Three years ago at track cycling old fart nationals, I was competing in the match sprints. In one of my rides, my opponent swerved out of the lane , trying to keep me from passing him, in a matter proscribed by the rules. He wasn’t relegated, but it was a real and serious enough infraction to raise my blood pressure and anger factor, to the “You want rough? I’ll show you rough!” level.
So I withdrew from the competition rather than race like that. Why? Because you have a responsibility to your fellow competitors not to perform actions that might injure. This brings us to the Roma match and that appalling, reckless tackle on Rafinha by a player who less than a year ago, broke another player’s leg in two places with another butcher’s challenge.
Football is physical, and challenges are lauded for being robust, but there is a line that one professional shouldn’t cross when it comes to putting another professional at risk. Grab the jersey, leave him for the people facing to kick, but going in from behind in a way that is at best, uncertain and not at all interested in the ball, pulsates with a recklessness verging on criminal. There is the idea of a “professional” foul, one that stops a dangerous attack while acknowledging exactly what happened. The player takes the card and goes on.
You can not intend to injure but by your actions demonstrate that you don’t really care if you injure. That was what made the season-ending tackle on Rafinha so reprehensible. It transgressed the boundaries of the game and what is allowed. There are tough players, there are physical players. There are also players who have a reputation for not giving a shit about what they do to their opponent. And it’s disgusting.
The offending Roma player probably sent the other player he maimed an apology via social media as well, saying that he didn’t intend to hurt him, either. You never do. I don’t think much of those kinds of apologies because your behavior speaks more eloquently than any apology. You might not have intended to harm a fellow professional, but your actions showed that you didn’t CARE if you injured. And with something like a leg break from another aggressive challence in your recent history, to still go in from behind like that …
Bad luck? In some ways, sure. Players often get up from challenges similar to that one. But if you make the challenge, what are the risks? What’s a goal or a scoring chance really worth to someone?
Pepe is often called a thug, but his mania is calculated. He often goes in hard, but he rarely goes for an opponent in a way that might injure. That is the difference for me. Mascherano is another player with a reputation for being a tough tackler, and he will go in hard, but never, ever in a way that might potentially injure. Professionals understand that. Unfortunately for Rafinha, he ran across someone with, in my opinion, a lack of that sort of regard. And he has paid the ultimate price, one that is sad on so many levels for a player who was just coming into his own, had been tapped for his dream, the Selecao, and who played quite well in his debut, even scoring a goal. He had also solidified his place at the 12th player for his club team.
A moment of recklessness has damaged all of that. I can’t presume to know how the miscreant feels, but you like to think humanity would dictate that he feels horrible about the consequences of his actions.
That was also a moment that changed the match in Roma’s favor, from the look on Iniesta’s face to the way our players backed off from the two-footed lunges being made by tired Roma defenders. And they should have. Better to take the draw and your ligaments home.
Easing off at the wrong times
And it was certainly a draw that didn’t have to be. Roma came out with 10 behind the ball, looking to play off the counter. Possession stats were more than 70 percent in Barça’s favor, and once the team got on the front foot, the work that Roma did to cut off those Messi diagonal rainbows notwithstanding, it was only a lack of precision and focus that kept the scoreline from going even more in Barça’s favor, particularly as nobody had an exceptional match on the attacking front.
Neymar is in a performance trough right now as is Messi, really, both to be expected after a summer with Copa America, an extended vacation and then the race to catch up to teammates’ fitness. Tack on an early international break and opponents who have returned to playing Barça in a physical manner, and it’s no wonder the feet are more than a little heavy.
When Neymar is off, Barça essentially has a lopsided attack that is easier to contain, because Suarez needs service. And being in something of a mood as he has been of late, he isn’t as sharp as he should be, with a full pre-season and no Copa America duty. But Suarez can be dealt with because Neymar is off, so the runs, the interplay with Messi and Suarez, the destabilizing danger isn’t there except for when Alba does overlaps. Neymar’s form will return, and Messi will become the electrifying goal machine that culers know so well.
But for now, the team is in a purple patch, getting by on a functioning system and player quality that is extraneous of that system. Even great teams have to, from time to time until it can catch its breath, grind out results. The team has a perfect record in La Liga, and drew in the match that it can comfortably afford to draw in. The season is long, and January can’t come soon enough for a team that will welcome the reinforcements with open arms.
There is a lot of speculation about what is “wrong” with Barça, and the answer, for a team that is still undefeated even though in the midst of a very nasty early-season (when a team is at its weakest) schedule, is not a whole lot. It has beaten very difficult opponents in Athletic and Atleti, and smoother sailing awaits. The next three opponents are Levante, Celta Vigo away and Las Palmas. Then there is Bayer at home before going away to Sevilla. It’s a nice stretch of winnable matches that should also enable the team to find its legs, and get some quality rest.
Roma was always going to be a difficult match, coming after Atleti away, so that the scoreline was low shouldn’t have surprised. What did surprise was how often Barça was able to breach the Roma back line. Even though the closest actual scoring attempt was Messi off the crossbar, there were many excellent chances, including Jordi Alba with a glorious opportunity in the match’s dying moments, thwarted by poor decision making. That happens when a team is tired, and has been kicked incessantly in every match that it has played so far.
Knucklehead or no?
Even then, the draw was something of a fluke, off a stunning goal that of course turned the Ter Stegen nabobs loose and running. “Out of position,” “Lets in cheap goals,” etc, etc. What was most interesting was that in the wake of the match, players from Pique to Bravo, and neutral observers such as goalkeeping legend Oliver Kahn, all said that Ter Stegen was fine on that shot, which was a stunner that even hit the post.
Another, somewhat similar goal was scored by Thomas Muller from the worst cross that anyone has ever seen, so bad that it wound up as a shot that fooled the keeper, going in over his head. And that keeper was pretty much right on his line, the place that people who don’t fully understand the role of a Barça net minder would have Ter Stegen playing.
It’s easy to point to that one moment while ignoring the other plays he made, sweeps that stopped attacks, saves of difficult shots because again, football needs to have an answer to a situation. A goal was scored from distance, and Ter Stegen plays off his line. Therefore …
As Luis Enrique said, when the team concedes, his first question is what did the team do? You can go back to a shot from distance that beat Bravo, from Banega, a good shot that wasn’t anything like the stunning golazo that got past Ter Stegen. Banega was able to get that shot off because Iniesta was lazy getting out to close his man down. Rare is the goal from distance that doesn’t depend on mids who are deficient in doing their job. The Athletic distance goal came off slack Barça marking. Ter Stegen cleared a header and nobody chased it or battled for the possession at all, in a dangerous area. Should Ter Stegen have tried a safer play, controlling and playing to a defender for a more traditional attack start? In the hindsight of 20/20, you bet. But he’s an aggressive keeper. Pique lauded him yesterday for his role as an extra CB, given the way the Barça defenders often play up the pitch. If Ter Stegen gives up a goal from distance or two, but stops attacks by playing out from his net, I’ll take those chances.
Put those goals fully on the keeper if you like, but I’d bet my house that Enrique asked his team why they didn’t contest that header that San Rico so easily controlled, or how the Roma shot was even allowed to be taken. He just runs along, lines up the shot and takes it. Nobody even troubled him. If a team knows its keeper plays off the line, and that opponents are going to try to take advantage of that, you do the work and shut it down.
It’s the difficulty with ascribing blame in a team game. A keeper is responsible for a goal if he hits a crap clearance to an opposing attacker standing in the clear in his box, who then slots it past him. Keepers also have shots they should stop that somehow get past them, or that they misjudge. They happen all the time.
But for my money, the notion that Ter Stegen was somehow to blame for that Roma golazo doesn’t wash. He was doing exactly what he should have been doing, which was his job. As a professional, you depend on teammates not to screw up. It’s why De Sanctis was screaming at his defense for much of his time in the match, because they were allowing Barça to run riot. Professionals aren’t doing their job, which leads to breakdowns, which lead to goals.
And speaking of goals, spare a moment for the delightful team goal that Barça scored as a pinpoint pass over distance from Mathieu fell to Rakitic, who made no mistake with the cross for Suarez, who headed home. The goal looked easy, even as it relied on three exceptional plays. Really, both goals were of the highest quality.
The good draw
The lingering question is whether the draw is a good result? Yep, in a part of the Champions League where all a team needs to do is advance. Barça is in a group with Roma, Bayer Leverkusen and BATE Borisov. The team is going to advance and almost certainly win the group, which is idea. To advance to the next round is the objective. All the rest is for a fanbase to bicker over as people wonder why a great team isn’t flawless.
It’s a situation similar to during the match, when the commentators were wondering about why Barça wasn’t meeting a standard that was created not by the team, but by the very media critters who wonder why the team isn’t meeting that lofty standard. Woozy hyperbole is fun but if you create it, you can’t very well wonder about the state of your own fantasy creation. At least not logically.
So the real answer to what’s “wrong” with Barça is nothing. There is fatigue, there has been some poor injury luck. Both are to be expected. But as crises go, I’ll take a team that is perfect in league play and should win its Champions League group with ease.
What does Barça do for now, with Rafinha out for the season? Good question. Dani Alves returns soon, already back in training. Does he become a midfielder where Sergi Roberto continues at the RB slot? Or does Alves return to the XI at RB, while Sergi Roberto returns to his “in case of fire …” role? Sandro and Munir will have to step up, and look for the latter to get runouts in that Rafinha position, as Sandro is more of a pure striker.
Will a B teamer get called up? Unlikely, as that team is struggling so far in Segunda B, and needs all of the quality players that it can get. It’s always difficult to know what the future will bring, but the next stretch of matches, all winnable, will be crucial. If Barça can run the table there, an extraordinary thing will have been accomplished, something that could set the stage for bigger successes in the months to come.
P.S. The club, as soon as it could, activated Rafinha’s renewal, a 5-year deal until 2021. It is absolutely the right thing to do, and I have nothing but praise and respect for that action. A board that gets stick from me and many others for so many actions, deserves credit as well for doing the right thing in the right way.