Barca 2, Bayer Leverkusen 1, aka “There was no doubt”

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.

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Written by:

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

21 Comments

  1. ciaran
    September 30, 2015

    Brilliant writing Kxevin. It’s a shame that there was a match so soon after your post about Sergi Roberto and Deulofeu as it is an incredibly interesting subject, the difference between hard work (JDS), immense talent (Deulofeu) and a combination of both (Sergi). Luck timing and taking chances have all played their part as does the advice players get (GDS). Fascinating.

    As for this, I thought this match was intriguing as a tactical and mental battle. Bayer believed that if they did everything right they would have the opportunity to win. Our players knew that if they fixed what they were doing wrong that they would turn it around. Both were probably right.

    Each and every one of our squad deserves more faith than has been placed in them, including the less fashionable ones.
    I have higher expectations from more talented players so when Sandro misses some chances it doesn’t bother me as much as when Suarez does or why I’m more forgiving of ter Stegen ‘s mistakes than Mascherano’s.

  2. Davour
    September 30, 2015

    Yes, THAT look on their faces… Well written on an interesting topic: group dynamic and psychology. You really do sees the difference in attitude in the players’ faces. A team without faith become despondent because their fear is confirmed when they lose, while Barca are perplexed when things don’t function normally – “this SHOULD really work… well, let’s try it again”. Failed play is an anomaly for them, while winning against Barca is a one-time event for many. Hence their eagerness to finish a chance, there might not be another. Messi misses, he will think: “I’ll bury the next one”. For him, there is always another. Ter Stegen, on his part, probably thinks: “This shit is not happening because I suck, but because things didn’t work out as they should, but they will eventually, since I’m really very talented.”

  3. injohanveritas
    September 30, 2015

    Lucho: So, Sergi, I want you to know that you, Bartra, and Munir have been among our top players last few weeks, so today you were all benched. The Masia boys are bringing it, but we don’t want to get you into a foolish consistency as you continue to integrate.
    Roberto: Not sure I follow, coach.
    Lucho: We’re loving you at right back, Sergi, so naturally I didn’t play you there and instead went with Dani. We all know he’s been a bit off, but with Messi out, we needed someone to take on the role of stand-stock-still on the right, then explode into space disrupting the game. Dani has the first part of that down. Masche too has not been at his peak of late, but I wanted to protect Bartra by not playing him.
    Roberto: How’s that, coach?
    Lucho: Look, while some of my tactical calls were hard to understand, at least I’m not the manager who pulled Bellarabi off with decades remaining on the clock. Who does that? Did you see how Karim turned Pique into a pretzel? Imagine if that exact thing had happened with Vermaelen or Bartra. The culer chattering class would be writing their obituary today. I think Pique has another week or two of hot-and-cold performances before the knives come for him. “Not good enough” Mats saved him.
    Roberto: Pique mostly did very well today, coach.
    Lucho: Yes Sergi, and so did you, Jordi, and Munir, the benchwarmers. And Mats, forever abused, showing us the value of a sweeper keeper who can pass the ball. But he’ll be remembered for the moment when statuesque-Suarez snoozed with the duck-and-cover Frenchman to give him up for the opening goal. Will Suarez be remembered for that, when in the same match he hits that golazo from Munir? Of course not. Sandro showed a lot of class today too compared with our six zillion-euro Ney-man. But do you think anyone remembers what Sandro did right? Sins are wiped away, my son, by hitting the back of the net. Everyone else is just a bundle of mistakes. Go to confession, Sergi, but it won’t help you on twitter or the fan boards.
    Roberto: Got it, um, I think.
    Lucho: Great. You’ve played excellently, Sergi, so bring your warm ups with you to Seville in case I keep you on the bench. Or maybe we’ll slot you in at #10. Or pivot. Ever played winger? So many choices. Love your flexibility.
    PS: Great article, Kxevin.

  4. luisthebeast
    September 30, 2015

    What a perfomance from Juventus.They made Sevilla looks like a poor Europa League team(And they belong there).That joke that the winner of EL have the right to play CL must stop.So Atletiko lost,City and United won by luck.It seems CL is a hard competition.Poor Barca u must win every game with easy to hear good things from ur fans.

  5. luisthebeast
    September 30, 2015

    Oh and i forgot it but Pogba is a beast.His destiny is Barca.What a player.

  6. ChaoticReaper
    September 30, 2015

    Who else saw Busquets playing sweeper keeper since Ter Stegen can’t be trusted?

    Did you see how Leno organized his defense and how much they respected him? Ter Stegen just stands there righteously.

    Lol Chicharito, not even Bayer quality.

    Suarez should be a ref, he sees every hand ball.

  7. SB
    October 1, 2015

    Can someone provide an update on the performance of Halilovic, Traore & Denis Suarez? How have they being doing till now? Are they getting enough minutes?

    Thank you

    • Davour
      October 1, 2015

      I have followed Halilovic via highlights only (for what they are worth), and they look pretty good. Seems he is getting minutes and standing ovations when subbed. Traore has been injured for some time, Denis I don’t know, only heard some echo that he did well in one game.

    • SB
      October 1, 2015

      Thank you Davour !

  8. realdox
    October 1, 2015

    Just because juve take them apart doesn’t mean they are not good enough for cl,celta vigo and even laspama beat them.they are strugglin for form just lik barca is only that thiers is not couple with injury.i respect them and will always do.

  9. ian_percival
    October 1, 2015

    This Neymar Legal charge embargo is really heating up. There’s fresh charges against him and indirectly to barca too for wrong declaration of transfer fee in his Signing,its from a Brazilian firm that owned 5% of his right prior to the transfer. What I don’t understand is why our players are the ones mostly targeted? Is it that the present board are too mediocre and doesn’t command respect enough? ok,Neymar’s agent as stupid as he is, came out and said “if neymar doesn’t want more trouble he should join EE” What does that make us look like huh? Does it mean we can’t protect our players? or that EE has more people at the right places to pull few strings? I wanna understand cos I don’t want to think that’s the case here. Why does he think he will be in less trouble by joining EE, cos I’ve waited and monitored the situation, expecting someone from our camp to quash and rubbish that statement made by Ribeiro(Neymar’s agent),but no one has, and its got me thinking. So guys, help out here, what does he mean by that statement?

  10. Rami
    October 1, 2015

    The difference in mentality between the supporters and players, Lies in the deeper and more profound understanding of football in the latter, They’re more familiar on how the football world operates, How it can behave, Even if sometimes in bizarre ways, They’re submerged in it’s world since childhood in matches or training, This ‘wisdom’ so to speak that they gained over time allows them to know it’s not the end of the world to play a bad first half, Or a bad whole match or a series of bad matches, Or lose an entire trophy, And not to panic or throw in the towel at every sign of turmoil.
    Supporters on the other hand, Just do the exact opposite, A potential disasters is always around the corner and trigger happy with the crisis button, We would think that over many years watching football, It’ll be plain to notice that certain patterns and scenarios repeat themselves year after year, Like for example, There is always a certain month in every season where the team just starts to drop points for no obvious reason, Not due to injures or anything like that, Here in barca it is commonly but not always in February, Even though the same scenario repeats itself every single season, Most supporters panic to it every single time, Another example is when messi doesn’t score or doesn’t perform particular well in a string of matches, This commonly occur in the first half of the season, Almost every season, Yet many still panic every time it happens.

    What you said about newbies getting less passes and inter players is worth to point out again, That’s what happened to sergi when he first played at RB, But in the few times he received it, He made something out of it, He impressed, And earned the respect of his team mates, That’s how a youngster earns his place, By being patient, Impressing in training, And making the most out of your chances on the pitch, And i’m bringing this up because i wanted to talk about about la masia and the general attitude toward youngsters in the prevoius article but didn’t get a chance to, Probably will do it later.

  11. Dar_vincy
    October 1, 2015

    I’m glad that:

    -Sergi Roberto is having a good run of form.

    -Munir is gradually rediscovering his mojo.

    -We fought back against all odds, even though the talent on parade without Messi shouldn’t struggle the way it did on tuesday.

    I’m not so glad that:

    -We approached the match in a mourning mode, which, apparent to the Leverkusen gladiators, was a scrumptious invite to wreck untoward havoc. A team of our calibre shouldn’t be approaching teams of that nature with such weak and submissive psyche.

    -Ever since the Sevilla game, we’ve mostly looked shell-shocked defensively. We’ve been carved out time and again with relative ease. Our defensive system has looked less compact with little or no aggression applied when pressing (if at all we still do that).

    -Generally, like last season, we are still trying to walk our way up to top form, and there is no scintilla of doubt with me that we would achieve that, ditto with the under-performing players.

    -For a team who is currently experiencing an unsavory defensive fraility, playing a ridiculously desperate highline would doubtlessly be a preposterous choice (like it was against Celta). Didn’t end there. Coupling it with 3 at the back (like LE did early in the second half) simply is a request for thorough defensive exploitation. Fortunately we escaped, this time.

    I do hope:

    -We henceforth become frugal in the amount of chances we afford opponents. Like Kexvin said, we were another Chicarito goal away from another comprehensive hiding.

    -For all the talk of Nolito rejoining us as a back up, there might be a better option that is worth giving a thorough consideration. Enter Yacine Brahimi.
    I believe the Porto winger’s pace and dribbling would be more beneficial against bus-parking teams as opposed to Nolito whose skill-set seems to thrive against teams that often cede ocean of space (like we did against Celta). More so, the fact that he is approaching 29 hardly makes him the ideal long time back-up.
    If at all, for sentimental reasons, we’re hellbent on signing him, we might also consider purchasing the Porto lad in addition.

  12. Tata2
    October 1, 2015

    If only Pedro was patient he would have had ample playing time in the wake of all these injury crisis but now he’s playing for chelsea who are 15th and might not even make it out of the group stages and he isn’t also making us miss him either apart from his sole goal and assist in his debut. Patience! Patience!! IMHO, this team doesn’t deserve all the criticism it gets,come to think of it which top European side will be facing all these injury crisis with a ban and still be second in the league with just a point deficit and still second or first?(I didn’t check the other results) in their UCL group? At this stage I take every ugly win with both hands till our key players return and the January comes around

  13. luisthebeast
    October 1, 2015

    I had a long time to get excited by a youngster but Leroy Sane is so amazing player.I wish Barca follow him because in 2 years he will be a star.Left footed,very fast,strong,tall,amazing dribbling skills.I will try to watch more Shalke games just for him.

  14. luisthebeast
    October 2, 2015

    Why do i have the feeling that Gumbau or Camara are not Barca players??Maybe they are aliens who came from Mars to stop poor Samper evolution.Because Samper play 90 minuter every weekend and they will just make training sessions!I must not talk btw because the Twitter Samperpolicemania will arrest me;-)

    • Jim
      October 2, 2015

      A more pertinent question might be why do I feel I’m probably closer to a first team appearance than Samper.

      I’m fast coming to the conclusion that this is another of LE’s macho decisions where he’s just proving he’s in charge by going against the grain. If he genuinely watched Samper in his ( very) limited appearances pre season and reckons that the revolving door impersonating Gumbau ( that’s not fair really – he’s a young lad but this is a rant after all ) was a better bet – even defensively – then my money is on him being on his way at the end of the season.

      It occured to me tonight I’ve not had a decent rant for ages and no better time than on a Friday night after a particularly good Chilean Merlot. The following accurately reflects my views but is a tad exaggerated for effect .I’m hacked off at . . .

      His stubborn decisions to keep playing Mathieu at LB when nobody with that frame could do a Barca shift up and down the wing,

      his shackling of Iniesta in a defensive role especially in the absence of Messi – you could see the difference when he was freed up for the fifteen minutes or so before his injury,

      the insistence on shifting everything about to make sure Masche is on the team sheet every week. Playing Mathieu at LB making him look worse than he is ain’t cool. He’s a cracking partner for Pique but we never see them together. Why not ? Oh, I remember now . . .

      the playing of Neymar on the wing in the last game when it was obvious to almost everyone that we’d have to change something to create more threat,

      the selection of Gumbau – and now Camara ( no idea who he is but he’s bound to be better than Samper, right?)

      His notion that you can survive without a functioning midfield for a whole season.

      We made it last season because LE’s rotation came good ( despite my views at the time) but largely because the front three bore most of the weight and were at times unstoppable. I reckoned in the predictions post at the start of the season we wouldn’t win anything this year because the front three would get injured, he’d insist on keeping Masche at CB and we have no midfield to talk about to take the strain of creating, resulting in more pressure for our defence. I could easily be wrong but let’s see at the end of the season. What I do know for certain is that this team plays nothing like as nicely as Pep’s ( yes I know that’ll hack off some here) and I probably don’t enjoy watching them as much. There. I’ve said it.

    • georgjorge
      October 3, 2015

      That’s a nice rant Jim. I agree with some of your points (Samper, Iniesta, Mathieu) but I think that most of these will have been/will be taken into account by LE. After all, choosing 11 and their positions for any given match is incredibly complex. It not only has to take into considerations the opponents players but also fitness, current form of players and especially team atmosphere etc. so it’s not as easy as just saying “this one’s in, this one’s out”. Having said that, I still enjoy seeing them play a lot, maybe a bit less than under Pep, but still a lot.

      On another note, referring to the post before yours, maybe we could not turn this space into an endless cycle of those in favor and those not in favor of Samper calling each other names (which is not to say the discussion can’t continue in a more constructive manner)? We had enough of that last season with “You’re a LE apologist” vs “You romanticize the Pep days”. I haven’t any stakes there either way as I’ve only see Samper play once.

    • georgjorge
      October 3, 2015

      One more addition: I also don’t condone every decision LE has made this season (you have named most of them), but the Sergi Roberto case gave me serious doubt about my armchair coach ability. There was a lot of discussion about who could play at right back last season, and names like Bartra and Pedro were brought up in addition to more traditional right backs. But not a single one of us had any thought for defensive midfielder Sergi Roberto. LE made a decision that seemed nonsensical to all of us, and it worked out very well so far. Maybe he’ll be able to do it with some of your complaints as well…?

  15. ciaran
    October 3, 2015

    I wonder what it is about Samper. Maybe he doesn’t train well. Maybe he doesn’t take direction. Maybe he insulted Lucho’s mama.
    I trust Lucho but I am certainly curious about Samper getting no where near the first team.

    Gumbau looked to be just filling a spot on the bench with no chance whatsoever of getting real game time but with Iniesta now injured you’d imagine that he’ll probably get some time. Camara played a bit of preseason but again doesn’t look for the outside to have the potential of Samper but at least brings something different seeing as he is a more offensive player.

    Samper not getting game time with the first XI on its own doesn’t concern me as I believe that youngsters benefit most from a slower steadier progress but it worries me that such a talent may get frustrated by others being perceived as ahead of him and him leaving come next summer.

    It is also possible that Lucho has set Samper aside and discussed his plan with him in detail. It might be part of a larger plan. Hopefully?

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