The Chicago Bears are a crap football team. Those of us who remember the swashbuckling champions of 1985 wonder how it happened, even as we know all too well.
Brian Urlacher was a prototype modern middle linebacker who played for the Bears. The fans loved him as did management, who also knew that the fans loved him. He was devastating. By the end of his career he could barely move, barely tackle, barely chase anything down, barely raise his arms above his head to make a play.
There was no succession plan because who ever wants to plan for the aftermath of something heroic, something larger than life. The head coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichik, is a hard-hearted man who would cut his own mother the instant she became less than perfectly useful. Sports isn’t a place for sentiment, even as sport reveres its legends, holds on to the glories of the past like a dude looking at his high school yearbook.
Barça is in a dangerous place right now.
There are people in the Barça social media world who are fond of prophesying doom, fond of laying it at the feet of various people except those on the exempt list. Grim reality is that Barça has a pretty crap succession plan because the stypefying success that the team has been enjoying since the mid oughts is based around a group of once-in-a-lifetime players, true legends of the game. But what happens when they are gone?
Against Athletic, Iniesta tried to force a pass to Messi, who was just standing there waiting for it. On the ensuing Athletic break, Messi did nothing and Iniesta couldn’t do anything. A few years ago, Messi would have chased the attacker down from behind while Iniesta slid over to help apply pressure. The only thing different from then to now is time, countless kilometers on pitches and in the air, time in grade that sucks away at the legs and consistently high quality that a top-class player can bring to the game.
You can’t replace an Iniesta, can’t replace a Messi. But if you don’t think about trying, you run the risk of being crap, like the Chicago Bears, folks sitting around saying, “Remember when.”
Xavi left Barça at the exact right time. People who say that he had some football left at the top level are kidding themselves. And Luis Enrique used him perfectly, leavening a dynamic new approach with just enough of the past to make it all work. It’s fair to ask now if the balance is off.
Real Madrid is playing fantastic football right now. A recent quote from its coach, Zinedine Zidane, was something along the lines of Ronaldo has accepted that he isn’t going to play every match. My observation was that was something Luis Enrique should aspire to, getting Messi to admit, to accept that he isn’t needed for every match, that it’s okay to save his magnificence for the right times.
There were times against Athletic that Barça was playing with nine as Suarez and Messi stood around watching everyone else work. As Atheltic attacked and pressed, it was easy to see the effect of that. Football players age fast, and right before our eyes if we look. Real Madrid didn’t do much in the transfer market over the summer, but didn’t have to. There was a core, along with a healthy stock of young talent and people knocking at the door. They don’t have legends at almost every position, but they do have people who can come in and get things done, who can ensure that the way the team plays doesn’t change. That’s important.
We hear a lot that Barça is losing its identity. No. It is, however, lacking people who can slot in and ensure that there is something approaching continuity.
Who substitutes for Messi? Who substitutes for Iniesta? Barça’s succession plan isn’t entirely visible right now and its coach is also hamstrung by the insatiable demands of fans and the entorno. Can you imagine what would happen if he sat a fit Messi? The firestorm? But Barça needs to learn to play without Messi, just as Real Madrid is learning to play without Ronaldo. Barça needs to learn to play without Iniesta, because the day is coming.
At times, Barça looks like a team torn between two worlds, the controlling, stroke the ball around one and the dynamic new one propelled by the feet of a semi-popular Brazilian. And the struggle is clear. During the season that Tata Martino ran the team, it started out ripping football a new one, setting win records and laying waste. Then something happened, the team went back to playing the way that it used to, the way that players and supporters were more comfortable with, and the winning stopped. The past is seductive because it’s comforting. That way worked before, it will again. But time doesn’t stand still. Neither does sport.
Luis Enrique came in with a slashing, driving style that focused on getting the ball to the three best attackers in the game. People screamed about the seeming absence of a midfield, screamed about positional play, screamed about a host of other things mostly rooted in a fondness for the way things were. Nostalgia has good and bad symptoms, and one of the bad ones is intellectual laziness. Nostalgia wants stuff to be like it was.
Barça wants Messi to be That Messi. He isn’t. Nor is Iniesta That Iniesta, even as both are still magnificent players. Barça doesn’t have a succession plan for those players because of so many things, and not just a fanbase that won’t even consider approaching reality. There’s also a coach who can’t make succession plans because he isn’t even entirely sure the shitshow around the club won’t drive him out like it did his storied predecessor.
There’s also a board that, even as it is ladling on cash with new sponsors, facilitating consecutive summers of big spending, is as resistant to the idea of an XI without the legends as it is having a blank shirt front. But a succession plan has to be in place while the current legends are still in place.
The team wasted time with a succession of makeshift CBs, not legitimately addressing a need until this summer past when it brought in Samuel Umtiti, a player who could perfectly mate with the incumbent back line leader, Gerard Pique. It was luck that things could sorta work until Umtiti came available. But important parts have yet to be addressed, not only in terms of personnel but in terms of direction.
Supporters talk of Dybalas and Verrattis, coaches such as Tuchel and Sampaoli, without recognizing the realities of those things. Verratti isn’t going to come in and play the game like Iniesta. Sampaoli isn’t going to come in and coach like someone steeped in the lore of the club, who understands the Way. They have their own ideas and ways of approaching the game. But too often, supporters want different personnel while everything else stays the same. That’s impossible, as well as being impossibly naive. A clear lack of succession isn’t any one person’s fault. It’s all of our fault, from timid transfer decisions to an unwillingness to fully embrace change, on down the line.
In this past transfer window, the Summer of 22, a lot of young players have been brought in, players who are mostly languishing on the bench. Umtiti is the only one who is getting playing time sufficient to blood him properly. The rest are subs and stopgaps, quality depth because the team has to keep winning, has to sate a fanbase besotted with success. Silverless seasons are unacceptable, irrespective of how the team plays. Positional football beauty, seamless passing and no silver would be met with furor, because the standard is different. New supporters don’t understand that there was a time when winning the Liga was something amazing for Barça, can’t comprehend the pandemonium unleashed by the famous Rivaldo chilena that got Barça into a European spot. They know trebles and being European favorites, and they know that they want that to continue.
These are dangerous times. Denis Suarez is not Iniesta, and he never will be. Alcacer is something that we don’t know yet. Vidal isn’t Dani Alves. Neither is Sergi Roberto. Nobody will be. The difficulty of running a successful, winning club is planning for the future in a way that is heartless, that respects your greats while also preparing their successors so that they can move in at the exact right time while the legend moves on as Xavi did, surrounded by trophies and confetti.
If Iniesta announced his retirement at the end of the season, what would happen to the midfield? We don’t know because not only does it need Iniesta, it hasn’t really tried being without him except as a makeshift stopgap when his knee was injured. All we know is that people don’t like it because it isn’t what they’re used to, what they believe works. Iniesta returned against Real Madrid, things returned to normal and everyone breathed a sigh of relief, feting the Maestro instead of saying, “Holy crap, we need a 32-year-old dude to play the kind of football we need to play.”
If Barça has a succession plan, it isn’t entirely visible. Players signed are augmentative rather than potentially primary. You can’t replace a legend but you have to give it a go rather than recruiting someone to hold their coats. Planning for the future is making hard decisions, necessary changes, taking risks. Barça transfers have been mostly successful, but also kind of timid. The team hasn’t bought anyone who is going to press an incumbent except for Lucas Digne, and supporters are even resisting that. “He doesn’t attack as well as Alba.”
Even as Luis Enrique joked that “There is no future” at a recent presser, the future is now. The time to plan for when Iniesta isn’t there isn’t when Iniesta isn’t there. Instead of asking who is going to be the next Xavi, we should be asking how the game is adapting to meet the threat posed by Barça and how is the team and its potential new coach going to change that. And a different bunch of dudes stroking the ball around the midfield isn’t the answer.
Barça is an icon, even as it isn’t sacred. If it is going to have a healthy, thriving future, it’s going to have to plan. And a fanbase is going to have to be patient. Foolishness such as the ongoing “Lucho out” frippery does nothing except ensure a constant state of rebuilding under this year’s new coach. No continuity, no long view, no planning. Win now. There is no future, there is no tomorrow.
The Chicago Bears had a chance to not be crap and they wasted it. The team they destroyed in that storied Super Bowl, the New England Patriots, is now the NFL standard. It wins and wins in a league that values parity and a turnover of champions. It respects its legends, but doesn’t revere them. It’s cruel, but it works. Football, American and proper, is a cruel game. The youngest, most glittering talent is a wrong knee plant away from being a never was. Success is fleeting, and seductive, and can sometimes derail the very thing it should be prompting: a plan for the future.