That was — not good.
The idea of a mythic beast called Hlebuary might feel real to culers who understand the entomology of the phrase, as we watch the team that we love snooze and sleepwalk through yet another desultory result. Today it was Valladolid, another team that understands how to play Barcelona, as the template has been set.
Rolling out with five defenders, the intention was clear: everyone to the pumps. On BeIN, Ray Hudson talked about the absence of a syncopated passsing rhythm, something that has been absent for some time now, even when Arthur is fit and patrolling the midfield. It is also something likely to be missing for quite a while longer.
It might also be time to admit that this is the Barça that we are going to have for the foreseeable future, and not only because the coach who oversees it has been renewed.
The reason Valladolid, and Valencia before them, and Athletic Club, and Real Madrid have had success against Barcelona is because the attack has become a series of individual actions. Dembele makes a run, looks up in the hopes that someone has run with him. Messi dribbles, in the hopes that someone has moved with him. Suarez makes a run, looks around and … *crickets*.
But attackers have to make runs because there is no structure set up to get them the ball because Busquets sits deep, Vidal is everywhere and nowhere and Alenya is busy fighting for his life as the only creative midfielder near the opposition box.
So everybody dribbles. Valladolid didn’t do anything surprising defensively, right down to bringing the double-team defender as the Barça player gets set up to dribble, to take the ball. Valladolid was also physical, as previous opponents have been, relying on the idea that the ref won’t call everything, so extra stuff that niggles and annoys, can work. Messi lost his cool at a foul not called, an uncharacteristic outburst from him that might have had roots in his poor match today.
The last good match that Barcelona played was against Sevilla, in the 6-1 destruction. Sevilla made the mistake of being open, of allowing the dribbles and individual movements that this team thrives on now. So many sit around wondering when the “real” Barça will show up, not understanding that this IS the real Barça. This team and the way that it plays is the reality for the foreseeable future. Pretty? No. Will we take the win? Sure, why not.
After the match, Pique, who celebrated his 300th match for the club today with an excellent performance, talked about the lack of quick, concise ball movement, about sensations not being good. He’s right. The football isn’t pretty. It’s disjointed, messy, full of lost possession, misplaced passes and opponent counters. It’s risky when it should be controlled and precise, it’s epitomized by Coutinho taking a shot from distance with about 30 seconds left on the match clock. At a different time, in a different era, he would have just dribbled, passed and run out the clock.
But now there is a weird urgency, a pressure that permeates everything, like a player struggling to find form a team can also struggle, can press too hard in the effort to get it all back, even if it isn’t entirely clear what that “all” is.
When people scoffed at the perils of “individual brilliance” in the past, they were misguided. Great players unleashing a glitter bomb within the context of a system is precisely that. What we are seeing now is individual brilliance, or attempts at it. In a collection of individuals, each player is easily isolated and dispossessed. And as the opponent dashes toward an alert Ter Stegen, the defense is also a mess.
Opposing wingers take passes in acres of space. Last-ditch interventions are required to stave off goals. Ter Stegen has to make like superman. People complained about last season’s football, a team that was one bad night in Rome, and one horrid afternoon from making history. That team was solid. It wasn’t elegant when people wanted elegance, but that team had a foundation, it knew what it wanted to do. This team doesn’t, and that is the problem, that is what Pique is referencing.
The ball moved quickly, at a Barça-like pace, one time in this somnambulent miasma of a match, and Coutinho won a penalty as a result. The rest of the time, players took turns dribbling, then releasing a bailout pass, then dribbling again. That kind of attack is easily controlled by a defense that doesn’t run out of energy, and it takes the decisive capabilities from the most decisive player in the history of the game.
When Ajax lost to Real Madrid in Champions League, many still said that team was more entertaining to watch than Barça, and they were right. That team was also young, that team could press. It’s easy to forget that in all of the passing nostalgia from the Guardiola era, the attack was rooted in defense, and a brutal press that worked the ball loose in the opponent end.
Pressing like that takes young legs, which Barça doesn’t have. It takes a team that can run constantly, can chase, spring traps and close down opponents. Barça doesn’t have any of that. And it will be impossible to deal with the team that we have, without admitting that the team that we want to see, the team we excoriate this group week after week for not being, is impossible with this current group of players.
This is above and beyond the form dips that players are struggling with. Luis Suarez came on for Kevin “Prince” Boateng, and should have had at least a hat trick in his 30 minutes. Instead he had more reasons to go home and kick himself as he missed chance after chance. Messi missed a couple as well, even as a gaudy scoreline would have belied how poor the team was against a relegation opponent.
Pique was brilliant, as was Alenya, who got the start today and made the most of it. Boateng worked hard, showed good connective play and a willingness to work on defense in open play, something not seen from a Barça striker in a while. It was good to see, even as he looks like what he is: a loanee struggling to integrate into a new team, who is making the most of the minutes that he gets.
But the collective was poor, and unless something fundamental changes, this looks to be as things are. Various people have warned about this, and while it is certainly worse this month as the players look tired even after a week off since the team’s last match, this is how it has been all season. Aberrations aren’t consistent.
This team and its coach is going to have to figure out how to play the kind of football that it needs to play to achieve the goals that it wants, and quickly. In three days’ time is the first leg against Lyon. Then league away to Sevilla, then a pair of matchups against Real Madrid. It is a stretch that could find the team effectively out of Champions League, out of Copa and in a tie for first place atop the Liga standings with its eternal rival.
It is also a period that presents an extraordinary opportunity, for a still-great football team to stamp its authority on the three competitions in which it is still active. But make no mistake, this season feels like a last stand, for a great many reasons. It’s easy to say that Valencia is a traditionally difficult opponent, and Athletic Club in their stadium is always a handful. Valladolid at home has removed the rose-tinted lenses from the beer goggles. Barça is struggling, and the struggle isn’t entirely related to form.
How the team finds its way out, whether it in fact can, will define not only this season, but next. Pessimists will grouse, others will take after their favorite targets with social media screeds, but this group, this collective that is stuffed with talent that is also in a collective trough, will have to find its way out, playing the best football that it can. And even if that football isn’t going to be what we expect to see, what we have been clamoring for, let’s hope it can be the best that this group has to offer.