The Mallorca XI was: Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Lenglet, Junior Firpo, Busquets, Rakitic, De Jong, Messi, Suarez, Griezmann.
Firpo was playing only because Jordi Alba and Nelson Semedo were injured. Had Alba been available, it would have been a most geezer XI. The result obscured how easily Mallorca was able to tiptoe around the old, slow Barça players to create danger. If you wondered how a better team might fare against that same group, you weren’t alone. One of the biggest frustrations of the Valverde era, as much as the collapses in Rome and Liverpool, is the damage being done to the future in the quest for results in the here and now.
The team has solutions to solve problems, but not only is Valverde not interested in using them, they’re potentially being shipped off to other places in January, or left to get kicked with the B team. Carles Alenya came on with about 20 minutes left in the Mallorca match, and what you wondered was why he hadn’t played since forever. He’s essentially Vidal with a brain, a first touch and skill on the ball. But he hasn’t played.
When Jean-Clair Todibo plays, what you see is a CB who is classy on the ball, with gobs of pace and closing speed (crucial for a CB). He wins every header that comes near him, and is calm on the ball. If rumor is true, he’s being sold in January, and Alenya is going on loan right along with him.
Meanwhile, Bartomeu says that Vidal isn’t going anywhere in January, because the squad is “balanced” and he doesn’t want to “undermine” it. His actions, his quotes are the root of everything wrong with the team, and why, results aside, Valverde out is still the cri de coeur of a significant portion of the fanbase. But even if Valverde went, the people running the club still have the wrong priorities. It isn’t just about winning. A team should also be building for the future. Risk is part of success. Without risk, would the amazing Guardiola teams have happened? He took a massive risk on Sergio Busquets, promoting him even though he wasn’t quite ready, believing in him so much that off Toure Yaya went to Manchester City.
Can anyone imagine the current stewards doing this? “Busquets has talent, but he isn’t quite ready. There are lots of midfielders,” Valverde would say. Pedro would be on the block, along with Krkic. Guardiola didn’t just win and create remarkable football. He laid groundwork for future success in promoting players who were ready to carry on. How easy would it have been to stick with Toure Yaya, Ronaldinho and Deco. Think of the marketing bonanza in the Brazilian, after all. We’re getting results with Yaya. What’s the problem? The team is balanced.
Firpo should be a regular part of the rotation, as should Todibo, Puig and Alenya. Why? Because Pique is a 32-year-old, sleepless, distracted businessman and tennis impresario. Alba is injured more often, and isn’t the player he once was when he isn’t injured. People point to the negative results when Busquets doesn’t play, instead of figuring out the structure around the lanky mid, who can replace him effectively and when. Rakitic is past it. Yes, he played well the last two matches, which doens’t mean he isn’t past it, doesn’t mean he won’t be a turnstile when a team is interested in attacking (unlike Atleti), of of the quality to do enough damage (unlike Mallorca). Vidal generates chaos, rather than control. This is fine if chaos is desired. Chaos should never be desired in a properly functioning Barça midfield.
Valverde likes veterans, and will pretty much always favor a veteran over a young talent, even when it’s important for that young talent to integrate and build with the first team. Ansu Fati is everyone’s darling right now, but is he going to get the continuity and playing time necessary to develop his immense talent? Not under Valverde, who will use him as an injury “in case of” option, or a late-match firestarter. “Get in there and do something, kid.”
In the summer, it was exciting to watch the team. Young players pressed, passed, one-touched and played vibrant, attractive football. But it was always going to be, “Wait til the geezers come home.” Count on Rakitic being part of more XIs. Count on Vidal getting more playing time. Count on everything except what should be happening, which is building a young, dynamic cadre of players who are ready to step up. Firpo was a mess when he debuted. Why? No playing time until an injury, then suddenly, “You’re up. No pressure.” But there is pressure because if you don’t perform and aren’t a stalwart, you get banished. Alenya’s last outing, way back when, wasn’t his sharpest. He was never to be seen again.
Consider this XI: Ter Stegen, Semedo, Todibo, Umtiti, Firpo, De Jong, Arthur, Alenya, Dembele, Messi, Griezmann. It has pace, pressing, ball control, explosiveness on the wings, speed and anticipation in the back line via proactive play, and Messi to top it all off. It would be fun to watch, and a bit precarious at first. It would require careful management, and a manager’s confidence as well as the freedom to screw up.
But in the here and now, there isn’t any freedom to screw up, unless you are tenured. Valverde is playing for his job, which means playing for results, which means short-term thinking. If a young player isn’t immediately the second coming, he is never seen again. It makes you wonder how often De Ligt would have played, had he chosen to come to Barcelona. Maybe he went to Juventus because he knew what would happen at Barça, which is Pique, Pique and more Pique, through thick and thin, hell or high water, ride or die. But Pique is 32, and showing all the signs of being ready to be fitted for the gold watch. Another step lost, accumulating yellows because he has to chase, reach and lunge where before he could intercept, front and control. Who is ready to take his place? The job of a manager is to prepare that next player, who is already on the roster (for now, anyway).
The club and team are being mismanaged for the present and the future, and all that supporters can do is watch, and wait for the Champions League failure as an old, tired team gets run off the pitch. Again.
The idea of being able to parse results as a luxury born of sustained success and excellence is real. We can score victories from an aesthetic worldview because the team still won, which lets us look for other stuff. It also allows people to scoff at us for being aesthetes. “Your team is leading the league, has won its Champions League group, the most difficult one, with a match to go. Shut up.”
Yet a successful team has never felt more precarious, more unprepared for anything untoward happening, more vulnerable to a high-quality opponent. And the way it’s set up and managed, it can’t do anything about it.