“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?