In an exciting day of football, all of La Liga’s major title challengers dropped points.
Barcelona opened the day with defeat in Levante, but then Atlético Madrid, Sevilla and Real Madrid failed to take advantage – leaving the Blaugrana still top, for now at least (Granada play tomorrow and can go top). How did Spain’s main title contenders fare on super Saturday? Read on and find out!
1. Ernesto Valverde is a coward
Levante 3-1 Barcelona
It’s incredible that Ernesto Valverde is still Barcelona manager. If the utterly ridiculous Roma loss in 2017/18 wasn’t enough of a sign that he wasn’t up to the task, the shameful capitulation at Anfield in 2018/19 was a clear indication.
Both warnings went unheeded, and here we are, 11 games into the league season and Barcelona have already conceded 14 goals and lost 3 times. The defeat to Levante was symptomatic of everything wrong with Valverde.
Luis Suárez started his fourth game in the two weeks since the international break. He only played well in one of those, the first one away to Eibar (because he had two weeks during the break to prepare for it). And it would have been five starts for the 32-year-old had El Clásico not been postponed. The Uruguayan can still deliver if his minutes are managed, but Valverde has run him into the ground. Literally today as he left the game in the first-half with an injury.
Arturo Vidal started again despite Levante away not really being the kind of game that could be improved by his relentless anarchy. He turns over possession for fun and is so hard to predict it seems like even he doesn’t know what he’s going to do next. But he’s the midfielder who will complain the loudest when left out, so in he goes to avoid any conflict.
Nelson Semedo played at left-back for some reason and even though he made a decent go of it, the side would have been better with a natural left-footer like Junior Firpo out there in place of Alba. Valverde, however, scratched him from the squad because young players are easy to mess around because they don’t have the caché to complain.
Oh, and when Suárez went off injured Antoine Griezmann played up-front for a spell and looked liquid. Then in he second half he was playing on the right, which ended up making the 4-3-3 look like a 4-5-1 designed to sit on and protect the 0-1 lead Barcelona had.
If you’re thinking that trying to protect a lead by being defensive, rather than playing possession football and using a midfield that contains two of the finest passing midfielders on the planet, is really cowardly and totally un-Barça… you’d be right. But that’s where things are with Valverde as coach. The fact that the Suárez sub was forced, accidentally created exciting football for a while but after his adjustments at half-time the very same XI were rancid to watch, is so very telling.
Barcelona don’t really play like Barcelona away from home. Oh sure, at the Camp Nou they are still supreme. With the home crowd driving them on and a stable of veteran players who know every angle on that giant pitch, Barça can still be Barça.
But when they’re the visitors, when their opponents realise that they’re not playing any quick forwards and have almost zero ability to play in transition yet repeatedly forego possession to exclusively play in transition, well, you get what happened today. Levante went down, but never stopped attacking because they did not fear the Blaugrana.
Trying to absorb relentless pressure cracked the Barcelona defence wide-open and for 10 mad minutes Levante were unstoppable. They scored three, it could have been more. The same kind of mental break that did for Barcelona in Rome and at Anfield. Sure, they regained their composure and tried to chase down the massive total but by then they were in too deep a hole and couldn’t get out. Levante held on for a big win and Barcelona went home defeated.
There will be a tendency to look at the details, the errors made in conceding the goals. That’s a trap. The real problem Barcelona face is that their manager repeatedly sends them out with unadventurous XI’s in unadventurous systems where they play unadventurous football because Ernesto Valverde is a coward. And if Barcelona seriously want to return to being a dominant side again then he has to go.
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2. Missed chances in Andalucia
Sevilla 1-1 Atlético Madrid
After Barcelona’s defeat, both Sevilla and Atlético Madrid had the chance to go top of the league with a win. Their showdown was packed with significance, and so it wasn’t a real surprise that neither side really had the killer instinct to push forward and pick up a massive win.
Sevilla are still a team in transition under Julen Lopetegui. They’re bright and fun to watch but their performances against Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atleti show them to be a side entirely lacking in a real killing touch. Part of that is that Luuk de Jong is a poor replacement for Wissam Ben Yedder, but part of it is the system itself. It requires so much effort and dynamism that by the time the final shot is due, there’s no energy left in anyone’s legs.
As for Atleti, well, today was Diego Simeone’s 300th La Liga game in charge of the side. That’s a milestone only four men have reached before, and it goes some way to explaining why Atleti look like a tribute act to Simeone’s title-winning Atleti side. The Argentine has never changed his coaching philosophy but is finding it hard to implement his system without certain key players.
Sure, there are glimpses of the old Atleti in this current side; they scored twice with towering back-post headers from right-wing crosses (VAR ruled out the first one). They had a shot cleared off the line and earned a penalty. But by and large Atleti don’t look capable of raising their game to the kind of elite level they used to hit regularly. Back in the day they’d have buried both the shot off the line and the penalty.
Atleti have become a parody of the side they used to be, relying too quickly on their defence without realising that even at its most fearsome it couldn’t hold out forever (recall extra time of the 2014 Champions League final) and it is far from it’s most fearsome in 2019. All in all, both sides missed chances on Saturday evening. Chances to win the game, chances to top the league and chances to prove that they have what it takes to run with the big dogs.
3. Wild Stallions
Real Madrid 0-0 Real Betis
With Zinedine Zidane getting the band back together at Real Madrid, many predicted a return to the glory days of them winning three consecutive Champions League. But instead it feels like one of those really terrible Rolling Stones albums with the band shambling around the stage, a shadow of the all-conquering legends they used to be.
Tonight, Los Blancos lined up having seen all their rivals drop points. Top spot was theirs for the taking, all they had to do was come together and beat Real Betis at the Santiago Bernabeu. Zidane had Eden Hazard back as well as all three of his favourite midfielders. Karim Benzema was in great form, and they just beat Leganés 5-0.
But Real Betis have won on their last two trips to the Santiago Bernabeu (Barcelona are the only visiting side to have more than two wins at the Bernabeu). They know how to win in Spain’s capital, and even though they’re in the relegation zone coach Rubi set them up perfectly to launch an assault on making history. On the night they were the better of the two teams, playing with serious cohesion and quality.
Madrid’s individual brilliance was self-evident. The sheer skill of their star men was on show all night. Eden Hazard in particular was looking much more like himself finally. The Belgian was zipping around the field like bolts of lightning, creating danger and excitement wherever he went. Betis defenders really had trouble dealing with Hazard (he scored a stunning strike but it was ruled out for offside by VAR), but luckily for them the no. 7 was fully improvising.
Nothing about what Hazard was doing looked planned, or structured. The plan appeared to be just “give it to Eden and hope” because that’s literally what they did. The thing is that is always a gamble, obviously Hazard had the talent to turn out Betis’ lights, but then you’re wholly reliant on individual genius and if he’s not fully in the zone, or Rodrygo’s not in the zone, or Benzema isn’t at it, then you don’t score.
Turns out that none of Madrid’s players had their shooting boots on as Los Blancos wasted several chances. They had all the best looks but they wasted so many. Sub Vinicius had the worst miss, in stoppage time, controlling a cross perfectly before popping his shot directly at the onrushing Joel in the Betis goal. It was a good save but truthfully Vinicius shouldn’t have given him any chance.
But Vinicius’ rushed finish exemplified Madrid. Everything was rushed and off-the-cuff. Whilst Betis were harmonious, fully aware of what they were doing and lacking only a touch of skill to turn their tactical dominance into a win, Madrid were utterly discordant. They didn’t even look like latter-day Rolling Stones, to be honest, they looked like wild stallions.
Both in the sense of they were a bunch of magnificently athletic specimens just sort of running aimlessly around the place; but also that they looked like Bill & Ted jamming in their garage – thinking that a good song involves wailing away on their fretboards with improvisational solos. Madrid thought that they could just put their star men out there and hammer Betis into submission.
Real Betis had other ideas, however. And just like Bill and Ted learned at their end of their excellent adventure; maybe it’s time Los Blancos really learned how to play? In unison, in harmony, as a team.