New season, same mood, the point of pre-season

The first FC Barcelona pre-season match is in the books, and dependent upon who is asked, the season is already lost.

The team lost 2-1 to Chelsea, and let’s have a look at exactly what that means:

Nothing.

Now that that’s clear, what’s the value of pre-season? For the coaching staff, it lets the team get in shape, gives them a look at certain players in certain roles, lets them play around with the idea of certain players in roles that might not make all that much sense to supporters, but why not?

The coaches know the real value of pre-season. So do the players. It seems that only most supporters don’t really get it. Barcelona could have lost 10-0 and the value of that first pre-season training match would have been the same. But impressions are worth something, and it’s worth having a poke at those, even as they don’t matter as much as people might think, given that it is pre-season, and nobody is really in shape yet, mentally or physically.

Note that each half started out brightly, then faded as the lack of fitness of the Barcelona players caught up to them. This was Chelsea’s third pre-season friendly, compared to the first for Barcelona. So those players were bent over, sweating and panting, while the Chelsea players looked a lot fresher. That happens. Anyhow …

Riqui Puig: The calls for him to mature, and grow physically still come, but the play from this pint-sized wonder impressed. Again. In every outing with the first team he distinguishes himself in how he uses the ball. A Masia mid has that preternatural sense of knowing what to do with the ball even before it gets to him. Xavi had it, Iniesta had it, Busquets had it. Alenya has it, Arthur showed up with it, though not to the degree of a Masia-raised product. Man, does Puig have it. The ball explodes off his foot, and he is really only interested in playing forward, advancing toward the opponent goal. Or he will hold the ball until a proper opportunity presents itself. It really is a joy to witness.

Despite not being a physical specimen, he can play within the constraints of a physical game. To paraphrase Guardiola, if you get kicked, you aren’t playing the ball fast enough. Puig always presents for the ball, constantly moving to present teammates with an open option. He is the most dazzling product these grouchy eyes have seen coming out of La Masia in some time — since Thiago Alcantara. He’s ready for the first team. He won’ t be fully promoted, particularly given the idea Valverde has, stated after the match, of returning Sergi Roberto to midfield from right back (yay!). But it’s easy to see an Alenya-type development for him, where he spends time with B early in the season, then promotes in the winter. There is lots of hype around Masia products. Puig is real. And that such promise manifested itself on the same day Xavi Simons announced that he is leaving the club is particularly rich.

Rafinha: It’s been a long road for this dude, through injury after injury, a loan stint to Inter where he was used for success then returned like a jilted aspirant. He’s fit now, and sparkled during the second half, even as you can see the diminution in his movement, his explosiveness and acceleration. But the ball still explodes off his foot, and he still has that Masia sense of footballing rightness. He combined with the likes of Malcom and Alenya to convert Barcelona into a fast-moving, aggressive team that passed its way up the pitch at warp speed. Chances were created in something that resembled a high-speed variant of Barcelona football, and it was fun to see. There is little likelihood that he will end the summer in blaugrana as he looks for a new forever home. But it was great to see glimpses of the player that had everyone so excited for a while.

Frenkie de Jong: WOOF! My thinking about him was that he was going to limit chances for the likes of Puig and Alenya, which made me look at the signing with a jaundiced eye. But in the Busquets role he sparkled, looking a lot like a younger version of the Catalan DM. His pitch vision is exemplary, which is crucial for a player in that part of the game, which is the engine room for this Barcelona. He picked the right pass, and his game was stuffed with logic, which sounds like an odd form of praise, but logic is a crucial thing for a Barcelona mid. He was part of a completely new XI so it was difficult to get the fullest sense of how he is going to fit into a team with Messi, et al. But the mouth waters to see it. A lot of the Barcelona problems last season came from improper use of the ball. Players were stranded with the ball, or didn’t know what to do with the ball when they got it, forced into poor decisions by teammates who didn’t move to the right spots, or didn’t move at all. The way De Jong (and Puig, for that matter) create space to make the correct pass is exciting to watch. He was 42/42 passing.

Griezmann: He played like a man liberated. It’s early days, but the way that he linked with Dembele, playing fast 1-2s, makes you wonder how he will work with Messi, and excited about the notion. He’s an explosive player that moves quickly on and off the ball, and gets off his shot with speed and power. It’s still hard to see how he will ultimately fit because Messi isn’t back yet, so he slotted into that gifted trickster role. Also impressive was his all-pitch game. It was great to see a Barcelona attacker tracking back, getting in tackles near his own box.

Other high points: Todibo looks promising, confident on the ball, comfortable dribbling and picking out smart passes playing from the back. He made a noticeable error of youth right before the Chelsea second goal, sprinting out to challenge a ball carrier, thus creating an imbalance. He will learn.

Lenglet played much more like a Barcelona CB, carrying the ball forward, snapping off smart passes and being much less reactive than he was last season.

Umtiti showed no signs of a player battling a bum knee. He took a lot of chances with his conseravtive, surgery-avoiding treatment last season. If he can get back to the form that made him one of the best CBs in the world, watch out. The signs were good.

Malcom and Alenya were also amazing to watch. Both played like players who deserve more time than they are probably going to get this season in a stacked Barcelona roster. Both accelerate the game when they have the ball, and the low profile of Malcom last season was particularly bewildering. He’s a selfless player who plays with full effort on both ends of the pitch. Pass, move, receive, create is what he did at Bordeaux, and what he does at Barcelona when unleashed. Rumor is that he is on the block and will probably leave the club, which is a shame. He’s quality, and the kind of firestarter the team needs, even as he can start for a lot of clubs.

It’s hard to know much else, even how the team is going to play, as the two XIs played in different styles, one taking advantage of skill, the other of young legs and pace. That in and of itself was interesting, because that was a tactical decision from Valverde, who might be the least-popular manager in football, maybe even the history of football. And that is weird because even as my personal desire was that he move on in summer, he hasn’t done anywhere near as poor a job as rumor has it, even as he has been defined by a pair of comprehensive failures by his team.

Many are saying they aren’t excited about watching this season, and similar. It’s an odd state of things for a manager who performed the equivalent of witchcraft in getting a team with Paulinho as the only real addition an away goal away from the Champions League semis before being hoist on his own conservatism, then doing a lot right — rotation, rest — before getting his team an away goal away from the Champions League final. And both teams were old teams with lots of problems, that were solved well enough to get those teams within a shout of the ultimate success. It’s easy to forget that, and many will.

“Why you defending him,” so many will bleat. Stating fact isn’t defense. It’s just reality. The way segments of the fanbase treat him and Rakitic is shameful, even as my belief is that both should move on this summer.

Despite all of the excitement of preseason and our team being back in action, this season is shaping up to be one of the most toxic from a fanbase view, in memory. Everybody is angry about something, and it all conspires to make anything to do with FC Barcelona on social media even more joyless and unfulfilling than even the most strident anti-Valverde person might suggest about the coming season. And that’s a shame.

Football is beautiful to watch, and Barcelona still has on its roster the best player to ever play the game. Added to that is a fit, hungry Dembele, who is hopefully over his hamstring issues, and Griezmann, whose addition could make for lots of fun this season. Midfield brings the anticipation of De Jong and at the back, we get to watch Todibo come into his own as a Barcelona defender. Much to look forward to, and it all has to start somewhere, so why not a sponsor-sponsored friendly that is nothing more than a glorified training match? Yet at the end of it all, our team is back. And so is the joy.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.