These are tough times. Poor babies that we are, we have to suffer through a team that finished second in the Liga, in it until the final match, made the Copa final and Champions League quarterfinals. In a sport in which a two-year cycle is extraordinary, our team has been at or near the top since 2008. Six years.
The club has been, and is under assault from every direction from media to its own supporters and people who have been lined up, waiting for Barça to fall as “I told you so” rings throughout the halls of the Camp Nou, shrieks from the fronts of newspapers and websites, a conga line of people who are lining up to kick dirt on the face of the prom king.
So this post is going to start and end saying what I think every last culer needs to say, right here and right now: Gracies, equip. Thank you for the fun, the joy and tears, taking kicks and various fouls, scoring goals and making the effort to do the colors that we love proud. Thank you for everything.
Not winning sucks. But it’s part of life, and it’s part of football, even if we culers aren’t all that experienced with it for these past wonderful seasons. And maybe, just maybe it explains the ugliness, the taking after players on the team and club that we love so much.
In an effort to sum up this season for me, it comes in one word: heartache.
From the Iniesta family sadness to the death of our Mister to great players deciding, for one reason or another, to leave the club it has been a heavy season for anyone who loves this team.
It has also been a tough season for anyone who loves this club as vile men consumed by power and money, have brought us a team that has been neglected for so long, that falls just short of the ultimate prize. Do they care, or are they counting the bonuses and incentives that will not have to paid as part of the bottom line, for the next presser in which a board member crows about record profits.
And is that even a fair question, we must also ask. The neglect that appalls us, the Pollyanna in me, has to have a root. The stadium, or more than that? If these men who are tasked with seeking the best for the club love the team as much as so many of us followers do, then what happened? Why didn’t our crown jewel get the baubles it deserved and needed so desperately?
Now comes the even more difficult part, where people unsheath knives to take after players, clamoring for sales, loans and various jettisoning. Pique this, Fabregas that, Mascherano the other, Song just because.
That isn’t going to happen here.
What is going to happen is my very simple view of what went “wrong” this season, something that comes in one phrase: everything all at once.
It is impossible to point fingers because from top to bottom the entire club came up short, from the board that runs it to the players on the pitch. The collective performance added up to a season without major silver, something predicted by many before the year even began.
It all started when Tito Vilanova had to step down because of a recurrence of the cancer that would eventually claim his life. Names flew hither and yon before the arrow settled on Gerardo “Tata” Martino, a man who had to take over a team in which he had no say, didn’t really know any of the players except from watching them on TV, and shoulder the task of fashioning them into a force that would meet the standards of a demanding global fan base.
He also had to figure out how to integrate a player that much of that fan base deemed unnecessary, a Brazilian show pony named Neymar.
Things started out brilliantly as a swashbuckling Barça began tearing up the Liga, battling for the top of the table, winning its Champions League group and looking like it was off to the races. Then things began to happen and suddenly, everything was different.
Rumors flew, accusations surfaced that people either defended or figured were probably true, depending upon which individual or group was tagged with the allegation. The team soldiered on, beating over two legs a Manchester City side that was supposed to be its Armageddon, but things weren’t the same.
Then came Atletico Madrid, a group of players who were everything that we weren’t: a team that believed. And they dispatched us in Champions League, helped by an away wonder goal then creating a noise-augmented buzzsaw at home. They took the lead in the Liga as we began to falter until another, our final chance, reared its head in the final match of the season. Win and we are champions. Lose, and they hoist the crown. There, they did what they do as did we all too often from March on in this season, and that was that.
We should get our minds around the notion of failure, as opposed to having a very good season in which a team came short of the ultimate prize. There are piles of teams and hordes of fans who would kill for what we call failure. But Barça is supposed to win everything in sight, right? It happened once, and it is supposed to happen again and again and again, because it feels wonderful and is our birthright.
This is, of course, the profoundest nonsense. Matches don’t happen in a vacuum. Ever since that one year when the team won everything under the sun, teams have been trying to figure out ways to stop our team from ever doing that again. They came up with various ways, even calling upon a volcano eruption. And while we didn’t win everything under the sun, major silver was the norm until the last season of Annus Guardiolus, in which “only” the Copa was won.
Such is the standard set by the memory of a glorious season, in which mere excellence becomes failure.
Of boards and neglect
If you want to keep something great going in a competitive environment, you have to keep figuring out ways to keep hitting the refresh button. But that is also very difficult, because things are going really well, so what’s the problem?
In the visionary world of talented leaders, the good ones understand the need to kick things in the pants. Guardiola wanted changes. Vilanova wanted changes. Martino didn’t have time to know WHAT he wanted. Those changes weren’t made. Versatility was lost, mental and physical fatigue worsened and suddenly, that really good thing that was doing great was a stagnant thing that people — not all of the people, but the ones at the very top of the tree — could get their minds around and stop.
In came a new coach, a caretaker as it turns out, who had to figure out how to win races with a car that has been needing a tuneup for four years, and was misfiring on a couple of cylinders. And it worked until it didn’t, because when that coach looked down his bench for a solution, a diversification, a way to change things up, it wasn’t there. Staring back at him were auto-promotions and role players, and things got worse.
Often in the case of sports, the most expensive buy is the one that you don’t make. The board failed this team, this collection of home-grown superstars, a once-in-a-lifetime collection of talent that deserved better than men so focused on the setting for the diamond that they allowed the diamond to become chipped and dirty.
I am sure that they have their reasons, even as whatever the reasons are I probably wouldn’t agree with. Tell me it’s the building, and I will say the Camp is good for another few years. This irreplacable batch of players isn’t, that brilliance has a shelf life defined by age, opponents and fatigue.
And who shall lead them
The party line is that Martino was in over his head. It’s a conclusion that was borne out by results. It’s also a conclusion that, like the stories about training intensity, blablabla, were NOT rearing their heads when the club was kicking ass. It’s a malleable conclusion that fits a narrative.
What happened? Dunno. From this questioning outsider’s view, Martino backed off. I have no idea why or for what reasons, but he backed off. The Barça from the start of the season until February wasn’t the Barça that shuddered to a stop at the end of the season. Whatever happened, Martino is culpable as he, for whatever reason, turned turtle. If you are going to go down, at least go down with your own ideas, fighting your way, rather than being damned for the wrong reasons.
Possession-based, attacking football degenerated into some bastard form of something alleged to be tika taka but was really something of a mess, with players forced to hold the ball too long while under assault from pressing opponents, poor passing angles and immobile players. Counters came from turnovers and attackers ran at our defense, a group designed to pluck and knock balls away after they leaked through a press, not play Katie Bar the Door. And opponents scored. Not at the rate approaching the previous season, but they scored.
More painfully, they scored from set pieces.
During matches, changes have to be made that can turn the tide of the match, tactical or player shifts that are capable of altering the outcome. Too often, Martino didn’t make those shifts and changes. Looking down a bench that too often didn’t have a match changer sitting on it isn’t an excuse. Assuredly, there were many times that he had no options as he watched things fall apart but ultimately, the coach came up short of extracting the maximum from his charges, for reasons that only he and the players know.
And now, like so many people this season from presidents to Masia administrators and team legends, Martino is leaving, doomed to be thought of as a bad coach, rather than someone who we really have no idea WHAT kind of coach he was. He is a good man who got a crap deal. He is being replaced by Luis Enrique, a man who, if he doesn’t get HIS signings and the full backing of the board, will find himself in the same boat as Martino, with eventually the same results.
We get some intimation of that support with the announcement that “the club agreed to accept the recommendation of Andoni Zubizarreta that Luis Enrique …” In other words, it’s your ass if it doesn’t work, ZubiZa, not ours.
Blame touches everyone
When we look at our team of hyper-talented players, these are players who know what they have to do. They didn’t have a manager who smacked them on the butt and said “Okay, go get ’em!” They had a plan, a system, a notion for how to approach a match, and they fell short of executing those ideas.
Barça football is “pass and receive, pass and receive,” even in its possession-based sense. Keep the ball, move the ball. Players have to be aware of passing angles and moving to present options for teammates, as drawing board becomes real world. Reality became a stagnant mess of an attack that relied upon individual magic. That works against other teams not as talented, or teams that also rely upon individual magic, such as RM. Against a locked-in team willing to run until its legs fall off, individual feats almost always fall prey to collective endeavor.
On set pieces, there is a plan, notions that too often went awry as opponents went unaccounted for and did damage. Even in a match with the Liga championship on the line, Atleti equalized via a bit of truly shambolic defending.
You can’t blame the board or Martino for that. Passes weren’t being completed, balls were being lost and opponents weren’t marked. You can’t blame the board or Martino for that. Too many times in too many matches, the team was a mess, a group of geniuses who didn’t know how to come in out of the rain, so to speak. Then they would discard the system and team for a shot at individual magic, which played right into the hands of opponents. You can’t blame the board or Martino for that, even as the years of sporting neglect created fatigued, fried players.
You can go on and on, through every player on the roster and you will find moments where he came up short, moments that make singling out any one player an exercise in time wasting.
From top to bottom, everyone came up short this season. And even at that, the team was close enough to glory to be able to taste it. A goal here, a goal there. A little more focus here, a bit more there. A winter signing that wasn’t made, a summer signing that should have been augmented, a coach who stopped doing the right things for players who fell short of even doing what they know. Top to bottom as everyone instead searches for the contention that will absolve certain players as others are tagged with marks of scorn.
Tag one, tag all.
That the bar is so astronomically high for this club says something not only about the expectations of its players, but the history of the organization. Close isn’t good enough, even as the team had an excellent season. Key players are moving on or retiring, others will be sold. A new coach and a new starting goal keeper will be arriving along with a pair of loaned sons. There will also be other squad additions as finally, a board does what it should have been doing all along. And people will talk about possibilities, and how everything is better and more promising, etc, and then the matches will be played as the players do their jobs. And the cycle will repeat itself. There will be signings who aren’t good enough for culers, new unfavored players and more malleable narratives. Because that too, is how it goes.
Yet in looking back at this season of court proceedings, injuries, tragedy and sadness, I can’t be mad at anyone. They tried, even as they came up short. Did they try their best? In my worldview, encapsulated in the notion that no matter what you did, you tried your best in the very conditional notion of that thought, yes. And they got close, ultimately undone by a confluence of things, everything all at once.
For the struggle, the joy, the great moments and hope, all that I am left with is to say, as should we all, “Gracies, equip.”