We’re all old enough to remember when Quique Setien was the answer.
We’re all old enough to remember the #valverdeout hashtags, the storm and fury of a man who was never good enough for the team, finally sent packing.
We’re all old enough to remember some people suggesting that though far from perfect, Valverde had done the best that he could with what he had, and was being done a dirty by a craven board that knows about as much about running a football club as I do about splitting an atom.
And the factions began. “Valverde defender,” “You don’t love the club,” etc, etc. And then came Setien, a third choice, rescued from the life of a flaneur and offered one of the worst jobs in football. He took it, and so it began, same as it ever was.
Barça is like an aged Hollywood star who is still rich, so everyone around the star is looking to preserve the illusion. Mirrors are removed from the home, only the truly devoted are allowed in the presence of the legend. And everything, absolutely everything, is devoted to the preservation of the illusion, of a grand time that hasn’t been grand for years, but everyone is too invested in the illusion.
Sevilla snuck a mirror into the mansion, and allowed us to see. Everything that Barça has done since Pep Guardiola left, with the exception of a sliver of a heretical period under Luis Enrique, has been to preserve something that shouldn’t have been preserved. Heathens suggested that it was time to move on, that football had moved on. But the old Hollywood glamor was too seductive. “If only they played the right way, with Cruijffian principles, that would be right. Setien is a True Believer. Just you watch.”
And now, reality. Everything wrong with the stupid, hostile cesspool of the Barça entorno, of which Barça Twitter has become a fully functioning part, is devoted to the idea that a brief period in the club’s history is as it always should be. If you don’t believe that, then you are a fool, a heathen. Season after season, it’s the One Thing.
Opposition coaches are the ultimate heathens. They looked at the videos of the match, and saw a team that was far from the One Thing, saw a team that needs Many Things, a team that wasa old, slow and imcapable of showing anything other than slavish devotion to a time gone by, an assemblage of expensive parts. It should be a Ferrari, but drives like a beater. No one thing is wrong, but almost everything is wrong. The team has the greatest player in the history of the game, and rather than surrounding him with parts that would work, they surrounded him with notions, ideas in support of a bygone ideal.
Messi has two options now: beat four defenders, or create something from a set piece. There is no creativity, none of the movement that creates opportunities for him to slide into spaces like a ninja. Just banks of defenders, walking from side to side as the ball moves slowly around the pitch as a team of incongruous parts tries to figure out how to do something, anything. There is no way of playing because there can’t be. A series of sloooow, passes, a bunch of harmless touches, then a ball is lofted to a player who can no longer run onto it, or a cross comes in to a world where Barça players are outsized and outjumped.
Barça is old and slow. Players have been purchased that don’t fit, that can’t do what they could ideally do, because the team is old and slow. The ball oozes around the pitch, and the fear that once stalked opponent pitches has been replaced by a comfort, a realization that all you have to do is what you do. One deft touch became two, became three, not of tactics but of necessity. Nobody can move fast enough to be in a position to take advantage of those single touches that used to eviscerate opponents.
The option is risky moves in enclosed space, the stuff of training rondos. But in matches, opponents aren’t as compliant as teammates, and packed defenses set up to parry coots just stick a foot out, and that’s that. And we “Ooooh,” at a move that almost came off but was never going to happen.
Sevilla was never going to be a win. We should be happy that it wasn’t a loss, that they were devoted enough to taking the point they started the day with that they didn’t even create the possession and danger of lesser opponents such as Mallorca. Form? This isn’t a question of form. It’s sporting chickens coming home to roost. Setien is the new makeup artist for the past-it legend, looking at the same collection of pots, poweders and paints, tasked with making the has-been look different. Somehow.
Supporters scream that Setien has become Valverde, but what choice does he have. De Jong isn’t De Jong because instead of cavorting with gazelles, he’s hamstrung as he lumbers around the pitch. What is he supposed to do? Ousmane Dembele was signed and rejected becasue he played like a modern footballer instead of a one-touch Masia wunderkind. “He can’t play the right way. Off with his head.” Phillippe Coutinho was signed, and expected to be the precise kind of footballer that he isn’t. And he failed. Antoine Griezmann is another 100m+ down the drain of legend support, a player who was never what many think he is, even as he is better than he has shown. But at the World Cup, he cavorted with Mbappes and Mendys. More gazelles.
Nothing is as it seems, or as we want it to be. But it is exactly as it should be. Time doesn’t care about love or longing as it does what it does. Thirty years old is a magic number. When you look at the starting XI that Setien put out against Sevilla, most were wondering what to expect. Some knew what was coming. A bright start lasted as long as the dregs of energy in old legs. From then on, the draw was never in doubt. Even the late chance that Suarez scores easily a few years and a knee surgery ago wasn’t going to happen. This is reality.
Real Madrid exposed this team in the Classic. Then came grim reality, and a break. We watched Messi do Messi things in training and said, “Stand back.” Time said, “Hold my beer.” Busquets looks good because the rest of the team has decayed around him. Suarez scores the odd goal and people say that he still has it, that his detractors are hasty. No. This team isn’t salvageable. It needs the same kind of overhaul that it has needed for some time, but the people in charge are incapable of doing anything except making the books balance and hoovering up any stray cash.
Guardiola went to Manchester City with unlimited funds. The team that he chose to build wasn’t a replica of his amazing Barça teams, because those teams were period pieces staffed by icons. How do you build that? An even more pressing question is how do you preserve that, and should you strive to preserve that? We want it because we loved that time. The Hollywood legend rolls around town in the luxury car of a bygone era, wheezing engine that is on its last legs. Inside the car, inside the mansion, everything is the same. The scripts come, mostly out of courtesy, but nothing ever comes of them, and everyone waits for a day that will never come, because time has moved on.
A few of us longtime observers were asked to take part in an oral history of the 2007-08 FC Barcelona season, and a team that had enough talent to hope, but not enough talent to get anything done. It all feels so familiar.