When the curtain was raised on this past season in August 2017, it looked like someone had forgotten to include the props with the theatrical sets. There were a few actors milling about, but no one had learned any lines. The Supercopa was a nightmare for Barcelona fans, starting with a loss at the Camp Nou that included an unlucky Pique own goal and falling from 1-1 at 79 minutes played to 1-3 at full time. A clear dive by Luis Suarez earned Barcelona its only goal of the night and while a red card for Cristiano Ronaldo made it seem more palatable, that was all quickly forgotten in the second leg when Marco Asensio blasted home in just the 4th minute to virtually end things. You could be forgiven for updating pre-season predictions from Middling to Catastrophic.
From that stuttering start to the final whistle of the final match, it was a bumpy road. Still, when the curtain fell, it should have brought the house down around it. Instead, it felt more like the crowd was thinking about something else. Some members of the audience had clearly left before the last line. How does one even begin to talk about a team that was a single goal from being undefeated in 38 league matches, but also dropped an absolute clanger in the quarterfinals of the Champions League? Oh and also nabbed its 4th consecutive domestic cup trophy. In order to achieve something akin to coherence, I will break this out into pieces, so that the criss-crossing narratives don’t interfere with each other quite as much on paper as they do in reality. I hope you enjoy this look back at where we were, where we’ve gone, and where we are.
Of Mice and Managers
To start at the beginning is to talk about the end.
The team improved upon its 2016-17 league performance (getting 93 points compared to 90), but many felt they did not truly perform. Art is rarely required to be functional, but it does have to look good. Although both seasons included 28 wins, Lucho’s final season boasted 116 goals scored and 37 allowed. Valverde’s nearly invincible squad registered 99 goals for and 29 goals against, fully 5 of the latter being received in the penultimate match of the season away to Levante. Instead of 8 goals fewer in the end, a clean sheet would have meant history and just 2 more goals allowed than Atleti’s stingy defense.
An improvement of sorts occurred in the Champions League as well. There was no need to come back from 4 goals down against PSG — whatever you think of that magnificent 6-1 performance (amazing! glorious! ASWFAWQEYOUWSDLKFJSDLKJ!) that it was required in order to progress from the Round of 16 is a statement of what the team was like — and there was no first leg drubbing and second leg petering out. Instead, the away drubbing (also 3-0 in Italy) was left for when it felt like a total gut punch instead of a steamrolling. If you played the Juve away match 10 times, Juve would win 8 or 9 of them. If you played the Roma away match 10 times, Barça would proceed to the next round 7 or 8 times. I suppose that’s something to hang your hat on.
Because of that result, if you listen to a particular subset of fans, this season was a complete and utter disaster. If you listen to another set of fans, however, it was a resounding success. For this particular writer, the reality falls somewhere in between, though certainly shaded towards success. The league was won by 14 points, a rather large number. Real Madrid earned the same number of points (93) last year and won the league by 3 points. The year before that, Barça edged out the merengues by 1 solitary point (91 to 90) with third place just 2 more points back of that (88). The 2012-13 season (the Tito Vilanova year), ended with a 15 point margin between first and second, but it took 100 points–tied for the record–to do so. When Real Madrid got that many the year before, they were 9 points up on second (and 39 on third). It’s hard to say that 93 points and a 14 point margin is anything other than a resounding success. Only 6 teams have every gotten more points in the history of the league (and one of those finished second).
Another thing: this is a team routinely slated for its lack of depth, at least in terms of quality. There were 23 roster spots occupied by 21 players, but of those the crowds are baying for the blood of at least 5 of them because they are “not good enough.” Ivan Rakitic’s name is even occasionally mentioned in a “must go” fire sale ad on Twitter, which is utter madness any way you slice it. It would be disingenuous, however, to argue that that is the sole purpose of such statements–that the roster isn’t good enough and therefore the team underperformed–when the reality is that it is about focus on the league and Copa del Rey at the expense of the Champions League.
Compare the La Liga stats between Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid: Jan Oblak and Marc Andre Ter Stegen both played 37 matches, as one might expect from number 1 keepers, but Keylor Navas played just 27 matches. In fact, no Real Madrid player would have cracked the top 6 of Barcelona’s minutes played in La Liga list this year (Casemiro played 2601 minutes, whereas Pique, who played the 6th most minutes for Barça, had 2633. Atleti had 3 players register more minutes than Pique (including absolutely beast Saul, who played an outfield player league-leading 3157 minutes!).
This means that the bulk of the work was done by the superstars for Barcelona (all La Liga minutes information from here) even when the league was won. So, was the squad really full of the dregs of La Liga? There’s Paco Alcacer, for example, who started 8 matches in the league and made 9 substitute appearances as the second choice striker behind Luis Suarez. He was on the field for 694 minutes in total. Less than Theo Hernandez and Achraf Hakimi for Real Madrid. Andre Gomes had even fewer minutes, registering almost exactly the same number of minutes as Jesus Vallejo. Javier Mascherano had more minutes in his half season of football than Aleix Vidal in the whole of the seasons (541 vs 453).
The answer to the question that I asked–was the squad really full of the dregs of La Liga?–appears to be yes, in a lot of ways. If Aleix Vidal cannot be trusted to put in a shift against, say, Malaga, shouldn’t a youth player be called up to be given an opportunity to prove himself? And that speaks to the other side of being a club like Barcelona: you must always look forward, to the next few seasons and that is impossible without youth integration. The Copa del Rey is fun to win because it is a trophy, but it should be reserved for the blooding of young players. There’s no huge letdown if the team is bumped early and there’s massive upside if the team does well with young players. Not only are we working toward another trophy, but players are getting experience, future versatility out of talents otherwise languishing on the bench, and resting stars for much more consequential matches. We have a standard “Copa keeper” policy, yet no similar policy for outfield players. Not to beat a dead horse, but if Paco can’t be trusted against Numancia in the cup, why is he in the squad at all?
Valverde clearly sees things differently. It is likely that winning the domestic double is a way for him to retain his job–how can you get rid of a coach who wins 2/3 of the available trophies?–but also to get himself some silverware. He had come in second to Barcelona in the CDR with Athletic Bilbao while Lucho won a triplete. which is probably something that he thinks about kind of a lot. It strikes me that Valverde thought he could have his cake and eat it too, resting no one and leaning heavily on his stars to get him out of tricky situations given their obscene talent. And then he goofed in Rome and couldn’t find a way back. When he finally did pull the trigger on changes after 85 minutes, he was almost instantly rewarded with a goal and safe passage to the semifinals (although any of the awaiting teams would have been treacherous waters to navigate).
The Wreckage of Roma:
There will never be a truthful review of this season without coming to grips with the night of April 10. A 4-1 one aggregate lead going into the match surely meant progression to the semifinals. Semifinal watch parties were being organized and all that stood between Barça and a possible Clasico semifinal sandwiched around the league Clasico was 90 minutes in Italy. It hadn’t gone so well the year before, but this was a more practical side than recent iterations. It was capable of defense, sporting the second fewest goals allowed in the league and the fewest in the Champions League to date. Just 3 goals had been allowed in 9 matches and never more than one in a single match in continental competition. This was a solid outfit.
And then the wheels came off.
It was obvious early that a change would be required to keep Roma off the front foot, to make them ease up on the gas pedal. But nothing seemed to be changing. It just seemed like Barça were absorbing pressure and assuming it would go away. After 30 minutes, down just a goal, but with threats coming from all sides, it seemed like the team settled a little and start to play. There were some freekicks in dangerous spots for Barça and you just knew Messi would hit one and seal it all up and off to the semis we go, but he didn’t. At halftime, cameras caught Andres Iniesta saying something had to change or the team was stuffed. Nothing changed and the second goal arrived after a penalty on Pique where he hauled Dzeko to the ground by his arm. And no changes. And more time ticked off the clock and finally in the 81st, off went Iniesta for Gomes, the first change for Barça. It felt like giving up. Gomes is hardly an attacking force. And then the third came off a corner in the 82nd. There were tears in Iniesta’s eyes because he knew. And finally there was a change and Dembele and Paco Alcacer entered and things brightened up, but it was too late and that was it and it was over.
You felt like someone had punched you in the stomach.
And the vitriol began in earnest then, with fans baying for Valverde’s head despite the league lead and the Copa run. The team had started off being hashed by Real Madrid and then had built a lead and squandered it and the house had burned down around everyone and everything was ash.
It was hard not to feel that way. Many fans believe the Champions League is the premier competition–they buy Wenger’s quip that 4th place is good enough because it gets you into the real tournament–but I do not believe that and will hang my hat on the domestic league for the foreseeable future. And still it was a tough pill to swallow. Who could have guessed that the team would go from complete shambles to burning up the league, undefeated at that point and setting records with each passing match? Who would have guessed Paulinho would be the team’s fourth highest scorer with 9 goals, only Coutinho, Luis Suarez, and Lionel Messi above him. The team had lost its star acquisition, Ousmane Dembele for long periods due to injury, and was still trundling along, sometimes brilliantly, but most often in workmanlike fashion. Brick after brick was being put onto the monument to Valverde’s nous and suddenly it was all on the ground, a pile of nonsense while rival fans jeered in the distance.
You felt like someone had slapped your mother.
I got a text message from a coworker who simply said, “WHAT JUST HAPPENED?”
Of Kings and Traitors
How did this team, a team that conquered both Spain and Europe over the last decade plus, end up succumbing to what was essentially an above-average Serie A team?
Obviously the season started with Neymar’s massive move to PSG–€222m!–and that was always going to shape everything. Neymar is not only one of the world’s best, he was a centerpiece of an offense. The Paulinho move came on the heels of Neymar’s move and smacked of desperation as the transfer window was going to shut in just a couple of weeks, though it was likely in the works for some time before that and may well have been part of the attempt to settle Neymar. Instead, it felt like the club had lost control. Everyone knew about the €222m, so they could hold Barcelona hostage for ever higher sums. And then Dembele came along and people talked themselves into saying that was a good move because Neymar had to be replaced and we were always going to pay a premium for that. It was desperation that drove that move too, but maybe both were necessary. Fans were irate, the left wing was in tatters, something had to be done. Obviously, nothing could be done without dropping a lot of money. Fans remained irate, though focused mostly on Neymar’s supposed treachery. Some are gleeful about his “failure” in Russia at the World Cup, reaching “only” the quarterfinals.
And yet, there’s Coutinho, who hasn’t received even an ounce of criticism for being on that same World Cup squad. He’s ours, after all. He didn’t disrespect us by leaving. His price was too high for the summer, but then the board basically paid it in the winter anyway, after he was cup tied. One of the best players on the team and the manager is handcuffed to a smaller squad simply because of poor institutional planning? It smacks of the Chygrynskiy affair, with a waffling board trying to save money at the same time as trying to appease a manager. Yes, we have color copies, just, not on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
It isn’t the board’s fault that Dembele got injured, of course. That is just one of those happenstances that brought everything else into relief. Without Dembele and before Coutinho, the squad was forced to run extra minutes, many of which fell on the already tired legs of Paulinho. It turns out that playing professional football for a year and a half without a break is not ideal for one’s physical prowess and those 40 million euro legs whose impact as a sudden starter and season saver were unexpected, couldn’t close the deal at the most important time for club or country. He was controversial from the off, of course, given that he was moving from a relative footballing backwater (but have you seen Guangzhou? It looks fabulous, though looks can be deceiving as we know from the 2008 Olympics) and the price tag smacked of the same desperation evident in the Dembele and later Coutinho transfers.
There were those who were angry that it was Paulinho and his massive salary getting the nod over Aleñá, the then-19-year-old midfield Next Big Thing who was plying his trade at an ever-growing clip for the B squad. There were those who were angry that it seemed to be a move to appease Neymar, who left anyway. There were those who were angry that it seemed like the board is obsessed with Brazilian players to the detriment of the club. There were those who were angry just because. There were, in fact, few who were happy about any part of it. I wasn’t happy about it as I was a combination of all of the above reasons. I was fine with Neymar lining the club’s coffers with all the gold in the world and with the club being able to turn that coin into Dembele and Coutinho (who, again, they didn’t get in time), but why Paulinho? He was filling a need that didn’t exist.
But in this world you’re either a king or a traitor. You’re either the hero of the hour or the villain of a lifetime. You’re either packing the trophy case or packing your bags. The smallest of errors, on anyone’s part, can topple an empire forged from unflagging work by those who came before. How dare you insult the legacy of Xavi with a water carrier like Paulinho? Yet it’s also true that Paulinho was the fourth highest goalscorer for the team–a role that was unlikely to be filled by Aleñá. It was Paco Alcacer that was 5th highest scorer, with 7. No one else got over 4. Coutinho’s half season yielded as many goals (11) as Dembele, Denis Suarez, and Ivan Rakitic combined. I could have tossed Andre Gomes in there as well, as he scored a grand total of a goose egg in all competitions. In the Champions League, those 3 aforementioned players combined for 2 goals in 16 appearances, with Denis coming up empty. You’re either a golden god or just another extra in someone else’s show, but it’s worth remembering that Coutinho really was the guy he was supposed to be, whereas Dembele is a project. Coutinho was 25 and Dembele 20; development is everything and Coutinho’s absence from the beginning was felt more firmly in the Champions League than in the league the team had already won.
And in a world with such dynamics, where success and failure are just millimeters apart, the smallest slip can cascade into a full-blown avalanche. Valverde goofed with his lineup against Roma, which is understandable to an extent. You can trust your players to a fault because you know just how good they are, but you also have to know when to make a change. The change that wasn’t made in August–Coutinho–was paid for on an April night in Rome. We will never know if this is true, but certainly it would have been a different question and necessitated a different answer from Valverde. He failed his biggest hurdle, while passing the league test with flying colors. It felt bad, but the lessons should be greater than Valverde’s fraught relationship with substitutions: January is for panic buying, not for use as a backup plan. [As I write this, news of Arthur Melo’s transfer comes through and I breathe a sigh of relief that the board actually learned a lesson]
The Past is Never the Past
Listen: Arda Turan, Aleix Vidal, Paco Alcacer, Andre Gomes.
This is the legacy that Lucho left us. A list of names that didn’t work. A list of expensive names that didn’t work. Only Vidal was less than €30 million. That adds up on multiple levels, first monetarily to the tune of about €120 million. Secondly, it puts a damper on other development, in what economists call opportunity cost, both in terms of the players in the youth academy and any other players that would have been brought in instead. Thirdly, it reduces fan confidence that the board knows what it’s doing–there has to be a plan, whatever that plan is. And lastly, it surrounds fabulous players with mediocrity.
One quick aside: none of the players listed above are bad. They are all, in fact, rather good. Playing against Arda Turan when he was at Atleti was not fun. Andre Gomes was beginning to blossom at Valencia and proved his abilities at Euro2016. But neither they nor Paco were suited for Barcelona’s system. Aleix Vidal appears to have been a good squad player, only to be played wildly out of position in difficult circumstances.
If you’re going to try and fit square pegs into round holes, you ought to try it with less expensive pieces. This is the fear that was engendered when Paulinho arrived: another physical midfielder without the required touch. Where’s the pausa in any of these players? Paco has shown signs of immense regression–Bojan in bigger boots–while Arda was never at home in Barcelona. He was built to savage, not to finesse. But it’s that second part of the opportunity cost, the part about youth development, that is scariest. The youth team reflects the first team, but delayed. It takes time for the base of the institution to adapt to what is going on at the top, but once it does, it does a very good job in producing players that fit that scheme. For a generation, it has worked on quick-thinking, technical players who eschewed physical brilliance for faster decisions. Why run faster when you could pass even faster? And suddenly, it was asked to create Kantes instead of Iniestas. They are both brilliant and both absolutely have a place in the game, but one is not very much like the other. They are physically different, mentally different, and tactically different. To switch from one to the other requires a different mold, a different set of training requirements, a different set of coaching mentalities, all of which have to be figured out by the institution while the first team plays on. You can paper over the cracks for just so long, but they return if you don’t properly fix them.
You could call any of these transfers unlucky, but together they fit a pattern of trying to change the club’s development model. Ivan Rakitic too, but he has the technical quality to make up for that–a bridge between two worlds, if you will. And not all of these transfers are abject failures, though it is a fairly lackluster list overall. It’s that the institutional momentum that Valverde (or any manager) faces is multiplied as the institution itself gets bigger. What Laporta never envisioned when he set the brand explosion in motion after his election in 2003 was that there would come a time when Cruyffismo would be shunned in the Camp Nou presidential suite and because of that, there was never any backup plan. And why would you have one, when you’ve got hundreds of millions of euros of profit-making brilliance pouring out of every corner of the club? Who would destroy such a thing?
And along came Joachim Löw.
And along came the marketing genius that Jorge Mendes tapped into.
And along came Lucho.
Jorge Valdano wrote about this, even if he didn’t mean to.
There is no identifiable moment when it all started, nor one place where it began, and there is no dominant theory. What is true is that bit by bit we got further away from the ball, the one thing we loved more than the game itself. We got further from a style that used to draw us to the stadium, where we longed to shout “olé!” every time we saw someone dribble, trick an opponent, tease them; every time we saw a lightning one-two or some expression of cunning, that astuteness – that was our life. There was talent of the highest quality and in the greatest quantity and we allowed ourselves an act of genius once in a while.
And he goes on, about Argentina: “People were shouting at the players to show more huevos and sitting in the stands Diego [Maradona] expressed that by grabbing his testicles. Yes, Diego: the man who represented better than anyone else the best of what we had, our former style.”
People took ens hi deixem la pell too seriously. They wanted balls out, soldier mentality, violence. And they wanted it every match. They wanted to watch their opponents drown, not wrap them in the beauty that had sustained us through the greatest generation of our club’s history. They wanted screaming filthy rage. They wanted more blood than they knew what to do with. What we got were warriors who found themselves next to artists and the artists were the ones who blinked, but not before the beauty was gone and what was left was muscle and sinew and a sense of loss. We want screaming jet engines, warplanes breaking the sound barrier, dizzying motion, instead of the calm self-assurance to simply listen to the silence. The former is easier than the latter, but the latter is how you learn to tell your own story.