Matches such as today’s walkabout against a Liga minnow are difficult to like, aside from the final score.
In many ways squaring off against Levante is like asking a math savant to balance your checkbook. “Okay, but don’t I have something better to do?”
Barça played like a team that knew it was going to win. It played like a team that knew it would have to play up to its considerable capabilities for a few minutes, just enough to nick a few goals once Levante tired and spaces began to open up in its interlocked defensive waves.
The team lacked focus, lacked intensity, lacked sharpness in a match that dared to ask the question, can a great team really turn it on at will? The long and short is that it depends on the quality of the opponent. It’s difficult to argue against a team, looking at a long season, that decides that today can be an active rest day.
We sit, wail, gnash our teeth and rend our garments as chances go begging, because this team, the team that we follow and adore, has a template. It must always play like the team that won the treble last season, or something is wrong. That demand forgets that even last season, Barça didn’t always play at its highest level. It did only rarely, usually playing well enough to win, or send the appropriate message. In one match, it didn’t even bother to win, since the team strode into the Allianz with a 3-0 aggregate lead.
Myth has a difficult time living up to reality, so when Enrique chose not only his 8th different XI in 8 matches, but one that featured heavy rotation, it was in many ways as if last season never happened. The starters were Ter Stegen, Alves, Bartra, Mascherano, Busquets, Rakitic, Messi, Munir, Neymar and Sandro. And in the first minutes of the match, this team got after it, and a drubbing looked to be in the offing. Then suddenly, it looked like the group lost interest. Movement slackened, passes went awry and things oozed toward a rather desultory halftime 0-0 that indicted Barça more than it flattered Levante.
But in the second half, after what were almost certainly some choice words from Enrique, the team looked a lot sharper, and it didn’t take long for a goal to be the result as MOTM Bartra, who knocked off a stonkin’ match, started an attack then ripped off a lovely control and slot home for the 1-0 lead that was as inevitable as a sunrise. Then he made lumps come to throats by running over to the bench and holding up a Rafinha shirt, devoting his goal to the injured midfielder, an action mimicked by Neymar after his goal.
Even after the 1-0, Levante stuck to its guns, as if 1-1 was a mere counterattack away, if they just stayed the course. But after a penalty, justly earned by Neymar saw Messi piledrive a high shot into the top of the Levante net, that was that and Barça knew it. Sandro and Munir were in many ways casualties of the laid-back Barça approach, one that eschewed team football and the properly executed system for comfort. Messi and Neymar played to each other as the recent Masia grads scurried about with industry, trying to be good enough. Munir found himself on a break and decided he could score instead of passing to a wide-open teammate for the tap in.
Sandro on the other hand looked like Pedro on a bad day, all industry and effort, tracking back like a boss, but lacking that movement and precision at the other end, though his work probably would have found more reward had his teammates not been in half-speed drubbing mode.
In many ways, the culerverse doesn’t know how to react to a match such as this one, and will take it very seriously. My reaction at the half was, “Enrique will have a talk, and the goals will come.” And so they did. Neymar pecked and scraped at a remarkable Alves pass to make it 3-0, and Messi broke and pounded in a high-quality daisycutter to yield the final tally for Barça.
But before that Messi misplayed passes, missed another penalty and was almost as off as Neymar, who doesn’t have the luxury of being thought of in the same way as Messi, so supporters are less forgiving of his frailties. He lacked a proper pre-season as did Messi, but seems to be suffering more from the lack of fitness. But even beyond that his concentration was off, leading to dodgy touches and a willingness to stop the ball for 1v1 instead of playing the game and the system.
And even with all that, Levante never really threatened.
After the match the Levante players whose quotes found their way out, sounded almost resigned and relieved to have played their part in the day’s proceedings. They didn’t believe they were going to beat Barça any more than Barça believed it was going to lose. More than the Celta match midweek, this last notion explained the rotation-heavy XI from Enrique, though the lingering imprints from Roma boots on the backsides of key players made the rotation call even more of a no-brainer.
The Levante goal was interesting because it was one of the rare goals that was fully on a keeper … sort of. A Levante cross from a corner came in. Ter Stegen charged out to punch the ball away and missed, leaving one stunned Levante attacker looking at an open net. He slotted home, and Ter Stegen looked like a man filing something away in his memory banks. It was also the first legit goal, despite many supporters craving the comfort and security of a homebody like Bravo, that Ter Stegen could be said to be directly accountable for.
The Legendary Stegosaurus
The Myth of Marc Andre Ter Stegen is, for many, that he is a reckless keeper who concedes goals through silly mistakes. It’s a notion that is as incorrect as Messi being a penalty shot bottler. Ter Stegen is a sweeper keeper who will rely on his teammates to have his back at times, making sure that he can play his game in an unfettered manner. He will also make the kind of error that he made today, because that’s what young keepers do. One Internet headline described Ter Stegen as “under fire.” Enrique made certain to fix that notion in his post-match comments and that was that, even as there was a subset of supporters waiting to say, “A-HA!”
Lost in the general focus on what someone or the team did wrong is the notice of good work, passes from Ter Stegen that directly led to scoring chances, interventions that turned passes into interceptions and Barça breaks rather than shots. It’s something deeper than “Well, we didn’t score from his passes, and he let in a goal.”
It’s a goal that is worth looking at a bit more closely, in the context of the Barça walkabout today.
On two occasions, a loose ball that should have been cleared or covered by a Barça player just sat there, waiting for a more alert, more fully committed Levante player to charge it down. The best shot is, of course, the shot that is never taken. In a more meaningful match against a more dangerous opponent, the mids are more alert, the defenders sharper. Those loose balls are anticipated and fought for rather than becoming opponent chances. But today, those two key loose balls became objets d’art, things to be stared at in “Hey, looka there,” mode. And Levante took advantage.
Ter Stegen wet the bed, for sure. But if Enrique is half the coach that we can believe he is, he has already told Ter Stegen, “If you’re going to go punch a ball, go in hard and make it happen.” He will also pause the film during the moments that those two loose balls lay there, and ask of Ter Stegen’s teammates, “Now what about this shit here?”
As a former player who has been part of excellent teams, Enrique will know all too well the “We got this” mentality, even as he will deplore and rail against its existence. His players will nod their heads in assent, go forth and sin no more, until the next time they sin. Because that’s just how it is.
Gumballs for everyone!
In the second half of today’s match, what will probably be the most controversial substitution that Enrique will make happened today when Gerard Gumbau entered the pitch for Busquets. What made this sub so controversial is not only my journalistic sense of hyperbolic humor, but the either/or reality that has been dealt with here before, so let’s not spend any time on it.
Instead, let’s consider something else, a way of looking at the world through a coach’s eyes.
What can we do instead? Well, there are a number of options, starting with railing about how Gumbau isn’t even fit to be a Camp Nou food vendor, never mind a midfielder for the best club team in history. And leaving aside how his display during the match didn’t do him any favors, another possibility to consider is this one: trying to understand what Enrique is after by watching what he does, and how it pans out. It’s the only way to deal with something that is difficult to understand.
Last season, when Enrique had something like a zillion different lineups in 12 matches or something, people said “He doesn’t know what he’s doing,” “Should settle on the continuity of an XI,” etc. I didn’t know what to think, but figured rotation couldn’t be a bad thing over the course of a long season. Then in the business end of that season, as our daisy-fresh players cavorted, people said, “Oh! Rotation good!”
What of Gumbau, then? What does he bring to the table? What I see is a puppy dog chasing a ball, and getting in the way as you’re trying to make dinner. I don’t see much more than that. Does that make me stupid, or Enrique wrong? Neither. It makes me someone who needs to watch the situation develop, to understand what a treble-winning coach is after with the inclusion of a player whose presence, on the surface, doesn’t make a bit of sense.
Sergi Samper and La Masia are both a cause celebre. Gumbau is the one who is stealing from the mouth of a vastly more talented babe and for that, damn him and that stupid coach. That’s the easy approach, to have watched Gumbau play and deemed him inadequate. You’d have to be nuts to think that he was adequate, just as you would have to be nuts to not see the talent that oozes from almost every action Samper performs until a quick, tricky attacker goes running at him. There, you see an area of improvement but still, you wonder, but all you can do is watch, really.
And that’s the quandary. My late, great dog, C.D., always seemed to know when I was going to take him for a walk before hopping on my bicycle and rolling off. I could never figure out why, but he knew, every time. Then, one day I watched him watch me, and he would note the shoes that I put on. If I put on the noisy, funny-looking shoes, he wasn’t going, and would go lay on his bed. If I put on the quiet, not-as-silly shoes, “Yay! Walk time!” So simple, yet so effective as a brain the size of a walnut solved a problem in the most obvious way. Observation.
My brain is bigger than a walnut, but I look at Gumbau in the same way a puppy looks at a quandary, cocking its head from side to side, and all that I can do is try to understand, a task made easier by having nothing invested in the success or failure of Gumbau. I hope the experiment works, because the team lost a key midfielder in Rafinha, and won’t have a truly suitable replacement for him until January 5, a fact that would be true whether it was Gumbau or Samper running onto the pitch as a first-team sub for Busquets or Rakitic.
The ideal player would be both of them in one body, a Busquets mini-me who could caper about, make interceptions and get in the way, but also perform the actions of a CM. So what if Enrique had to choose. And what if he had to choose after a consultation with the Barça B coach whose ass is on the line, and who desperately wants to win promotion and needs his best player to do it. Dunno.
And I don’t know even as what league Barça B plays in isn’t supposed to matter, as long as the players develop the skills necessary for them to slot into the first team. This is what many said after Barça B was relegated last season to Segunda B, where it won its first match on the same day its big brothers sleepwalked their way past Levante.
Stuff doesn’t make sense, on the surface. So like the dog trying to figure stuff out, I just have to watch, and try to understand.