The beauty and complexity of Lionel Messi is this: He is the greatest player in the history of the game, but he is also the greatest psychological totem in the history of the game.
When he was subbed in against Athletic Bilbao with his team being down 0-1, it wasn’t that everything changed. It was that suddenly Barça looked like a team that believed it could equalize and then win. And it almost did. It was astonishing, but we have seen the effect of him coming off the bench time and again, in various states of fitness and yet another coach discovers this essential quality of the team’s captain and talisman.
The decision by Valverde not to start him against Athletic made perfect sense. Same with Busquets. With a big Champions League match coming up midweek, you can’t flog your veterans. He had to flog them last season, almost made it but fell apart during the stretch run. This season, transfers were made that brought depth, but the XI is still the XI, so rotation is necessary. That’s reality.
This means that, and there isn’t really a way to sugarcoat it, anyone asking why he rested Messi and Busquets doesn’t understand what is going on, what happened last season and what is happening this season. The move made perfect sense. But the same problems persist. Look at the Athletic goal:
— Dembele lost possession, farting around with the ball and coming to grips with Raul Garcia
— The Athletic player on the wing had an eternity to pick the perfect pass
— Because Pique was holding the last attacker on rather than springing the offside trap, that was that
— Nobody had the pace or physicality to deal with the Athletic runner, who scored the goal
After the match, Luis Suarez said that the team shouldn’t need Messi to bail it out, that the lineup should have been enough to beat Athletic. Yes, it should have been. It wasn’t. It was enough to play pretty football, and have some moments that on another day would have resulted in a goal. Today, Coutinho pranged off the crossbar and Suarez shot directly at the keeper for an easy save. That’s football.
Jordi Alba took a pass on the sideline and dribbled and dithered, with nobody coming to him for relief, giving him nowhere to put the football. You learn to do that in youth football. Nobody did. Whose fault is that? That the team doesn’t have a clear tactical sense and more importantly, seems mentally unprepared to battle in a match in the way necessary for a team that is allegedly competing for all the trophies? That is on Valverde.
There is a legitimately dysfunctional team in Manchester United, whose players are underperforming and whose manager is picking fights. If its coach, Jose Mourinho, survives until winter it will be remarkable. Barça isn’t that team, for all of the social media legions who wear their Barça agonies like stigmata. It’s sport. Understand that. It’s entertainment. As you have read here before, millionaires in short pants frolicking on a manicured lawn. And right now, too many of those millionaires aren’t doing their damn jobs. The coach gets stuff wrong. Even when stuff isn’t wrong, it will be wrong because Valverde, despite having won a domestic double last season, is already on fire in the crucible that is an insatiable, often insufferable fanbase.
So yeah. Valverde out. That will help. The bleatings of a panicked fanbase wholly unaccustomed to dealing with any sort of adversity, thankfully, won’t guide a board, even one looking to save its own asses. Valverde made errors today, in not subbing off Rakitic, or not subbing off Dembele sooner. His team has structural problems that result in players dribbling with nowhere to pass a ball, or a keeper having to hoof it long because his team still can’t effectively manage a high press.
But when Dembele makes a mazy, crazy dribble and deposits a cross to where an attacker should be but everyone is standing there watching, that isn’t on the coach. When people have poor control, don’t move to passes or perform basic functions that you learn in youth football, that isn’t on the coach. Having players that aren’t suited for the task at hand isn’t on the coach, even with the transfers he has made the past summer.
This run of points dropped in an awful week isn’t the fault of any one person, and if you believe that, then this post isn’t for you. It isn’t going to meet any of your affirmational needs. There are people you can follow on Twitter to tell you that everything is the worst. Here, know that things aren’t even that particularly bad. But there are problems that will have to be solved as a group. Team and coach. The coach will have to understand and create a structure that allows him team to perform well, and the team will have to do its job in not making silly errors.
Rakitic was desultory, just a mess. Why Arturo Vidal was instead subbed off made no sense. Munir subbed on, and many, including me, questioned it. Then he scored the tying goal. So what do we know? Except that goal was made, forged on the back of a player not interested in losing. The run, the shot, the hustle, the pass, the effort. All Messi, all the time.
There is, every season, talk of Messidependencia. There is, also talk of where would X or Y team be without Messi. But if you look back over the recent history of FC Barcelona, the last decade, where would ANY of those teams be without Messi? What makes this one different, except that it is being coached by a man supporters detest? Does Guardiola have the glory he has without Messi? No, and he will be the first to tell you that. Luis Enrique? Hell no.
We see on Twitter a lot that Barça would be a mid-table club without Messi, which is nonsense, but people want to believe it and who are any of us to argue with such a notion? The last time Barça had to play a period without Messi, he was injured. Neymar and Suarez stepped up. Why? Messi wasn’t an option. There was no looking to the bench at bad times or in moments of adversity, wondering if the coach had had enough of you, or if the talisman will come on to sate that lust for victory.
When Messi is gone, on that awful day, Barça will be different. It won’t be a mid-table club. There is too much talent for that. But even the best talent often doesn’t know what to do without a psychological crutch. The greatest player in the game is such a reality. He is a captain who leads not by getting in faces, but by example. “Do as I do. I’m running my ass off to chase this loose ball down. I won’t tell you what you should do, but look at me.” His teammates do, and the entire group is elevated.
Every team with a great player would be immeasurably altered without the presence of its best player. Why should Barça be one iota different? A way of playing? Phil Jackson’s Triangle offense was genius, many said. Other said that when you had Michael Jordan in your offense, you could have a Rhomboid attack and it would still be successful.
In the NBA Finals, the Chicago Bulls were losing a key game against the Portland Trail Blazers. Jackson pulled the starters for the subs, ciphers such as Bobby Hansen, who didn’t have talent, but they had desire. And they fought, and ran, and dove and scrapped. And suddenly, a double-digit lead was in single digits as the greatest of them all, Michael Jordan, led cheers from the bench for his hard-working teammates. When the subs did the work, the assassins, chastened, re-entered the fray and put the knife in. It was extraordinary.
Should Valverd have continued to go with his chosen XI? Did he do even more damage to a group that already seems to be damaged by inserting Messi to bail them out? It’s a question worth asking. If you want someone to learn to play without a player, if you want to rest a talisman, how should you manage that psychology?
Valverde doesn’t want to lose. He won’t be satisfied with a draw the way his team played. But he made the decisions to, short-term, get some points from a complex situation. In came Messi, and Messidependencia lives. But it never died. To expect a team to be able to subsist without the best player in history is foolhardy. Yet we complain about it all the time. That should stop. Messidependencia is real. Deal with it. Don’t complain about it. Enjoy him. He’s 31. Messi isn’t going to be with us forever. Understand that. It was fantastic the infusion of swagger and confidence that he brought to the match today. The draw is on him and his hard, hard work. Okay. I enjoyed the hell out of it.
Meanwhile, he is the talisman of a team that doesn’t have swagger, that opponents don’t fear any longer. Barça used to roll up, and some of the work of the win was already done. Today, Pique turns like an ocean liner, and he has lost a step that he never really had. It shows. He has gone from lion to target as Athletic sicced Inaki Williams on Pique time and again. The defensive flanks are still a welcome mat for opponents. Dembele is appalling in possession. If he is going to give up balls in dangerous positions as often as he does, he should be sat. Neymar lost balls like crazy, but delievered a host of other benefits. Dembele? Not as much.
Suarez is playing his best football in a great while these days, but he shot right at the keeper, didn’t even look at the goal as he dealt with the amazing pass from Vidal. Easy save rather than a goal that Messi assuredly scores. Munir made a case for more time. So did Semedo, who saved Pique’s ass and the points.
But the team was poor again, from slow player and ball movement to not moving to passes to not making runs at all, never mind having runs dictate passes. We don’t have the players to play in the manner that people crave, but rather than realizing that we have the Agonies, and damn a coach. Coutinho was hailed when he arrived. But for a team that wants to play possession football, what the hell is he there for, with his dancing around and shooting at the whites of a goalpost? Why buy Dembele?
And yet there are vestiges of the way a team used to be, in players who are talismanic to that style. Both sets have to integrate. Supporters make it sound easy, like it’s as simple as a few position changes, and off they go to juego de posicion joy. The game has changed. If it was that easy, Guardiola would have just transplanted his Barça way to Bayern and then City, and raked in the trebles. Didn’t happen. He’s playing different. Faster, more vertical, from the wings, dynamic modern football in a way that is adapted to the demands of the modern game.
Barça has a series of coaches shackled to a legacy, a way of playing that is no longer possible, trying to do it with the wrong personnel. And they try to adapt in their various ways, and they all disappoint us, destroy our joy, ruin our weekends. Pfft. Valverde and his team will have to figure it out. No matter what happens in the Madrid derby, things won’t be a disaster. No trophies this season? Even that won’t be a disaster.
But if the team can’t play in a way that maximises its talents, with passion and full commitment, that is a shame. A disaster? No. Hurricanes and tsunamis are disasters. That a team used to winning doesn’t win would suck, and we would miss out on the affirmation of supporting a victorious team. But there isn’t even joy in that any longer, as Luis Enrique during his time found out, and Valverde is finding out now.
This team has the best player in history. Messi is fantastic to watch. This team has problems, and a coach that isn;’t going to be the motivational firebrand that gets everybody fired up. Okay. Valverde out. For who, and what would or could they do differently with this same group of players? What do we want from this team? Joy, victory, beauty, the kind of passion and exultation that comes with excellence. What do we have? Not that. How we deal with this here, this now, is up to each of us.