Culers could be forgiven for thinking that they were watching three different teams, as Barça dismantled PSV 4-0, then notched a fighting, down to ten, shoulda been a win draw against Girona, then a desultory dungheap of a display in losing to Leganes. But it’s the same team, with the same set of problems that have been alluded to here before. But take heart. There is good.
The team dropping points, quite naturally, sent the social media legions into a tizzy. That’s good. When dropped points don’t freak out the world, that will be bad. The good part(s), of course, are that Atleti’s drab start means they are chasing, and because Sevilla did the free world a solid in spanking Real Madrid, Barça end the round of matches exactly where they were atop the table on goal differential.
There is going to be a lot of stuff that people won’t like in this post, but forewarned is forewarmed. So let’s go, point by point.
Penny smart, Euro foolish?
The club got an offer for Yerry Mina that was too good to pass up. The talented young Colombian CB made a fourfold profit for FC Barcelona. You can wonder how he would have been with a full summer with the club, of training and assimilation, but that is another story. Why is this relevant?
Gerard Pique is mining a poor vein of form right now. He whiffed on a clearance that led to a Girona goal on the weekend, played a Leganes attacker onside and made a stupid, inexplicable back pass that might as well have been an assist. In the quest for blame after the match, people fell back on old favorites: Valverde, the midfield, blablabla. But Pique started the season out of focus and has remained that way, and he is costing his team. He isn’t the sole defensive problem, but his wandering mind and lack of effort are contagious. They also have a domino effect in the spaces and crises created in the defense as a whole. CBs are Pique, Lenglet, Umtiti and Vermaelen. If you sit Pique, an LCB will need to play RCB.
What made the Guardiola teams is no secret: the group was a group, that did everything with everyone. The problems of Suarez, Messi, Coutinho and Dembele in the side have been discussed before. And even as the three matches have yielded different results, the same issues have remained. PSV got at the defense just as easily as Girona and Leganes did, just as easily at Athletic will on the weekend. Ter Stegen is good, but he ain’t that good. Busquets said that the defensive problems were a concern, which is an understatement. Everyone knows how to fix them. But right now, the team has an attack, and a deffense. It doesn’t have a unit. By design and of necessity? No idea what the coaching staff is thinking in that regard. But the Barça defense isn’t good enough as a proper defense for the team to be playing as it is.
People talk of midfield control. Sorry, but unless Barça manages 100 percent possession (more than 70 percent against Leganes), the opponent will have the ball. And when tney do, the existing fragmented team, unclear assignments because of the persistent scramble and overall lack of pace means that the defense is going to leak goals. Whether those leaked goals result in dropped points will depend upon how well the offense plays, the other half of the fragmented team. This team, drawn up as it is with the gala XI, isn’t capable of winning a 1-0 match with regularity. And that is a problem.
Against Leganes particularly but also against Girona, attackers were treating possession like this thing that there was plenty of, so it’s fine if you lose it every now and again. So off went the opponent as a third of the team watched and waited. When you defense can’t really defend, possession is crucial. Last season, Barça was dour and effective. And people hated it. Valverde out, why can’t they play beautiful football, blablabla. You see why now. In the first half of the season there was no Coutinho or Dembele. With only Messi and Suarez not working on defense, problems were easier to solve.
The missing waste of space
Maybe a few people have whispered it, then looked around in a worry that someone might have heard them. But when Valverde said that the team would miss Paulinho, this is what he meant. While people were busy talking about his age, fee and origin story, what Paulinho was doing was running channels, helping stop breaks and moving the ball on for running attackers. All of those are useful skills. At present, there is nobody to do that and the results are clear. Busquets was off against Girona and crap, like the rest of the team, against Leganes. Part of why he looked so off in two matches is because so much is happening when an opponent has the ball, too much for a pokey, lanky Catalan DM to manage. The only reason the midfield hasn’t looked worse in defending is because the flanks are so open, and easy to play down that opponents aren’t even bothering going through the midfield.
A Barça team with Paulinho was more solid. It was also more physical. Both of those are detestable attributes for a fanbase that wants champagne for breakfast, lunch and dinner. That is their right. But this is the result. The team signed Arturo Vidal to make up that deficiency. So far, he hasn’t been as good a Paulinho as Paulinho. Whether he can become such a player will be huge for the club. But even if he does, who sits so that he can enter the XI?
Coutinho giveth, Coutinho taketh away
You can’t have midfield control and Coutinho in the midfield. Sorry. His game is brilliant, and his golazo, though insignificant except for the points spread crowd to the final result, was a delight. But he prnaces, dances, dribbles and shoots at the sight of a net. Those things aren’t going to get you the kind of stability culers crave. Couple that with Dembele, who is also a risk-rich player, and another set of difficulties present itself.
Part of the solution is easy
It has been said here before, but the players aren’t doing their jobs. Negative results will almost always be blamed on a manager, unless there is an unfavored player to draw ire. In the wake of the Leganes result, we heard everything from “small club manager” to “lack of innovation” and the like. My Twitter timeline even brought a should have sold Rakitic in the summer for X or Y midfielder. The search for easy answers that are also unattainable is a key part of a panic.
But the biggest part of this turnaround involves a mirror check. Everybody was porr and lost-looking yesterday, giving up balls, trotting when they should have been running. Check the damn mirror, swear at yourself, have a team meeting, do what the hell ever, but get it right. The team won’t always be able to crap the bed and somehow have the sheets still smell like roses. Success comes down to individuals making a committment to the group. Half-assing created a domino effect.
When I wrote a piece for the Athletic that warned about the seeming extreme focus on Champions League, many scoffed. But the signs of a distracted team are there. That PSV has been the team’s best display of the season (in Champions League) is interesting. Nobody at Real Madrid would ever say it, but they didn’t care all that much about La Liga. And with an aged core such as they have, you get one competition that matters. You need a young team to go for everything. They didn’t have it. Neither did Barça last season, and sure as hell not this season.
So the players will have to decide what matters to them, a process that begins with introspection. But this team isn’t bad, its coach isn’t bad, nothing is as bad as people are making it. But effort matters, and so does energy. If the gala XI is still the gala XI, those players are going to have to cut corners somewhere. People snarked about Valverde rotating, but he will need to do more if he is to keep his aging lions sharp for a full season.
Meanwhile, for Barça to have had a pair of Liga matches that it had and still be atop the table is a blessing, and should be treated as such. Because they sucked against Leganes. Hard. Girona also wanted it more than Barça and played like it, but not to the extent of Leganes, who didn’t play like a bottom of the table side, something that, as with Roma last season, seemed to take the team by surprise. Mental preparation is a significant part of football. A manager has to have his team ready to play. Say what you want about Luis Enrique, but intensity wasn’t one of his deficiencies. Valverde is calm, verging on dour. Is he preparing his team mentally in the right way? Can he? To an extent, yes. But it’s professional pride and a team once again realizing that it is, at least on paper these days, the best damn team in football. We don’t have long to see if they will decide tp play like it.