Barça 1, Atleti 1, aka “Stuff done gone buck wild!”

Well, that was a mess, wasn’t it? And what have we learned in Copa Class today, besides that suffering is life and life is crapicious?

Nothing is as it seems, no matter how much we want it to be.

Luis Enrique said, “I didn’t like the first half. We didn’t look like the team that we usually are.” Scream “Lucho out” all you like, but dude ain’t blind. That Barça took a lead into the locker room at the half defied all logic, as if the football gods decided to reward the ability to suffer as they did in last year’s Champions League semi against this same Atleti. Barça wasn’t good. The Devoted beat their chests and rend their garments as they scream about this or that, about standards and how could anyone be happy seeing Barça like this, not understanding that nobody is. Espectially the coach, who knows most of all how good his players can be.

Suffering isn’t solitary. Whether a team or a fanbase, suffering is collective and make no mistake, everybody suffered in a match that was, to wallow in euphemism, moderately incident-filled. Barça finished with nine players on the pitch, due — despite those who will say the ref blundered — solely to player stupidity. Messi struck a free kick from somewhere near La Rambla that pranged off the bottom part of the crossbar. Busquets got a yellow for kicking a second ball off the pitch. Kevin Gameiro made Madrid’s contribution to the manned space program with a penalty kick. Atleti had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside.

Just an ordinary day in what has become the new Classic.

Atleti came to the Camp Nou knowing that its best chance at silverware was the Copa del Rey, and that Simeone and his charges would have to go through Barça to do it, a Barça that had a 1-2 aggregate lead buttressed by a pair of precious away goals.

They came out with an attack-oriented lineup that included Barça’s personal tormentor, Fernando Torres, and attack they did, pinning Barça back and turning a Copa semi-final first into a track meet then into a midfield Trojan War. Suarez got an excellent early chance and after that it was dig in and suffer time against a pressing, physically aggressive opponent who sparked the same worries as Athletic Club on the weekend.

Oddly enough, the first half went the same way as against Athletic on the weekend. Barça was outplayed, yet went into the locker room with a lead on the day (1-3 on aggregate). The goal was simple enough to explain. Messi donned his cape, obliterated the Atleti defense and smoked a shot at goal, which was spilled by Moya. Suarez pounced on the rebound, and that was that, the odd end to a first half of pain and suffering, both physical and aesthetic.

An inability to move on explains a great many things. People seemed surprised that Atleti played so well against Barça, a team that has played 11 matches in the past 34 days. And in the past five years, Atleti has been to more Champions League finals than Barça. The team also improved over the summer. Barça entered the match without Neymar, Iniesta or Busquets, the absence of that first player being most crucial in how things progressed.

Speaking of absences, does Oblak give the rebound that Moya did? Worth an ask before returning to a notion about absences and the effect for Barça, short and long-term. Neymar is crucial. Even as people want to rush him out of the club, the Atleti match made his invaluable qualities clear. He breaks a press by taking a pass and running up the wing. He relieves pressure on Messi to be an attacking threat and ball carrier. He tracks back, which relieves the Barça left-sided mids of as much defensive duty, while also helping the LB and LCB. You can hate his hair, his Instagram, his social media presense and his marketing. But it is no longer possible to deny what he brings to Barça as an essential player.

Atleti was able to take advantage of that absence by flooding the midfield, clamping down on Messi and isolating Suarez. The one time Messi slipped the leash he made them pay. Their flooding the midfield also meant they were able to create chaos there, then work the ball loose to attack the vulnerable right side of Barça, as Sergi Roberto demonstrated once again that a Swiss Army knife is a great tool to have in a pinch, but a specialized tool will always be better. He was abused by yet another opponent, which made the life of Pique more difficult.

Jesper Cillessen to the rescue. In an MOTM performance, Cillessen made the case for being one of the best second keepers in football with saves and most importantly, great hands. He doesn’t spill rebounds. He also understands what to do and what not to do with the ball, even in a world where nothing is going as it seems. Midfield chaos could be bypassed via a long pass to a player such as Suarez who would hold things up until the attack reset in the new location, to bypass the midfield quagmire. Where is the midfield? See that “No Vacancy” sign? It’s over there.

One of the things heard a lot is that “Barça can’t handle the press.” Here’s some news. No team can handle a properly executed press from a high-quality opponent, whoever the coach might be. A good team will devise a way to find success despite the opponent action, which is what Barça did. And it advanced to yet another Copa final. Results aren’t everything, except to people whose jobs it is to get them.

And if not for Cillessen being MOTM, Andre Gomes would have a shout at that honor. Not only was he the best of the Barça mids, but he continued to show the progress that begins to make that pricetag make something approaching sense. His control, turn and defense-gutting pass to free up Messi for his run was lustrous. He was almost consistently physical and creative, after a shaky start playing with the pace that matched the team ambition.


Another crucial player was Umtiti. He won headers, made interceptions, passed, ran and late in the match, put his body in the way of a shot that had “GOAL!” written all over it.

But late in the match was chaos, as first Sergi Roberto, a player known for his intelligence, was so stupid as he laid in a crunching tackle and picked up a second yellow. But Suarez might have been just as stupid for going for a ball with his arms up, brushing the head of an Atleti player with his elbow. The resultant yellow was soft. Premiership devotees would laugh at the love tap. But a player knows how a league is officiated, and every time you go into a player’s head with the elbow up and out, it will be a card, barring ref error. Suarez screwed up, and will miss the final as will Sergi Roberto, assuming Suarez’s second yellow isn’t overturned on appeal.

Going down to 10 and then 9 amped up the suffering factor, and contributed to the madness. There isn’t a place for stability, for those keywords in a Barça drinking game that would hospitalize you if every time you heard “midfield,” “structure” or “positional play” you took a shot. Those days ain’t those days.

A team moving on is part of life. What’s also an unfortunate part of life is the acknowledgement and realization, only after they are gone, what great players brought to the side. Players such as Alves, Xavi and Abidal are gone, because of the passage of time and the need to move on. When they were with the club, people were anxious to move them along, to play Thiago over Xavi because it was time, or snarking about Alves’ defending and the erratic quality of his crosses. Abidal didn’t attack enough for many culers.

Yet it is these three players whose absences are the most acute, and affecting the notions people have most severely. Those three were crucial in making what so many have come to think of as “Barça football” possible. Xavi was the metronome, a constant, dancing presence, a place where the ball was happiest. He ran a lot but rarely moved, always seeming to be in the same place as a fulcrum for the lever of the Barça attack. There is no Xavi replacement. Never was, never will be. The team is facing that reality.

Alves wasn’t just an RB. He was also an RW and RMF, with a varied skill set that allowed him to be everything to everyone, in addition to the life of the party off the pitch. This meant that his midfield mates didn’t have to run their legs off to compensate for him, which allowed Rakitic to be world-beating Rakitic more than babysitting Rakitic.

Abidal was a human wall with sideline-to-sideline range. Pique isn’t the fastest CB in football, which is something of an understatement. When he was caught out of position, there was Abidal. When Busquets lapsed and let a ball through, there was Abidal. When anything happened that wasn’t supposed to, there was Abidal, a player who liberated the left side of the pitch. Iniesta didn’t have to track back, because there was Abidal.

As people clamor for a return to “Barça football,” it is with a lack of understanding of both player and tactical realities. The Great Barça Myth is that tactics exist and are executed independently of player quality and opponent input. It’s a byproduct of the Cult of Coaches that has popped up, that has people discussing tactics without the full understanding of player roles in those tactics. Sergi Roberto isn’t Dani Alves. This means that Rakitic can’t be Rakitic, and Pique can’t be Pique. Because Rakitic can’t be Rakitic, Iniesta can’t be Iniesta, and Busquets has to cover more space, so he can’t be Busquets, so Ter Stegen has to hold the ball a beat longer because Busquets isn’t being Busquets.

Whatever tactic anyone talks about starts with players. Tactics are lovely, but if you bring the proper tactics and positional play and start Barça B against Atleti, that team will get a beat down. “Barça football” needs players of a certain level to properly execute it. Lose one of those players and things are funky. Lose two and stand back. Three? Against Atleti, Barça had precisely none of the spine that made the football the team played so wonderful. Busquets and Iniesta were on the bench. Even more worrisome, something that many chose to ignore, is that match control and level of play decreased when Busquets and Iniesta entered. This was to be expected as both were working off injuries, but this was yet another match where Rakitic went off and things went all to hell.

Structure is important. So is calmness. So is suffering. So is winning. Barça had precious little of the first, even as they started off the second half looking like the team they could be. They had lots of the second and plenty of the third. And they did the fourth. As we have been saying all too often this season, it wasn’t pretty, but it got done. Is that the new normal? With a match every three days for the foreseeable future, probably.

"I love you, man!"
“I love you, man!”

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. I kept checking the blog looking for a plausible reading of what happened yesterday and of what’s been happening recently. And I was not disappointed as Kxevin’s analysis pointed out some relevant points, namely the fact that players can only give what they have and that the team is in transition. I also agree that the game would have been totally different had Neymar been around.
    This said, I really hope that this will not become “the new normal”. Relying on the ingenuity of Messi and the divine power of luck will sooner or later run its course. And Lucho will have to answer the question: What now?… Yes, players are the ones on the field and can only rely on their skills and instincts. But they should also be guided by a plan. Unfortunately, Lucho did not give the impression that he had one lately.

    1. Truth be told, Messi has been a big reason why we’ve achieved this much since guardiola. Yes the play was beautiful with guardiola, but even with the other gods like Xavi, Iniesta, busquet and Co on the pitch I still can’t count the number of times we got bailed out in very important matches by Messi alone. Everyone offers what they have, Messi gives his, so does Suarez and Neymar, but messi’s offering is superior to that of all players on earth. That said, this is a match against atletico, never an easy one irrespective of the coach or players we have, in fact I can’t remember any coach in world football that’s has recorded more success over someone’s atletico like lucho has in 3years. In fact I don’t remember barca as a club record this level of of success over atletico under any coach, so far we’ve significantly failed just once.

  2. Cult of Coaches … I keep thinking of this myself in recent times. Reminds me of the ‘Auteur Theory’ in films that came about in the 60s.

    It’s funny to what extent football tactics go around in circles and in cycles. An eternal Rock-Paper-Scissors game really. I recently went back to rewatch the 1994 UCL final against Milan. That match puts so much of the current discussion about control, structure, positional play, midfield build-up, Cruyffism, individual brilliance and what not in such interesting context. I was thinking what would a match report of that game read like? I realized, you could make so many stories out of this one, based on your own preoccupations. You could write about an intense high press beating the crap out of patient midfield build up. You could write about the magnificent back line of Milan and harp the adage that it is defenses that win champioships. You could write about the powers of evil Italian Capello sadly winning over the visionary genius Cruyff. You could argue that what Barca really lost to was the genius of Dejan Savicevic, helped along by other brilliant teammates, and that Milan simply had better players than Barca did in many key positions. And any of these headlines would sound oh-so-contemporary 🙂 But the common theme in all of these would be (or should be) that Barca trully got outplayed. If I had to make a must-watch list for the younger generation of Barca fans, I’d put that game on top of my list. Yeah, Cruyff was coach, and Pep was playing in midfield. The days of the Oracle. Gives you perspective.

    Over my entire football watching life, I cannot recall any successful club team continuing to be successful playing exactly the same system for more than 3-4 years. Partly because players age/move on, partly because the very success of the sytem generates high quality responses from other successful teams. The intense high press is back. Although I haven’t seen it yet fully formed, soon there will emerge the latest systemic response to it. My intuition tells me a lot will hinge on the ability to launch rapid fire counter-attacks and being ruthless with them. I don’t see why Barca will not be the team perfecting it. We saw glimpses in 2014-15, against the likes of Atleti themselves. But before that, the team itself will need to be fully adapted and well-calibrated with the new personnel, which clearly it is not yet. Vertical compactness is an issue LE might want to address at this point.

  3. “No team can handle a properly executed press from a high-quality opponent, whoever the coach might be”

    I would argue for something a bit different here: there are teams that can handle the press (through exploiting its weaknesses), but no team can play controlled football and dominate possession in the face of an excellent six-man press. Is it me, or did the “high press”-tactics only employ four or five forwards attacking the defense during the Guardiola era? If teams keep using the six-man press against us – and they will as long as they think they can get results by it – we won’t see a continuation of dominating possession through short passes, no matter who the players or the coach are.

    What I saw yesterday was a very calm response to the high press, either playing it out through the sides or via long balls. And after a shaky first 25 minutes we managed to calm the game down considerably. However, this still needs to get better – too many long balls coming right back at the defense, and not enough chances created from the big hole a team with a high press has to leave in their backyard.

    I’m not sure which of our midfielders are currently best at managing that. Gomes was very good yesterday but he was very bad recently, so no idea how he will do. I would think we would need at least one of Rafinha, Suarez Minor or Arda, aka Those Who Can Actually Go Past An Opponent.

    1. “There are teams that can handle the press (through exploiting its weaknesses), but no team can play controlled football and dominate possession in the face of an excellent six-man press” -I tend to agree. Barca themselves have handled the high press in recent years bypassing midfield build-up and launching quick fire counter attacks. Our only goal came from one of the few effective counter attacks we managed to launch yesterday. There is space to be exploited, and the opposition have to be forced to watch their back. But without Neymar, and a less explosive Messi, that threat gets severly diminished. It was really painful for me to watch Leo try to launch into a quick stride a couple of times to relieve the pressure, only to be easily overtaken. Broke my heart. Pace is not a strong suit of our current squad at this point of time, nor do we have too many ball carriers. As a result, compactness has to be compromised, and instead of lines droppoing back to nullify the imbalance in midfield and then carrying the ball forward in attack, we see more long passes trying to beat the press. I don’t think one or the other is a foolproof solution in all situations, it will depend on the oppponent, Atleti having nothing to lose and going full throttle in numbers intensified our problem of a lack of players who can actually carry the ball forward and push defenders back. Suarez seemed to have been left in a limbo of whether to drop down and join the effort in midfield or to stay up and collect the long pass when it came.

      Dealing with a high press crucially hinges on the speed of response. The ball runs faster than the man, yes, but in the face of severe numerical imbalance, the congestion would not let the ball run really, at times the men will just have to run with the ball into less congested space.

  4. Every now and then luck goes the way you hope, and this was one of them. Atleti was unlucky, a number of times, though another way of putting it is they failed to capitalize, but that is assigning agency where sometimes it doesn’t belong.

    So a huge shout out to the lads! They are slogging through a tough season, what with injuries and a team in transition. It is not an ideal environment for kids to get their sea legs, but really can we ask for more from such crucial additions as Umtiti or Cilleson or Sergi in a role he never thought he’d have? We were patient with Suarez Major for more than half a season; can’t we extend the same hopeful forbearance to Gomes?
    Maybe there’s silverware waiting at the end of the season, but for me the ride has been worth it.

    1. I share your sentiment on the fighting spirit on display. As I was watching and rewatching yesterday’s match, in fact at many other points of time this season, I kept thinking this team has LE written all over it in at least one aspect: no matter whether things are going their way or not, grit and a clenched jaw are hardly ever missing. It’s not a co-incidence that the team keeps scoring goals “against the run of play”. Only genius doesn’t buy you that. Even the young lads more or less seem to have come around to this rather quickly. Remember Cillessen against Alaves? That was only a few months ago. And yesterday he made us all proud. Kudos indeed, and let’s see where these youngsters go. I really really wish LE would stick around for a season or two to see this project through.

  5. Our schedule is brutal.We played 26 games from late August to late December and with PSG game we would have play the half games,13,in 42 days.And the most of them,8 away,Bilbao,Sociedad,Atletiko,Eibar,Betis,Villareal and next Alaves and PSG.It was obvious against Atletiko that the team was tired and after the red card we could nt do much except defending deep.I can understand that with 3 days between games there is nt enough time for recovery and tactics for next game.Lucho said that he had a horrible time in the whole game.I am sure he want to change things.But can do it with that schedule?

    1. Unfortunate, but let’s hope Paco gets a few minutes and a few goals before the final, and we should be fine. Or stick Ney or Messi there.

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