Monday, February 15, 2010

Atletico Madrid Help Crosstown Rivals, Hand Barcelona First Defeat Of The Season

Ugh. Unfortunately, the title race got a whole lot more interesting today. Let's talk about why, and reflect on the game and its implications.

1. Injuries and suspensions. This is not an excuse, simply a statement of fact. Barca's backline was decimated: Pique and Marquez suspended; Dani Alves, Abidal, Chygryinski, and Yaya Toure (a DMF who is capable of slotting in at center back, just ask Cristiano Ronaldo) injured. Adding injury to injury, Keita got injured within five minutes of the game. The term "makeshift" would be too kind to the back four Barca fielded today -- Puyol (sort of returning from a knock himself) and Milito (just returning to regular action after two years out) as center backs, Maxwell the left back and Jeffren (a winger who occasionally slots in at right back) replacing Dani Alves.

Now, normally injuries matter only to Barca if it's one of Messi or Xavi out. I wouldn't go so far as saying everyone else is replaceable, but Barca remain Barca as long as those two are in the team. And they were today. However, the sheer weight of absences meant that the backline was disorganized and frequently screwed up the off-side trap -- as evinced by Forlan's first goal, and the gilt-edged chance that Kun Aguero somehow missed in the first fifteen minutes. Both Jeffren and Maxwell had shockers, and both should've been sent off; Jeffren was saved because the ref was one of those "well, you're already on a yellow, so I'm not going to call you for a yellow-card foul you just committed even though it was obvious enough to be seen from the moon because I'm not man enough to give you a second yellow" refs. And Maxwell? Wow, that was a terrible game.

Moreover, the injuries to the backline had a massive influence on the way Barca went forward, in two ways. First, since there was no Pique, Marquez or, to a lesser extent, Chygryinski, there was no ball-laying CB. The ball-playing CB is key in Barca's system because it alleviates pressure from the midfield, and pushes the opposition back, lest they subject Barca to too much pressure in their third. Because Barca didn't have that today, Atletico pinned Barca back, and forced a lot of long balls that went nowhere.

This was bad enough, but the Barca attack suffered hugely because of the absence of Dani Alves. In fact, this was such a big issue that it deserves its own bullet point...

2. Alves is crucial because of the width he provides on the right. It allows Messi some space to operate in, and draws the opposition full backs to the flank, allowing the Messi/Xavi/Iniesta triumvirate to play their intricate passing game near the penalty box. Without Alves, and no real threat down the right, full backs just tucked in and crowded the center. It was like watching Arsenal hopelessly knock it around, there simply wasn't a way through.

It was a similar story on the left; Henry didn't even get off the bench, and Pedro played like utter crap. No space = no threat = no goals.

3. Barca played badly, separately from the matter of injuries. I have never seen Xavi misplace so many passes in my life...seriously. The dude was taken off when Barca were trailing, something I've never seen. I've never seen Messi's touch desert him to this extent. Other than a few pointless forays straight into the heart of the Atletico defense, he had a shocker. I've only very rarely seen so many passes from midfield go absolutely nowhere. Ibra, other than the goal, was absent again. The bottom line is that the whole team were off their game today.

On the one hand, you're inclined to say: it's okay, it happens. You can't be perfect every game. On the other hand, this was a winnable game, and if Barca were even 15% better, they could've taken it.

4. By the same token, credit must be given to Atletico. They played well, very well. The standouts were their center backs (especially Perea, perhaps the best player on the pitch today), Kun Aguero (the term "constant threat" comes to mind, he was like a mosquito buzzing around and evading capture), and Reyes. Simao knocked in a fantastic free-kick and that was that. And despite conceding before half-time, and thus making a game of it, you always felt they were in control.

5. Barca were not going to go the entire season undefeated, but there are good times for losses and bad times for losses, and this was definitely the latter. Real beat an earnest Xerez yesterday -- who gamely held on until half time, and then fell apart to lose 3-0 at home -- to draw within two points. Barca's loss today means that they are way too close for comfort.

On paper, next week's fixture list favors Barca, as they play host to bottom-third Racing, while Real host Villareal (who've had a massively disappointing season but on their day can still hurt you). But I'm suddenly not feeling too good about this, especially with the injuries piling on and the pressure of a European campaign to restart soon.

Pep, it's your move.


Rohan Venkat said...

Yeah it's a bad time to have a loss, but it's also heartening, I guess, that as badly as we played and with our injuries, we lost by just one.

Bartra should probably have started, but even then, like you say Alves is indispensible, and even if we *have* to give him up, Abidal (as per the last few weeks) puts in a monster performance. Sketchy fullbacks equals a pressured center which was exactly what we had.

Nabeel said...

Can't tell much from 7min highlights,but from reading assorted reports it seems pretty clear that the loss wasn't just because our team had a bad day.

Pep hadn't prepared for the giant vacuum in the midfield today. In Pep We Trust, most of the time,but it's difficult to understand his logic today in bringing on Pedro instead of Henry. Titi could have provided that desperately-needed width.

And I'll say it again - Busquets cannot man up to the task of destroyer. Barca wins games primarily through midfield dominance and our midfield was a weakened one even WITH Keita playing, for the midfield depends on Abidal and Alves (or,alternatively,two good fullbacks). Maxwell had a bad game and Jeffren is not someone who slots in occasionally at wingback,he has only done so ONCE,and that was in the Copa. Against someone with the quality of Simao, he had no chance.

For all the focus on a weakened defense, Barca lost the game in the midfield - not enough chances for goal, says Pep, and that's directly connected to the midfield. In addition, the first goal was very difficult for any of the back four to block because Forlan made a great run - Iniesta and Busquets should have pressurized Reyes a little more.

In any case,I'll take this loss. Anything to make the players focus harder and regain hunger is good. Challenges are good. Complacency has always been a problem. Yes, even despite Pep. The defining features of last season's wins were humility and hard work. There is more of 'we are still the leaders' instead of 'there is still much to be done' in the press conferences this season.

Ahsan said...

And now Xavi's injured. I'm beginning to regret my "Seriously, I know all those cliches about hatched chickens and what not, but seriously, just put Barcelona in the pot for the last eight so we can get the draw started early" line on drawing Stuttgart. I'm pretty sure all these injuries are my fault.

JJY said...

didn't know you liked the velvet underground. they're one of my favorite bands.

hmm, even now there are things i don't know about you **oothie.