As the Barçaverse runs to its various rooftops to shout about what is wrong with that result, there will be as many worldviews as there are rooftops, because everyone sees the game differently, one of the fascinating things about football.
The “Lucho out!” crowd will talk of tactics and preparation. The coteries aligned against this or that player will talk of that player. Everything is Mascherano’s fault. Or Mathieu’s fault. The formation crowd will talk about 3-4-3s and structure. The “midfield” crowd will say that until the midfield is strong again, nothing good will happen. And on it will go, just as it has for months and months, and season after season.
It will continue with no resolution, and not only because of the subjective nature of the game. It’s hard to take a wholistic view of what is happening with a team. So many things complicate it, including being a fan of players, having a set of beliefs rooted in one thing, and the like. The defense folks say that defense matters.
And everyone, all together is right, even as none of them are entirely.
Barça played a dogshit first half against Juventus. Luis Enrique, after the match, was excoriating in his comments, and he should have been. “It’s sad and it’s serious,” he said, labeling the Juve first half as the “third half from Paris.” He’s absolutely right. It was lethargic and disinterested, just as it was in Paris. But it’s also complicated.
A coach is supposed to prepare his players for the event and the situation. A coach is supposed to ensure that his team is mentally prepared for the coming situation, and that they have the tactical knowledge to deal with it. A coach is supposed to make adjustments to react to complexities that occur during the match. Luis Enrique and his staff came up short. Way short.
Yet the coach can’t make his players run, can’t make his players do what they are supposed to do because even if someone wants to claim tactics, these athletes have been playing a game since boyhood, and certain things are always true, such as you don’t allow an uncontested shot, in wide-open space, in or near your box. You don’t need tactical nous for that. If you don’t already know that, what in the hell can a coach tell you? Reacting and reactions are instinctive. Look at the first Dybala goal. Yes, Cuadrado undressed Mathieu, but there was only one place for that ball to go and three Barça players stood there watching as it went to Dybala, who calmly stroked a first-time ball past Ter Stegen.
Iniesta kinda sashayed over and stuck out a foot, but that was it. Carles Puyol would have had people drawn and quartered, like the torture scene at the end of “Braveheart.” Pique just walked away, like he’s seen it before. Because he has. Umtiti was pissed and screaming, but he’s a new guy who hasn’t seen it before, who is wondering why the team of his his dreams isn’t playing like a team.
Most of the time, distance covered stats aren’t really worth the paper they’re printed on. But Juventus ran 5.5km more than Barça in that first leg match, and it’s easy to see how it happened, because Juventus did indeed play like a team. They covered for each other in layers. When one got beat, there was another. Barça has played like that this season. Barça has also not played like that this season, an erratic bunch as likely to lose to Deportivo as they are to sparkle in destroying Sevilla. In every instance of dropped points, the team hasn’t done what it is supposed to do, what it knows how to do and has done before.
This group of players won a treble, then a double the following season. They haven’t suddenly forgotten how to play football, or become so tactically naive that without precise, flawless instructions they are a mess.
Everybody failed in that first half yesterday. Coaches, players, preparation, top to bottom. Singling out any one thing is impossible when everything was broken. After an amazing comeback against Paris St.-Germain to remain in Champions League, the tean — its entire structure, not just the XI — should have been most interested in doing whatever was possible to ensure that such a thing wouldn’t be required again. Instead they did the exact same thing as in Paris, in a lackluster display that was startling. Rio Ferdinand, after the match, said that some Barça players don’t deserve to wear the shirt. Here are his comments:
“There’s a lot of players there that you think to yourself they couldn’t have got in the Barcelona team three years ago — too many names to mention.
“There are five or six in this team who shouldn’t even be putting on the shirt. The way that they played — the intensity, the quality. They’re not on the same planet and these are the players who have really got to feed the front three and are not getting the ball to them quick enough.
“And defensively they don’t look like they’ve got any individuals in there who want to defend. Collectively they’re not doing it. This team don’t press like the Barcelona team did under Pep Guardiola. These guys look like they don’t have any idea or desire to want to press.”
That’s a pretty wholistic view, right? It’s also accurate, and spotlights another point of failure in player signing and recruitment. Sergi Roberto is wonderful, but does he make the best Barça team? Does Mathieu? Shouldn’t Mascherano be in “emeritus” status right now? The list can go on. At Iniesta’s level, Xavi was a super sub for Barça, not a starter in key matches. This is yet another aspect of what has been happening to this team, but more than player recruitment, it’s simple awful luck.
Arda Turan, Rafinha and Aleix Vidal are three players who would all have been perfect for this match. All are injured, which means that adjustments have to be made. Jordi Alba, the starting LB, can’t start because he’s fast, but he’s a punk. Cuadrado would have treated him as badly as he did Mathieu. Umtiti as LB? In a better world, but then who plays CB with Pique? Can’t be Mascherano because he has to DM for a suspended Busquets. Should Gomes have started in that role? Dunno. Hindsight.
Messi is more everything for Barça than he has ever been before, a tactical dilemma that finds the player, like the team, stuck between two states. Messi the Creator shouldn’t also need to be Messi the Attacker. Iniesta shouldn’t need to perform the tasks that he can no longer perform physically. But what to do, how to solve those dilemmas when we can’t make players into things that they aren’t.
Sergi Roberto was repeatedly drubbed for pace on the right. Vidal’s pace solves those complexities. Arda Turan would have been a useful sub on the left wing to slide Neymar over and create a different look against Juventus. Instead, players who are still assimilating or who lack the ultimate quality have to play because that is what is available. So yes, luck is part of the picture of seeming despair surrounding the club. More telling is that Barça is playing like a team that expects something bad to happen, looking over its shoulder instead of at the opponent. There is no longer outrage when something bad happens, and that is no way to be, particularly for a team used to being better, used to being a champion, time and again.
One of the more bizarre things about this season has been starting every match, not knowing which team was going to show up. Everybody was worried about Sevilla, and they strolled it. Then came the desultory Malaga display. It’s like the genius who forgets to put the cap on the bottle that he is about to shake up.
But success is also a question of mental fortitude. Recall the Iniesta chance. He and the team seemed surprised that Buffon stopped that shot. No idea why as it wasn’t that well placed, nor was it hit with any real committment, compounded by Buffon still being one of the best keepers in the game. They seemed stunned as about a minute later, Juventus waltzed up the pitch, Mandzukic found Dybala, all alone with the ball and his thoughts, and it was 2-0. The opponent scoring after a missed chance is one of those things that always happens, but it shouldn’t be happening to a champion, to a team that is the caliber of Barça.
Sport had some interesting comments in an analysis after the match as well, including:
“Barça did not have the necessary concentration or intensity this match required.
“The Argentine, despite the presence of Iniesta and Pique, had too much time and space.
“The trident once again failed to score in Turin, as they had done in Malaga. Neither Messi, Suarez nor Neymar were able to mark the difference in a game when they had to be at their best.
“The team needed depth to react. However, Luis Enrique didn’t even believe in his own bench.
Barça is lucky the final score wasn’t worse. A second half improvement assured that, even as Juventus scored again, again from defense best described as disinterested. On offense, Messi created chances that should have been taken, but weren’t. Finishing is part of concentration and focus. That match could have ended 3-3 instead of 3-0, but as usual Barça left chances begging. We can sit around and dissect tactics and individual players and errors all we like, but that match comes down to a very simple thing: not being prepared.
Reasons why are potentially as many as the stars but those players know what they are supposed to do, coaches know what they are supposed to do and everyone knew the situation. Yet, collectively, they failed. No supporter can expect to win them all, even as Barça has come as close as any team has to this mythic state of grace. Barça has problems that are deeper than changing a coach or any one player, or changing a formation, problems that are everywhere. People will attribute those problems to their favorite thing, because that’s part of the game but it’s everything all at once.