A zillion years ago, as a wee bloke in an advanced physics class, there was a quandary for us.
The class was taught by a Catholic monk, at a school named after another monk, Gregor Mendel, who was a scientist. One day, we asked our teacher, Father Nicholas, as he was teaching Big Bang theory and the origin of man, how he reconciled his faith with the science that he taught. He smiled, and said, “No matter what origin theory you believe in, where did the first bit of matter come from? That is where my faith comes in.”
Barça is also a fascinating example of origin theory. The team is playing well enough to win, but isn’t playing well. Everyone has answers, some simple, some complicated, some player based, some coach based, even a few that are board based. One commentator on BeIN Sports even suggested that Barça lacked mental fortitude. Yet as with all of them, we run into the problem that the physics teacher, Father Nicholas, resolved with his faith:
What is the origin of the problem?
One theory is that Luis Enrique is a terrible coach, and the players have been doing it for themselves. “Lucho Out” is the rallying cry for this contingent but here is the problem with that origin theory, along with a picture of my proposed next Barça coach, if their theory is sound:
This is Bemjamin, an adorable pygmy goat who has achieved social media fame. He’s cute, he frolics. If the players are doing it for themselves, why give some dude millions of dollars to sit on the bench and wave his arms around? Benjamin would do it for somthing to climb on, some milk, oats and hay. The club would save lots of money, and the players wouldn’t have the impediment of some jackass telling them what to do. They could cuddle Benjamin when things got difficult, and everything would be fine.
Another theory is that the problem is systemic, that Barça isn’t playing the right way. Once they play the right way, in the hands of the right coach, glory will follow. So here’s another great idea, and a picture of the proposed Barça roster, once the right coach is hired.
The Chicago Fire is the local MLS franchise. I like these dudes, because they’re local, and they don’t win shit. But with the right coach, stand back. And they’re cheap. No need for millions and millions paid to the likes of Messi, Iniesta, Neymar and Suarez. You could get ALL of these guys for the salary of a Gomes. And there would be plenty of money left for the nou Nou, which would be festooned with trophies because the team would be winning them now that it was finally, finally playing the Right Way.
Every origin theory has a flaw. You can’t believe that the players have been doing it for themselves, and scream Lucho Out. You can’t worship at the altar of the system and clamor for the right coach playing the right system. A lot of Barça supporters weren’t around during the last days of Frank Rijkaard. It will shock few of you that people were screaming at me back then as well, for the pronouncements that the team still had a chance, that it wasn’t over until it was over, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary.
That was a psychologically damaged team, hamstrung by its catalyst wasting his gifts on dance floors and nightclubs. It was also a team that, because of that damage, would find ways to lose. It was crazy to watch that group shoot itself in the foot, week after week. In a strange way, it was magnificent. There was one match where the team went to the wondrous 5-3-2 formation, pressing for a win. Then somebody got red carded, and suddenly all of the wrong personnel were on the pitch. This situation doesn’t feel exactly like those days, but it’s close. A group of extraordinary athletes seem bereft of confidence.
People say that any man in the top 20 on the tennis circuit could be No. 1, but what separates the top players from the rest is confidence. Djokovic knows he is going to make that shot. He doesn’t even hesitate. Those same people say the beginning of the end for Federer was when his shots starting having margin for error. The fading of belief manifests itself in strange ways. Look at the shot Messi took when he hit the post. Notice how he measured that shot, took all the time in the world to line it up, then hit the post. Last year, Messi just smokes that shot past Asenjo, and rushes over to celebrate with his teammates. Another golazo.
When Villarreal scored their goal, Busquets stood there, uncertain of what to do for a crucial second. Pique chose to backpedal instead of attacking. Iniesta is forcing passes, Suarez is taking one touch too many, Neymar is hesitating when he shouldn’t be — the signs are everywhere of a team with damaged confidence and self belief. It takes a lot to come back from that, the kind of a coaching job that will be the truest test of Luis Enrique and his assistants. Unfortunately, it’s also a job for which he, with his reserve, might be ill-suited. Part of why Pep Guardiola worked was the belief not just in the team and system, but in him. Does anyone think the entire team would rush into a scrum were Ronaldo to shove Luis Enrique? But recall that incendiary moment from the legendary Manita Classic. That team was ready to go to war for its coach.
At times when the Chicago Bulls were in their halcyon days, they would struggle during a game. More often than not the team’s coach, Phil Jackson, would sit on the bench with his arms folded, confidient that he had given his players the knowledge and the power to work it out themselves. They knew what to do. They just had to do it. When Luis Enrique sits on the bench as his team wrestles with an opponent, what is he saying, and what do we want him to say? He’s saying to his players, “Work it out. I have confidence that you will.” We want him to leap to his feet, gesticulate, tell players who have played hundreds of matches at the highest level what to do, when they already know what to do. They just have to do it.
Confidence puts an athlete on the top of the world when they have it, and brings them down to earth when they don’t. Is confidence the equivalent of that original ball of matter? Origin theory. Ter Stegen holds the ball because nobody is moving, then forces a pass which a midfielder struggles with because his lack of movement has made it easier for a marker to track him, but he still manages to control and force a pass to a man who is double covered because a stagnant attack means there are free defenders everywhere, so that man loses the ball and the opponent is off on a counter which is met by a hesitant defense that defaults to chasing the ball rather than what it knows. Goal.
Look at how a single counter goal completely changed the demeanor of Barça, both against Athletic and Villarreal. That’s a sign of a fragile team, a team that is expecting snakes to bite it. Pique ranted at the head of La Liga for the penalty calls that don’t come Barça’s way at key times. It was a boss move. Another boss move would have been to charge and shut Pato down in the center circle. The team right now is like a game of Jenga, and opponents are pulling out blocks, one at a time. Note the number of times Neymar faced 2 or 3 defenders against Villarreal, with nowhere to play the ball except backward for relief, because Messi was in midfield and Suarez was standing around somewhere on the right. We all remember when a vibrant, confident Suarez was running around, blasting toward Neymar to set up a give-and-go. Things are different now.
A coach doesn’t say to his team, okay guys, get out there and suck. He doesn’t train them to suck. They deal with potential match sitautions in training, including a loss of possession at a key spot on the pitch. But in a match, when all the pressure is on is different than in training. In training, Busquets probably darts over to stop the outlet pass, Pique probably rushes in to delay and harry the solo attacker in the center of the pitch. Maybe. Probably.
Every last origin theory is flawed, which is why it’s such a roiling debate. Religions believe one thing, science believes a host of others and the debate is heated, like the origin of this Barça situation. As with origin theory, there is no one answer.