Hercules 1, Barça 1, aka “A crisis, explained for non-culers”

FC Barcelona drew Hercules in the Copa del Rey.

There are a number of ways to look at that. It was, again, a tale of two halves, a desultory, meandering first half and an energetic, meandering second half, enlivened by B player debuts and a rather spectacular golazo from Carles Alena. Hercules will be put to the sword at the Camp Nou return leg, and all will be right in the world, even as so much of it is wrong.

The Hercules goal was in many ways, this season in a microcosm. A cross came in that was just missed by Umtiti. One CB didn’t want to clear it at the risk of an own goal so he, in effect, dummied the cross. But the LB, Digne, thinking the CB was going to play the ball, slacked off and the free Hercules player slid the ball home inside the far post. It was an amateurish goal to give up, and I can only imagine that Luis Enrique will need blood pressure pills as he diagrams it later.

Alena equalized via a delight of a debut goal, a rocket from about 25 yards out that smoked past a stunned keeper, who was probably expecting another 44 passes before a very logical shot.

So there’s the draw. Does this particular result matter? No. Hercules will lose at the Camp Nou. But it’s the derivation of the result that is the complexity, and that is where the fun begins, as we try to explain to people who don’t fully understand the idea of a Barça crisis.

Most teams are interested in results. “Hey, we won? Yay!” At Barça, every match has layers. Did the team play the right way? Were the right players used in the right way? Was the ball used in the right way? By the by, did we win?

That’s Barça. A lot of people think it’s silly, the notion that a team stocked with many of the best players in the game at their positions, who is one win away from being in the thick of the league championship race, won its Champions League group and has a treble then a double in consecutive seasons, could be in crisis. But a rather unholy trinity of matches, first Malaga, then Real Sociedad and finally Hercules, brings clarity to the notion of “crisis.”

Few teams have as clear an identity as Barça, even as that identity has become smeared and misunderstood. It isn’t about any “mes que” ness, nor does it compress into those few Guardiola years, where a tactic has gotten misconstrued as a Way. Barça plays possession-based attacking football rooted in a positional sense, simply explained. In a deeper sense, the game is logical for Barça, or should be. There should always be a logical place for the ball to go, always an open man waiting in that logical spot to receive the ball. The run dictates the pass, and movement is the key to unlocking opponents.

That identity is what unites the Barça teams over time, from the Dream Team to Rijkaard’s marauders to Guardiola’s malleable geniuses, to Vilanova to Luis Enrique until recently. There has always been a way of playing.

When we look at Ronaldinho’s Barça tenure, what we see without looking closely is a whole bunch of “Wheee!” But it was a lot more complex than that. Ronaldinho was the trickster, but more than that he was a player of consummate skill, who could always be relied upon to deliver the ball to the exact right spot for maximum danger. In today’s terms, he was Xavi and Iniesta with a little bit of Messi. It was crazy to watch. But the structure was provided by players such as Deco, the positional logic that allowed Barça to play attacking, possession-bassed football, providing the foundation for Ronaldinho’s flights of fancy.

It was only toward the end of Rijkaard’s time, when the structure went away and Ronaldinho’s lifestyle began to take a toll on the player’s performancees, that things got funky. Whateever could go wrong, did. But things began to go bad because structure was lost.

Guardiola arrived after Rijkaard, and thought of the game much as Luis Enrique does now in the idea of getting the ball to the team’s best players. Instead of Messi, Suarez and Neymar it was Messi, Henry and Eto’o. Guardiola’s time at Barça was an arc that reached its apogee in the team that dismantled Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final. It is just about the best football match that any of us have ever seen, but it is also a perfect distillation of the way that Guardiola wanted to play football with that group of players (important distinction).

In a recent interview, Umtiti said that he loved Barça under Guardiola, but at times it got a little boring. People started having hissies, but could he have been referring to the time when Guardiola’s Barça descended into almost self-parody, when it WAS possession for possession’s sake, too much of the time?

Treble Barça under Guardiola was different than the Barça that won the double because of personnel. Henry allowed the team to hit a bust-out pass that he could run onto and do damage. As with Luis Enrique’s treble winners, the Guardiola team that won the treble was an almost perfect amalgam of calm and wild, vertical and triangular. It worked because nobody knew what it was going to do.

Luis Enrique took over Barça in much the same situation as Guardiola. The team was coming off a silverless season and an ousted coach, but with gobs of raw material and brilliant players. A pile of transfers later, and we saw the same combination of calm and wild that worked at that first treble, but with a feeling, thanks to Messi, that combined the Barças of Rijkaard (Ronaldinho) and Guardiola (Xavi). Messi was the logical trickster who had a pair of perfect foils. Meanwhile, Xavi and Iniesta provided the structure, the calmness and positional play.

When Xavi left, many despaired of what would become of that calmness, that sense of positional play absent the bedrock that dictated tempo and movement. Luis Enrique moved to a more vertical style and came within a single, solitary goal of being in for another treble. There was still structure, even if more and more of the driving was coming from the left flank as Neymar took the wheel and accelerated the team.

This season, the team has moved even further away from the Barça identity. It doesn’t seem to care about possession as much as it does getting the ball to the most dangerous players. But absent a structure to get the ball there, the team either has to hoof it, or the danger men have to come to midfield to get the ball, and then attack. Opponents figured out the roles of Neymar and Busquets, and strove to isolate those two linchpins. The rest of the offense, unless Messi decided to be divine, would then founder on the rocks.

This season, the crisis isn’t in the results. The results would be cause for optimism in the presence of something discernible, something logical, something that gave a sense of something building. The two Anoeta messes are rather different. That treble Barça was playing very good football, structured and within the team’s identity unless you were one of the folks who had reduced that identity to a two-year period under Guardiola. You could see something building, and it wasn’t a surprise when the team took off like a rocket.

This season, you don’t see anything except stagnation and cluelessness. Are players not moving because they don’t quite know what to do, or because they aren’t doing their jobs? Is there a point where reflex takes over and players start to do what they need to do to win? What if that doesn’t happen? Right now, Barça has no structure. In the second half against Hercules, as more Barça B players occupied the pitch, there seemed to be more structure. It wasn’t Rafinha scurrying about as Denis Suarez made like a circuit with no way to close links. Hercules could pack the box and exploit that lack of structure because the way that Barça plays now makes it easy to isolate danger. No circuits are closing.

That’s the crisis. Culers would rather the team was playing better, with a sense of structure and position but not doing as well in the three competitions than the way things are now. Because a structure provides a foundation from which to build, precise things that can be pointed to and improved. A mess of a furball might win, but the results aren’t repeatable. So a 4-0 one week becomes a 0-0 the next. Tennis players hit thousands of topspin backhands up the line to build the memory, the reflex that serves them in a crisis. We know the Barça players work on rondos in practice because we see the videos from training. But in matches, the skills demanded and honed by those rondos aren’t called upon. They’re just banging the ball over distance to a teammate and hoping that defender doesn’t nip in to head or kick the pass away. They’re being asked to build a house without the proper tools.

Even aside from the club structure being taken over by marketing men, which is another part of the crisis that only culers who are also nerds care about, you could almost live with that if the team was playing properly because in reality, Barça has never had excellent stewardship (no, not even under Laporta). This team isn’t fun to watch any longer, and it’s deeper than the idea of football being entertainment. There is no beauty. Pragmatism can be elegant. Pragmatism works. Pragmatism can even get results. But pragmatism is dour, and often uninspiring.

Exacerbating the sense of crisis is that every now and again Barça gets it, plays the kind of structured, possession football that leaves an opponent helpless and foundering, just kicking at everything and hoping the goals don’t go in. But for too much of this season Barça has been as it was against Malaga, as it was against La Real, as it was against Hercules: an aimless mess of players running around, with no seeming idea if they’re even headed for the same destination.

Culers want more than results. It seems silly. It’s easy to make fun of, as people say, “Look at those fools. I would kill for my team to be in that position.” But everything is context. If you’ve never had a strawberry, the first one you have will be sublime. In the span of fifteen years Barça has won four doubles and two trebles. The context is different. But more than the achievement, it has always been the way of play that has made culer hearts swell with pride as much as the accomplishments. Xavi said farewell during the celebration of a treble that he was a key part of. That was perfect. Many of us speak derisively of the Way. That’s because of the idealized notions people have that distill a team’s history down to two years. This is different.

There is something important missing in the way that Barça is playing. If the team doesn’t find it, not only will results not come, but results will be impossible to attain. And that is why, in the absence of short-term thinking, so many culers believe their team to be in crisis. Because in many ways, it is.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

17 Comments

  1. ardnen
    December 1, 2016

    Thanks for the great article. On the topic of “crisis”, Barcelona are always in a crisis once every season and I want to be optimistic in thinking that this season it has come early rather than in March/April when it really counts. I have a theory with this Barcelona team. The amount of joy we get out of this team in a season doesn’t change from one season to next. last season, most of the joy came in the beginning of the season and towards the end. Enrique’s first season, almost all joy came in the second half of the season. This season, I am hoping that it will come in the second half as we can clearly see that except the 40 minutes again City at Etihad, it definitely hasn’t come so far. As the article highlights, the signs are quite worrying though. Being overplayed by Sociedad like that was truly worrying to see. I would rather be angry about the results not going our way despite playing well than feeling worried and hopeless about the team playing the way they are. However, lets trust the players and the coach who have given us so much joy. I honestly feel that this truly might be the lowest point of the season. So, there is only one way – UP.
    With that said, I wouldn’t be surprised if we lose the Classico but then, the house would really reach a point of crash and burn wouldn’t it?

  2. Dar_vincy
    December 1, 2016

    Spot on, Kxevin. Perfectly align with all the points raised. As it has been agreed, the technical staff and the players are culpable for the current unsavoury maelstrom. The excruciating part is that we have become unwatchable. These days, I find myself screaming rather than grinning anytime we play. Early in the season, we saw LE try incorporating more possession to our game, with the defenders passing more out of the back. For some reasons, that evaporated and they resorted back to default. By and large, our major undoing was purchasing a truckload of average players who seem to be grossly below the standard associated with a team of Barca’s magnitude. Little wonder there isn’t a worthy quality to rival Busquests, surrogate Iniesta or the other injured defenders.

    • December 1, 2016

      I don’t believe (yet) that the transfers are below standard. Look at how Turan came around after a season of adaptation. Gomes has immense ability. Alcacer is much better than he is showing. Barça is difficult, to play for/at and to assimilate. It would be in error to write a player off in their first season.

      I think that when Iniesta and Umtiti return to the XI, we will start to see some improvement. The team even looks better with Suarez Minor, because he closes the links between back line and attack.

      The larger issue is that there is no system in place that is playable by mere mortals. You can’t predicate the way a team plays on having the three best attackers in football and just getting them the ball. Because if their form is off, like Suarez for really all of this season, the system can’t work. If a player hits a dip in form, the system can’t work. A system has to be repeatable, albeit in diminished form, by the lesser players.

      Barça has regressed from the first season to now under Luis Enrique. That’s a worry. This has also been the season most disrupted with injuries that he has had to deal with. So let’s see how the team deals with this, starting Saturday, which is a must-win match.

      • Dar_vincy
        December 2, 2016

        Well said, Kxevin. Though not convinced Gomez will be a success with us from what I have seen so far. No indications whatsoever to suggest he’ll be. Turan’s quality was somewhat obvious coming to Barca, Gomez’s quality however, isn’t particularly notable, and what he offers precisely still remains elusive and indecipherable to my football perception.

  3. omoh
    December 1, 2016

    Honestly this is the best analysis of the bar a crisis I’ve ever read. this is the detailed analysis I’ve always shared with people but they don’t seem to understand simply because they’re not barca fans.

    From the management of the club to the football style. this is a perfect analysis and summation of everything.

    The only exception I have is the same with what I have with all writers about Barcelona as a club. THEY ALL DELIBERATELY AVOID THE FACT THAT THE COACH HAS DESTROYED THE BARCA STRUCTURE. THEY ALL PREFER TO SHY AWAY FROM POINTING THE FINGER TO WHERE IT IS DUE “THE COACH”.

    I noticed this from the very first season the COACH took over but the form of the players, the presence of Xavi and ultimately the achievement of the team papered over the crack.

    Below is the analysis of the trebble winning team of the coach’s first season which shoes the COACH had little or no impact on the team that achieved the success.

    We all know the poor results and form that preceeded the near sacking of Enrique and eventual casuality of zubizareta. This is like a deja vu but this time around it’s unlikely there will be a casuality. Having this in mind let me proceed to the main analysis.

    ATTACK: in the attack was the fresh and highly in form MSN plus an experienced back up of Pedro. Any coach will be happy to have just one of these three in his team and Enrique had three of them and they were in form. This reduces the input of any COACH.

    MIDFIELD: during the poor and turbulent first half of the season, barca drew a lot of games most of them coming after the withdrawal of a certain Xavi from the midfield. By the second half of the season, Xavi and his barca DNA style became a regular feature, barca became a consistent team.

    DEFENCE: 2014/2015 season saw barca have the best defensive record ever seen in recent years. With a very organised team both when defending and attacking set piece, Barca conceeded only once (Sergio Ramos goal) from set-piece all through the season while scoring numerous goals from set piece. Again guess who was credited with the organisation, Juan Carlos Unzue, Enrique’s assistant.

    So in conclusion, I ask with an attack consisting of in-form attackers able to decide games on their own; a midfeild of arguably the bestmidfield trio of all time, two of the best midfielders of all time, two of the most experienced midfielders in the game at the time boasting of 3 champion’s leagues, 2 Europa leagues, 1 world cup, 2 euro cups and lots of la ligas and copa del reys amongst them; while also having a very good DEFENCE credited to his assistance, what was Luis Enrique’s visible incontestable contribution to the team?

    • georgjorge
      December 1, 2016

      I won’t argue with your assessment in detail, but one question remains: If during the treble season the system was “winning by itself” without any crucial inputs by the coach, then why did the team not win La Liga as well as the Champions League the year before?

      Granted, Luis Enrique had Luis Suarez up front, which is a big deal. But Neymar had been present alongside Messi before, Xavi had been younger and able to run more, and the rest of the players had been at least as good as those present in the Treble season. The one big change from a season in which the team went out against Atleti in the CL quarterfinals and didn’t win La Liga to the treble season was – a different coach.

      I could also make the argument that during the last decade football has become so competitive and teams have such incredible power at their disposal that it’s outright impossible for a team with a mediocre or even bad coach to ever win the Champions League as well as La Liga in one season. Coaches make important decisions, and not having a good or great one is just too much of a hindrance (which is also why I believe and fear that Zidane is not at all the clueless coach many would like him to be).

      Bottom line: I think that Luis Enrique and his staff contributed A LOT (but of course not everything) to the success of the treble season. That doesn’t mean they willa perfect fit for the next ten years, but it means that they can very well bring success to the team again if they as well as the team evolve.

      • December 1, 2016

        Excellent comment. I just don’t think a coach who has won a treble and a double needs defending. This isn’t to exonerate Luis Enrique and his staff from errors, and the current situation.

  4. Nick
    December 1, 2016

    Excellent read. I’m agreeing with your thoughts lately. 🙂

    One note: why do you use “culers”? Doesn’t sound nice. In fact, I cringe every time I see this word. How about the proper culé(s)?

  5. omoh
    December 1, 2016

    @DAR_VINCY I beg to differ with you on the issue of the players being at fault. it is solely the duty of the coach to bring out the best in each and every player.

    Everything we see on match days are as a result of constant training and repetition of an idea of play communicated and drilled into the players.  If anything is missing, it is either due to improper or confused communication of idea or poor drilling of the ideas into the players.

    Barca cannot bring out ball from the defence because apart from Iniesta(out injured) and Busquets, we don’t have midfielders that can hold on to the ball and bring the ball out from the defence or dribble their way out of trouble especially when the opponent is pressuring high up the pitch. Andre Gomes is the purest of them all, Rakitic is not good in that area either, Denis Suarez is the only other option but quite in experienced.

    It is the duty of the coach to know the qualities of the players that his team needs to be able to play his pattern. In barca’s situation, the club has it’s own core system which every coach has to adapt to. The system of play of a team is what informs the type of player to be brought in and their qualities. 

    You can’t claim to want to play a possession football and be buying tall midfielders. Tall players are known to be quite slow on the ball which is not good for possession based system of football except for clever ones like Busquets who knows how to use his body to shield the ball. I noticed Enrique seem to prefer tall players. This was evident in his first classico  in charge where he opted to go with Mathieu on the LB instead of jordi alba We all know the result. A 3-1 loss. Same with his choice to purchace Alex Vidal as a RB. There’s also a rumor of barca monitoring a German teenager Weigl(6ft2in). I also notice his criminal preference of Andre Gomes despite the fact that he’s is young, inexperienced and very poor on the ball while he has the likes of a better D. Suarez, an experienced Rafinha and a far more experienced and better Arda Turan. Tall players are also not as clever and has creative as short ones. Reason why barca lacks creativity in the midfield especially when iniesta is not playing and messi is not droping to the midfield to collect passes.  Again this is a contributory reason to L. Suarez’s poor form. No creative midfielder to make the final pass that a traditional striker like Suarez needs.

    I see LE as a very confused coach who doesn’t know the qualities of the kind of player he needs for his self acclaimed fast, free-flow kind of football centered around possesion. Its like playing a barbatov as the striker in a fast counter attacking football. A square peg in a round whole. His confusion for to a crescendo against Athletico Madrid when barca were leading until he chose to withdraw S.Busquet and play A.Gomes in his position when he had the likes of S.Roberto and J.Masch. who are natural in that position. ATM equalizer came from a pass from F.Torres whom A.Gomes was supposed to be marking and G.Pique had to leave his man A.Greizman to try and mark F.Torres but was too late.

    I can’t rule out an improvement in the second half of the season but right now his combination of players with the system is very poor and until there is a drastic change in the coach’s approach, there can never be an improvement.

    If things continues like this, it will continue to affect the players’ moral and dedication as seen in the game against la real because dedication and moral are results of believe in the system and ideas of the coach.

    @GEORGJORGE first If you remember in my 5th paragraph I wrote “little or no impact”.

    Secondly the previous season was neymar’s first. Pedro, pique and alves had a dip in form. Puyol retired due to constant injury, messi also had his injury and a coach who showed he doesn’t understand barca system and failed to learn. Even he himself admitted to that.

    Lets ask ourselves what will barca with LE on the bench but without MSN in the attack look like?

    I said I saw this coming from the first season, it’s a gradual process of continued deterioration. Like KXEVIN has put it, LE is a coach who favours result over structure. Without structure, in the long run even the results would be hard to come by. Also like KXEVIN said, in barca, getting there is one thing but the fans also want to know how you got there.

    Finally with the loss of structure in the barca’s system of play, someone has to be responsible. At who’s door step do we place the bulk of blame than the COACH.

    • georgjorge
      December 2, 2016

      Finally, someone who can rival Jim’s comments in length ; ) But I see some contradictions in your judgement of Enrique’s (non-)contribution.

      You name Tata Martino “a coach who showed he doesn’t understand barca system and failed to learn” and use that to partially explain the non-success of the previous season, but you don’t want to equally give Enrique credit for the success that followed? That doesn’t fit for me. You also state that “it is solely the duty of the coach to bring out the best in each and every player” and then go on to blame the weak form of Alves, Pedro and Pique for the non-success of the previous season. But wouldn’t that also mean that Enrique IS at least partially responsible if the players on the pitch are in good form, like they were in the Treble season and the season that followed?

      I would like to ask you if there is any Barcelona coach of the last ten years you would judge to be a great coach? After all, you could also say that Guardiola had Messi, Xavi and Iniesta in their prime, so it was easy to win games back then (even if, like with Enrique, the previous coach had pretty much the same players available yet didn’t nearly win as many games with them).

      I can fully your arguments about structure versus results (though I don’t know how much choice a coach has nowadays about not getting good results right from the start). But a treble and a double don’t happen by accident.

      • December 2, 2016

        The problem with the perception of Tata Martino is a malleable thing. The people who say results don’t matter damn him for not winning anything. The people who say that he didn’t have a system or adapt to The Way forget that his team ripped stuff to shreds in the first part of the season. Then there was some sort of (to this day unexplained) situation, and things went off the rails. Barça went back to death by a thousand passes and all of the reasons that showed how Guardiola’s teams were found out.

        Barça was held scoreless seven times that season. What is forgotten is that six of those came after the break, after the alleged summit at which Tata Martino “got religion.” What if he had said, “We keep playing as we have been. Deal with it.” His Barça team came within five goals scored of being in with a shout at the treble. Five goals.

        The Martino time is painted as an complete, abject failure when nothing could be further from the truth. The same things are happening now with Luis Enrique. Andy West wrote a piece that I agree with 100 percent:

        http://www.bbc.com/sport/football/38161982

        It is shameful the way supporters treat Luis Enrique. You can disagree with the way that he runs the team, but to assert that he doesn’t have a hand in the results just doesn’t wash for me. But West explains it far more capably than I can.

  6. luisthebeast
    December 1, 2016

    Yes the final of 2011 was one of Barca greatest game.But who gave the lead in 2nd half?Guardiola and the system?No.Messi.And the 3d goal again started by Leo.So we can talk hours about if Lucho won titles because of MSN and all that but the truth is that this Barca team is build from 2008 around Leo.That had the BIG benefits all these years but now it seems that new ideas needed.Neymar is a brillant player.I start to think that maybe we waste him there in the left.And Suarez always alone to fight 2 CBs.Yes i truly believe that we have a great squad but we must maximize what we take from the players.Put Paco alongside Suarez,move Neymar to middle behind them,let Gomes be a B2B midfielder,try new thing Lucho.4-3-3 is not the holy bible,you can try.

  7. luisthebeast
    December 1, 2016

    I am watching Neymar in Brazil NT,Suarez alongside Cavani in NT,Gomes in NT e.t.c.I see better things.No we must not adapt players to a fucking system.Change the system to maximize the quality of them.We have a squad that we can play even an CL final and win it even without Messi.But with a 3-5-2.Juventus play with Khedira Pjanic in midfield and we have so quality,Busi,Iniesta,Raki,Gomes and we can do much much better.4-3-3 with ur forwards walking is suicide when also the same time ur DM is in bad form.

  8. lala10
    December 2, 2016

    Fellow cules this article and the comments in response have been super super insightful. So wonderful.

    Football is a funny business though. Its capacity for surprise and regeneration is unparalleled. Everyone in the Barca camp should/ has had their pride questioned. There may yet be a massive sting in the tail.

    But above the anger and exasperation the feeling that came over me whilst watching Barca whupped at the Anoeta was of a moment passing, the emperor losing his clothes before all. Beyond the anger was a sort of resignation. And we have been there before ala Bayern and Anoeta 1.

    Here is to hope

  9. Mishti
    December 9, 2016

    Just a tangential and light-hearted comment:

    “Most teams are interested in results. “Hey, we won? Yay!” At Barça, every match has layers. Did the team play the right way? Were the right players used in the right way? Was the ball used in the right way? By the by, did we win?”

    As a long time follower of Brazil NT, I can tell you that there is at least another set of fans that have a comparable list of existential anxities about the ‘right way to win’ 🙂

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