Leganes 1, Barça 2, aka “Dark days”

If the Barça players are not playing to get Valverde sacked, then things are even worse than they appear.

The mind strains to think of a worse, more workmanlike, disjointed and just plain uninspired performance by any Barça side in recent memory. You probably have to go back to the last season of Rijkaard when Ronaldinho was partying, Deco was a symbol in a factionalized dressing room and anything that could go wrong, did.

Back then it wasn’t as much that the players were playing to get Rijkaard sacked as much as he just didn’t have anything for them, didn’t have motivation for them, didn’t have anything to do. Everything was on Ronaldinho, and when he started to tail off, there were no more answers. But this team, the team that needed two set piece goals and a lucky bounce to beat the butt-nekkid last team in the league, might be worse than the Rijkaard team because of the promise that it offers.

There have been times when Barça has been lambasted by the purists because some lofty standard of glitter bomb magic wasn’t met. Leganes wasn’t one of those matches. This was a match bereft of everything. Spacing was bad, movement nonexistent, passes slack. The players looked as though they had just been thrown together that afternoon. Nobody seemed to know where to go, what to do.

Valverde said after the match that “We have to leave happy,” at the result, naturally. And yes, the result, a win, means that Barça will, no matter what happens, end this matchday with a share of the league lead, a remarkable accomplishment due as much to everyone around them also having stank as any real endeavor on their part. This goes beyond aesthetics. There is something fundamentally off at the core of this team and how it goes about its business.

The idea that players are playing to get a coach fired is one that is really more myth than reality, because players are professionals. It’s their job to excel. But a manager can lose the ability to motivate a team, can lose control of the psychological reins that give control over a team, that make the players perform at their maximum. Even when they aren’t playing to fire a manager, they can still be playing as though they lack confidence in their manager and his decisions, lack confidence in the structure to excel that he has given them.

We see it in slack passing, runs not being made, a team looking more like individuals than a cohesive unit with a plan of attack. Leganes got an early goal, and was going to ride or die with it. They sat deep, clogged the midfield and applied physical pressure to every Barça player who possessed the ball. They bracketed Messi with multiple players, daring anyone else to be good enough to beat them from open play.

That wasn’t going to happen because time after time, when a Barça player had the ball and played it into the box, only purple shirts were present as teammates who should have been making runs stood and watched. The signs of an absent structure come in moments such as that, where there aren’t automations, things that just happen. When a Barça player gets the ball at the back, nobody knows where to be or what to do. The opponent press works because spacing is poor, players uncertain. Risky passes result that gift possession to the opponent.

The idea that the players aren’t being coached and trained is one that is unsupportable by logic. Valverde works in training, coaches during matches, makes tactical adjustments and subs to give him team a better chance at winning. The difficulty is that winning has become the only thing. Not winning gets managers fired. But football is entertainment. A team is supposed to be entertaining, especially a team with the pedigree and talent available to FC Barcelona.

Valverde started with Messi, Suarez, Griezmann and Dembele. How any team, much less a goal-leaking bottom feeder, could stifle that attack boggles the mind. But in practice, Griezmann is stranded, Messi isolated, Suarez battling defenders and Dembele dancing with the ball, trying to force something to happen. Giveaways came because players have to force the ball as part of a series of individual actions that make everyone a ball carrier. The longer the ball resides at the feet of a player, the more likely it is that he will lose it to the defense. When every decision is bad, what’s the correct one to make? Griezmann is too far away, Messi walled off, Suarez stationary. You can pass it back to midfield and reset, but reset what? So you try a risky pass and hope for the best.

A team with this much talent shouldn’t have to hope for the best.

After the match, Pique and Valverde sounded similar. We won, we’re leading the league and Champions League group, Leganes made it hard for us by how they played, worked hard, etc, etc. Pique explained away his Davis Cup dalliances as it’s only a short flight, as long as I am committed, blabla, etc. But imagine for a second Carles Puyol as captain, and what he might say to Pique. As a team looks to find cohesion, a way of playing that allows everyone to excel, as they look to their comrades for support and inspiration, all of that flows from leadership. The Guardiola teams weren’t magic. They knew what to do and were fully empowered to do it. There was a belief. This team doesn’t believe. They hit a pass without conviction or the pace necessary. Everyone points to the absence of individuals, but it’s more than that. Something fundamental is missing from this group, and that something is leadership. It isn’t coming from senior players, nor is it coming from the bench. The result is lackluster performances that usually come down to a great player doing something great. It happened again against Leganes.

Results win silver, lack of results get coaches fired, but results can also obscure. Barça won, is topping its Champions League group and the league. This is all true. It won a difficult match in a difficult stadium against an opponent that really wasn’t interested in playing football. This is all true. What the Leganes result didn’t do is hide something that was clear for all to see, which is that this is a Barça team in trouble because leadership is lacking.

Valverde started Pique as everyone knew that he would. And Jean-Clair Todibo is on the block, slated for a January move. One player flits off to be a businessman, by his own words doesn’t get sufficient sleep. The other passed up every other big club to come to Barça, works his ass off and is fully devoted to the team. He doesn’t play, and is on the market. There might not be a situation that sums up this institutional wreckage more than that one.

A coach interested in leadership, in instilling fire and devotion says to Pique, “When you’re ready to lead this team as a senior player, we can talk about you starting. But as a tennis impresario, you aren’t a very good center back. Let me know when you want to be.” That such a thing will never, ever happen, that salvation of a sort came from two veteran players who many believe shouldn’t even be on the roster is another symptom.

Veterans play, can do as they like while hungry young talent sits and watches, to learn what, exactly? The Leganes win was a result without success. More than the notion of winning ugly, it was just ugly.

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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.