The promised “revolution” at FC Barcelona is more like a rearranging of a few chairs. Arturo Vidal has left, along with Ivan Rakitic and most recently, Luis Suarez. These last two, and the differences in their movements, is interesting.
Both left two years too late. Both had to stay two years too long because of a disastrous sporting project that was clueless about how to continue to grow while moving players along at the right times. Rakitic, after the World Cup, was a hot property. But nobody at the club thought for an instant about what to do with him. Suarez was showing clear signs of decline, even more so than Rakitic, and his value would have been significant. But there again, the club had no options, no consideration for doing anything except playing out the string with players whose “sell by” date was already a day gone.
It’s easy to snarl about players leaving a club from the sidelines. People screamed about Rakitic starting, about Suarez starting. But the truth of the matter is that even diminished, there wasn’t anyone to fill those roles except those players. Who else was going to selflessly run, do donkey work and whatever was required by his manager, except Rakitic? The last player to thrive in as selfless a role was Paulinho, and supporters hated him as well. And Suarez scores goals. At that he is, and was, exceptional. The diminution came as his ability to move also diminished, but also in fairness to him, at his Barcelona peak, Luis Enrique devised a system in which all he pretty much had to do was score goals.
When Xavi left Barça, it was perfect. Accolades and confetti feting a treble cushioned his exit. He was effective and useful in a bench role, and helped the team immensely. It could be argued that was also the last year that the club had a coherent sporting project, which explains a lot. As a sporting project breaks down, decisions aren’t made that should have been made. The best example of this is, as has been cited before, the New England Patriots of American football. The way that club moves players along at the right times is impressive. European football clubs rarely do that, in part because of the very different view that the game has for legends. Fans are just as willing, in both areas of the world, to convince themselves that a player still has it. But American football, because of its harsher playing conditions, make moving players on more of a necessity.
As the sporting project fell apart, aging players meant that the conditions in which Suarez could thrive — stand there and score when we get you the ball — were as absent as a press that got him the ball in advantageous positions. He had to move more, and thus began his downfall. Get the ball, get him the ball stopped happening, for him as it did with Messi. It’s easy to see why, easy to wonder whether the demise of Suarez is more linked to the demise of Rakitic than we realize.
The Croatian was a ball winner and workhorse. He got the ball and fed the maw. Semedo’s best month were with Dembele on the right, and Rakitic babysitting the spaces left by Busquets. Get the ball, feed the maw. Paulinho had a similar function on the right, even if it was more devoted to Messi’s comfort and security. Get the ball, feed the maw.
A lost step is a cruel thing for a footballer, particularly in the modern game, which places more emphasis on movement than ever before. Suddenly those balls that Rakitic were intercepting and feeding to attackers, he was just missing. And just as suddenly, supporter bile increased at his presence. No coincidence. That lost step for Suarez meant less time to control the ball, less time to set up a shot, fewer goals scored as a consequence. And supporter bile also increased at his presence. Neymar leaving also hurt Suarez, as he so often benefitted from the chaos and largesse of the Brazilian dynamo.
In a better world, right after the World Cup we would have been screaming about the sale of both players, saying they still had years left, even if the fat fees for their departures would have placated us somewhat. Instead, without replacements, they stayed. And stayed. Until the only option, given their salaries and by-now completely diminished ultimate capabilities, is to have them leave on a free, so that a club can manage their pay packets.
Exacerbating the problem were two problem solvers, Messi and Valverde. Messi is a brilliant player who has a knack for understanding and solving problems. Messi made Suarez look even better than he in fact was, with remarkable balls that found him in the right space. His conversion rate didn’t match the quality of his service, but that’s part of this story. But Valverde also looked around, shrugged and said, “Let’s get to work with what we have,” rather than demanding change, demanding players of the type necessary to play the kind of football we can presume he wanted to play. But he was chosen for that very quality, his abilities to get the maximum from veteran legs, and he did, with a domestic double, even if his legacy will be defined by European failure. But propping up a system rather than making the changes that it needs does nobody a service.
Rakitic left, Suarez left, Messi tried to leave, Vidal left. It’s easy to ask what might have happened, what kind of a cascade of events might have been kicked off had Messi been allowed to leave. Busquets to the bench? Alba on the market? Messi staying changes the thinking of a sporting project that has for too long been focused on winning one last whatever for Messi, rather than growing as it needed to and relying on a great player to keep pace with it. Suarez and Rakitic staying too long were consequences of that, of the thinking that we can get one more year out of a player who clearly didn’t have one more year in them, but who else is there?
“But who else is there,” is no way to run a sporting project. It affects everything from how a team performs to how players are perceived. As with a band concert, you always want to leave the fans screaming for one more song, rather than saying, “Christ alive, are these guys still playing?” Same with players.
Rakitic won’t be considered a club legend, and that’s fair. But he deserves more love than he got and will get from supporters. Suarez’s legend status will be tarnished by staying on too long. We should be able to appreciate both of them for what they have done for the club, while also being vexed that a crappy sporting project didn’t allow the team to do with either player what was necessary, until their biggest value became getting the salary off the books. With each passing day and player move it becomes clear how inept this board was. The situations of Suarez and Rakitic makes it even more clear. It never should have come to this.