In times of crisis, everything is a crisis. It’s only logical. The team and its manager talked of dispensing with the mental detritus of the glorified Community Shield in the SuperCopa and the destruction by Real Madrid, to get the season started right and begin the process of building a team.
That process began Sunday, with a visit from Betis, a team that on paper, Barça shouldn’t have had too much trouble with.
The complexity, of course is that in times of crisis everyone wants to extract what they can from the situation. So there were people saying that Betis was a banana peel, with a smart coach, some smart transfers in and a good system. There were also people saying that Barça was a crapshow of mediocrity, a damaged team that would begin its decline against this Andalucian upstart.
Hardly anyone knew how to manage what transpired, which was a workmanlike dispatching of a lesser team, a task that last season was fraught with complexity. Barça didn’t lose La Liga by dropping points to big teams. It lost via the Alaveses and Betises, mental lapses that turned what should be another day at the office to a clunkfest. This all made what happened at the Camp Nou significant because there was nothing to see here. Barça wasn’t at its best, but it isn’t supposed to be. It was, however supposed to do exactly what it did, which was to beat a team solidly destined for the lower half of the table.
This is all good. What is also good are the signs that Valverde understands what is needed, which is to simplify. Keep the ball, play compact triangles, pass it around and put things in the hands of the folks who understand how to play Barça football. This means men with Masia pedigree in Sergi Roberto and Messi, the drivers of the train. The former was omnipresent, answering the “What is everyone’s problem with Andre Gomes?” question by being everything that the Portuguese midfielder isn’t: quick in every way — brain, feet, decisions, actions. He was physical, omnipresent and even scored a goal.
Messi, reprising his vaunted false 9 role, had a hat trick of posts, and was exemplary as Barça returned to attacking and defending with eleven. The result was that when possession was turned, Betis was always advancing into equal or superior numbers. The one time that they didn’t, Mascherano did what Mascherano does in taking the Betis attacker’s soul. In the ensuing melee Barça notched its second goal, then went into preservation mode.
Deulofeu, once he got the early craps out of his system, was another highlight. He was (almost) smart on the ball and unselfish. He was also tracking back on defense, playing like a man who understands that this is his last shot at a big club. And Nelson Semedo. Wow. The bargain of the transfer window at 30m? Given the state of things, he would be 60 right now. There was a nasty rumor being floated on via Twitter that some “Barça heavy hitters” said that he was worse than Douglas. The Tweet was subsequently deleted, as it should have been. Semedo has pace, intelligence and is already fitting into the pass-and-move Barça system because he doesn’t dwell on the ball.
In the second half, Valverde experimented with Vidal and Semedo on the right, an interesting notion that also brought something Barça hasn’t had of late — pace. On the pitch at the same time were Jordi Alba, Semedo, Vidal, Umtiti and Deulofeu. We saw on more more than one occasion a potential Betis attack thwarted by someone running it down enough to slow things down and let the press do its work.
The match wasn’t fantastic. But it didn’t need to be. It needed to be effective. That it was is worthy of note. There are those who will downplay what happened because of their needs. There are those who will overblow it because of their needs. The reality is that the team was exactly what it needed to be — no more, no less. At this time of distractions and complexities, that in itself is laudable.
Windows sliding shut
Iniesta said, sign some people. Busquets said, sign some people. Valverde said, as clearly and directly as any of them, SIGN SOME PEOPLE!
The new joke is, of course, that X or Y player becoming official is only a matter of hours. Or days. Pick your chronological measuring stick. There are eleven days left in the transfer window and Barça, being the equivalent of the sailor whose pockets are stuffed with money while on shore leave, has a problem. Everybody knows you have money, so there are no bargains to be had. Semedo would cost 60m for the club now. Efforts are being made for players such as Coutinho (still, despite arbitrary deadlines that have come and gone), Dembele (a matter of hours. Hours.) and Jean Seri, who seems the most likely actual addition at this point.
Amid all of the scoffing and snarling about how everything sucks, it seems important to reiterate that the club is run by the president and his board, and the team is part of the club. You can love the club, detest the board, want the president gone and support the hell out of the team. Life offers us shades of grey that we so often strive to make into black and while. Loving the club doesn’t make anyone a board supporter. It makes them a culer. Supporting the team and wanting nothing to do with the politics doesn’t make anyone less of a devotee. It just means they have less crap in their life.
There was a time when loving the club was precisely that: embracing the totality of the entity that is FC Barcleona. But recent events and behavior forces the more devoted culers to parse, to take some of this, leave some of that, spit on the other.
It’s also important to not let any animus color a worldview. Just because you think the board sucks doesn’t mean they aren’t working to make additions to the team. They are, after all, trying to save their asses not only with signings, but in making the moves that will help bring about the sporting success that might stave off a soci mutiny. Agusti Benedito is working on assembling signatures in support of forcing early elections via censure motion. He needs 15 percent of socis to support him with signature, which is a massive nut to crack. But the membership has never been more disgruntled from the sound of things, even as there are members who believe that as long as the balance sheet is strong, the board is doing well. Just because you don’t like them doesn’t mean they aren’t trying. Both can be true.
The reason any of this matters, and the reason the Betis victory was just business, even as it was nice to see it be just business, is that the team isn’t the same as it is going to be two weeks from now. Players will be coming, and players will be going. Valverde understands this, and is coaching the team like a mobile phone user who has to reboot a device in safe mode. It’s the basic functions, stripped of all excess and adornment. And the phone works, just like the team worked. For now. But it’s a temporary state. You use safe mode to solve problems, just as Valverde used basic mode to make his team function and solve problems presented by an absence of ultimate talent and creativity in key positions. This is where tech support comes in. Let’s see what happens.