The savage thing about hope is that it exists and the intersection of joy and heartbreak, a cosmic fork in the road that Fate capriciously chooses for us. It’s worse when hope has to suddenly manifest in the wake of confidence being dashed, an emotional about-face that makes the subsequent disappointment in failure ever more cruel — almost dreamlike.
“I’d be lying if I said we could learn from this. We went out in a similar way last season, albeit in the first leg, not the second.”
The complexities alluded to by Busquets go much deeper. In essence, nothing has been learned since the Bayern destruction, a similar Champions League hammering, even as this one feels so much worse. A battered, injured, psychologically hammered Barça faced off against a younger, hungrier side that cast them and their wounded leader aside. Against Roma, Barça had a 4-1 lead on aggregate. They didn’t lose. They capitulated, a decision that lies at the feet of not only a manager who flinched in the face of potential greatness, but a sporting structure that let down the greatest player in the history of the game. Failure accompanied by shame feels that much worse, particularly in the wake of lessons that should have been learned and weren’t taken to heart.
Knowing that failure is a part of sport, a consistent presence that stalks dreams like an athletic Babadook doesn’t help. That, as Busquets ruefully noted, we have been here before doesn’t help. Rage doesn’t help. Recriminations don’t help. Hashtags or other social media activism doesn’t help.
At the end of a bitter couple of hours when it seemed that everything was lost, it didn’t seem like anything would help. Goosebumps, that tight skin in the wake of disappointment verging on heartbreak, the welling, the lump right there, the rote performance of tasks, a weird grief reaction that you tell yourself is silly, that it’s just sport.
Now imagine how the players feel.
Should we spare a moment for them, or no? Yes, they were poor. So, so poor. But they had an assist in that regard from the structure that should have helped them. Should we wonder how Iniesta might feel, how Busquets feels, how Messi feels, how Pique and Umtiti, the men trusted with the latch to the back door, feel? We should. For us, it is a game, vicarious thrills that we live, relive and take a distant part in, even as the most devoted supporter. For the players, it’s their life. It’s everything. It’s one more year off the ticking clock of a career measured in the compressed time of athletic excellence. For them, failure is legitimately heart-rending.
But what we are left to wonder is, at the micro and macro level, how did we get here?
“Everythihng was in their favor. They scored an early goal and the atmosphere was causing us many problems.”
— Ernesto Valverde
After the match Valverde, the man whose job it is to ensure that none of the things that he cited happen, sounded like a coach not ready for the moment, a small-team manager thrust onto the big stage and found wanting. A Barça coach doesn’t say that.
That he said he is responsible is also important, not only for ownership but for the truth of the matter. For those wondering how it happened to PSG, it was this: a conservative, fearful coach set his team up to defend the big lead that it had. It was the same script as PSG, so you might imagine someone would have been aware, a team pressing to make up a deficit, the complacent opponent sitting back, on its heels instead of on its toes.
The match started, Roma charged, Barça absorbed. And as with the goal away goal that turned out to be crucial, Dzeko got goal side of Jordi Alba, who could do nothing. The man who could, Sanuel Umtiti, hesitated. And suddenly, in the most rudimentary of manners — a simple long ball over the top — Roma had the early goal that created the momentum, the energy.
Barça never attacked. There were still two more goals to give up, after all. We’re fine, a battered team must have told itself at halftime, being down only one of the three goals its opponent needed to turn the tie. And then, stupidly, early in the second half, another goal conceded. And still, the team did nothing, its coach did nothing, seemingly paralyzed by the moment even as it was clear to anyone what was happening. We saw it happen to PSG, we saw it happening to Barça. If we saw it, the players certainly saw it. And still, nothing happened, and it gets to a point where nothing can happen.
That Andre Gomes for Iniesta was the first sub, late, too late, encapsulated the micro and macro issues facing this team: the other guys aren’t good enough. So even though Iniesta was like a leaf being blown about in the wind of the Roma aggression, a 34-year-old midfielder about to get his gold watch was still better than anything on offer. That speaks to failure of the sporting project, occasional baubles being purchased notwithstanding. A team that has needed major work for years got a series of patches, and new psychic blood in the form of new coaches. There were transfers, those too aimed at keeping the aging machine going rather than honestly and cruelly considering whether it needs an overhaul.
On the micro level if Valverde was going to set up to defend, he chose the wrong XI. Of course Roma was going to press. If you are going to defend, like a small-club coach with a lead against a superior opponent, Paulinho is your midfielder, not Iniesta. Put a big body out there to fight for those long passes that Roma completed so easily. If you are going to defend, Vermaelen, a more traditional CB, is your choice. Perhaps Umtiti plays left back, rather than Alba, who contributed nothing. Perhaps.
If you are a brave coach with real ambition, you attack. You start Dembele, who could do what he did early in the match to set Roma on their heels rather than them Barça on theirs. You go for the throat, for that crucial away goal that puts the tie out of reach. Small clubs sit back to defend a lead. Barça is supposed to attack. Against Bayern, even in the face of everything that happened, Barça tried to play its football. It was brave, foolish and ineffective, but there was an identity, some effort.
Barça looked like a team with too many key players at or over 30, that magic age in football. It looked tired, bereft of ideas as it cowered on the rocks. It would be facile to say, “This isn’t my Barça,” because it is. This team was, until the battering in Rome, unbeaten in league and Champions League. This was attained at a cost, extracted from the tired legs of aging players. When Iniesta HAS to start, your team has a problem, even as his moments of sparkle allowed his devotees to suggest that he still has it. Not at 34, not playing every match. Iniesta should be the fine china you bring out for special occasions, not the everyday dishes.
The acquisitions of Andre Gomes and Paco Alcacer can now be seen, now that the smoke has dissipated and the mirrors cracked, for the body blows they were. Neither player was good enough to supplant an incumbent. Suarez wasn’t poor against Roma. He would have to be visible to be poor. But what is the alternative? Nobody. Even as we screamed for Valverde to make subs, who, aside from Dembele, could he bring on to make a difference. A real difference.
Busquets has to play every match, because what is the alternative? Iniesta has to start, because what is the alternative? And at the end of a Liga campaign in which the team is still unbeaten, a price was extracted in energy. This team has gotten it done all season so we expected them to against Roma, somehow, expected a late miracle right up until the final whistle, the alert that the time for miracles was done.
Messi has been magnificent this season because he was able to be decisive, rather than essential. Valverde adapted the system to suit his needs, acted like a coach instead of an accountant. Messi’s teammates played, did work, set him up and were set up by him. Against Roma, those same teammates desperately pushed the ball in his direction, expecting to be saved. Nobody DID anything, took anything on themselves. All season, even when the team hasn’t been good, it has understood how to get results. Its pragmatic coach worked a weird alchemy. All those matches, all those minutes, all that running showed up as Roma charged. Their football wasn’t elaborate or elegant. They got the ball up the pitch, set piece after set piece showing the tired desperation of a team that was just defending, just surviving — until it was done in.
And then, too late, Valverde acted, inserting Alcacer and Dembele, deciding to finally try to play attacking football. The result made you wonder what would have happened had those subs been made earlier, or had such a conservative XI, one built to play football rather than defend, been selected. On paper the XI made sense, combining security with control. But this wasn’t a normal match, we realize in the wake. Roma was always going to attack, always going to press. Bold decisions needed to be made. Players whose form argued for their substitution in the XI still started. Vermaelen is playing better than Umtiti. Denis Suarez is sparkier and more active, on form, than Iniesta. Yes, the former is a defensive liability, but so is the latter. What is there to be lost? Busquets had a bad toe, Pique a bum knee, Messi an uncertain hamstring.
Even geniuses and warriors get tired, get hurt. There have to be options for when they are. The club structure has failed the greatest player to ever play the game by not providing him with the foundation necessary for him to excel. Spending money at the death helps, but when the problem has been clear for some time, that failure is ever more apparent. Seven years, and one Champions League victory, with Messi running the attack is as savage an indictment as there can be.
Barça needs youth and pace, needs a coach rather than a caretaker, needs ambition as great as that which motivated the Joan Laporta board to take a chance on Pep Guardiola, a coach untested on a stage as big as Barça — also a genius who got his comeuppance on the same day as Barça, in a bitter, twisted bit of irony. Was Valverde the right choice for THIS team, an assemblage of aged thoroughbreds and clunky spare parts? Yup. This team needed a caretaker as much as the Tata Martino side did. Whether he is the coach with the drive and ambition to move the sporting project forward is another question. There are already rumors that Valverde will be leaving at the end of the season. Should he? Yes. If the team is going to rebuild, going to buy and sell like a team that understands time is wasting, Valverde isn’t the right coach for that task, nor are accountants in the boardroom the right people to lead this club forward.
Haste isn’t the appropriate reaction in such a charged aftermath, when the failure that many were anticipating and dreading even if they weren’t expecting it in Rome, came to pass. Again. But this isn’t haste. At the beginning of the season, a few of us said, this team could get something done, even as it isn’t complete. It will win Liga. Properly managed, it could have won a treble. People said after the Roma beatdown, “This team wasn’t good enough to win anyhow,” consoling themselves in the aftermath of utter failure. Bullshit. This team is more than good enough. But tentatively set up and stuffed with tired-legged players who for too long have borne the burden of team building failure? Naah. We knew that, saw that, but still hoped, because that is what you do.
There are two levels here. Short-term, this season, and long-term, from next season on. Short-term, the team and players were getting it done. Long-term, the verdict is a more damning one. Next steps are crucial. What we know is that as with Bayern, everyone hung on too long. As Busquets said, we have been here before, and learned nothing. A new day brings a new, sad lesson. Will anything be learned this time?