Those wondering about consecutive Champions League collapses by FC Barcelona, seeking to understand the mentality that leads to such shocking results, need look no farther than the contretemps in the wake of L’Affaire Sarabia.
For the unfamiliar, during the desultory crapshow of a Classic that saw Barça lose away to Real Madrid for the first time in five seasons, Quique Setien’s assistant coach, Eder Sarabia, had some choice things to say that were picked up by cameras, then deciphered. Eyebrows went up and nonsense ensued. At the end of it all Setien essentially apologized for Sarabia, saying he needs to control himself. And in this very public confrontation, the wrong people emerged victorious.
FC Barcelona is now FC Candyass. Imagine Pep Guardiola coming in now, with “Run, you bastards, run!” In 2008, they ran. What choice did they have? Guardiola came in with carte blanche and underscored it by showing Ronaldinho and Deco the door. He didn’t need anyone muttering in the background or dressing room about the tyrannical new guy. That was then, and this is now. Even if the derisory “club de amigos” extends to a lot of things, the phrase mostly denotes a comfort. The players know what they want to do, how to do it and mostly want to be left to it. This works as long as they’re getting it done. But signs were dire, and Valverde had to go. It was a perfect time to decrease the comfort.
Luis Enrique was the last Barca coach looking to upset apple carts. He gave the keys to a willowy Brazilian firestarter, had squabbles with the team that had the vipers’ nest of football Twitter ready to have him fired before Christmas. It was also one of the first signs of the backsliding that really began under Jordi Roura, who was filling in for an ill Tito Vilanova. It continued under “Tata” Martino, whose benevolent leadership period was more a salve for a group that needed a psychic balm. From miscarriages to cancer, the team had a hard psychological year. Soft and easy was how you did it, and then came Luis Enrique.
He came in hard and with intensity and his team played like it, grabbing a treble in his debut standard and, as with Guardiola who accomplished the same feat, setting a template of success that was impossible to replicate. Luis Enrique was also the last Mister to run the club. He was replaced by Ernesto Valverde, a manager chosen for his dour tranquility and effectiveness at maximizing veteran players. He worked wonders his first season, until it came time for the club to face demons and adversity, stare it down and triumph. He and his team flinched, further victimized by his inaction to create what seems to be a big match template of fear and timidity that we saw at the Bernabeu last weekend.
Sarabia was right. He was right about Griezmann, right about the play, right about the energy and the effort. He was right about everything. And the only thing that should have been said to him was, “Great, now go say that directly to the players.” This was only a public castigation because the camera was specifically trained on him, but it shouldn’t have mattered. Setien was brought to the club to foment revolution, to shake up a moribund team and get it playing the right way. Revolutions rarely occur on roads strewn with pillows. Feelings get hurt, heads are lopped off. “Hey, it sure would be nice if you guys ran a bit harder. How does everyone feel about that?”
And it’s another day at FC Complacency, a competitive aesthetic that starts with the board, a group of calfskin-loafered caretakers who are all about the money, who do everything in their power to make sure that everyone is cossetted and comfortable. Valverde kept the veterans happy in a way that was effective, basically working in a manner that soothed. They knew what he wanted, and so did he. When they didn’t deliver, they were as disappointed as he was, but he was never going to scream at them. And if you’re going to change that, you do so in summer, not in January.
The board let Valverde and the team down with transfers, further damaging it by shipping off talented players in an effort to balance the books. Could Carles Perez have been useful to Setien? We’ll never know. Alenya? Doing great in Betis. Todibo? Hey, maybe a fast, agile, aggressive CB would have been useful at that first Vinicius goal, right? Except he’s in Schalke. Valverde wanted Parejo, got Vidal. Setien showed up with loans and transfers already in play, to take control of a spear with a blunted tip. And he got Martin Braithwaite, a player who the jury is still out on.
The man elevated from counting cows in the Andalucian countryside was, like Valverde, happy to be there, happy enough to be there to not look a gift horse in the mouth. But he was third choice, and the team knew it. What the board should have done is made it clear that he was their man.
Guardiola got buy in by making the team understand that it was his way or out. Players’ choice. Frank Rijkaard, like Setien a mostly calm manager, had Henk Ten Cate as his hatchet man. Ten Cate sometimes gave the impression that he would just as soon smack you as guide you. It worked, to the extent that many think part of why the Rijkaard team fell apart at the end was the absence of Ten Cate. Setien seems to have his Ten Cate, but he’s now been blunted, and the hierarchy is clear. The third choice with his grouchy henchman is managing, but not the boss.
That’s wrong, even as it fits the way the club does business now, the comfortable way it plays as it oozes up the pitch into the waiting arms of the opponent defense. Everything about this team and this club is comfortable, and nothing should be. Adequacy thrives in comfort, mediocrity flourishes in complacency.
Setien will have to have any success that he has going forward in the same way as Valverde, by letting the veterans do what they do, even if the veterans aren’t as capable of doing what they do. The presumption of professionalism works in a situation where there isn’t the incessant competitive pressure that Barca is facing. The team needs to play faster, and better. Runs need to be made, precision needs to return. The team has been regressing since the first, promising signs of the Setien reign, and that isn’t a good thing. In the current environment, where an assistant coach is essentially reined in instead of being celebrated, it’s hard to see how any of that happens.
Excellence isn’t comfortable. Thierry Henry, after his time at Barca under Guardiola, talked about running more and working harder than he had at any time in his career. The manager felt that pressure for excellence that as acutely as his team. Without that environment, nothing great happens. At Barca right now, you wonder what can happen in such a comfortable space. At Rome they were complacent. At Anfield they remembered Rome and got scared. At the Bernabeu the first half didn’t go as they liked, chances weren’t finished, and they seemed to wilt. This team needs a hard edge. Sarabia was exciting for so many supporters because of that edge, which has now been dulled. Where does the team go from here? It’s the usual answer, as far as Messi will take them.