Paying For Broken Plates

Last week Barcelona beat Osasuna 8-0.  That annihilation came on the heels of two consecutive disappointing 2-2 draws, first to Real Sociedad in La Liga and then to AC Milan a few days later in the Champions League.  In both cases, Barcelona held leads and arguably should have won (especially against Sociedad.)  The media talked of a “mini-crisis” at the Camp Nou, creating a story where none really existed.  But the talk clearly got to the Barcelona players who needed to show that they were in fact okay.  Hence the 8-0 destruction of Osasuna.  The Osasuna massacre was predicted over at ESPN by Eduardo Alvarez in his weekly Quiniela column, where he employed the Spanish phrase “pagar los platos rotos” (to pay for broken plays).  This expression was subsequently applied to the match in reports by Phil Ball and Sid Lowe, two of the great commentators of Spanish football.  I think even the Osasuna manager used it both before and after the match.

In the middle of the week, Barcelona again drew 2-2, this time to then league leader Valencia.  Therefore, today’s opponents Atletico Madrid had to pay for broken plates.  Unlike last year Atletico had actually started the season well.  Even though talisman Sergio Aguero went to Manchester City and the unhappy Diego Forlan went to Inter (where he can be unhappy all over again as club crisis has followed him to the San Siro), Atletico added the stellar Colombian Radamel Falcao (from Porto) who has brilliantly led Los Colchoneros and greatly impressed.

It probably hurt Atletico’s chances that their crosstown rivals over at the Bernabeu (who had their own broken plates that someone needed to pay for) beat Rayo Vallecano 6-2.  I imagine that the Barcelona players needed to prove that despite the draws, they were still the better side than Real Madrid.  And so, Barcelona beat Atletico 5-0 with a(nother) Lionel Messi hat trick.

Barcelona’s season thus far has been both interesting and troubling.  It has been interesting from a tactical point of view because, with both Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique out injured, there are effectively no center backs on this Barcelona side.  It was rumored that Pep Guardiola wanted to buy one this year, but the acquisitions of both Alexis Sanchez and (especially) Cesc Fabregas effectively halted that.

The biggest knock against this Barcelona side over the past couple years has been that it is a thin squad.  The doomsday scenario is that if a Messi or a Xavi or an Iniesta got injured then the season is in trouble.  This is especially true about Messi who is an irreplaceable player.  This scenario also applies to the back line, and it was tested last season (Eric Abidal’s illness and Puyol’s injury.)  There are other players who could fill in for the full backs, Adriano and Maxwell come to mind, but there is no real backup for either Puyol or Pique–save for Abidal the left back.  Andreu Fontàs is probably not ready yet, and so Guardiola has been using  one of his two central midfielders, Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano as makeshift center backs.  Sometimes he used both.  (It’s not a completely alien concept.  Last season both filled in for Puyol and in the Barcelona system, when the full backs move forward, the central midfielder moves back to become a third center back.)  To accommodate the absent Puyol and Pique, Guardiola switched his system from an ostensible 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3, and that has come under major scrutiny.  There have been times when the only true defender on the field was Abidal.  Given that even Barcelona’s three forwards can play as midfield players, in the 3-4-3, Barcelona has become one giant box-to-box midfield.  The draws against Sociedad and Milan were both results of not being strong enough at the back and not quite used to this system.  And also a dearth of true defensive players.

I do not question Guardiola.  He is a brilliant tactician and a true visionary, and he also can only work with what he has.  Fabregas and Sanchez were supposed to allow for squad rotation and decrease the burden on the team.  Yet this season already the following players have been out injured: Inieta, Puyol, Pique, Sanchez, Ibrahim Afellay, and Maxwell.  Dani Alves has also missed the odd game this season.

So that is the concern.  Obviously though when Barcelona beats Villareal 5-0, Osasuna 8-0, and Atletico 5-0, there is also cause for marvel.  The primary reason is the Messi/Fabregas partnership, which has already been stunningly brilliant at times.  I had wondered aloud on this blog why Barcelona would pursue Fabregas with such vigor, especially given the glut of talented midfielders.  I had also said that I thought this year would be devoted to making the Iniesta-Fabregas partnership ready for when Xavi inevitably retires.  In both cases I was wrong.  Fabregas has already proven that not only was he worth every penny, but Barcelona got him for a bargain.  (Arsenal must be livid right now.)  But what makes Fabregas so exciting is not his potential to replace Xavi, but rather the creative partnership that he has with Messi, forged years ago at La Masia but brought to a whole new level now.

Additionally, Thiago Alcântara is proving himself to be an incredible talent.  If he is still a lesser light on a marquee that showcases Messi, Fabregas, Iniesta, Xavi, and David Villa, that is going to change very soon.  Whatever the defensive frailties, one cannot fault the attack which is the best in the world.  (The defense, when everyone is fit, is also at the top or at least very close.)

The season is still young.  There are 38 games in a league, and that does not count the Copa del Rey or the real prize, the Champions League (or the Club World Cup.)  Because of injuries and transfers, and a limited preseason, Barcelona is not where it should be or can be.  This is not to say that it will ultimately win everything or even anything.  What it is saying is that a season is a long time, and at this juncture nothing has been decided yet. In a few months we will see what happens when the system is more familiar and/or the absent players recover.

I make only one prediction.  Real Betis, the current league leader, will not be in that position come May 2012.

 

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The Once And Future Cesc

Try not to seemed shocked, when I tell you this.  Are you sitting down?  Cesc Fabregas wants out.  According to Arsenal teammate Bacary Sagna, Fabregas wants the move to Barcelona.

This is obviously a saga that has been going on for at least three years.  Barcelona is not just where he developed skills, it was his childhood team.  In addition to being a fan, Fabregas spent his formative years in La Masia (the same class as Messi and Pique.)  His family is from Catalonia, and he has friends at Barcelona (as well as some Spain teammates.)  His idol, Pep Guardiola is the coach as Barcelona, and it is rumored that this will be Guardiola’s last season in charge.  Get in while the getting is good, because who knows what will come afterwards.

Barcelona did not want to let young Fabregas go.  He was too talented, and Arsenal would pay nothing because he was too young to be under contract.  Fabregas left because he did not think he would get any playing time at Barcelona.  His decision makes sense because both Xavi and Iniesta stood in his way as they do now for Spain.  Nevertheless, the club desperately wants him back.

I am not tactician, but I do not understand why Barcelona is so desperate to get Fabregas back.  Xavi and Iniesta are still fundamental to the squad.  It would take a supreme effort to dislodge either player from the starting XI.  Although theoretically, no one’s starting spot is safe (or in truth 10 of the 11 spots are not safe–no one at Barcelona would dare displace Messi), even at 31-years-old, Xavi is still the conductor of the Barcelona engine.  Iniesta has even more playing time left, and both men work extremely hard.  Fabregas would be going back to play a supporting role.  Meanwhile, at the same time Fabregas is waiting out Xavi and Iniesta, Thiago Alcântara and his brother Rafinha will be breaking down the door to the main squad.

The Guardiola years have been marked by some bad transfers, but the overwrought hang-wringing about it (see: Bleacher Report, or better yet, don’t) generally overlooks the fact that (a) there have also been some excellent signings such as Pique and Dani Alves, and (b) Guardiola has done an excellent job at developing players from Barcelona B who end up displacing their more expensive teammates.  Unless Barcelona begins a rotation policy, which is possible given how thin the side has been, Fabregas will be another bench player.

In other transfer news, Barcelona want to bring in Giuseppe Rossi from Villarreal.  While he is an excellent player and would be a great fit, this column still holds a grudge against him for choosing to play for Italy rather than the United States.  Watch this space to see which side wins the battle.  Like Fabregas, Rossi will have to fight for his spot, this time with David Villa and Pedro.  Although both had dry spells in terms of goals, they were also very important to the Barcelona attack.

Barcelona has also been linked with Javier Pastore, Alexis Sanchez, and as of today Thiago Silva.  Javier Pastore is a pipe dream, I think.  The same problems that acquiring Fabregas present would also plague Pastore, perhaps more so because he did not grow up in La Masia.  And Palermo is not letting Pastore go cheaply.  They want Cristiano Ronaldo money, which is ridiculous, but that club is in serious trouble.

Alexis Sanchez.  It appears that Manchester City (or perhaps United) will get there first.  Great potential, but he has not quite lived up to his hype yet.  Personally, I would like to see him stay with Udinese because otherwise the Italians will tumble out of the Champions League next season. One year of performing well in the Champions League is all he needs to prove himself.

Thiago Silva is an interesting one.  Barcelona desperately need to build up the back; Puyol’s knee problems throughout the season are evidence of that.  Thiago Silva is also one of the best defenders in the world right now.  I would love to see his move to the Camp Nou, but I cannot imagine Milan letting him go.

As for who to sell, the no-brainer is Bojan.  Guardiola has given him chance after chance, and he just hasn’t been able to get it done.  It’s a shame, because he is dyed-in-the-wool Blaugrana.  I think he wants out too.  Jeffren Suarez also looks like he is gone; injuries have played havoc with his career, and while I would be sad to see him go, it looks like Barcelona would rather have the money.  Furthermore, he needs to play full-time, and that is not going to happen when Messi, Villa, Pedro, possibly Rossi, and maybe even others are standing in his way.  Some have suggested selling Villa and Pedro, which seems incredibly short-sighted.  Barcelona are also trying to quash rumors that Thiago Alcântara is on his way out. That would be a huge loss–shades of Fabregas, but this time the club would be responsible.

Whatever the case, the arms race with Madrid has just begun.  Grab some popcorn and enjoy the show.  And if you are new to football, welcome to the silly season.