Years ago, a work colleague announced that he was getting married. To his ex-wife.
Now there is a lot that is weird about that, aside from the idea of going home again, or trying to. How much do we change as adults, how possible is it to find someone insufferable enough to leave, then suddenly decide, “Hey, it’s all different now.”
Most fascinating about it is the quest for something that just isn’t there. So many things fill us with good feelings. Joan Laporta pops up like a weed, and people instantly remember the great times without remembering the blind luck that attended those times. Ronaldinho instead of Beckham. Taking the shot on Guardiola.
With Barcelona, everyone wants to get back to something, rather than moving forward to something. So much is about replicating a different time, a past time, right down to the obsession with “nexts.” Next Iniesta, next Xavi, next Puyol, next player that will allow the team to play the way that is is “supposed” to.
Everyone wants to jettison a coach because he isn’t playing the right way, without understanding the necessitites of circumstances, players and opponents. It’s easier to damn someone for not doing what we want than to understand why what we want isn’t happening. How would your Barcelona play if you could do any team that you liked? Short passing, triangles and elegance? Maybe? Maybe nah.
In a lot of ways, Philippe Coutinho is the perfect symbol for this quest that finds the team in a weird limbo. On paper, Coutinho makes sense. He’s a skillful dribbler, has an excellent shot from distance, makes smart passes and can help his team control a match with possession.
In reality, he’s a dithering, imprecise mess who loses the ball too much, is lazy on defense and looks to do one thing when he should do the other. His brain doesn’t work quickly enough for the ideal of “Barcelona football.” And he cost 160m.
What does the team do? Does it consider adapting the way it plays to fit the skill set of an expensive transfer? Nope. Coutinho’s biggest problem at Barcelona is that he doesn’t play the kind of football that this particular team needs, and he never will. He was bought to be a midfielder, but Riqui Puig, who is free, plays midfield in the Barcelona context better than Coutinho, who is a superstar but an ill fit.
Dembele is another player, a gazelle wanting to run free who must constrain himself to the necessities of some bastard child of an idealized system. Both are players who would thrive in a different system. Both, for example, would be delights at Liverpool, or PSG, or Bayern, where there isn’t the same specificity of approach to the game, and supporter expectations of how the game should be played.
And now come the nonsensical Neymar rumors, that harken to a time when the football was … still not what we wanted. “He stops the ball too much,” “He has no pausa,” “Why is Lucho letting him run things?”
The closer Luis Enrique came to playing the kind of football for which the team had the personnel, the more the entorno objected. But it was the correct decision. The larger question is what to do? Do you acquire the players that allow for a footballing ideal, or do you adapt your system to the players and the skill sets that you have?
Valverde’s sin is that he straddled the fence and was damned for it. He was trying to make magic with coots and square pegs for round holes. Would a stronger coach have opened up the offense to work out a system that played more effectively to the skill sets of Dembele and Coutinho? Sure. But what about the rest of them, Suarez, Rakitic, Busquets, Vidal? Compromises must be reached, and within that compromise lurks joylessness for supporters.
Graham Hunter wrote about a Valverde who wanted Dani Parejo, one of, if not the best midfielder in Liga this season. Didn’t happen. He had dreams of playing That Barcelona Football. Didn’t happen. Why? Grampa Rakitic, Grampa Busquets, and Sir Arthur Trapped With the Ball. Up front was Coutinho, when Dembele was broken, which was often. And he would take the ball, dance a bit, think, stop, start, pass it to a midfielder. Or drift to the right and unleash a speculative shot. Given the composition of the team, how did anyone think that was going to go?
Coutinho was, according to the folks who supported the deal, brought in to play midfield, to play the Iniesta position. And what position is that? Ephemeral, once-in-a-lifetime legend? At what point do we admit that those players can’t be replaced, and the way that the team plays has to change? What if Coutinho had the ball at his feet as he did at Liverpool, with Dembele and Messi running off him and Suarez looking for space in the box?
Nah. That isn’t Barcelona football, no more than it was when Luis Enrique won a treble by turning the three best attackers in the game loose in the attack, telling everyone else to get them the ball. It worked, but it was footballing blasphemy.
We can’t have the Barcelona that we want. And even if there was a cloning machine somewhere that could turn out replicas of Xavi, and Iniesta, and a young Busquets, we still couldn’t have the Barcelona that we wanted. Opponents clog the midfield, press, jump the passing lanes, body up on players, leaving them less time to take and play a pass. When your “controller” is running for his life and all the passing lanes are jammed, how possible is it to play into the future, as Xavi used to?
When Barcelona drew Liverpool in Champions League, a lot of people picked them to advance, not because of individual superstars but because of a way of playing that matched up well against the weaknesses of Barcelona. So Liverpool advanced, in pretty much the way that people foretold. Seduced by a 3-0 aggregate shouldn’t change reality of how the two teams were and their weaknesses and strengths.
There isn’t a culer alive who didn’t enjoy the play of Ajax this Champions League season, but how would we all feel if Barcelona played like that? No, it wasn’t anything like that ideal that people still wait for, still bleat about when they talk about Valverde destroying Barcelona football, and the like. It was aggressive and attacking, closer to Manchester City than That Barça. One of its architects was Frenkie De Jong, who will be coming to Barcelona in the summer, but to do what?
If Valverde stays, people are fearful that De Jong, and Puig, and Alenya will be watching Rakitic, Busquets and Arthur do what they did this year, which is not be good enough when it came to younger, stronger, faster opponents on teams whose tactics have evolved to meet the danger of the Barça that people so desperately want to see.
What if Pep Guardiola chose to regress, and return to Barcelona like a conquering hero? How does anyone think he would play, with the same personnel that Valverde had this season? What would the results be? There is an assumption that were he to return, an immediate return to “tradition” would ensue. But his Bayern side didn’t play like that, nor does his Manchester City side.
At the end of the Guardiola tenure, how soon we forget the hue and cry for a plan b, as opponents had already begun to adapt to the demands of that team. Tito Vilanova looked to adapt to a more vertical style, which many were already disapproving of, even before that year fell apart. Tata Martino tried his own adaptation that worked to the tune of a record-setting first half, then like culers, Xavi and the jefes wanted a return to a time gone past. Things went downhill from there. Then came Luis Enrique, and we know how that all went.
What now? Are we doomed to scanning the horizon like anticipatory villagers, waiting for a ship to return from sea? Tactically, Barcelona has the players to play a number of different ways, so what is behind the necessity to play a particular way that people call for? Would we be happy if Barça rolled out with Arthur, De Jong and Alenya in midfield, Messi, Malcom and Dembele up front and rock ‘n’ rolled like Ajax?
If Valverde stays, changes everything and Barcelona plays like Ajax, how would we feel about that? What Barcelona do we want, and how much is that notion accepting of how things are, as opposed to how they used to be? Most crucially, how comfortable would we be admitting that we can’t have what we want, and how easy would it be to decide what to do next?