El Pivote: The common cold

El Pivote: The common cold

El Pivote (The Pivot) is a weekly totalBarça column by Anoop Jethwa about the trials and tribulations of FC Barcelona.  From the positives to the negatives, this piece will dive deep into the living fabric that is blaugrana.  We welcome your thoughts and feedback in the comments section.

This week on El Pivote, we will assess the tiny dip in form since the fantastic victory at Malaga 10 days ago, and look ahead to the trip back to Andalusia followed by the La Liga visit of Osasuna.

Winter blues

Whenever the turn of the year occurs, I’m always susceptible to getting that annoying winter cold in January and invariably, through little fault of my own, my defence just isn’t up to the task. Same thing happened a couple of weeks ago. Did the same thing happen to Barcelona last week?

The 2-2 draw at home against Malaga in the Copa Del Rey first leg was the first indication that Barcelona had lost a certain swagger since the league result three days later. And with Mascherano, Iniesta and Messi being the only three players to feature in the cup match as well, it’s not exactly surprising. However, it would be wrong to be heavily critical of the team, despite the fact that Malaga only started Eliseu, Sergio Sanchez, Camacho and Welington in both games. Manuel Pellegrini is a fantastic coach who has the ability to get the best out of most teams where he has worked, and although he did well against Barcelona, the Catalans still managed to create plenty of chances to effectively make the second leg redundant.

Unfortunately, chances were not taken and the game ended 2-2 where the opposition were allowed a one-on-one and a lack of concentration resulted in a free shot on goal despite having one more player on the pitch. Remind you of anything? Dare I say it slightly reminded me of Chelsea at the Camp Nou last year, although clearly under different circumstances. The most noticeable difference on the pitch is that Torres’s goal last year was a knockout blow that compounded a week of misery. Against Malaga, mistakes were made to the players’ benefit should they learn from them. I hope that Thiago Alcantara now knows never to expect time to take two touches when the goalkeeper passes him the ball, with the two central defenders spread out wide to create triangles. Barcelona fans all over the world take pride in the fact that Busquets, Xavi and Cesc for sure are constantly looking over their shoulder before and after the ball is played to them. We saw Thiago’s fantastic technique all throughout that match, and I’ve no doubt that he had the ability to pass that ball first time to Mascherano. At half-time Tito would have said the same, but deep down it doesn’t need to be said. No need for harsh criticism there, especially as he did get the assist for Puyol’s header several minutes later.

The goal conceded in the 88th minute showed that sharpness and concentration was on the wane. This wasn’t really surprising seeing as plenty of players out there had not had a full 90 minutes under their belts for a fairly long time. Further evidence of this was Xavi, Cesc and Pedro coming on in the last fifteen minutes to regain full control of the match. Against Real Sociedad, a 90th minute goal condemned Vilanova to the first league defeat of the season. There’s not really any doubt that going down to ten men directly influenced the result by giving Sociedad impetus to attack, but there are certainly other reasons to be pointed out about the last two matches have resulted in no victories.

What’s really occurring?

No footballer is perfect. There’s been plenty of overly harsh criticism dished out to Víctor Valdés over the past week for just being honest and up front. However, up front is honestly where problems still occur. No one can complain about Messi’s goalscoring record, but any coach would be disappointed if his or her striker had that first one-on-one and failed to hit the target or make the keeper work. Let’s face it, we all expected Lionel to bury that.

Pedro put away his opportunity and hit the post from the half chance against Sociedad and Alexis Sanchez should have got one against Malaga, at the very least. However, herein lays the fact of why David Villa will not be allowed to leave the club this transfer window. Although he’s nowhere near his best form, due to injury and a lack of opportunity, he still possesses a threat in front of goal and from now until the end of the season, there’s no doubt that when a chance needs to be taken; David Villa will be thrown onto the pitch, especially if teams are defending deep. If teams are still offering space in behind, Pedro and Sanchez will supply the movement to allow Messi to have the lion’s share of chances, but when we see that bus parked in front of us once more, a master craftsman in the art of finishing will be needed, and that man is David Villa. Saying that, all of them have the capacity to improve, including Messi, especially Sanchez.

Something which I’ve spoken about before on El Pivote has never been truer after the weekend’s defeat. It seems that every foul committed by a Barcelona player is a yellow card, whereas the opponent has two or three hits on one of our players before a caution is produced. Make no mistake about my thoughts here. I will not excuse Piqué for the stupidity he showed, especially for the first yellow. I would just like consistency from referees to understand why cards are given out. A counter argument I often hear is that the big teams always get more penalties than the smaller teams. You know whenever you hear this that the person has very little understanding of football. It’s purely logical that the bigger teams, with better players, will keep the ball better, attack more and create more chances in and around the opponent’s penalty area, which may lead to a penalty on occasion. Therefore there is a significantly higher chance of a penalty for the bigger teams.

Why does logic stop with referees when it comes to yellow cards against Barcelona? Barcelona always have the lion’s share of possession, therefore the opponent has less opportunity to attack. This means each opportunity for the opposition is important. When there’s plenty of space in behind and a Barcelona defender makes a tactical foul, there’s no argument against a yellow card. When there’s nothing especially important happening about play in the midfield, too many fouls are deemed as bookings for Barcelona, whilst dozens of challenges on the likes of Messi and Iniesta go unpunished. Referees should not be thinking about the tactical element of the game and treat each foul on its merit. Of course, there are tactical fouls which need dealing with, but for the simple fouls, there must be more fairness. Speaking of fairness in the game against Sociedad, Dani Alves could easily have got a yellow for persistent fouling. On that basis, so should plenty of opponents down the years, including Lassana Diarra against Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey last season, before Dani Alves scored a cracker. Gerard Piqué tweeted hours after the game, “Temporada 2012/13: Partidos Jugados 14 | Faltas Cometidas 7 | Tarjetas Amarillas 5 | Tarjetas Rojas 1.” (Season 2012/13: Games Played 14 | Fouls Committed 7 | Yellow Cards 5 | Red Cards 1)

Last point to be made about the Sociedad game is a problem that has arisen before. Whenever a centre back steps out of the back four, it’s essential for the other three to come tighter together and become compact. We saw it against Real Madrid and Real Mallorca. Now it’s reappeared with Real Sociedad. I’ve heard many a Barcelona fan over the last few days criticise Dani Alves for not being way out on the right in order to man mark the first Sociedad goalscorer, Chory Castro. It’s pretty clear cut – the reason why Carlos Vela has to turn and play it out wide is because Dani Alves is there. Piqué loses the header, Puyol misses the ball and Dani Alves is exactly where he should be to be Puyol’s 2nd defender in the very event that Puyol did miss the ball. The ball is always the number one danger, and had Dani Alves been much closer to Castro, Vela would have taken the ball in and had a clear opportunity to score – and then the same people would be berating Dani Alves for a lack of cover. Credit and criticism must be given out where it’s due, but here Dani Alves has been on the receiving end of the wrong one; criticism must go elsewhere on this occasion.

Fitness

Guillem Balague revealed on Revista this week that the Barcelona squad is actually undertaking another pre-season routine to ensure that maximum energy can be produced all the way through to the end of the season. Fitness was certainly something the club wanted to work on, planning that the team travelled only short distances in the summer and now it seems that the point is being reinforced this month.

“There’s another point that the Barcelona staff is making – not as an excuse – but they’re actually saying that they’re in the third week of four weeks of a kind of pre-season; a lot of work is being put into their legs so they can last the whole season. There was the worry last year that they ended the season a little bit tired, both mentally and physically, and they felt that this was the right time to do it, which means that perhaps at the end of the games [against Malaga and Sociedad] they’re not as mentally and physically sharp as they normally should be.”

If the last two results are down to a little cold, hopefully a full recovery is made in both league and cup quickly, otherwise an upgrade to a nasty flu would see us down to only two trophies to play for and encouragement for the Spanish capital.

PS. Congratulations to ex-Barça legend Michael Laudrup’s Swansea team for knocking out Chelsea in a semi final. Molt bé!

Until next time…Visca Barça. El Pivote.

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