It’s remarkable how things just slip away. At the seventh match last season, Barça was still unbeaten, 20 out of 21 possible points, not losing until the ninth Liga outing against Real Madrid.
This season Barça has 15 points from 7 matches, with losses to Celta Vigo and Sevilla. Is it worth pointing out the comparative difficulty of the schedule, combined with injuries and a crazy pre-season? Those are certainly factors. A more interesting statistic for me is that so far this season, the team is 5/20 on converting big, non-penalty chances. As a collective, Barça is usually around 50 percent. Enrique said after the Sevilla match that the team will start taking its chances soon, something that is an absolute certainty. But do the missed chances point to something more significant about what’s going on this season so far?
The team left chances on the table against Celta, and left an astonishing number of them on the table against Sevilla. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is, but only the delusional can’t detect that something is very different with this year’s team, more than just a lack of sharpness in front of goal.
Sevilla was the latest opponent to look quicker and faster to the ball than Barça. A hesitancy has crept into the team’s play, a mental hitch that is often the sliver of difference between an intervention and a shot on goal, or a goal scored versus a blocked shot. It’s more complex than “They aren’t good this year,” more complex than taking out after this player or that player, because the collective isn’t doing what it needs to right now, at both ends of the pitch.
As Diana Kristinne pointed out on Twitter, “If our finishing was at last May’s level we would never have lost this.” True. But more than the finishing, Barça didn’t even let in a goal until the ninth match, the Classic. Everybody else was blanked, shots on goal as rare as actual goals. This season Las Palmas got six shots on target, an eye-opening statistic.
The whole team is a step slower, and the press is non-existent because the whole team is plodding. So rather than opponents running into a buzzsaw of feet last season, this year they are finding open spaces, and joy on the wings. The first Sevilla goal saw an attacker outrun Alba, then just stroll past Mathieu, who lost his form during the halftime break, it seemed. Sergi Roberto had a slight chance to clear, but had to guess at where the ball was going and guessed wrong.
Last season that break would never have happened. And it’s more than the personnel, more than saying “If so and so had been there,” because a team is a collective of interlocking pieces. There are players who were poor today, glitches in the matrix that bring the whole thing down for others. But more than that, there is something wrong with the collective. Barça Twitter had its shots at Ter Stegen, but now that Bravo has a loss and a couple of goals hung on him, some clarity is entering the picture. The team just isn’t doing work in the same way that it did last year.
We can all remember goals that the team has scored when a player didn’t let a ball go out for a throw, but ran it down, turned and attacked before the defense had a chance to catch its breath. This year, balls are being allowed to go out for throws. Possession is kept, while an opportunity is lost.
For someone who predicted that the team wouldn’t win Liga this season, the 15 points from 7 matches isn’t as worrisome as the overall trend, which is defensive frailty and poor finishing, two characteristics that spell danger when they are allowed to coexist. Even more than that, the edge that propelled the team to winning everything last season seems dulled. The movement isn’t as sharp, the passes not as clean, things that were true even before the spate of injuries began to eat at the collective.
Is it as simple as the unwitting complacency that comes with sustained success? Like it or not, that is probably part of the equation. And if Barça has the same run of matches this season as last, perhaps the scenario, results-wise, would be different even as I am not sure the big picture would be.
The first seven last year: Elche, Villarreal, Athletic, Levante, Malaga, Granada, Rayo. The most difficult match of that stretch, against Athletic, was at the Camp Nou.
The first seven this year: Athletic (A), Malaga, Atleti (A), Levante, Celta (A), Las Palmas, Sevilla (A).
On the up side, the nastiest Liga hurdles, with the exception of the trip to Anoeta and the Bernabeu, will have been hurdled. On the down side, the team isn’t the sparkling group that we so enjoyed (well, some of us …) last season. Was that edge left on an airport tarmac, or in the press clippings that rained down from the heavens? Maybe the team should have listened to its fanbase more to fix any delusions of grandeur.
The most remarkable thing about a sustained high level of success is the psychological aspect, how next to impossible it is. With success comes more opportunities for failure, more pressure. Super this and that, exhibitions that line the club coffers and accolades galore. A coach and his staff have to make players who have already reached the pinnacle want to reach it again. Logic would seem to dictate that because a player has been there, he would want to do the work to stay, that he would understand how much work is necessary and put in that extra effort. Reality rarely meshes with expectation.
In looking at the chances missed this season, something that stands out is hesitancy. Attackers are seeking perfection as they control the ball, wind up and then shoot. A number of excellent chances at Sevilla were left because of this hesitancy, which gives defenders a chance to cover. The amazing thing about Messi is how he shoots with so little backlift, so little hesitancy. But even he has been off song this season, from a scoring perspective. The team is hitting posts, keepers are making great saves. Is it bad luck, or is that weird gyroscopic micron of difference that converts a shot from goal to excellent save, and is that happening because something else in the team’s game is off?
Sandro has been snakebit this season, a player usually thought of as clinical. Suarez has verged on abominable, his brace against Las Palmas notwithstanding. Neymar has had his usual slow start and Munir looks the youth player that he is, brilliant one moment and a mess the next. The attackers aren’t putting the ball in the net but neither are the other players where last season, everyone was scoring. Set pieces worked and were defended well, the midfield locked down by the press. And even as aesthetes snarked about how the team looked compared to a now-academic reality, the defense was rock-solid until the attack got rolling.
This season the defense is being caught out too easily because the team isn’t pressing. Too tired to press? Maybe. The open spaces presented by unathletic Barça mids have returned as well. The question isn’t as much of match control in the attacking sense as what happens when an opponent gets the ball. Last season Rakitic closed in from midfield, Alba or Alves from a wing as Mascherano or Busquets mopped up. This season, opposition attackers are breaking through that midfield layer with ease to get directly at a back line with multiple attackers, defenders left with a dilemma that must be solved immediately, when last season they seemed to have all the time in the world. And there is hesitancy.
On attack, midfield control helps the defense via possession and intelligent passing, but that part of the team’s game is also absent. There is more space between attackers this season, a difficulty exacerbated by loose passes and overall sluggishness as too many times, players wait for a pass to come to them rather than moving to the ball.
In other words, something is wrong with Barça, something more exposed by Las Palmas than Celta and Sevilla. The team isn’t as bad as some might suggest, nor is it isn’t as good as it thinks. Magic doesn’t just happen, and teams try a little harder against a treble winner. In two sequences, that was made clear at Sevilla.
For the first Sevilla goal Mathieu had a chance to go in with a sliding tackle, his only real chance to stop the play. He kept running, hoping that something would happen. Last season, the team made things happen. Late in the match on the other end, Sandro was set up with a beautiful scoring chance that was affected by a last-ditch challenge from a Sevilla defender who didn’t care about anything except stopping or altering that shot. He had to be stretchered off as he was shaken up, but the important part of his job was done.
It all seemed lots of fun last year, but the reality was that the team gave everything it had for matches, backstopping each other and doing all the right things. Some of it was luck as injuries stayed away and the right bounces fell. But work puts you in the perfect spot to take advantage of luck. This season the edge is dull and something significant has slipped away, something as true when the team was fully fit as it is now.
The saying is that form is temporary, class is permanent. Another one says where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Something is wrong at Barça, and it ain’t just injuries. If the team plays well, works to its maximum and loses, that is one thing. This current malaise is something else altogether. How Luis Enrique manages and solves this difficulty that isn’t yet a crisis, will go a long way toward defining his tenure at FC Barcelona.