Life is better with context, and so is football. The coin of the realm in culerdom, particularly Barça Twitter, is dogmatism, bile and fatalism as doom stalks the land.
Outsiders watch the team that we pillory, and wonder what our problem is. That’s the challenge presented by a dogmatic view of things. Because even though Barça isn’t a very good football team is true, it is in the club’s own context. By making the Champions League quarterfinals again, easing past a Napoli side thanks to moments of exceptional brilliance, this match wasn’t as fraught as it seemed to culers who were expecting failure, another bottle job.
The halftime talks in the tunnel from Messi in particular emphasized, essentially, keeping your shit together. They did. Napoli had almost 49 percent possession, and scrabbled at the lock a few times. Setien exaggerated a bit in saying things were calm, but so do we in treating every opponent foray into the box as an “Omigod! They almost scored!” moment, when Ter Stegen didn’t have to even move off his line. Plays that have supporters of other clubs lauding their defense for a sharp, last-ditch intervention we view as a sign of the coming plague.
The why is easy. We remember the possession-based Barça sides of Pep Guardiola, remember Victor Valdes sitting in the net doing his knitting while a cadre of geniuses played, in the words of Ray Hudson, Spirograph football. But we misremember those times just as we misinterpret these times. So much of today’s horror is what what we don’t have, and will never have again, which doesn’t keep those glory days from becoming the standard.
Nelson Semedo had a really strong match, but he isn’t Dani Alves, so he’s a wastrel. The team has to defend more because it doesn’t have to bodies or legs for the dominating press that it used to lay on. That is just the reality of circumstance that sits at the nexus of poor decisions, lots of them, and bad luck. But everything isn’t the worst at FC Everything Is The Worst. “It took Messi scoring a worldie for us to advance.” Well, yeah. That’s what Messi does. That in the here and now that seems to be most of the offensive match plan doesn’t diminish the reliability of the Argentine genius, who loves the Champions League and iconic goals.
That stupefying thing that he did against Napoli, who did everything right except account for genius, can barely be explained. He took a pass in the box, battled for possession, fell down, got back up, kinda, falling down, stroked a curler into the far corner. Messi also won a penalty by outaccelerating a player he shouldn’t have been able to, and winning the ball cleanly. He then tied his boots while Suarez stroked home the penalty kick. In the 88th minute, Messi was sprinting around, pressing Napoli, setting an example for his teammates that today, there wasn’t going to be another collapse from a position of strength. Messi knew, even if we didn’t.
Football has a fundamental inability to accept how things are. “In an ideal world” would be engraved on many an analytical tombstone. Barça didn’t play a horrible match against Napoli. Barça played the only match that it could, given the personnel that it had available, and advanced. Any analysis should start there, even as we apply different templates to the match and performances therein. “All they have is Messi.” Okay. It was plenty.
Quique Setien stood on the sidelines, mostly looking like a man awaiting the results of a colonoscopy rather than a manager tasked with running one of the best clubs (yes, it still is) in world football. He didn’t use subs in any way that had an effect on the match, and we screamed. Some compared him to Valverde, which doesn’t do his predecessor any favors as making subs to change a match was one of things Valverde was quite good at.
It’s also worth wondering what Setien did that was so wrong. Bring on Fati! Why? The team had more than enough goals to advance. Just keep doing what it has been doing. Take off Rakitic? For who? Even as the standard of his performance will leave the artistic judges wondering what to do, he was part of a solid defensive structure. Bring on Puig! The wee Catalan genius-in-training is noted for many things, but defending isn’t one of them. Busquets was out, Vidal was out, a pair of key players.
But our swashbuckling notions of football and how it should be played doesn’t allow for the reality of an aged team plying its trade in less-than-ideal circumstances. We watched Manchester City score goals off pressure from their forwards, green with envy as our forwards looked like statues, doing some running around but mostly being ineffectual as Napoli played out from their end. Don’t waste the energy, let the defense deal with it. The Barça that we have isn’t the Barça that we had. But what we have isn’t anything like the relegation candidate that so many act like it is.
Frenkie De Jong played what was, for me, his best match in the colors, a level above anyone in the outfield save Messi. Semedo was also excellent, and Lenglet was colossal. We can snark about a system that now needs a reactive CB rather than an elegant, ball-playing one frolicking out by the halfway line, but that too is how things are right now. And as soon as the whistle sounded to end the match, the talk shifted to … doom. But this time, it’s Bayern, a team that has a tendency of popping up at times of seismic change at Barça.
In 2013 the 7-0 effectively brought down the curtain on the possession football, all those perfect passes and possession era. Then in 2015, it was Bayern again when Luis Enrique was reshaping notions by having the three best attackers in the game and, essentially, saying “Get ’em, boys.” Messi, Neymar and Suarez dismantled Guardiola’s Bayern, when so many were predicting victory for the German side, because Guardiola. And now, in the twilight of everything, as a veteran team stands on the precipice of being dismantled, it’s Bayern. Again. And again, we expect the worst.
Bayern strolled to a league title (again), and is a formidable side. Strong on the flanks, press like fiends and have an on-form Robert Lewandowski, who is scoring goals for fun. Thiago Alcantara had a dazzling match, and everything looks to be right for another 7-0, except over a single leg, right?
Not so fast.
Barça will be the best team that Bayern has faced this season. By streets. That team also possesses the greatest player to ever play the game, a player aware of how big this moment is, aware that this is only one match. What will change, of necessity, the way that Bayern plays is the presence of that player in Messi. If it doesn’t, they will be eliminated. Mark it down. Both FCBs are going to need managers to work to find a balance that allows their team to thrive. “Just playing our game” isn’t going to do it. Barça will have a fit, rested Sergio Busquets returning to the lineup, and Arturo Vidal returns as well. It would be a surprise if both didn’t start against Bayern, along with De Jong who, if he has a match like he had against Napoli, look for Barça to advance.
This coming match is going to be a lot more fun than so many culers expect, even with a manager who is way in over his head. Options abound for Setien just as they do for his counterpart. Many of us would start Puig, with De Jong and Busquets. Setien won’t, for all the obvious reasons that coaches go to veterans in big matches. We will scream when he starts Suarez, rather than Griezmann in that role, flanked by Fati. The almost locked-in-stone XI for Setien will be Ter Stegen, Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba, Busquets, De Jong, Vidal (Sergi Roberto as a surprise starter?), Messi, Griezmann, Suarez. And should that team somehow manage to nick a goal or two, it will do what the team did yesterday, which is bunker in and look to preserve what it has. And it will vex the life out of us, just as it did yesterday.
Another thing worth considering is Ousmane Dembele. Don’t forget that Setien said he was fit, but after the long layoff he wanted to be cautious, would take the Frenchman to Portugal and evaluate things there. No way in hell he starts, but if he’s fit enough for say, 20 minutes or so, Setien would be crazy not to consider than option, one that has the potential to be match-changing.
Over a two-legged tie you’d be hard-pressed to consider Barça anything like a favorite. But for one match at a neutral site, with Messi as a part of what is still a quality XI even with all the issues that we have with it? Count Barça out at your own peril.