The match against Real Sociedad can be summed up in a few sentences:
Thank the stars for Messi.
Welcome, Paco Alcacer.
It’s three points.
The distressing part about the match is that again, Barça failed to perform basic defensive functions. On the first goal, if Sergi Roberto was any softer, he’d be Messi’s first touch. On the second goal, everything was a mess, compounded by nobody marking the runner, who slotted home with ease.
In the second half, La Real played Barça off the pitch, creating attacks, moving the ball around and making danger. It was all dealt with, but the way the match went was worrisome in many ways, as few of the players looked fully committed. Fatigue? Looming coaching change and attendant lack of focus? Too many minutes for key players? It’s impossible to say, but even the most optimistic culer (hahahaha!) will have a difficult time, given the way the team has looked over the arc of the last three matches, believing in miracles.
Let’s look at some bright sides. Messi was spectacular. He made, as near as anyone can tell, a single error in losing a ball. The defense bailed him out, but when you look at the aggregate ledger, the positive bailouts side for Messi is still massive and today was no exception. He scored two goals and set up the third, even tracking back on defense, including clearing a header on a La Real set piece. His excellence masks the underlying difficulties that we are seeing on the pitch overall, difficulties that are in many ways inexplicable.
Another bright spot is that Alcacer looked like … a Barça player. He was involved in all three goals, including a wonderful retention of possession and nutmeg to keep the play alive via a pass to Suarez. And his goal is worth watching. The speed with which he controlled and slotted home looked smooth and easy, but is quite difficult. He’s pressing. Hard. At one point in the second half he lost a pass, and you could see him visibly slump. He seems very worried that any error will consign him to the bench again, but he is playing with the freedom and zeal that Andre Gomes is not.
After the match, when asked about Gomes, Luis Enrique referenced confidence, and that it waas difficult when a player doesn’t have it. Gomes doesn’t have it. He plays like a player who is afraid to make an error, so he doesn’t know what to do, thinking that by doing nothing, he won’t screw up. His situation is in many ways the same as Denis Suarez, who comes on and vanishes. You see both of them moving around, but they are too often behind play, too often not where they should be or where teammates need them to be, to the detriment of the overall attack (and defense).
With the injury to Rafinha, one of those players has to step up. Neither one is, and it matters, because Iniesta needs rest. His substitutes have to be effective in some way, shape or form. Gomes is getting worse, not better, affected by his overall play. He knows how he is, and must be working to change it. Is Luis Enrique giving him chances because he wants him to play his way out, or because he is the best of a bad set of options?
At this point, could Alena be any worse? The continued use of a damaged player is seeming to make him worse, rather than better. Could sitting him down do any more damage to his confidence?
But the problems at Barça don’t just extend to midfield. Recall a recent post likening Barça to a string of archipelagos, islands easily breached by an attacking force because of a lack of unified defense. If you watch the team defend, it’s like when you see dogs being managed by an electric fence — they stay inside a tightly proscribed zone for fear of getting the shock. Noobdy wants to screw up and cause a goal, so nobody takes any risks, doesn’t do anything to cover. Once that first man is beaten, the defense is in trouble.
As many have mentioned, Barça can miss a bunch of chances, then the first attack an opponent gets, they score. This is why. Sergi Roberto, covering the zone against a nonexistent player, just makes a halfhearted stab at marking an attacking player. Pique waves at a ball, telling Ter Stegen to come get it. A sharp, connected Pique controls that ball and plays it forward.
Many have suggested that Luis Enrique has lost the team, but it’s deeper than that. It isn’t as if they have to worry about playing for him, because he’s already gone. Titles won’t guarantee the continued tenure of a coach. But even if he has lost the team — something that is unlikely — the odd thing is that the team isn’t playing like a team. That is the most worrisome part. The team seems to have lost itself.
In the glory days of this current edition, the salad days in which the ball flitted around and magic was being made, the core of the team was linked by academy roots. The more you wind up with transferred players, the more you lose that undefinable something. Does a transfer want to bleed for the colors in the same way that a home-grown talent does? Imagine what Carles Puyol would do, would say to this group. There would be heads on pikes outside the Camp Nou grounds, as an example to those who dared transgress.
Everybody is looking at individual players, but the collective is off. What is the board doing? Is it fiddling while Rome burns? It just announced a new sponsor last week, as it continues to seek its ideal of an economic model that is sustainable regardless of how many trophies the team wins — or doesn’t win. What’s happening in the boardroom? Is there a new coach that has been decided? What about players and a program, something that is waiting on the new coach?
The worst part is that right now, Barça feels rudderless. The team is struggling, and nobody can do anything about it, even as its best player wins matches for them. There are no signs of life, no seeming joy or hope. Is the team seeing the effects of an odd transfer pattern, or just bad luck? The three players who would be most useful at this time are injured or just coming back from an injury. Aleix Vidal was creating danger off the right wing, until taken out in a bit of savagery. Arda Turan is just back from injury, playing his way into match fitness. Rafinha, that essential link in the 3-4-3, is lost for the season after yet another injury. The subs for those subs aren’t up to snuff. Jordi Alba has lost a step, reverting to just a wee, semi-quick defender who can be bullied. Rakitic has too much ground to cover, Umtiti is often hung out to dry, or is making errors because he is being proactive, even if it isn’t always the right decision.
There are plenty of worries, but no answers. Pique says with the team that the club has, it is possible to turn it all around against Juventus, and in the Liga. Talent-wise, yes. Execution and spirit-wise, no. That is the worrying part. Barça is playing like a team that has already given up hope as it becomes every player for himself. “I did my bit, now you do yours.”
That can’t work. A team divided is too easily destroyed as it mimics a factionalized supporter base. And that path can only lead to nowhere.