Barça isn’t playing consistently well. Whose fault is it? Is it anyone’s fault? That depends on who you ask.
It’s Neymar’s fault, even though he has been exceptional the last two matches, and saved a probable goal late today by tracking back like a dog.
It’s Luis Enrique’s fault, because the team isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing.
It’s the defense’s fault, because they can’t stop a toddler on the break.
It’s … somebody’s fault.
The team came into Villarreal still searching for its form, against the best defensive team in La Liga. This happened while Real Madrid frolicked against Granada. The latter romped, the former struggled in such a compelling game of football that started off brightly enough as Barça evinced the things that had been missing in recent matches, namely ball and player movement, leaving Villarreal to do what most teams do: defend and hope for a shot on the counter, which is exactly what happened.
Their goal was simple enough to explain, but difficult to watch because we have seen it before, just in midweek as a matter of fact, even if the cast of characters were different. This time, Digne lost the ball, playing it just behind Iniesta, who was on the move. The ball is in space. Andre Gomes lumbers after it, Busquets just stands there and watches. The Villarreal man finds Pato, their lone forward, alone in the center circle.
At that instant, as the ball is traveling along the pitch, Pique has a decision to make, and chooses to back off instead of charging Pato to make his life difficult or even intercept the ball. Wise decision? A question for the ages. But Pato gets the ball and plays it exactly right, moving quickly enough to put the Barça defense on the back foot, but not so quickly that his support doesn’t come up to help.
The eventual goal scorer is running parallel to and just behind Mascherano, who shows no awareness of that player’s presence, watching the ball. As with both Athletic goals, Barça watched the ball instead of playing the game of probabilities. Pato was running at a trio of defenders. Choke his passing options and let the defense do what it does.
That didn’t happen. The only player who seemed to see the danger was Neymar, who just missed being able to make a play on the ball. The open man slotted home.
This is a goal that Atletco or Real Madrid don’t give up. Neither does Villarreal. Those teams find the closest man, run to him and foul him. Barça isn’t that kind of team, and we can laud them for that even as we sigh wistfully, wishing that once, just once, they were.
Barça, once again, seemed to have the wrong men for the job on the pitch. You can cast some sideeye at Luis Enrique for that. Gomes added nothing. Suarez added nothing. There is no structure, but you know what? There wasn’t when the team was winning a treble and a double. What’s the difference now? Energy. Everything is moving a little bit more slowly. Neymar and Messi did a Keystone Kops routine in front of goal, and the ball was lost. A year ago, they score that goal. Messi smacked the post and the ball bounded away. Suarez, alone in the box, evinces the touch of a grizzly bear and the chance is lost. Neymar, on the doorstep, lets a defender get around him to push the ball away. Late in the match, Barça created constant danger right up until time to deliver the coupe de grace.
Whose fault is that? Should we damn Luis Enrique and his assistants for not running onto the pitch and shaping a player’s shot delivery so that they go in? Should we curse Luis Enrique and his assistants for the players standing around and not doing what they are supposed to do? They know what they are supposed to do, and they aren’t doing it. Barça right now is playing like a team that is waiting to see what else bad is going to happen to it. No confidence, no verve, just tentative players waiting for something bad to happen. That’s what a run of bad form does.
Form is a fleeting, capricious thing. To expect everything to be perfect and wonderful forever is setting yourself up for disappointment and Twitter tantrums. Do it if you like, but don’t say you weren’t warned.
Instead, the “Lucho Out” brigade is at it again, or the ref conspiracy group, pointing at the Bruno handball. Barça had chances to win that match, and didn’t take them. Villarreal had one real scoring chance, and took it. Barça had at least a half-dozen, and required a genius Messi free kick to get a goal. Again.
Whose fault is that?
Only a blind fool would say that the team doesn’t have a problem right now. Only someone with an axe to grind would try to put the blame on one person. Everybody is failing. There is the biggest blame for the people who are least culpable because it has to be their fault. Until it isn’t. Trebles are won because of the players, and lost because of coaches. That’s how it works. The only coach that anyone is a fan of is batting for a European spot in the Premiership. The rest of them, including the current Barça coach, are a bunch of fools-in-waiting, clamoring for their chance to let down the best player in the world again.
That player was mostly poor. Again. Not as poor as he was against Athletic, but off nonetheless. Suarez has Barça functionally playing with ten. And remember when the return of Iniesta was the answer? What’s the question now? The midfield. Ah, the missing midfield. To unravel that thread, we have to ignore the constant pressure that was applied to Villarreal.
It has been written before in this space that a fanbase has to know how to deal with when things are not going well with the same analytic calmness as there is zeal when things are going well. There is a race to stake out the “Aha!” ground, when much of that reveals only what bias there might be. That depends on who you don’t like.
Nobody knows what is wrong with Barça right now, even the men whose jobs it is to figure it out. So as a fanbase stomps around with about 437 answers, it’s probably safe to start by admitting that we don’t know a damn thing about why the players who were so brilliant last season and the seasonn before, aren’t doing their jobs now, match after match. Saying “I don’t know” sucks. It doesn’t help anything. There is nothing there except futility, the same kind of futility you feel when you watch a team that you know is better than it is playing, not play up to that level.
The “individual brilliance” crowd raises its hand, but here’s something to consider. If the geniuses aren’t putting the ball in the net, what system is going to make up for that? The reason you can’t sub Alcacer in for Suarez and get the same result is the exact same reason you couldn’t, in 2012, sub Jonathan Dos Santos for Xavi or Iniesta and get the same result: great players are needed to do great things. You can have the best system in the world but without the horses to run the race, all you have is theory. Individual brilliance lies at the root of everything.
People point to a goal scored and say it’s a “system goal.” But does a lesser player make that same pass, that same run, evince that same control? No. Hell no. So again, what are we left with? A bunch of people searching for answers in the most public way — in front of millions of viewers. And an endlessly compelling football match was the result, almost a cliffhanger. If this was a movie, Villarreal would be the plucky underdog, and Barça the moneybags team from down the road, two systems knocking heads. A draw is a glorious result for one, and a failure for the other. Cue the heroic theme music, and roll the credits.
Real Madrid is playing like Barça used to, like they have all the answers. And so far, they have. But if Barça can undergo a run of form such as this one, what makes anyone think they won’t, particularly with their fixture list? All of the hard matches that Barça is undergoing, they have been spanking on Granadas and Alaveses. If they can run the same fixtures that caused Barça trouble and come out unscathed, they will be worthy champions, and I will begrudgingly doff my cap to them.
But giving up on a team that deserves more from its fanbase is digusting. After all the pleasure that group has given us, year after year, the goddamn least they deserve from us is patience. Want to say they are playing poorly? Right on. Everyone agrees on that. But the season isn’t over until the possibility of winning isn’t there any longer. We saw that last season, and in seasons past. Don’t kick dirt on the grave until the corpse is dead.
Remember all the times people said the Liga was lost last season? Yes, you do. Don’t even try that. What happened?
The larger question to ask is one that was dealt with in the post before this one, and is succinctly stated here: if the problems persist, what is the solution? If you say a new coach and that’s all you say, that is incorrect. That means that players have no culpability, that all that needs to happen to create magic is to change the person holding the whistle. Ask the Manchester teams about that, to name just a couple. Because even as folks pick at their individual betes noire, the team has done enough things right to win almost every match in which it has achieved a negative result, the exceptions being Alaves and La Real away. In previous seasons, the breaks go the right way, the luck is there.
But luck is made. You keep running when the ball goes awry, because you never know. If you stop running, you make your own luck, and that luck will invariably be bad. And whose fault is that? Barça has a problem with form right now, and execution. And that’s everybody’s fault. This isn’t about believing in the team, about having blind faith. But this team has given us so much. The least we can give it is a bit of patience.