This was supposed to be the one. Messi was back, Umtiti was back, it was time. Betis sat 15th in the table, rolling into Camp Nou to face a fully operational Death Star. The team was coming off a spectacular display in Champions League against Inter Milan, sullied by an unjust draw. What could go wrong?
Barça was played off the park by a smart, sharp, resilient and opportunistic Betis side who created its danger and got its goals in pretty much the same way that all teams that score against Barça do: by exploiting the fullbacks, who were both roasted repeatedly.
But the fullbacks weren’t the only problem. Slack passing, sloppy possession, poor marking and for a team that still has to have its play rooted in midfield because it doesn’t have modern fullbacks, horrific midfield play. William Carvalho has a passing accuracy almost 20 points higher than that of Busquets, and Arthur was anonymous. Even Ter Stegen was slack, letting a goal slip though his fingers.
The only players who could let themselves smile after this match at their individual performances are Arturo Vidal and Malcom, even as the latter was mostly ignored by his teammates after grabbing things by the horns with a sparkling first few minutes.
Valverde started it all off with the wrong XI, including a resolute reliance on Sergi Roberto at RB. This worked in the past because Ter Stegen was so brilliant and Rakitic was over on that side to babysit. Now that Rakitic is making like a proper midfielder, albeit a crappy, crappy one today, Sergi Roberto is left on his own as Pique has to play whack-a-mole with attackers because Lenglet isn’t as sharp at reading threats as Umtiti is.
Maybe Semedo kicked Valverde’s puppy or talked about his mama, but as soon as Sergi Roberto started at RB today, if you watched Betis at all this season you knew that Junior, their winger, would be licking his chops. Sure enough, he notched the first goal by turning Sergi Roberto inside out, then smoking home near side on Ter Stegen, who was screwed either way, guessed wrong. Junior could as easily have gone for the other corner as he had all day after obliterating Sergi Roberto.
Usually when Barça concede, weird things happen: lost possession in odd spots, deflections, etc. This season when Barça has conceded it has been poor defending with roots in opportunities created from the flanks, that lead to a fire drill. Tello put Alba in the crosshairs, taking him apart repeatedly, accounting for some damage as well. People snarled as Alba was left off of Spain team after Spain team, and claimed it was something personal with national team coach Luis Enrique, who at today’s match, must have sat in the stands and smiled to himself.
Culers rate their fullbacks at going forward, but defense needs its fullbacks to stop the opponent from creating danger, from makikng uncontested passes into the heart of the defense. Barça has a fullback that can do that, but he sits on the bench, where people feel he deserves to because he isn’t as good as Sergi Roberto at going forward. And that by all appearances seems to include Semedo’s coach. This defense is, in part, a consequence of that.
But it also everything all at once, the worst display from this team since last season when the debacle in Rome was followed by the mess at Levante. This loss was as deserved as the others were, a scoreline that isn’t fair to Betis as it made the match seem closer than play indicated. Betis could have had five or six goals as Barça was outplayed in every phase of the game.
The cool kids on social media said that Betis played Barça football, talked formations and Cruijffian ideals. To hell with all that. Betis played smart, sharp, modern possession football, a game that now lives on the flanks pretty much everywhere except FC Barcelona. But Betis also played off the counter, to take advantage of what might be the slowed midfield in football. Barça is vulnerable through midfield, vulnerable to the counter, vulnerable on the flanks, vulnerable to lost possession. The only way the team can battle that is the keep the ball and score goals.
Betis coach Quique Setien said that he had a match plan going into proceedings. While reckoning that part of it wasn’t predicated on Barça being pants, this certainly helped.
Underscoring this match is a contretemps from earlier in the week when Ousmane Dembele was home will with gastroenteritis, and didn’t call in sick to training within the specified time period. The team dispatched coaches to his home to check on him, and found him ill. But as a consequence of that transgression, Dembele was left out of the squad, unprofessionalismm that probably cost his team today. No way in hell Valverde subs on Munir when there is a fit Dembele to call upon. The Frenchman has the exact skill set that would have been needed to dismantle Betis. Instead he was sitting in the stands, bundled up, looking like just another tourist at the match, all because he couldn’t handle his damn business.
Suarez, who has been mining a strain of brilliant form in his role as a traditional 9 in Messi’s absence, regressed. The whole team seemed to be mentally lax, perhaps thinking that Messi was back so everything was fine. The sharpness and elegance that propelled the group to an almost perfect record in Messi’s absence was gone against Betis as team and coach filled their pants.
This will be the match where the people who were silent during the period Messi was absent and Barça played brilliant football, the misguided “Valverde out” crowd, will make their voices heard again, and they will be as misguided now as they have been all season. If someone gives you a cup of coffee and tells you where to deliver it, but you drop the cup, whose fault is that. The coffee might be poorly made, but you still know how to walk with a cup in your hand.
Valverde erred in his XI. Rakitic has been flirting with poor form and Busquets clearly needs a rest. Valverde rolled his conseravtive dice, thinking that he would be okay with essentially the same XI. Maybe he, too, thought “Hey, Messi is back.” Subbing on Vidal was smart, as the Chilean had a massive effect in the match, almost single-handed injecting energy into the side. He subbed on Munir, who had a hand in two of the goals, even as he was mostly ineffective. And Alena was a smart sub that was also too late, and for the wrong player as Rakitic (who eventually picked up a second yellow) should have been the player subbed off.
The team didn’t have a sense of formation as Betis stretched them out in attack, then contained them in defense as players were too individualistic. Malcom might as well have been in the stands with Dembele, such was his visibility to his teammates. There was no linking play because of sloppy passing, no defending when possession was lost because noobdy was in the right position. And even when the team got it together and did everything right, Betis would defend an individual foray by a Barça attacker, then scurry up the flanks, where there was plenty of playing space.
This loss isn’t entirely on the coach any more than it is entirely on the players. But it is a team effort. You have to equip your team with the best set of options to compete. But no matter who a coach puts out there, they have to compete. Barça isn’t top of the Liga table by accident, nor is Betis 15th in that table by accident. This was a statistical upset even as match play made it a fair result.
A fanbase will go into meltdown becasue as a collective, we have absolutely no capability of dealing with anything like adversity, and people will scream for various heads as the unfavored return to varied and sundry crosshairs. But everybody failed. Everybody. Even Dembele, who was sitting in the stands. That will be difficult for many to deal with, but it always is. Coaches make match plans, coaches adapt match plans and make subs, players execute those match plans.
Valverde’s insistence on playing Sergi Roberto over Nelson Semedo is costing his team. Again and again. But so is the inability to make a simple 5-meter pass to a teammate, or trying something for the highlight reel in the box when you have an open teammate. And that isn’t on the coach. Losing contain on trailing attackers isn’t on the coach. Everybody has to contribute to a crapshow, and everybody did. Betis took gleeful advantage of it.
That Barça will finish the matchday top of the table is a crazy bit of luck that is a consequence of a topsy-turvy La Liga. But make no mistake about it, if the team doesn’t play like it wants to win matches, if its coach doesn’t understand how the modern game is played and get players on the pitch who can deal with that game, this will be a silverless season as sure as any of us are sitting here.
And that, too, will be a collective effort.