Once upon a time, there was a kid, and that kid was happy. There was Mommy, and Daddy, and toys.
And then one day, all on the same day, the kid found out that Santa wasn’t real, there was no Easter Bunny either, and by the by, notice how the milk man has red hair like yours, and Daddy doesn’t? Well …
Too much of the Barça fanbase is acting like that kid, and it’s kinda charming to witness. Adversity builds love. It’s easy to love a team when it’s kicking the crap out of everybody. Harder to love is a group that is struggling, a bunch for whom everything that can go wrong, will. It hasn’t been since the last days of Frank Rijkaard that Barça has been so ingenious at finding ways to screw up. It’s almost impressive in a perverse sort of way, when you think about it. Let’s take the Valencia match as just an example.
The chances created were many, but one of the most glaring was Neymar’s early chance, that was parried, volleyball-style, by Diego Alves. Most fascinating about that chance is how much time Neymar had to make the right decision, something that also points to one of the complexities of this current Barça malaise.
Neymar could have stayed on the ground with the shot, going left or right of Alves. He had time for another touch or two, time to make a calm, killer decision. A month ago, he makes the right call. When a player is in form, they say that time stretches out, that plays and events seem to be occurring almost in slow motion. When a player, when a team is in a trough, time is accelerated. This syndrome was most in evidence in that fateful Champions League tie against Chelsea, where there were chances galore, but also so much seeming pressure that the team felt like they had less time than was available.
We saw it again vs Atleti in the recent Champions League quarterfinal, as Suarez again had the chance to make the difference, but skewered his chances by shooting them directly at the keeper. We saw it yet again on Sunday. Neymar shot at the keeper. Messi forced a save that was pretty easy because it was right in Alves’ range. Rakitic had a glorious chance, and hit it … right at Alves. Pique had the draw on his boot, and shot wide of the net, perhaps thinking that he needed to cut the shot finer than he in fact did. Or maybe he just screwed the pooch. Neymar danced and dribbled, Iniesta cut passes too fine, missing the target. Messi would make one dribble too many, in an effort to be certain, absolutely certain of the move, a mindset that led only to failure.
The single time that Barça functioned like it should have, a goal resulted. Alba played the ball, paused and made the correct cross and Messi took the correct action, hitting the shot where Alves wasn’t. Bang. Everything else was the rush, the hurry of a team pressing, of a team that is feeling the pressure and reacting in a way that only serves to exacerbate that pressure. La pausa can also be psychic, and it’s absent right now — which is a problem.
The talk has been fascinating in the wake of a third consecutive Liga loss. Fire Lucho, sell Neymar, the team has been found out tactically, the bench sucks, they will bottle it, we’re doomed.
This fan base also needs some psychic la pausa. Let’s deal with each item individually:
Memories are short. The season after Barça won the treble under one Pep Guardiola, the team went out in the Champions League semis, and Copa round of 16(!). It did in Liga. And nobody called for Guardiola to be fired. Why? There were a number of reasons. Guardiola hadn’t become a deity by then, but winning in that kind of giddy rush was still very new, instead of the norm. People were actually (shudder!) happy about winning Liga. What’s the difference now? The team, coming off a treble, was on a 39-match winning streak, and if not laying waste to all that came along, it was finding ways to win. Then came internationals.
Gabriele Marcotti did the math. Messi, Suarez and Neymar have played almost three thousand more minutes than the next heaviest load (16058, vs 13593 for Bayern front 3, 11274 for City, 10249 for RM and 9843 for Atleti). Probably worth asking how expensive that international break was, as three hammered lions returned to the Barça fold. It’s been downhill from there.
Lucho out? Barça was, until very recently, in with a shout at the double treble. The team could still do the double. And people want to fire that guy?
Yeah, it’s all his fault. He has been dribbling too much, not making the incisive decisions that he was when roaring like a lion and acting an ineffective shadow of his former self. Kinda like Messi. Should we sell them both? No. Breathe. Neymar is the second-best player in world football, behind Messi. He’s in the same crapalicious form as Messi, and Suarez for that matter. Yes, Neymar is the One People Don’t Like. So his errors count for a lot more. He dribbles too far, loses the ball and people say, “Dammit, Ney!” Messi dribbles too far, loses the ball and there is silence, or “Oooh! Almost!” Neymar has, and will always have, a different standard. Fair? No. Reality? Yep.
What if the club does sell him? Who do you buy who can have that same sort of effect on a match, who has the same set of skills? The people waiting for an answer will be easy to spot, as they will have faces blue from holding their breath. There isn’t a player in world football who could be purchased, who can do what Neymar does. Form is temporary, class is permanent.
During that awful season when Malaga had Barça’s number, one match had zero shots on goal, the other match, a Barça loss, had one shot on goal. Now that is being found out tactically. There has not been a single negative Barça result this season in which the team has not had excellent chances. Recall the Classic, when Suarez strolled past a cross with the net gaping, and other chances missed. Chances misses against Villarreal. Chances missed against Atleti. Stunning chances missed against Valencia, and lots of chances against La Real. When a team isn’t sharp, the first thing to go is finishing. The next is decision making. We’re seeing evidence of both. What’s curious is that Messi was the coal mine canary, as he suddenly lost sharpness and began going a dribble too far, or not making passes that a month previous, he would have made. Suarez was next, and finally Neymar. Now it’s just a mess.
Overreliance on the best attack in world football? Sure, but who do you replace them with? Munir? Sandro? Could the club have bought someone? Nolito. Does anyone think Nolito is going to have anything approaching the same level as Messi, Suarez or Neymar? Don’t hold your breath while you prepare to answer. Pedro has found out how easy a seemingly difficult life at Barça was, where an attacker gets space because they aren’t Messi or Neymar. Is some of it that they resist being managed, which is why they have such an astounding accumulation of minutes? It is if you ask some folks. But man, if you have a Ferrari and a Skoda, which one are you going to drive?
The team will have been found out tactically when chances aren’t created. But as a collective, it is finishing like crap because it is a physical and (now) mental mess.
The bench sucks
Do you want the best XI in world football, or not? Put another way, pick the superstar on the Bayern or Atleti rosters. Theirs is a very tight sine wave of quality. Barça’s quality graph from starters to subs is like the Pyrenees. Want to buy someone? They won’t want to sit and watch others play football. Turan only did it because he wanted to get that Champions League medal. Some of it is bad luck, with injuries and suspensions. Turan would have been useful against Valencia, as would have Rafinha. Neither was available. It’s time for everyone, including journalists who should know better, to stop acting as though Barça should have ready and willing replacements for players such as Iniesta, Busquets, Messi, Neymar and Suarez. There aren’t any. The trick is to manage the roster so that those players get to the meat of the season with powder dry. Last season was possible because the summer wasn’t a shit show. That wasn’t the case this summer, where the team didn’t really have a proper pre-season. We’re now seeing the effects.
They will bottle it
So what if they do? Now matter how bad you feel about the Valencia loss, you don’t feel anywhere near as bad as the players. It’s their job, their livelihood, the thing that they love and are better at than pretty much anyone else in the world. And they screwed up. How long must that trip home have been for Pique, never mind having to duck those Arbeloa Tweets. And do you know what? They might bottle it. But it isn’t anything to worry about because the team’s future is still in its hands. Get the same number of points over the last five matches is the goal. Do that, and win the Liga. Gain one less, and fail. Easy peasy. Even the math-impaired can work out that equation.
A giant meteor headed for Earth means we’re doomed. Dependent upon your age, and view of global climate change, we might be doomed. When a team doesn’t win enough championships to sate an insatiable fan base? That ain’t exactly doom.
Not to bring back unpleasant memories, but some of us were hoping the Rijkaard team would get it done, right up until the time that it didn’t. In the Tata Martino season, there was hope until that last match, when there wasn’t. It isn’t anyone’s place to tell anyone how to deal with adversity, or how to be a supporter. The Camp Nou was dazzling, and extraordinary in its support of a team that needed it, yelling and screaming right up until the end. It was awesome.
What will happen the rest of this crazy season? Who the hell knows, but it’s clear that the team needs a nap (still). But it also needs some psychic la pausa. What do we as supporters need? I’m going with chocolate milkshakes. The rest of your are on your own.