Doubt. What an odd thing. Webster’s defines it as “a feeling of uncertainty,” or “lack of conviction.”
The opposite of doubt is trust, which again, going to Webster’s, we get “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something.”
Taken as a tandem, the day after a not all that remarkable comeback at the Camp Nou against Bayer Leverkusen in Champions League and coupled with a number of other things, interesting stuff happens.
Sergi Roberto, whose equalizing goal came from a rebound of a Munir shot, said that the players never had doubt. As a unit, players travel together, train together, stay in hotels together, are bonded in ways that people who haven’t been part of an intense unit striving toward a common goal while battling absurd external pressure and expectation, can’t imagine.
If we look at the ways teams look after a loss, there is something interesting to be gleaned. When a mid or lower-table side loses, the players don’t like it, but there is a very different sensation than when a top team, say Barça, loses. The look on the players faces is almost stunned, like a foundation has been shifted. Even when the team lost at Celta Vigo, an ass-whipping of comprehensive proportions, that same look was present. “Huh? What?” There probably isn’t a purer manifestation of the aforementioned lack of doubt than that expression, a stunned “How did this happen?” look. Supporters and analysts can sit and break down exactly how something happened. But to the players, belief, that lack of doubt, is essential. When Iniesta flicks a backheel into space he has to know that Neymar or Suarez or Messi will be there for that pass. It’s the trust that is built from hours and hours on the practice pitch.
We always find it remarkable when a new player is introduced and the incumbents act like they don’t fully trust that player. The newbie will be part of fewer passing sequences, fewer interplays. But it’s exactly because the incumbents don’t trust the new player. Those automations haven’t been built yet. Messi and Alves work so well together because of rote muscle memory and playing time that makes their bond almost telepathic. Remove one or the other and suddenly that fraction of doubt, that lack of knowledge, can make the difference between a successful give-and-go and an intercepted pass. Even at the highest level, a winning football match is a high-wire walk in a tornado, in which anything might go wrong.
But Sergi Roberto didn’t doubt. Why? It clearly wasn’t blather, because reality was his proof. And the team had pretty much gotten its butts kicked until it all turned around, the only thing preventing Leverkusen from doing a Celta was poor finishing on their part. So what possible reason could there have been for that unshakable conviction? That’s where trust comes in.
Logically, we know what happened. The Bayer players got tired. In the first half, they ran 5 km more than Barça. That was halved in the second half. Some was due to Barça playing better. Neymar moved centrally, possession was more secure and more of the match was being played in the Leverkusen end. Eventually, talent won out and Barça won another match in which it was far from its best, a margin for error that is a luxury reserved for the top teams in football. We know all of this. But it’s the Sergi Roberto statement that really struck me, because doubt is a fundamental part of being a supporter. Everything is questioned, from players to transfers to formations to how youth players are used. Everything. Being a supporter is the diametric opposite of having faith, even as we often say, “Have faith in the team.” What an absurd statement. Faith, defined as complete trust in something, is impossible for even the most die-hard, devoted supporter.
But what about players? Faith is trust, turned all the way up. Supporters can’t really have faith or trust because they have nothing invested except emotion, which is fickle. Emotion makes us whistle a team, makes us say that a loss is imminent right up until the goal that turns the result around, makes us dislike certain players because of some foible that another player is allowed to get away with. Football is, at the supporter level, theory and narrative, an athletic contest reduced to concepts. “Winning the wrong way” is a luxury reserved for the victor. But a player has everything invested.
A board that for many supporters is hell-bent on doing the wrong things, transfer bans, banned youth players, a biblical plague of injuries, use of youth players that is difficult to make sense of from the computer chairs we occupy, all serve to build doubt and spark questions. And human nature assumes the worst. So one prospect is headed for Arsenal at the end of the season, another will have his contract lapse and leave the club. This player is going, that player is going. Formations, attacks and systems. So much wrong, so much doubt. And doom is relative.
Some were saying that before the Leverkusen match, Barça would be in trouble if it ceded space on the counter and didn’t mark up on set pieces. But is there a team in world football that is not true for? We have already seen that in the performances against Athletic in the SuperCopa and Celta Vigo in league. So Barca must play better. The players put on the shirts, take to the pitch, and have faith. Not hope, or even belief. It’s deeper than that, it’s what makes them keep fighting even when logic and an opponent says otherwise.
Rayo Vallecano can say, “If we play our game against Barça, we have a chance to get something.” Celta took Barca apart, right? But on another day, with better finishing, is a 4-5 scoreline out of the question for that match? Playing your game against a team with more talent also requires the intrusion of external factors such as fatigue, errors or injuries. Even those weren’t enough for Leverkusen. But the superteams can say, 99 percent of the time, “If we play our game, we will win.” And that single percent is so beyond the pale that it doesn’t even intrude. No doubt.
Every time I line up for a bicycle race I hope that I am going to win. The trust and subsequently, faith that I am going to win depends on the situation and the opponent. What is, for me, impossible to fathom is having so much faith that you don’t have doubt. When Sergi Roberto scored the equalizer, he barely celebrated. He knocked the ball into the net, then ran back to get into position to do the rest of the job. It was a stunning moment for me in light of his post-match comment.
Barça is a team that is blessed with enough talent to weather a storm, play long enough to win, then go home. Luis Suarez said that at halftime, the talk from Enrique was about important adjustments that needed to be made. The team went out and executed them, and that was that. Note how Bellarabi stopped running rampant, how Chicharito really had only one chance to screw up rather than the multiples in the first half. It was more than the insertion of the subs, as the match was turning even before that happened. The subs just slammed the lock shut.
A team is a collective. As much as anything else, training is about building the collective as a unit, establishing actions, reactions and all the steps that result in trust, not only in each other but in the people tasked with making everything work. We saw that trust in how Ter Stegen let Suarez and Mathieu have it after that goal. That means that a junior player who isn’t even a full-time starter feels confident enough in his unit status to say to a more senior player, “Hey, you didn’t do your job.” Was Enrique proud, even as he was vexed about conceding? I would have been as a coach because in a properly functioning unit everyone is an equal, working together to elevate the collective. That means that everybody is equally empowered to speak out if they see something that isn’t working properly. It’s impossible to understand what it means to be part of a unit, and why sports has so many military corollaries.
Some supporters whistled the team they were there to support yesterday, and Neymar, Pique and Enrique were right in calling them out after the match for the simple reason that the match wasn’t decided yet. Wanna whistle? Wait until they suffer that negative result, rather than booing a chef making a cake for using what you think is too much salt, or not stirring the pot fast enough when you haven’t even tasted the dish yet. There was a lack of trust in a group that the season previous, won the treble. Has that group earned a little benefit of the doubt (defined as believing something, even if you aren’t entirely convinced that it’s true)? It has from me, which is why even though stuff doesn’t make sense to me, I wait. Because look what happened last year.
Enrique and Rakitic were but a couple of squad members who came out in vocal support of Ter Sregen in the wake of criticism that many, myself included, believe to be misguided. It was something deeper than them knowing what happened, and the root cause of the goals that were conceded. It was trust. They know Ter Stegen and what he can do, and they have full trust that he can do that. His saves, which kept his team in the match, were just one example. The numerous passes (only one misplaced) that he made as a crucial part of the way the team broke down the Leverkusen high press were another. There is a notion that coaching is simply instilling belief that if the right action happens, good things will result.
Munir passed Suarez the ball because he had the faith that something good was going to happen. But Munir also took the shot on goal that resulted in the rebound that was put back by Sergi Roberto, because he has the confidence that he can take that shot. That’s another result of team building. All of this is embodied in the Sergi Roberto statement about not doubting. More than bravado, it was a belief, a faith that was earned, buttressed by the fact that even without the greatest player in the game, Barca still has more than a few world-class players.
And sometimes that talent, coupled with belief, is enough for them, even as we supporters struggle.