Football and its players as an ideal, rather than a reality

Jenga is a weird game to play, and not only because of the inevitability. You have to think about interconnected systems, about structures, about what moving or removing something might do to that structure.

Yet it’s weird that when we talk about players, transfer rumors, ideals and all the stuff of hopes and dreams, we don’t think about ANY of that. All we think about is, like a child in the supermarket, how perfect that candy bar would be if only we had it.

At Barça, last season we had a broken team in almost every way. As we talked about football and how it should be played, principal among those discussions should have been the caveat that, “Mind, we can’t do ANY of that, but … ” This has been the most omnipresent factor of discussions about the team during the period I like to call The Great Decline, and it continues.

Transfers and transfer dreams are a weird thing. What supporters, particularly Barça supporters because it’s the most dogmatic group of football supporters, do is look at a player in an idealized situation and crave that. But the mental gymnastics of transplanting that player in that idealized situation to a broken one in Barcelona and saying, “See? This is why x player is better than the shitbag we have,” is art.

Back when there was more work being put into match reviews, player ratings and stuff, my task was to watch a match and assess players as they worked within a system. It was also to analyze goals, both scored and conceded, with a eye toward what happened. “Garbage in, garbage out,” isn’t just a software world saying. It also works for football. Every conceded goal has at its beginning an action not performed, the “garbage in.”

But we look at goals like farts, with the “he who smelt it, dealt it” theory. You were there when the car crashed, so it’s on you.

Of the many incendiary, “Dude whaaaatttt?” statements in my online history, include “You could drop peak Dani Alves into this Barça side and he wouldn’t be good.” People kinda took issue with it. But the Alves we remember is the Alves of a perfectly functioning system. Pique was at his physical peak, Puyol was storming, Abidal ranged from sideline to sideline. They were necessary for those rare times an opponent attack survived the maw of the Barça press, where everybody closed down to make sure that if possession wasn’t regained in a few seconds, the subsequent forward pass attempt was gobbled up by a CB functioning as a DM, up around the mid point of the pitch. He gave the ball back to Busquets or Xavi, and the destruction resumed. That is the system in which Alves lived.

The system that we now have is one where the two main forwards don’t press, and the midfield is too slow to press. The left back is playing left wing and the right back is dealing with multiple attackers because of the absence of any press, and nobody on the right side doing anything to help defensively. So everybody has to make choices, and they usually make ones that fit their personal deficiency. Busquets, never the fleetest of foot, is even worse now. So he might just stick out a leg as an attacker runs past. Rakitic would move in slow motion. Griezmann, pressed into a makeshift second pivot thanks to the immobile first pivot, would foul if he could, or get to the site just soon enough to smell the exhaust fumes of the now-gone car.

At this point, opponents are at the back line, where two CBs, one reactive and one active(ish) are tasked with looking at the raging flood of an opponent attack and deciding which hole to plug. Sometimes, they get lucky and pick the right one. But more often than not, particularly last season, they’re just washed away. And Ter Stegen ruefully picks another ball out of the back of his net.

During the recent friendly, the goal conceded was a perfect example of all of this. It was weird to watch because people familiar with this team knew the opponent was going to score on that attack. Koeman was perturbed that nobody closed down the shooter. Newbies tend to have illusions. But Barça defenders so rarely close down shooters, usually choosing to retreat, as if that is going to prevent more damage instead of making that Jenga tower even more rickety. A Segunda B side scored that goal with ease, which is also worth noting as we move into a season in which the team we love is going to be facing opposition of much higher quality.

In the second half, the completely different eleven yielded a completely different result. Players ran and pressed, working in groups to be proactive rather than reactive, closing down, chasing balls, moving to present passing angles and controlling space. Nastic barely got out of its own end, never mind scoring an easy goal. Football is hard work, and hard work is, cruelly but also as a byproduct of evolution, the province of young legs.

Yet FC Barcelona’s roster is stuffed with old legs. The average age of last season’s XI was about a thousand, with the expected results. And despite the young, capering XIs that we saw in preseason friendlies, reality for Valverde and his successor Setien, was GeezerBall with the attendant limitations.

This new season has a new manager, the third for the team in a year, and expectations of some sort of “revolution.” How, with so many of the same players from last season still kicking around? Nobody got any faster during the off season, or magically found the capability to do what they haven’t been able to the past two seasons. It was presumed that the Bayern destruction would foment a real sense of rebellion, an idea that deep, systemic change needed to happen. But the only players who did NOT say “Nah, we’re fine here” were Rakitic, who made his move to Sevilla easy, and Messi, who tried and failed to move on.

Of the other elders, Suarez is Instagramming “fake news” about a pending departure, the other elders have been silent. Business as usual, unless Koeman is a lot braver than we think.

What culers are doing is clamoring for this player or that player as a solution. This season, Nelson Semedo is the cause of everything bad, and Sergino Dest is the answer. Presumably his arrival will make the forwards able to press and the midfield capable of adding to that press, running and shutting down. That dude really IS magic. The club should pay any price for that sort of alchemy. But if Dest isn’t magic, he would have the exact same problems that Semedo has now. Is Dest a better player than Semedo? Good question, one that is almost immaterial here, because we’re going to drop him into a broken system, a rickety-ass Jenga tower.

Revolutions are weird things, because they’re seismic and wholistic. Mes que un uprising. The systemic change they seek is simpler than, “Get that one cabiniet minister out!” That’s just moving furniture around, and will solve none of the real problems. Barça has problems deeper than a single player or new manager can solve. And unless the entire organization recognizes and commits to solving those problems, this “revolution” will end as so many do, with a few protests, then business as usual.

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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.