It isn’t that Barça isn’t that good.
It isn’t that Barça is old.
It’s both, at the same time, coupled with a coach out of his depth who can’t make the team do what he thinks it should, even if it could. It can’t.
Watching the Liverpool Champions League ties is illuminating. It’s hard to believe that this is the same team. Messi was razor-sharp, Suarez could run, Coutinho was pretty good, movement of players and the ball was sharp and incisive. Now, barely two years later, the lugubrious mass of humanity that oozed around the pitch during the second half against Valladolid looked a lot like some Player For A Day impostors down from the stands.
We’ve seen the story before, a glittering first half in context, coupled by a team just hanging on for dear life as an opponent batters at the doors in the second. Can’t pass, can’t clear. Typical of the mess was a moment when Alba had the opportunity to play a ball to feet and start building something. Instead he just headed it away for a thwarted game of head tennis that only led to yet another Valladolid attack. That’s 14th-placed Valladolid, who were pushing Barça around like a Champions League-level opponent.
Tactically, it looks like the team is just making it up as it goes along. The generous are crediting Quique Setien with moving parts around and changing tactics, because that’s what you do with a golden child, even if that burnished glow is just a layer of paint that is already flecking off. It’s a team that doesn’t have a foundation, doesn’t have a real way of playing, so pressure brings panic instead of confidence in a system. When Pique gave up the free kick that allowed Celta Vigo to equalize, the biggest problem was that he panicked. You can see that panic everywhere, to the detriment of not only overall play, but anything approaching quality. It’s just a bunch of millionaires kicking and chasing a ball like kids in the park.
It’s sad to watch, disheveled players being bossed around by minnows as people exult in a failure that they think is going to result in something that it isn’t. An inept president isn’t going anywhere, no matter what the team does, as whataboutery becomes whatifery. And all we have left is a mess of a team, and vague hope that it, meaning its best player, can muster something magical to salvage European glory in a ginned-up series of one-offs.
Typical of the season is just when Antoine Griezmann was finding his feet, he suffers a quadriceps injury that looks to sideline him for the rest of the Liga campaign, also wrecking what little chemistry and continuity he looked to have with his mates for Champions League.
Umtiti is out, Dembele’s return from his latest injury is slower than expected, Braithwaite is a Liga-only signing that could have been made in January and added to the European roster instead of a bauble who will be watching from the sidelines, or on television like the rest of us. Luis Suarez is a shell of a striker, the occasional goal or two notwithstanding, an immobile, bearded monument to the player he used to be. All he lacks is a pedestal. And they fired a manager and appointed a caretaker as ill-equipped to take the team to the next level, to supervise the necessary rebuilding project as his predecessor was. We supporters would be lucky to have dark days instead of a Stygian blackness that pervades everything that we see.
And even as we wonder whether any of this could have been avoided, the reality is that none of it could have been. Everything is exactly as it should be, right down to the greatest player in the game showing off a dulled edge. The league has returned, but Messi’s sharpness hasn’t. Yet he is their only hope, evident as everyone defers, shoveling the ball to him wherever he is on the pitch. Understanding that his finishing isn’t yet back, he has resorted to becoming the best passer in the game, yet the magic present in him still doesn’t make spaces open or players move when they should. It’s deeply absurd that the brightest hope for the team right now for anything like mobility and advancing the ball lies at the feet of footballing children in Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig, placed in the hands of a coach who doesn’t fully trust them.
'Riqui off, TV off' is my new mantra.
— ETHAN (@EthanFromOnline) July 12, 2020
Setien removed Puig in favor of Rakitic, to add what would have been stability five years ago. Today, it subtracted, and Valladolid’s front foot grew in size as any midfield threat and means of advancing the ball went away. It was only ultimate quality and Ter Stegen that kept Valladolid from notching the equalizer that team deserved.
This team isn’t fun to watch. Worse is that it offers nothing except more of the same, without even leavening it with hope. When European play resumes in August, the second leg against Napoli will be played at the Camp Nou. Should Barça, nursing a precious away goal against Napoli, advance, the opponent will be either Chelsea, should something unlikely to everyone except FC Barcelona supporters happen and a 3-0 deficit is overturned, or mostly likely Bayern Munich. And it doesn’t get any better from there. Every other team in Europe can run, has structure, tactics and a system of playing. The team that we love has, essentially, “Okay, guys, Let’s get ’em. Don’t forget to get the ball to Leo, okay?”
On the up side, we will get a little bit of football in August, which is nice, as a bridge to the resumption of some bastardized conception of next season, when the principal option for supporters will almost certainly, once again, be to watch from home as nations struggle with the most effective way to respond to a pandemic.
But hey, at least Espanyol is relegated. So there’s that.