writing for me is like dictation, complete with parenthetical afterthoughts.

  13. Excellent write-up, Kxevin. I don’t know how you can just bang out a piece like this in such a short period of time.

    Anyway, on Messi. If we assume he will be out until after the Christmas break, these are the games he will miss:

    Granada (home)
    Ajax (away)
    Athletic Bilbao (away)
    Cartagena (away)
    Celtic (home)
    Villarreal (home)
    Cartagena (home)
    Getafe (away)

    He was unlikely to have played in the two CDR games against Cartagena anyway, and the two CL games are kind of freebies, as we already know we are through the group. Of course we want to win them to ensure we are at the top of the group, but lacking Messi shouldn’t be a problem in these games.

    That leaves the four league games. The ones against Athletic Bilbao and Villarreal will be the big tests, but we have a lot of options up front right now: Alexis, Neymar, Pedro, Cesc, Tello. Maybe even Cuenca! Oddly, Messi is probably the player we can most afford to lose at the moment. Apart from Tello, all our forwards are in red hot form and will be eager to prove themselves. I’m honestly not worried at all.

    Well, maybe a bit. We have to play Getafe. This is a midlevel team in pretty good form (currently in 6th spot). And somehow they always give us difficulties. We will need to be very careful not to underestimate them.

    1. Great again, Kxevin!

      Almost full agreement with you, Blitz. Really, the Messi thing hit us at a good time (as if there could really be a good time). Neymar is coming along very nicely, Alexis, Cesc, and even Pedro have been hitting the scoresheets regularly, Cl knockout round is locked and 1 point away from securing first place, and Copa games before the break are against a Segunda B team. The Getafe game doesn’t worry me half as much as Ath. Bilboa at the San Mamés. I always fear trips to the Basque Country. Praise God we don’t face Atleti before he’s due back!

      The boy shouldn’t touch a ball in anger until January, January can be his preseason. He can be fresh and ready to carry us through the inevitable Hlebruary.

    2. My fear is that he won’t be ready for the Atleti game… It’s on January 11/12th. It’s just at the edge of those 8 weeks. I guess we’ll see. But in no case should he be rushed for Atleti if he is not 100%.

    3. If we are perfect until that game…even if we lose, that’s only 3 points lost, nothing to panic, and that’s the case if AM and RM maintain a perfect run of wins until then.

    4. Agreed, Athletic and Villarreal will be tough. Playing away at Ajax might not be a walk in the park either. Just hope Messi’s back for the Atletico game.

      Also, if Sergi Roberto doesn’t feature prominently in the Cartagena tie at least, I will be very disappointed. Surprised too, given Martino’s good rotation so far.

    5. Also, on our midfield situation:
      Most Liga minutes played this season: Valdes 1170 – Alves 945 – Xavi 932 – Pique 888 – Cesc 833 – Iniesta 828 – Busquets 822 (via barcastuff).
      Xavi needs a backup, and Sergi Roberto is not it (color me naive, but I think if he was showing quality in training, he would be playing some of those minutes. Also, Tata prefers to play guys in their natural positions, where they are at their best. Sergi’s a natural box-to-box midfielder, but not good enough to take minutes from Cesc, who doesn’t feel like part of our gala 11 himself. What a mess).
      Thiago is gone, JDS is injured. The closest thing we have to a Xavi backup is Song. Not as a like-for-like replacement, obviously, but in a different, double-pivot-like setup that provides both defensive stability and attacking bite (have you seen that defense splitting pass to Cesc? Dude can play a bit). Except when Tata plays Song with Busi, Cules are up in arms about the death of our style. Like Keita didn’t play a ton of minutes under Pep.
      It’s not like we can just throw a B-teamer in at the deep end to play some of Xavi’s minutes, or saunter into the market and pick up someone of Gundogan’s quality to sit on the bench behind Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc. Song getting his minutes relieving both Busi and Xavi is one possible solution. We bought him, might as well play him, since he’s kinda good.
      And while we prepare for the (bleak) future when Xavi can’t play every match, Tata has been instructing Iniesta and Busi to pick up some of his duties (in ball distribution and attack, respectively). In the meantime, maybe Eusebio will finally get his marching orders and youngsters like Sergi Samper will get their chance.

  14. Now that I finally have some time to write a proper comment, here goes.

    First off, I’d like to say this in an amazing piece, yet again. Kevin, I don’t know how you do it, but don’t ever stop. Your articles always strike a chord.

    Tata nailed it with his comment. We are playing intelligent. I think he is doing an absolutely magnificent job, in truth, he’s doing better than I could have ever imagined. I think he’s getting a lot of unfair criticism from idealists who think every goal needs to come after 50 passes or else it’s not a goal worthy of Barcelona. To be honest, I love how direct we’ve been lately. We have the players for it, why not play to our strengths? Why wait for an opponent to settle and pull themselves into their shell and stay there until they get an opportunity to hit us on the counter? Our forwards are fast as hell, so why deliberately handicap ourselves by not taking advantage of their speed? I admit, I love those kind of goals when the guys pull off ridiculous one-twos with no space and still manage to slice the opposing defenders in half and score. But I won’t lie, I love a good quick counter-attack too. Last night we scored 4 different kinds of goal. A lighting fast counter attack, a solo effort, a lovely team goal, and a header from a cross. We’re becoming unpredictable and it’s amazing. What’s even more amazing is that there is still room for improvement.

    Our team is evolving and it’s very exciting to be able to witness it. Unfortunately, they’re going to have to do it without Messi for a while, but it could be a good thing in a way, as much as pains me to say it. I just hope he takes his time to fully recover.

    1. Yeah, we’re unpredictable. In how we approach each game, in how we score and in how far we will get this season. And it’s terribly fun!

    2. I can’t even guess our starting XI before it comes out, let alone how we’re going to play the match.

  15. Thanks Kxev, great read.

    For me this Barca is becoming more dangerous than the past few seasons.
    If you ask what all of our forwards have in common (Tello, Alexis, Messi, Neymar & Pedro) what answer would you get?
    Sure they can pass a ball but you couldn’t exactly play Tello in midfield.
    Workrate? Maybe in patches but Messi doesn’t play that for the full 90mins.
    Dribbling? Pedro…
    The answer for me is pace. They are all extremely quick. Passing the ball around 15-20 times in every single move is excellent for control but it is not the most effective. If we can control the match for large periods and mix it up with moves where we can get the ball in the net in 3 or 4 touches like we are doing recently we will be much more effective.
    Every big team that has scored against us over the past 3 or 4 seasons has had success against us on the break. Why? If you can attack a team who is not ‘set’ defensively you have more space as there are less defenders and tactically you catch players out of position… centre backs covering out wide, midfielders in defense etc.

    If you put our 3 first choice forwards (Messi, Neymar & Alexis) up against any back four in the world with the ball at Messi’s feet you would back them to get a good shot on target. If you add a defensive midfielder for them and have Cesc Fabregas added to the mix for us then our chances of scoring are probably even higher given his off the ball movement.
    What Tata is doing is trying to create these chances more often.

    There is one thing that I’m not sure on. There is talk of Tata’s preferred XI and who is and who isn’t on that XI.
    I find it hard to imagine that someone as pragmatic as Tata has a preferred XI. I think that there will be different preferred XI’s for different opponents and that there will be many surprises along the way. And to add to that notion… there will be times when Tata has a preferred XII or XIII for some matches with pre-planned substitutions to will used like introducing Cesc to exploit spaces.

    A few other thoughts…
    I had been hoping to see much more of Montoya, Bartra, Tello and Sergi Roberto this season. Bartra has been immense in my opinion, looking better in every outing. Montoya has shown to me that he will be a very consistent squad player for seasons to come but maybe nothing more. Tello has shown virtually nothing this season when I thought that he could have been a very dangerous weapon off the bench in most matches. Sergi has shown nothing but been given no real chances.
    I must imagine that Tata isn’t giving Sergi and Tello more opportunities because they aren’t deserving them in training. If Tello’s ball control and decision making is disappointing for someone with so much potential.

  16. Okay, some friend messaged me this …

    “Messi suffered 4 thigh muscle tears between
    2005 & 2008, appeared to be fixed with physical
    trainer Lorenzo Buenaventura, who left in 2012 due to conflict with Rosell, and joined Bayern this July with Guardiola. Messi with the same injury again. Under Guardiola he went virtually uninjured”

    A trinket of perspective. But that’s me, I might be crazy like that.

    Yhup, Kevin, quick and brilliant post. Danke schoen.

    1. IIRC Iniesta suffered a lot of injuries during the 2009-10 season – and he had the same physical trainer as Messi. On the other hand, one other purported reason for Messi’s prolonged absence on the sick list may be due to the undivided attention of Juanjo Brau, the guy with the shaved head you often see jogging with an injured Barcelona player in the training videos. One other thing may be the fact that he traveled the world three times in 64 days, playing more matches that the rest of the his Barcelona teammates, who had a month to recover from the Confederations Cup.

      Yet another thing may be the state of the pitch Barcelona had to play at. I Betis it will look better next time Betis play on it. Of course, next time they won’t be playing Barcelona.

  17. The positives and negatives of the Messi injury :


    – As the writer and several others have noted, if there was ever a time for a team to suffer a prolonged absence of the world’s best player, then this certainly is it.

    – Not only are the upcoming fixtures relatively easy to handle, our other forwards are exhibiting a rich vein of form which puts any anxieties to rest.

    – This gives an opportunity to the likes of Neymar, Alexis, Pedro and Tello to shine. Fabregas who has been complaining about his exclusion from the gala XI has something to prove.

    – I too, noticed very clearly how well the team played when Messi was substituted. Everyone became dangerous and there wasn’t this lingering instruction from the players’ heads to give the ball to Messi. In other words, they just played the system. Remember the game against Bate Borisov 4-0, when Pep masterminded a master piece of how to play the system irrespective of the personnel involved. With Messi in the mix, somehow that system gets disrupted. Pardon the blasphemy.

    – The team gets to figure out and build self confidence in winning games without the flea.


    – I have long felt that the ridiculous numbers in goals Messi has been registering for the past few years would not only skew expectations among spectators, but for Messi himself. 4 consecutive Ballon D’Ors and 280! goals in 5 years is absurd. Its an anomaly and must not be a standard. I wonder if even a grounded Messi realizes that.

    – When someone who just wants to play all the time has performed so well for so long suddenly suffers injuries, it will certainly add to a bit of anxiety and eagerness to get back into the flow of things asap. Wanting to rush back into the team and be the protagonist are things that he’ll need to watch out for, in terms of fitness/health as well as disrupting team harmony and strategy.

    – The writer might ascribe this to cumulative fatigue but I have a suspicion that the sheer amount of injuries he has suffered this year definitely has something to do with the way he has been managed, physical trainers etc. I dont understand how this guy has played like 60 games every year looking invincible and suddenly has become so vulnerable. I remember there was this one time, where he was substituted before the end of the game after getting a bad knock on his knee which appeared red and swollen. He was back the very next game and scored a friggin hat rick! much to the dismay and frustration of mourinho.

    – And it must be noted that this period of good health was also during times when Messi was an all in kind of a player – pressing and accelerating at every opportunity. Offlate, we’ve seen a more cautious approach employed to protect Messi where he has been instructed to preserve energy, press less and only get into turbo mode at his discretion. Inspite of all this, we are seeing his durability affected. Which begs the question, does a Messi engine need to be utilized naturally in order to ensure durability? good question.

    – The team looks set to be fine without the flea’s help for the next few weeks. Will Leo take this injury as a huge setback to his absurd record and individual awards? will it make him come back and try to hog the goals as much as possible? Is he starting to feel like a superstar? Will the freedom and joy the other forwards are likely to experience in the next few weeks, be immediately stripped off once he returns? I am not implying the above, just asking questions.

    – Get well soon, Leo. Barca needs you. to rest. and heal properly. We have you covered. for now.

  18. All this “we play better without Messi” does not apply to Classicos, Champions League, cup finals and all other sorts of important matches. He ups his game immensely in those, playing wherever and in whatever tactical the coach devises, creating something out of nothing, making his teammates look better, and making us very, very difficult to beat. (The same is true of Iniesta, but he deserves a separate post).
    I don’t want to think about entering those matches without Messi. Yes, we are lucky to have fantastic attacking talent in our team. I enjoy nothing as much as watching Neymar, Cesc, Alexis and Pedro play with freedom and succeed. It’s fun, at last, to see an unpredictable attack, mixing it up, never knowing where the goal is going to come from. But up against Bayern’s, or Dortmund’s, or even Atletico’s defense, nothing beats a fully fit Messi with his absurd vision and imagination, otherworldly movement and control, his outrageous conversion rate and contribution in midfield.
    Even if Leo’s body slows down, those attributes will still be world class, and he has shown the determination to give all for the team to win. And if we are to win, we need our Flea back and fit in 2014. Let Tata worry about combining our attackers in a way that gets the best out of them and lightens Messi’s load. If anyone can do it, he can.

  19. Montoya has been a liability all season. He’s been turned around by great players and also by mediocre players. Betis came down his side time and time again, same exact move even, and Montoya falls for it every time. He performed better last season, don’t believe he is cut out for a reliable back-up on this team. Bartra, OTOH, has been immense. Confident, assertive, aggressive, intelligent. He outpaced Montoya on his side to stop crosses and intercede in breaking up plays. He saved Montoya’s butt a few times. He played with more heart than Puyol, and that’s not easy to do.

    Fabregas was a beast, in his preferred position at midfield. As stated, he provides directness that we sometimes lack. He’s creative, links up play with the wingers and tracks back to defend. At the moment, he is a better midfielder than Iniesta. Not sure what is going on with Iniesta, but he seems disinterested. Too many games, no motivation, has won it all, tired of futbol, prefers married life, kids a priority, prefers working his winery? I don’t know. But when Messi got hurt and Iniesta stood up, I felt like I could read his thought bubble, “damn, I thought I had the day off!” Fabregas must then give up his preferred position and slot into false 9, where he looks uncomfortable as his skill set is not for playing that position. He’s not a natural striker/poacher. He can’t dribble into pressure. He doesn’t have speed. As was pointed out by the announcer, Fabregas gave Iniesta an earful for not running onto his pass. Fabregas is probably rightly pissed off at being replaced by a player who isn’t even interested enough to get motivated to run. Martino needs to look at this. Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc together is not smart. And, I’m sorry to say, that Iniesta needs a seat as Cesc looks like he wants it more.

    Song is not Busquets, but he’s still not a good back up IMO. He’s strong and can out muscle most players off the ball but that’s not enough. He looks awkward out there because his foot skills are lacking. He’s clunky with the ball, has poor first touch that at times leads to dangerous giveaways.

    Neymar has been a great addition. A game changer on his own. Not only does he have speed, and immense foot skills, but he tracks back all game to win back balls. He is tenacious on the ball and doesn’t give up on it. He will continue to fight and harass for the ball. He’s not selfish, a team player. I can’t think of one bad thing to say about him.

    All in all, I enjoy this Barca. Sometimes tiki-taka, sometimes we’re direct, sometimes we allow the other team to play around with the ball, sometimes we choose to dominate, sometimes we counter. Outside of massive injuries or bad reffing – la liga should be relatively easy. Can’t get a good handle on how we we do in Champions. An aggressive, high fouling team with high intensity pressing and quick counters will cause us problems.

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