Teams aren’t afraid of FC Barcelona any longer.
That’s an odd thing to say when you look at the roster, packed with stars. But Granada, a comparative minnow, came out, took their chance to punch the bully in the face, then played the exact kind of football as a tight, hard-working, quick, cohesive unit, that Barça is incapable of playing.
At the end of a long arc that really began with Pep Guardiola leaving the club and actions not taken, transfers not made, crystal balls not gazed at, there is this: a team that for the first time in more than two decades of watching it, made me turn a match off before the conclusion.
Luis Suarez said that it’s going to be a long, complicated season, but it didn’t have to be. It’s also a lot like a person starting a fire, then saying that the problem is the house is too hot.
Team after team has figured out how to play Barça. For a long time after the Guardiola years, fear worked. Opponents, even when the answers were already staring them in the face before Guardiola left, remained fearful. How can they not? Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Pique, the list of champions and stalwarts goes on.
But players are only part of the game. Liverpool didn’t beat Barça because it had better players. Neither did Roma, or Athletic Club, or Granada. Dortmund didn’t draw a match it should have won by three to four goals because it had better players. Every team that has given Barça trouble has been a team, comprised of players willing to fight and lay everything on the line for the shirt, with legs that could propel them to that end. But most importantly, they aren’t afraid.
Once upon a time, Barça would have possession and teams would cower, waiting for the inevitable slotted pass or smart run. But even when that run never came, scoreless draws or 1-0 wins resulted because of the fear. A lot of what’s happening now is that because everything is soooooo slooooow, opponents are watching game footage and saying to themselves, “I say, those folks seem to take about a year to get from end to end. What if we just cut off the passing lanes?”
In my piece for the Athletic last season, I talked about what Barça needed to do to not become Real Madrid, and hardly any of it was done. Yes, there were some splashy transfers such as De Jong and Griezmann, and a lot of people convinced themselves that they were right, that the right moves had been made, but opponents knew better. Valverde took responsibility for the Granada loss, and he should have. A great many people are continuing the pathology that makes him responsible for everything. Yes, he picked the players, set up the “tactics” such as they were, created the conditions that resulted in a mess.
But look at what happened with both Granada goals.
In the first, Junior Firpo funbled a ball that he should have easily dealt with, then fell down. The breaking Granada player looked at a Barça defense in disarray, as Pique scrambled to cover the loose man, and Nelson Semedo moved to cover for Pique. Where was Lenglet? Where was a midfielder tracking a runner? At the time of the pass for the headed goal, Granada had two free men in the box, one from movement behind a ball-watching Semedo, the other just running in free space. The passer had his choice.
The second goal came off a penalty earned via set piece, again the dagger at the end of a fearless Granada attack. Arturo Vidal, subbed on for some unfathomable reason. Got caught out by a pass and decided to try using his hand to stop the ball. Slick veteran move, right? Nah. Caught. Penalty.
Football, winning football, is about doing your job. Granada won because everybody did their job. Barça lost because few players did theirs. Messi came on and was rampant, and Ansu Fati subbed on and was brilliant, but he was shouting into an empty room, passes and crosses that should have found willing teammates, found air, the keeper’s grateful hands or were cleared by a defender. This match was an easy win for Granada, against a team that looked like it was no longer playing for the manager.
That’s why you turn a TV off.
When Barça is playing poorly, the team is still playing. Runs are being made, passes are connecting, shots are being essayed. Against Granada, the team didn’t look like it was trying, and that is brutal. And if they were trying, things really are more dire than they appear. Valverde got the starting lineup wrong, and he got the Vidal sub wrong. But aside from Fati, who was going to be a catalyst off the bench, once he and Messi were added? Long-term decision are coming home to roost, made and mot made by a board more concerned about marketing and sponsorships than the health of the team, and this is the consequence.
In summer, when I wanted Valverde to leave the club, this was the potential consequence, geezers staggering around while young players languish. Sure, he played Fati. Meanwhile Alenya is playing cards in the stands, and Puig is getting kicked with Barça B. The talents of both players could have been useful today, as both drive the ball forward. What good is De Jong if you pair him with Rakitic, who is washed up, and Sergi Roberto, who is too young to be washed up, but seems to be nonetheless. Both were dire in possession. De Jong was brilliant? So what. A manager is supposed to equip his team with the best chance to win, through lineup and tactics. Valverde failed miserably in that regard, and not only yesterday. So fire him, and you still have a roster filled with very expensive flotsam. “Valverde out” is just a start. This club needs management with the courage to take the steps necessary to not make firing a coach more than sliding deck chairs around on the Titanic.
Opponents aren’t beating on Barça right now. They’re fighting back against the perennial bully, sticking out their chest and saying, “I have had about enough of you.” They are discovering that the bully is afraid to be punched, can’t even really take a punch. They are fighting, and they are winning, a trend that looks set to continue.