I'm going to do this a bit differently and start off with a question: Do you think, this Barca squad (the squad that just played Atleti, and the squad that started against Las Palmas) could beat a Champions League Real Madrid, or Bayern Munich, or even Man City?
I don't think so at all! Although we beat Atleti, I must say, this one felt like a loss. In the last 10 minutes, winning or drawing was not up to us, it was up to the refs, the other team, luck, whatever, we had no control. For the first time in as long as I can remember, we parked the bus and became what Barca fans have hated all along.
Sadly, it could have been different. Don't get me wrong, I understand playing defensively in a big match, closing down the defense towards the end to ensure a 1-0 win. However, tactically speaking, not bringing on a player that could offer an outlet up top, to ensure, at the very least, we had an option to pass to, or an opportunity to get a game winner if the other team scored, that, I don't understand. Let's get into it!
The Line - Up (Las Palmas)
Coming off the 6-1 domination of 8th place Girona, an AMAZING positive positive game, Valverde decided to go with a more defensive setup. Electing to start Paulinho and Vidal over the recently impressive Coutinho and Dembele. This line-up made absolutely no sense what so ever.
First off, this was a bottom of the table squad in a game 3 days before the biggest game of the season. Luis Suarez was facing a yellow card that could keep him out of the Atleti game, Pique was injured, and both Paulinho and Vidal had been lackluster in their past appearances. This was an excellent opportunity to continue integrating Dembele and Coutinho into the squad. Yes, they got some time, however, as seen in the Girona game, they need time to get into the game, at this point, they should not be off the bench options, they should have started.
Paco should have started, and at the very least, Yerry Mina should have been on the bench for Pique. (Not even mentioning Denis Suarez)
A Draw with our Starters
In the end, a game that should have seen our stars rested, in a routine win for our subs (two of which are worth over $200 million and would be starting on any other team) turned out to be a labored draw that underscored our Messi dependence. It was a bad look coming into the business end of the season. I highly doubt that had we started with Coutinho or Dembele we would not have been able to sub Messi and Suarez out at half.
Especially, knowing that Dembele would not start against Atleti. Dembele was actually the only player who added some offense towards the end of the game, putting in the only shot in the last 15 mins for Barca and a cross that could have won the game had Luis Suarez been able to bring it down better.
The Line - Up (Atleti)
I was very surprised to see Coutinho starting this game, it was the right decision but surprised me due to Valverde's patterns in big games. Honestly, I knew Dembele would start on the bench and agreed with that decision because the balance of defense was important to start.
Gomes in for Iniesta…almost funny at this point
So Iniesta gets hurt early, sad, not much you can do about that. To sub in Andre Gomes, just absurd. Paulinho has had a poor run of form however, I would have put him in way before I let Gomes anywhere near this game. Objectively speaking, I understood not bringing in Dembele due to the fact that it was still pretty early in the game and the only argument that could be made for Gomes is that he would offer something more defensively. However, if you watched the Girona game, you would have seen that Dembele can get back and play defense. Also, had Dembele been played more against Las Palmas, we would have all been more confident in him being the first sub.
Either way, Gomes comes on and goes on to play 60 to 65 minutes of football. In that time, he hit a truly terrible cross to the Atleti keeper, not even like a good cross that the keeper came out for, he hit the ball directly to the keeper! He had 1 positive forward pass, in 65 mins! He lost the ball a good bit, and couldn't even head it out of the box. He offered nothing going forward, or defensively, and he even stopped a break we had, to pass the ball back.
Personally, I would have subbed him off at the 60th for Dembele as Gomes was playing that Right Attacking Mid and even Right forward at times and doing nothing. Players were refusing to pass him the ball, and both Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba provided more wing play than he did. I challenge anyone to tell me how he helped this squad today.
A Win that feels like a loss
We got the 3 points, however, compared to that win against Real earlier this season, my current outlook for our future is bleak. After the first Classico I felt unbeatable, unplayable due to Valverde's ability to adapt. I thought once we got Dembele back, and Coutinho we would be truly unstoppable…I do not feel that way now.
I felt like the hunters had become the hunted, I saw us do what Chelsea did to us during our last encounter, what every team started doing towards the end of Pep's reign. Draws due to Messi freekicks are not sustainable, and my concern is that the true problems of this squad are being hidden behind the 1 point here or 3 points there. The fear is that we will be exposed soon. Do we win the league, probably, do we win the Copa, most likely, can we in the Champions league going like this…definitely not.
My biggest problem is that our team is not sustainable. Which is crazy given the close to $300 million we are not utilizing. The reason you spend so much is to ensure your team has options. Currently, Dembele has shown lots of promise for being just 20. He can be an attacking option in this squad once fully integrated. Games like that against Las Palmas are clear opportunities to get him more time so that if necessary in a big game, he's not coming on with no idea of how to best be effective. That's sustainable.
Giving a player like Denis Suarez more time, so that, when we have a situation like we had today against Atleti, we could have an integrated Denis, who could easily fit into the Iniesta role (as a backup option) or even a wider attacking role without having to rely on a player in Gomes with worse stats than anyone else on our team.
It's so frustrating to hear Valverde talk about players like Dembele and say "what matters is output on the pitch and not practice" then play Gomes, and Paulinho. By output to minutes alone, Dembele has a higher success rate. Overall, we are heading to a part of the season where we can't keep doing this "hope Messi scores, then we defend for our lives" thing. That is not how you win Trebles.
I love this Club, I care about our future, and I hope things get better. I am looking to see how we line up next week, hopefully, Valverde has learned his lesson. Optimistically looking to the future…Forca Barca!