In the aftermath of a wild, wheezy, rickety beast of an encounter with Betis in their house, midfielder Frenkie De Jong, almost laughing during his interview with BeIN Sports, summed the day up best: “It was chaos.”
In the ruins of the attic filled with pop cultural references that is my brain, Barça right now is a lot like that crazy ’80s show “The A-Team.” A collection of misfits banded together to pursue a mission, to save the day. And every week they were captured by the bad guys, locked inside some structure and would have to build a contraption that would allow them to emerge victorious. A tank made from a pickup truck, a flying flamethrower. Week after week, plan after plan moving from structure to chaos to success.
What could end all squabbles about this Barça team and how it plays is embracing the aesthetic that is the reality for this team. There is a plan, there is an ideal, but circumstance shreds blueprints, tosses them into the wind and asks, “Now what?” Wherever Ernesto Valverde was on Sunday, if he chose to watch the team that jettisoned him on the back of a packet of cash, he almost certainly smiled wryly as Quique Setien, the Crujffian angel of purity for many, became a man whose team just got it done.
Three goals, enough to win, happened. One came from astonishing individual brilliance, the other two through scrambles, set piece madness usually the calling card of the impure. Both were the kinds of goals that you celebrate with one eye on the official, because surely something was funky. And a team got it done.
Barça played better football in the Copa loss it suffered against Athletic Club. The difference was, in a game where success lives in slivers of space, margins so tiny they don’t exist until they do, the shots went in at the Villamarin. The chances were better against Athletic Club, but that isn’t how football works. Sometimes it’s chaos and one team emerges from the wreckage, grinning, with the full points.
Like Valverde, Setien was forced to construct a contraption from a collection of ill-fitting parts, hoary gadgets rusty from age, or new things not broken in. His footballing ideal became a Busquets half volley, a Lenglet smash-and-grab. And we celebrated those goals, impure things that they were, because no matter what anyone says, we want our team to win. We would love it to play perfectly and win, but will take the win.
It’s easy to see what Setien is building, easy to see the machine coming together. But it’s also easy to see the half-broken gears that will always keep the machine from humming as we, as its creator, would love it to. The first Betis goal came from appalling control from a player of necessity, Arturo Vidal, and the key pass came from the man, Carles Aleñá, who was at Betis mostly because Vidal was at Barça.
One CB backtracked, his majesty reduced to the rubble of rickety knees, the FB trotted back, looking for danger behind, uncertain of his role amid the chaos of a plan that fell apart. And Nabil Fekir smote home. The starting XI that Setien rolled out wasn’t good enough, wasn’t ideally suited to do anything except figure it out on the fly. Just like his predecessor. The institutional wreckage forces us to gleefully grasp the occasional rays of sunshine as players who wouldn’t get near an idealized Barça XI start for this team, because who else is there?
Messi was poor. Messi was also decisive, essential in the creation of all three goals his team needed. As he endures a scoring drought that ordinary players would embrace but that must vex him mightily, he found other ways to domimate the proceedings. Adaptability. De Jong had his best match for his new team, thriving among the chaos, chasing, defending, driving the ball, making the runs. Busquets mishit many a pass, but was true on the one that mattered, a half-volley that he stroked into the net.
In the smoldering wreckage of yet another set of bad guys vanquished, the leader of the A-Team would light a cigar and say, “I love it when a plan comes together.” And the irony of calling improvised, Rube Goldberg madness a plan always made viewers laugh. The team that we love can’t do what we would like to do with the parts that it has. Fullbacks are inadequate, CBs either wrong, diminished or aging. The best forward is a kid, the expensive transfer a timid pile of uncertainty. And another coach gets bailed out by Messi, because that is what Messi does.
But what do we do? Setien’s team is playing better than Valverde’s team, as a theoretical ideal. It’s building. But at some point, just as his predecessor did, Setien will have to accept the improvised necessity brought about by institutional neglect. Idealism is just circumstance away from being beached on the rocks of pragmatism. We hate it sometimes. We want to be right, want a new coach to come in and transform a team. It happens sometimes. Bordalas is working miracles at Getafe. Ancelotti is doing the warlock thing at Everton.
But usually, inevitably, a team is what it is. Semedo is never going to be the fullback that his talent promises. Too early to tell for Firpo, but signs aren’t good. Sergi Roberto has to start when he would be a 13th or 14th man on a proper Barça squad, one fully equipped to do what we want it to, what we think Setien is going to ba able to magically make it do.
There often isn’t magic in getting it done, just the reality embraced by a group that accepts and understands what happened. A wild match made so many things clear as a plan dissolved into madness. But this also might have been, just maybe, the kind of a match that makes a team come together. Messi needed help to get it done, and teammates came through. If they didn’t get it done, the gap to the league leaders would have been six points, probably too much for a rickety clunker. And as the team rolls into what will be a season-defining run of matches, starting with Getafe, then Napoli in Champions League, then Real Madrid, just getting it done might end up being just the thing to expose the true beauty of group struggle, the accomplishment of success, however it happens.