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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