There is a children’s game that is loads of fun, if you haven’t played it. You get a donkey poster or stuffed figurine. Then you blindfold a kid, give him the donkey’s tail, which is usually a piece of cloth or something, with a pin through it. Then you spin the kid around a few times, then turn him loose to pin the tail on the donkey.
That game is a lot like what the culer fan base resembles after a loss, as everyone seeks reasons for what happened, almost as if the most obvious ones are too obvious to consider.
It can’t be as easy as Malaga played really well and Barça played poorly, because the necessity for the mental palliatives that serve as supporter placebos is a constant. But let’s get right down to it.
This isn’t a crisis. This was a loss. Football teams have them. Really. It’s an eloquent testament to the football Barça plays that when an occurrence that is fairly routine for other clubs peopled by humanoids happens, the Barçaverse heaves, and is thrown into a tizzy. The team that so many are freaking out about won 11 matches in a row, went 3-0 against Atleti and has a midweek date in the Champions League knockout rounds, after winning its group. Crisis? 99% of football club supporters would kill for that kind of a “crisis.”
“We aren’t other football teams. We aren’t supposed to lose matches. We have a higher standard.” But of course. Other teams begin each and every day with a commitment to being poor, and building to stay that way. “We don’t want to win. Of course not! We leave that to teams with a higher standard. We just want to lose with style and dignity.”
The obvious difference is that Barça has better players, a winning tradition and a certain set of expectations, demands that don’t allow for mortality. Every match must be a win, every performance perfect. If that doesn’t happen, then what happened and whose fault is it?
There is even talk of a “lost” Liga championship that was in fact never “won.” Barça, with today’s loss, went from not needing help in the table topped by RM, to needing help. But did anyone honestly think that Barça was going to win out this season? Impossible to conceive, given that many still don’t think the team has the right coach for the job, or is playing in the correct manner.
The reason that many of us predicted no silver for Barça this season isn’t because the team doesn’t have the talent to win silver. It does. What it doesn’t have yet is the cohesion, the automatic tasks that fully gelled teams have on offer, rote tasks perfectly performed because of complete knowledge of what a teammate is going to do and where he is. That takes time, gaudy winning streaks notwithstanding.
“Barça isn’t playing consistently enough to win the Liga.” Who among the top 3 is? Atleti lost to Celta. Are they? RM is in as much of a “crisis” as Barça. All three are going to drop more points this season. Assume nothing, expect nothing. Just enjoy the ride as a team comes together. Today’s failure was collective and rather complete, abetted by a quality opponent who played its collective asses off.
“Alves screwed up! So did Bravo.” Okay, perhaps without that error the loss would have been a draw. but Barça never looked like scoring today really. Not sure who folks want to blame for that, but it starts with Malaga and ends with the players checking the mirror.
Winning vs results
This was an excellent match because Malaga is exactly the kind of team that was, like La Real at Anoeta, always going to be a very stern test for Barça. The thing about playing Atleti is that it wants to win, wants to play like a team that wants to win. They will attack, which will leave them vulnerable. Malaga wants a result, and will take a win. So that team will play differently, with more fire, cohesion and willingness to sacrifice everything to get a result.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t want to win. It does mean that the day’s objective is a different one that affects how a team plays. Atleti will attack as a unit. Malaga will pass up an attacking chance if it means losing shape at the back. There might be a shot from distance or some long pass attempt that doesn’t have a chance, because the important thing is to keep shape and stick to the match plan.
Some are saying “If Malaga, then City,” but there is no inference that can be drawn from this match except what we already knew, which is that Barça is a team with flaws, and it’s easier to stop someone from scoring than it is to score.
Malaga played a perfect match
Let’s assume Malaga’s coach to be fond of hallucinogens, and he popped one. The resultant hazy bit of giddiness allowed him to see, in his mind, his team taking advantage of an egregious error and taking the lead, then having Barça play into his defense’s hands time after time.
He would come to, splash cold water in his face and say, “Whoo, baby, that was crazy. I just had the wildest fantasy.” And yet, that is exactly what happened. I rather imagine Malaga couldn’t believe that things worked out exactly as their coach diagrammed it. Every last one of their players sweated his heart out, and did more than was necessary to get a result today. They ran, defended, dove, fouled and took every advantage to disrupt play and waste time. And the one chance they got to score, they took it. And that’s that.
At the core of their intelligent defending strategy was something very simple: to disrupt a team, break it into pieces. Everyone has long been saying that Neymar is one of the keys to the Barça attack in the way he accelerates play, and makes things possible as he heads toward the box or cuts to the middle to become a playmaker. So Malaga attacked Neymar directly, walling him off with multiple defenders. Neymar played into their hands by trying to beat them before doing something, rather than hitting the reset button and passing it back to a midfielder.
Part of why he didn’t have that available option was because he wasn’t getting any help from anyone, so his only option was to stop the ball and try some magic. This too, was exactly what Malaga wanted.
Disabling the Hydra
Meanwhile on the other side of the pitch, Messi was facing his own coterie of defenders as the two poles of the Barça attack were isolated. This meant that Suarez, who needs those two poles as fully functional playmates, instead became an attack without a purpose, dashing hither and yon but never really getting the ball in any place that allowed him to be a danger. Further, Malaga decided that it was fine letting him run around, because if they spent all of their efforts on Messi and Neymar, it wouldn’t matter what Suarez did.
Compounding the complexity was the poor play from Iniesta, so there were no other options to get an attacker the ball. Further, because those defenders are in effect already in position as they deal with Messi and Neymar, they are already ideally placed to deal with any stray balls that might come in from mids.
Malaga’s game plan made three of the best attackers in the world an island, and defenders just shuttled back and forth between the islands as necessary.
The part that Barça played
It’s worth asking whether any of this would have worked had Barça not been as dull as a rusty butter knife today. Typical of the play today was when Messi had the ball and was running, on the break, at a solo Malaga defender. He made the wrong decision with the ball, and in effect handed it to the defender, who sent his teammates off on a time-eating break through a sieve of a midfield. Where was the press? Well, as Malaga wasn’t all that interested in attacking full out, what point was a press?
It was, nonetheless, shameful the way their counters waltzed through the Barça midfield as a team became complicit in its own demise. Poor decisions with the ball, bad movement, non-compensatory actions found multiple players in the same spot, wrong or no runs made and poor passes. There was too much individuality, which always plays into the hands of an intelligent defense, and the ball moved entirely too slowly for so many reasons:
— Malaga’s defense made every Barça attacker with the ball have to look for options.
— Slack movement played into the hands of the Malaga defense.
— As the defenders were already in place, passes on the ground were never going work, which didn’t stop Barça from trying them, and ceding possession.
— No runs means no unsettled defense means no spaces to take advantage of.
Everybody had to hold the ball, dribble and run with it, which made the Malaga team very happy, atop the team being dull from top to bottom. You can pick the excuse you want, from officiating decisions to Enrique to this or that player. But none of those had as much of an effect on the match as the two sets of players, one sharp and one dull.
Enrique, in an effort to influence the outcome of the match, made a series of subs that were the right subs, though I wonder if they were for the right people. Should Rafinha have come off before Iniesta? Did the Pedro sub happen too late? People will cite his missed shot with disdain, and it was wasteful as can be — but they will ignore the effect that he had on space and the pace of the match, as is their right. But his influence was noticeable, as was that of Mascherano, who came on for a lackluster, wholly ineffective Alves.
The effect of this, in addition to Rakitic, was that play turned and Barça got on the front foot far more effectively. They were still being hamstrung by the aforementioned woes in the final attacking third, but at least Malaga wasn’t being gifted counterattacking, time-wasting forays.
Some say that this defeat can be laid at the feet of too much individuality, too much reliance on the skills of Messi, Neymar and Suarez rather than an overall team system that can, in match after match, walk the ball into the net. But even ignoring the fantasyland qualities of such a notion, when your best players are ineffective, it doesn’t matter what kind of a system you have.
Was that a bus, or a train?
“Parking the bus” is more misused than “tika taka” these days, as many scoffed about Barça being worthless against a bus. A true parked bus doesn’t bother with attacking forays, doesn’t want the ball, doesn’t even care how much the opponent has the ball as long as people are in place to hoof it away. Malaga defended deeply and intelligently, but to dismiss their tactics today as “parking the bus” does that team a disservice.
Were the roots of that defense deeply planted in the catenaccio tradition? Yep. There was always one more man to beat, as that back door was latched tight as a drum. Targeted catenaccio? Sure, why not? But the bottom line was Malaga had a plan, and executed it flawlessly, with the help of Barça.
A parked bus just hoofs it out. It doesn’t have time to parse, or worry about individuals. Ball. Foot. Gone.
The question is what would have been an ideal solution for the complexity posed by Malaga? Seems simple in retrospect: Neymar is walled off, Iniesta scurries over to accept the pass, runs into the box where Neymar, taking advantage of his markers being distracted by the ball, now has free space. Meanwhile on the other side, Messi sits back to ensure that some defenders stay out of the box and Rafinha darts in to fill that traditional Messi role. And let the games begin.
But that didn’t happen, and it was mostly Malaga’s fault. This is like Anoeta, where people scream about Enrique not starting Messi, Neymar and Suarez while ignoring the fact that the trio was up in the second half of that match, and did exactly nothing. Some times, on some days, the opponent is just better. Not better than Barça overall, but superior on that day. It happens. And as culers scurry around, blindfolded and clutching a tail in quest of the ass of an ass, it’s worth remembering that.