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.
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.