Hey, didn’t we all miss this?
After a month’s respite from club football and the task of watching a team seemingly designed to vex and frustrate us, what better way to return to the swing of things than the Catalan derby?
And as a bonus, the derby was overseen by Mateu Lahoz.
Quite a lot happened, and much of it is being discussed but few are saying the quiet part out loud: Barça wasn’t good enough, and isn’t good enough.
Lahoz clowned out. Dembele came on and demonstrated the form that got him yanked by Deschamps before the half of the World Cup final. And those two things will get a lot of focus, because of the sheer volume of the Lahozian madness, or because Dembele is an easy target.
But sitting and watching that team, who has any idea of what the group is trying to do? Xavi clearly does, because he’s on the sidelines yelling, remonstrating and doing jazz hands. And none of it is manifested in the overall play of the team, and the team is the thing. And the team drew to a relegation-flirting band of shithousers who shithoused around until an error happened in the penalty box, and draw.
It was a draw because Barça couldn’t score. It was also a draw because the CBs — make that the alleged CBs on the pitch couldn’t deal with a big, active forward the one time the forward made a serious effort to get into the box. Yes, it was crap luck that Alonso stepped on the player’s foot while tracking the ball. But that play should have been dealt with long before the Hail Mary trickery was essayed.
It was a draw because eleven men are playing like strangers. It was a draw because the three best opportunities that the team had to score were either shot directly at the keeper, or parried away by that same keeper.
Structurally, Barça looks to be playing two different systems: There is the controlled, more traditional system at the feet of players such as Pedri or Gavi, and the “make something happen” manifested in the presence of players such as Raphinha or Dembele.
The two systems can work together if there are interconnecting pieces to close circuits, but there aren’t. Dembele was stupid with the ball, but so was Raphinha, just in a less dynamic way. And if something is stupid, it’s worth a look at why. When things go bad for Barça in possession, it’s usually because the player with the ball doesn’t have the right options, so they have to try to force something. That rarely ends well, unless you’re a fan of the France space program, which Dembele single-handedly resurrected.
When Barça is playing well, Dembele is dancing up the wing and he has options, either Gavi, Pedri or Lewandowski, to save him from himself. But even before Dembele came on, the team was struggling to build from the back, struggling to find any dynamism that would make the aggressively defensive Espanyol defense yield enough space to create clear chances aside from the ones Barça screwed.
When Barça is playing poorly, every player who has the ball is an island, stranded in space and time. Espanyol took full advantage of that disjointed quality, fouling when necessary, otherwise just taking steps to get in the way. Barça didn’t play quickly enough, didn’t do anything at all quickly enough so as usual, they were easy to defend by a team willing to expend energy.
The danger with not being good enough is that even if you score a goal, you have a fragile defense that is ready and willing to err in a manner sufficient to allow an opponent to create danger from not very much. Xavi’s starting back line was Sergi Roberto, Christensen, That Person and Jordi Alba. Nobody would label that group anything like stalwart, but Xavi was also banking on Espanyol being crap in attack. They were. But it doesn’t take much, even for a relegation side, to create danger if your team isn’t good enough.
Defenders retreat instead of closing down, or are caught up the pitch. Attackers dance through a midfield populated by players who are either slow, or pugnacious and slow, so opponents have a choice of attacking up the wings or through the center.
In attack, the team has to get Lewandowski the ball, but when a defense is determined not to let that happen, what do you do? Enter the dynamic winger, who will try stuff. But running into double-teams means that those wingers are usually dispossessed, or in the case of Dembele who has exceptional talent, he is able to dance around defenders before making a poor decision, either through misplaced ambition or lack of proper options.
Ansu Fati was poor today, and deeply so. It’s good to see him healthy, but he is a shadow of the bright, shining talent that he was before his unfortunate injury. Xavi has to give him time so that he can get fit, and acquire match fitness. But it’s fair to ask whether it has been an injury, a surgery too far. He’s tentative, slow, incapable of beating defenders when he musters the courage to take them on. He’s also clunky in possession, playing like a player who is unsure, bereft of form and confidence.
Ferran Torres came on and did nothing. Bringing Busquets on somehow made everything worse and the team had no match control whatsoever, quite the opposite effect of what was supposed to happen. There are a few reasons for that, mostly related to the above point about not having anywhere to put the ball, but also because he is greatly diminished. It used to be that he was only diminished without the ball at his feet, but no longer.
This period allowed Espanyol to grow into the match, and as Barça flailed, trying to find something that might work, that was when the Lahoz show began, so everything was effectively over. That man even gave ME a yellow card. He was sent home from the World Cup straight to La Liga, where he is in his pomp as part of a bastion of officiating incompetence that should spark shame, if the league had any.
The mistake would be to blame Lahoz for the draw. Barça needs consistent players who can perform reliably at a high level. It doesn’t have enough of them to be able to do anything. Barça also needs a system of playing that doesn’t look like a lugubrious fire drill. The team is deficient in talent, but also has a manager who is learning on the job, and not learning quickly enough, to my tastes.
There is also an absence of leadership, evinced by the fact that Jordi Alba got tossed for talking too much. As a veteran of the league and many a Lahoz match, he has to understand by now how to act around that man when he’s in a mood. But apparently not. The circus took everybody out of a game that they barely had even before it started raining yellows and reds.
Stack all that up and you get a draw against Espanyol, and an ugly one at that. They celebrated their goal, and their point, like they had won the Champions League. That’s derby life. And the players commiserated after the match, almost certainly about that firestarter with the build of a grasshopper. And people will talk about it, because it’s Lahoz. He lives to be talked about.
And when all of that is said and done, Barça is still a psychologically fragile team that isn’t good enough for the topmost levels of the game, and will be lucky if it survives its Europa League date with Manchester United.