Life is sometimes better without illusion.
Many people said that Zidane would start Vinicius because his strengths match the known Barça weaknesses. That he scored the first goal wasn’t really a surprise, nor was it a surprise that the second goal came from a fast run that found the Barça defense wanting. Again, these are known vulnerabilities.
The day of and morning after, there are quite a few mentions of Nelson Semedo, which is fitting if the need to cling to illusion need be met. What was his role in the Vinicius goal, is he good enough, etc, etc. But discussing Semedo is like talking about the lawn while the house is on fire. Barça isn’t good enough. Start there. And it isn’t good enough for all the reasons that we already know.
There was analysis, Xs Os and formations, all pointless in the face of a much larger and more troubling issue. Barça is a broken team.
In the first half, they created some excellent chances. Greizmann spurned one, Messi another. And as has been the usual in big matches under a second coach now, if they don’t convert chances it seems to damage the team psychologically. After a first half that saw them well into the match, the second half was a pell-mell mess with no structure, balance or anything like the gospel that Setien preaches. It was an aged, desperate team trying to get it done any way it knew how, even if that meant playing into the hands of its opponent.
Much was made over Marcelo being able to run Messi down on that break, but much is also made of the diminution of Marcelo’s skills. But much of his pace remains, and Messi is damaged. We don’t know how or how much, but he hasn’t been his norm for some time now, and we shouldn’t expect him to be. Like any player, Messi is mortal.
The difficulty is that the team doesn’t have any other plan, any other ideas except to keep riding a player who clearly doesn’t need to be ridden as hard as he already is. Messi is a 32-yaer-old genius, and will go down in history as the best player to ever do this football thing. Messi is also a 32-year-old man in a young man’s game, nursing himself through all of the things that happen to 32-year-old men over the course of a long season.
The shame of it is that nobody, among all of that high-priced talent, has the wherewithal to take anything on themselves. The default setting will be to look for Messi, even when Messi isn’t there any longer. Coach after coach, from Guardiola to Luis Enrique to Valverde to Setien, has built a structure around the number 10. As the structure becomes more rickety, as time does what it does, more things are exposed, and illusion is stripped away.
Messi isn’t what he once was. There is no shame in that. The shame is in a club structure that, like the most devoted fan of the player, believes that he still is. Sport needs its heroes to be ageless. If they age, what is happening to us?
In the run-up to Sunday’s mess, BeIN was showing old Classics. Busquets was astonishing, and that nature made the state of his decline clear. But that Busquets is still the best option for the team is shameful. That Jordi Alba has to rush right back into the XI because he’s still, with all of his flaws, the best LB on the team is ridiculous. That a 120m transfer has the shooting technique of a kid in the park during a kickabout, who doesn’t want to take anything on, is absurd. Barça is a collection of expensive parts, but it isn’t a team. And those parts, though expensive, are old and failing, which explains why the managerial job fell to a third choice rather than a first.
But even there, we need the illusion. Third choice in reality, but first in our hearts, as he will instill the right way of playing and everything will eventually be wonderful. Not with this team, it won’t. In two big matches now, both away, the team has been a desultory mess. This was also true under Valverde. After the match, there were some rumbles about the bygone Barça coach who never lost a Classic, but there shouldn’t have been. The only issue with the removal of him as the team’s manager is that it came too late, and didn’t come with a self-immolating cleansing of the boardroom as well.
The players do what they do. It’s supposed to be the club structure that prevents it all from falling apart. In his dotage, Messi should be scoring the occasional brilliant goal, but mostly dishing out otherworldly passes to the capering talents that surround him. But look at the collection of symbiotic beings that littered the XI against Real Madrid. Many creators, such as De Jong and Busquets, but for who? How many Barça forays up the pitch found runs in behind not being made, saw an empty opponent box as people waited for a reason to venture there, rather than creating a reason for the ball to be there.
This is Messi’s team, but it isn’t supposed to be because Messi still has to carry it.
That first goal from Vinicius was illustrative. Semedo moved to cover Benzema. Should he have, vacating his space? Well, if you think the person who is supposed to have your back, in this case Martin Braithwaite, the emergency signing who slept during a legitimate emergency, will. Pique moved over to block a shot that Ter Stegen had covered, moved over to block a shot that years ago he parries easily but in this year, he just was able to get enough of a toe to it to deflect it past Ter Stegen. Two errors and a needless action are a perfect summation. And the team panicked.
Yet no clearer capitulation could be imagined than that second Real Madrid goal, which came off a throw in. Mariano just ran on the ball. Umtiti wasn’t fast enough, Alba didn’t even try, Semedo didn’t quite know what to do and once it all became clear, it was too late. Mariano’s finish was cool and exceptional, but it should never have come to that. The effort shown on that goal was a clear indictment of the state of this team and its belief. On some teams, players sprint after a play even if they know they don’t have a chance of making it, because there’s always hope: loose control, a stop and cut back that lets you make a play. Not Barça.
In the last year of the Frank Rijkaard managerial stint, a broken, psychologically damaged team was still functioning with a superstar who no longer had it as its sun. It hasn’t been since that team that veteran observers of this club have seen a worse group than the one we’re watching right now. Even the tragedy-riven group under Tata Martino functioned better.
It isn’t just that there are so many players who are old or not good enough, it’s that there isn’t even a structure in place that allows us to adequately assess their quality. What would Semedo be with a midfield that could run, or a fast, mobile CB? What would Firpo be with a pressing midfield and fast, mobile defenders? What would De Jong be in a structure that allowed him to do what he does best? What would Messi be, sitting just off a front line, dealing doom not with goals but with passes.
Would this Barça be a different team with a fit Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele? Undoubtedly. But the absence of those two players allows clarity. The people who were tasked with caring for a gem let it get dirty and dull. For the past five seasons until this one, Barça went to the Bernabeu and walked away victorious. Even when it wasn’t a better team it believed it was, played like it, had a plan. The group that capitulated yesterday was a shadow of itself, what used to be the best team in the world allowed to atrophy through neglect. It was what so many said it was, so how can we be surprised at the outcome?
It’s easy to blame players, but they are just doing what they can. The structure is the problem. And until that is fixed, it’s only going to get worse.