Following a football team is challenging, particularly a successful one where victories, parades and championships have become almost routine.
Barça is a team that, over the past dozen years, “modern Barça,” if you will, has had four rather distinct phases:
— Rijkaard’s Brazilian romp
— Guardiola’s tactical innovation
— Vilanova’s verticality
— Luis Enrique’s adaptation efforts
The challenge of following that team is understanding what the game is doing, what the team is doing and what the players are doing.
Rijkaard had success by unleashing the creativity and individuality of Ronaldinho, backstopped by the calmness and flair of Deco. This was buttressed by a strong defense that included Carles Puyol and Rafa Marquez. The success of that team catapulted Barça into a great many hearts and minds, behind the flair of the famed R10. There is a degree of irony in the reality that many would, today, consider that team a tactical mess.
Guardiola had success by creating a system of playing based in positional play, possession and Cruijffian doctrine. It was brilliant and successful, featuing prime Xavi and Iniesta plus an emerging Busquets, a Messi who was becoming the colossus that he now is, along with a pair of the best fullbacks in history in Dani Alves and Eric Abidal, as well as exceptional role players. This period, minus the first, treble season, has become the avatar.
Vilanova, though his time with the club was, sadly, cut short, started a new way of playing, a more vertical method of attack. Whether this was because opponents had figured out the control/positional attack of the Guardiola years or because, as many said, Vilanova wasn’t the right coach with the right ideas, is open to debate even to this day. But the team won Liga with a record-setting points haul. People didn’t like how that team played, either.
Luis Enrique came in, added Luis Suarez to Messi and Neymar, and won a treble in his first season by taking an open, dynamic approach that eschewed the traditional midfield-dominant style for one that relied on the talent and goalscoring capabilities of the best front three in football. That first season also featured Xavi to come off the bench, in effect stradding the gap between Barça periods.
Tuesday, Barça lost 4-0 to Paris St.-Germain, a team that ruthlessly stripped Barça bare. What happened exactly will depend on who you asked:
— No midfield
— No positional play
— Andre Gomes
— Coach didn’t prepare
What in fact happened? Can the thrashing be traced to a long line of building trouble, an arc that started somewhere years ago, decision that built and built until we have what we have now, a team of great players that looked clueless as they were played off the pitch.
The fundamental flaw of ninety percent of the reams of outrage in the wake of that beatdown is that it is mired in the past as an ideal, a longing for a return to the way things were. It is great to have a footballing ideal. Football isn’t interested in that. Like pop music, it is temporal, creating then shunning its heroes. That style of play that was effective today is a relic tomorrow as smart coaches make tactical shifts.
In the case of Barça, it not only condemns the man who created that magic, Pep Guardiola, to the status of a museum piece. It also makes all subsequent adaptations to the way the game is being played by any and all subsequent coaches the unwanted spawn. “There is a way of playing. Why isn’t he doing it?”
Luis Enrique would have been a fool had he not put his eggs in the MSN basket. What the hell would you buy a Ferrari for, if not to drive it? His mistakes, in and of themselves, are manageable. But there are structural things that happened at the macro level that are also affecting what a coach can and can’t do.
Where did it all start?
The biggest problem with the faux austerity of Sandro Rosell is that it wasted time. He compouned that error by selling Dmytro Txigrinsky before we knew what the big Ukranian CB was fully capable of, to send a message to an already iconic coach. Thus began the CB search that has only just ended with Samuel Umtiti.
The day after PSG hammered Barça, Bayern dismantled Arsenal 5-1. Immediately everyone was talking about Thiago Alcantara, how Barça was so stupid to let him go, how that kickstarted everything. But even if we ignore the fact that he wanted to leave, what would have happened had he stayed? Let’s say the team sold Fabregas to make room for Thiago. There was still Xavi and Iniesta, Then what? In looking at his options, he chose to go and start for Bayern and play for a great coach. Who can blame him?
He went to Bayern for the same reason Neymar came to Barça: There was a hole just waiting for him.
The larger issue represented by Thiago is that as Barça moved away from a particular model, it still had players schooled in that model. Without overhauling a team, subsequent coaches would have the dilemma of trying to teach old dogs new tricks, players raised in Masia and schooled in a path. Vilanova tried it. Martino tried it. Luis Enrique didn’t even bother. Should he have? Could he have?
This might have been possible had the Rosell austerity program not mitigated against the kinds of signings that the club needed. It let key players age, so that the spine of the team is now at or past 30 years old.
Transfer decisions made were augmentative rather than supplantive. Luis Enrique, the first post-Guardiola coach with transfer carte blanche, bought players who could play with Iniesta and Busquets, rather than players who could threaten their positions, or players who fit the style of play that the coach wanted. So the team made additions to replace key players short-term, such as Ter Stegen and Bravo for Victor Valdes, but allowed nothing to happen at equally crucial positions.
Alves’ leaving was immense. Barça acquired Aleix Vidal, who turned out to be a slow starter. Meanwhile, there was Sergi Roberto, a stopgap-turned-solution, a player waiting to be found out. Alves worked with Pique because of his pace and boundless energy. Sergi Roberto is slower and less positionally sound than Alves, so Pique also gets caught out as opponents attack Sergi Roberto. Should the club have prioritized an RB instead of players such as Alcacer and Gomes?
Not so fast. Barça was eliminated in Champions League by Atleti due to crap finishing at home, and being too pooped after a poorly timed international break. Alcacer was, in theory, a rotation player for Luis Suarez, while Gomes was important to bring creativity, size and physicality to the midfield. These two were hardly luxury players, even as you can safely ask what Luis Enrique was thinking with Gomes, given that he also had Rakitic and new addition Denis Suarez as well as Rafinha.
But Busquets has no rotation analog, and Luis Enrique quickly began trying to work Gomes into the midfield, with that eventual role in mind. He is at his best for Barça when playing that position. It’s also fair to ask whether the purchase of a proper RB would have freed up Sergi Roberto to be that Busquets sub?
Some suggest that the club should have bought an RB instead of Alcacer and Gomes. For me, it should have been an RB as well as Alcacer and Gomes.
There were other players on the market who are being cited as missed transfer options, such as Gabriel Jesus, Marco Verratti or Toni Kroos. No. Verratti wasn’t going to leave PSG last summer. Gabriel Jesus went to City because he could start. Why would he come to Barça to watch Suarez play? The team needed what Rakitic could do, which is different than what Kroos could do.
The new transfers all took too long to adapt. Arda Turan took a season, Vidal more than that. Alcacer is functionally worthless, and Gomes is steps below the Barça standard. Now what?
La Masia and Barça B stopped pumping out players, not that it ever pumped them out in numbers and quality that legend has it. There is the once in a lifetime generation that we are lauding now, a fluke of a gift that brought Pique, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, Valdes, Busquets. Most academies don’t turn out that many world-class players in their entire histories, never mind in the same team at the same team.
There have been more Cuencas and Deulofeus, players not good enough. Thiago wanted to leave. Rafinha returned, but he wasn’t going to pressure any current midfield member of the XI. Sergi Samper isn’t yet good enough, which is why he is in Granada instead of on the bench at Barcelona, no matter what myths people craft about Masia Magic. Munir is at Valencia, and some are saying that he should be at Barça even though he isn’t setting the world alight at Valencia, a team that gets a lot space to play than Barça, and opponent B games rather than A games.
Grimaldo is at Benfica, a curious case that dissolved into acrimony. But what problem would Grimaldo have solved?
Luis Enrique made transfer decisions that made sense on paper, but didn’t work out immediately, or too late. A subsitute 9 was needed last year. Munir wasn’t enough, nor was Sandro. That’s why Suarez was dragged out for match after match. Turan hadn’t adapted yet, but even at his best he isn’t Neymar. Messi plays all the time because he’s Messi. Can’t rotate him, can’t sub him.
At the terminus of that conga line of decisions came PSG, who saw hope and was ready to destroy it. Emery knew what Luis Enrique was hoping for with his XI, and he had the exact instrument to destroy it. Verrati’s skills combined with the industry of Matuidi and Rabiot to wreak the kind of havoc that Barça used to wreak. We can talk about hypothetical XIs all we like without taking a wholistic view. A Raktic/Busquets/Mascherano would have solved a short-termm dilemma vs PSG. But many other things are in play.
It’s easy to forget that what made Guardiola’s teams so successful was that they defended and attacked with eleven. As that changed, so did the results. Against PSG, Iniesta has to do more work because Messi isn’t moving. This drags Busquets out of position to cover for Iniesta, but there is already an imbalance because Sergi Roberto has his hands full with Draxler. Suarez didn’t bother contributing anything to a defensive effort, beyond some perfunctory plays at pressing near the PSG box.
So yeah, Barça got shredded. We can pick at this or that, throw pet rocks at the glass house of blame, but so many decisions led to what happened. People said Messi didn’t track back, and were called fools who didn’t understand that he needed to conserve his genius to be great at the right time. Iniesta is 33, and has had two lengthy injury spells this season, when Busquets has been erratic. Messi? RB? DM? CM? 9? Questions are everywhere.
Some say that Denis Suarez should have started. Over who? His defensive contributions are vestigal at best, so he has the same problems as Iniesta with a Suarez not working defensively and an immobile Messi as well as the right side dilemma. Rakitic? It’s who I would have played over Gomes, but Luis Enrique was going for control and creativity. Can’t knock him for that, even as you can knock him for not knowing better.
Longer-term, what kinds of decisions could have been made when it comes to the best players in the game? In looking at the Barça XI, who are you going to shove aside for a transfer? If Verratti comes, does he sit Iniesta? Busquets? Rakitic? Who platoons Messi, and how much do people scream if he is left out of an XI? What of Neymar, who wants to play as much as the other starters. Same for Suarez.
And Luis Enrique can’t NOT play them, because the subs aren’t up to the standard of the best players in the game. And people scream because Gomes isn’t Xavi or Busquets or Iniesta. Who is? Should Barça have ponied up for Pogba, Dybala and Verratti? In what universe is there that kind of money, and imagine a 100m Pogba doing in the Barça midfield what he is doing at Manchester United. Culers would have set the Camp Nou on fire by now.
What would Grimaldo or Samper or any other the other “should have kepts” have done against PSG? Nothing. If they even made the squad.
The PSG drubbing was coming, just as the Bayern one was, at the end of months and months of decisions, from Masia level on up. Pick out any one thing, but in the game of Barça Dominoes, at some point everybody falls down. The question now is what’s next?