Twenty-six goals, six red cards, innumerable shots and headers off the woodwork, all three promoted clubs scoring points, none of them defeated and Real Madrid ahead of Barcelona in La Liga for the first time in several hundred days. Oh, and loads of VAR. La Liga is back: bursting with joie de vivre, face bathed in a mischievous smile and strutting around arrogantly after a helluva party at the weekend.
But even after that wildest of parties, we need to do what generations of carousers have found themselves involved in when the return of the work week brings inquests, bemusement and nagging worries. We need to talk about what happened on Friday night, and not just because the champions lost calamitously to an Athletic Club who were brutally intense and incessantly hard-working and who produced what I’m sure will still be a contender for goal of the season come May.
Postmatch at San Mames, Gerard Pique took on the interview duties and really engaged with the subject of why and how Barcelona lost the first La Liga match of a season for the first time in 11 years. Yet I’m going to have to disagree with a fundamental point he made. Pique spoke well and pointed out that the bruising pressure, the cauldron atmosphere and the intensity of desire to topple champions were precisely what he and the gang who’ve won eight of the past 11 La Liga titles expected to experience.
“We weren’t ourselves. They were better than us physically.” No problem there. Apt summary. He also noted, “It’s better to go through this kind of experience now and learn from it than do so at the end of the season.” Fair enough.
There was a good expression in there that — if you didn’t see the 1-0 defeat, carved out via Aritz Aduriz’s moment of gymnastic brilliance, which combined the aerial elegance of trapeze artists, the chutzpah of a David vs. Goliath and the thunderous punching power of a young Mike Tyson — will help you envisage the pattern of the 90 minutes. It’ll also be a nice phrase for you to store away and impress your friends with.
Pique stated that if Barcelona weren’t on their game, if they were playing, thinking and reacting below par, then any other club in La Liga could “pintar la cara.” It literally means “paint our face.” The purpose is to suggest that if you drop your level even to a minuscule degree, another team can humiliate you, roll all over you, take you apart.
Even the expression itself, thought of literally, helps tell Pique’s story well. You’ve been at parties when someone is a little inebriated, crashes on a couch and has a moustache painted on them with permanent marker, right? “Pintar la cara:” to humiliate the dopey or the dozy by painting their face. It’s universal.
In Pique’s case, he specified who the dope was … in so many words. The object of his ire was Ousmane Dembele, who’s now out for five weeks with a hamstring strain.
When Athletic take their throw on Barcelona’s left side, Jordi Alba just allows Raul Garcia to fake him out and loses a third of a metre on the wily, old street fighter, and Garcia receives the ball to play a one-two with Ander Capa, who launched the ball at him in the first place. Capa scampers past Dembele — irresistible force and unmoving object. And when Capa crosses exquisitely on the run, there’s Aduriz, who has been gifted a metre and a half too much space by Nelson Semedo.
The 38-year-old Basque legend, whose name was chanted incessantly by the vast ranks of San Mames faithful from the instant he came on the pitch 90 seconds earlier, levitates himself transcendentally and lashes out his right foot. The ball flies diagonally back across the penalty box into the far corner of Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s goal.
Sheer, sublime brilliance. Heckuva story too.
However, Pique correctly pinpointed that when Alba raced to try to smother Raul Garcia’s flick-on, it left Dembele with increased responsibility. His bovine, “Oh dear, that guy’s running past me” reaction was inadequate, but that’s not the issue. Pique, speaking like a captain, serious about the issue and, like all true competitors, willing to concede that his team had been bested, pointed out that “details are the difference between winning and losing, and one detail, the one-two from the throw-in in the 88th minute … and that’s it, we go home beaten.”
Well, I beg to differ. Dembele failed. It was crucial in the goal. That’s all fine. But the cause of the goal came from a really bad use of possession, the thing that Barcelona were once — indeed, remain — famous for.
Let me explain.
At 0-0 and with two minutes, 13 seconds of normal time left, Ter Stegen has the ball at his feet. There’s an organised but not suffocating Athletic press. A pass to Clement Lenglet is shut off by Aduriz, who’ll gradually pull off that man and trot toward the German keeper. The pass down the middle to Ivan Rakitic — or even Rafinha, who moves back to add options — is effectively closed off by Dani Garcia and Oihan Sancet, Athletic’s 19-year-old debutant from whom I expect terrific things.
But Ter Stegen has both Pique and Semedo available to his right. They’re not properly closed down. It’s the obvious move to build from the back through them and either keep possession or build a late attack.
Instead he unloads a long, raking ball to a relatively well-marked Alba high and wide on the left touchline. The effort is lackadaisical, the kind of attention to detail you might see during the warm-up and, even then, receive ribbing from your teammates about. The ball soars over Alba’s head and out for the very throw-in that will result in the winning goal, 28 seconds after Ter Stegen needlessly gifts away possession.
They have the ball, they aren’t under great pressure, the match is almost over, a point is in hand … and it’s all tossed away with the nonchalant “I’ve got more of these” lack of grief when a millionaire drops a €100 note on the pavement.
So if Dembele needed a clip round the ear from Pique, then why didn’t the German? If Ter Stegen takes the correct, obvious, intelligent option with his pass, the odds of Barcelona getting out of San Mames with a draw — perhaps even a smash-and-grab 1-0 win — go up hugely. His culpability is central, more so than Dembele’s.
But this column is neither me picking an argument with Pique for the sake of it nor me trying to be overly critical of Ter Stegen, who regularly pulls Barca out of the muck and is, without question, one of the most gifted keepers in the world. He’s also one of their grittiest competitors.
Not only did his mixture of bemusing decision-making and sloppy technique cost defeat, but also it was symbolic, I thought, in two ways. One, instead of maintaining possession, he kicked it away at a time when your brain needs to be making percentage decisions. That Barcelona’s European campaign came to a spectacularly crashing end — what seems like no more than a week or two ago — because of inattention at a set piece doesn’t seem to have registered with this squad.
Ter Stegen gifted Athletic that dead-ball situation, and just like at Anfield, when Trent Alexander-Arnold fed Divock Origi from that “find the dope” corner kick, Barcelona’s key men all dropped their concentration for a second. Alba, Dembele and Semedo were all found wanting — maybe not by much individually but cumulatively enough for Athletic to snatch three points.
How long ago was it that possession was king at Barca? Not “king” in the sense of lip service and paying homage to the idea without actually enforcing it, but truly “king,” as in never giving it away cheaply. A long time.
Secondly, Ter Stegen’s decision to play high-risk, unnecessarily showy football with 132 seconds of normal time remaining came when Ernesto Valverde had already judged that Sergio Busquets — ordinarily the emperor of “take the ball, pass the ball” (to coin a Pep Guardiola phrase) — should be dropped because he has become prone in recent months to getting ruffled under pressure and giving the ball away.
Huge changes don’t always come explosively. In fact, usually they inch ahead incrementally. Friday felt measurable.
But it’s Week 1. It’s early to judge a squad with new signings and one that was cruelly exposed to this torrid test by a board of directors who thought it was a good idea to pack Valverde’s squad off to the United States in the final 10 days before La Liga kicked off. Madness.
But I’d suggest that Barcelona aren’t just losing concentration on the pitch. They’re insidiously losing their respect for possession of the ball and the ideology behind it.