Villarreal 1, Barça 1, aka “What did you expect?”

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.

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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.

15 Comments

  1. luisthebeast
    January 8, 2017

    I will say it one more time:We cant play 4-3-3.What is the point?No wingers,midfield with a DM who cant run,Macherano as CB(Umtiti is here but yeah lets go back to 2011)a RB who cant play RB.We have a great player like Gomes and Lucho dont know how to use him.I had great hopes but Lucho is the problem.I defended him enough.Thats it.

  2. luisthebeast
    January 8, 2017

    Why he used the starters against Bilbao?Villareal was a must win game.We played Thursday.Why he did nt used bench players?Well i cant be in his mind.But this all is up to him.No excuses.

  3. Tata2
    January 9, 2017

    how about we just forget about la liga and just concentrate on the UCL and copa del Rey? we have won the liga like 5 times in 7 seasons wouldn’t be bad if we lost it this time around. we could use the liga for experimentation and l

  4. Tata2
    January 9, 2017

    how about we just forget about la liga and just concentrate on the UCL and copa del Rey? we have won the liga like 5 times in 7 seasons wouldn’t be bad if we lost it this time around. we could use the liga for experimentation and also try to rediscover our form. hy does Enrique not have the courage to bench some of the underperforming players? he did bench po

  5. Tata2
    January 9, 2017

    Hkw about we just forget about la liga and just concentrate on the UCL and copa del Rey? we have won the liga like 5 times in 7 seasons wouldn’t be bad if we lost it this time around. We could use the liga for experimentation and also try to rediscover our form. Why does Enrique not have the courage to bench some of the underperforming players? he did bench Pique last time and see what happened. Arda has been in good scoring form, so if converting our chances is the problem then why not give him a shot. Suarez isn’t any better than Paco at the moment, why not bench him for Paco? these are some of the things I am expecting LE to do, you can’t keep on starting same players expecting a different result

  6. Tata2
    January 9, 2017

    Kevin please delete my first 2 comments, my keypad malfunctioned

  7. omoh
    January 9, 2017

    I find it hard to beleive that Kxevin can still be defending this brainless coach(sorry for the insultive word, I just had to use it). A war is either won or lost long before it even started.

    What is happening with the barca team is the same thing that has been happening since the day lucho took the reigns. Gambling. Call it rotation, Call it taking risks but the fact is that Lucho is a pure gambler. Its the same thing he did at Roma that got him booted out without achieving anything. He only succeeded in barca because of the quality of players he has but quality without motivation is nothing.

    The players are playing without motivation today because motivation comes from believe in what you do or what you’re told. The players no longer beleive in lucho that’s the simple truth. This same believe I can bet is the same reason Lionel Messi is yet to renew his contract. Dani Alves said in time past that if Guardiola asks him to jump from the roof of camp nou, he won’t think twice that there must be something down there for him (Guardiola) to ask such. That is what you call believe.

    The poor performance we’re seeing today is as a result of accumulation of errors by lucho from the beginning of the season. The matches that were lost in the beginning of the season was not a result of lack of motivation from players but from the selection blunders of the coach and his inability to learn from his mistakes. Those were what lead to loss of believe.

    Only a crazy coach will say he is surprised with the tactics adopted by Athletic bilbao in the first leg but lucho said it. Only a mad man will use the same approach and expect a different result.

    The problem is not restricted to the manager but it extends to the management of the club. Those ones are what I call amateur business men who knows nothing about football cos if they do, someone should’ve called lucho to order a long time ago. I call them amateur business men because they couldn’t even a good deal for shirt sponsor until pique had to bail them out.

    Now we have a Gambler as a coach and Amatuer business men as his bosses who are being constantly bailed out by the players on the pitch. A very bad combination.

    I can go on with lots of thing I find wrong in lucho that shows apart from gambling, he was never a good coach but for the constraint of time and space lets just say he’s a brainless gambler.

    • Davour
      January 9, 2017

      Yes, a gambler might be right – many coaches are, since coaching is theory and you will never know the outcome for sure. Guardiola was a major gambler, too. A simple example to show that something happened with the team is to point to set pieces: they were a major weakness for years, but not so much anymore. Same players, more or less, different outcomes due to coaching. Maybe LE has run out of luck now – his gambling approach to let geniuses run amok has perhaps run its course, and a different approach is required. But how I read Kxevin, and I agree on this, is that the coach and the team has earned the benefit of the doubt. 5 our of 6 major trophies in two seasons is an amazing return. Enough to earn you a little patience when things go south. I am fairly sure LE will leave after this season, but as long as he is the coach he – like the players – deserve our support (not mindless yes-saying, but a constructive approach). There is no Zidane to raise from the shadows to turn this shit around. Let’s see what happens. We might lose to RM – and so what? They are a super team and we kept them quiet in the Liga for the better part of 8 years. We can’t win it all.

      Further, it is also the responsibility of the key players. Messi is fantastic, but he has to trust his teammates at times, too. In the 2nd half he kept dropping back to simply take the ball from whichever mid, instead of finding space and making a run to get things moving. We’ll see how LE approaches this; if his gambling instinct can help him make some hard decisions.

  8. January 9, 2017

    What is funny about the comments so far is that everyone wants their pound of flesh and ignores what doesn’t support their belief setup. So Gomes is brilliant but ill used. Luis Enrique is “brainless.” Criticism of the coach and team is ignored because dammit, I have to hoist a victim on a petard.

    It’s like a kid who has gotten chocolate cake at his birthday every year and the one year that the bakery was out, throws a tantrum. Of COURSE some of the way the team is playing is on the coach and his staff. But brainless? Come on. Let’s be calm here.

    Yes, I am saying that the people who won a treble and a double in consecutive seasons have earned our patience. Yes, I am saying a coach who has improved player after player deserves our patience. What do any of us have to lose except bragging rights, and being able to strut around saying our team is the best? Nothing. Sport and supporting a team is passion, but if passion isn’t balanced with common sense and calm it’s just ranting.

    • Jim
      January 9, 2017

      Sorry, Kxevin. Your post wasn’t up when I started writing mine below – but then a lot has happened since I started writing that !! So none of it is in answer to this post.

  9. Jim
    January 9, 2017

    A cryptic comment, Tito. Not sure if it’s directed to one post or all !

    From a personal point of view, for the first time ever I’m putting off rewatching the match because I’m kinda expecting more of what I’ve seen this and last season ; some good passing and movement with us looking the better team but unable to prove it. Trust me that’s not usual . . .

    Let me start by saying we’ve played worse and won but as usual with me, their goal first. I’m not so worried about the misplaced pass ( although I confess to being relieved it wasn’t Jordi Alba because the language describing it might have been a littlle more direct ) . I’m upset Digne passed at all. He was clear through on goal ! He has to have the confidence to take that on hims of when in that position. However, as I say I’m not in the camp that a lost ball up near their box is a heinous crime. We need to be able to defend those situations so I’m not having a go at him. He’s also still first season and not getting a lot of game time so my jury’s out on him at the moment till next season. Worth keeping. Yet again Pique gets a mention for not doing his job when he did his job. Ask me what his job is with Pato and its to make sure he doesn’t get within decent shooting distance or beats him. He doesn’t need to advance as back peddling should stall to allow others time to cover . Pato is going nowhere and is a good ten yards away from our box whereas if Pique moves out to rush into a challenge he risks being beaten. Sensible defending.

    What wasn’t so sensible was Masche coming over to do Pique’s job for him. He is completely ball watching and, as kxevin says, has no idea there is a man behind him . You can see he’s just itching to leap into Pato. Honourable mention to Neymar who saw the danger from a long way off and did the running to back it up. He was unlucky and that was good to see. It’s easy to run when you’ve made the mistake but this was for the sake of the team.

    I’ll say it again. This is easily sortable. And when you think of all the similar goals we lose it should be. When one FB goes high up the pitch as Digne did ( correctly) the other has to adopt a sensible defensive position. That can either be staying back or coming inside do no breakaway happens without him goalside. If the attack switches sides he comes up late which is usually a good thing, while the other alters his position to the more defensive one. Is this stuff hard ? If not, why isn’t it drilled into them ? Again, SR is getting the side eye from me because of his position and because of his slow reaction to the situation ( again) . Not much different from midweek., I’m afraid.

    I’m not in the dismiss the coach camp because we shouldn’t be like that. I’m also not seeing signs that the players aren’t giving their all for him ( although there’s just a bit of me wonders if Messi’s ( only?) vice is bearing grudges. ) Saw it with Villa and Xavi is no longer here to keep an eye on that with LE.

    However, I would love to know if he sees any or all of the following ( kinda half term report from the pensioner sort of thing)

    TS – doing much better now he is assessing danger rather than blindly playing out regardless. Still not producing enough goal stopping great saves if he’s gonna be thought of as world class and I think part of that is debatable positioning.

    RB. Sorry, he’s a great guy but he won’t stay the course at RB. He’s not a good enough or natural defender. Great carrying the ball forward but only good with delivery.

    CBs. Highlight of the season for me. At last we have a decent partner for Pique ( which will probably mean the pique fairness committee requiring to be set up again ) I’ve no problem keeping Masche for another season for rotation although another CB must be on the way with Mathieu’s injury worries but giving him another contract was silly.

    LB. Fine with Alba. You’ll not find a lot better. Digne worth keeping to see if he develops.

    Mids. Well, we’ve covered this. In brief, I’d probably move on Rafinha, Gomes, Rakitic and maybe keep Denis also NT with bringing back Thiago and giving Samper a try out. Would be very cheap and we’d know one way or t’other. ) I’ve no problem with giving them their second season to see but I reckon they’ll be on their way then.

    Forwards. Difficult to assess as there’s still a hole in the Xavi position and as we’ve all said Messi comes back too early and too often to fill it. Turan completely puzzles me and I just don’t know what to make of him. Don’t think he’s played as well as some say but he has it in him if we can find the position. FWIW, Neymar still has a hit to do in terms of judgement on the ball . Question for me is whether he has the will to buckle down and learn it here or take the easy way out and be a show pony but not next best in world somewhere else. Suarez is doing a lot better than folks are saying. He’s busting a gut up there and getting little reward in the way of decent openings. He’s also missing some but that’s what a CF does. Someone remind me how many goals he has scored since his arrival in how many games ? He’ll get back to scoring very soon.

    Messi is just phenomenal and the reason we aren’t sitting about sixth as I write this. He needs no words from me.

    Final thoughts on the coach. I’m curious as to how those who think he is the right man feel about this season. For me,why the last few games have I not seen him out screaming his intentions on the sidelines.? I’ve seen Unzue doing it often. He’s berated Alba on a couple of occasions for going too far up at set pieces. Good. I like that. LE ? If I were Barto I’d want to talk with him soon to see how he sees things going. If it makes sense, fine, although I’d be very interested in what he thinks he’s aiming for or building. Unlike others, I’ve not been able to work out any tactical switches or changes in formation that he’s done so I can’t speak to that.

    If he goes, and Im not calling for it because that’s the last thing we want with a Messi renewal coming on top of a lost Liga, I’d rather keep it in house with maybe Unzue – I don’t really know much about the others – and if an outsider, my pref would be Klopp. We’d get the press back and I reckon this bunch of players respond better on an emotional level to their coach than a cold person which ( I’m sorry ) but LE seems to be to me. How often have you seen him put his arms round a player and smile with him like Klopp does ? He doesn’t irritate the media with contempt for them ( big mistake Pep is making in England. They’re sharpening their knives as I write this.)!.

    Anyway, that’s where I think we are .

    • TITO
      January 9, 2017

      It was directed directly to #Omoh and his post. 🙂

    • Mishti
      January 9, 2017

      Ha ha, Jim, I see that you and I have very different conceptions of what defending means or what we like to see defenders do. That’s fine. We can agree to disagree. I am in any case too corrupted with too much of Calcio. So I dig it that Mascherano can execute two perfectly timed tackles to Pato a fraction of a second before Pato finally goes beyond his reach, whereas Pique’s decision to not force him away from the goal direction at least, (yes, Pato was going somewhere, towards the goal, and centrally, and even if he does not shoot or beat Pique, he can still pass to someone going towards goal, and he did), by pressuring him, is inexplicable to me (Barzagli, who is 35 and moves 5 yards an hour, gets by with that trick). Who was he stalling for? He had the view of where his colleagues were. Did he think others will be able to catch up with the support runner?

      But be that as it may, I do have to say that pointing out something that I think Alba messed up hopefully does not mean I have an agenda against him. I do not. I like many things he does, and dislike some others. Like with most players. Masche does some things right as well.

  10. barca_tx
    January 9, 2017

    I will wait until the end of the season but its not looking good for Lucho.
    I agree with the luch out crew not becuase he is not a good coach but he is not delivering results (plus all the other issues that have been pointed out).
    If the players are not performing it is also lucho’s fault. Thats the name of the game.
    The issues we have with the squad have not changed..Winning as always will cure alot of the issues.

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