The analysis. The endless analysis. The speculation. The blaming. The quest for reasons why. It’s all like bringing in a team of child psychologists and behaviorists when a 2-year-old is having a full on, guns blazing tantrum in the middle of a shopping mall. Smart men posit, and offer suggestions. Then a mom strolls past and says, “That kid needs a nap.”
It’s as simple as that even as, writ in the larger terms that define a football team that isn’t doing what it is supposed to — or more correctly, what its supporters believe it is supposed to — it’s a bit more complicated.
Barça needs a nap.
But it’s more involved than just laying around for a few hours to recharge batteries, like a kid or a puppy. Luis Enrique is giving the team days off training, because he understands how tired his players are. Armchair pundits scoff and snarl about the quality of the subs, about decisions made and not made, buys not made for this reason or that. But the extravagant quality of the Barça XI combined with its cost is the precise reason that the team has has a short roster since the days of Pep Guardiola.
Supporters complained about that roster as well, offered up varied and sundry names as solutions, but reality is cruel: Who the hell replaces Xavi? Or Iniesta. Or Suarez. Or Neymar. Or Messi. It’s an easy answer. Nobody.
Teams such as Atleti and Bayern can come at opponents with waves of depth because they have a roster stuffed with very good players. Barça has a particular problem because it has players who, at many positions, define that position. And you only get one of those.
People sit n snarl about Arda Turan, who was a demon at Atleti, who routinely guides his national team to excellence, and they deem him unworthy. And they’re right, because he’s subbing for a player such as Iniesta or someone else, in a system that is complicated even for the men who have grown up with it. And they look clunky, or people say things such as “Positioning,” that word that makes anyone who uses it sound a genius, even as dissecting the bowl of marbles that is a football match is much more involved than anything most of us can imagine.
The other complicating factor is that players of a quality sufficient to truly sub for any of that murderers’ row of an XI aren’t interested in sitting on the bench for 70 percent of the time. There’s also the cost. Supporters discuss this player and that like it’s fantasy football with an unlimited budget, then scoff at a board who has to figure out a way to pay for one of the most expensive rosters in world sport, somehow, some way. Sometimes there isn’t a way. Other times, even if a player might be good enough, he isn’t good enough to affect the result.
The goal scored by Real Sociedad yesterday was exceptional, a bit of footballing extravagance that a lot of teams are capable of if everything goes exactly right, that mythical butterfly in the Amazon flapping its wings. It was an unstoppable goal. The passer was covered, the scorer was covered. The pass was perfect, the header was perfect, everything about that goal was a gem, this thing created by the football gods with malice aforethought. If those same players try to score that goal a hundred times, they probably couldn’t. But they did that time, and it was enough.
It wasn’t enough because of any grand scheme, or this player or that player not bought. Thiago Silva stands there and watches that header go in just like Mascherano or Pique. That goal was enough because Barça needs a goddamn nap. They don’t need this player or that player, because this player or that player, even if all the fantasies come true, would be immediately deemed wanting, woefully short by an impatient, expectant fanbase besotted by the spectacular.
The search for answers to what’s going on with Barça is like the joke where the drunk man is standing under a street lamp, looking for the keys he lost. When asked why he isn’t looking for them over there in the dark where he lost them, he replies that the light is better here. Preferred reasons abound, traditional scapegoats are trotted out. The players will tell you exactly why, though. Look at Pique at the post-match presser. Dude is hammered.
As this piece takes shape, Leicester City is doing it again, winning yet another match by scoring a single goal, then playing it out. It’s the kind of magic that Barça used to routinely feel. No, not the workmanlike qualities of Leicester, but that sense that something wonderful was going on. The first treble was something wonderful and unexpected, something unprecedented. It was, like the Leicester City supporters must be feeling, a fantasy embedded in a fairy tale, sprinkled with glitter, borne on the backs of unicorns.
What will Leicester City feel next season, after big clubs poach stars, and Capitol Ones, and FAs, and exhibitions, and all of the stuff attendant to having pulled off something magical? The first treble for Barça, something that is absurd to type, was magic. The second was a bit more grim and a lot less enjoyable for too many supporters, because it carried with it the burden of expectation, of snarling, infighting and nothing ever being good enough, because nothing is ever like that first time. But even amid the disgusting behavior of too much of the fanbase, there was joy and magic. A second treble. By the same group of players, within a decade.
Rather than the tempestuous season of tragedy that defined the year of Tata Martino being treated as something of a respite, a chance to recharge and have the team get its minds right, so many bitched and pissed and moaned that their insatiable lust for silver went unabated. How DARE they not win everything again?! Whose fault is it?
That lost season set the stage for the glory of last season, as Luis Enrique came in and won, quite improbably, another treble. Another treble. He did it with supporters who wanted him fired, who questioned his every move, who spread rumors about its best player wanting out because of the coach, board, price of gas in Barcelona, low quality of pintxos. And the team won. Every … almost everything. It lost the SuperCopa, and everything was a disaster again, because five of six trophies just isn’t good enough. The standard has been set, after all.
Right around March last season, Barça hit the throttle and took off like a rocket. It destroyed everything in its face, with goals and a style that, previously deemed wanting and not the way, is now majestic. It had those reserves of energy because it didn’t have demands from the previous season because it didn’t win anything. This past summer was different. So different.
Because Barça have so many glittering jewels, the demands are incessant: exhibitions, Copa America. Euro qualifiers, national team friendlies, SuperCopas, UEFA SuperCups, season after season, month after month, week after week. The real job begins, and it’s a match every three days, a grind that sucks away energy and sharpness, that gives players the hollow, haunted looks that we are seeing in the eyes of the team right now.
And there is Real Sociedad, with none of those obligations, none of those expectations, none of the stresses of a cauldron of expectation. They’re daisy fresh, home and ready to play football. They scored that improbable, magnificent goal then hunkered down to work. Yet even with all of that, just as last season’s visit to Anoeta, there were chances, many chances. Some were flat-out missed, some were saved, some moves met an untimely demise at the feet of a La Real defender.
Those chances would have, a month ago and many levels of sharpness ago, been goals. When the ball bounded off a La Real player straight to Messi at the mouth of their goal, he just pushed it meekly toward the keeper. A laser-guided ball over the top found Messi in perfect stride, and he flicked it wide of a net and keeper at his mercy.
What failings do you evince when you’re tired? I drop stuff. Keys, glasses, papers, you name it. And my wife says, “You should take a nap.” She’s right, even as I argue with her. The parent tries to make the kid take a nap because clearly, the kid is tired. More resistance. What do you do if you’re the superstar of the best team in football, and you are clearly hammered. You keep playing, because what choice do you have? There is no replacement. The coach keeps playing you, and everyone hopes. But that past sharpness that would have converted both those glorious chances is now a resigned turn away from the scene of another failure.
Four matches without a goal or an assist for Messi. And even as we told ourselves that Messidependencia had ended, it is times like this that the team needs a spark of magic, a mazy, crazy goal capped off by a rocket of a finish, that inspiration provided by the best to ever play the game. But he’s too damn tired. The ball doesn’t go into the net for any number of reasons, but with most excellent chances, it’s because at some microscopic level, something went wrong. The foot strikes it a fraction of a centimeter off from where needed, and the shot goes over the bar or directly to the keeper. Sharpness.
Suarez is missing chances because he’s tired. Neymar isn’t his customary quicksilver because he’s tired. Busquets is misplacing passes, misjudging plays, not covering players he should, because he’s tired. Everybody is tired. The coaching staff knows it, the players know it.
What was once a Liga lead threatening double digits is now three, a single match. But even then, it needs to be two slip-ups, because of the work done previously, the head-to-head dominance that requires many more bad days to become the doom that many foretell. Everybody has a reason why, but it’s simple: the ball isn’t going into the net because knackered players lack the necessary sharpness.
And Leicester City won again. It’s magic. The danger of magic is when it becomes anticipation, then morphs into the vile beast called expectation. Winning is a burden, this heavy, unbearable thing that a great team has to lug around. Board, bosses, journalists, friends, spouses and companions, supporters all want it, want them to keep doing it. And hardly any of them understand that desperate need for a nap, for a respite from everything, all at once, the unburdened sleep of a child.
This isn’t about supporting the club. They don’t really give a shit what Barça Twitter or expectant supporters and journalists do. At this level, execution isn’t about anything external. Sports cliches exist for a reason, and all the talk of “digging deep,” “finding an extra gear” is real. The team knows what it has to do, knows how hard it has to fight to make an unprecedented sort of history.
But is also knows that it needs a nap. The problem is that right now, the two goals are incompatible.