The season is three matches old. Three. Matches. And people are losing their damn minds in so many places it’s difficult to know where to start, except with a blanket, “Y’all need to calm the hell down.” For real.
Let’s start with the most current tizzy, because why not, the idea that the team is going to hell in a handbasket because Luis Suarez timed his surgery so that he could make the Copa, Pique traveled to take of business, Dembele mistook a hammy knock for a cramp and Umtiti took risks with his knee to play the World Cup. So, one at a time:
Of course he did. And why not?
Of course he did. And why not?
He made a mistake. It happens.
Of course he did. And why not?
The danger about a manufactured crisis, one that is based mostly in hysteria, is that it spreads. Everything still stems from the Champions League collapse at Anfield, and so every approaching headlight is a train. Players take care of business all the time, and Pique is no exception. Suarez’s time with the national team is dwindling, so of course he wants to be there, thinking (and he had not reason not to) that his club team was in great shape. What are the odds that he unilaterally decided to do the surgery, didn’t consult with his manager and club on that decision? If you want to believe that he did just that, ask yourself why you need to believe that.
Dembele is a knucklehead, given his history, for not immediately running to the physios when he felt a hammy twinge. That’s it. But the things being made of this incident — last straw, unprofessional, doesn’t care, etc, etc — are so over the top as to beggar comparison. Dude messed up. He doesn’t want to get injured, and whether the knock was discovered immediately or days later changes nothing about the severity or duration of it. Why isn’t it being made a bigger deal of among the team? Because they already know, because most of them have been in Dembele’s shoes, have felt something and played through it, or mistaken it for something else. Players understand, athletes understand.
And finally, Umtiti. He’s 25, with a knee that many liken to a time bomb. France was never going to have a better chance to win a World Cup than last year, when they won. For the next WC, in 2022, Umtiti will be brushing dangerously close to 30, and who knows how old his knee will be by then? Take the shot. He did, and said je ne regrette rien. You wouldn’t, either. He’s a World Cup champion. He delayed surgery by his decision, and might still need it at some point. But he isn’t playing because of his knee, for the “Told you so” crowd. Some of it is form, some is because when you have what Barça has for defense, there is immense value in a CB that stays home and puts out fires. That’s Lenglet. Umtiti roams, brings the ball up, plays a positional, man-based style of defense that doesn’t deal as well with closing down spaces. The state of Pique and Alba mitigate against his playing much, and that isn’t going to change.
But wait. There’s more.
Wrong De Jong
The virulent toxicity of the Valverde pathology is such that a top-quality coach is someone that can be capably second-guessed by any keyboard jockey, with doom as the payoff. “He’s played Frenkie (fandom requires a first-name basis) in three different positions in three different matches. Valverde out!” But let me run something past you:
What if a coach is working out the best place to play a very talented player who has demonstrated his versatility for club and country? What if the people who know exactly where De Jong should play, didn’t understand that a versatile player is bedding into a side that is different from Ajax, different from his national team, and that said versatility can serve him well in a Barcelona side where players interchange positions all the … nah.
In a world where everything is wrong, nothing is right. It’s fun to speculate and natter about the game, but at the end of it all it’s being managed by people who have forgotten more about football than the most knowledgeable of us will ever know. We don’t have to blindly place our faith in those people. They’re human, they make errors. But we can start by acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, they know just a leeetle bit about the game, that maybe they are seeing stuff that we don’t and maybe they have notions that we aren’t grasping yet, because we’re too busy wondering why De Jong isn’t playing in a position in a different tean against bunkered-in opponents and what is wrong with that fool Valverde.
Guardiola moved players hither and yon to satisfy his tactical notions. Messi as false 9 had everybody playing in new places, with the end goal being to liberate the best player in the game. They’re pros. They adapt and grow. It’s part of the deal.
Life is different for De Jong at Barça, a team that even legends who came to play for it, say is the most difficult team to bed in at that they have ever encountered. De Jong was supposed to be different, supposed to be to the manor born, supposed to be The One. He will be. But it will take time and experimentation. It can be fun to watch if we aren’t so busy freaking out about why an imperfect player isn’t perfect.
Messi and contracts
The story broke that Messi, this year as with every other for some time, has a contract that says he can leave Barça at any time, for free. And people freaked out. Why? Messi is exceptionally loyal. But more than that, Messi is Barça. Might some other team have picked up the tab for his growth hormone treatments, nurtured him, allowed him to develop into the greatest player in the game’s history? Maybe. But it happened at Barcelona, and Messi understands that. Loyal players don’t do what people think they should do, what people worry about them doing. Messi hasn’t left in any other year, why would he leave in this one, except that the contract proviso is now known, so we have something else to freak out about.
Messi will leave Barcelona, and it will be before any of us are ready for him to go, even if it will be at the exact time that he decides to go. It will be when he still has brilliance in his legs, for such is the ego of a player that many think is egoless. He won’t leave to prop up a human rights shitshow that bought a World Cup. He won’t leave for big money in a foreign land and a last payday. When he leaves Barça, it would surprise many if it was to play anywhere else except maybe Newell’s. That’s Messi. That’s loyalty.
Farewell, you lion
Samuel Eto’o announced his retirement this week. There are a lot of people following Barça who didn’t know how amazing Eto’o was, couldn’t understand the unseen forces that drove him, couldn’t understand why he seemed so irascible, so always on edge, so much so that when Pep Guardiola took over Barça, he was one of the players on his “must go” list.
But that was Eto’o.
He walked off the pitch in the face of racist taunts, decided he would show his manager that not only was his manager wrong in not wanting him, but that his manager needed him. His goal, completely against the run of play, turned that first Champions League final against Manchester United. People remember the Messi brilliance, the header that he skied for. But it was Eto’o who struck the match that started the conflagration.
But his heart was as big as his ego. He started a foundation to give aid to young people in west Africa — food, education, social skills, whatever is required, just like the way he played the game. Guardiola moved him to the wing to facilitate Messi’s genius, and Eto’o went there and still raised hell, still had a massive influence on the game.
Along with Eric Abidal, Eto’s is on that “man, I miss what he does” list. Eto’o was indefatigable. He moved like a video game character, in space-defying leaps that challenged notions of what a mortal could do. He was always in position, usually after having fought to get there. A striker’s battle is usually for position, and it’s 90 percent of the game. The finishing is almost anticlimactic. Eto’o fought so hard, battled like a demon because of his demons, but also because that was the only way that he knew to be. Everything was, “I’ll show them,” and he almost invariably did. He missed sitters, like every striker, but he was always there.
Name the last player to have been part of consecutive trebles? Eto’o was. He helped Barça get theirs, and then when Guardiola got his way and Eto’o went to Inter in what is still a stupid, stupid deal for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a pile of cash, Eto’o was a key part of that Inter treble. Bang. Bang. He showed them. You don’t want me? I’ll show you. And he did. It wasn’t until Luis Suarez arrived that Barça again had a striker as driven, as hungry, as willing to fight for everything, much less the best place to be to strike a ball into a space. And the team missed that quality even as none of us knew how much until it returned.
History isn’t going to be as kind to Eto’o as it should be, because of his fierce, uncompromising quality. He wasn’t really with Barça at the peak long enough for enough people to consider him a club legend, but he is. And how. He played the game on his terms, and left it on his terms. And that is the only way for a lion to go out. Adeu, Samu.