La Liga Hangover: Lucky Barcelona Escape as Real Sociedad Commit Identity Theft

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistNovember 28, 2016

Barcelona's Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez stands after Real Sociedad scored a goal during the Spanish league football match Real Sociedad vs FC Barcelona at the Anoeta stadium in San Sebastian, on November 27, 2016. / AFP / ANDER GILLENEA        (Photo credit should read ANDER GILLENEA/AFP/Getty Images)

His team had escaped but he knew there was no escaping it. Earlier, only seconds removed from what had been billed as a battle but had instead turned out to be a one-way stampede, one of his senior players hadn't held back; another had followed suit. It was time to say it like it was. 

"It's almost a miracle that it's ended 1-1," said Luis Enrique of Barcelona's draw with Real Sociedad at Anoeta on Sunday night, per ESPN FC

As do his predecessors, the Barcelona manager knows a thing or two about miraculous draws. It's usually his team who leave frustrated whenever the scoreboard is left in a stalemate, with them having handed out a two-hour pummelling only to be denied by the remarkable. Malaga and Carlos Kameni spring to mind, but this time they hadn't been Kameni-d. Lucho was sitting on the other side of the fence. 

The Barcelona boss is often deflective and dismissive, but here there was nothing that could be dismissed. His team had taken the pummelling. Whereas after the loss to Manchester City in the Champions League he'd said there was "no explanation," on Sunday night he said there was a simple one: "Real Sociedad were superior to us in all aspects."

He wasn't wrong. La Real in recent times might only be best known to a British audience for having a British manager who unsuccessfully attempted to speak Spanish and who had trouble finding a good cuppa, but on Sunday they showed that you'd better know who they are. 

In the face of football's dominant club, the men from Anoeta launched a raid of staggering intensity. They took 17 shots to 10, six of them on target to two, per They had more possession, hit the woodwork twice and had a goal wrongly ruled out for offside. And if their pressing had been any more vigorous, Barcelona would have started leaking juice. 

"They've not allowed us to string five passes together," said Luis Enrique. "They pressed us as and when they wanted, they won all the battles and you have to say that to be goalless at halftime was a miracle. It's the worst performance since I have been in charge. We didn't deserve the point we're taking back to Barcelona."

The Asturian was right about that too, and Anoeta continues to haunt the Catalans. Going into Sunday night's contest, the visitors hadn't won in San Sebastian in almost a decade and lost four straight there. 

Luis Enrique had presided over the most recent pair of those, and the two of them had been strikingly similar in nature. Each time, they'd suffered an early setback before not being able to hit a rhythm. Here there was no such early blow, but no one really knows how.

If Barcelona had taken any more body shots in the opening 20 minutes, they would have ruptured a kidney. In an opening barrage that eclipsed that of Jorge Sampaoli's dashing Sevilla a couple of weeks earlier, Real Sociedad at one point had taken six shots to none while having almost 65 percent of the ball. 

In midfield, the hosts flicked it around at will. Asier Illarramendi, David Zurutuza and Xabi Prieto sparkled with their neat triangles that looked eerily like what their opponents would have once served up. For half an hour it was as if they got a taste of being Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, playing around opponents who couldn't get out of their own box. 

But it wasn't just them. It was Yuri Berchiche, Inigo Martinez and Carlos Vela, too; it was all of them. For Barcelona, it must have been like looking in a mirror or at an old video. The tired assessment made too often in commentary boxes that the teams must have swapped shirts was for once spot on.

It was as though Eusebio had rounded up his old Dream Team team-mates and got them to wear Mission Impossible face masks. This was identity theft of the highest order. It wouldn't have been surprising if Barcelona's bank suspended the club's credit cards. 

But Barcelona shouldn't have been taken by surprise. La Real had been the form team in La Liga heading into Week 13. They'd won four straight and five of their last six; they'd taken down Atletico Madrid in that run, and through their play you could see something special building. 

Under Eusebio, a member of Johan Cruyff's all-conquering Barcelona side of early 1990s and a recent Barcelona assistant and B-team coach, some Barca-like traits have been growing in the Basques. Whereas under David Moyes there had been no identifiable method, now there's a clear structure to the way they move the ball and an order in the way they commit men forward, shape maintained both in and out of possession. 

Illarramendi anchored that on Sunday night. No longer looking like a lost child at the Bernabeu while carrying a gold bullion around his neck, the 26-year-old did his best impression of a '90s Pep Guardiola against Barcelona, distributing from the base of a midfield that camped itself in the visitors' half. 

He was helped by Zurutuza and Prieto, the three of them combining relentlessly before finding the forwards and on-rushing full-backs. Prieto even pushed forward himself, giving Yuri and Carlos Martinez another target for crosses alongside Willian Jose. Twice he went close with headers; both times he should have scored. 

Barely a minute after the second of those, Prieto set up Vela with a gorgeous chipped past, wiping out the Barcelona defence. When the Mexican pulled his shot wide, Eusebio would have been right to feel his side should have been 3-0 up. 

For Barcelona, it was as though they'd forgotten who they are and it's not the first time this season. The team had no answer to La Real's pressing, Gerard Pique's clearances became a matter of anywhere will do and Sergi Roberto couldn't live with Yuri. None of them could live with Vela. 

It was Vela's hassling of Javier Mascherano and blocked shot that resulted in Willian Jose heading home the hosts' opener, with some help from a wobbling Pique. It was also Vela who struck the woodwork twice, the first seeing Juanmi tap home the rebound. It should have stood; Juanmi was a yard onside. 

It speaks volumes for the work Eusebio is doing that Vela looks like this again. Though prodigiously talented, the Mexican has looked disinterested in recent seasons and not even close to fit. Early last season while under David Moyes, he said he'd "continue until January," per Sport

He may as well have said he was off to collect some cozy paychecks in MLS as soon as he got the chance. But look now: energetic, lean, motivated, full of belief and with complete conviction in what he's doing. Those around him are just the same, but that can't quite be said for their opponents. 

This sort of performance from Barcelona is becoming increasingly regular. It's not just a matter of the form of the individuals but something collective, something deeper.

Barcelona have been going through a stylistic shift ever since Luis Enrique's arrival, but this season you sense they're drifting too far along the spectrum. Control is being sacrificed and too much is left to moments of brilliance from the forwards.

At Anoeta, one such moment from Neymar and Lionel Messi saved the Catalans, but that in itself was reflective of the problem. No longer is the majesty of the front three coming within the framework of a tight system; instead, those three are the system. 

On Sunday night, Busquets was isolated and passed by again, and Andre Gomes and Ivan Rakitic were unable to go with Zurutuza and Prieto. Three was no ball movement or tempo. Repeatedly the back four had to hit it long with no options near them. 

Such a dynamic wouldn't be a cause for concern if it was a one-off, but it's not. This unstructured, fragile and disjointed Barcelona was also seen against Celta Vigo, Valencia, Manchester City and Sevilla. 

"Playing like this, it will be difficult to win La Liga," Pique told a post-match television interview, per Sport. Jordi Alba agreed: "You won't win the league... or even a game playing like this," he said

On Sunday, they didn't. They took a pummelling and though they escaped, they can't escape it. With each passing week, Barcelona are looking a little less like Barcelona. With each passing week, Real Sociedad are looking a little more so. 


Not Forgotten Amid the Hangover

  • Zinedine Zidane called Real Madrid's 2-1 win over Sporting Gijon at the Bernabeu on Saturday "a game to forget," per ESPN FC, and it probably was. It was cold, it chucked it down, the hosts fell apart in the second half and they needed a missed penalty from Sporting late on to take the points. "I'm not very happy with how we played," said Zidane
  • Still, Zizou's men have now gone 31 games unbeaten in all competitions, matching the second-longest run in the club's history. The Frenchman's team is a difficult one to work out: They've rarely hit the stylistic heights many expect, but they just keep winning anyway. Zidane has managed 47 games in all competitions—he's lost two of them. 
  • Cristiano Ronaldo: eight goals in his last four league games. "He's fading, wait, no he's not. He's fading, wait, no he's not."
  • Real stepped out against Sporting, err, sporting one-off eco-friendly kits. Each shirt was made from plastic bottles taken from the Indian Ocean, with Adidas having teamed up with Parley for its "Parley for the Oceans" campaign. That part was great; the shirts' resistance to water was less so. Ronaldo and Co. were essentially entered into a wet T-shirt contest: 
  • It chucked it down in Malaga, too, and that doesn't often happen. What also doesn't often happen in Malaga are seven-goal thrillers. Malaga 4-3 Deportivo La Coruna was yet another example of this thrilling La Liga season. And Javi Ontiveros' scorching winner in added time was the league's 26th winner or equaliser after the 85th minute in 13 rounds. Yep, 26th.
  • A Diego Godin goal from a set piece, Gabi and Tiago in midfield, Jose Gimenez crashing around, Jan Oblak making big saves and a clean sheet: Welcome back, Atletico Madrid. 
  • Quique Sanchez Flores said on Friday that his Espanyol are "very far away from playing as we want." That might be true, but Flores was visibly delighted as his team took down Leganes 3-0 on Saturday. After a torrid start, it's starting to come together for Barcelona's other team; they've now gone seven unbeaten while keeping six clean sheets, and have won three of their last four. A bold new project is taking shape. 
  • More woe for Valencia; another win for Sevilla. Carry on. 
  • The good news for Valencia is that Munir scored again, on the same day Sandro scored again for Malaga. The ex-Barcelona pair—though admittedly, Munir is still on loan from the Camp Nou—now have eight goals between them this season after their struggles in Catalonia. That's eight more than the man who replaced them, Paco Alcacer. Scoring goals at Barcelona isn't as easy as it might look. 
  • Eibar really shouldn't be capable of doing this, you know?
  • Neither should Alaves. Sunday's 2-0 win over Villarreal means the Basques have already gone away to three of last season's top four (Barcelona, Atletico and Villarreal), and have taken seven points from nine. 



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