At the Friday press availability, Barça manager Ernesto Valverde said, essentially, that people are overreacting, that the team he manages is top of both league and its Champions League group, and folks should chill.
Then came the match day squad, in which Arthur was left out at the manager’s call, while Vidal and Rakitic make the cut. And Luis Suarez received medical clearance, and was rushed back into the group, which is gray and looks set to stay that way.
Cynics predicted that eventually, players such as Arthur and possibly De Jong would be discarded in favor of players such as Vidal and Rakitic, who offer the kind of defensive stability necessary to prevent every opponent attack from being a dangerous one. It’s easy to scoff at cynics. Or, it used to be.
There is a massive amount of hubris that surrounds FC Barcelona, but one thing that is for sure is that supporters don’t like ugly football, whether it wins or loses. Pretty football came in many forms with this club, from the Ronaldinho hijinks to the Guardiola Etch-A-Sketch to the all-too-fleeting Tito Vilanova vertical game. Each, in its own way, was pretty, and fun to watch.
But in many ways this team and what it has become can be epitomized in a sequence against Slavia, where Vidal took a pass, pranged it off his foot in typically poor control, ran over, dove and headed the ball to a teammate. Presumably, that moment was added to the “completed passes” statistic. Vidal was almost certainly hailed by some as the kind of fierce player who fights for the colors. Look at what he did for the team. He made the pass. Result.
The team is atop La Liga. Result. The team is atop its Champions League group. Result. And the problem is that a player such as Vidal is on the roster and is being used by a coach who doesn’t seem to want any trouble. Vidal groused publicly about being unhappy with his playing time, and into the team he went, the kind of player that Barça should be ashamed of needing on the roster, much less on the pitch.
When Paulinho came to the team, it was supposed to be a temporary fix to a complex problem, until the team made the signings and promotions that allowed it to play in a way dictated by the club’s footballing aesthetic. Instead, Vidal, essentially Paulinho with stupid fouls, was added. Vidal runs around, makes tackles and chases the ball like that guy in every pickup game who doesn’t have skills, but had plenty of energy. Look at him go.
Hubris is that Barça supporters would be satisfied with poor results, as long as the team played proper football. It’s one of the greatest, most annoying qualities of the True Believer. But it would be a mistake to think that a fanbase will be satisfied with results, at the expense of the show. Football is entertainment. It can also be beautiful, as a sequence of passes flows together, as a press works a ball loose and an intricate attack creates danger.
But what Barça supporter isn’t anticipating a dour, joyless slog by a team that has taken on the mien of its manager. It’s weird to say that results aren’t everything, and it can be easy to lump that into the same lofty perch as the “results don’t matter as long as … ” crowd. The most beautiful football anyone has ever seen, with the team mired mid-table would have people baying for blood. “Pretty football is fine, but look at the table. Barça isn’t Rayo.”
The mistake Valverde seems to be making is the mistake that almost every coach makes: results are the thing. My team is winning, leading the league. What’s your problem. Barça is playing the kind of football that a mid-table club plays, off the counter, hoofed clearances, long, speculative balls to mids and attackers. absorbing pressure from the opponent as the keeper makes sparkling saves. Barça is top of both of its groups because of results but more crucially, because of the individual efforts of great players.
There’s a difference between having great players and a system, and just having great players. Barça used to be a great team that had Messi. Now it’s Messi and the rest of the team, like the pre-championship Chicago Bulls. “Here, Michael. Save us.” He could often enough to get them into the playoffs, often enough to keep the stands filled, to get the kind of results that make management happy. The seats are full, yet no achievement bonuses are due.
Sporting clubs sell entertainment. The reason the Guardiola teams are iconic is because they merged results with aesthetics. Those groups are considered the pinnacle because they were. Not before or since has a team managed to mesh everything. The danger would be in marveling at the beauty of those teams without recognizing how rare they were, in having a vague notion that they can be replicated.
The problem is that Barça has gone too far the other way, away from aesthetics, toward a Paulinho type being a necessity. In one of the ugliest Champions League displays by the club in a very long time, Barça ran more than it has in any match this season. They covered ground because they were fixing mistakes. They covered ground because the players are doing the work that the ball should do. They covered ground because of the formations that have enough space between players, you could park a bus in it. They covered ground because they don’t know what else to do.
Most telling is that the players don’t look like they’re having fun. Messi strolls around, shoulders slumped as he watches a stranded teammate, having to keep the ball because nobody is moving, which means a brave opponent can easily mark every outfield player. Everything is ugly and joyless, as the board looks at developing a Netflix-style product that will show off the team, a synthetic diamond that looks like the real thing, but has visible flaws and crumbles under enough pressure.
Results define a manager everywhere in football except at FC Barcelona. “We’re top of the league. Aren’t you happy?” No. Hell no. Because the football is ugly, because the players who might not play ugly football are either not chosen or hanging out with Barça B. But when an unwatchable team gets great results, who wins, exactly?