I have a suggestion for one and all: Batten down the hatches, because it’s going to be a terse, tense season. The glory year, and lopsided shellackings that were over by halftime seem to have raised a degree of expectation that this current squad can’t meet for any number of reasons:
–Teams aren’t so stupid as to play us as they did that year.
–We were coming at them with Messi, Eto’o and Henry
–We were daisy-fresh that season, having won bog all the previous two
–We were fit, deep and injury-free
And that just isn’t the case this year, as witnessed by Real Zaragoza, who played what has become a typical match against us these days: defend like crazy and hope the counter catches our pokey back line out. This precludes gaudy scorelines, while also placing a premium on finishing. When a side has had a Champions League match the previous Wednesday and here it is Saturday in the Liga, it’s understandable that things aren’t going to be as sharp as they would customarily be, except….
we were razor-sharp against Zaragoza, but played so thoroughly within ourselves that we seemed to know exactly how much effort to expend, when to shift from second to third gear to keep the match under control. It was a lot more impressive a win than it looked via one eye cast at a Web feed, the other at the LiveBlog screen. Zaragoza never had a chance. Yes, Valdes made three saves, if you want to call them that, efforts that never really had a chance of going in. Against a better side, we are playing harder, and those shots don’t even happen.
Can this confidence bite us in the ass? Yep. It did against Hercules, and probably will again at some point this season, as we parcel out effort in a way that is cognizant of a loooong season that will be contested on three fronts, with what is essentially a 19-man roster. So I’m going to suggest, here and now, that before people get to panicking, and nattering about how we don’t look good, that they reserve those cries for a calmer, more controlled viewing. Because I thought we looked great, and perfectly in control. As Ray Ray said, when asked about critics of our club, and how things might not be going as well, or the goals not being cooperative, “You can’t do anything else. You keep believing in your team.”
Guardiola rolled out with our “best for the moment” lineup of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, Busquets, Keita, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro! and Villa. And Zaragoza, to their eternal credit, showed some early bravery, coming out to play the game the way it should be played, before gradually regressing into the traditional role of an opponent of ours. And we passed it around, made some runs, played into their hands a bit by not using the full width of the field (as we usually do), and just kind of did enough to make sure they didn’t score, while setting things up for a moment of brilliance which always, always seems to come.
Our first great scoring chance came off a true counterattack, a comparative rarity for us. Villa’s pass for P! took a slight deflection off a defender before getting to Pedro!, who still should have converted the chance. But just like that, we grabbed third gear.
Then Keita stole a ball and fed it directly to Villa, who was off to the races with Messi also storming up the pitch. He laid on an amazing diagonal ball that found Messi in on the keeper with pretty much everything to shoot at. Messi was unerring, and it was 0-1, match over. Ray Ray, who must read this blog and the scoffing that we did at his blather, even fixed his Messi analogy, saying “He’d follow you into a revolving door, and he’d come out first,” which is a damn sight better than “You can follow him into a revolving door, and he’ll come out first.” Ha!
The goal was created by three moments of individual brilliance, moments that you can argue a club shouldn’t be relying on to win matches. But I say that if you need to conserve energy, you pick your spots. Keita stole that ball through sheer positional excellence and talent, feeding Villa in an instant. Villa’s brilliance was in moving in a way that made it clear he was the man to stop, sliding laterally so that more space was opened up for Messi then, off the dead run, slotting a spectacular ball to Messi. Messi then controlled the ball as easily as breathing, in a way that gave him all the time in the world to decide what to do. And he did the right thing.
Then we went back to just controlling the match, keeping them from scoring without working too hard, only bothering to really clamp down when it looked as though they were going to be a real threat. The only flaw in that approach was a typical one, in the lack of real width. When we fixed that, the second goal came as P! took a pass and slid in an exquisite feed to Keita, who forced a strong play by the keeper. The ball fell to Iniesta, who tried to spank it in, to no avail. Then it fell to Messi, who made no mistake (again), smoking a shot that their keeper didn’t have a chance at. It was 2-0, and playing with 10 men as they were, still deciding to play for the win, or at least honor, they didn’t really have a shot in this race, and we played out the string for a cruise control win.
I won’t argue with anyone who suggests that’s the kind of complacency that will get us in trouble against a better side. It almost did against Valencia, then we turned on the full power, and they didn’t have a chance. But only rarely have we decided to show how good we are this season. And yet, signs are there, if you look closely enough. When Villa starts scoring, look out. I don’t think he is going to ever stop. And if you note our Guaje closely, you will notice a significantly diminished paunch, which I’m sure has a lot to do with the energy that found him tracking back on defense today, and getting into position to make amazing pass after amazing pass.
I do, however, still think that we are one player away from being unstoppable. I’ve said it before, but we need a traditional striker. I go back to an analysis of last season’s Valencia match, over at Zonal Marking, in which the second-half insertion of Thierry Henry was huge. A few excerpts:
Henry is far from a classic hold-up player, but today he was happy to receive the ball with his back to goal, and lay it off for the three other onrushing attacking players.
Henry was, of course, an immediate threat to the Valencia centre-backs, and the main beneficiary of this was Messi. When Messi was on his own upfront, he was their only problem. With Henry on as more of a physical presence and a more traditional striker, he was their most immediate concern. But the most immediate concern is not the same as the main danger – and this was where Messi came in. With a slightly freer role, he was able to come deep and pick up the ball, before running at the defence to devastating effect.
In the here and now, we have to rely on smoke and mirrors to create chances, because when one of our midgets stops with the ball a defender bundles him off it. We saw it time and again today, as we have time and again this season. What that traditional back-to-goal player does is allows the ball to stop, so that our Wee Ones can make runs. ZubiZa has already said that we aren’t going to make any purchases, though we might promote a player (cough!Thiago!cough!Thiago!). But if I could make any squad addition, that traditional striker is the one that I would make.
Now on with the points.
Team: 6. Played only as well as it had to play, resulting in a few moments of clunkiness, and one distressingly free header that was easily dealt with by Valdes. Our defense in depth, from end to end of the pitch, is a joy to watch.
Guardiola: 8. Right lineup, right subs, right decision to rest Xavi. He understood exactly what his club was doing, and watched the match like a hawk, even letting Alves have it when he ignored Krkic in favor of an offside Villa.
Valdes: 7. Good match today. The saves that he made were more positioning saves, that lesser keepers might have made more dramatic than Valdes did.
Alves: 4. I didn’t like his match today. He wasn’t really tested on defense, but offensively he was a beat off. Missing that chip toward a wide-open net was crazy, and another time he waited too long to shoot. This was in addition to generally poor crosses, and the aforementioned ignoring of a wide-open Krkic.
Pique: 6. Calm and controlled, from bringing the ball up to winning headers. He still doesn’t have that ultimate knowledge that allows him to coast, as evidenced by a few funky moments.
Puyol: 6. Solid as can be, but he is getting done for pace more easily and consistently these days, something he’ll need to watch more carefully.
Abidal: 8. Another excellent match from our French Greyhound, including moments where his control had to be perfect as he was surrounded by Zaragoza attackers, and it was. There were also some key interventions to prevent any real danger, and the usual cross or two that warranted a better fate.
Busquets: 6. Solid, though with a heaping helping of “Good Busi, Bad Busi.” There was one sequence in which he gave the ball away twice in the same sequence of play. Of course, then he makes up for it with excellent defense. I wanted to see him in more of a forward role, since Iniesta was on the wing and Xavi was watching.
Keita: 7. Kick-ass match again, from the steal that led to the first goal, to play after fine defensive play and storming the box. He’s so reliable, and seems to know how to do exactly what the side needs.
Iniesta: 7. Ghostface is back, and in full effect. I still don’t believe him to be a wing player, but he was all danger all the time today, with well-timed passes and something else worth noting: his high-risk game has been reined in, making him a more consistent threat.
Messi: 9. A Man of the Match performance that had him as a constant danger. He was razor-sharp today with the ball, as regards passing, shooting and control. He knew exactly when to destabilize with a run, and when to gut with a pass.
Pedro!: 5. He didn’t get a lot of help from teammates who were ignoring him on the wing, but pretty anonymous today.
Villa: 7. One of those Henryesque stat-stuffer matches in which he created space for teammates, made brilliant passes (he shoudl have had three assists!), tracked back on defense and generally raised hell. Even his shot that hit the post had the keeper beaten like a gong.
Thiago (for Iniesta): 7. Wow. We can’t lose this dude. From steals in the midfield to passes that were always to the right person with the right weight, he was wonderful. Witness his pass for the post-hitting Villa. It was timed just right, with the exact right amount of weight for Villa to get it quickly and take the shot. Wow.
Krkic (for Pedro!): 5. Would almost certainly have played to a higher rating. What an amazing play to rush back, play defense on one end, work the ball loose then be in the box, ready and available for Alves to ignore.
Mascherano (for Busquets): incomplete. Not enough time. He did some nice things while out there, but he only had a few minutes on the pitch.
So. I was getting in my car after picking up dinner this evening, and whacked my ear on the edge of the door/window. I can’t even begin to describe how much it hurt. I was checking for blood, and looking for the trainer with the magic bottle of water. Did Alves sell the hell out of that contact with the Zaragoza player, resulting in a straight red? Yep. How much is only for Alves to know, but me whacking my own ear kinda put things in perspective for me.
In some ways, I view such things as self-defense, as teams try to play us more physically in an effort to throw us off our game. There are little extra shoves and kicks, little things on and off the ball that the referees should be picking up, but don’t always. I am not a fan of diving, and the other stupid crap that the likes of Alves and Busquets sometimes do. But as someone noted in the LiveBlog, if the Villa flickpunch was a straight red, then so was this one. I wish we played in a world where such things weren’t necessary, but we don’t. And I will continue to have mixed feelings about such things, making case-by-case calls.
Next up is the Copa del Rey opener, on Tuesday. Expect to see a B-fest, as it should be for an away leg in a tournament that if our minds are right, we won’t really care about all that much. Then the next weekend is Sevilla, a match that we will care very much about, and one that should see a return to action for Xavi, yet one more reason that the emergence of Thiago is such a delight.
And until then, keep the faith, and believe in your team.