Another Anoeta visit, another crisis. And here we were, thinking it couldn’t get worse than the display against Malaga …
Barça escaped the cursed Anoeta with a lucky, lucky draw thanks to a blown offside call, and some extra-thick paint on the goalposts. A win would have been no more than Real Sociedad deserved, as they played Barça off the pitch in every facet of the game. This was a team with no spark, no fire, no inspiration, no nothing except a few seconds of brilliant, mercurial football during which Suarez Minor, Neymar and Messi combined for a goal of the highest quality.
And then the miasma returned.
La Real played like Barça used to, something typed with a certain irony as supporters of Barça B were happy to see the back of Eusebio Sancristian because Barça B played nothing like Barça used to. Laugh if you want to keep from crying into your libation of choice, but at present, FC Barcelona is a team in trouble, for reasons unbeknownst to us.
There is a “fire the coach” crowd, vehement and vociferous, with diagrams and statistics and missing midfields, etc. And while you look long and hard for something building, something happening with the team, it isn’t in sight. Luis Enrique said in a presser, in jest, that he puts the ball out there and prays for magic. But increasingly, that’s the sole seeming tactical option. When it works, results come. When it doesn’t work, results don’t come.
And that’s the problem. A coach is judged by results. If Barça was, like Real Madrid, playing poorly but eking out results, the cries wouldn’t be anywhere near as loud for Luis Enrique’s head. But the team is, in a word, abysmal. In every phase of the game. As a collective they are playing so far below their expected standard that a few are wondering if the team is playing to get the coach fired, which is something else to consider, even as it is fundamentally disgusting to consider. But as the saying goes, it’s easier to fire one than 22.
This much is certain: There is no way in hell, cursed ground or no, that a team with the talent of Barça should be getting bossed around by La Real like that. Does the “Lucho out!” crowd have a point? Yes. But there is another side of this equation, even from the perspective that people are rarely fans of coaches, unless his name is Guardiola.
Every player was below standard today, and far below. Only Denis Suarez, a sub for Rakitic, sparkled, providing fire and stability as that defense-to-midfield or midfield to front three link. If player scores were still a thing in this space, only he would get a grade higher than a 2. Even Ter Stegen was spraying balls hither and yon as Barça presented a mess that was ripe for the picking.
We can say “Lucho out,” but did the coach tell the players to stand around, spray passes everywhere, overhit passes, not make runs, not press and defend poorly? I’d love to have sat in on those pre-match instructions. “Okay, you guys be sure to go out and suck now. Ready?”
Excuses are easy, explanations are more difficult. At one possession sequence, Busquets got the ball and Gomes and Rakitic rushed up the pitch. You can look at that sequence two ways: the coach is expecting Busquets to get the ball up the pitch to start the attack quickly, or positional football isn’t being respected and Barça isn’t playing as it used to. It depends on whether your glass is half-full, half-empty, or if there is even a glass. Is the coach not giving clear instructions, or are players reverting to reflex action? Either way, stranding Busquets is one example of the glaring tactical malaise that is affecting this team.
Even if you want to get it to Messi, Suarez and Neymar quickly, straight from the back line is not the way to do it, when the opponent is standing there, waiting to pounce on any long passes. So what the hell is going on?
There have been times when Barça has played sparkling football this season, and the team has looked brilliant. But for too much of the time, things have been a mess, with no light at the end of the tunnel that doesn’t have a diesel engine attached. Lucho out? Not quite. Not for me.
From this chair there is plenty of blame for everyone, even as culers latch onto their favorite scapegoats. Neymar, Mascherano, etc, etc. But the entire XI played below standard, and has been for quite some time after starting the season with a bang. The team is off to its worst Liga start since Frank Rijkaard’s last season, and we all know what happened to him. But as with Rijkaard, the team is trapped in a desultory play cycle, where whatever can go wrong, will.
La Real’s goal was a comedy of errors as a long pass was lofted up the pitch, falling to a head before landing at the feet of the La Real attackers. Mascherano got a foot to the ball, which fell to a La Real attacker, whose shot was parried by Ter Stegen. Pique, in perfect position at the near post and looking at the header from Willian Jose, decided to kick at it rather than just putting his body in the way and blocking it. He booted it right into his own net.
But that goal was almost like the Football Gods laughing at Barça, deciding to gift the opponents with a goal as crap as their play was, with their defensive stalwart at the end of the ridiculous process, to bang it home. That’s the kind of season this has been so far, and it’s been painful to watch.
And yet, this is part of the cycle, as has been said many times before. Performance is always a sine wave, and the team is down right now. Way down. And way down at the wrong time, with the Classic looming next week and Real Madrid playing aggressive, at times elegant football. If Barça couldn’t deal with La Real, what is the team going to do with the table-topping side?
Valid ask, as is the more pertinent question: Should Luis Enrique go? For me, no. Why? Because if the players are playing to get him fired, they deserve to stew in their own misery. If they are NOT playing to get him fired, then a coach who has won a treble and a double damn well deserves a season to try digging out of this mess that is deeper than form, deeper than injuries, deeper than any individual player. Everybody is panicking, because “This is Barça, and they should be better.” Yes, they should. There are a great many things in life that should be, and aren’t.
Did it take a contract renewal for Suarez to stop knowing how to play football? Neymar is making too many of the same moves. His Brazil form used to be a shadow of his Barça form. Now the reverse is true. Messi has scored goals and turned in magical moments, but he isn’t himself either. Gomes is a lumbering mess in midfield, Rakitic nothing at all like the dynamic, effective midfielder of last season. You can go on and on down the roster, and everyone is suspect, everyone is culpable today, except for the dudes on crutches (figuratively).
Blame is easy, answers are hard. What we see right now is a mess. Win as a team, lose as a team, be a mess as a team, both players and coaches. I hate to see the team that I love playing like this, but I also understand that the day was going to come. Anyone who watched the Bayern demolition knows what it’s like to start a match with hope, and be left with nothing except knowing how supporters of other teams felt as we danced around their graves.
Except Barça isn’t buried yet. Here is what I don’t believe:
— I don’t believe this team has given up on its coach.
— I don’t believe the season is lost.
— I don’t believe that this ensemble doesn’t have the talent to get it together.
— I don’t believe that anything is as bad as it seems.
If Barça can manage to pull out one of “those” matches and beat Real Madrid next week, they would be within three points of the top, and back in business. The season is too long and too crazy for anyone to be giving up hope. The trophies and victory parades were magic. So was the feeling of success. Consider this phase part of sporting adulthood, and learn how to deal with adversity. You don’t deal with adversity by turning on the team, its coach or fellow supporters, even if they don’t feel the same way that you do.
Being culer is not just something to trot out when things are going well. You should embrace this team to your chest even harder when things are NOT going well. Call me a cheerleader if you want, but know that watching the team that you love play like utter crap is no fun. No shit. But at what point do we stop being in this together? Yes, it sucks to have ambition dashed. Yes, the giddiness that greeted this summer’s transfers, when Luis Enrique said that he had the best team ever, has dissolved into watching yet another team boss Barça around.
It’s horrible as a supporter to have to witness it. But is name calling other culers, scapegoating or calling for heads to roll the answer? The team was crap today. It might not be crap next week. That’s part of sport, just like winning, losing and drawing. Hell, given the past results at Anoeta, a draw is pretty good, for those who want to whistle past the graveyard.
None of us who blather here, there and on social media have any idea what is really wrong with this team. All we know is what we see, and that’s all that we can react to. Right now, things are looking grim. Very grim. And yet this same team has a winnable Copa match coming up, and has just won its Champions League group, one that was supposed to be more difficult than it was.
So either we’re being trolled, or the team really is in trouble. Either way, it’s going to legit suck if we can’t get through this crap together. Want to be a culer? This is part of it. Now on to the Classic.