Let that scoreline sink in for just a second.
In a competitive match of football, one team scored eight goals. The other team scored two. And the losing team scored first.
For you statisticians and analytics types, the xG (expected goals) for the match looks like a massive blob of pink dots around the Huesca goal, each one a condemnation of the foolishness of the brave. When Cucho bundled in a goal within the first two minutes of the match, setting tongues wagging and not just in celebration, gloom stalked the halls, an augmentation of the prevailing mood even before a ball was kicked.
Rotation, rotaion, rotation was the order of the day, a notion that made some pithily observe that certainly the defense could use a rest, given how easily that first goal arrived for the opponents, new to the top flight this season. They even got a second, wrapped around a trio of tallies from the home side in something of a wild first half that ended 3-2 and leaving some with a point to make about rotation and letting an XI come together first.
But as usual in the second half under Valverde, adjustments were made, leaving Huesca a bit of consolation: the last time they visited Camp Nou they lost 8-1. So they improved by a goal. Their coach made it clear that they weren’t playing for a draw, something that was evident in the zeal with which they attacked the Barça end of the pitch, raising eyebrows and worries beyond a hammering that was always going to be, late defensive wake-up calls notwithstanding. Let’s take a look at a few of them:
Jordi Alba: Once we acknowledge how amazing and enabling Eric Abidal was, how much he made possible with his pace, range and dedication to the cause, we can suggest that Alba isn’t that player. Eyebrows shot up as new Spain coach Luis Enrique left Alba off the roster in picking his team for the upcoming friendly. Petty personal nonsense, or coach’s tactical decision, only Luis Enrique knows. But the increasing trend of looking to the left side of the Barça defense to find joy was even exploited by Huesca. A glorified winger that plays fullback, Alba is fantastic for thsoe who value the attacking side of things. If you were to ask Umtiti what would make his life easier, however (and Pique for that matter), they would probably want a more defensively solid LB. Maybe Luis Enrique ain’t crazy after all.
Sergi Roberto: Unlike Alba, who at least has the pace to toddle back to solve some problemns, once Sergi Roberto is done for, he’s done for. And then there is another turtle in Pique, for an attacker to play with. Both Barça defensive wings offer playing space for opposing wingers. In a game that has moved from center to flanks for creative energy and scoring drive, that is a complexity that will need solving. Valverde clearly wants Sergi Roberto’s brains and understanding of the way Barça should play on the pitch at all times. But Semedo has to be wondering whose puppy he kicked, to have been beasting around only to have to sit and watch.
No press: WAtching Liverpool on the weekend, and a press that forced errors, created breaks and rarely gave an opponent any time on the ball, was nostalgic. Cardiff played Arsenal, and the striker ran full speed at the keeper, in the hopes of forcing a clearance error, like Samuel Eto’o used to, and like Barça used to press under Guardiola. With that press, the attacker was the first defender. Not any longer. Now the first attacker, Luis Suarez, is a player who seems to say, as opponents scurry off with the ball, “You bring that back here!” And that works about as well as it does for anyone else. Counters are so effective against Barça because when Semedo isn’t on the pitch, the only pace is from Alba. Everyone else is degrees of not fast enough, including in the crucial midfield area, where neither Busquets nor Rakitic could catch a cold.
Supporters clamor for swashbuckling football, not realizing that if the team loses possession in the wrong place, Ter Stegen gets yet another opportunity to pad his save stats. Barça plays tight because it has to. With Guardiola, the team attacked and defended with eleven. Now, in the gala XI, there are four players — Messi, Suarez, Dembele, Coutinho — who think of defending as something for others to handle. Dembele is learning to track back. Coutinho does reasonably well at it. But it’s still going to be an opponent jailbreak when possession is turend. And often, with defenders pushed up, there are — complexities.
Coutinho and Dembele: Dembele flows less freely on the left when Coutinho is in the XI alongside him. Coutinho does a lot of the stuff that he does in bringing the ball up, moving around and shooting. Dembele becomes more static as he waits for Coutinho to finish doing what he is going to do with the ball. For a player whose game is predicated on dribbling, passing and moving without the ball, times are a little uncertain tactically for Dembele.
8-2 hides quite a lot. But in all of the pre-match snarking about Valverde, the best “worst coach ever,” there have been just a few looks at reasons why, and concerns. Those who want to see Barça running and gunning are going to be disappointed. Valverde will need to, of necessity, play tight at the back. Because on almost every break, Barça is quickly outnumbered by attackers. As with last season, even as the roster is delightfully deep, the dofensive vulnerability to the counter is always going to exist.
So what of this rotation business, three matches in to a new season? Naaah. Let the players develop and redevelop the necessary chemistry, then rotate. Valverde has the horses to rotate, but until the biggest problems are solved, the potential for a loooong match or Champions League campaign will always be there.