Football is all about hopes and dreams. The game captivates us because it represents possibility. It’s why transfers are such news, why transfer season fills every supporter with hope. It’s why we watch matches, that hope of magic, of the perfect goal, the key result. It’s wonderful.
It’s also a lot of why supporters are super critical when things don’t go well — it’s the notion that everything is the worst. It’s brutal when dreams die hard, even when they don’t die.
Barça was supposed to have answers, supposed to be on the verge of making magic, supposed to be ready to vault its glorious way to the most unlikely treble anyone has ever seen. But that isn’t reality, even as it is fantasy. Reality is that Ernesto Valverde has found some answers, ridden some luck and was able to have his team take advantage of its chief rivals dropping points as they worked their way into something approaching form, just as Barça will have to do.
What’s missing. The focus in football is always what’s missing. “Well, yeah, the player passes, runs, builds in attack, but he doesn’t do this, and that is a big problem.” It’s always what isn’t there, what might be coming, the next transfer, the next season, the next match, when everything will be right, even as it never, ever is.
The Gefafe match was reality, the arc of a trend that began weeks ago, with matches every three days and a squad that is deep, but not as deep as it needs to be in key places. What we are seeing now is the manifestation of that. Getafe took advantage of that tendency, that form trend. When a team gets tired, it gets mentally lazy and stops doing what it should. “Here you go, Messi. Make it happen.” And the attack becomes central, which makes it easy to defend the attack. And opposition CBs look like geniuses instead of what they are, which is players for a lesser team whose lives have been being made easy by a team that isn’t doing what it is supposed to be doing.
Against Gefafe, the ball moved too slowly, there was no structure to the attack, just a bunch of people running around, looking for Messi to make magic. But Messi was also off, so that didn’t work, either. Nothing worked, and Getafe just had to kick balls away from ill-considered passes and crosses to nowehre. There were runs, but they were easily managed. Messi made passes, to players that were offside. Suarez was messy, drab and ineffective. As he is the key to a lot of the Barça attack in that he is the terminus, nothing is going to happen. When your forward is standing offside as opponents make runs, nothing is going to happen. So against Getafe, nothing was going to happen.
Two huge-money transfers played today, one in the starting lineup — Coutinho — and one as a sub — Dembele. Neither one was as effective as they will be in the future, because it is in effect their pre-season with a team that is very difficult to learn to play with. Dembele in particular was the target of post-match criticism, and heavy criticism. Because he didn’t play to his price tag. It’s as if people have forgotten that he’s a 20-yaer-old player who is right now mostly promise, who has spent the bulk of this season injured, that Getafe was his first outing in competition since his last injury.
Dembele has to learn to not only play with Barça. He has to learn to trust his body again, to understand that he can make those cuts and runs, control balls, be Dembele again. Right now, he’s a mess, but it’s mental. Not physical. Allow time to work that out.
Coutinho came from a team where he wsa the man. He drove the ball, controlled it, led attacks. He could make plays, then decide what to do. So he isn’t looking around as he should, as Barça players learn coming up through the academy ranks to always keep the head up, to always know what next to do with the ball.
Iniesta came in and the team immediately looked better, because he understands how to play in the Barça system. Coutinho doesn’t. Nor does Dembele.
Dembele and Coutinho are EUR300m. And by cracky, they are supposed to make a difference. Right now. Thati isn’t going to happen. Dembele and Coutinho are Gomes and Alcacer with higher price tags. In the same way Gomes and Alcacer are better this season after time to assimilate, to catch up the speed of play, make the right moves and anticipate, Coutinho and Dembele need to go through that same process, price tags aside. Relax, and let that happen.
Espanyol played Barça to a draw, using the same method that Getafe did. They were physical, clogged the middle and kept ten behind the ball whenever Barça had it. The usual Barça methodoology of quick ball and player movement, building from the outside in and the run dicating the pass, didn’t happen because the team has been playing too many matches. It’s the price of being active in three competitions.
The lead right now is seven points over an Atleti side that has mastered the art of the 1-0 win. They get a goal somehow, then close everything down. Atleti isn’t a team that is good enough to win Liga, unless Barça decide to lose the Liga — which could happen. The challenge for Valverde will be getting the rest for key players such as Messi and Iniesta, to keep the team active in all of the competitions while keeping the team reasonably fresh. He will also have to, in essence, have a preseason while the season is in full swing.
Were there up sides from today’a match? Of course. It’s difficult for the attack to play much worse. Yerry Mina is the business, smooth in attack and strong in defense. During the match, in the Twitter cauldron, people were more obsessed with finding fault in a player who put in an MOTM performance than in the attack, which was poor. Very, very poor. It happens. Form and fatigue are transient, they ebb and flow as a season moves through the various phases. This was true with Guardiola, but then people attributed to the team working its physical process through cycles, part of the building process.
But without that confidence in a coach, which Valverde hasn’t earned, the same ebbs and flows are signs of Armageddon, signs of a team ready to bottle. Because desire and expectation do that to a fanbase. Disappointment looms, and cynicism becomes the cushion that helps absorb that blow. That midfielder has a great match, but doesn’t do what a club legend did. A defender has a brilliant debut, but he doesn’t do what a Barça defender does — a worldview that means people didn’t watch how he played, but instead saw what they needed to see from a player who cost 8m, who nobody knows and therefore nobody trusts.
As a fanbase, we will need calm as the team builds. The good thing is that defensively, the team is more than solid. Digne was a very good CB sub. The problem is the attack. Before the Espanyol match I said that if Barça doesn’t win, the defense won’t be the issue, the attack will. Suarez had to have set a single-match record of offsides. On three occasions he was standing offside, stranding attackers, particularly Messi. And he missed one of the few clear scoring chances the team generated. Messi spent most of the match sleepwalking. The attack looked tired, and didn’t have normal function. It happens. What matters now is what happens next.
Football spends a lot of time looking for what isn’t there, and finding fault because of that absence. Optimism, or even neutrality, is hard. Reflex is misery. But Barça is building. Be calm, and let it happen. Expectation? Expect the team to do its best. Some days, such as against Getafe, that best won’t be very good. That’s part of it.
Hopes and dreams are awesome, but football is, at the end of it all, about what is and understanding what is. Barça is still unbeaten, with a seven-point lead in Liga, in the Copa final and aiming toward a key Champions League clash with Chelsea. We don’t know who any of that is going to go. So let it happen.