The temptation will be easy, the solutions abundant. This formation, that formation, this player, that player. But the seeds of a rather easy Valencia beatdown (make no mistake, the scoreline wasn’t flattering to Valencia, who should have won by more) were laid over time by a craven, lifeless board interested only in where the next bag of cash was coming from.
Flash back to when Setien’s Betis beat Barça, and people were crowing about the kind of football that Betis played, forgetting that Barça was unalloyed shit for 85 of those 90 minutes and still almost drew. Purity comes with consequences. You could see it in his Betis sides, in every team that he managed. Philosophy gets you points at press conferences, but it doesn’t do a thing when a team finds a way to defeat it. Opponents have, reliably enough to have gotten him jettisoned from Betis. Barça should have changed managers, but in June, instead of in a panic in January.
But this loss isn’t on Setien and his philosophy. It’s on decisions made and not made, it’s on allowing the Club de Amigos to persist under a milquetoast pragmatist who wasn’t going to do anything to upset that apple cart, nor was he empowered to. It’s on a technical staff in the thrall of a craven board and in over its head, not making the obvious decisions and buying player after ill-suited player, from Dembele to De Jong, because they aren’t interested in changing a system to suit the talent on hand. It’s on the men who run this club looking for wins in the court of public opinion rather than on the pitch, where it matters. The people who had the chance to prevent this problem were lazy, inept and money hungry. They were also chickenshit and rash. This is their result, their team, their failure.
On the pitch, Valencia walked this match. They created danger almost at will, once they stopped being content to watch Barça make 413 lateral passes. The goals they scored were easy, the goals they should have scored even easier. The only players on the pitch today who don’t need to hang their heads in shame are Ter Stegen and Vidal. The rest were poor, individually and collectively.
To be sure, it will take time to bed in the Setien style, such as it is. And he deserves that time, and our patience. Passes weren’t being connected, runs weren’t being made. Shots were called for but not taken, and everything was sloppy and disjointed. Only some of that is teething pains. As was written in this space, Setien has to solve the same problems that Valverde had to solve. He is choosing a different path, one that has, so far, resulted in three of the worst performances of the season. Granada needed to go down to ten. Ibiza ran out of energy and never had the quality to see out the result. And then Valencia.
People crowed about the midfield today, because of a belief in philosophy, and past glories. Busquets, Arthur and De Jong. As if that would be the solution to runs not being made, possession not being maintained, players who should know better, not doing their jobs. The bedrock of philosophy is execution and work. That didn’t happen today, and there is plenty of blame to go around for that.
Philosophy, Cruijff, talking about how a the manner of a result is more important than the result is cool. It’s also theory. Reality is a 2-0 beatdown that exposed your team in every way. Solutions? Really, the only one is waiting for the return of a dynamic but fragile young talent who might well hold the key to his team’s season. And who would have predicted THAT when Ousmane Dembele went down with yet another hamstring injury.
In the post-match presser, Setien talked of “meaningless passes,” and he’s correct. But that situation is part of what he will have to work on, and part of his Sisyphean fate, because he doesn’t have the players to work it out. Valverde played the way Valverde played because even as a milquetoast pragmatist, he understood the limitations of the players that he had, even as he chose those players when it came to the lineup. Never forget those players were chosen for him by the board and technical staff. The team makeover that should have begun after Rome and continued after Anfield, still hasn’t even really started.
— The three CBs are one ill-suited, one with paper knees and one past it and getting more so by the day.
— The fullbacks are a an undersized player who has lost a step and whose defensive deficiencies are now found out, a new dude, a kid, an overachieving Masia graduate and a technically flawed talent with crap confidence.
— The midfield is a player who likes to drive the ball but can’t, another player who likes to keep the ball but doesn’t do much with it because there’s nowhere to put the damn thing, a DM being fitted for his gold watch, a pitbull and a has-been. Oh, and a pint-sized nascent talent.
— Forwards are a broken dude who didn’t press, a genius who doesn’t press, a talent who defends but can’t sort attacking, and a kid.
— De Jong sparkled, and became the most sought-after midfielder in the game driving the ball, not standing around making lateral passes. Arthur needs a place to put the ball, but has to run in circles because nobody is moving.
From that, Setien has to forge a team that can play the kind of football that he needs. Whatever anyone thinks “Barça football” is, it’s more than saying the right stuff at a presser, and formations. It’s more than a thousand passes and 82 percent possession. When Guardiola came in and screamed, “Run, you bastards, run,” it was because he understood how hard it was going to be to play the kind of football he wanted to play, the kind of football people crave in the here and now, the kind of football that can’t be played with the parts that Setien has at his disposal. He couldn’t be more screwed if he was a bolt.
Supporters had their part in this, fonder of favorites and the scent of nostalgia, convincing themselves that players increasingly past it still had it, resisting the idea of changing them. “Alba has two or three good seasons left in him,” “Pique is still a boss,” “Busquets just needs the right system.” Those players were turnstiles today, early and often. Playing the right is energy, effort and execution. Passing and possession are a consequence of that. If Umtiti gets whipped on a throw (and he did, badly) it’s a system that accounts for that with placement and knowing what to do, but also having the legs to accomplish what is needed.
You probably watched that match and said, “Man, the team sure could use a shuttle mid who can also get forward and shoot, but is great in possession as well.” He’s on loan to Betis. Maybe you watched and said, “Whoof, a quicker CB sure would have resolved that problem.” He’s on loan (with purchase option) to Schalke. Todibo and Alenya could have made a difference, players that should have been being bedded in under a coach who wasn’t really interested in using them because it involved risk. He needed results, so he figured out a way to get them with the veteran players that he had.
Meanwhile, a board and technical staff tasked with setting up the club for the future, only cares about being able to crow about a billion Euros in revenue at their next dog and pony show. The future of the club? Easy decisions that don’t threaten anything, that don’t create public unrest that might frighten off a sponsor. Then those same people make the stupid, poorly executed move of sacking a coach whose biggest sin was being a compliant pragmatist, and hoping their third choice would do what they should have already known was impossible. By not moving Valverde on in the summer they made the decisions that might have killed this season, then made it worse by settling for third place because first and second didn’t have beer goggles, and said, “Nope.”
Barça lost today, and it should have. A couple of weaker opponents at home will give the team a chance to work on some stuff. But we would be misguided if we convinced ourselves that making the right decisions, the right moves, right formations and right runs will solve everything. This team is broken, an infection that started years ago and wasn’t treated. Valencia was the result, and unless something drastic happens, there is more to come. Before firing Valverde, this board should have resigned, should have considered the future of the club and the failure of its stewardship, and resigned.
It isn’t about the results, but rather about how those results are achieved, is something embedded in the club’s manner of play. It’s what the supporters believe and worship. The board met its fiscal targets, but those results are bankrupt, and have damaged the product they are supposed to care most deeply about. They have failed themselves, Messi, the team and its devoted supporters.