It’s a safe bet that when perusing the Liga calendar, few culers or pundits suspected that the April 20 Barça match away to Deportivo would have so much riding on it.
It’s a safe bet that when the team was riding high on a 39-match unbeaten run, nobody at all suspected that the Liga lead would be at stake on this date, featuring an away match to Deportivo.
What happened? How did Barça get here? Despite all of the fingers being pointed at various people from board to unfavored players, it’s simple, really: nobody is doing what they are supposed to be doing. As with anything that unravels, it isn’t the big things that kill you, but the little things. The quest for evidence doesn’t even have to go very far. Look at the second goal scored by Valencia, how they were allowed to stroke the ball around for a seemingly endless period as Barça chased it until finally, eventually, a player made the wrong move which started the dominoes.
Compare that to the high points of the streak, when instead of chasing the ball, Barça players would converge on where it was supposed to be like clairvoyant pit bulls, working it loose and proceeding to lay waste. The team is doing what any team that is wracked with self doubt does: play off the back foot, because everybody is afraid to make a mistake. Messi dribbles too far because he wants to be sure. Neymar holds the ball too long because he wants to be sure. Suarez rushes the shot because he wants to rely on unpredictability instead of his killer’s heart. Busquets doesn’t track his man properly. Fullbacks pinch in toward the middle, leaving the wings free for unfettered crossing by attackers. Everything is wrong, all of a sudden.
No matter how many times you watch that Valencia match, the result doesn’t make sense, unless you view it in the context of that odd phase that every team goes through, where any, all and everything that can happen, will happen. Look at the first Valencia goal, where Rakitic did everything right, was even set up to block the shot but missed full contact by that little bit. Bravo was moving to cover the cross and the deflection caught him out, because that’s what happens during these kinds of periods. During the unbeaten run, Rakitic catches that volley and bangs the ball away, or Bravo easily reads the deflection, catches it and shares a good-natured, admonitory glance with Rakitic. And the beat goes on.
A pressing team isn’t a good team because it is an unnatural state. When a team such as Barça presses, a team whose playing style needs to be natural and instinctive, everything is a mess.
On paper, Barça should beat Depor. But on paper, Barça shouldn’t be on a three-match Liga losing streak, and should still be playing in the Champions League. On paper, things make sense. In the crazy world of reality, they rarely do. After that second Valencia goal, the way out seemed so far away as an entire team slumped. Heads hung, and you sensed that there might not be a way back, even as the Messi goal, a well-worked team effort, gave hope that the team might be able to play its way out of things by relaxing, and playing football. That’s the answer: relax and play football.
For an athlete, in many cases dumb players make the best players, because they don’t think about stuff. The old tennis mind game trick, when an opponent is having a good match, is to say “You’re really hitting that backhand great. You’ve improved that shot a lot. Not sure what you’re doing, but keep it up.” And suddenly, if the player is human, they start thinking about the backhand and possibly, thinking too much about it and the stroke becomes unnatural. Barça football, properly played, seems like the most natural thing in the world. It’s when its players get the yips that it is suddenly clunky, disorganized and vulnerable.
The only way for Barça to end its slump will be to play the way that the team knows that it can. The game makes sense, the players know what to do even as when pressing, players forget. The misplaced Alba clearance, a desperate hoofing of the ball that led to an Atleti goal in that fateful Champions League tie, is the perfect example. An unnatural act in the context of Barça football had a result that seemed almost like a punishment for deviating from the proper way of playing. Barça doesn’t hoof the ball. But Alba did.
Worst is that Luis Enrique has no way to end the slump. There is nothing a coach or his staff can do to end a slump such as this. It’s on the players. You know what you have to do, what you can do, so do it. It’s as simple as that. The players have to understand what they are doing, what they are doing wrong, how they aren’t doing the things that came so naturally a month ago. And they have to fix it.
Fabio Capello said that Barça is dragging because it lacks a captain such as Puyol who can lead the team. Gotcha. Reckon teams that are playing great don’t need captains. Reckon that the only way a captain can be suitably inspirational is to run around, tresses flying, spitting fire and roaring. Iniesta was chosen as captain for a very simple reason: he’s a dynamic, inspirational player. Xavi was captain last year because he is, like Iniesta, a leader. He might be quiet, but he led the team, just as Iniesta leads it now. Barça has a captain. What Barça doesn’t have right now is any memory of how easy the game can be, when played properly, when played the way that they can.
During this streak, so many things happened that might have been different a few weeks previous. In the Classic, Suarez strides onto that ball and taps it home. Against Atleti he pauses, and strokes it past Oblak, then helps Barça win in extra time. Against Valencia, Neymar dribbles down the charging Diego Alves and does a cheeky, grinning tap in. The little things.
Today is as big a match as the team has played this season because it’s playing for more than a match, more than the Liga. This team is playing for its own way, its own direction. It needs to get its groove back, so to speak, to understand how to play the game. There are five matches left. Today, Barça get Depor, while RM get Villarreal and Atleti get Athletic. Of all of the possible scenarios, who knows what will happen? Both Madrid sides are playing with immense confidence right now, but so are their opponents, who will be spoiling for a fight. Should Barça lose today while its title rivals win, the Liga wouldn’t be lost, wouldn’t be over.
But a significant bit of mental damage would be done to a team that needs its full faculties to execute its game. Thinking means that reflex isn’t happening. The dumb athlete just knows the action, the thoughtless, simple action. When a great basketball shooter is in a slump, they often try to get to the foul line. Free throws are rote actions that can kick-start reflex, the dumb reaction in response to a stimulus. Training is about making an athlete dumb, about building the memory that removes thought from the equation. In a given situation the body reacts in a particular way because that is what it has been trained to do. To say that Barça isn’t doing what it is supposed to be doing, is thinking too much is a simple thing to consider, too simplistic to take all that seriously. And yet, it’s all so simple. Just win. Winning is such a natural act for a great football team such as Barça. It’s like reflex. To have success, it seems easy: Barça have to get dumb again.