Losses, even beatdowns, are good for many reasons. So when Barça rolled into Celta’s house and skulked out with its tail between its legs, you can’t help but wonder if somewhere in that cold, bloodless pit that coaches call a heart, Luis Enrique wasn’t just a little bit okay with what happened.
— Streaks are bad, and the 18 unbeaten run is now over. Streaks make a team tight, and worried.
— Celta did exactly what Enrique said they would do. Being able to say “I told you so” is sometimes of value.
— Wins aren’t really coachable moments. There was as much to be learned from Levante as Celta, though.
— The team understands that it is, truly, one mistake away from jumping into a can of whipass.
Before going any deeper into this piece, any culer who hasn’t already given big, giant ups to Celta Vigo should do so. They played exactly the kind of match they needed to play to beat Barça and executed almost flawlessly. Had they in fact been flawless the scoreline would have been even more lopsided. Watching it again left the same conclusion, which was that the final score wasn’t all that unfair. Sure, Barça should have nicked another goal or two but on basis of effort and execution, Celta earned and deserved that win. Hats off to them.
Most interesting from my chair was the list of people blamed by various culers for the beating: Sergi Roberto, Mathieu, Mascherano, Where’s Suarez, Neymar, Busquets, Alves, Iniesta out of his depth, Pique, Ter Stegen.
Now, here was the XI: Ter Stegen, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Mathieu, Sergi Roberto, Busquets, Iniesta, Messi, Neymar, Suarez.
The list of blame being flung about Barça social media was, essentially, the XI except for Messi, who was left blameless even if he shouldn’t have been. The person on that list of blame who doesn’t deserve to be there, and the only one, is Ter Stegen, but more about that when we break down the goals conceded. That 10 of the 11 members of the XI were, in some way or another, deemed culpable for the loss, points to the thing most worthy of illustration, which is that this was a collective loss in which everything failed. One telling statistic is that Barça won only 31 percent of tackles attempted. Yikes.
So who is at fault? Almost everyone. Who is most at fault? Ah, this is where it gets complicated, but let’s take a broader look.
The season before, Enrique’s first, was a World Cup year. The Spanish players came back early, and the South American players got a nice, long vacation after the competition. The pre-season was easy, some moseying about Europe, then into the regular season. This pre-season was a U.S. tour, then some cup matches, all of which were intense. During the U.S. tour the team also had to get into shape while making like tourists, which meant hard two-a-days and other training methods. So is that tired, directionless mass that got slapped around by Celta the fault of coaches? Well … okay, but not much they could do because they had to get the team ready for what was always going to be a grueling schedule, under circumstances best described as crappy. How about the board that is treating the team like a cash machine? “Need money? Send the lads on tour!” Okay because hey, the money has to be there so that the club can pay for Pogba, right?
Anyone who wants to play the blame game, something that isn’t appropriate here, has a few stops before getting to any player. Cause is a preferred word for me, which brings us to the goals and what caused them but first, a bit about confidence.
The culpable Stegosaurus?
Marc-Andre Ter Stegen doesn’t fill culers’ hearts with confidence. He concedes, makes errors and costs the team goals, goes the narrative. “Things are much more secure when Bravo is between the sticks, you big dummy.” Some yearned for the days of Valdes and his 1v1 skills, suffused in the rose-colored tint of nostalgia. Others pointed to scorelines and risk, suggesting that a less-risky keeper such as Bravo is vastly preferable because the team doesn’t concede when Bravo is playing. This last is like a car crash being blamed on a guy walking to work. Sure he was there, but he didn’t have anything to do with the crash. So it is with Ter Stegen, and the four goals conceded against Celta are really a microcosm of his time at the club in many ways.
Goal no. 1: When the Celta attack began, Alves inexplicably ran to cover a player who was already covered, leaving Nolito in acres of space at the edge of the Barça box. He was probably thinking that Sergi Roberto was going to close down on Nolito, which didn’t happen. As a consequence, Nolito had all day to pick out a perfect shot, which he then hit, perfectly. Ter Stegen still got fingers to it. Perhaps had he been luckier in the genetic lottery, he would have been 6’6” and could have pushed it over the bar instead of just getting fingers to it. But this goal more than any other points to the Enrique quote, that when the club concedes, the last place that he looks is the keeper. Once Nolito was allowed to line up and execute a perfect shot, Ter Stegen was screwed. He stops that one only in FantasyLand.
Goal no. 2: Oh, Pique. You have brilliant ball skills, for a CB. The move you tried against a smaller, very talented player who was also pressing … well … let’s just call it ill-advised. A skilled striker such as Aspas, running at a keeper alone in space, means that it’s all over but the shouting. Stay on the line, and he picks his spot. Charge him and maybe you can hope he misses the chip. Aspas didn’t.
Goal no. 3: Who’s back on the corner? As Barça was pressing for a goal to get them back into the match, the whole team was jammed tight into Celta’s end. So when Nolito got a ball, he knew exactly what to do, and so did Aspas, which was to take advantage of an attacking team that was overcommitted. Ter Stegen was left in the same quandary as before, with a skilled attacker running at him in acres of space. Again, he didn’t have a chance.
Goal no. 4: Oh, Pique. When he missed on his attempt to play the ball, it left the Celta player with ball at his feet, on the doorstep. Stunning for me is that some actually think Ter Stegen had a chance at stopping that goal. What he did was guess, and he was wrong. But when a player has the ball on your doorstep, as with penalties, a keeper has to take a guess and dive that way. Had Ter Stegen guessed right, it would have been a bit of luck hailed as an amazing save. He didn’t.
Those are the four goals, not a single one of which was attributable to Ter Stegen in the way his Levante howler was. Put Bravo in goal, and the scoreline is the same. Put Courtois in goal, and his big self probably reaches that first shot. So the final score is 3-1. The only shame of this whole keeper debate is that anyone questions whether Ter Stegen should be the club’s undisputed No. 1. He should be to my tastes, even as Bravo is too good a keeper to fill the Pinto role, which is unfortunate.
The other fascinating thing about this loss is how quickly it activated crisis mode for the entorno of a team that is just off of a treble. The kind of thoughtful analysis I read in the comments space here makes me proud, as an aside. Enrique, who just coached his team to winning everything last season, still has a tenuous grasp on the greased rope of supporter confidence. With some coaches, losses are an anomaly as the universe decides to momentarily scoff at singular excellence. But Enrique is a coach for whom things are very different. One loss and the entorno is questioning everything about him right down to what he had for breakfast. This isn’t fair, nor is it accurate. Barça had a complete systemic breakdown yesterday, moving like a team of dog-tired players, some of who are still working their way into form, such as Neymar and Messi. Tasks that are customarily performed by the team, were not. The pressing and closing down of last season that limited opponent shot attempts (the best shot is no shot) was wholly absent against Celta. Their attackers had acres of space because nobody in front of Ter Stegen was doing their job properly. Enrique will have a field day analyzing the match film, even as he will understand that such a match was going to happen, given the squad, the pre-season, the condition of that squad and the match schedule. When Busquets even has the stank, you know something is up.
Finishing is one sign of a tired side, and Barça isn’t finishing though the attack is creating chances. The team left goals on the table yesterday, most notably a brilliant attack led by Neymar, where Messi, faced with gobs of space to shoot at, decided that off the post would be cool. Pique missed a header he customarily buries, as did Neymar. When Barça decided to play, as it marshaled the energy that it had to put Celta in danger, there were chances. But the team didn’t have the juice to play like that the entire match. This was, by the by, also true of Levante but there is a vast gulf in quality between Levante and Celta.
On the up side, errors can be fixed. On the down side, the team is making many of the same errors, notably the failure to close down that resulted in the Roma golazo, and a couple of the Athletic goals. The team is also looser with possession which, when a risky scheme is played by the team. The obvious danger of that is when playing a counterattacking opponent (every team Barça plays, tactically) the defense will be in danger. Last season, the press and being more careful with possession prevented these problems from being apparent even as they reared their head from time to time. Celta laid them all bare.
The winter of our content
Still, it was only 3 points in the standings, leaving Barça one point off the top of the table. And even as my fingers type that there is no real cause for worry, the Barçaverse will worry because that’s what it does. The mantra for this season, and the reason smart money didn’t tap the team for another treble, is “hang on til January.” In Chicago, January brings snow up to the knees and temperatures that make most sane people question why they live in such an intemperate place. But January is, for this culer, hotly anticipated as Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal will fix a great many problems while creating others, particularly for those fond of Alves and Iniesta. Both of those XI fixtures will face very real competition for their spots. It wouldn’t be unrealistic to expect another loss or two before January, setbacks that will be no more a crisis than the Celta hammering was, one that I would wager has already been written off by the team, who understands exactly what happened.
But the coaching staff is focused on the bigger problems of getting through a difficult stretch with a top-class XI that is wanting for substitute players of something approaching like quality. Some of that is failure at La Masia level. If Munir and Sandro are all that you have to offer, those are the breaks of the game in a system that takes risks on youth players. Adama Traore and Gerard Deulofeu weren’t up to it, which is why they are plying their trade in the Premiership, hoping to do well enough to be brought back. The eggs are all in the basket of Messi, Neymar and Suarez as there isn’t a player on the bench capable of making a difference should the team run into trouble making chances (something that Barça didn’t lack for yesterday, even as tired finishing was a bigger problem). But that isn’t a problem as much as the blessing of having a trio of monsters. Squad depth, particularly in attack, was always going to be a complexity, so no surprise there. What player who is capable of being a competent sub for Messi, Neymar or Suarez is going to be happy sitting on the bench?
So Enrique is going to have the make the most of a short squad, featuring key players who will need rest but will never accept not starting, and defenders whose quality is dependent (as is true for almost all defenders) on a system functioning effectively. Crisis? No. Dilemma? Yes. How Enrique solves this will be fascinating to watch.