Inter Milan 1, Barça 0, aka ‘The slows lose … again’

Barça is too slow.

Barça is too slow to play modern football.

Barça is too slow to play football against a team of even decent quality.

We can repeat these things like a mantra, but they aren’t going away, even as devotees worship at that ancient religion of 48 passes leading to a perfect goal. Amen.

There were so many telling moments in the abominable slogfest that was the Inter match, but for me the most illustrative one was late in the match, with Barça pressing for a goal that would give them at least a draw. An Inter defender got the slightest contact and fell to pitch, rolled a couple of times, rubbed his leg in agony, looked to the official, got up and limped back into position. In that time, Barça had completed three passes.

To defend the Barça “attack,” Inter just walked from side to side. They put two men on Lewandowski, solving that problem. They put two to three on Dembele, solving that problem. Once they closed down the only two players capable of causing them any real danger, the result was academic. The result was also evident to anyone paying attention to Barça’s last league match, where they oozed past yet another disciplined opponent that almost got a result.

The team isn’t aggressive or dynamic, bereft of two of the most significant qualities necessary for success on the modern football stage. When you couple that with the necessity of playing inadequacies, a dumpster fire such as Inter morphs into a resolute, dangerous opponent.

Inter’s goal was from the textbook of How To Score Against FC Barcelona, a quick counter that leaves a defense bereft of confidence scrambling, and the shot from midfield finds a way through. Done. Because Barça also has a sloth-like defensive midfielder in name alone, who sparkles on the ball but is a sluggardly liability off the ball. And so it goes.

Yes, there was a penalty that should have been called, but wasn’t. If Fati’s was a handball, so was the Inter player’s. But the rules on offensive handballs vs defensive handballs are much more strict. If the offensive player touches it, that’s it. Defensive player? Well, there are circumstances. That same thing came into play when there could have been a defensive handball penalty called against Barça that quite correctly wasn’t given. But the Catalan side didn’t lose that match because of an official’s calls or non calls. It lost because it wasn’t good enough, or strong enough, physically or mentally. It lost because it didn’t play well enough to get a result, nor did it seem capable of playing well enough to get a result.

After the match, Ousmane Dembele was the name on everyone’s lips. He lost the ball almost 30 times. And he didn’t just lose the ball. It was like there were times that his brain shut off while he was in possession. It was frustrating to watch, because he is capable of being so much better, a quality that underscores the frustration of watching him when he is in fact so much better. And we say, “Why can’t he play like that all the time?”

Well, because he just isn’t that kind of player. Digital stuff is a 1 or a 0. Data or no data. Dembele is one of the most digital players in the game, and it’s often vexing to watch. Is this the possession where he will be brilliant, or the possession where he will cock the ball away? He’s at times brilliant, but he is in no way reliable. But here’s the other fascinating thing about Dembele against Inter:

He lost the ball almost 30 times, but had something like 100 touches. He was the only one trying to do anything, which is one of the fundamental flaws of the whatever it is that Xavi is trying to play. Without a dynamic player to make the defense move around, the offense is reduced to ineffectual circulating of the ball as a defense stands around and watches. And that creates the necessity of giving the ball to the one player capable of doing something: Dembele.

And speaking of “whatever it is that Xavi is trying to play,” 50 crosses into the box. FIFTY CROSSES. Did FC Barcelona become Stoke? And what, oh what, with a blanketed forward and nobody else in the box, was supposed to become of any of those 50 crosses? When a team doesn’t quite know what to do or how to do it? Put it in and hope. That can work sometimes, but it isn’t a plan, even when you have players such as Dembele who are capable of finding space and putting a cross.

Pedri was a delight, but Pedri isn’t the kind of player that is going to topple the five-back defense that Inter had set up. Lewandowski was blanketed, Raphinha was running around like a headless chicken, making just as many bad decisions on aggregate as Dembele. He was just invisible for so much of the time that he didn’t get the ball anywhere near as much. Gavi was the wrong player for what Inter was doing, and Busquets was rendered ineffective because nobody could do anything that would allow his creativity on the ball to flourish.

To upset a structure such as Inter had, you also need aggressive, dynamic fullbacks, but those fullbacks also have to be able to get back on defense in case of a turnover. Xavi rolled out Sergi Roberto and Marcos Alonso, players who filled neither of those fullback specifications. And the flanks were again a welcome mat for opponent counters and a creativity desert in possession.

So indeed, Dembele was a right mess. Dembele also was part of the only real scoring opportunities of the night, one from a mazy run, one where he put a hard shot off the post, another excellent cross that resulted in the goal ruled out due to a Fati handball, and a pass put right onto the head of Busquets, who pushed the ball wide.

The quandary is that the player who was giving the ball away like Tio was also a catalyst when he wasn’t being a mess. And that was it.

Xavi corrected his initial errors by bringing on Balde for Alonso, to almost immediate effect. He also moved Raphinha to the right wing where he could finally do something other than vanish, then he pulled him off for Ansu Fati, who did more in the first few minutes of his time on the pitch than Raphinha did for the entirety of his time. And then, too late to have any real effect, Xavi figured out this was a man’s match and subbed on Kessie for Gavi, a move that should have happened a lot earlier, like in the dressing room.

To play against that block, movement has to happen. Not just possession. Runs, players who can manage physical challenges, moves that create space. Kessie is that kind of midfielder. Balde is that kind of fullback. The injuries to internationals really hamstrung Xavi. Depay and his creativity in the box would have been useful, as would have been De Jong and his mobility in midfield. With Araujo and Kounde that Inter goal likely doesn’t happen.

What we were left with was reality, a reality of a team that was too slow in every significant parameter, a chronic condition that isn’t going to be eradicated by formation changes, or shooting Dembele into the sun. The way of playing is going to have to change, along with the players who are playing it. Barça has some depth, but still doesn’t have sufficient quality to keep Xavi from having to roll out inadequacies for significant matches. There are too many players on the roster who aren’t good enough, but they have to play when injuries happen. And good teams — not even great teams — take advantage of those persistent, consistent weaknesses almost every time.

Xavi’s team is a work in progress. The summer transfer window was excellent, but it was only a start. Significant turnover will have to occur before we get a real idea of what this team is capable of. Right now, we know that it’s too slow in every phase of the game, and still not mentally ready for an intense away fixture. Don’t let the fact that they were better finishing away from getting a result against Bayern delude. Inter took advantage of the same thing that Bayern did. Over time, Barça’s deficiencies are like grist that erodes the capabilities of the team.

There was one play where Inter was on the break, and Sergi Roberto had an opportunity to step up and play a ball. He ran backward instead, so intent on not making a mistake that he couldn’t even perform a simple action that was well within his repetoire. Xavi has a lot of work to do, and we are going to have to be patient as he does it. And more likely than not, watching Barça plod around more European matchdays in the Europa League will be part of that process.