To begin with the obvious, Barça was terrible, and deserved that loss. In every way.
It began with a team selection that let down the principles of what this team stands for, and how it plays. It was a conservative, lazy XI that couldn’t do much of anything at all except keep the ball ineffectually, as Levante fought, and fought some more. You could see the home team, the ones in blaugrana who looked like the proper holders of those colors, growing into and then taking over the match.
Then the dam broke. Three goals. One from a lazy clearance, another from players being too slow, too lazy to do anything, a third from a past it player making the wrong decision.
Valverde’s XI was the expected one, which was everything wrong with this: Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Lenglet, Semedo, De Jong, Arthur, Vidal, Suarez, Griezmann, Messi. Too old, too slow, but tenured, like the college professor who teaches one class, earns his full salary and takes four-hour lunches. Real Madrid provided a template for what not to do, and the other giant Spanish club in FC Barcelona, ignored it. “We got this. We got Messi.”
Meanwhile, the old gray man rolled out an old gray team, and got what it deserved. And in every case, Valverde had a better option, a younger, faster, more capable option and everywhere Valverde could, he chose old and grey. Even when he had most of the midfield right, with De Jong in the hole (even if he isn’t quite ready for that task) and Arthur, but paired them with Vidal, who is useless in a match such as this, where an opponent doesn’t allow playing space. Every time Vidal got the ball, he seemed to lose it, or make the wrong decision. Meanwhile, Carles Alenya is sitting at home, watching, exactly the kind of young, strong player who drives the ball forward, can help with possession and score goals. Instead Valverde gave a bear the car keys.
Pique and Lenglet started yet another match together, one reactive by nature, the other made reactive by the passage of time. Barça is a team that no longer plays off the front foot, which means that it isn’t playing its proper football. Players, almost every player including Messi, was poor against Levante. So poor. But team selection handicaps a squad before the ball is even kicked.
Suarez was where everything good went to die. When he went off with an injury, the pace accelerated as Griezmann was liberated. It worked for a while. Then at halftime, the Levante coach seemed to say to his team, “You’re younger, stronger and faster than these guys. What are you doing?” And they pressed, fought and scrapped. The comeback began when a simple ball for Pique, in the face of a little bit of pressure, made him punt it away, toward midfield. A Levante player won it, fed it back to his attack and the perfectly placed shot beat Ter Stegen.
On the second Levante goal, not long after the first, sloppy passing saw a pass fall to a Levante player. Sergi Roberto fell back, again reactive, allowing lots of space to make the pass as Vidal sauntered into the frame. The three Levante players involved all had gobs of space, because the way Barça plays now, means that nobody does anything until a ball moves. The well-placed pass found a teammate and it was only then that Pique moved to the ball, too late. Stroked home and suddenly, it was 2-1. The third goal started with a stupid foul that again, came from slack passing and clearing of the zone. When Barça can’t play out of its own zone, the team is broken. This team is broken.
On the third goal, Ter Stegen had the shot lined up. Busquets stuck out a leg in a fully reactive manner, but too old and slow to do anything except deflect the ball into his own net.
The subs that Valverde made were Carles Perez for Suarez, and he was ineffective. Then Ansu Fati came on, and he was ineffective in another outing. And the only thing Busquets did was deflect the ball into his own net.
Messi knocked home a goal to bring his team to within a goal, but Griezmann decided to dress up as Suarez, ruining the goal with a lazy-ass offside. He stood there and looked at the Levante defensive line, and just stood there. It was poor, and typical.
After the match, Busquets said “We’re on the right track and we have to continue.” He’s wrong. The team isn’t on the right track. Busquets will think the team is on the right track because he’s safe. Pique will think everything is fine because he’s safe. Suarez will think everything is fine because he’s safe. All of the wrong people are safe. Busquets added that he thought the result was a little bit exaggerated. He’s wrong. Only one team had a plan in this match, and that was Levante. Only one team really worked in this match, and that was Levante. Pique was terrible. But he won’t sit.
We can scream “Valverde out” all we like, but we can add players to that as well. In every case, there was a player, either sitting on the bench or left at home, that would almost certainly have resulted in a different outcome. If Semedo is at RB, he closes down where Sergi Roberto dropped back. Umtiti or Todibo makes the forward, simple pass instead of panicking and punting. Umtiti or Todibo move forward instead of standing there, waiting to react as Lenglet does. Could Firpo have been so bad that Valverde chose to play Semedo on the left? He’s looked good his last outings, so what’s the answer? Dembele was droopped from the squad, even though an assistant coach says that he was fit. Could he have influenced matters? Certainly more than Perez or Fati, despite what Masia devotees might feel.
This was a loss by a team that had no heart, no soul, no sense that it was going to play great football and excel. After the match, Thomas Rongen of BeIN Sports said that the only way a team gives up three goals in seven minutes is if its mentality is shot. The defending was poor on every goal. So poor, so stationary. And because Valverde is a gray man, he isn’t going to react. He is going to believe that it will send the right message to stick with what works, to show the players that he has confidence in them.
For me, that is the wrong decision. Poor players need to be sat. If Dembele was left out of squad when fit, that can mean only one thing, that Valverde didn’t like how he trained. If he is sitting him because of form, what are the excuses for Pique, Lenglet, Sergi Roberto, Busquets, Suarez? Barça is playing like a team that is just waiting for something to happen. It is also playing like a team that doesn’t have confidence. Players are playing the ball back to the keeper, rather than forward, hoofing it away rather than playing a proper pass. This team is a mess.
The inclination is the blame the coach for too much, and thinking Valverde leaving would solve this problem would be problematic. It’s more than the coach, even as the coach makes the lineup decisions. The team didn’t show up, and that is a problem that the players have to solve. Ter Stegen said recently that a lot of folks have to look in the mirror. After this match, those mirrors had better have mirrors. The thing wasn’t that this was a bad loss. It is that this is a bad loss that was also deserved.