There was no purer evidence of how broken Barca is as a team and footballing entity than the Champions League match against Napoli.
From a benign XI to a desultory last 20 minutes in which the team seemed happy to settle for the 1-1 away scoreline, everything about this match spoke to a group, from players to manager that instead of being liberated by the freedom of change and new blood, played mostly with fear and reticence. And these deficiencies have their roots in inadequacy, poor squad planning and an absence of courage that begins at the board and trickles down to the team.
The team has a fanbase that says, “To hell with results, let’s see the beautiful football.” But it’s saying that to a board that believes that results get sponsors, which gets the money the club needs to keep the talent coming. It’s saying that to players who want to win because results get trophies and trophies get performance incentive checks. It’s saying that to managers whose jobs are on the line because beauty and no results just mean your ass is fired just as surely as ugly and no results, and who wants that.
— Setien has principles that he wraps himself in, then flinched on the biggest stage.
— Junior Firpo is playing like a B-team promotion fearful of being sent back instead of the Betis tyro.
— Semedo is still a confidence player, brilliant when he’s feeling it, slack and tentative when he isn’t.
— Messi is pressing, sometimes to the detriment of his usual excellence.
As we settle in to discuss the team and how it is playing, if we don’t begin by stipulating that it’s all pointless except as an ideal, that the mess is so comprehensive that the best place to begin is almost with a complete restructuring, we needn’t bother.
Setien, in Napoli, looked a lot like Valverde right down to starting Rakitic. Why? What else can he do? Arthur? In theory he’s a controller and everything is wonderful. In reality he still hasn’t settled into the role so many expected when he arrived at the club. In many ways he’s the epitome of Barça in that he’s a delight on the ball, and kinda lost without it. But you can’t put Vidal there because that isn’t a part of the pitch where you need chaos. So in goes Rakitic even with all of his well-demonstrated deficiencies.
There was lots of talk about Semedo after the match, and how poor he was. But you could drop peak Dani Alves into the RB slot for this broken team and he would have issues. In his heyday, Alves mostly functioned as a winger or mid who defended, rather than a trad fullback. He could be that because the press worked, with two forwards who worked like fiends, a voracious midfield that included a telepathic Busquets who could run. And if all that failed, Abidal with sideline-to-sideline range and Puyol were in back, along with Pique, when he could run like a gazelle. But there was also calm in the structure of a team that knew exactly what it was supposed to do. Opponent breaks were dealt with because of the confidence that a world-class teammate had your back.
Today, Semedo can’t be liberated because if he does anything and gets caught out, that side of the pitch becomes a gaping maw. Pique is too slow, doomed in the 1v1s he used to able to win with ease. There is no press, no midfield support as Busquets knows where to be but can’t get there and none of other mids have the pace or strength to solve anything. So what does Semedo do? Play tentatively to keep the team from getting killed. And we complain about him going forward as if an individual is responsible for the structural and personnel flaws that dictate the mess that we see every week. Setien can only do so much, not that he’s renowned for his defensive nous. It’s easy to forget how stalwart the Guardiola glory years teams were at the back as well as the front.
We exist in a world of debate that is based on 100 percent possession. Barring that, deficiencies in this team are easily exposed by any opponent. Levante attacks are just as dangerous as Real Madrid attacks because systemic flaws are exploitable by anyone with the blueprint. Bet the house that Zidane is going to start Vinicius in the Classic. His pace breaks down the right flank, and a team that has shown no propensity at all for picking up the late runner is potentially victimized by a midfielder such as Isco making the run. We have seen it too often this season as possession is lost and panic breaks out when nobody can get to where they’re supposed to be because nobody is where they’re supposed to be.
At one moment in the second half a slack Napoli pass oozed its way through midfield. Griezmann was a short, risky sprint away but the first thing he did was to check back for cover. There was none, so he backed off to protect. Instead of seizing a moment to attack, weakness meant settling for passivity.
After the match and thinking about the Firpo performance, another tentative display compared to the dynamo he was at Betis, it was worth asking why. It’s more than a player having the yips from being at Barça, though that certainly seems to be some of it. What is his structure for success? Culers expect him to be Neymar, able to take on defenders and create an attack. Even Alba can’t do that, and Firpo is a fullback, not a winger. And his dynamism at Betis was supported by a press, mids who could run and quick CBs, none of which exists at Barça.
The Napoli goal was a clear illustration of that. Pique went for a steal that he was never going to make, vacating his space. Firpo couldn’t deal with the hard ball that came his way, lost possession and everything fell apart. At that monent it’s a 3-v-2. Umtiti is running to cover the man with the ball, and Semedo is running to get to the man he can see, but he’s between a pair of Napoli attackers. Umtiti slid over to cover as Semedo scrambled to pick up a runner but the loose man scored, takimg advantage of chaos and passivity. And these days, there is almost always a loose man when an opponent attacks Barça. It’s hard for fullbacks to function as wingers when nobody behind can fix problems. Barça tried pressing, but Napoli always had a place to play the ball because not everyone could press, or those who did left gaps, so the Barça press was more a mild harassment than anything else.
The TV show “Iron Chef” pitted cooks against each other in a match of creativity. But if “Barça Iron Chef” gives all two chefs stale bread, eggs past their sell-by date and skim milk, what are the odds that both chefs come up with French Toast?
My biggest hopes for this season are elections in the summer, and that Setien can continue to improve the team, and find a way to innovate on the biggest stages. His second chance comes on Sunday, when Barça go to the Bernabeu, of late thought of as Messi’s weekend home. What does he do? Start Martin Braithwaite? Puig at LW? De Jong or Rakitic in the hole? The biggest problem presented by Real Madrid is also the biggest weakness of Barça, pace on the counter.
Luckily, Barça go into the match with a two-point lead in the standings and much to play for. Everything to play for? In a wild Liga season, a five-point lead in the standings in March, should Barça win, is a guarantee of nothing, because how confident is anyone, hitting the throttle in a broken-down car with bald tires?