99 problems, aka “The Barça archipelago”

In World War II in the Pacific theater, archipelagos presented problems for the Allied forces, before they finally figured out how to divide and conquer them.

In football warfare, in particular as regards Barça, much of the reason — a wanky theory as sound or crappy as any — the team isn’t functioning right is because it’s an archipelago, a collection of islands, easily conquered.

Only a fool would say that Barça isn’t in trouble right now.

Only a fool would claim that they have the answer.

In the wake of the Leganes win that felt like a loss, a great many things are being discussed by the same voices on Barça Twitter in the same ways, and probably in this space as well. There is a search for blame and absolution. It has to be this, because it can’t be that, because I like that thing. So it’s the thing that I don’t like. Easy peasy. The coach. The board. Not this player, but that player. Yeah. Him. And him, too. Get them out and everything will be better. Just sprinkle in some positional play and get that midfield back.

Riiiight!

The value of being a geek is that you do things like keeping old matches on DVD so that the great times aren’t a memory, nor are they burnished to a robust glow by the buffing cloth of nostalgia.

The greatest football match that I have ever seen any team play, not just Barça, was the second Manchester United Champions League win. It’s still on my DVR because even though I have it on DVD I can’t bear to make myself hit the delete button. It was glorious. Why?

Barça was a team. When you look at that glittering roster, it was coached, honed to a sharpness that removed any sense of the individual. They moved as a unit, attacked as a unit, Xavi when he had the ball, exerted a pull like a puppeteer and some of the best players in the game danced as if on strings.

It wasn’t just preparation, but instinct honed by preparation. Manchester United didn’t suck. It was a fantastic football club that was reduced to a spectator. That Villa goal from the top of the box wasn’t a “what the hell” plunk from distance. It was the logical terminus of logical ball movement. Look at how clear that shot was, like it was in training. That match was magnificent, even as it marked the beginning of the decline of a fantastic football team.

That group lost something the following season, which is something that many are willing to admit. Guardiola left at the right time. The shame of it is that the board did nothing to ensure that his successor would have anything to build on, then compunded that error when Tata Martino came in.

Verticalidad doesn’t mean the notion of a team is sacrificed. It would have been wonderful to have seen what Tito Vilanova was working on come to fruition. It would have been wonderful to have seen Martino not go chickenshit. A great many things would have been wonderful. But right now we have what we have, and in many ways what we have is a lot like what they have at Manchester City.

When City came into full, monied life, it began to buy stuff. It bought stuff that it didn’t even know it needed, stuff that it wasn’t sure would work. It bought so much stuff that at some point, there was enough right stuff that it all came together and they won stuff. That didn’t make the stuff right. They just had a lot of stuff.

The biggest difficulty in their buying is that they bought players, instead of trying to build a team. The Galacticos didn’t work because there were no domestiques, those tireless workers on a cycling team who ferry stuff back and forth to the captains, who bury themselves day after day so that the stars can shine. During the Guardiola years, Seydou Keita was a domestique. So was Adriano.

More importantly, domestiques can’t have been a star for another team, can’t have been a captain. If you assemble a team of captains, who works for who? City had expensive parts, but those parts were all used to having domestiques, rather than being domestiques. It makes a difference.

Luis Enrique’s first transfer year was excellent, because he bought almost all domestiques. He already had stars, but needed domestiques to carry the water. Raktic wasn’t a star at Sevilla, even as he was an excellent player. Mathieu wasn’t a star, but was an excellent player. They fit in, and worked.

The next transfer year brought Aleix Vidal, who forgot why he was bought for a while, and Arda Turan, who was used to having domestiques rather than being one. Matters were compounded when Valencia stars Andre Gomes and Paco Alcacer were added. Why is Umtiti assimiliating so well? Because CBs aren’t stars. CBs are the ultimate domestiques. They have a job. Look at the storm attendant to the Alcacer and Gomes transfers. Valencia didn’t want to lose their stars, stars that were going to come to Barça to become watercarriers.

Barça right now have a collection of players that isn’t a team. They aren’t symbiotic. When Luis Enrique said that he had the best team that he has ever had, he was wrong. He had the best collection of talent that he has ever had. There’s a difference. That talent isn’t functioning as a team. There were a couple of runs that Messi made against Leganes where I and everyone in the Camp Nou knew that he wasn’t going to pass. And he didn’t. And he lost the ball. And that was that. The winning penalty didn’t come from football, but from Neymar saying, “I’m going to do something.” It happened to work.

But there were times during that Enrique treble (crazy how we have to designate which treble) where Messi would have passed rather than continuing a run, and pass he did. But he passed not because he was less selfish then and has beocome selfish now. He passed because he had passing options.

The job of a coach is to drill his players and set them up in ways that account for the actions of an opponent. He can’t account for his players being flat, or an opponent playing out of its mind. But he can give his team the best chance that it has of winning based on what is known. But the players still have to do it. Does Pep Guardiola prepare his City charges any less carefully and thoroughly than he did his Barça charges? No. He needs horses.

It isn’t that Barça has fallen down the rabbit hole of reliance on its big three, it’s that there hasn’t been any adaptation to what next, now that opponents have figured out what Barça is going to do. Remember that rainbow pass that Messi was having so much success with? Note how opponents are playing him for that ball now, and cutting off the angle. Okay, what next?

Barça doesn’t look like a team right now. The movement isn’t symbiotic like it was during the most recent treble, never mind going back to those dusty DVDs. Some of that is that opponents have reacted to the big three and what they do. You can see them close off Neymar on the wing, and get into Suarez’s space. That leaves Messi, who has to either make a run or try to force a pass.

What of the midfield? It isn’t that Barça doesn’t have a midfield. Rather, it’s that the midfield doesn’t have any options, and is playing 3 on 5 or 6 because it isn’t part of a team. Again, watch the team during its halcyon period under Guardiola. Pampampampam. That ball moved so fast that cameras couldn’t track it, never mind opponents. Take, release and move. The ball always had somewhere to go.

Now, the ball too often has nowhere to go, so someone plays it backward rather than holding it and losing it, to reset the offense and start the cycle again. That’s a lot of why Umtiti had 127 passes against Leganes. Yes, he completed 124 of them. But he shouldn’t have had to make that many passes. That means the wrong people have the ball.

Turan is playing better now because he has assimilated. He understands his role within the team, and vanishes into it. Rakitic, bless his off-form soul, has assumed the mantle of worker bee. It’s what he does. He makes so many right actions when an opponent has the ball that you can almost forgive his clunkiness at the offensive end.

Alcacer was the man at Valencia. He was the one used to standing around and having everything come to him. Now he has hardly any idea what to do. Gomes isn’t used to having the kind of pressure that is routine for Barça. Busquets is. Iniesta is. So they take a pass, work some magic and move the ball along. Gomes gets the ball and says, “Holy shit, where did all these people come from?” The difference is significant.

But it isn’t just Gomes or the midfield. Everyone is on an island. Piuqe is stranded when Sergi Roberto falls short, who is stranded because he’s out there by himself. Iniesta has to dance around and make magic because there isn’t anywhere to put the ball. Jordi Alba makes an overlapping run, and defenses who have seen it a million times, just wall off the pass. Corner, which will almost certainly come to naught.

It is impossible to pinpoint exactly when Barça stopped being a team, and started being a archipelago. You see it most clearly when an opponent has the ball, and the limited spheres of influence that players believe they have, like one of those invisible fences that stops a dog at the backyard line. “I’m done here. You take over.”

That mentality has been allowed to pervade so many aspects of the group of players and how they function. Lord knows why Messi and his teammates looked so dour after he struck home the winning penalty. But they did, just as they know they faced off against an opponent who played well enough to get a share of the spoils. Players know they aren’t good. Whistling at them makes the whistler feel good, but they aren’t telling the players anything they don’t already know.

Will a new coach bring back the spirit of being a team, and turn the archipegago into a continent? We’ll find out next season. But that process begins this season.

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Written by:

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.

34 Comments

  1. luisthebeast
    February 19, 2017

    I dont like the reactions of Camp Nou.Now the team,the coach,the players need the fans support.It s clear that the mentality of the team is very low.
    Next game is crucial for the rest of the season.After 45 days the team have a full weel to rest and prepare the tactics for Atletiko.
    I guess Macherano and Turan will be back.Huge game.
    A win and a good game will give the team a boost for the next games and PSG.
    It s clear that the problem now is the mentality,that game at Paris had a very bad effect.
    Barca now is like that good hero in the movies,that fight with the bad guy and the bad guy kick and punch the hero and you have the feeling that the hero would be dead.
    But in movies always the hero react and win the fight.
    Life is not a movie but next game can change everything.
    Lets go.

    • Mishti
      February 19, 2017

      They really need our support. It is perfectly logical to feel disappointed, but can we not put that disappointment aside and support our team in times like this? At least the youngsters need this. If they are suffering from a crisis of confidence, can we not show a little bit of faith to help them through? That faith may or may not be repaid in the end, but what do we have to lose?

  2. AlOc
    February 19, 2017

    I think as short term solution Lucho should play Masche – he hopefully will be fit – as RB instead of Sergio Roberto and put Roberto in Gomez place. Gomez should not play at all (maybe 5-10 minutes in meaningless game – yea, I know, it’s not the best use of 35mil euro, but at least he’ll not do any damage). In this game, just don’t understand why he waited until late in the game to make any changes – it was so evident, just mind-boggling. I really, really want to believe in magic with PSG on March 8, and just let’s leave it as is….Right now, let’s concentrate on Atletico Madrid – we can do it….

  3. Víctor
    February 19, 2017

    You know, I’m really quite shocked on how the atmosphere changes in a matter of few days. Just a week ago: after Barcelona thrashed Alaves at their own stadium everything seemed optimistic… yes, everyone knew by them that the team has its issues, but the mood was positive… winning in Paris seemed difficult, but not far fetched or something; hell, it even looked like a 1 goal defeat would be totally acceptable…

    Fast forward one week: Barça lost 4-0 against PSG, almost eliminating us from CL and barely defeated a relegation side at home… the atmosphere and general mood right now is not one of uncertainty… no, not a chance… right now the mood is a very negative one, at moments it seemed that the people wanted Barcelona to lose the game, to fail… they just want to put the blame on somebody, throw them out of the team and then start believing that after of that things will magically get fixed, that suddenly, after that, the team will get back into being a “destruction machine”, just like it was under Guardiola’s era. Or at least that’s what I’m perceiving from here at Mexico. That’s why the team looks so different and kinda isolated, they obviously felt that mood from the people and that’s why they celebrated very little… hard to celebrate with supporters that “want you to fail”.

    Not even after that 4-0 loss against Bayern, 4 years ago, things were that “dark”. Sure, there was a lot of blame and criticism back then… but not like this. That loss against PSG not just diminished our chances to advance on the CL… it sure caused lots of havoc on the team’s and supporter’s mentality. And that’s where people show draw the line, take some steps back, breathe and, maybe even, relax a little, not get overriden by emotions and do a cold analysis of what’s happening.

    Sure, on the light of recent results and seeing those recent games it would seem that the team is an entire mess… but it is not. Some adjustments, some renewals and fixes should be done… sure, but that doesn’t mean that everything is wrong.

    To put an example: I remember, not so long ago, that Kxevin said that Rijkaard’s Barça, yes even in its last year, didn’t exactly suck… but that it needed to be “restarted” and fixed… and I think that what this team needs too… the players should shake off all of this and start believing in themselves against, the supporters need to root for this team again… things seem grim, but we are still alive in the three main competitions…

    Granted, the CL is almost gone, but there’s still a game to be played, so let’s hope for a comeback there and let’s keep working on La Liga, there are still many games to be played and Real Madrid aren’t being at their best either… and… even if any of it doesn’t happen, we should end with a team that is still magnificient…

  4. barca96
    February 20, 2017

    Didn’t you use the title 99 problems in the past?

  5. untoxgsd
    February 20, 2017

    After the loss in Paris I said that im going to take a 2 game break from Barca, not because i dont love the team anymore or i dont beleive in the team but because after that game i felt genuinely down in the dumps. I know we’ve been in worse situations as a team throughout our history but lately ( and by lately i mean double and treble season) they’ve spoiled us so much that when they start performing abismally we feel like its the end of the world!
    When it comes to a Barca game I tend to cancel all my obligations and make my living room a no fly zone for my wife so i can watch the game in peace but last night i almost watched a movie instead of the game, almost being the key word!!!
    I ended up watching the game but dissapointment struck once again! Something foul is going on in the dressing room, everybody is discussing Messis goal celebration for the penalty but if u watch closely the first goal wasnt celebrated by him either. That terrifies me especially amidst the rumors that he’s leaving in the summer.
    Gomes terrible as always, Matieu for me was among the best last night showing us that we shouldnt write him off.
    I dont know if Lucho should be the man to do it but 1) Rotations should be toned down a little, 2) we should start chasing the ball with more verve and stop giving them so much space 3) stop spending so much time on the ball and pass the damn thing and by passing i dont mean backwards!!!

    Sorry for the long post!!!

  6. Godwin
    February 20, 2017

    The nightmare in Paris had a toll on the team’s mentality and they have to be strong and well psyched for athletico and the remontada good article bro thumbs up

  7. TITO
    February 20, 2017

    What’s the worst that can happen?
    Messi leaving?
    Finish the season without a trophy?, cause, let’s face it, everything comes to that in the end, how many trophies the team has won.
    Neymar leving?
    Lucho leaving?
    And as i often do it, i know there is a problem. I want to hear and about solution. I think we need answers as much as the players. And somebody should give them.

  8. February 20, 2017

    Any one saw the Dani Alves comments? Well thats just what many here doubted was the root cause of many of our present issues.

    • Jim
      February 20, 2017

      Want to help me understand what his comments are about ? I get that he doesn’t like the ” managers” (board ? ) and there was something about only signing when the ban came in but what is his central beef ? Is he annoyed we let him go or because it seems to have been talked about for a couple of years yet nobody mentioned it to him officially ?

      And why now for these comments ? Seems like a bit of badness.

    • dl
      February 20, 2017

      I read through what Alves said, and it seemed to me that he was upset about a lack of ‘humanity’ (for lack of a better word) on the part of the board. He seems pretty clear about the business aspect of soccer, and that both sides are out for themselves ultimately, but at least in his telling he was hoping for an arrangement that was more above board and perhaps less manipulative. Seems to me he felt he deserved a bit more straightforwardness, at least in private.

    • February 21, 2017

      DL seems to have explained it well Jim. His comments are not against the club or tactics or anything. He just says the board doesnt seem to ‘care’ about the players feelings.

    • Jim
      February 21, 2017

      I must be in one of my dense moods guys. Was he wanting a longer contract or upset about the renewal just to get some money back for him ? If so, and he was upset at the board, surely he didn’t have to sign and could leave for free like Valdes, who the club were pretty generous to. Also, that’s not usually a board decision. That would be a sporting decision, especially in the case of Alves, a high profile player.

      I’m clearly missing something with some folks’ attitude to the board. I must try harder to understand these things !

    • dl
      February 22, 2017

      Honestly, I have no idea. All your points may be good and true. I don’t know much about how boards/clubs etc. work, and I was only commenting on what seemed to me to be a general annoyance with how he was treated. It may be related to the idea that barca is ‘more than a club’, and therefore it is expected by fans (and maybe players such as Alves, too) that there be something more like a familial relationship. That’s a sticky area, and one where expectations are certain to be unmet.
      It seems barca tries to do the right thing, more often than not. At the same time, there is often a hint of something else — I remember back when Puyol up and resigned, seemingly out of the blue and for reasons that were never clarified. He strikes me as an upstanding guy and I assume somehow it was related to behavior and decisions on the part of the club that he felt was ‘un-barca-esque’.
      And of course no club is immune to this. Remember a year or so ago the shabby and shameful treatment Casilla received from RM as he was let go.

  9. luisthebeast
    February 20, 2017

    If Laporta want to do something he can go for a Vote of No confindence or else he can just shut up.
    And Alves can also shut up because we know the board we dont need an outsider to make things worst.
    The team need peace but i doubt that we have an easy time until summer.
    Politics at FCB are always the worst thing.

  10. luisthebeast
    February 20, 2017

    And despite the mood,there is nothing worst for a Barca fan than the team to make a pasillo to enemy and then a 4-1 thrashing.
    So Laporta must know what it is the club to be in a much better situation than 2008.He was lucky that Guardiola won so quick the trophies and the treble because it was a risk and a 50-50 call.
    Guardiola saved Laporta ass in that mess.

  11. luisthebeast
    February 20, 2017

    We can critisize the board for a lot.For me it s a crime what they did with the Basketball team.
    But the football team had all the tools to be great,the coach had what he want and this season he failed.
    They brought next to Leo,the best young player and the best 9 in the world.
    They brought players for every need of the team.
    There are many reasons to attack to the board.
    But no the tacktic problems.

  12. TITO
    February 21, 2017

    Well, that was a hell of a game in Manchester tonight. Really enjoyed.

  13. Víctor
    February 22, 2017

    Crazy match at Manchester yesterday and today Valencia is 2 – 0 against RM. Sure, this is on the first 15 minutes… let’s see of they can manage to defeat them…

  14. TITO
    February 22, 2017

    They did manage.
    Let’s see what we’ll do this weekend. A win would be great but even a draw wont be bad.

  15. ciaran
    February 22, 2017

    Great article from Graham Hunter on Andre Gomes
    http://www.espnfc.com/spanish-primera-division/15/blog/post/3065696/barcelona-problems-are-not-andre-gomes-fault
    I see great potential in Gomes to be honest, I do think that he would benefit from playing in a system where an experienced Masia graduate ran the show and he could express himself more.
    I think the summer would be the right time to bring back Thiago, I’d sacrifice Rakitic and Arda, bring Sergi Roberto back into the midfield mix and promote Alena. Not sure what I’d do with Samper either as he is similar to Busi and behind Roberto in his abilities so he may not get enough game time. A truly Masia led midfield would have to promote game control.

  16. G6O
    February 22, 2017

    Let’s all thank Valencia for what they did.

    But that should not make us forget that this also happened in that game:

    https://streamable.com/jnzys

    • Rami
      February 25, 2017

      Christ, This is beyond incompetence,

  17. luisthebeast
    February 22, 2017

    What we need now is a great perfomance and a win in Sunday.
    If we pick our form and this boost in our mentality,La Liga is ours.
    The bigest game of the season.

  18. luisthebeast
    February 22, 2017

    About CL what to say,watching Porto with a red card in 27 minute,Leverkuzen with that joke defense,Sevilla playing a team who fights to stay in PL…at least with Guardiola we had some easiest draws and a little more sympathy from men in black..

  19. ooga aga
    February 22, 2017

    Hay liga! What a difference a day can make in the culer-verse, as Kxevin calls it.

    • Jim
      February 24, 2017

      Yeah. Hits the nail for me.

    • Rami
      February 25, 2017

      The team is showing symptoms and signs of a project on it’s last leg, But it’s not over yet, Prematurely marking the time of death in February while the team is theoretically still fighting in all three competition is unfair to the coaching staff and the players, The team have a good chance of winning a double this season, If that happened it’ll be a successful season in my book.
      I don’t agree with his views about sergi samper and other youngster, The atmosphere and environment that allowed busquets and pedro to thrive under pep is non-existent now, A fan-base with no patience, Tolerance and with a short attention span, And an attitude of “gimme-gimme, Now, Now” is toxic to any la-masia youngster.
      Developing and nurturing a talent means putting up constantly with their mistakes and having patience, Something you won’t find in the barca of today.

    • Davour
      February 25, 2017

      I feel the article raises relevant questions, and regardless of how this season turns out, it seems LE has failed to address several issues (but, as the article also states, managed to lift the team to great success after a rough spell!). I do agree, however, that offering Samper as a solution seems a bit limited. Busi took over from Yaya, who was a very good – Samper would have to play a Xavi-role from the start without a strong starter to fight it out with (and he is not as good as Busi, either, I’m sure). Not a good idea (to keep him on the team to learn is a different discussion). Apart from the toxic environment you point out, the team is very different in how it can scaffold youngsters. Pep’s Barca was much more solid and cohesive, and it seems this made it easier for youngsters you knew the system to fit in like a cog. Mind you, this system was of course based on the brilliance of its key players (Xavi primarily), but nevertheless, the control and movement made it easier – players like Bojan, Cuenca, Tello could do rather well – and everybody ran and ran (and when Messi stopped running so much, he was the striker).

      Now, with the more vertical system and attacking players not tracking back as much, it demands more of a new player (especially in a CM role) to adapt. To me, not buying a proper deep playmaker, instead of stacking box-to-box mids, was the mistake, but we come back to the fact that few were – and are – available.

  20. luisthebeast
    February 24, 2017

    Ranieri out.Yep what a surprise.I guess that both Manchester teams they will also do the same because with their Huge budgets they cant win PL??

  21. PPos
    February 24, 2017

    Let’s hire ranieri? Or would that be the end of Barça’s style forever?

  22. luisthebeast
    February 24, 2017

    Just a thought:If a team pay Neymar buy out the summer we can buy Veratti Thiago Dembele(Dortmund)and Mbabe(Monaco).
    Not bad.

  23. Jim
    February 26, 2017

    Hmmm, we’re actually playing AM today and it has crept up on me ! I think I must have been needing a break from worrying about Barca and the a City/ Monaco game followed by Scotland’s great win at the rugby yesterday seem to have done the trick.

    It’s a funny feeling going into this game. Our first eleven got walloped and some said their legs had gone, our young rested mids got a metaphorical walloping from an awful Liga side, LE took a walloping from the press and retaliated by cutting short the press conference and now we’re going to maybe the hardest ground to win if you’re not on the top of your game.

    All this and I have no idea what side we will field. I do know we can’t let them bully us which they will try to do. I do know we will have to be better against the press than we have been for almost all of this season andvI know that nobody, maybe especially Neymar and Messi can afford to give the ball away as easily as they have been. After that, who knows . . .

    To the replies on Samper from the article suggesting we bring him back next season I’m not suggesting he’s the only answer or even a starter to begin with. He turned 22 last month and I’d see him as being used as a sub most of the time for the first half of the season either for Busi or further forward. The upside is that he fits the style of our best players better than any of the purchases from last summer, passes better than anyone bar Iniesta, Busi or Messi, can keep the ball in a hurricane and instinctively looks for a forward pass if it’s available.

    The downside is we don’t know how good he can become defensively or whether he’s reached his limit. The Samper I see at Granada can get no rhythm to his game as they’re not a passing team. He has been subbie the last couple of games and is brought on to provide a passing game when the headless chickens run out of steam. Tbh, I’d have him as sub as well because he doesn’t fit that team. You can’t run a passing game when you’re not getting the ball. At Barca he’d have twice, three times as many touches and that’s when he’ll blossom. You don’t take your Ferrari to the shop for a pint of milk ( well, I don’t 🙂 ). If it proves he can’t hack it defensively, fine. He’s had his chance but I’d rather have a go at blooding a potentially great player than persevere with four or five who are unlikely ever to be first team regulars. And he’s cheap, which will be important from next season on ! What’s to lose ?

    I’m starting to shake uncontrollably at the thought of having to watch us play out from TS under an AM heavy press. Tell me I’m not alone. On the plus side, if we’re ever gonna do it it’s after a week’s rest,with an angry Messi and a chance to surprise them tactically.

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