Saturday night's the night I like, sang Elton John (that ages me), especially when you've got Malaga v Real Madrid followed by Barcelona v Sevilla on the telly. It sets you up nicely for the in-the-flesh Sunday game, ultimately something of a snooze-fest in Anoeta between Real Sociedad and Getafe (0-0). Perhaps it just paled by comparison, although that should never be the case when it comes to savouring the live experience. Putting your feet up on the sofa and popping open a half-decent Rioja is one thing, but getting down to the local stadium should always be the aesthetic priority.
Perhaps it was the warm south wind blowing around the rafters in Anoeta that dulled proceedings, but the game never got out of first gear. The same could not be said for the two top-billed games on Saturday night. However, I'd like to make some connections between the three games, if you'll bear with me. Last week we were looking at the media punta, and the influence of this type of player on the modern game, particularly in Spain, and although it was never my intention to turn this into a mini-series, the Barcelona-Sevilla game inevitably brought to the fore the related issue of how La Liga goes about its defending too - and the type of player it prefers to employ.
Just to look back for a moment - Villarreal's excellent performance at Manchester City last week, and the injustice of a last-minute defeat that almost surely spells their exit from the competition - raised the general and age-old question of whether it is better to defend by attacking, or defend by defending. When you are 1-1 in the second half, away from home, with plenty of time remaining and facing a side with attacking options galore, do you settle for the point or do you go for broke? My feeling was that Villarreal went for the latter, sensing that they could win the game as Manchester City tired.
Our old friend Borja Valero took over the game in the second half with a display of counter-attacking midfield play that would see him gracing the national side, if there were room for him. But he was helped by his defence, who played a stubbornly high-line - a risky policy unless you have at least one central defender who is fast. Carlos Marchena is many things, but fast ain't one of them. Cristian Zapata is rather more so, and as soon as Villarreal managed to advance their defensive line and play in City's half, they looked as though they could win it. Maybe, in the end, that is the reason why they lost.
Poor Villarreal. Nothing is going right for them this season, although they're not exactly playing badly. It was their subsequent misfortune to come up against the most in-form side in the league, the old men of Levante, who continued their amazing run of form by winning 3-0 in the Madrigal and returning to the top of the table. Barcelona's draw at home to Sevilla means they dropped to third, a point behind behind Real Madrid.
On Saturday night, Sevilla, hailed before the game by Pep Guardiola as the best counter-attacking side in Spain (after Real Madrid), seemed keen on proving him right. Jesus Navas' speed and directness will always make opponents nervous of pushing up the line too far, which explains why Javier Mascherano played almost like a sweeper in the second half, when Sevilla abandoned their counter-attack game and decided to park the bus. Mascherano is playing wonderfully at the moment, and snuffed out most of the occasional fires that came his way, even without Sergio Busquets and Pique as extra protection.
What is Mascherano? A defensive midfielder? Maybe. But when the occasion calls, he's essentially a centre-half, all 1.74 metres of him. His anticipation of the play is first-class, like an Argentinean Bobby Moore, and his passing is simple but effective. He's also very quick, and players like him, who are comfortable on the ball and who float somewhere between the defensive midfielder and the centre-back role, are the new vital ingredient in the post-modern game - as long as there's a big guy around too, to clear those corners.
Sevilla's defensive performance was a more traditional one, and one suspects that it might not have borne fruit without the astonishing performance of Javi Varas in goal. Varas is no spring chicken (he's 29) and can hardly be hailed as yet another up-and-coming Spanish keeper, but after playing second-fiddle for so long to Andres Palop it's nice for him to get his 15 minutes of fame. Oddly enough, he's the first Seville-born goalkeeper to play for the club since the famous Guillermo Eizaguirre, who last donned the jersey in 1936, before the Civil War. The penalty stop from Messi was one thing, but his performance was just one of those days when a goalkeeper is unbeatable. He made at least nine top-drawer stops and diverted the attention from Victor Valdes, whose clean sheet meant that he beat his own previous record of having gone 576 minutes without conceding, in consecutive official matches. Nobody really noticed, however. Sevilla played with two shields (Gary Medel and Jose Campaña or Ivan Rakitic) in front of their centre-backs, but Federico Fazio is another of the new breed, technically a centre-back but with the touch and positioning of a midfielder. Julien Escude can also pass a ball half decently.
It remains to be emphasised that despite all the hat-tricks and thrashings this season, the top four sides are setting out their stalls by virtue of defensive meanness. Levante head the list with three conceded in eight games, followed by Barcelona and Sevilla on four, and Real Madrid on six. Madrid's easier-than-expected dismantling of Malaga, with all the four goals coming in the first half, once again showed the virtue of playing the game in your opponent's territory. Madrid's offensive weaponry is so potent (Higuain and Ronaldo now have 19 goals between them, more than any other side has managed, save Barcelona) that the chances of maximising their possibilities are more than helped by playing 'the high line', to quote that phrase again. With Sergio Ramos at centre-back, where he looks an awesome player, as opposed to an inspired but undisciplined full-back, the ball is played out of defence with some criteria, usually into the feet of Xabi Alonso, who then marks the rhythms like a metronome. Like Pique, Ramos is comfortable on the ball and is perfectly capable of advancing into midfield positions to set up the attack. Pepe is perhaps less gifted in this sense, but is so fast and leggy that the team can afford to risk the high line, because he'll always cover for any lapses.
When a team begins to struggle in a game, it's often because, in coaching parlance, there is too much distance 'between lines'. Most professional footballers can pass a ball from one end of the park to another, but there is little point in doing this if it simply isolates the player receiving the pass. The lines become too stretched, and the cohesion of the team falls apart. This almost always happens when one team has pinned the other into its own half, as Madrid did to Malaga in the first half, and suffocates them with constant pressure, with or without the ball. Madrid have learned something from Barcelona, and are beginning to recover the ball more quickly, hunting in packs.
One of the greatest nightmares imaginable for a La Liga side is the sight of Xabi Alonso standing at ease in the opposition half and directing the play, fed constantly by defenders behind him and hard-working midfield companions in front of him. At least if he's further back you have a chance of reducing his effectiveness, but like Barcelona's Xavi, he is supported by an infrastructure that is dedicated to keeping up the communication between the lines. Without ball-playing centre-backs, this is difficult to sustain. It's also the main reason why Dmytro Chygrynskiy didn't stay long at the Camp Nou and why Manchester Utd looked a more complete side when Rio Ferdinand was fit and at his best.
In Anoeta on Sunday afternoon, the contrast was illuminating. Although Real Sociedad have chosen to staff their defence with two centre-backs who are reasonably comfortable on the ball (Vadim Demidov and Inigo Martinez), everything is relative. Neither of them is really capable of consistently bringing the ball out of defence with either comfort or vision - perhaps the young Martinez will improve in this respect - but the result is inconsistency in the patterns of the build-up, and not enough possession for the midfield players.
The limitations this imposes made the match on Sunday look like something from a darker and more distant planet than the Saturday night fare. For Getafe, a side who always try to play decent football, centre-backs Albert Lopo and Cata Diaz did it slightly better, but not to the extent that the visitors were any better served in the high-line stakes. In the end, the game fizzled out because neither side was more compact than the other, and neither of them had the technical confidence to advance their lines. Neither had a decent media punta either- but that's another story.
The ball-playing central defender is nothing new, I know. It originated with the sweeper concept, where the player would emerge from the ruck and re-set the patterns, 'free' from the restraints of the other positions (hence the libero tag). But these players were there to protect lumbering centre-backs from themselves, to clean up the mess they left behind. Now that the sweepers are history, the centre-backs, like the modern goalkeepers, need to be able to do more with their feet. In La Liga, to challenge for the top four positions without this type of player is now unthinkable. As Gregorio Manzano once memorably observed in a heated press conference, 'If you turn like the Titanic, you'll sink like it as well'.