The thing about an infection is that it’s subtle, slow-acting and insidious. It seems like everything is normal until you realize that nothing is.
— Luis Suarez was a stumbling, bumbling brute for 93 minutes of a 94-minute match, and kept onside the attacker who scored the first Espanyol goal. But for one minute, he scored a goal, then flicked a lovely, outside-boot assist to Arturo Vidal for a second. And the stats came out that he has scored or assisted the last ten Barça goals, people waving that around as if it were anything other than a sign of how deep the infection has spread.
— Valverde subbed on Arturo Vidal, a player who would like to be somewhere else, who has brought legal action against his current employer over a disputed bonus. Vidal scored what was at the time the go-ahead goal and everyone crowed, saying “That’s the kind of player … blabla, etc.” What should be noted is that if a team like Barça needs that kind of player to solve an issue, you have a bigger problem.
The infection is part of the disease of results, of ends justifying the means. Barça supporters, over the past decade, have had the luxury of theory, of saying they would rather lose and have their team play the right way than win playing the wrong way. It’s theory because it has never been tested.
Excuses were made for the Guardiola teams. The Tata Martino team was a mess all around. Luis Enrique’s teams won everything then slid downhill, playing wrong the whole time. And then came Valverde.
The pragmatic thing about Valverde is that with the personnel that he has chosen, his team has to play the way that it’s playing, which makes it difficult to characterize that style of playing as “wrong.” It’s ugly. It’s effective. It’s necessary. It has created a supporter base and a board mostly gratified by results. Vidal comes in, does some headless chicken stuff, scores a goal and huzzah. Suarez is a mess, scores a worldie and “Urugasho!” But those moments hide the fact that this is a deeply flawed team, a group that was at times played off the pitch by an Espanyol team that will probably be relegated this season, that came into this match dead last, having scored the least and conceded the most. In other words, an easy three points for almost any Barça team except for this one.
The XI was Neto, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Lenglet, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, De Jong, Griezmann, Suarez, Messi. It didn’t take much to deduce what was going to happen, how slowly the ball would move, how poor the spacing would be and how energetic the opponent would seen in comparison. It didn’t take much to deduce that a few moments of individual brilliance would suffice to get a result and that result would be everything, because there was nothing else. That occurrence that was on track until Frenkie De Jong, in a cruel bit of irony the youngest player on the pitch, lost the ball in a bad spot and made a poor decision. His second yellow meant his team was down to ten and in danger because that in effect meant it was defending with seven.
Espanyol capitalized by turning an old player, then leaving an inadequate bandaid of one for dead, smashing home the winner past a keeper whose injured counterpart would have almost certainly have stopped that shot, and the one before it as well.
It was that kind of day. The best player in history was out for a stroll, sluggish and mostly ineffective, a player who with a properly structured team wouldn’t have had to play. But when a manager reveres veterans and doesn’t trust young players (ah, De Jong and the confirmation bias of a simple shirt pull), the veterans play. Rakitic starts, Vidal subs on for him. Pique runs, lunges and people say he’s “on form,” instead of that the Pique of old would be part of a structure that didn’t necessitate his being a player that he isn’t equipped to be.
That none of it has to be the way that it is galls more than anything. At the beginning of the season, there was so much hope and optimism. The team had gotten deeper and younger, faster and more talented. It was ready. But like children whose parents buy them bright, shiny new toys only to have them find an old twig and bang on a pot lid, Valverde didn’t use his new stuff when given a choice. Young, dynamic players capered in pre-season, but when the veterans returned, so did the footballing mucilage. Those veterans got results, which are everything, which also justified spurning the kids. Decisions matter.
Valverde, when his team went down to ten against Espanyol, subbed off an industrious player in Griezmann to bring on Semedo instead of pulling off a dog-tired Suarez who even when fresh, contributes nothing to the one thing that your team needs at that point late in the match and down a man. Defense. And the equalizing goal came from the part of the pitch where, had that sub not been made, Griezmann would have been working, and hustling, to bail out a defensively mediocre left back, which might have kept Lenglet from being found out and his team leaving with egg on its face.
But none of that happened, because of results. Suarez bangs in goals and you never know when he will, so you leave him on. You don’t have midfield control to be able to see out the match, because of the two mids on the team who might provide that, one has a sports hernia. The other you sent to Betis, while keeping the midfielder who is the antithesis of control. You have a defensively poor left back so your lump of a forward has to defend that zone on corners. You have a reactive center back on the left because you need someone to stay home and parry things away because everything in front of him is rickety. Everything about this team is a symbiotic, Rube Golderg contraption with the sole aim of easing veterans into their dotage and not rocking any boats. Problem is that dotage has already arrived, and the kids are hurt, or being shipped off. That boat? It’s rocking, and taking on water below the glittering decks.
Recall the Inter match when, in open space, Todibo fronted up on a better attacker than Espanyol’s, and stopped him. Twice. An agreement in principle has been reached to send that player to AC Milan. The team has no fit controlling midfielders of the type who could have shuttled the ball safely around, delivering it to the forwards, where the rondos could commence.
Everything about the stench of this draw that didn’t have to be is embodied in the legacy of poor decisions, sporting and institutional, that find the team where it is. De Jong has to stand around and pass instead of being the player the club bought. Griezmann can’t be the player he is best being because everything is stagnant. Dembele is a failure because he’s a hammer being used to try to turn a screw. FC Barcelona is a successful brand propped up by a legacy of achievement, but tottering on the precipice of complete failure. This draw to Espanyol should prompt some soul searching. It will for some. But because of the virulent infection the people who matter will say, “We’re top of the league, and qualified for the round of 16 in Champions League. What’s the problem?”
Pretty much everything. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better, because that’s how infections go.