The rules of the road dictate that you should never overtake a bus unless it is safe and timely to do so, and even then you need to be very careful, quick and clever to ensure you avoid any possible accidents. This is a rule Barça would have done well to remember as they took to the pitch against Chelsea last night. For when the bus pulled up in front of us to park for the evening, our ‘mini‘ maestros slowed down so much that getting past became near-on impossible, all of this despite numerous signals from those ‘on the bus’ that it was possible to go in front.
We had chances to move and overtake. We did not take them. Now we’re stuck looking anxiously in our rear-view mirror unsure of the road ahead. It’s going to be a bumpy ride ahead, that’s for sure.
Right off the bat, I have to say that Chelsea did their job brilliantly. Slowing the game down. Breaking up play. Always two firm banks of four sat in front of us, with honourable mentions surely going to Ashley Cole, Raul Meireles, Ramires and the suprisingly adept Gary Cahill for their hard-work and strong performances. As Frank Lampard said before the match, Chelsea ‘had a plan’ and lord did they stick to it. Was it pretty? No. Was it effective? Evidently so, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this today.
On the negative side Roberto Di Matteo seemed to have told Didier Drogba that there were a host of killer locusts on their way to Stamford Bridge, with the big Ivorian constantly dropping for cover whenever he thought he heard anything resembling a deathly buzz. This must surely be true because anything else would just be too ridiculous to believe, wouldn’t it? I mean, after all Drogba is 6’2″ and built like a brickhouse so surely he hadn’t been told to go down and stay down, had he? Maybe I’m being too cynical but perhaps now the English press can finally get off their high horse and stop telling us that “Oooh you wouldn’t see that in England!” anytime Sergio Busquets gets trodden on.
Fact is you do see it in England and we saw a hell of a lot of it last night, amongst other things. For if Drogba had been told the locusts were on their way, it seems John Terry had been tipped off that they were arriving via Alexis Sanchez’s groin, the England centre-half taking a few tips from the Sergio Ramos school of defending – if the ref doesn’t see it it’s not illegal. The harsh reality of it is that Chelsea had decided they could physically intimidate Sanchez and through some pretty distasteful ‘challenges‘, Terry managed to put a fear into the forward that sent him moving away from, rather than towards, Petr Cech’s goal. Sad but true. And once again effective.
Another sad fact is that if Sanchez just made slightly less contact with the ball in the 8th minute we may well be having a completely different conversation right now – one possibly fueled by left-over Cava and a hangover. As it is, the only hangover we have today is one we’re becoming rather accustomed to getting after traveling away from the Camp Nou. A hangover born of a strange sort of jet-lag, where everything seems to be covered in cotton wool and moving far too slowly. It looks right. It even kind of feels right. It just isn’t going anywhere. Stunted. Slow. Lacking teeth. This is the story of Barça’s life on the road this season, especially in Europe, ‘especially’ over two-legs. The San Siro anyone?
Don’t get me wrong – the team played well, bossing the play and creating more than enough chances to be coming back home with the tie already finished, but due to some very sloppy finishing, and a lack of ideas and urgency, we must once again pull our chestnuts out of the fire at the Camp Nou. This is a problem that needs to be addressed. If not for this season then certainly for the future, otherwise our predictability on the road may well prove to be our Achilles heel.
But how do we make changes whilst staying true to the ‘Barça way‘? For me it begins in the most painful of ways – and may Joan Gamper and all the other blaugrana lords forgive me for what I am about to say – but we need to drop Xavi when we travel outside of Spain. Or maybe rest is a better word for it. Yes rest him. He’s not getting any younger and despite his genius and statesman-like position within the team, it must be said that when the bus arrives he begins to resemble something of a bus-spotter, standing-by outside, always making notes and tinkering around but doing little else besides.
Of course our less than impressive away form cannot all be laid at Xavi’s door, but I think an away day midfield reshuffle could well be the answer to the awkward questions posed by the many bus drivers we come across on our travels. That, and we need to stop insisting that Cesc is a forward. He is not, as his poor finishing demonstrated amply last night. Instead I propose that Cesc slots back into Xavi’s position, with Busquets, Iniesta and, over time, Thiago, sitting around him. This would serve many purposes, not least of all to keep Xavi fresh as the seasons get longer and he, well, doesn’t get younger.
It would also allow Cesc to engage his more natural rhythm – that is as a supplier who gets goals ghosting in from deep. This is what he did so well at Arsenal and something we have yet to see too much of since he returned home in the summer. Cesc can also be more direct and quicker with the release ball than Xavi, something that would serve to take away the effectiveness of the bus parking strategy as the attack would be underway before the opposition players could get back into position. A crucial point if the pace and trickery of Sanchez, Pedro, Cuenca, and Tello are to be exploited to their full potential.
And exploited they must be if we hope to keep teams on their toes. Not only tiki-taka, but quick and cutting. Alexis seems like the perfect man for the job, alongside David Villa when fit, but for the Chilean to truly prove his worth he needs to realise that his instincts are right – playing on the shoulder, getting in behind and shooting on sight. At times this season he’s done this to great effect, but too often he seems almost in awe of his illustrious teammates to play his natural game.
Over time he will grow into his position, with both his confidence and physical presence improving to the point that such cynical showings as that seen by John Terry last night will no longer intimidate him. My suggestion – Alexis must watch ‘The Best of David Villa’ over the summer and make as many notes as he can. He has the pure ability, he just needs to use it correctly. El Guaje can surely show him how.
With extra width and balance added up front by Pedro, Tello, and Cuenca (instead of Cesc or Iniesta) we would have all the ingredients of the perfect counter-attacking team – something the purists may not like, but when in Rome, well you’re in Rome, not Barcelona, so why not try playing like the away side once in a while. We will still have the short sharp tiki-taka passes and the genius of Messi and Iniesta, we just wouldn’t be relying on it to the detriment of everything else.
In short we would become less predictable, less easy to defend against, and the many bus drivers of Europe would have to start thinking of other ways to send us home unsatisfied. The only problem now is how do we draw people off the bus to come and play with us? After all a counter-attack only works when there is something to counter against. One step at a time I guess, though I’m sure we won’t be waiting too long for the next bus to arrive. You know what they say – you wait forever for one, and then three come along at once. Let’s just hope we’ve got the speed and precision to overtake them safely this time, with no further accidents along the way.
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