For years, Barça has had all the answers, for pretty much every question. But now, after having lost three of its last four matches, we are left with more questions than answers.
Feels kinda weird, doesn’t it?
I didn’t care whether we won or lost this match, and even predicted a 2-1 loss. But I most emphatically cared how we played it. For what it does to the standings, the loss is no biggie at all. For what it does to the psychology of a damaged team, the loss is immense for the simple reason that the wounds are self-inflicted.
Jordi Roura came out with a semi-rotation lineup of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Thiago, Iniesta, Messi, Villa, Pedro. And simply put, those players came out and did nothing. Absolutely nothing. No slashing runs, no aggression, no verticality, no nothing except aimless possession. And toward the end of the match there wasn’t even that, as RM spent the last portion of the match embedded in our end.
And the only people who could have done anything about it, we allowing it to happen. Because this isn’t about coaches present or absent — this is about the FC Barcelona players, OUR players, and how they are approaching this game that they used to own like a well-worn pair of boots.
Because for the first time, I see fear. And that fear is making the club play tight, a quality manifesting itself in tentative play, runs not made, passes not attempted. The FC Barcelona of recent legend inspired sonnets of praise by playing swashbuckling football. It was daring and fearless, even as it was rooted in possession. That Barça played possession because it was waiting to strike. This Barça plays possession like a married couple that shouldn’t be, going through the relationship motions because it’s been going on for so long that they don’t know what else to do.
The aggression isn’t there, only pique at referee decisions. The joy is gone, along with the magic. And what’s left is a group of players who don’t seem to know what to do, even as they do. And we know this because the times they do it, good things result. Look at the first goal, for example:
— Messi skulked up to the shoulder of the defense, and made a run that dictated a perfect pass from Alves. He took that pass, beat the keeper and that was that.
— Pedro made two lovely runs into space, and passes found him to create real danger.
Then, as if chastened, the runs stopped. And when someone like Pedro did begin a run, the action was met by a midfielder who was already passing the ball laterally to another blaugrana shirt.
You could see the tightness manifesting itself in the lineup constriction that led to fatigue, that led to injuries, that led to malaise, that led to this. When you are in the gym, and work to failure, your muscles can’t move the weight any longer. It’s as if our beloved football club has worked to mental failure rather than physical failure. Whew!
Song rarely plays, Bartra doesn’t play, Montoya? Who? when Thiago starts it’s “Whoa, Thiago is starting!” Why is that? Constriction. Let’s not lose. Our great players can tough it out for one more match, right? But then, suddenly, when you need those players, their qualities haven’t been honed through real match situations. If this club has players who aren’t good enough to play, sell them, loan them, do what needs to be done. Because every player on that roster should be able to be called upon for duty, and the club should be confident that said player(s) can deliver the goods.
And for those who say, “I want my Barça back,” this IS your Barça. This is our team. It’s a team that is struggling, a team that has been beaten handily, twice within the same week, by its most bitter rival. It’s a team that has to be thanking its lucky stars that the Milan return leg isn’t this coming week, so that it can find some way to regain the swagger, the boldness that inspired fear. Opponents don’t come to the Camp Nou anymore with fear in their eyes, hoping simply to not get killed. They come in thinking, “We can score, and if we score, anything can happen.”
What I don’t see is flair or creativity. The effort is there, but whole team has become like my nickname for Alexis Sanchez, 95%. At the terminus of every tika-taka buildup needs to be a run — a player asking questions of the opposing defense, making them move so that spaces are created for other attackers.
Instead, look at the times that a Barça player got the ball on a bust-out, only to look up, into the box and …. cricket! cricket. By the time someone decides to sashay into frame, the passer and attacker are surrounded by defenders, and that is the end of that.
Messi gets the ball in midfield, where he is doing little else except removing himself from the attack, and passes it to Iniesta. Then he trots over here, takes a pass from Alves, and trots over there. While he is doing that, Villa is standing on the left side, waiting for something to happen. Pedro is walking around on the right side, waiting for something to happen. And in that sequence, it’s so clear to see what the difficulty is:
Nobody is MAKING anything happen..
Cycles of team greatness don’t usually end because of physical pressures. They end because of mental pressures. At some point, the team has won so much that rather that seeking, desperately wanting to win more, it desperately wants to not lose. It is at that very subtle cusp of effort and determination that an opponent who simply wants it more can have success.
And yes, I think that right now, Barça is in that delicate state of playing not to lose, and it is permeating everything that the team does on the pitch, as players do “just enough.” So Alves got in front …. just …. of the RM player making the pass to Benzema. Lord knows what Pique and Mascherano were doing, and no doubt Alba was complaining to the ref somewhere.
On the Ramos goal, he was surrounded by blaugrana shirts, yet he rose the highest with the most strength, and headed home. Mark him out? Put a body on him? Why?
That last bit of effort and desire, that thing rooted in an athlete’s hunger, seems to be absent from our players right now. Pundits and announcers, during matches and after matches, say that struggling teams need for something good to happen to them, without realizing that the only ones who can make something good happen are the players themselves.
Getting want back is difficult. We see it time and again in all disciplines.
— The Clash went from “White Riot” to noodling around with dub music.
— Andy Murray got sick and tired of losing to Federer and those other guys.
Our players aren’t playing with urgency, with that sense of somewhere to be. There used to be risk. Guardiola brought up Busquets and Pedro, took a chance on Ibrahimovic, played different formations and systems, played around with things in a restlessness that made the team unpredictable even as it was very predictable. You just couldn’t stop it. RM didn’t work any harder during the match that Oil Can was yelling at his teammates to come and help him try to get the damned ball off of those insufferable sprites, as they capered about.
But we are working less hard, and with less success. Further, it’s less hard with a tentative quality. So the player receiving the pass stands there, instead of running to the ball and finding space in which to find a teammate, who has already anticipated that movement and is there, waiting.
When people like Sid Lowe write about how the team has lost its identity, this is what they mean — the absence of that weird, nebulous thing that used to make us unplayable, goals as inevitable as a loss. RM is fit, sharp and angry. They are (and who can blame them) sick of the prose, the gushing, the odes to the greatness of The Barça Way. And they want. SO much. We think we want, but we don’t want in the same way that we used to.
Guardiola left at the end of last season, and speculation was rife as to the real reason that he left, reasons that we will never know. But could he see such a thing coming? Can a coach know that a team’s edge of greatness, of desire-fueled excellence, is dulled? I honestly believe that he would have left even had the team done the Treble again last season. But I can’t help but wonder if he saw what was coming. Knowing him, the struggle was probably wanting to stay, to see if he could answer the challenge of what to do and how to do it.
Some of it is injuries. Some is fatigue. But for me, and I will freely admit that I could be wrong, it’s execution. They know what to do. But something isn’t clicking, something is dulling the edge. And now we get to see the hearts of champions. A weak club will mutter and moan, and start pointing fingers. A strong club will say “We have to get better, and set about the task of doing so.”
Is all lost? Absolutely not. But some significant self-examination is going to have to happen in the time between now and when Milan come to town, looking to advance by using the hide of a wounded lion as a doormat.
Here’s something that I DO know: This club needs our support. Cules are going to see all sorts of danger, and why this player or that player must go, or why so-and-so is the real reason for all the malaise. But this is a team failure, just as it was a team success. And your team never needs you more than when it is struggling, and hurt. Like now.
I still believe that we are going to overturn the tie and advance against Milan. Absolutely. But to do so, our beloved club is going to have to, between now and then, rediscover what it has been missing since it scampered off to that giant Liga lead: The want that makes excellent players superhuman. Meanwhile, support your club. Defend your club. Believe in your club.