Soooo...I'll start by saying, to win championships, you've gotta be good...and you've gotta be lucky. The luck comes with the skill, and having Messi doesn't hurt either. We kept fighting this game, and made some great adjustments in the second half however, Alaves have some legitimate anger over the Paco offside that lead to Messi's game-winner and not getting the pk from the handball in the box (although unintentional). Let's get into it...
I was ok with the changes this game, we are at the business end of the season so rest and rotation will be crucial for our long-term success. My issues came with starting Paulinho in a very ball control heavy squad. I liked 4-3-1-2, however, I think Roberto would have been a much better inclusion as a direct passing midfielder.
Alaves Playing on the Counter
So much credit has to be given to Alaves. Although bottom of the table now, they've always played great games against us since they were promoted. This was no different, and they reverted to the old park the bus and attack on the counter strategy.
Few teams have really tried this tactic this year as most have gone with the high pressure that worked against Enrique's Barca. Clearly, the high pressure does not work against Valverde's team for a whole 90' as evidenced against Real Madrid and Betis.
Their defense was compact and their offense efficient. It was a true test.
Too Many Options
This test was made harder by Valverde's team selection. Not that too much was wrong, however, you could tell we were experiencing the problem of too many short passing players in a compact space.
Coutinho has not yet really learned Valverde's system and has a strong desire to play through the middle...neglecting the wide pass (in this instance Digne). The inclusion of Roberto in the starting line up and Paulinho off then bench would have nullified this effect because Roberto is a more direct passing player. Either way...we were impotent up top due to this midfield line up early.
Ter-Stegen and Umtiti
Without these players today, this game would have been a totally different story. Umtiti's awareness and ability are just fantastic to see. He does the little things just perfectly...including cutting off angles, something that saved us on the first great counter-attack from Alaves.
Ter-Stegen is like Messi to me at this point, you can only talk about how good he is for so long until it's just a fact that does not need to be uttered out loud anymore.
The Turning Point
It's clear everything changed with the inclusion of Alba and Roberto. I do feel at this point Valverde brings Roberto in as a Right Back simply to have him on the field. I would have rather remove Paulinho for Roberto but...he was on and that's all that mattered.
Instantly Barca started to utilize the width...with Alba getting fed much more than Digne. This changed the game as it stretched the field and gave us the ability to cut in as an option, not the only option.
I'll finish this off with a comment on this legend. What a season he is having! In a game where the biggest talking point was the first start of his eventual successor, he proved the master is not yet done teaching. I'm am looking forward to seeing him in the champions league.
Overall, Messi scored the free kick and the game was over. Valverde's adjustments were crucial...the tenacity of our team was crucial...the desire of our players crucial. This game...against a bottom tier team...that tested our strategy and put us to the sword...the desire to win displayed by our team continuously bolsters my faith that good thing are on the horizon this season. Forca Barca!