The Messi problem, scouting and transfers

It is rare to see as complete an institutional failure as FC Barcelona. It’s a football club as a game of Jenga, and somebody pulled out the wrong peg.

— Fired the coach before finding a first choice who wanted to come
— A firestorm over comments by the sporting director
— A new coach isn’t getting the results, testing the notion of good play vs results
— Two key attackers are both lost for the season
— An old team hasn’t been replenished in any way

But the money is on point, so there’s that, is what the board will tell you. In wondering how it all came to this, it’s easy to point to three factors:

— Neymar’s departure
— Messi’s excellence
— Board and manager timidity

The problem with Neymar leaving and the way that he left is that it led to panic and chaos, which was a direct result of pride and hubris. If supporters had a feeling that Neymar wasn’t going to be a long-term player, what of the people, the professionals whose jobs it is to assess such things? To not have had a contingency plan in the case the the Brazilian’s sudden departure verges on shocking. The error was compounded by making a pair of panic purchases that made sense in the NFL context of “best available player,” but precious little sense in the context of the team and its needs, nor were those players properly scouted. It’s a failure that has fiscal, sporting and transfer market repercussions.

Neymar worked because he had an elite mentality. Neither Coutinho nor Dembele did. Both were poorly equipped psychologically to deal with everything attendant to playing at Barça. Any great player will tell you that talent is only part of the equation, and not even the biggest part. Without work ethic and mentality the most talented player in history will be an utter failure. Neymar, forged in the madness of top-level Brazilian football at club and national team level, was unfazed by anything that Barça threw at him. And he had the talent and mentality to not be deferential when he didn’t need to be.

The excellence of Messi makes players who were chiefs at their former clubs into deferential fanboys at Barça. Why wouldn’t you pass to the best player in history, even when you’re open for the shot? Scouting is not only for talent, but psychology. Dembele wasn’t ready, Coutinho wasn’t ready. But they weren’t ready to play with Messi, either. Worse still, their skill sets, as an ideal, made them tactically incompatible with Messi. Coutinho needs the ball at his feet, and doesn’t really begin to think about what to do until it arrives. Dembele worked best driving the attack, with the ball at his feet, improvising on the fly.

Both styles of play are incompatible with the way supporters want Barça to play, the way the board want the team to play and the way that the team is structured to play. Both are brilliant players, but not in the Barça context. Both transfers were set up to fail. De Jong is looking to have the same difficulties. As a dynamic midfielder at Ajax, he had the ball at his feet, and drove it. Hard. At Barça, he’s playing right or left wing, dependent upon which coach he has, because again, the team isn’t structured to do what he does, wich what he does at his best. Antoine Griezmann transferred in and is, dependent upon the day, a semi left winger or a left back. He’s anything but the dangerous, dynamic player that he was at Atleti, because that role is taken. Where Griezmann does his best work is where Messi is.

The biggest problem with all three is that they have to learn different games, learn to be versatile, because Messi is better at what they do. That is four transfers, a half-billion Euros in talent, that can’t do what it does because Messi is so much better at it. So now what?

Luis Enrique worked because he wasn’t timid. He saw what Neymar could do for the team, and set up the attack to take fullest advantage of that. He knew that the biggest thing Messi wanted was to win everything, and as long as he understood the program, would go along. Subsequent coaches have taken their cues from the board: keep Messi happy. What they haven’t understood is what Luis Enrique did. What if Valverde had given Dembele the ball as Luis Enrique did Neymar and said, “Okay, do what you do, and we can adapt tactically.”

Instead he stuck Dembele somewhere in that weird no man’s land, where he needed to play like a Masia winger, making short, intelligent passes and anticipating play. Of course he wasn’t going to be good at that. It’s no coincidence that Dembele’s most sparkling moments have come from loose, open play, with the ball at his feet so that he could do what he does. Griezmann hasn’t looked better at any point of this season than he did in pre-season, when he could do what he does. Messi was on vacation, so Griezmann was surrounded by kids and complementary players. Not only did the play sparkle, but he sparkled.

Everyone is afraid of Messi, because they don’t undertand what Messi wants. Messi is happiest when he is winning. Look at how willingly he deferred to Neymar, because he understood that such actions would get him what he wanted. Buy in is easy when the goal and strategy is clear. Right now, Messi is surrounded by kids, poor fits and geezers who should already be in the process of being phased out. The board won’t do it, coaches won’t do it.

Jean-Clair Todibo is at Schalke because Valverde didn’t have the strength to begin rotating him with Pique, who is looking increasingly past his sell-by date. “We have Araujo,” he said, but didn’t use him, either. Valverde chose Vidal over Alenya, and the Masia midfielder is now doing at Betis what he should be doing at Barça. Did Valverde feel empowered by a board who threw him under the bus the first chance it got? Clearly his nervousness was justified. If he wasn’t getting results, he would be gone. So he did what he had to do to get results, as the purists scoffed. Barça Twitter doesn’t have anything on the line, won’t have to manage the headlines, or questions at pressers. It’s easy to be pure when you have nothing at stake. Valverde had his livelihood at stake. He bent, compromised and took the easy path, anything to keep the results coming. And as is clear now, he did it because he didn’t have the backing of the board. And if Setien doesn’t start getting results, he won’t, either.

Is a strong coach compatibble with strong players? Only if that coach can get buy in. Setien will have to get buy in. The players won’t care as much as the purists about playing well over losing. They have bonuses, ego, a craving for trophies on the line. You don’t have time for theory when your job is to win football matches. Messi has been at Barça since he was a tyke, and still so few people understand him. He only wants to win, wants to be given the best chance to win. He called out the technical staff more because of their failure to give him the best surroundings in which he can win. Abidal is a symptom, not the disease.

Headlines blared that Abidal’s job might be on the chopping block. For what? Telling the truth? No, because people assumed that his remarks made Messi unhappy, and in a footballing universe that views Messi as a tantrum-addicted child, anything to keep Messi happy except for the most important thing, which is doing the work necessary to always ensure that he has the best surroundings to do what he most wants to do. This failure is complete because of a complete misunderstanding by the people running the club, who buy an unhappy spouse a bauble, who install new snrubbery at the front of a house with a crumbling foundation. “See? Pretty now, right?”

No. It’s ugly, and broken, and almost everything needs to change, even if precious little of it will.

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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.