Messi, agency and possibilities

Barça is an underdog today, and it’s weird that any team that features the best player in the game can be considered an underdog.

But the last time Barça faced Bayern, it was also considered an underdog by many, despite having the most talented and dynamic front three in the history of the game. Bayern had a balanced team, just as they do now, with the advantage of one of the best coaches in the history of the game. And Barça was considered flawed by many because of context. Looking at the past, asking questions such as “where’s the midfield” led to conclusions that in hindsight, weren’t the right ones to ask. Few asked “How can THIS Barça team beat Bayern” Same thing applies here.

As a great many people are saying, where there’s Messi, there’s hope. It’s very difficult thinking of Barça as a clear underdog because of Messi. Dead balls, dribbles, breaking down defenses, key passes, assists, he has the capability of doing any one of about a dozen things that can kill your team, in a game where a single goal can make the difference. But this Barcelona team has a huge problem that is, potentially, insurmountable. Agency.

Buzzwords such as “agency” are overused and kinda droll, but in this instance it’s apt. As the season has progressed, and really over time as Messi has evolved. The Messi dilemma is that he is, as culer and excellent Barça analyst Diana Kristinne notes, a problem solver. He will do whatever he observes that his team needs to get a job done. But problem solving and an ideal solution are two different things. Messi is assisting because nobody else is. So the answer is to find someone else to do that job, because Messi already has a job. In a team that defers to the best player in the history of the game, what gradually happens is that initiative is lost. So teammates just give it to Messi, or wait to give it to Messi.

Most appealing for me about the great Guardiola teams wasn’t the football and intricate attacks, but that those teams were a unit, really a confederacy of equals. Anybody might score a goal, deliver a key pass, make an assist, stop a break. The power of a unit is that nobody feels like they have any one job, so if a break is loose nobody looks around. Everyone assumes agency. Same in attack. This current Barça team is one that, because it’s an assemblage of parts that should make sense and did for a while yet don’t now, everybody has a job but without backup.

Semedo takes a pass on the right sideline and, fronted by a defender or two but out of options because teammates have already run up the pitch, he shuttles the ball back to Ter Stegen or Pique, and people scream about him being a bum, rather than looking at the tactical situation that necessitated that backpass. And that happens all over the pitch. Busquets has to hold the ball a beat too long because people aren’t making runs. Alba’s single-option attacks often wither on the vine because absent Messi making the run, the ball has no destination, not that this stop him from making that pass anyhow.

Riqui Puig works because deference hasn’t been eroded yet. He was the man for Barça B, and on the pitch he doesn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t play that same role for the first team. So he demands the ball, makes demands of others with passes that go to where they should be, so get your ass over there. Puig plays with agency, and it’s wonderful. So does Ansu Fati, again because he doesn’t know that he shouldn’t. The best thing about Dembele returning from injury and possibly getting some minutes is that he, too, plays with pace and agency. The biggest argument for Arturo Vidal starting is his runs into the box, his fearlessness. But all over the pitch we see timid players taking too many touches. They don’t look to be fully empowered to make a key move, make a difference in the match. It’s Messi’s team, which is supposed to work one way, yet functions in another. The biggest problem with this Barça isn’t tactics, but mentality. It no longer has the strut of an elite team.

On paper, this XI is formidable: Ter Stegen, Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba, Busquets, De Jong, Vidal, Griezmann, Messi, Suarez. In reality, it’s flawed because of spacing, tactics, physical frailty and age. A fully empowered Barça would just stroke the ball around, letting Bayern chase it, and at some point putting the knife in. But this team as it functions is a series of islands, each one easily conquered by an opponent press.

The lovely thing about the Red Bull dismantling of Atleti was how easily they played out of the back and moved into attack because their players moved as a symbiotic unit. There was always a place to put the ball, which usually moved on with a single touch. We culers are familiar with that, used to revel in it. What we have now is a pass, which is controlled, then one, two, three touches as the receiver waits for something to happen. Passing lanes close, spaces stretch, pressure builds. In the play that eventually resulted in the Napoli goal, it all started with lost possession by Griezmann, who was given the ball in an extremely complex spot. Bracketed by pressing defenders he had to chest control, let it fall to feet and THEN figure out what to do next. Rare is the player who is able to do that against a Champions League-level club. He lost possession, and the cycle began.

Setien, even if he was a good enough coach to manage the team he’s been handed the keys to, doesn’t have the time to do the biggest thing this team needs, which is to have agency. Messi is the best player, but YOU can win it, YOU can take the shot, YOU can, just like Messi, resolve to solve the problems that you see. Barça isn’t as big an underdog as many might think, but a great many things will have to happen today. Scoring first will be crucial for them, as well as understanding how good they are when playing as a unit, rather than a group of people there to shuffle the ball to the best player in history. A few hours doesn’t seem like enough time for all of that to happen, does it?

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.