Somehow, FC Barcelona won its match against Slavia Prague, away in Champions League.
It was a match that was, like so many of the team’s other matches of late, decided by a couple of great moments and then the team just hanging on, being battered by a pressing opponent with more energy and drive. We saw it at Rome, saw it at Anfield, have seen it countless times. How we react is fascinating.
— (Insert player here) is a cancer
— Getting away from the system
— I’m not watching any longer
Three minutes in, Messi was the recipient of a lustrous ball from Arthur and just like that, it was 0-1 and everyone thought Barça was off to the races. Slavia had other plans because like every opponent that is facing Barça, the fear is gone. More than the fear, the quality, system and execution are gone, at the feet of a complete system that has been allowed to languish for too long. The roots are in short-term gain and fiscal targets, all in the hands of caretakers and accountants.
We mutter and grumble about how the team is, what is going on, all based on a Never Never Land template of a flawless moment in history when the exact right coach got players at their physical and mental peak, and forged something amazing, glorious and fleeting. Everything about how we have viewed every team since that magnificent bunch has roots in that group, whether we admit it or not. Only the most honest among us will. But FC Barcelona right now is like a shitty band reunion, but of a group where key members are retired, dead or have moved on. The Dennis Edward Temptations. Whatever in the hell the Grateful Dead is now. It trucks on memories and a glorious past, and can still play the songs, but they don’t sound the same and we ignore the wizened members who miss notes, forget song lyrics or can’t play like their predecessors.
We rail against this thing because that is what we are supposed to do. But if you really look at the team, the club and how it is, what we would really do is shrug and say, “Okay. Yep.” And that would be that. We could support the club if we love it, as many of us do. But the notions of championships, trebles and Barcelona parades should be treated as they are when looking at the detritus of avarice, poor planning and worse decisions that this club now is. The Slavia match was really a summation of How Things Are.
The gala XI in name alone was rolled out, with all of the deficiencies endemic to that group, and Slavia took full advantage. That the match was 0-1 at the half was something of an aberration thanks to the Ter Stegen norm. They easily got at the back line because the midfield was too slow, anchored by a Catalan extra in a George Romero zombie movie, a defensive left back in name alone, a right back trying to figure out which hole in the dike he needs to plug and a pair of CBs who now play with a mindset that would be great in Serie A, but not so much in the Barça football context. Up front, there are forwards who might as well be sitting in the seats when an opponent has the ball, such is their effectiveness, and a 120m defensive midfielder doing yeoman work in the absence of a proper intermediate left-side defense.
“How do they get at our back line so easily?” Come on, now.
Barça right now is Messi, some old dudes and some other dudes, some of who would be good enough surrounded by the right pieces, while others should just go. We see the shirts, but often we don’t see who is really occupying the shirts. The second Barça goal was on own goal which brought some relief, but all that did was make Slavia redouble their efforts while making Barça look like the same team that dumped it in Rome, only this time by a lesser opponent. We often watch, but we don’t see.
Valverde subbed on Dembele, Vidal and Rakitic. Not surprisingly, things got worse. Slower, more disjointed and Slavia turned it up a notch, because they could. In theory, having Dembele loose to run behind the defense makes sense on paper, but you have a new transfer and a pair of geezers in midfield. They could only, when they even got to the ball, huff it back to the Slavia press, who reset their attack and went back at it. Of the three subs, only one of them should still be at the club. And that third one should be on notice to fix up, or get gone. Because talent is nothing without execution, without some indication that you are going to realize enough of that potential to justify a slot on the team.
After the match on social media, you would have thought Dembele started, such was the attention being paid to him, in the absence of so many other targets and the team overall. Even Messi was off. Easy targets beckon while the essential problem remains of a neglected team plagued by poor decisions on and off the pitch, of a team hanging on for dear life, and not just against Slavia.
That is Barça, this Barça. And it’s run by a manager who has potential solutions, but like a child with an ancient binky that soothes, has no interest in anything different. Suarez lumbered around like a shell of a man, seemingly worn out by the effort he put in at the weekend. But he started. Why? Valverde knows. This meant that Griezmann got to hang out on the left, isolated from play by a structure with too many gaps that are also too big, where attackers are expected to make runs with the ball, make plays with the ball at their feet, yet Griezmann isn’t that kind of player. And every time he attacks, if possession is turned he has to chase back into the cow’s pasture behind him. No wonder he looked bedraggled when he came off.
Semedo had a very good match, again, but again he was slagged for not being Dani Alves, because that’s what ghosts do to expectations. Every right back now has to be Dani Alves, or off with their heads. And this happens while treasured incumbents such as Pique and Alba show clear decline, diddle around on the ball too much and cause problems as a consequence, stuff that happens mostly in silence. We can watch Umtiti and think, “Hey. That’s nice. Looks like a Barça CB.” But again, people judge him negatively because he isn’t someone else. Hell, he isn’t even himself at FC Impostor.
On a team where hardly anyone is up to the level required to meet the ambitions of fervent supporters, you then need a coach, a system that can put something together that can maximize the abilities of the people that are there. We get glimpses of that as Ansu Fati or Jean-Clair Todibo light up our screens. Then the manager flinches, and out comes the treasured old binky. And the new normal returns. It isn’t that Barça is a bad team. It’s that it is a bad team in the context of the club’s recent history, and a bad team in the context of top European contenders, who play modern football with players capable of playing such a thing. It’s a bunch of guys who run around and wait for a genius to have a genius moment, then go home. That only gets you so far. But as their manager said last season after yet another ignominious Champions League exit, “It is what is.”
This team is what we have, and it isn’t going to get any better. What we choose to do with that is an individual decision. I plan to keep watching, because that is what you do with the team that you love. But it’s grim. And it is going to be for some time now because of a management more interested in revenue targets than the team we all deserve to watch. But as long as the sponsors keep coming, they won’t care. Break out the pie charts and press releases about record revenues, while players weep in the locker room.
This is the Barça that we have now, and it should break your heart.