Well doesn’t THIS feel weird, this feeling of coming home on a big match day from wherever you watched, with that empty feeling, that difficult-to-describe sensation of having watched your team lose.
Seems like just yesterday that we were capering about in glee through throats made hoarse from screaming as we swept the Classics, beating RM in their house.
But today, the best team from the capitol city, without two of its best players, beat us. And today, in another bit of empty-feeling weirdness, our team didn’t have any answers. Make no mistake, however … Barça didn’t lose today. It was beaten by an opponent with a better plan, its own naivete and institutional failure.
For consecutive seasons in a Champions League, a superior TEAM whipped our asses. Again, we won the statistical battles. More possession, Xavi was perfect on his passing day. And perhaps these things will console as our players head home, knowing that the only way they will be watching any more Champions League matches this season is as a spectator. But I doubt it, because this is a team that, like all other teams, wants to win.
Yet unlike all other teams, it is a team that is accustomed to winning, something that happens as if by rote. Something always happens … a moment of genius, a late goal, a brilliant move that creates a penalty … something that pulls the irons out of the fire. It happens so often because this club is gifted with a collection of phenomenal players, individual geniuses who can single-handedly stand a match on its head. Culers shout in exultation as opponent supporters sigh in resignation as they make it happen yet again.
Today, Atletico Madrid balled up its fist of a team and got in our faces. They didn’t win any statistical wars even as they outplayed us in every facet of the match. It was only Pinto’s crossbar, then Pinto himself that kept the scoreline of this match from reflecting its reality. It was 1-0 on the day and 2-1 on aggregate but could easily have been 4-0 or worse.
It wasn’t even that our team didn’t have the answers, as much as Atleti were asking all the questions, making all the demands. They went over the top of our voracious midfield, reducing Busquets to a spectator. They made our defense do something that it isn’t good at, being a traditional defense. They ran more, sweated more, hustled more, won every 50/50 challenge as their black-clad coach, crucifix dangling from a silver chain as if the antithesis of his demonic mien, exhorted the rabid crowd and his players.
And we looked shellshocked, finally reduced to mimicry, playing long balls and hoofing crosses into the box that were calmly headed away from our outsized players. Finally, when there wasn’t any time left for miracles, for someone to make something magical happen yet again, it was over, and Barça was beaten.
Last season, it was easy to point to the blizzard of injuries, illnesses and general upheaval as some consolation in the aftermath of the destruction at the hands of Bayern Munich. This season, our team was fit and on form. Its best player was fully healthy. Its latest, expensive acquisition was fit and ready and its most creative player, also the best player in the game right now, was in form. It was time.
That reality should, for any thinking culer, make this beating a lot more difficult to swallow. The only explanation now is that on this day, our collection of some of the best individuals in the world, weren’t good enough to beat a team that stuck to what it does. They don’t have the best players, but they have the hardest workers, and they have a plan.
The folly of naivete
Tata Martino tried a formation that the team had run before, with Messi on the right wing. After the match, he said that the objective wasn’t as much to get Messi to participate in a team effort as the hope was to set up 1v1 situations for him on the right. People at the presser were stunned, many of us were stunned as we read that quote. The general reaction was, “Is that a real quote?”
People can argue all they want about Pep Guardiola’s greatest accomplishment. For me, it was to get talented individuals to play as a team. Tika taka worked because when the system is properly implemented, there is always an open man. Tika taka can’t work if the idea is to tika taka the ball to Messi. Then it just becomes individuals playing for one player, and that won’t work. People talk of loss of style and The Way. But at present, this team doesn’t HAVE a style. And that is a problem.
Yesterday, it was no coincidence that the best scoring opportunities came as a consequence of team play, rather than individual brilliance. Solo magic is the icing on the cake, not the point. As team play dissolved into a series of Quixotic quests, it all played right into Simeone’s hands, and he knew they had the match won, because an individual will NEVER beat a team.
The ball moves to players, but the ball is always the point.
Martino’s tactical naivete manifests itself in the vain hope that an individual is going to make a difference against a devoted, hard-working team. Messi isn’t that good. No player alive has ever been that good. It’s an impossibility. Graham Hunter, in his excellent match review, suggests that Messi’s ineffectiveness might have had its roots in an early-career pout when asked to play on the right wing.
Lord, how I hope that isn’t the case, because the coach and ostensible leader of the team lacks the power to resolve that complexity.
Simeone seemed to know that when you put Barça under stress, its players revert. There is so much individual talent that those attackers think, “I can do this …” and do what they do, rather than doing what the team needs. So Iniesta runs into three players. Then Neymar runs into three players. Messi runs into three players. Alves runs and crosses. It’s what they all do when left on their own, when trying to do that one thing that they think will win the match for their team, when the most effective thing they can do is tamp down that urge, and move the ball to the open man.
There is always a space for an open man to run into, when the ball is moving. At its core, THAT is tika taka. The system, if you want to call it that, manifesting itself yesterday was an impostor, played by a team that used to play tika taka. And the result was a beating, by a better and more complete — albeit less talented — TEAM.
It is no coincidence that our most individually talented team is so successful against our most hated rival, RM. They don’t really play a system, don’t really play as a team in the way that Atleti does, so there are always spaces and gaps to be exploited by Messi, Neymar, Sanchez, Iniesta. It’s logical. They have to kick and foul because they, too, have a collection of talented individuals trying to do their thing.
For example, look at the goal Iniesta scored in the away Classic. Bale knew he was there, could have marked him but seemed to say, “A defender will deal with that. I have magic to create.” So he didn’t mark Iniesta. Against Atleti, Iniesta was marked into ineffectiveness, and ultimately subbed out.
What made, and will make Atleti extremely difficult for any team to defeat is that Simeone has, as Guardiola did before him, gotten talented individuals to subsume their talent and ambition toward a team goal.
That is a battle that Tata Martino lost before he even had a chance to start fighting it. When he said that he was here to help the team regain something that it had lost, his naivete, all of our naivete perhaps, was in thinking that a man without ultimate power ever could. Meanwhile, Barça is surrounded, on and off the pitch.
The match ended, and the long knives came out as people took after unfavored players. Fabregas was bad, Mascherano was bad, Alba didn’t do this, somebody else didn’t do that. Martino is in over his head and made a lousy match selection. For me, these were nothing more than psychic salve that people are slathering over reality — we don’t have the horses to play against a top-flight world that has figured out how to stuff tika-taka. You play physical football, you flood the midfield, and you press and work like a dog. You isolate a great team into talented individuals, who can then be stopped individually.
Teams of anything but top caliber players can’t pull it off, because the quality our team brings to the table is such that if you tire, if you let up even for a second, something magical will happen. But a top team with a plan and a mission has again exposed a system that is past its time.
Blame? Excoriation? I can’t be angry at these players who have brought me so much indescribable joy. It’s impossible for me. I can’t single anyone out for particular scorn, saying that if only this player or that player had done this. Messi ran 6.5km today. So what. He has had matches before where he has probably run as little, but scored a hat trick.
As Buddhists are fond of saying, whatever you did, you did your best. Today, our team’s best was left in the shade by another team’s best. We couldn’t play because we weren’t allowed to play. Iniesta had loose control and was misplacing passes. Seemed odd, until you realized that no matter what he did or where he did it, he had an Atleti player or two up his butt. And there were two more charging the passing lane that he thought he had. It really was an astonishing display that for me, was vastly more impressive than the Bayern hiding.
And when your team is outplayed as completely as ours was today, all that you can do is congratulate them, and wish them luck in the next round.
More significantly, I can’t be mad at this team because I am too busy being mad at the people who are truly culpable for today’s situation: our board.
Leadership is a top-heavy thing. When it comes to coaching a team that has already done it all, you need leadership of the kind that comes from your bosses making it abundantly clear that the power rests in you.
Joan Laporta was a cigar-smoking, cava-soaked party boy who wanted precious little more than to celebrate victories. Spend a little more? Sure! When he brought in Pep Guardiola, his leadership was such that it was clear as crystal that Guardiola was the boss, fully supported by his board. If you didn’t like it, you had to deal with Guardiola. He shipped out Deco and Ronaldinho right away, a cornerstone and an icon. And the team understood.
Tata Martino came in to replace an incumbent coach who took ill. The board flew him in, all rumpled and seersucker jacketed, to coach a collection of players who were considered the best team in the world. It was imperative of that board to make absolutely certain that Martino had every bit of the power and control that it was clear Guardiola had.
He didn’t know the squad, but he knew enough to know, even as he was saying that Puyol was one of our important signings, that it was bullshit. He’s watched matches, he watched the team practice and knew what it needed.
Nothing happened in the summer, nothing happened in the winter and there he was, looking almost like a man worried about being asked back.
Someone on Twitter compared him to Frank Rijkaard, and I had to quibble, because you can’t lose a locker room that you never had.
There were so many rumblings about player discontent that in the smoke=fire theory, a conflagration was roaring in the background. He tried changes, and certain players spoke out, saying “We have our way.”
A coach with full power would have said, “Fine, and I have my way. When you get your team, you can have your way. Meanwhile, watch my way from the bench.”
So even as people want to fire and pillory Martino for not being up to the job, we don’t really know if he is or not. We know that he can take an inadequate squad and keep them in three competitions until late in the season, a squad that is still in the running for a domestic double. We know that he must have ideas about what he wants to do. We know that he struggles with making the right changes when he is limited by the personnel on hand.
We know all of this, even as we see him struggle to react in a timely, correct fashion and we know exactly some of what is at the root of his struggles. Power and control.
“Put in Sanchez and pull Fabregas, you fool,” culers screamed. He did that, and Atleti kept on doing what it was doing. He pulled an ineffective Iniesta, and people carped about that. And you wonder if he wanted to pull Messi instead of Iniesta, you wonder if he wanted to make deeper, broader changes but felt like he didn’t have the real authority. Yes it’s speculation, because we don’t know. Only he does. So we sit and natter about possibilities.
But in the leadership that should have been provided by a group busy chasing giant baubles, a coach flounders in that void. They have their stadium mandate. They also have the looming wreckage of a priceless collection of talent, home-grown geniuses that is being squandered through inaction, through ignoring a squad that has needed an overhaul for too long, and now that a potential FIFA ban is looming, that overhaul might be delayed even longer.
I can’t be angry at the players, because all of my rage, righteous, spluttering and red-eyed, is directed at the men running this club. We voted for them. Even if you didn’t vote it was just as good as voting for them, and this is what we get: marketing, shiny things and a team going to waste.
Desire? If you work at a firm where the bosses don’t value the employees, don’t give them everything that they need to be successful, how hard are you going to blast away once you figure that out? Discouragement is subtle in the way that it erodes the quality of effort. Messi said that this board deserves a team that matches the quality of its players. I fully agree with him.
No, the board didn’t fail to execute, didn’t get its butt kicked on the pitch. But it created the conditions in which the things we are seeing that resulted in that beating, could thrive.
I have to keep coming back to that legendary Mike Tyson quote, “Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.”
On paper, Fabregas as the false 9, feeding a rampaging Messi and Neymar can work. It should work. It gets Messi out of the center box, creates operating space. Yet when the match starts, you have to execute that plan, and it’s pretty hard to execute when you are being punched in the face.
Some say Messi made it easy for him, and was by far our worst player on the pitch. Maybe. Or was it that as our most dangerous player, he got the most attention? Depends on interpretation. But no matter the plan, the players have to execute.
Did Barça create chances? Absolutely. Messi squandered a couple, as did Xavi. But mostly it was Atletico playing as if they had 14 men instead of 11, and if all else failed, there was Courtois. Fait accompli.
A fundamental part of execution is being allowed to execute. Supporters act as though matches are being played in a vacuum, that players are trying to miss passes, or get shots stooped by the keeper. But the opponent has something to do with that. Barça has, for the past 5 seasons, had a system of play, one that has come to be known as tika taka, that has conquered all. Pit, pat, pass, goal. Reams of verbiage flowed to celebrate our tiny geniuses, but then something inevitable happened: opponents got tired of that crap.
In devising a simple way to disarm tika taka, physical pressing by fast, fit players came into vogue. Suddenly, tika taka was flawed, and being found out. Still, the team was winning enough, still in all of the big competitions. So stand back and watch the wizards do their thing.
But tika taka places a premium on execution. Because it is easier to destroy than to create, 22 passes had to happen to result in a glorious, oh-so-logical goal. Yet only one foul, or foot in a passing lane had to happen, to reduce that magic to an “Ooooh! Almost!” There will always be another chance, until there isn’t.
There are no more chances until next Champions League.
Meanwhile, Rome burns
This team has wants, and needs. But the board also has wants. Because they are in control, their wants supersede those of the team’s. “Our players are good enough, now how about that new stadium, eh?” Transfers that should have been made, were sacrificed at the altar of austerity.
We have sponsorships, we have a shirt sponsor, the nou Nou will have a surname sponsor. Debt is dwindling, and our accountants are thrilled as is the board. “Look what we done for y’all! Record profits!”
You math whizzes can calculate what Xavi, Busquets, Valdes, Messi, Iniesta, Pedro, Puyol would cost on the open market. Fabregas was close to 40m, and he isn’t of the quality of our home-grown murderers’ row, a group that deserves every possible opportunity to succeed. Delay the stadium, and buy a CB or three. The future can wait as regards a building, because in terms of the rarer building material that is a once in a lifetime player, the future is now. Right now.
Possibly now, that right-now future is gone along with an opportunity. Xavi is all but done. Don’t let anyone fool you. With the right team additions, he could have had another brilliant season instead of having to hear the buzz that he’s past it.
They did the right thing for the wrong reasons in acquiring Neymar, who has been at times a boon for Messi, even as they still haven’t played well together in a way that even scratches the surface of the potential offered by two such magical attacking players. For like the nou Nou, Neymar is a bauble, as important as a new stadium even as his presence was less capable of being delayed.
Now, in the ashes of another Champions League ass-whipping, we are beginning to understand the cost of that focus on other things. Relating those things to the future of the club nownownownow! is, to my view, as big a boondoggle as their “more Catalan than thou” Senyera waving that seduced people into voting for the least-weak among the weak. In a field of “Meh,” the “Not bad” came to the fore.
They had a plan, and they executed it. That plan, seemingly, included amortizing risk … that brilliant players can be brilliant for a while longer, while we hoard money and get our monument ready. The risk failed, and for that there is culpability.
Not now. The new stadium is necessary and essential for this club’s successful future. The previous board figured it could wait, that buying players so that this team could keep winning was important, is my speculation based in the actions that it took. An athlete’s half-life is limited, and the time is almost always now.
Guardiola wanted transfers. Vilanova wanted transfers. And (don’t kid yourself) Martino wanted transfers. The first could have put his foot down. The second was distracted. The third is, functionally, caretaker to a bunch of talented millionaires, bereft of the authority from a fully supportive board that is sawing away at “For the Love of Money” while a team goes to ruin.
So what now?
Now, the Copa and Liga are still in play, a domestic double that given the state of our squad, would be one hell of a feat. To do it we are going to have to beat RM, who must be sick and tired of losing to us by now, and run the table in Liga up to and including beating Atleti in the last match of the season.
Everybody has ideas about who they would sell, fire or trade for a goat. Right now that doesn’t interest me because I have some mojo to burn, some voodoo to work, some chits to call in from the Footy Gods.
But most importantly, I have a team to support.