Saturday, October 22, 2016

Away Truths

The Barca loss has left me feeling puzzled. Part of that is to how the game itself played out (I mean, what was Bravo thinking using his hands that far outside his box?), but it is really the reaction from some observers that has me so confused. The consensus among City fans seems to be that City played okay, but were undone by individual errors, i.e. errors that likely won't be repeated in the future. This strikes me as wrong on all counts, as City's display was pretty underwhelming and the errors, though certainly made by individuals, are direct results of the team's system. Barcelona have long been the model City have attempted to emulate, and looking at this game as a one-off underestimates how much work City will need to do to actually be at Barcelona's level.

Let's start with the idea that City played well with the ball. Sure, City managed a decent possession figure of 47%, impressive when you consider they were down a man for 20 minutes and playing a team of Barcelona's caliber. But they only managed a paltry .6 xG (per Michael Caley) prior to the red card and just .2 thereafter. Moreover, at least three of those chances (including Gundogan's saved strike which looked like the best opportunity of the bunch) were a direct result of Pique being injured but not yet removed. Also, with Barcelona scoring such an early goal, the game state would also dictate that City should be pressing to score an equalizer, making their xG figure even less impressive.

Without the ball, City weren't that much better. They allowed 3.1 xG, plus a penalty, meaning that Barca pretty much deserved their four goals. People seem to be using two main, interrelated excuses to dismiss this: 1) the red card had a huge effect on the outcome and 2) individual errors were at fault, rather than systemic errors. I can understand the first point, but Barca scored two goals and drew the penalty at even strength and City were only down a man for less than a quarter of the game.

The second point I just don't think is true. Some of the supposed errors were to me just poor team defense. Everyone seems to be blaming Fernandinho's slip for the first goal, but if you watch carefully the ball is already past him before he slips. Even if he was able to maintain his balance while attempting to move away from the goal he was hurtling towards a millisecond ago, I don't think he would have been able to make it to the ball before Messi. Best case scenario, Messi pokes it away from him and Fernandinho gives up a PK. The real problem was the incisive run by Iniesta and City's failure to track Messi as he ran onto the cutback. Similarly, on the penalty kick, Messi had cut through our defense like butter and would have had a very decent opportunity had Kolarov not made that challenge, so I don't think you can say it was an error per se. In both cases, the damage had largely been done before the individual mistake.

As for the other errors, they did not happen in a vacuum, but were instead caused by the style Guardiola wants to play. Bravo trying to save Suarez's shot when well outside the box was certainly his mistake, but the turnover leading to the chance was the result of Pep's attempts to play the ball from the back at all costs. The second and third Barcelona goals were likewise the result of turnovers in City's third attempting to move the ball forward, despite having 10 men at the time. Yes, Gundogan and KDB made mistakes with those passes, but they are expected to make passes under pressure in high-risk areas of the pitch in this system. The mistakes made were fundamentally the result of adhering strictly to the team's ethos of possession football.

This is not to say that Pep's system is bad or can't work in England or whatever other nonsense the tabloids are printing, just that it has weaknesses we shouldn't be trying to explain away as individual mistakes. When you play out from the back, these types of errors are going to happen from time to time and that needs to be acknowledged, as Pep himself has done. You can believe that the offensive benefit from having attacks start from anywhere outweighs this (I'm dubious) or that maintenance of possession allows fewer opportunities for your opponents' to attack, even if the chances it does give up are of higher quality, and is therefore worthwhile (I'm sympathetic). What you can't do is put the blame solely on the individual for these errors, as that willfully ignores the role the team's style plays in their occurrence and the likelihood of their repetition in the future. In this sense, I feel like the people who do so are like the rabid defenders of man-marking on corners: it's always an individual's fault the other team scored, never the system, despite the fact the system puts individuals in position to make those mistakes.

There's no shame in losing to Barcelona. There's no shame in losing heavily to Barcelona even, as they are a very good team. Admitting we were poor doesn't mean the team can't perform better. On the contrary, an honest accounting of what caused the loss can only help identify what needs to be improved. I only hope that Pep can figure it out the next time we play Barcelona, because if we play like we did on Wednesday it's going to be another loss.