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.