The best day of your life will never be as good as the day after. Like your best day ever, Barça will never again be as good as its best day ever.
As with life and moving on from wonderful days, we manage reality in different ways. Some lottery winners still play, hoping for magic again. There are serial monogamists who look for that sense of wonder. And there are football supporters with gazes firmly fixed on the past, on an ideal.
Sport and football in general are odd, transitory things. Sport best represents life in its constant change. The Chicago Cubs last year won the championship, erasing more than a century of failure and agony. Hitting, great pitching and youth. Dynasties were predicted by people in the throes of that best day ever. This year the Cubs got pounded by a better team. In just that year so much changed.
Teams age, players age, tactical concepts age, just as we age. When a team wins a title it is a remarkable thing, particularly when you consider everything that has to happen — lucky breaks, injuries or lack thereof, bounces, referee calls — even when a team is undoubtedly the best, some luck is always involved. We celebrate titles because they are like that best day of our lives. We forget the rest of stuff, and think it will go on forever. Why wouldn’t it?
The day after that we wake, maybe hung over, maybe wondering whose underwear that is on the floor or why there’s a goat in the living room. Maybe. All we know is that it was one hell of a day. What next? Sport forces us to consult this question time and time again.
After the Olympiakos stroll in Champions League, I asked, via Twitter:
Unbeaten in Liga with only one draw, 3-for-3 in Champions League group play. At what point do we start to trust Valverde?
The responses were fascinating. “When he benches Rakitic,” “When he wins a treble,” “After el Classico [sic],” “When he gives Messi a proper system,” “When he starts rewarding good performances,” “As long as his team plays boring football he will never earn my trust,” “When he starts to play Denis,” are just some that capture the feeling for a coach who wasn’t accepted walking in the door and never will be, just like his prececessor and every coach in the wake of Pep Guardiola.
Common thinking is that Barça was a weak team going into the summer transfer window, lost Neymar and proceeded to have an awful window, bringing in a French kid, a veteran failure and an RB who isn’t Dani Alves. So what are we to think of a coach who takes that motley assortment of characters and fashions a five-point lead in Liga over a Real Madrid side that many were claiming was going to lock down trebles for perpetuity, and a three-point lead in a Champions League group that features the defending title finalist?
Guardiola’s Manchester City team is the current favorite of cognoscenti of the beautiful game. For good reason. It’s fun to watch. Forget that almost 300m in a transfer window can solve a great many problems for a team, or defensive fragility and poor concentration. Okay. Manchester City is still loads of fun to watch as a forward-thinking coach tries to build a champion. This is true even as a lot of that fun for many Barça supporters who breathlessly follow City is because of the burnished glow of a legend. That is also fine, but understand it.
When Guardiola was at Barça he had the best or close to the best player in the game, in their prime, at most positions. Players who weren’t the best were still perfect for the system and team. Valdes, Abidal, Alves, Puyol, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Eto’o, Henry, Messi, Toure Yaya. And Pique was fast becoming one of the best in the world at his position. That team played extraordinary football and conquered the world, but never forget that Guardiola had one hell of a collection of talent. What might he have done with the injured, psychologically battered group that Tata Martino had? What would he have done with this group that Valverde has?
When he started to tinker with the team as he wrestled with new tactical concepts, the results trailed off. That happens, and should remind us that sporting success has roots in a great many things but most of all it needs talent. Every now and again you get a fairy tale such as Leicester City that came along in a down Premier League season, buttressed by opponents who kept playing them like the relegation candidates they were and everything contributed to something amazing. Reality wasn’t long in beckoning to Cinderella. The old coach was fired, a new coach hired and Leicester City is still what it was and, barring a massive cash infusion or another miracle, exactly what it will always be. Its supporters understand that, and move on with life.
There is a notion that football played properly is all that is needed, that in the right coaching hands, Barça B can win a treble as long as notions of positional play, etc. are adhered to. A lot of that comes from the cult of coaching, one spawned in the glory years of Guardiola where supporters talked of formations, positions and triangles, all of those lovely things enabled by one of the best collections of talent the game has ever seen in one XI. And most of them were home grown, which made it even more amazing.
In the aftermath of that best day ever, we have a Barça that has been flawed since Eto’o was shipped off to Inter for Ibrahimovic and a pile of cash. The rest of the time was chasing something that worked as effectively, through aging players whose skill sets were changing, injuries, fatigue and burnout. Guardiola mustered another double as Messi made the false 9 role explode into vibrant life. But hell, it’s Messi. As Guardiola said, they got him the ball and let him make magic.
What we have now is reality. The home-grown sparklers have moved on or aged, transfer efforts have brought about mixed results. One season brought a treble as Luis Suarez was the exact right thing needed to mesh with Neymar and Messi. That treble wasn’t won in the right way for those in the ivory tower but it was still a treble, one brought about at the feet of the three best attackers in the game, backed by remarkable talents who still had something to show in the likes of Xavi and Iniesta, as well as players such as Alves, Busquets and Pique, more holdovers from the best day ever, who still had it.
But, “Hmph. Anybody can just get the ball to the Trident.” Well, yeah. A coach will always use the tools at his disposal to fashion the kind of reality that he hopes will result in success. Instead of celebrating that people talked of “bypassing the midfield,” or “where is the positional play?” They nodded smugly as the next season brought “only” a double as a mediocre coach was found out by opponents, a coach who tinkered just as Guardiola did and saw results diminish just as Guardiola did. Luis Enrique isn’t Pep Guardiola. But the notion of an unfavored coach being “found out” is easier to understand than the idea that a year is a long time in sports. That a double after a treble, even as people knew what was coming, was pretty remarkable. But that flawed double after a flawed treble wasn’t good enough. Everything was wrong. #luchoout We wondered why those idiots at Bayern didn’t understand what they had. For them, Guardiola was their Luis Enrique, a guy who came in after a treble side and didn’t do as well. Aesthetics and beauty? Sure. Now where’s our Champions League?
The cult of coaching has made Guardiola’s treble team not as iconic in many eyes as the one that did the double. That Barça, the team of the best day ever, that made Manchester United look like practice dummies in a Champions League final, is never coming back. It can’t. Hell yeah, it was stupendous, but the circumstances that created it are impossible to replicate. The new reality for Barça is trying to find the right accessories for the best player in history as that player shapes and redefines his game. As supporters, what do we do in the wake of a magical time? Players have superstitions. They hop over the end line, pogo a specified number of times, wear special shorts underneath their uniform kits, all sorts of things that show a belief in the idea that replication can reproduce magic. In many ways the cult of coaching and its attendant needs and notions has done the same thing. Play the game in the right way and success will come.
The notion of trust varies by supporter. From my chair, it is the belief that a coach will do the best that he can with what he has. That is all that he can do.
Valverde has what he has. Like any coach he will adapt his approach to the tools that he has. Guardiola hasn’t had success at Manchester City yet, something that people have correctly laid at the feet of available talent and player deficiencies. Will he this season? Remains to be seen. But he, Valverde and every other coach in the game is trying to adapt the tools they have to the notions that they have. Yes, even Guardiola. Some have a better tool kit than others, but all have the same goal: to produce a best day ever. All but one of them, in every league, will fail. All but one of them, in Champions League and Europa League, will fail. And the next season that hero will almost certainly fail. Why? Because the best day ever is just a day, another day in which something extraordinary happened. And you just don’t get a best day ever, forever.