Barça, at the moment, is a mess. What happened?
It’s a complex situation that, despite the need of some to identify a single source, player or coach, defies easy answers. On the surface, Barça is also a high-quality home Champions League display and a loss by its historic rival, who have a very difficult end-of-season run in, away from needing to dust off those parade buses. Yet quite clearly, Barça is a team in difficulty, a state beyond “stuff happens.”
It was lackluster and meek in a loss to Malaga, seeming to fall apart after missing a few excellent scoring chances. Against Juventus it couldn’t do anything right, then got played off the park in the second half against Real Sociedad. The players look a mental mess, playing not to lose rather than to win and sparkle.
As its coach says, negative things are on him. The biggest questions are tactics, team structure and adaptability. Whether Luis Enrique is viewed as stubborn or resolute will depend upon worldview. He is no less committed to his view of how the game should be played than Pep Guardiola, yet only one of them is considered stubborn.
But the larger question is what IS Luis Enrique’s “way of playing,” tactical shifts based on opponent notwithstanding. It’s more complex than “get the ball to the horses,” but that is a summation. Let the three best attackers in world football do what they do. Yet when an opponent fully commits to stopping those three — walling off Neymar with two defenders, keeping a body on Suarez and blocking Messi, Barça have no answer.
We have seen the situation come this season, time and again, most recently against Juventus. Dani Alves played Neymar physically, and always had help. This isolated Suarez and reduced Messi to either a creator (amazing pass to Iniesta, for one) or tilting at the windmill of the defense and one of the best keepers in the game. Even at that, Barça had chances, just not enough of them to convert.
What is a plan B? To say that Luis Enrique doesn’t have a tactical plan is facile. But the team does lack a structure, absent a compliant opponent. There are times when the team looks lost, when the players don’t know what to do in the context of their overall approach to an opponent. The keys to beating Barça are out there for anyone to see: control Neymar, flood the midfield and play off the counter. Yet the team doesn’t have an answer. Remember the diagonal rainbows from Messi that found success? Now that opponents have taken that away, what next?
One thing he has tried is a 3-4-3, with some success, based more in the quality of his team than the success of the formation, even as that setup is an effective way to get around some of the tactical difficulties facing Barça. But there is still too much uncertainty, players without a clear mission. Does the system need more time? He doesn’t have more time. Nor does his team.
Player selection has been a consistent difficulty this season, once you consider the few spots that aren’t etched in stone by an incumbent. Neymar, Messi and Suarez are going to start. So will Busquets. But who surrounds them? They can’t play all the time. There is still no viable sub for Busquets, even as the need has been clear for years. There is still no controlling midfielder, even as the need has been clear even before Xavi strolled off to Qatar. Fullbacks? A quality LB has been needed since Abidal sat at a Camp Nou table, wiping away tears. An RB should have been planned for, given the state of Dani Alves and a board hell bent on kicking him in the balls.
Player selection is part of overall transfer philosophy. If you can’t grow it, buy it.
Expectation has been defined at FC Barcelona by a once-in-a-lifetime generation of talent, home-grown geniuses who defined a team and a way of play. But that group was, essentially, an aberration, something unprecedented. La Masia isn’t a magic factory. It’s an academy that, like all the other academies in football, has a small success rate. Think about how many players an academy has, and the demands of top-class football. There are 22 spots on a big-league football team. Consider the odds that the majority of them are filled by players from the academy.
Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi. Not only were those players starters, they were considered best in the world at each of their positions. Valdes is gone, Puyol and Xavi retired, Iniesta is aging. What next?
La Masia hasn’t produced a talent worthy of inclusion in Barça’s glittering XI. That’s something that is hard to admit from a world whose view of the academy is still defined by a statistical fluke. But that’s the way it is. There hasn’t been a midfielder seen to come out of La Masia possessed of that “something” since Carles Alena, who is now hanging with the first team. Expect him to take up permanent residence there next season.
Sergi Samper? He can’t start for Granada. Formation, coaching are only excuses to a certain extent. If a player has the talent, that ability is so clear that it defies coaching and formations, as he’s so good the coach finds a way to get him into the XI. Is there a team in football where Iniesta wouldn’t sparkle? The quality of Busquets is clear. You can’t screw up real quality, which isn’t to say Samper isn’t talented. The question is whether he is Oriol Romeu talented, or Busquets sub talented. We will find out this summer.
Grimaldo? He’s playing at Benfica, and has had an injury-plagued season. But even if Luis Enrique and he hadn’t had whatever weird impasse they had, it’s difficult to imagine him sitting Alba, even as his skill set can now, in the hindsight of 20/20, be seen as potentially being more of value than Digne, now that the Frenchman’s performances have tailed off precipitously from their early sparkle.
But who else? Even with Grimaldo and Samper occupying spots with the first team, Barça would still be where it is because of the host of existing problems.
Barça B has taken an approach of acquiring talents that might be good enough to make the first team, akin to transplanting a mature tree from a nursery to a backyard. When people ask why Barça doesn’t take chances on talent like lesser teams, B is where they do it. No time for that on the first team. Marlon, who should get a look at CB this summer, is potentially a definining player for that path. Much of the future talent coming from the B team is still undefined. Nili and Palencia, both RBs, are potential answers to questions that will be asked this summer. Same for Marlon, and Alena. But to lay any part of the team’s malaise at the feet of La Masia just isn’t entirely accurate. It’s impossible to predict how a kid is going to develop. So the club has to buy players.
Many people consider playing for Barça as some sort of druid ritual, arcane methods swathed in layers of mystery. Barça is a hard team to play for because of its structure and approach to the game, but it’s still football. Transfers need assimilation to the speed of play, the attacking structure and worldview. Some do it faster than others. Barça has had consecutive busy transfer summers, with a bunch of new bodies coming in every off season, people who need to work their way in. There is danger in that, even as transfers excite. Recall that Luis Enrique said, at the start of the season, that he had the most talented team that he has ever had. Seems so long ago now.
If injuries happen, as they have this season, a transfer philosophy becomes complicated. Barça has had remarkable luck with injuries overall this season, even as key players haven’t been able to stay fit. Iniesta has been knocked a lot. But not inconsequentially, Rafinha has been every bit as infirm as Iniesta, and he’s one of the obvious substitutes. When he isn’t fit, the team has to rely on a new transfer, Andre Gomes, who has become a head case of a level not seen since Bojan Krkic.
Gomes hasn’t played the same position for consecutive matches. Left, right, center, holding. But he has to play because who else is there? Turan has also been infirm this season. How reasonable is it to expect a new transfer, even an expensive one, to slot right into the team? That said, it isn’t unreasonable for the team to have had planning so that new transfers don’t have to assimilate immediately. It wasn’t a surprise that Xavi was old and ready to retire, yet the club seemed shocked by it. Iniesta is old, but what next? Right now, nothing.
Transfers are part of planning. Rakitic was a planned transfer, a player who fit a need. Arda Turan fit a need, even if he didn’t slot in right away. Same with Aleix Vidal. Paco Alcacer is a player who also fit a need, a sub for Luis Suarez in some situations, but it was always expected that he would take time to slot in. Play him to give that time. The Alcacer that we have seen his last two outings was there, sitting on the bench, waiting for time.
Vidal is another key injury. He had a spot as the right-sided catalyst, and was rounding into effective form. The 3-4-3 was tailor made for his skill set. Then an injury came, he was done for the season and it was back to Sergi Roberto, a player ill-suited for an effective 3-4-3. Rotten luck is a factor for Barça that few are considering as a function of where the team is, in their quest to lay blame at the feet of a coach or a particular player. It isn’t all the fault of Luis Enrique, or Andre Gomes, even as both are part of the issue.
But it’s not unfair to suggest that the club should have had better planning. Real Madrid is an example of real depth. Few in football would choose their XI over that of Barça when everyone is fit. But when they aren’t, or when they have to rotate, they call on Isco or Asensio. The former won a match for them. Luis Enrique looks down a bench and doesn’t see any answers, partly because of transfer decisions and planning. Planning is supposed to be the bridge that helps a team manage bad luck. People pissed and moaned when Guardiola stuffed Busquets into the XI, and now look. Planning is courage, and managing risk.
Some transfers are a sure thing, such as Samuel Umtiti. But most of them require care and feeding, and a coach committed to working them into a functioning team. That hasn’t happened this year, and with the pressure of not being able to drop any points in Liga, the rotation got short. Gomes plays so much because there aren’t any other real options, given that Rafinha has been broken and Turan also frequently injured. A coach has to be lucky and brave.
Barça is in both transition and turmoil, albeit the latter quality of a type most teams in world football would take. Champions League quarters, second in league, in finals of league cup. But when people say that results aren’t everything, this is what is meant. It isn’t pouting about the team not playing the right way, even as some reduce it to that. It’s that there isn’t a clear, definable future, coupled the results of poor long-term planning.
Individual brilliance is something scoffed at. It shouldn’t be. But it has been saving the team and papering over the cracks, even as its tactical structure is based on player quality, like every team in football. Messi has saved countless matches. Neymar saved Barça’s Champions League. But the team isn’t in good shape. So what next?