Failure, context and how did we get here?

“It could have been worse,” is one of the more joyful human phrases. It is an acknowledgement of complexity as well as an embrace of optimism for the future, now that the rough part is over.

Something else worth considering in the context of this Barça season, might best be explained by a situation.

You’re walking to work, and notice a duffel bag on the sidewalk. You look inside, and it’s stuffed with cash. You look around for someone, anyone to lay claim to the satchel, but there is no one. You pick it up and walk away, just in time to catch your bus. You place the satchel on the seat beside you, still stunned. While texting a friend about the amazing thing, your stop arrives, sooner than you realize. You leap to your feet, rush off the bus, get to the office and realize — you left the satchel on the bus.

Did you lose a ton of money, or can you lose something that you never had? In thinking about this Barça season and the naked panic being induced by the sudden run of draws, coming into a showdown against an in-form Atleti, notions of loss are worth considering in micro and macro.

After Neymar left, and even in the wake of the confidence damage after Luis Enrique’s last season, Barça wasn’t supposed to be good. Real Madrid’s dynasty was starting up, some even had Barça finishing third in Liga and without much hope of other trophies. The team now has a five-point lead in Liga, is in the Copa final and is unbeaten in Champions League, with a deciding home leg coming against a beatable Chelsea team.

Let’s say that Barça loses to Atleti, loses to Chelsea, drops the Liga lead and dumps it in the Copa final against Sevilla. What has been lost?

When Paulinho was chucking in improbable goals, we were giggling and suggesting that Valverde might not have been crazy for wanting him. Now that he is struggling, he has become the new Douglas, the sole reason for everything wrong. But Paulinho isn’t doing anything all that different than he was when scoring those improbable goals. The rest of the team is. Here’s something worth noticing: Paulinho seems to play as well as the rest of the team. When the team is working well, he’s everywhere — defending, playing wall passes that spring Messi loose, popping up in the box to create danger.

When the team isn’t playing well he is a clunky mess who can’t control a ball, can’t make runs, can’t dribble, can’t perform any of the tasks that we expect of a Barça midfielder. He has to do stuff that he can’t do. Everyone does. People who assert that he isn’t a Barça midfielder are correct, in both the philosophical and skills senses. He is only a Barça midfielder because he is on the first team, and wears the shirt, which makes him a Barça midfielder in the actual sense, something that many, including me, have a difficult time with. It isn’t that Paulinho is good and the rest of the team isn’t. It’s that certain conditions need to exist for him to be effective, or he’s just a crap player.

The easy thing is to lay failure at the feet of the anomaly. Douglas became a symbol for everything, just as Paulinho is now, and Gomes was last season. But failure and notions of failure are deeper than that, and shift to meet situations and reality.

If Barça was in third place, playing as people expected, with Messi being brilliant, battering at opponents, in many ways there would be a comfort with expectations being met. There wasn’t anything to lose, so everything is fine, even as it isn’t. But as Real Madrid and Atleti stumbled out of the gate and Barça kept notching wins and draws, context changed and people changed how they thought aobut the team. So Paulinho as a bumbling midfielder for a third-place team would be kinda funny in many ways because again, it would be meeting expectation. People would grumble but not too much, because the team wasn’t really supposed to be good. Everything was loose, and the group looked to be having fun.

Against Las Palmas, you could see the panic, see the sense that something was being lost. That was the most distressing thing about the draw, the chucking the ball to Messi and then running away or standing there, playing like a collection of individuals instead of as a team. Choking becomes easier when you acknowledge that you are choking. It’s the weird psychology of winding up somewhere you aren’t really supposed to be. The insecure nerd dating the supermodel, lost in his insecurities, becomes a jerk and the supermodel leaves. But it wasn’t because he was a nerd. It was because he stopped acting like he belonged where he was, and started finding reasons why he shouldn’t be there in the first place.

Now that the team is where it is, is it losing what it had, or did it never have it, and now that initial expectation is being met in many ways, how should we respond to that? At present there is chagrin. The league was won, and now it isn’t. Damn Valverde for playing people during the Copa instead of playing reserves, even as we ask whether he would have been castigated for not even being able to win the Copa? Expectation and performance is fascinating to consider. The way the team is now, is pretty much where many predicted, but let’s take a quick look at how we got here:

— When Deulofeu, Denis Suarez, Gomes and Alcacer tanked, that removed a quartet of valuable profiles from the roster, profiles that all would have been useful against the low blocks the team has been seeing of late. Deulofeu could use pace and skills to open up the wing on the right, Suarez on the left. Gomes would be what he was a Valencia, essentially a tall AM capable of scoring goals, kinda a modified Paulinho, while Alcacer could do what he did at Valencia, darting about with his hard shot, and scoring goals. And everything is beautiful. Add to that Dembele, a quick, fast winger with exceptional ball skills, playing off of and creating space for Messi. Whoa. Stand back.

Instead, Deulofeu was a skilled player but a football idiot, Denis Suarez has a three-second delay, Gomes is uncertain and Alcacer can’t get a game. What this means is that everybody has to play more, combined with the fact that Dembele has, essentially, been lost for the season. This season was, essentially, founded on failure in that the club couldn’t keep a wantaway player. Its supporters predited failure. Now that failure beckons, why is there chagrin? Yes, we can be troubled that our team isn’t doing well, but in reality, it wasn’t supposed to. We’ve been playing with house money in effect, all season long. At the gambling table you can walk away when you are about to tap into your own stash. That is the real key to winning at gambling, not playing with your own money.

Valverde understands that, even as he is running out of house money — but he can’t walk away. Paulinho was supposed to be a stopgap, part of the answer instead of the answer. Football is rooted in optimism. We love transfers because of the hope they bring. A new season starts, and normal fanbases concoct constructs in which their team will triumph above all, even all the signs that say it will end up pretty much where it will end up. Paulinho is in many ways a symbol of this season, because he is somewhere that he never dreamed he would be, and doesn’t quite know how to react now that he is there, so he just keeps on doing what he does, because what else is there to do?

Supporters assume that if you don’t say a player is unmitigated dogshit and want him flayed alive then dragged behind a chariot, that you are defending the player, or have an agenda. But as supporters, part of understanding a club is understanding why a player who would seem to have no business at your club, is not only at the club, but getting playing time. Without that intellectual curiosity, what fun is football? How much fun is a problem to which you already know the answers?

Paulinho plays because he does stuff. When he was subbed off, those runs into the Las Palmas box that he was making, stopped being made. The ball movement that came, even from him seemingly stumbling forward with the ball at his feet, stopped being made. Every time he does something, people see Iniesta in their mind as representative of a Barça midfield, and they storm forth into the world, ready to tell everyone exactly why Paulinho is the Ultimate Evil. And still, Valverde plays him. If we look at what is there, rather than what we would like to be there, we can see why. It would have been awesome if Gomes had panned out. If that had happened, Paulinho would still be in China. If Valverde wasn’t as conservative, he might have been inclined to take a risk that Rafinha wouldn’t break again. Instead the player on the roster most like Paulinho but with Barça skills, is at Inter Milan.

This season has been a crazy, unlikely, makeshift thing held together with timely goals, clunky contenders and a team and coach that have been riding their luck. It isn’t supposed to be where it is. And the bus rolls off into the distance with that duffel bag on the seat. What next?

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

20 Comments

  1. Jamal103
    March 2, 2018

    Evidence that Paulinho does not always play well when the team is in sync can be found from in the match vs Girona. He was still poor following his substitution despite our dominance. For all your talk on the runs we missed when he was substituted last night, we still didn’t register a single shot until Dembele came in. All I know is Gomes would be crucified if he had the run of games Paulinho has had recently.

    Conte must be laughing his butt off in realization that Sergi, Vidal and Paulinho will most likely start again

  2. March 2, 2018

    Nice post, as always Kxevin, but for me we are not there quite yet (as in bottling it).

    As you said, if you go by the general sense of the fans, we are over performing this season. However, I do not think that is the case, quite frankly I think the team is doing what it always does and has done for the last 10-12 years…. which is bouncing back after a dip. This is a consistent trend if you look at the team since the start of the Rijkaard years, every single time there is a dip and the fans proclaim the end is here, end of an era, back to scraping for 4th, whatever else the pessimistic Culer base comes up with, the team proves them wrong, Usually with a treble or a double!!

    We were always going to see this team hit a rough patch because they started the season so well. They are not machines and games like yesterdays happen. They happened with all the strongest teams in the past 10-12 years, Pep included. There is a reason we have the term Hlebuary, and in fact I think that we have weathered this period very well still not losing a single game. Maybe I am an optimist, but I think what Valverde is building is a very strong team with a great foundation and while I am not too sure about the CL, I have the utmost confidence in the league and the cup. I fully expect the team to lay the smackdown on Athletico come Sunday.

    As for Paulinho, the fans will always look for a scapegoat, but he is just a cog in a machine that did not function properly vs Las Palmas. Not much changed when he was taken off because the team was still not functioning properly. Paulinho does his job, it may not be a job that most fans appreciate or enjoy but he mostly does it effectively, especially when the team is functioning as a unit. If everyone is playing like dogshit how can anyone expect him to do his job effectively? Lots of talk of Paulinho, but not much talk of Iniesta who was pretty much invisible till he was taken off. Even with the team playing way below its level we should have won the game, if not for Lahoz and his refereeing antics, so I am not worried.

    Bring on Athletico!

  3. ooga aga
    March 2, 2018

    Thanks KXevin. You’d think Barca “fans” would at least wait until their team lost their first game all season, before they start unleashing the hate and vitriol for the coach and players. Wrong! I guess the lead in the league must be > 5 points (preferably > 10 pts) to keep the hounds at bay. I’m not telling people to not criticize– it’s just strange to me that some folks (“fans”) only ever come into this space to be negative. It just seems to me there is an infinitude of things to say about the team — positive, negative, or neutral, but certain people only ever choose the “negative” option, and bash the team at any chance. If that is the nature of how people use these spaces, that’s disappointing.

    Let’s calm down and enjoy the ride, as Kevin has counseled so many times. The season is not over after Sunday, even if we win or lose.

    • ooga aga
      March 2, 2018

      Sorry, I said “this space” when I meant more generally– definitely we get the Negative Nancy’s in this space but the larger culer-verse is like this too, if not more so.

    • Rokke
      March 2, 2018

      I assume you might be thinking about me since you replied to my comment about bottling the league yesterday. I’d like to clarify that it’s not just baseless negativity. I fear we’ll end up losing our lead because that’s the trend we’ve been on since the change of the year. In the first half of the season we had a win rate of 80% in the league and did incredibly well to build our lead. In 2018 that has dropped to 66% while Atleti are winning 89% of their games. It might just be a dip in form, but we have to recover from that dip really, really soon or they’ll already have overtaken us. Of course we’ll be back in a pretty comfortable lead if we beat Atleti on Sunday, but I’m not terribly confident heading into that as teams have been successful congesting the center of the pitch against us lately.

  4. PPos
    March 2, 2018

    I dont think Paulinho sucks or is a bad player. He’s just being made the scapegoat for our recent draws. People need to understand that Paulinho is tired. He hasn’t had a rest from professional football since last February. That’s when the Chinese league starts, that means that the man has been playing a lot of football in 365 days. Hlebruary is done. The run in to trophies begins with Aletico this sunday. I dont care how strong Griezmann might be playing. If he can’t get the ball, he can’t score. Simple as that.

  5. Snoopking
    March 2, 2018

    Kxevin nice one from you, on Barcelona issue it won’t be easy for any coach that is appointed as manager to not win any trophy in his first year because since 10-12 years back is not common for Barcelona to go thought out of a season without trophy, last season when Pep was appointed as Man city boss he went off without trophy; he said in his comment that man city accept him though he end up without trophy and he said they accept him if it’s big club that appoint him they wont accept him without win a single trophy in his first year. If we’re talking about of best coaches in the world Pep will be among of them, first year of guardiola ends well with Barcelona. In that aspect dont expect such things to be welcome in Barcelona of ours. Calibre of this team is high more than liverpool, Dortmund, ac Milan, and others because there’s great expectation from the club in each year.

    Paulinho is trying i respect this guy alot because he is not inform and that doesn’t mean he is not a kind of player Barcelona didn’t want, but on previous game he and the team generally are off to the game just like they are not preparing for yesterday game, definitely the team generally deserve credit to be given.
    Human being needs cannot be satisfy. In that case be expecting high demand from Barcelona culers

  6. georgjorge
    March 4, 2018

    Both Coutinho and Iniesta in the starting lineup, Piqué hopefully fit again, Messi on fire right now. Can’t wait!

  7. Snoopking
    March 4, 2018

    I pray today should be a lucky day of ours. because with the line up the coach is doing the best he can do, in fact if end up with defeat it won’t pain me at all be the squad we have at the moment is good enough, today should be our lucky day; am calm because simeone haven’t beat Barcelona at home game in laliga since he was appointed as there manager, am happy with the record but what am scared of was of Valverde stats against ATN was he haven’t won a single game against simeone since his long day in Spanish league. Today we are going out to watch biggest game in Spain perhaps in England also. have nice day

  8. georgjorge
    March 4, 2018

    Tough about Iniesta – shows how good he still is for twenty minutes, then out injured. Puzzled why Gomes once again is brought on instead of Paulinho or Dembélé.

    The team is playing extremely well. We know Atleti is a defensive team, but Diego Costa hasn’t even had a single opportunity to intimidate or rile up defenders! That says it all. Who were those impostors turning up at Las Palmas some days ago?

  9. Rokke
    March 4, 2018

    Great victory!

    I think we could have killed them in the first half where we completely dominated them. Certainly would have saved me a lot of butt clenching in the 2nd half. A bit sad that Valverde saw no place for Dembele in this game. If Iniesta is injured for Chelsea now, I’d say Dembele absolutely has to start that game to provide some penetration a la Leroy Sane, and today could have offered some experience for him.

    A bit surprised we were able to almost completely neutralize them over 90 minutes, but I guess that just speaks to how much the defence has improved under Valverde. Any concerns about losing the league to Atleti in this business end of the season seem very alien now as even if we were to continue our 2018 form prior to today’s game, we would still come out on top if Atleti also continued theirs.

    • georgjorge
      March 4, 2018

      Dembélé today is a tough one. I can absolutely see not starting him because his speed and dribbling skills would be severely reduced against an Atleti sitting deep. In the second half, spaces were opening up, but spaces also needed to be closed in our own half, something Paulinho can do better than Dembélé. Either substitution makes sense.

      André Gomes – gave the ball away needlessly a few times, killing promising attacks, and just when I (again) would give up on him he would provide a vital block or a good forward pass, before returning to the former again. One of the more frustrating figures in the squad right now.

      Our two defensive rocks Piqué and Umtiti still extraordinary, massive game from them. Also: Rakitic, Sergi Roberto, and of course Messi. Coutinho coming into the team faster than expected, with some nice combinations and good decision-making.

  10. Jim
    March 4, 2018

    Just heading out the door after putting my family taxi duties on hold for about an hour.

    Short thoughts. Great result. What an effort from an already tired team. Liga done. We looked to be on fire till Iniesta was injured. After that we gradually turned into a damp squib offensively. Any word on him? Looked like hip but then he clutched hammy. If so, no Chelsea so can only hope it was the hip. Still annoyed at the way we’ve mismanaged Pique’s knee. No, we couldn’t have done without him today – he got to everything! – but he could have been rested since he got the injury. Now he’s one innocent knock away from a season ending injury. Silly really.

  11. TITO
    March 4, 2018

    Great result, great first half,.solid second one.
    I was surprised how cautious Simeone approached the game, knowing that a win here would have definitely open the title race.
    It was a team effort after all, but i have to mention Pique, Umtiti, Rakitic and of course, Messi is Messi.

  12. Snoopking
    March 4, 2018

    Outstanding result from the team and good performance with a lot of respect by removing my cap for Messi to his astonishing finished from his free kick that secure today win; generally the team deserve our kudos especially the coach with his mind game and good tactics that produce good result wow am happy with today game. Brilliant messi work today and the team support his effort by defending the narrow win. Now is the end for Atm boss by thinking of winning impossible la liga league.

  13. Dar_vincy
    March 4, 2018

    Simeone (coach Atletico): “If we take Messi and put him in an Atletico shirt, we win this match 1-0”.

    • Víctor
      March 4, 2018

      Sounds like an excuse, did he forget that they won against us two years ago at UCL’s QF? As far as I can remember, Messi played both games in that tie. Of course, they knocked us out and then went to lose the championship against Real Madrid… real geniuses there.

  14. Jim
    March 4, 2018

    Just watching Chelsea reprising our second half performance. Hazard on his own up front the whole game, cut off and they take him off to put a forward on ! I would have chinned Simeone, I think, as I left the park.

    At some point there will be a conversation to be had with EV about just how defensively he sets us up but not yet. Utterly shameful from Chelsea.

  15. Víctor
    March 4, 2018

    So, once again, 8 point lead in La Liga, which practically is 9… because of tie-breaking criteria in the league… so, can we turn off the alarms already?

    Team looks somewhat tired, it’s good that, once again, they’ll get a whole week until Malaga… which, in any case, I still think that Valverde should rest players like: Messi, Suarez, Rakitic and maybe Alba…

    We are gonna face another relegation side and the worst team, so far, in La Liga… might as well give a chance to Alcacer, Denis and Mina.

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