The match between La Real and Barça today was one of the strangest I have seen in some time, for a number of reasons.
Most noteworthy for me is that this was the match that assembled every last dysfunction that this club has, and dumped it into a cauldron. We can talk about mitigating circumstances, chances created in the first vs second half, etc, etc, but the fact that Barça is a dysfunctional team linked to a dysfunctional club is, for me, beyond dispute.
But in a way, there is beauty in all of that failure in the same way that not being able to complete that last rep in the gym makes you stronger. Pain and misery, self-flagellation are party of any process that improves anything, because you have to fail before you can succeed. The problem, of course, is that you have the right clothes and all the instructions. It should be easy, and what if at the end of all of this failure is … more failure? Who wouldn’t opt for the ease of success and the comfort of the familiar?
You see it in the gym all the time, the people who do the same workouts with the same weights, always completing the sets and strutting to the locker room with a grin. “Another one rocked.” I always seek failure. Put another way, if I get to the last rep of a set in an unruffled state, THAT is when I have failed, because I didn’t push hard enough.
You build from failure, but you also have to do all the other work, the eating right, the sleeping right, the recovery days. Clubs are like gym rats, in that they sometimes don’t do everything they should and a plan goes awry. But there is as much danger in tossing that plan early as there is in seeing it out, only to have it be the wrong plan.
The challenge with Barça, and the struggle with how we look at the club in a broader sense as well as in the context of what happened today is that there are many paths to choose, some easy, some difficult.
Fire Enrique. It’s his fault. He got the lineup wrong today, just as he all season, even as he has never played the same lineup twice. A more competent coach could do better with the gobs of talent that Barça has. And after the board fires Enrique, have early elections so that we can fire the board. Yes. Because otherwise, we are doomed.
There’s a lot to like there. My views on this board are well known, and I will crawl to Barcelona if I have to, for the chance to vote against them in the next election, whenever it is. I have written before about the ways in which I believe they have failed the club, from inaction to poor choices to gaffes that to me, affect the club’s global perception.
I want them out, even as I curse the objectivity that makes me look at them and what they do in a wholistic sense. Are they saving the club even as they are hurting the team? Are both possible? Is austerity real, and I’m just a distrustful crank?
You have to ask yourself these questions if you want to think objectively about this club, and you can ask them without defending the board, or even giving a rat’s ass what anyone thinks about your asking those questions. It’s only intellectual laziness that stifles a full vetting of an idea.
And firing Enrique is always viable, because firing a coach is the answer. He’s the leader, he makes the decisions, picks the lineups, decides on strategy. If the club isn’t performing, it’s his fault, so fire him. It worked with Rijkaard, and look what happened then. Off with his head.
The rocky road
In a post-match observation, I noted that Enrique is like Martino, in that he has been handed the keys to a car with a beautiful body, but the suspension is shot and the motor needs a tune-up. And he is expected to win races with that car, or it’s off with his head.
The temptation of looking at the last time a Barça coach was fired and his successor led the team to greatness is to ignore circumstances and objective reality. To the core of a team that was fit, angry and in its prime were added players such as Dani Alves and Seydou Keita, while Busquets and Pedro were promoted at the exact right time from Barça B. There was also a fully acclimated Thierry Henry ready to bust out and as balanced a lineup as you will see in a while — pretty and physical, silk and steel, death by a thousand passes or route one — and a group that was ready to explode.
Could ANY coach have won with that group? Absolutely not. Guardiola was the right coach at the right time, and garnered unprecedented success. But at the same time, the lure of the desire to fire Enrique would be to ignore the systematic decline of the team, particularly at the base: the midfield.
If you fired Enrique tomorrow and brought in a new coach, would that coach get better results, or face the same challenges that his predecessors faced? It’s a question worth asking, even as we can admit that it is still uncertain whether Enrique is in fact the right coach to lead this team. But in asking that question, it’s also safe to ask whether ANY coach is the right coach to lead this team.
Barça rolled into the Anoeta, a stadium in which success has been, to put it mildly, a challenge, with the news that Valencia did the team a solid in beating RM, mere hours earlier in the day. Win, and the team’s destiny returns to its own hands.
Enrique took a risk in rolling out what was in theory the correct lineup, based on what was known: Bravo, Montoya, Mascherano, Mathieu, Alba, Busquets, Iniesta, Xavi, Munir, Pedro, Suarez. Because what was known was what in fact happened, as La Real set up deep and challenged Barça to break down 10 behind the ball.
That lineup would have possession and not be challenged by aggressive, physical mids, making the “old school” midfield a shot worth taking. And you can start that front line because even if it doesn’t nick a goal, because of how La Real is going to play you’re likely to get to the half at 0-0. You sub on Messi and Neymar in the second half, and take the points. Done.
But then, in what should have been a very manageable set piece, Alba headed the ball into his own goal, giving La Real a 1-0 lead and making that lineup suddenly all wrong even as it was the most logical thing to do, really. If Alba doesn’t confuse the meaning of “OG,” (Original gangsta? Huh? What?), Enrique’s risk would have paid off. Hell, if Pedro hadn’t skied that great chance he had, if Munir had been at all present, the team might still have been able to get to the half with a draw.
But it was everything all at once, as all of Barça’s flaws were laid bare. Part of La Real’s defensive scheme was an aggressive midfield pressure that severed passing lanes and stressed Iniesta. It also left Busquets moored. The players were familiar, but the result was very different.
Unit play was a hallmark of the successful Barça teams, a collective that worked like dogs at both ends of the pitch. The new Barça is forwards who attack, a midfield that tried to feed those forwards and a defense that defends, a more traditional structure that finds the club stuck between worlds. Xavi needs movement from the forwards to get passing angles. Iniesta needs a foil, or he is stranded. Busquets needs that ping-pong action that he used to find with Xavi, which created possibilities from new angles of attack.
But La Real was able to take advantage of that not at all suddenly flawed midfield by swarming the forwards whenever the ball got into the box, forcing the forwards to come out of the box to get service, then try moving into the box where they invariably found a path to goal or passing lane blocked. Throw-ins and corners. Yay.
Wait ’til my big brother comes
Everyone anticipated the addition of Messi and Neymar, and it came not long into the second half, but a curious thing happened: La Real didn’t care. Its system didn’t really care who was playing against it, because it had the same job. And whether that passing angle or foot stuck in came outside the box or in front of goal didn’t matter, as long as the opponent didn’t score.
So even though more chances were created, the same situational flaws existed, logic spurned for chaos, which can always be exploited by an opponent with a system. Their coach, David Moyes, prepared his side well, from the use of strategic fouls to breaking up the game by falling down a lot. It worked, and Barça didn’t have a system to overcome it, mostly because the team was a mess, a collection of brilliant individuals trying magic tricks. Individual brilliance is to be lauded when it is evinced as part of the team concept. When it IS the team concept, it’s an exploitable weakness.
In other words, Barça looked pretty much the same with Messi/Neymar/Suarez as with Pedro/Suarez/Munir, because of all the other unaddressed problems that reared their heads.
Moyes said that he would have done exactly what Enrique did with the XI, even as culers clamored that Messi/Suarez/Neymar should have started the match. But this supposition ignores the fact that they would have been squaring off against a daisy-fresh defense. So it actually made more sense to roll them out in the second half, when legs were a little heavier, etc. But because the same problems were there, it didn’t really matter, and what could have been a win became a loss.
Enrique didn’t count on La Real keeping enough energy to sustain the necessary effort and even attack when opportunity presented itself. Enrique didn’t count on players not being able to complete passes, clunky first touches and a rootless midfield.
Did Moyes? No, but he took the same calculated risk in his approach that Enrique took in his, as salvation and failure came in a mistake. History says, because of the result, that Enrique got outcoached by Moyes, even as there are many layers to the story of this failure.
The blame game
But whose fault IS it, damn you! I have to know who to blame!
The long and short of it is in the micro sense of today’s match, everybody. There were poor passes, rootless play, a jumble of players who didn’t seem to know where to be and when they were in the right spot, they didn’t execute. You can blame the coach, who got the lineup wrong perhaps, even as the Alba error makes hindsight 20/20. But might Rakitic have been a better choice than Iniesta or Xavi? And why in the hell can’t Mathieu execute a simple clearing pass consistently well? Montoya made clear why he hasn’t been getting playing time, and Alba was all fire and fury as it became clearer that his error was becoming more and more expensive. And while you’re at it, shoot the damn ball, you idiots! About the only players to whom absolution beckons are Mascherano and Bravo.
In the macro sense, you can blame the men who made the decision that find this club with an aging midfield base that is capable of playing a Way that isn’t buttressed or validated by the forwards that it supports. So there is talent, but it isn’t exactly the right talent, so things look good on paper, a trap that many including I have fallen into, without diagramming the equation that the paper presents.
Is it a desire to believe? Sure. And this one loss doesn’t mean that you should stop believing, those who do believe in the ability of this team.
But there are problems, and those problems were exposed in a way that makes them impossible to ignore. Yet knowing what a problem is and being able to solve it are two very different things.