Borussia Monchengladbach 1, Barça 2, aka “A change that refreshes”

On a Paris vacation one year, my wife and I were looking for a particular restaurant, got hopelessly lost and wound up, purely by accident on Rue Mouffetard, a half-mile stretch of gustatory overload. We had a great meal, homemade gelato and a lovely experience at the end of all the travail and crankiness.

That was a lot like the Borussia Monchengladbach Champions League outing, in which Luis Enrique started out in search of the wrong thing, got religion and a grand time was had by all. With an XI of Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Neymar, Suarez and Alcacer, it was odd that the Barça coach made a tactical decision based on individual excellence.

On paper, Neymar, Suarez and Alcacer doesn’t work, mostly because it creates imbalances elsewhere on the pitch because Neymar becomes the superstar who will shirk on the donkey work, while Suarez and Alcacer will spend the bulk of their time in the opponent box. It leaves the other eight outfield players with too much space to cover, should a turnover happen at the wrong time against a pressing, counterattacking team such as Borussia … which is exactly what happened.

Busquets ran into a vice, turned the ball over and the mess began. At the moment Mascherano makes the pass to Busquets, there aren’t any options for the gangly midfielder. Iniesta is moving away from him, Rakitic isn’t positioned well and there are three Borussia players within five yards of Busquets. They converge, and there was only one outcome. The subsequent Borussia counter had then running at a fully exposed Barça defense. Every Barça attacker is outpaced. Pique moves to cover for the dead in the water Sergi Roberto, Mascherano moves to cover the Pique space, leaving the complexity of something you just don’t consider: Jordi Alba was left for dead by his runner who calmly slots home, leaving Ter Stegen to muse about the capricious nature of a homecoming, and just whose party this was, anyhow.

It was 1-0, and the Park was going wild even as it heaved a sigh of relief, as this counter came in the wake of a blown Neymar opportunity when he stroked his shot directly at the Borussia keeper, the first blunder from him on a night filled with them. It was at this point that the XI decision went from briliant to way wrong, because that isn’t the group to chase a match against a pressing team when two of the three attackers are having nights to forget.

For 89 and a half minutes, Neymar was the precise player that his detractors revel in. He dribbled into danger and lost the ball time and again, argued his way into a yellow, misplaced passes and had the kind of match that probably made Robinho say, “Hey, don’t call him Robinho II. I never sucked that bad.” And because the unbalanced lineup had Busquets too deep thus isolating Iniesta which also isolated Neymar, the pressing Borussia players could just rush to the ball whenever Neymar got it, and dispossess him because nobody, not even Messi, can dribble multiple defenders regularly.

But that didn’t stop Suarez from trying to do the same thing whenever he got the ball, stumbling at a pair of Borussia defenders like a baby mastodon taking its first steps, losing the ball then glowering at the futility of it all while standing there, watching Borussia players capering away with their easily won prize.

Alcacer couldn’t even yell, “Hey guys, I’m open,” because he wasn’t. Because there was nobody to get him the ball, a reality that reduced him to spectator. It was a mess, and people began to predict another Alaves, and talk about how everyone underestimated this Borussia side, who were tapped to be nothing but trouble, unless you ignore the fact that most of the trouble Barça faced was of its own making.

So, like that lost-as-hell couple in Paris who decided, “To hell with that restaurant, let’s just eat here,” a change of plans brought about something wonderful. At halftime, Luis Enrique pretty quickly deduced that his “genius” program was being sabotaged by clods, so it was on to Plan B. In the 60th minute, Rafinha came on for Rakitic and Arda Turan came on for Alcacer. A lot of stuff happened with this pair of subs:

— Iniesta got a playmate
— Busquets could move up the pitch, as he wasn’t so isolated in defense thanks to Turan and Rafinha
— Borussia’s defenders had two players to track who could move with and without the ball
— Suarez had the box all to himself again, and could get a pass where he could do damage, instead of on the edge of the box
— Barça could press with all the outfield players, which blunted any Borussia ambitions
— There were two players who could move into space and score, rather than being easy to mark
— Neymar had working space

It all seems so simple when you look at it that way, but look at the result. Busquets received a pass almost at the edge of the Borussia box and fed Neymar who, rather than having to beat 2-3 defenders before he could do anything, could breathe and make something happen. He lobbed a rainbow to Turan who, rather than being the kind of attacker (Alcacer) who occupied a position and waited for the bus to come, could pass and move, running to a spot. Neymar’s inch-perfect pass dropped at Turan’s feet and suddenly it was 1-1 in a world of puppies and rainbows.

If you look at when the pass happens, the run dictated it. Neymar could see it because he wasn’t fighting to retain possession and Turan was already at full tilt running onto the ball. It was an easy, logical goal (and one that Ter Stegen probably doesn’t concede because he rushes that Neymar pass so that it never finds its target, but that’s another story) that seemed as easy as it was. It was also a satisfying goal because it came from subs, a tactical change and an embrace of the system, rather than “Hey magic men, do your stuff,” something that Barça now has the depth and quality to move away from.

Luis Enrique won’t get a lot of praise or credit for making the decisions that turned that match around. Typically, he deflected attention to his assistant, Unzue. Luis Enrique isn’t a celebrated coach, nor is he considered a genius in the way other coaches are. He’s considered a hard-working coach like the player that he was, not that he cares. His team understands, and rewards him.

It’s easy to wonder why Barça seemed so calm, even when down 1-0 away in the Champions League. It was more than “Well, it’s the group stages.” The team knew that it had enough quality to overturn the result, as 1-0 was … well … nothing. The equalizer also had the effect of psychologically damaging the Borussia side, as often happens when a team with something to play for suddenly has a bit less to battle for. That half step is all that the Barça attack needs. There were passing lanes, the Borussia players were easily dispossessed when they were loaned the ball, and Barça moved up the pitch to play from its comfortable spot, the front foot.

The second goal was, in part, the happy accident. It was a set piece that worked exactly as planned except for an off shot from Suarez, who found himself exactly as it was all drawn up by Unzue. He was unmarked just above the spot as Neymar’s pass, rather than a lofted ball into the area as Borussia expected, was a ball along the ground at a pace set up for Suarez to strike through. His one-timer was parried, then spilled by the keeper and Pique was there to mop up. It was 1-2, and Borussia was done. So was the match.

Last season in the same situation, Barça probably doesn’t pull one out of the fire because the bench was rather a different prospect. This year, an in-form Turan and a razor-sharp Rafinha were just begging for insertion. Last year, Luis Enrique seemed stubborn not because he was, but because what could he do, really? Sandro? Munir? This season he not only has the tactical nous that he had before, but the players to implement his ideas. It was as clear to him as any of us that his front three weren’t working, but you give any decision a half, because of the players you have. Suarez could be terrible for a match, sparkle for 30 seconds, score a brace, then retun to invisibility. Neymar is always capable of something extraordinary.

Neymar has been at FC Barcelona for going into four seasons. In that time he has tallied key goals, highlight reel moments, assists and has learned to track back on defense and work doggedly. He has selflessly slotted into a superstar front three and has never at any time not been deferential to its leader, Lionel Messi. Messi isn’t getting kicked as much because Neymar is getting kicked — pretty much all the time. He used to exaggerate. Now he mostly gets up and gets on with it, unless he wants to call a laggardly official’s attention to systematic abuse. He accelerates the play of Barça in a way that makes its attack much more dangerous and in the eight weeks that Messi was absent last season, Neymar became the engine that drove the squad. Without those efforts, the Liga isn’t won.

Despite all of that, too many supporters lay in wait for him like semantic thieves in the night, leaping upon any and all failures, forgetting that other players have crap matches as well. Without question, Neymar was so poor yesterday. Yet, like Messi who will be crap for most of a match, then pop up, score two goals and walk off with MOTM, Neymar was integral to both Barça goals against Borussia. Why he continues to have detractors, why he continues to have to deal with a double standard, only they know. But of the many things that make the world of Barça social media so absurd and unfathomable, the dislike of Neymar is one of the more noteworthy.

Meanwhile, Barça got some breathing room in the group, thanks to Celtic doing the lord’s work and drawing Manchester City. While no match in that group is a gimme, Barça will go into the remaining ties against Celtic and Borussia (Camp Nou) with a degree of confidence. And if City defends against Borussia as it did against Celtic, the job of winning the group will be a bit less daunting for Barça, who demonstrated the calmness and will of a champion. Just as it reassures us to see players such as Busquets, Iniesta and Neymar, it must do wonders when you’re working with them on the pitch. It’s easy to say that quality will out in the highsight of 20/20 and a come-from-behind victory, but an adage isn’t just made up. The more talented team played well enough to win. Championships are built from those kinds of bricks.

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Lionel Messi Left Hamstring Issues Officially Confirmed

What can be worse than being passionate about your job, and not being able to do it due to an injury? If you have ever felt the disappointment of being unable to complete a task, imagine how Lionel Messi feels today, after Barcelona officially confirmed his hamstring injury. It’s not only the fact that he might be sidelined for a while but also the disappointment of his fans – and Barca’s fans – because of him missing from the playfield.

Take it slow

Messi’s injury has been noted by the team even before the player left for Argentina last week. Although the injury admittedly bothered him, Messi still scored Albiceste’s only goal against Uruguay. He played against Uruguay, but he won’t set foot on the field against Venezuela, and, according to Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza, he will most likely not play with Barca against Alaves either.

“Tests conducted today on first team player Leo Messi have confirmed that the discomfort in his left adductor muscle persists,” the announcement issued by Barca reads. “It’s advised he lowers the burden of training in the coming days and the evolution of the injury will mark his availability to return to action.”

“Everything is fine, I have to slow things down as I recover with physio, but it’s nothing to worry about”, Messi reassured his fans in a Facebook update this week. “Thanks to you all for your support.”

Sidelined

Since the evolution of Messi’s injury was discovered recently, and might still evolve, there’s no way to know when he will be back on the field. He might be out for weeks, during which he’ll have nothing to do but relax, see the doctors, and play – maybe even Football Star, so he won’t be missing the game too much.

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The good news

Although Messi is out for the time being, not all news are bad: Andres Iniesta announced that he is making good progress in recovering from the injury he suffered in the Spanish Super Cup. Speaking to online news outlet Cadena SER, Iniesta said that his knee is getting better by the day.

Water and spheres of influence, a Messi-less Barça

It’s odd that Messi was injured right around the same time last season, in late September. Then as now, the injury to the best player in the game forced Luis Enrique to make tactical changes, the first of which were rolled out against Sporting Gijon.

Last year a different squad necessitated a different solution as Luis Enrique unleashed Neymar the Trickster. The team accelerated play to give Neymar the space to do what he does best, which is unsettle defenses at speed. He found a willing accomplice in Luis Suarez, and the pair thrived.

Last year’s squad was also hamstrung by a lack of depth, which was fixed in the summer transfer window. While it’s difficult to be able to suss anything definite from the Sporting outing, the first Messiless outing has a few tactical indicators worth looking at.

Some speculate that teams play differently when Messi is in the lineup, but it’s more than that alone. If you think about dropping rocks into a pond and the subsequent ripples as the stone cleaves the water’s surface, size matters. A pebble makes small circles, a stone larger ones, a rock larger ones still.

Messi is an asteroid.

The ripples that he makes when you drop him into the pond are massive. Ray Hudson, during the match, spoke of Messi elevating his teammates with his excellence. That’s the massive ripple. What happened in the absence of the asteroid is that all of the little stones developed interlocking ripple patterns, rather than the big wave washing over them.

Because Messi is a reference, he touches the ball during almost every Barça attack. The ball goes from keeper to defender to midfieler to Messi, who is left to his own devices. He surveys, sometimes does a give/go other times makes a run, surveys, passes or makes another run. The ball is with the reference point a lot of the time, as it should be.

Without Messi as that reference point, the ball moves around more because more players have an opportunity not only to touch it, but to do something with it. Gomes took a couple of ill-advised plunks from distance that, with Messi in the XI he never has a chance at. He has a different sphere of influence. Neymar was, at least against Sporting, more conservative than he was last year during Messi’s absence because of higher-quality personnel surrounding him.

On the second goal Neymar is central, running Barça a lot like he runs Brazil. The pace is slowed down from the pell-mell assault of the Messi injury period from last season, however, because of the ball as space gobbler system that Luis Enrique has installed. Neymar doesn’t get to make the pass to Sergi Roberto if Messi is in there. Does Messi make that pass, or does he make a run at the defense? It isn’t a knock on Messi to say that he considers himself, even as he morphs into the best 10 to ever play the game, always the best option. Every great player does, and they’re usually correct.

Neymar slid the ball to Sergi Roberto, who laid a flawless cross onto the head of Rafinha, the player deputized to occupy that Messi space, but in a different way. As Messi, he was designated to bring the ball up, to function as the shuttle between midfield and attack, but in a very direct way. Rafinha doesn’t make a dribble or run at the defense, because that isn’t his game. His smaller sphere of influence overlaps with his teammates in a very different way, one that makes Barça unstable in a different way to a defense. Rakitic plays in a manner similar to Rafinha, and it’s easy to imagine him in that exact role. He even scored a similar headed goal, against Atleti.

The other thing to notice is that Luis Enrique pushed both Digne and Sergi Roberto far wide, hugging the touch line. This meant, because of how Barça uses the fullbacks also as wingers, Sporting had more space to play. This tactical decision allowed Neymar and Digne to interact in a way that almost led to a goal. It allowed Gomes the space he needed to be creative, while also letting Arda Turan relax and have time on the ball. When there is no one big danger, Barça can use space and a lot of smaller dangers to still be effective.

If the defense decides to play tight in the middle it facilitates Sergi Roberto, who had two assists and really should have had a third. If a defense spaces wide to attack the ball, there is space for the creative players in the middle to do their damage. The absence of Messi tightens the Barça talent sine wave to something more Bayernesque, a confederacy of near-equals. Anyone can kill you.

Last season Suarez had more to play with because Neymar was mostly still maintaining his sphere of influence on the left, so he and Suarez were playmates in the box. This season, with Arda Turan present on the left, there was a very different proposition for Suarez. Turan isn’t the same kind of player as Neymar, so the space-creating runs aren’t coming from the left any longer even as intelligent possession and passes are.

If anything, Barça is, in Messi’s absence, forced to become more archetypical Barça — ball movement, coupled with intelligent ball and player movement. The magic of Messi is such that the team is at times more chaotic because Messi sees things that other players don’t. A mazy, crazy run or an absurd rainbow over distance is routine for him, a play that not only breaks the defense but the Barça structure. Thunderbolts tend to mess stuff up, for the better in this context.

Neymar doesn’t see those same kinds of passes, so the Messiless attack can be more orderly this season because depth allows it. There’s no compensating for shortomings of Sandro or Munir. Suarez comes out and Alcacer comes in. Without Iniesta and Rakitic, Luis Enrique can play Rafinha and Gomes, allowing Busquets to slide further up the pitch because of another thing that happens when Messi is absent: Barça attack AND defend with eleven.

Messi’s defending is part of a tradeoff that his coach and Barça supporters gladly accept because of what he does when he’s on the ball. Don’t use your Ferrrari to plow a field. Messi will defend on those fire nights, against a big rival or in an important match. But note how much Rafinha was in the Barça defensive box against Sporting along with Gomes, or how far forward Busquets could play because he didn’t have to worry as much about protecting the space behind Messi, who takes more risks with the ball. That’s part of his magic. When it works, it’s real danger. When it doesn’t, it’s sometimes a counterattack that the defense has to deal with. Busquets needs to be there to deal with those.

Without Messi, Busquets would slide forward as Turan dropped into the hole. Note that his assist for Suarez came from this zone.

When Messi is on, Neymar is sticking to his left-sided channel and Suarez isn’t as isolated as a lone man up front that defenses could collapse on. Neither Neymar nor Rafinha can do what Messi does but as a tandem, they can somewhat replicate his duties as Rafinha brings the ball up and Neymar dribbles or makes passes. More players touch the ball in positions of danger.

Messi running at defenders has to be legitimately terrifying, because he is thinking of things that aren’t a part of the lexicon of mere mortals. He can not only think of them — he can execute them. Without Messi, nobody can do that stuff, so everyone pitches in more as spheres of influence expand. A bunch of smaller rocks make a different set of ripples that in aggregate, cause a different kind of erosion.

Wednesday’s Champions League match should be the gala XI minus Messi. If that group plays the same way as the rotation side, it will be potentially devastating as Rakitic/Iniesta/Busquets is better than Turan/Gomes/Busquets. Think of it as the same symphony, but with virtuosos. The only question will be what happens up front. The Suarez/Neymar/Alcacer front line is still intriguing, but unlikely.

When Phil Schoen, during the Sporting match, raised the idea of Barça being better without Messi, it was a conversation starter, something not true that nonetheless serves as a mental goad. Last year, Barça solved the Messi absence one way, a path that still relied on genius. This year, the team seems to be solving the Messi absence by empowering a coterie of higher-quality players. Genius doesn’t always work, but indomitable quality in layers is often a sure thing.

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Sporting Gijon 0, Barça 5, aka “Different machine, same result”

So much brilliance and so much doubt, embodied in a single moment during the 0-5 thrashing of Luis Enrique’s beloved, Sporting Gijon.

Ter Stegen came charging out of his nets to deal with a long ball. As is his wont, he grabbed the ball, but his momentum carried him out of the box, just. It was a yellow card (or should have been), and a free kick for Sporting from the top of the box.

It wasn’t a penalty, wasn’t a red card, wasn’t really even a good conversion chance, as the difficulty of getting a shot from there either up and over, or through the wall makes such efforts the equivalent of a shot from the halfway line.

But it was the thought of conceding that sparked a tizzy in the Barça world. Merely giving up a goal.

Of course, Barça sparkled in this away fixture, one in which they were expected to do exactly what they did. It was 0-2 before Sporting’s Lora got a long-overdue second yellow, then the floodgates opened. Some detractors said that they should have been able to do that when Sporting had eleven, even if reality is that Sporting should have been down to nine, thanks to a nasty, quite deliberate elbow that connected with Arda Turan.

But the team’s game didn’t change, and the quality of the goals were such that they would have happened had Sporting had eleven, because of the inevitability of Barça doing what it does. As the match progressed, Sporting went from rushing at Barça in an effort to put on a show for the home fans, then gradually moved toward their goal as legs tired and the reality of facing such a quality opponent began to tell. The strong tackles became weaker, became rash, became lunges as that last little bit of effort necesssary to get into the perfect position is gone, because you’re just so tired of chasing the damn ball all the time.

Barça scores late goals for this reason: rare is the team with enough energy to face the unrelenting pressure for the entire match. Look at the second yellow for Lora, a challenge that in the first half, he arrives with enough time to get a foul, but not a yellow. The Barça energy was high as Luis Enrique rotated for Sporting, choosing to rest a number of key players who excelled against Atleti at midweek. The XI was Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Mathieu, Digne, Busquets, Gomes, Rafinha, Neymar, Suarez, Turan.

Before the match a few of us armchair tactitians wondered about the logic of putting Turan on the right, others said if they put him on the left who would play right wing, as we all ignored the “marbles in a bowl” reality of what happens after the first football is kicked, and the pitch becomes a series of individual tactical duels rather than the numbered precision of which so many are enamored.

The first goal had its genesis in Sporting pressing, as a series of one-touch passes led to an exquisite Arda Turan rainbow for Luis Suarez, the kind of pass that from other players would have inspired sonnets of praise, plucked out by lute-strumming troubadors. It found Suarez perfectly in stride. The Uruguayan rounded the keeper, slotted home and that was that, the match winner, as there really was no way Sporting was going to score in this match.

Of all the things that Luis Enrique has done during his tenure, from building a system to helping improve every player on the team, defense is the most underrated aspect of his tenure. Conceding seems to throw everyone into a tizzy because it just doesn’t happen all that often. Barça isn’t a vault like Atleti, but it isn’t that far off, a team that while never as shaky defensively as legend had it, has improved both from open play and set pieces.

To be sure, there are occasional lapses of the types that truly defensive sides don’t have, such as against Alaves, but there was pretty much zero chance that the Suarez goal wasn’t going to be enough to win.

The 0-1 became 0-2 from a deft bit of triangulation between Neymar, Sergi Roberto and Rafinha as a flawless, Messiesque pass from Neymar found Sergi Roberto in stride, and his cross for Rafinha’s bullet header was just as flawless as the ball that he received. It was a Barça goal through and through, but this Barça, the new one that so many confuse for something other than what it is.

Luis Enrique’s system has evolved away from its first year, which was get the ball to the most dangerous dudes on the pitch, and get out of the way, the American basketball system of attacking, really. Barça now uses the ball as a lever to prise open space as the teams of Rijkaard and Guardiola did, but in different, more dynamic ways. It’s an attack that isn’t as much impatient as it is aware of the complexities of time, that if you give a defense time to get set, it will. So get the ball up the pitch as fast as possible, and make something happen.

In many ways teams still aren’t quite prepared for this, just as many supporters still haven’t moved on from the days of Guardiola and the more regimented, positional Barça attack. Atleti understands how to play Barça, but even as history will show a draw, those who watched know how easily that match could have been a Barça victory. Barça plays fast these days, even as the players aren’t faster, because of how the attack uses space and precision to shrink the pitch.

The third goal was pretty much a repeat of the second, a defense-splitting diagonal over distance from Neymar to Sergi Roberto, who delivered a perfect ball for Paco Alcacer (sub for Suarez), who continued his hard luck by smashing a rocket off the keeper/crossbar, that Neymar walked home.

Speaking of Alcacer, his movement to create the space for his blast was exceptional, and a real sign of why he should turn out to be an excellent acquisition for the team, even as the “should have kept Munir” crowd will pout and stamp their feet. Alcacer made the kind of move that Suarez would have made, which is the precise point of his presence on the team — a player who can enter and preserve the attacking attributes of that piece of the system.

That third goal, and the two that followed came from another aspect of what Luis Enrique has brought to team, which is fitness. Late goals come when you are fresher than your opponent because you have worked your tail off in training. This will lead to those “team malaise” matches, where everyone looks like they’re moving in glue, as against Alaves. It’s part of the cycle, as any athlete will tell you. But this Barça is usually just as sharp and aggressive in the 85th as in the 5th, yet another way in which the pressure becomes unbearable.

Barça’s fourth was a more “traditional” Barça tally, patient buildup leading to an easy strike but even here, the Luis Enrique touch was that more of those easy strikes are headers. Sergi Roberto banged in yet another inch-perfect assist, this time for Arda Turan, who headed home at the far post, a consequence of an attack that not only folds space, but expands it to make things difficult for a defense as the ball moves quickly from center to right to left.

The fifth goal was abusive. It’s illustrative to watch the reactions of the Sporting player as the ball pinged around them, the almost exasperated running with heads down, desperate sprinting yet again, chasing something that is always elusive. Denis Suarez fed Neymar, who made the kind of finish that he should have made against Atleti (still not over it!), a precisely angled shot that found the far corner, with pace.

During the match, Phil Schoen of BeIN sports began to voice an interesting thought before being scoffed down by Ray Hudson, his announcing counterpart: is Barça better without Messi? The answer of course is no, for how can any team be improved by the absence of the best player in the game? But does something different happen to the team, can players occupy spaces that are normally closed, as Messi can go where he wants with the ball as he dictates the attack. It isn’t better, but is it a more diverse kind of danger that revels in the Luis Enrique system more to expand the roster of potential scorers? It’s an interesting question to consider, one that some of us posed last season, when Messi was gone for eight weeks.

Even more interestingly, when Messi returned, it was to a mature team that was rolling along in high gear without him, leaving him with the task of finding a way to slot into it. One of ways that he did so was by enhancing his 10 qualities even more, choosing to augment rather than dominate. It was not only the first real sign of a mature Neymar, that injury stretch, but the first time we could see what Luis Enrique was striving to build, and is continuing to build.

Barça has a hard time of it, in many ways. It’s a team that, because of its reputation, can’t be merely really good. During the match, Schoen and Hudson kept talking about a “workmanlike” Barça, a team without the stardust and glitter of a genius. Expectations are weird. Barça is almost at the point where even victories aren’t good enough (even as they never have been). We must be dazzled. The team has made us football junkies, seeking a stronger and stronger fix. Three goals become four become five become six. It’s golazos and rainbow passes, swerving free kicks and jaw-dropping paases.

The Barça that destroyed Gijon was exquisite, a performance fueled by a sharp team that had a great match. There wasn’t a weak performance from anyone on the pitch, even as Sergi Roberto was justly deemed MOTM by many. Barça was a machine, one that even with new pieces still functioned the same. To continue the habit of citing Ramzi via Twitter, he noted that the Sporting result was Alaves, but with a few more training sessions, which is exactly right. A system should be able to bring around repeatable results as it builds. The 0-5 destruction of Sporting lacked all of the fireworks of the 0-7 Celtic beatdown or the Leganes destruction.

But it was every bit as beautiful.

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A party of three, all found wanting

Errors. The results of the top three, the fanbases of each with a valid reason to say “We dropped points,” all came down to an error.

— Real Madrid got Ramosed.
— Atleti had a slack moment on a set piece.
— Barça had a slack moment on a dead ball situation.

The reactions, of course, were also quite different. Real Madrid said, “Whew!” Atleti said, “Yay!” Barça said, “Boooo!” Expectations can be brutal, and Atleti is still adept at doing the non-underdog underdog thing. The reactions of the three managers were also quite different.

— Zidane chased the match against Villarreal, making attacking substitutions and almost turning the tide.
— Simeone went for the attack, bringing in Angel Correa (who scored the goal) and Thomas Partey, who is a … party.
— Luis Enrique went for the draw, reacting to the losses of Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets by, in effect, choosing to stand pat.

Retrospect is a fun game to play because you can never be wrong, but wouldn’t it have been interesting to sub in Paco Alcacer, move Neymar central and give Suarez and Alcacer the run of the box? Maybe. Or even, move Neymar to the right so that Arda Turan can be in his wheelhouse. In many ways the substitutions demonstrated which manager has the most to lose, even if the standings don’t reflect that. Zidane is in Las Vegas, having had a nice run of cards, playing with house money. He isn’t supposed to be where he is, really.

Simeone is exactly where he is supposed to be, a human tumult throwing rocks at the apple carts of the big two. Many will suggest that by not going for the win at the Camp Nou he erred, but if you chase a match against Barça, you might as well go home. History has shown that, and Simeone is no dummy.

Luis Enrique froze, and didn’t want to lose to a bitter rival at home, opting for stability, a decision that might have cost his team points. But the Barça entorno is savage, and can make even the boldest manager have second, third and fourth thoughts. Winning by a goal is like a draw, a draw is a loss and a loss is catastrophe. That’s enough to make any manager tight, stifling things such as the sheer agression that might have turned the tide with a bold managerial decision.

Was Luis Enrique as stunned at the rest of the culerverse by the minute from hell, in which the team lost Busquets, then Messi, then the lead? Quite possibly. But as a fanbase went into meltdown, the circumstances were, and still are fascinating, and worth a closer look.

Barça is nursing a 1-0 lead against an Atleti that hadn’t really been all that threatening. A shot or two, but nothing of any substance. When the foul came, footballers from when they are schoolboys all see the same thing: an opponent tries to start play as quickly as possible, to catch the opponent unawares. Yet, when Atleti does this, look at the situation:

— The nearest Barça defender is a few yards away from the scene of the foul, and about ten yards away from where the Atleti attacker takes the pass. Defenders, or pretty much any pleyer, learns to stand over the ball, then look around to make sure their teammates are ready before allowing play to resume. Take a yellow? Okay. But you don’t take a goal.

— When the play begins, Pique is standing right on top of Torres, but pretty much nobody is marking anybody else. When he gets nutmegged by Torres, Correa is just running into space. Pique has two men to mark, Mascherano has none, and a choice whether to leave the left side unattended, or trust folks to do work.

— At the moment of the pass, Turan is over there, Iniesta is over there, Sergi Roberto is over there. They all act surprised when the play begins, and all are out of position. Pique is doomed, Mascherano has to try to dart over to mark Correa, slips and falls. At that point, even as a few wondered if Ter Stegen could have done better, the keeper is screwed. It’s like a penalty. You have to guess. Go one way, shooter goes the other.

Barça Twitter was a fascinating beast because the instant reaction was to start beating on Mascherano, who is this season’s whipping boy now that Mathieu wasn’t play, Douglas and Vermaelen are gone and Adriano in Turkey. The two goal theories are, of course, who was the last man with a shot at stopping it, or if you’re an electronics nerd, GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). Most supporters are the former, most coaches the latter. In the film session, you can bet your house that Luis Enrique will find a nice way to say, “What were you assholes doing on that restart?”

Oddly enough, Mascherano was about the only one doing what he was supposed to be doing, which was to keep an eye out for leakers from his side of the pitch. Everybody else was a mess, and Atleti scored from the only real opportunity they had to score. That’s efficiency.

After the match, one media outlet ran a headline noting that 10 points from the first five matches is the lowest points total in that period for the team since … The astute will fill in, “since the first treble season.”

The shame of the Atleti goal was that Barça had been razor-sharp until that point, but reeling after watching a pair of essential players go off the pitch. Hats off to Atleti for capitalizing. Errors can kill. Alaves scored from a pair of well-taken goals, both with roots in Barça errors. Perfection is inpossible, What a team wants to do is not have imperfection at the wrong time, such as close to your box with a fresh attacker just entering the match. Barça did, and that was that.

The attack generated chances, near-misses and almost chances. Neymar shaved the post, then Pique pushed a header just wide. Rakitic was too hard with a smacked pass for an open Neymar, then time expired. Retrospect is such that we can question Luis Enrique’s actions in the wake of the result, but if players do what they customarily do, he looks a genius and we are all breathing a sigh of relief at a hard-fought win.

Reality is that if any of us had been told that Messi and Busquets would leave injured and the result would be a draw against Atleti, any of us would have taken it. It was quite the contest, and brilliant to watch for neutrals, and heartless ghouls like me.

Man up, coach

Busquets came off, something that was a surprise, since he was running fine, not limping or anything. It was later discovered to be something intestinal, and he looked pretty ashen coming off. This was known before the match. When Messi pulled up lame, clutching his groin, this was also known before the match. A culerverse went into meltdown, but only a few had the temerity to suggest that Messi brought the injury on himself and that further, if the coach knows players are nursing potentially injurious stuff, why is he playing them?

Barça went to the market in the summer, and purchased depth that has build the strongest team that any of us have seen since the days of Cruijff. Yes, Messi is the best player in the game, but he’s worthless if you run him into the ground. He wants to play all the time. Duh. He will get upset if you don’t play him all the time. Duh. But at some point, the coach is the coach. Argentina worked the junkie stick to get him playing despite being injured. He raced back to Barcelona and featured in a match, a loss against Alaves, mere days after leaving Argentina’s second qualifier because he was injured.

Now he is injured for real. This isn’t the first time that this has happened to Messi. He was out eight weeks previously, whereupon Neymar and Suarez proceeded to go hog wild. The bulk of the 0-4 Classic shelling was accomplished without Messi, who entered for a cameo after things were already decided.

Right now the club says he will be out three weeks. Messi should remain out until he is completely, and thoroughly healthy. The team has talent enough to get along without him.

Messi is like a drug. It’s nice having him at your disposal if you are a coach, and supporters love having Messi on the pitch, even when know that Messi shouldn’t be on the pitch. “Oh, he can manage himself,” is one of the phrases used to justify abuse of a footballing icon. No. He can’t manage himself. He’s an addict, and football is his crack. A grownup has to say “No,” to force an intervention. With careful management, this could have been a match, maybe two. Instead it’s three weeks, maybe more. And given that once a groin is torn it could scuttle an athlete’s season, who knows how long this injury could affect Messi? Everybody wanted their fix including the player himself. Now nobody gets any for at least three weeks.

Doom!

Barça end this Liga round where it started, three points adrift of table leader Real Madrid. If we apply some context here, there isn’t any cause whatsoever for worry. It takes time to build things, and Luis Enrique is still building something potentially world beating at Barça. As with the first treble team and that influx of new bodies, the gelling process takes time and effort. We should give it that. The seductive route was “This is the best Barça team ever, and they will kill everybody.” The reality is that the team got a pile of new bodies over the summer, and will need to not only integrate those, but then build the machine necessary to take fullest advantage of those talented additions.

Andre Gomes kicked out some jams in the hole as a sub for Busquets, just one of many positive signs. Iniesta was excellent, and Rakitic is liberated by not having to babysit Dani Alves, thanks to Sergi Roberto stomping the terra. There is one hell of a team there. We just have to relax and let it happen.

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