Hyperbole is fun.
Back when Champions League groups were announced, and the world was bereft of joy and anything approaching optimism, there was only Doom, PSV, Inter and Spurs. Many wondered if Barça was going to get out of that group, being prospective relegation candidates in waiting, according to darker corners of the Barçaverse.
Then they played the matches and with one group stage match to go, Barça has won the group. Away to Spurs? Whatever. Send the B team, such is the luxury of having wrapped everything up. But as we all know, results are only part of the equation — a very small part, apparently. There is history, excellence, elegance, a way of play, joy, expectation. Without a high-quality swoon at the terminus of a 3,943-pass attack, just what the hell kinda Barça match was it, anyhow? Ain’t nobody got time for that stuff.
And so, in the wake of the PSV win there is concern, worry, portents of doom, pronouncements that there is no way in hell that this team, with this coach, has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning Champions League. Yes it has Messi, but that is only the case when Messi bails them out. Negative results are, “Well, what can Messi do with this mess? He can’t do everything.” And so it goes.
A lot goes into making a confounding look messy and vulnerable, even as Barça didn’t look all THAT vulnerable against PSV, except in a few moments. But as with Atleti on the weekend only worse, Barça was a disjointed mess of imprecision. As a matter of fact let’s remove Atleti from the equation. Against PSV nobody seemed to be where they were supposed to be, so balls were flying hither and yon. A player would get trapped against the sideline by pressing PSV players and, his back to them, there was no way out, no option as teammates stood a distance — too far — away. Aha. The lofted ball option, aka the Roma Punt, often right into the maw of the PSV press and an ensuing counter, or trying to bang it off a PSV player into touch. Time and time and time again.
Passes were behind players, who would reach back to try to snag them, with some success, but often they would fall to PSV players. Ridiculous passes leading to danger came from Pique and Rakitic, passes banged off Messi’s feet and shins, Busquets continues his stretch of poor form, Vidal was an agent of chaos and everyone scurried around. The match was won, but concerns are legit. Barça looked like a team of players who had just met, rather than a group of veterans months into a new season.
In parts of the Barçaverse came the usual: Valverde out. It’s the coach’s fault. Pique spoke after the match of sloppy passing and possession, which is an execution difficulty, one that led to repeated danger from PSV. The realities of Barça football are quite simple, laid out by Pep Guardiola years ago: “We’re crap without the ball.”
In the wake of a chaotic mess of a match, a poor display with a correct result like a wayward math problem, we are left with a great many ideas to kick around but few are in a state to do anything except wonder about how horrible the next match will be. Dembele saved the team against Atleti, and in the wake of that lovely goal came the stat that Barça would be 10th in the league standings, and one SuperCopa trophy less without the contributions of Dembele.
Some of it IS Valverde’s fault. When a team this skilled so often looks like it’s a bunch of dudes having a weekend kickabout in the park after chugging beers, you have to wonder. It isn’t that there isn’t a clear tactical plan. It’s that nothing is clear. The thing about the Guardiola teams that everyone talks about and compares everything to, is that they had a clear plan. Valverde’s Barça has a bunch of folks running around, chasing a ball. Except when they don’t, and things flit around like in a “play like this” video, and everything is gorgeous and people say, “Now THIS is what I’m talking about!” The the next match comes and it’s marbles in a bowl again.
More distressingly is that Valverde is becoming reactionary, responding to what opponents do rather than making opponents respond to what his team does. There might be no clearer sign of a lame-duck coach than that, short-term consideration of results. Some see his reluctance to play B players in this, but nope. He’s played Alena before, and will play him again. That’s what Copa del Rey is for. Valverde’s Athletic Club kicked Barça in the face during that SuperCopa, deciding the tie by controlling the match against the favored, better team. With a better team, he is waiting to respond rather than seizing events by the scruff.
Some scoff, “mid-table coach.” They’re wrong. His coaching a bunch of veterans with a bench as thin as worn silk was masterful, talk all the Paulinho crap you want. And he just came up short. This year, his coaching feels different as his visage makes him look like Renfield, a man gradually withering away under the insatiable demands of a blood-sucking entorno. And he looks to be cracking as he stands there with his hands in his pockets, look on his face like he is thinking, “And still these assholes aren’t doing what we worked on.” One week he is tight. “Let’s see you whine about us leaking goals now!” The next week he is “Wheeee! You want attacking football. Here’s your damn attacking football.”
Valverde out? Nope. The weird thing about this analog team in a digital world is that you feel like if you turn the dial just a little bit to the left or right, everything will come into perfect clarity, and the group will kick the world in the face.
But the clunk. What about the clunk?
A lot of why Barça looked clunky in attack against PSV is that we forget what Luis Suarez does for the attack as a reference point and chaos generator. Defenders have to follow him. Without that presence they are free to mark Messi, who has no outlet to feed because Dembele is on the wing and Coutinho is waiting outside the box for his golazo opportunity. The inside/out or give/go has become an important part of the team’s attack. No striker in the game does this better than Suarez.
But that still doesn’t explain the sloppy passing and generally disjointed sense against PSV. Focus? Perhaps. This team has an odd tendency of playing down to opponents. The better the team, the more the focus. Was this the same team that ran rings around Spurs, and dominated Inter only to get an unfair draw? Nope. This was the team that lost to Levante, the one that didn’t seem all that interested in being there. Focus is a problem for a team distracted by a larger goal. Once you’ve qualified for the knockouts, and know you have an opponent you can beat, what’s the drama?
Yes, PSG hit the post twice in a sequence. But they also had to clear three Barça shots off the line via well-placed defenders. So hold that “they coulda won” stuff in abeyance. And their goal was probably most typical of the distracted team. Heavens knows what Pique was thinking about, but it wasn’t the PSV striker.
This was a forgettable match by a team whose short-term fate was already decided in that competition. And they played like it. The performance was poor. So poor. And this hasn’t been the first time that the team has been poor. But let’s not forget reality: in a tough group, Barça has walked it.
Can we TALK about that Messi golazo!? My favorite Messi goal of all time is the strike from the Milan remuntada. Messi was in a human phone booth, bracketed by four defenders. He shouldn’t have been able to get that strike off. He not only got it off, but smoked it into the upper corner. The keeper barely moves because nothing in his life has prepared him for what just happened.
The PSV keeper doesn’t have that excuse. He has seen it. If you’re about to play Barça, just go to damn YouTube. Against PSV, again he was in a phone booth. The Dembele pass for him will be labeled an assist, but come on. Somehow, Messi found shooting space, an angle and a willing victim. The power that he can generate with no backlift is astonishing. It is one of the more absurd goals he has scored in a while, which is saying something about a player who routinely scores absurd goals. And again, the keeper didn’t move. And again, he looked at Messi like, “What the hell was that?”
Yes. It was individual brilliance. So what. Enjoy the hell out of it.
Dembele started, and again was very good. Yeah, he lost some balls. So did Messi and everybody else. Get used to it. He was dynamic, pushing back PSV almost every time he got the ball in their zone. Some of his final decisions with the pass were in the, “Um … dude. DUDE!” category, but if you look, you’ll see that some of them were also in the, “Make the run” category. He also started against Inter away. He was better in that match, but Barça was also better overall.
Valverde, late in the match, decided to bring on Malcom, and make you crave Arthur up front for a DAMM front line. Misguided mirth aside, Malcom, Messi and Dembele was just about as unsettling and destructive as you thought it would be. Messi was like, “Playmates!” He interacts with fast wingers in a way different than Suarez, and his usual mode. He gets the ball and is looking to release someone, whereupon he can arrive (as Ray Hudson says) by stealth. Malcom and Dembele bring absurd amounts of speed and guile to a front line. If you don’t want to see more of this, you’re bonkers. Unleash the rocket men!
What now? Who the hell knows. This team is the craziest Barça team any of us have seen in a while. We would be able to enjoy the madness if we weren’t so busy fighting and being miserable.
But this Barça is like calling an Uber, but you have no destination in mind and the driver has a pile of Red Bull cans on the passenger-side seat. You get in and the throttle is mashed. This is either going to be an awesome ride, or everyone will dissolve in a fireball on the horizon.