A bankrupt club that is built to stay that way

Ernesto Valverde is doing exactly what he was hired to do.

This is worth admitting and understanding. He was chosen by the board because of how well he works with veteran players, because he won’t rock the boat, because he will deal with everything with a stone-faced equanimity. The veterans like him, which means that he will always have the dressing room, which means there won’t be any public turmoil, which means the club will always appear placid to potential sponsors.

And the money keeps coming in.

Every week, we scream about how Valverde won’t play this young talent or that young talent. He isn’t supposed to. That isn’t what he does. Imagine him sitting Pique, and the stories that would result. That will never happen under Valverde. Look at his reasoning for not putting Ousmane Dembele in the squad for the Levante match. The forwards that we had last match worked well, so why change anything?

Valverde is doing what Valverde does, what made him a fantastic choice for that first season he was with the club. He magically extracted maximum from the veterans under his charge, and they were so close to being in for a shout at a treble. But it could only get worse as the veterans aged and the rest of the league caught up. But the board was never going to replace him, will never replace him. Barça will never be bad enough under him to not be in a Champions League position, which will affect the money, the almighty budget. So Valverde will be safe until he decides to leave.

And we will scream. The day after the crapfest away to Levante, there was as usual, all the talk about Cruijff and principles. No surprise. But the problem isn’t that the team doesn’t have Cruijffian principles. The problem is that it doesn’t have any principles. How does it want to play? Is there a discernible tactical strategy except to keep the ball until a momnet of genius happens? In looking at the problems with the team, it’s that it isn’t a team. It’s a collection of individuals playing a pickup match together. Barça has never been more like a national team than it is right now.

What this means is that the automatic functions built from a system and a tactical sense, aren’t there. So people don’t know what to do when they get in trouble. So they hoof the ball, or dither, or try something individual. Look at what Arthur too often has to go through when he gets the ball, holding it until there is a place to put it. In the absence of substance, something has to occupy the vacuum. So you try something, or you give it to Messi.

Valverde wasn’t wrong all along, but he is very wrong now that difficult decisions have to be made, apple carts to be upset. Because he won’t do it. He isn’t supposed to. Guardiola charged in screaming, “Run, you bastards, run!” And he built something extraordinary. There were tactics, and a system. Players knew what they were supposed to do when they got into trouble. The ball and player movement became reflex.

Under Valverde, nobody knows. Rome happened because there wasn’t a system. Anfield happened because there wasn’t a system. Yes, the players failed, but it could also be said that the players didn’t know what to do. Street ball works until it comes up against a well-drilled team, rather than a group of individuals. Then it fails. And we wonder why a team that was better on paper, a team with the best player ever to play the game, lost to a team of lesser talents. Because only one was a team.

So now what? Lots of talk about Cruijff and the like, name-calling Valverde, etc. And what good will it do, when he is doing what he is supposed to be doing, and what the board approves of? Money managers and accountants want the budget to be strong. But so do a lot of conservative socis, who see other clubs wrestling with fiscal insolvency and like that their caretakers are going to boast a billion-Euro revenue haul next year. Exciting times.

Levante happened because nobody knew what to do. Look at the third goal, the stationary players looking around in a confused manner for the answers that you need.

What Guardiola understood about the way of playing that he adopted, then adapted was that tradition would build a foundation for success with the players that he had at that time. It’s fascinating that with an entire system at Manchester City built to do his bidding, he isn’t playing like he did at Barça. There’s a reason. The game has moved on. It isn’t as important that Valverde hew to Cruijffian doctrine as that he hew to some sort of doctrine. Give the team a system, a way of playing that makes sense with the personnel that it has.

Does a club steeped in Crujffian logic transfer Dembele? Nope. What is the value of a chaos agent in that system. Vidal? Nope. Look at him on the ball. Lenglet? Nope. Too reactive, too passive on the ball. The list goes on. But without a system, you get what a lot of NFL teams talk about on draft day, where they sign the “best available athlete.” Barça transferred in Junior Firpo, a bright talent. Why? The team isn’t going to play in a way that capitalizes on what he can do.

So he doesn’t convince Valverde, and he sits. Alenya doesn’t convince Valverde, and he sits. Wague doesn’t get a look at right back. Todibo has to count on an injury blizzard to play and shine. This all makes perfect sense to Valverde. It’s the veterans. He’s good with them, they like him, they have “been there,’ done it before, and they can do it again, until they can’t. They couldn’t in Rome, couldn’t at Anfield, fell apart at Levante. Valverde spoke of nothing major happening, Busquets said the result didn’t really reflect the match, that things are on track. Birds of a feather.

Supporters are malleable in their devotion to principle. Dembele is an unprofessional slug for oversleeping and being late to training. Pique tending to his video company and Davis Cup dreams is fine. He shows up on match day, is a future Barça president. Presidente Pique. So he has a terrible match, directly responsible for two levante goals, but there really isn’t much talk about it. He will be fine, they say. There was more talk about Dembele, who didn’t even play. And when he does play, the first wayward pass brings a blizzard of “Told you so!”

We claim we want the team to stand for something, to do more than winning. We want it to have principles, to play football the right way, even if that right way might not be the way for sustained success in this day and age. Everything about the club is a confused mess, except the bottom line. The bottom line is fine. And Valverde? He’s fine. Hashtags don’t faze him. Why should they? This is what he was brought in to do. To be calm, to stay the course, to say reassuring things at pressers after the wheels come off his team, keep the veterans happy.

Even the table cooperated, as Barça lost, badly, but will end the round atop the table if Granada doesn’t win at home. Luck works, too. What doesn’t work is not having a plan. Or having a plan more than a path to a billion Euros.

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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.