At the end of it all, when we were all sitting, just as at Anfield, on tenterhooks waiting for a single goal to bring salvation, the saddest part is that we weren’t surprised when it didn’t come.
In talking about this Copa final, a minor trophy for a team used to celebrating a league or Champions League title, this loss hurt for what it represented. For the players, it was a chance to end a season on a positive note. Anyone who saw how haggard and sad Messi looked as he watched the Valencia players celebrate can understand that feeling.
But for us, the supporters with no real skin in the game other than love, this loss and how we felt about it represented damaged trust. There was a time that we would have been stunned to have this team get to a final and lose, line up in a big match and come out the worse. The biggest bummer of all this is that the feeling is now routine. We had hope, but in the past that hope was also tempered by confidence. We believed in this group of players. Like it or not, that is no longer true.
After the match, Bartomeu said that the loss isn’t the fault of Valverde. He quite obviously meant the “sole” fault, but people are taking it and running with it, even though Bartomeu is right.
Look at the two Valencia goals. On the first, the buildup was so easy for them as everyone was scrambling. Some say Alba looked bad, but you could have picked anyone on that goal, from Rakitic to Pique and Lenglet. And who wasn’t thinking “Ter Stegen stops that one.”
On the second goal, Alba got rinsed up the sideline, bullied and outrun. But a high-functioning team doesn’t have its RB trotting back, or its two CBs watching the ball. The ball can’t score a goal by itself. Mark the men. The single Valencia player in the vicinity of THREE Barça players scored that goal. Off an open header.
Argue all that you want about Valverde out, or Bartomeu out, or any of the other people being scapegoated. But this was as complete a collective failure as has been seen since … well … Anfield.
Marcelino came out with a match plan that acted like he knew what Valverde’s XI would be, because he probably did. We all did. Cillessen, Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba, Sergi Roberto, Busquets, Rakitic, Messi, Coutinho. And his match plan took precise advantage of the weaknesses of that starting eleven, to the tune of two goals. Then the match plan adapted to take into account what Barcelona would do with that same XI. As with Klopp at Liverpool, it seemed like Marcelino had already played the match.
And it was like we had all experienced it before. Hey, look. They lost a big match. Okay, now what. On social media, everyone staked out the same positions, but there were a few who got it, who understood that yes, Valverde got the XI wrong, and yes, Valencia played a brilliant match and yes, there were key errors made.
Malcom came on, and played like he wanted this trophy as much as even the most tenured player. He was everywhere and so effective. Why didn’t he start is one of the reasons Valverde shouldn’t continue as Barcelona coach. Messi tried to single-handedly — his only real option — win the match for his team, and he almost did, with a superhuman effort. He, too, came up short in a season of almosts.
Great players don’t fall apart immediately. Great players decline gradually, decline in a way that makes us say, “He’s still got it,” until one day he doesn’t. We act like it’s sudden, but really, it wasn’t, and it isn’t now.
The question is at what point do we admit that the collective is flawed, that Valencia got its win in a very different way than Liverpool, but still in a way that took clear advantage of a team ready and waiting to be taken advantage of, for the simple reason that its players are no longer up to the necessary level. Those goals don’t happen two years ago because those players are faster, and quicker, and fresher. They aren’t panicked and scrambling because physical deficiencies caught them out, or because a more technically skilled opponent got the better of them.
The physical and technical skill of this team have deteriorated at the same time, and done so in a precipitous manner. That Sergi Roberto is a starter rather than a utility player speaks eloquently about where this team is. Look at all the headers they were popping around midfield at points of the match today. In the past, a Barcelona player would never consider heading a ball in possession when he could play it to feet and make the right decision. Now? Looks like a mid-table Premiership side.
Valverde should not continue as Barcelona coach, even as he probably will. But his problem isn’t the losses. He has done quite a good job at applying bandages, at working with an aging team wallpapered with inferior players and getting it far, far enough for us to taste success, but also far enough where opponent quality is so much higher, when the price of an error is higher. He hasn’t been a terrible coach, and nowhere near as bad as his detractors will make him out to be.
Bartomeu in suggesting that Valverde wasn’t the sole reason the team lost, to Valencia or Liverpool, is absolutely correct. But Valverde’s continuing as Barcelona manager is still not the right decision, and hasn’t been for some time.
The players want him to continue. They like him, are comfortable with him. He understands the human side of managing, that much is clear. You can’t get that mess of a team that he had last season as close as it got to a treble without some magic.
But his team is also damaged by failure, just like our expectations, and he is a figurehead for a lot of that. That first goal came, and how familiar that feeling of dread felt, how much did we expect another one to follow. It did, and how surprised were we? Imagine what the players were thinking, reflected in their behavior. No shouting, no recrimination. They just hung their heads. That is another grim part of the Copa loss. It used to be that when Barça conceded goals, the defense and the rest of the team acted like world peace had been sundered, like there was a vile, violent rift in the cosmos. Now? Sighhhh … okay. What next?
Barça was outplayed in that first half today, until Valverde made the changes necessary to put his team on the front foot, but too late. A lot of things were clear today. It was clear how much Suarez does for the team, even in his dotage. It was clear that Lenglet was a smart, shrewd signing, but that he can be in the XI for this Barcelona team speaks as loudly as the presence of Sergi Roberto in that same XI.
Valverde can leave, but it can’t start with him, because it isn’t just him. The season is over now, and attention will turn to transfers, and hope, the hope that we used to have, hope formerly buttressed by confidence but that now is mere hope. Not even optimism, just hope that something extraordinary will happen to make the same mound of beef somehow become an exquisite cut of filet mignon.