To say that today’s match against Atleti is huge would be an understatement. Is it even bigger than the last time Barça faced them at the Camp Nou, with the Liga title at stake?
Quite possibly, because there is more at risk than a championship here as you get the feeling that the club is tottering on the brink of an abyss. A loss to Atleti is the absolute last thing the team needs right now, as well as the last thing that the club needs right now.
Diego Simeone is relishing the challenge.
As he and his fist of a team come into the Camp Nou, what will it face? A depleted, psychologically weak group riven by internal struggle but united in its universal disdain of its coach? Or a unified, angry bunch who will for the first time this season face the team that kept them from so much last season.
In many ways, Enrique has achieved his ultimate goal of secrecy, because we have no idea which team will show up, or if any of the stuff is true that we have been reading about the team. So let’s take the match as it is, and see what’s what.
The myth is that Barça has a mess of a system, and nobody can see anything like anything approximating a way of playing. I disagree with this. I think that like the “positioning” narrative that dogs unfavored defensive or midfield players, it has become a thing that people throw around. But in many ways all of the tactical talk about football that we see on the web and follow links to on social media, has greatly enhanced the knowledge base of the average fan.
The down side is that it has also buttressed the expectations, as people watch a match wondering about formations, what X or Y player is doing, low blocks, Gegenpressing, etc, etc. Reality is that (and pardon the repetition) once the match starts, it’s like marbles in a bowl. No team, not even the great Guardiola sides, can completely impose its way of playing on an opponent. Were that the case, there wouldn’t just have been the single year of the six trophies.
When the match starts, a team reacts to its opponent. Under Enrique, it has been considered a sign of weakness somehow, to react to an opponent or make a game plan that attempts to adapt to the way an opponent plays. The belief is that Barça should play the way that it does irrespective of opponent, that this is what great teams do.
Well, it’s certainly what stupid teams do.
In the steadfast refusal on the part of many to acknowledge that the game and way it is approached not only when playing Barça but in general has changed dramatically is tantamount to a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. There is more midfield pressure and more players packing the midfield as a direct result of the passing excellence of those Guardiola teams. Press the mids, clog the lane, attack Busquets directly in an attempt to reduce a triangle to three isolated points.
The magic that Iniesta used to be able to work is now being attacked directly and physically. When he gets near the box, defenses just wall him off, letting him keep running to the end line, which then becomes an additional defender.
Things have changed. What hasn’t changed, however, is the core of the Barça team even as age, nagging injury and diminished effectiveness have diluted the overall cut and thrust of that core. It is a group that can’t just roll out and impose its will. Conditions have changed. Tito Vilanova recognized that, and began a revolution. Tata Martino recognized that, and began a revolution that was, for whatever reason, ended around mid-season. Luis Enrique is trying something rather different, but again it’s something that needs parts that it doesn’t have, forcing adaptations that don’t always work.
I didn’t begin the season thinking that Andres Iniesta would be as important as he and his form suddenly are, for the simple reason that he is the key to the lock of the adapted Enrique system. Messi and the other attackers are running around because a stagnant midfield doesn’t have the available angles to get them the ball. What’s missing is that link, that shuttle player that not only takes the ball from midfield to the attackers, but forces the defense to move with his play. On form, that player is Iniesta.
Without that link, further complicated by a need to, whenever Rakitic plays, forcing him to babysit Alves, Barça is three phases: front, middle and back.
it is no coincidence that Barça has been so effective with Passing Messi rather than Scoring Messi. Working in the midfield as something approximating a 10, Messi becomes that link. Alba makes runs, Messi finds him. Neymar makes runs, Messi finds him. Suarez makes a move, Messi finds him. Three groups of players become a system when that circuit is closed. Bravo to Busquets to Xavi to Messi to Neymar/Suarez. Without it, things look something of a mess as the three attackers run around trying to find space in and around 10 behind the ball. Xavi can pick out a pass through the eye of a needle in a hurricane, but even he can’t find spaces that don’t exist.
In many ways, the biggest hindrance of the multifaceted lineups of Enrique has been that it exacerbates the incomplete quality of his squad. Rafinha can’t stay healthy, so his adaptation into that link has been set back. And Barça look a mess, like a team that doesn’t have a defined system because it can’t have that system as it doesn’t have the players for that system.
What it does have is a midfield that is most capable at one system, with forwards who are most capable of another. And nobody is at their best. The two worlds sometimes look like they mesh because talented players can do that kind of situational adaptation. So yes, in many ways Enrique is sometimes forced to let his talented players do what they do. I’m okay with that. Messi making a run and banging out a brilliant goal isn’t a sin. That Suarez goal against Elche, made of magic, hustle and a top player doing what he does, isn’t a sin and we need to stop treating those things as though they are.
Barça is an incomplete team with a great many questions to answer, and a fan base that is too often unwilling to ask them. Should Messi convert fully to a 10? Is the time for Xavi and Iniesta past? Is Mascherano more effective in an aggressive, dynamic midfield than Busquets? What of Alves? Have we reached a time when his liabilities outstrip his benefits? Now that Neymar and Alba are linking better, is it time to consider the right wing as a defensive element, sitting Alves for someone stable and … dare I say it … dull, like Montoya?
These are all important questions that become even more crucial as the club faces a two-window transfer ban. Is Denis Suarez that midfielder? Can Deulofeu approximate that Cuadrado presence? Again, many questions will have to be asked this summer, questions that go a lot deeper than whether Enrique is the right coach for the team. Would someone different make the players happier? Maybe. Depends on who. But as thrilled as I am some days to ride my bicycle, there’s no escaping the fact that glee or not, I ain’t the man I was.
I also think that culers have to ask themselves some difficult questions, including what standard are we holding a football team to? What are we overlooking as we apply that standard, and does this team have the right players to implement what this coach, for as long as he remains the coach, wants to do? Is it time to put sacred cows out to pasture, physically as well as psychologically. I don’t give two craps who coaches Barça, and you shouldn’t either as long as that person is capable of getting the most and best from the group of players that we have.
These are difficult times for the club and team. I don’t envy anyone in the club their position right now. Salad days are easy. It’s when you have to figure stuff out and make do with less as the hounds bay at the gates, that is difficult.
Three days, three different headlines in Sport:
“Bartomeu gives his support to Messi and begins to look for a new manager”
“Sources close to Messi deny he’s asked for Luis Enrique to be replaced by Frank Rijkaard”
“Bartomeu denies reports he told Messi he is looking for a Luis Enrique replacement”
So in three days, a lot hasn’t happened. Are media outlets flailing like supporters in their search for information? Are things a mess, or is the club and team just not bothering to deny all but the most stupid of the rumors? Why did Bartomeu agree to elections this summer? Let’s deal with all of this, starting with “sources.”
I quite honestly don’t believe that anyone knows anything. Enrique is closed-mouthed, Messi is closed-mouthed. The board might dole out leaks as it sees fit but make little mistake about it, there isn’t a lot that is concrete to go on. The result of that is that it’s easy to believe the worst. I understand that.
Exacerbating matters is that Enrique is a 24-karat sonofabitch. If I was a reporter trying to cover him, it would be all I could do not to throw shoes at him. But it would also be my duty to remain objective and not run around, reacting to rumor and gossip. European media outlets are held to a different standard than U.S. outlets. I get that. But has anyone stopped to think that perhaps part of the reason Enrique is getting the kind of coverage he’s getting is precisely because he IS a 24-karat sonofabitch? Probably not.
Here’s what I do know: If even HALF the stuff that Enrique is alleged to have done were true, it would be irresponsible for the board to not have fired him weeks ago results or no results, because the damage that sort of behavior would be doing to a team and sporting project would be irreparable. He hasn’t been fired yet, so now what? No idea. Nobody does except the involved parties, the players. And except for “unnamed sources with many international caps,” nobody is saying anything to anyone, except that they are behind their coach, and the locker room is fine. You want to see a team in REAL crisis? Look at Barça B.
Enrique said on Saturday that the day he feels his team isn’t 100% behind him, he will resign. And he should, no matter what any supporter or media outlet might feel about him.
The biggest challenge that anyone has is objectivity. I sometimes wonder if I am ill-equipped to be a proper sports fan, as people snarl things at me such as, “You always try to see both sides,” and the like. Yes, I do. Every story needs both sides. If you don’t consider both sides, you don’t have a piece of journalism. You have a rant. It would be like screaming about the board but ignoring the fiscal health that has occurred under their watch, while also ignoring the screams of “Why are you defending them?” To confuse objectivity with defending is a mistake, even as it’s one that I see all too often in these charged times.
Enrique could well be fired on Monday if he loses against Atleti, none of which would make any of the above sentences less true. Because events don’t make reality less real.
The header of this section is the single biggest difficulty at FC Barcelona right now. The absence of a grownup is creating a vacuum into which chaos is flowing. We have a president and a board, but we don’t have a leader. Puyol was a leader. He would celebrate goals, get on teammates for not living up to his standard, stop players from doing a dance in celebration of a goal. He wasn’t very much fun, even as he was essential.
The people running the club are in many ways excellent at doing what businessmen do, even as they are guilty of (again, what businessmen do) thinking there is a way around their errors. But true leadership is absent, the kind of leadership that made Pep Guardiola feel absolutely supported in any and all of his decisions, right down to selling one of the most popular players in the club’s history. “Okay. How can I help?”
With leadership comes humanity. Messi needs a goddamn hug, not a new contract. He needs to feel that the club he sweats for has his back, fully and completely. That’s humanity embodied in leadership. As I have noted before, we think it’s silly that Florentino Perez huffs and puffs and rushes to his players’ defense. But RM, as a club, got Ballon d’Or balloting extended via a campaign. Like it or not, that’s supporting the troops. Doesn’t matter if you look stupid, because you don’t look stupid to the people who matter.
You always have to tear something down before you can build something else. This four-year demolition project that began in 2010 has a pretty crappy contractor. The project is well funded, but it’s built on a shoddy foundation. That foundation is leadership. And until this club gets true, humane and human leadership it will continue to founder and the kind of stuff that is going on right now, all the lies, rumors, counterrumors, leaks and crap, will become a way of life.
This board, which has never done anything that wasn’t to its eventual benefit, has called elections. What makes anyone think that anyone in that group is suddenly not at all interested in retaining power? Why call elections for this summer, and what of the leaks about Messi wanting to leave? Could they be so that Bartomeu becomes the president who kept Messi from leaving Barça? And what of the older, more conservative socis?
Sandro Rosell’s massive mandate was still fewer than a quarter of the available voting socis, even as about 95% of them live in Catalunya. To my view, if this board is calling for elections this summer, it is because that is probably, they believe, the best chance for them to win. Why? Because with yet another season of no transfers, the sporting project will be a right mess, potentially, which will doom them sure as I am sitting here.
I have no idea who will win the election, or even who I would like to win, even as I know who I desperately do NOT want to win. But it’s nothing personal. I just think that this club, in these difficult times, need true leadership in a real president — a Puyol in the boardroom. And I want that because I want the absolute best for this football club and team, as I always have and always will.