The future is now, the danger is real

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.

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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.

14 Comments

  1. ciaran
    January 8, 2017

    One of my favourite posts by far Kxevin. Really top notch. I don’t know anything about American Football but looking at an even more recent example is Milan who are not even a shadow of the team they were only a few years ago because they couldn’t replace the spine of the team

  2. georgjorge
    January 8, 2017

    Great article! I think that it’s not only Barca fans and presidents though who want immediate success all the time, it’s getting to be a very common feature of football clubs in the European top leagues. For example, both Mourinho and Pep arrived at a new team and new league, with new players, and were/are being relentlessly attacked by media and fans for not winning all their games from the start. That’s just stupid.

    Incidently, I know a Catalan guy over here who has supported Barca for four decades, and he told me he preferred it when they weren’t as good as they are now, when they weren’t supposed to be top of the league and Champions League winners all the time. It seemed more relaxed, with less overblown expectations then.

    • Mishti
      January 9, 2017

      It’s the money, and how it is earned and circulated, as much as anything else. Sponsorship and bradcast deals are explicitly predicated on winning stuff. Man Utd for example have financial penalties to pay Nike because of finishing outside UCL qualification last season. Hence all the pressure on Mourinho, as one more year outside UCL would mean more money lost. You get sponsorship deals to pay the stars so that you can win, but if you cannot win and still gotta pay the stars, you’re in a soup. If you don’t make UCL, even less money, and potentially lose your stars next season. Hence less shirt sales. Viscious cycle. Cannot be a sustainable long run equilibrium for any club as I see it. Alex Ferguson won his first title with United after several years. He would be in the gutter in today’s world.

  3. Davour
    January 8, 2017

    Fantastic post, Kxevin; you capture the dilemma wonderfully. As we have discussed before, success always risks becoming a straight-jacket. Winning becomes normal and we are no longer used to manage disappointment. And we constantly feel it is not enough; I have caught myself feeling that three CL trophies (whereof two are trebles) is insufficient return for the Messi-era (the 4th win was really pre-Messi) – though thus has more to do with mistakes in management (hyped transfers in like Zlatan and Cesc, out like Thiago, and lack thereof, like post-Puyol). Entitlement is really a terrible thing and part of me feel like we would be well-served by a break in winning. I felt during the Copa game that losing would perhaps be for the best, instead being able to focus on Liga and CL. At the moment, perhaps we do not have the squad to go for them all. I fully agree with the notion that there should have been rotations to break in the young, that the cup should not be a major priority. But in a world where everything but a treble is acceptable, this is impossible.

    At the moment we have to accept that RM has the upper hand, and this has been obvious for some time. They have a settled squad and a manager in a good position where he has both the cred form being a legend player, and unusually free from expectations for being a RM coach. They, however, also have a shift coming – less because of Ronaldo and more because of Modric’s ageing – but their squad looks better, more balanced, in this regard: Isco, James, Asensio, Morata, Casemiro, Carvajal, Varane, Vasquez, Kovacic, Kroos (only 27). RM has not been close to Barca’s brilliance, but they have also never been too dependent on Ronaldo, and this together with lack of consistent success, will probably make their transition easier.

    Messi is younger than Cristiano, but even so, he has become more injury prone. It was a long time ago he did that kind of defensive work, but we can’t afford BOTH him and Suarez slacking. They must be managed, but realities are difficult. There is, at the moment, nobody to fill the gap. LE must persist with rotations; we must brace ourselves for less dominance (Man U comes to mind), even if Neymar provides a possibility for new paradigm. But he cannot do it on his own.

    • Mishti
      January 9, 2017

      Agree with your general sentiment about managing expectations and disappointments.

  4. Jim
    January 8, 2017

    Looking forward to tonight’s match. It really shouldn’t be a huge test but in our current mindset. .. . .?

    First of all I’d like to pick up a couple of points from the last article. Been off with my good lady to a remote inn in Highland Scotland with VERY patchy Internet. To celebrate a big birthday so not been around.

    With regard to Alba a couple of points. Seems I need to be alert to folks trying to write him off. First goal there is no way he ( read anybody in La Liga ) can make up five yards and catch Inaki Williams once he is in full stride. To suggest that he can do that from his angle of approach , get inside and ahead of him and force him wide is fanciful in the extreme. Slag his starting point if you like but he was the only one sprinting to defend that attack . I notice Rakitic’s name was barely mentioned yet he was closest to the back post as it developed. Also, the notion that Pique could have let his man stroll to the front post get an easy square ball and pass it into the net is equally bizarre. Just stop the video I posted in the Messi hips article at around 24.42 and imagine Pique not there but hanging at the back post. While I’m on the topic can we not write Messi off every couple of weeks only to retract like happened with Espanyol and the Messi who was no longer what he used to be ? Messi is STILL by far the best player in the world and capable of beating defenders by speed, guile, twisting or any other way he wants. There is no good reason why this can’t continue for three or four years given his talent so let’s not have to defend this every couple of months when he has a quiet game. It happens.

    Now, with regard to this article I’m in agreement with the broad thrust of it which is that our legends won’t last forever so we should be making plans but we should be making plans in the right way and right places. TS will be good, Oique/ Umtiti will be good, MSN will be good. what does that leave? Right first time. The midfield. It is poor at the moment and very poor when Iniesta is absent. Not sure how anybody can argue against that. If your ambition is not to rectify that with the best talents the game has to offer then I’d question anyone’s commitment to staying at the top. Have we done that so far? No. We have brought in a load of very good players who don’t seem to have the skills , for me at the moment, to become, as is said, keepers. It’s not hard. Anyone watching football in Europe just know knows who the best young midfielder is and it’s not Deli Ali.

    If you don’t worry about the midfield what is your ambition for the way Barca play ? Punt the ball forward at every opportunity ? Because we have the best front three in the world send hope they can do it ? Because what I see is a return to the past where we have virtually nobody other than Suarez in the box. That renders him useless. Neymar hangs wide and does the odd cameo, Messi often rescues us but if Messi is providing how many do you usually see in their box ? Not enough would be my assertion.

    I’m prepared to listen to the great system that anyone thinks we’re building if they would explain to me how it works. RM looked at us. They had a great front three but realised that a great midfield compliments not threatens it. So they went out and bought Modric and Kroos and now look at the football they play. They no longer hoof it forwards yet we are being urged to believe that the game has changed and The midfield is no longer important ?

    Anyway, the game starts soon and it’s a must win. Bit of rotation which is good but not too much.

    Barca line-up vs Villarreal: Ter Stegen, Roberto, Piqué, Mascherano, Digne, Iniesta, Busquets, Gomes, Messi, Suarez, Neymar.,

  5. Tata2
    January 8, 2017

    something in my gut feeling tells me that if we lose this one, this might be Enrique’s last match

    • georgjorge
      January 8, 2017

      I very much hope you are wrong on this one.

  6. georgjorge
    January 8, 2017

    Ref: don’t be shy, you can use your hands, everyone!

  7. georgjorge
    January 8, 2017

    I actually thought the team was rather decent today, though far too wasteful in front of goal. Villareal have the best defense in La Liga (less than half a goal conceded every game so far), and when defenders (ours included) are actually allowed to stop shots with their hands all day long, it gets even tougher.

    Not to say it was an amazing performance – apart from our front three unable to finish off clear changes, Gomes looked lost again and there’s hardly any linking up between Neymar and Digne – but not a bad one either.

  8. Tata2
    January 8, 2017

    Team was decent today, err we dropped points, decent isn’t good enough. I am just tired of this inconsistency so much that I have stopped seeing barca matches. may continue to see only our CL matches

    • georgjorge
      January 8, 2017

      I would also prefer world-class performances in every match against a tough opponent, but I’m afraid that doesn’t happen every season.

  9. Jim
    January 8, 2017

    We can think a bit more about it later but tbh we were only a decent run of the ball or good call away from a win. Performance I’d need to watch again.

    Not the first time I’ve been glad it was Messi about to take FK. That was unbelievable under the pressure he must have felt to get a result.

  10. Rami
    January 8, 2017

    That’s what you get for many months of inconsistent performances and unnecessarily wasted points, The team drove it self into a narrower and narrower wedge, Where they can’t even afford a breath of a draw, An away Villareal is tough match even at our best of times, Never mind in our current sorry state.
    The players and the coach can spout all they want about ‘fighting until the end’, But the league is gone, Nothing hurts me more to say this, But RM are a better team this season, All around.

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