Here we go …

Amid uncertainty, money-hungry agents and a sponsor-hungry board rumored to be chasing a potential locker-room toxin with team stability at stake, it’s safe to say that this will be the weirdest opening matchday for FC Barcelona in some time.

Weirdest still is that the team as it sits is comfortably the best team in Europe, which makes its seeming destruction at the hands of a president desperately seeking a win after losing a CB, assisted by a compliant technical staff quite bizarre.

The rumored chase for Neymar has been dominating headlines, even more than Messi not being available for the season opener, which makes the wantaway Brazilian already more bother than he’s worth as Barça travel to Bilbao for what should be one of the more exciting matches in a great while … until the XI comes out and the first ball is kicked.

Over the summer, the most notable acquisition is, of course, Frenkie De Jong. The club also added Mr. Video, Mr. Blackface Tribute himself, Antoine Griezmann. In addition came a crucial signing in left back Junior Firpo from Betis. The three important needs for the team, namely who is going to replace an irreplaceable player in Sergio Busquets, who will press Luis Suarez for a front-line slot, and who will be able to not only apply pressure to Jordi Alba, but spell him during times of rest or injury.

Yet despite supporters starting the summer transfer window with dreams of change, there really hasn’t been much. Who takes the blame for this is something that makes Barça Twitter roil. Coutinho is a failure, and was widely thought to probably be gone by now, with just about two weeks in the transfer window. There was a rumored big offer from China for Vidal, and Rakitic was rumored to be on the market. Rafinha was bound for Valencia, until the move was vetoed by the club owner over injury concerns.

What all of this means is that Barça is not only a team in flux, but that is only an injured Argentine legend away from potentially starting the exact same XI that it started last season. Given the object (and abject) lessons of what happened and is happening to Real Madrid, that nothing seems to have been learned is vexing in the extreme, even as supporters are powerless from the keyboard warrior’s seat.

The excoriation will be for Valverde, but there is plenty to go around for a club that dithered and messed about, chasing a centre back that was never going to come and making only part of the business of building a good team. Players going out is as important as players coming in. Having 160m in Coutinho sitting on the bench is as silly as potentially having as an option for a conservative coach, an almost 90m player for the future as long as the future is NOW in De Jong, sitting on the bench watching Busquets, Vidal and Rakitic play.

In the famous film “Moneyball,” there is a scene in which Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) informs his conservative manager that he can’t play a couple of players. The manager insists that he can and will, until Beane informs him that those players have been traded.

“Well, I AM starting him at first.”
“I don’t think so. He plays for Detroit now.”

Imagine this XI against Athletic Club: Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Lenglet, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Coutinho, Griezmann, Suarez, Dembele. Impossible? Nope. Likely? Who knows. But with a conservative coach who is generally inclined to rely on veteran performers, how unlikely is it? Barça only has part of its work done in the off-season, work that should have included finding another manager to take the team into the future that its acquisitions argue could be possible.

As is argued in this past post against Valverde’s continued tenure, while he is good at bringing along young players who are already there or are expensive transfers (Inaki Williams or Dembele), his track record is less certain when it comes to taking risks. There is talk of sending Riqui Puig on loan. Jean-Clair Todibo, a pre-season standout, didn’t make the squad for Athletic. Carles Alenya made the squad, but odds of him seeing any match time are slim.

On the Barcelona pre-season tour we were treated to brash, dynamic football based in an active, aggressive press that worked to harass and turn possession, with quick ball movement and runs in attack. But as there is no risk in pre-season, so why not? With the geezer-based XI, how much of that does anyone suspect we will see over a sustained period? There is lots of talk about the things that make Pep Guardiola great, but most significant for me is that his theory was reality. He didn’t try stuff and then think, “That was for them, but the matches are for real now.” Managers are fearless in a vacuum, but in the world of potential losses of both matches and jobs, they get a little tight. It’s human nature, and whether you want to label it fear or conservatism depends on how you want to look at a picture.

Watching the partnership develop between De Jong and Dembele was exciting, as was the way Alenya accelerated play, the way Puig was a forward-thinking mid of the likes not seen up front for Barça in a while, making smart decisions on the ball while fearlessly yet intelligently advancing it forward, always forward. Puig will be doing that for Barça B for the foreseeable future, and possibly for another team in the future.

All of which means what? Smart money is still predicting a Liga title for Valverde and his troops, because adding Griezmann to a group that already won by double-digit totals last season should be a no-brainer.

Maybe.

It all depends on the same things that it depended on last season, namely can a conservative to the point of paralysis manager learn from his errors? He did last season, rotating more, using his squad better and having them in perfect shape right up until Liverpool, when he used Dembele in a meaningless tie. An injured hamstring and a collapsed defense later, the Champions League repeated itself. One year he wouldn’t use Dembele until it was too late, the next year he couldn’t use Dembele.

Speaking of Dembele, this is a significant reason for excitement for the new season, provided the board doesn’t decide that yes, they will include him in a player swap deal with PSG for Neymar. He is connected, confident, looks stronger and is tracking back with determination instead of a regal wave. He looks like a player ready to have a breakout season, something that again depends on his manager. If Messi/Suarez/Griezmann is the preferred front three, where does that leave a player who has all of the skills necessary to bring a significant new dimension to a team’s attack? Good question.

What will Griezmann do? In pre-season he has been excellent, with a flair for associative play, making runs off the ball and ball movement, playing one-touch as though to the manner born. If he works the way he should with Messi, the outcome could be brilliant. Yet, the ultimate application of Griezmann will depend on Valverde’s bravery, and that is a front three of Griezmann, Messi and Dembele.

Prima facie, depending on Valverde’s bravery for anything might seem an analog to believing that this time, Don Quixote will slay that windmill, but allay thine fears, brave soul. The signs that he learned from season to season were there last year. And this possibility seems so obvious, both for speeding up the front line and keeping Suarez fresh for crunch time, that it would be madness not to essay such a thing.

Another good question is how and how quickly will De Jong be integrated into the XI? It is a secret only to those with blinders that Busquets’ sell-by date has passed, and his use-by date is also here. Oriol Busquets, a clone of the original before the injury made him now a loanee or go-with for another deal, was supposed to be the one. De Jong is, with more, honed in the fires of a go-go Ajax side. In many ways he’s a fully realized Busquets, and he needs time, lots of it, and now. Time to screw up, to make the wrong pass, to get snookered by a fast winger on the counter, to be responsible for goals. Busquets did, lest we forget.

As with Puig, Alenya and De Jong and even Todibo, that time should be now. Right now. So much time is paid to surrounding Messi with people who have Been There, and that means veterans. But how anyone, including the man charged with creating a template for play, can watch what his various lineups did in pre-season and revert to what we saw last season, which means GeezerBall?

So many questions, but here is the biggest one: Is Valverde brave enough to get Messi the rest that he needs to be of his best at the most important time of the season? This match against Athletic Club, the team’s first official foray and a Messiless one, will be fascinating. This group has to learn to play without its talisman, and its coach has to be brave enough to understand that getting Messi the rest that he needs will be worth exploring. It happened a few times last season, but there was still phone booth syndrome. It’s like Messi has to be injured for the team to understand that he won’t be coming to rescue them. That has to change, and one of the principal values of adding a veteran leader such as Griezmann is the mentality that comes with such a player.

More brave manager stuff.

In an ideal world, young players will be integrated, veterans used when appropriate, and a versatile, multi-headed Barça will be the result. If that happens, then and only then will the team that we love become what it is on paper, which is the best team in Europe, and a team equipped, just as so many previous teams have been, to win another treble.

Yes, even without Neymar.

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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.