On my Twitter timeline the other day, there was a rousing discussion about Puyol, being a captain vs a leader, and what might or might not have happened had he been present at pivotal Barça moments in recent seasons. Some suggested that Barça has captains, but not leaders. Back and forth it went, with no real conclusion. This match served as an elegant coda to that discussion.
Last week, without its captain and leader Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid lost 0-1 at home to Cadiz. This week, with its captain and leader back, that same team strolled into the Camp Nou and strolled out 1-3 victors. The match was fascinating for what did and didn’t happen. After the loss, Sergino Dest, who started and played exceptionally well in complex conditions, was the voice of the team in the mixed zone. It was cool to see a post-match given in English of necessity, but that moment needed the face of one of the captains to be present.
During the match, the captain, Lionel Messi, took it upon himself with things on the line in a Quixotic series of runs against the RM back line. That he did is just what he does. The bigger problem is that he felt the need to do it on a team so tactically and spiritually broken that the only way its captain can think to resolve problems is, “Screw it, I’ll do this myself.”
You can’t even say that the best team won today, because there was only one team today, against a collection of players. The outcome was really never going to be in doubt. A collection of players is never going to beat a team, I don’t care about the quality of those players, unless the gulf in quality is such that you have a Paris St.-Germain in Ligue 1 situation. That wasn’t the case today. Today, it was a team with a leader, against some players. A few key moments decided things in a match that, had Barça been a properly managed team, could have easily strolled. Instead in the battle between two aging, punch-drunk heavyweights, the one with more heart won. Ramos, whose age matches that of Fati and Pedri combined, made the play that decided the match. It’s also a play that is dominating post-match discussion, when it shouldn’t.
Ramos had his shirt pulled in the box by Clement Lenglet, highlighting the moment with a fairly ridiculous dive. After the match, Koeman moaned about how the calls always go against Barça, and oh, woe is us. It was a penalty. That shirt pulling in the box goes on during every set piece, etc, etc, isn’t the question. That’s like being pulled over for speeding, picked out from a pack of cars that are speeding. “Everybody else was speeding.” Sure, but you got caught.
More interesting to me is that Lenglet didn’t have to pull Ramos’ shirt, but he panicked. There was nothing Ramos was going to be able to do with that ball but Lenglet, out of position only partly because of a Ramos shove, panicked. Lots of players panic at key moments. The larger issue is that Lenglet, while an excellent center back, isn’t a Barça-quality centerback. He’s been elevated by dint of circumstance, on a team where Pique is still the unchallenged best CB. There are many players like that in the group. Busquets starts because there isn’t anyone decidedly better, even though he was horrific in this match. Alba starts because there isn’t anyone better. A 19-year-old fullback transfers in and starts one of the biggest matches for FC Barcelona, because there isn’t anybody decidedly better.
As an entity, Barça is broken. Squabbling about the penalty, or pointing out that certain players played well is like noting the quality of a wax job on a wrecked car at the bottom of a ravine. Yes, Dest played well. So what. Pedri started, and had a match that will be underrated in its quality by many. Bully for him. Fati became the youngest or second-youngest, depending on what side of the squabble you sit, player to score in the Classic. Yay!
That there was never any on-pitch cohesion, never any sense of the group working together to achieve something, that heads hung after Ramos stroked in that penalty, that everything looked to be a mess, is the biggest takeaway from this match. This lack of direction or spine will be what defines this season. Koeman’s biggest job isn’t going to be Xs and Os, but somehow getting a collection of players to work like a team. Coutinho runs around, dances and takes a shot. Why? Why not? Late in the match, Dembele tries a dribble then a whipped-in rainbow from distance. Over Thibaut Courtois, a mountain of a keeper. Sure, why not. There isn’t anything better going on, so have a go.
People can talk about formations, this or that player being this or that all they like, but the biggest problem at Barça is psychological. It’s also players being elevated to positions in which they shouldn’t be in because there isn’t anyone better, which contributes to the mess. Pique and Lenglet are constantly being dragged out of position because Alba is on walkabout, or Busquets gives a ball away and can’t move well enough to help fix the problem, and goals ensue.
The manager persists with a double pivot because that is what he is convinced will be the best approach for the team, even as the last three results in Liga are draw, loss, loss. And the pivots are a geezer and a player who still hasn’t come anywhere like showing the promise that made culers so giddy at his acquisition. The Barça midfield got stomped. When Valverde wasn’t bossing Alba he was vexing De Jong, or laughing as Busquets plunked yet another misplaced pass to a white shirt. Barça plays like a team that doesn’t know what it’s doing because Barça is a team that doesn’t know what it’s doing. No structure, no common goal. Lining up a bunch of talented players in a formation doesn’t make them a team. The kinds of bonds that enable that kind of excellence are instilled by a manager. Cadiz beat Real Madrid because they were a better team, and played like one, with everyone working and sweating for everyone else. Now watch Coutinho half-ass pressing or tracking back, taking a short sprint then walking or trotting. Look at the plays where if Dembele used some of the pace he has in pressing or defending, he would intercept balls easily. Fati made run after endless, thankless run to get in behind the RM back line. Only one payoff, which resulted in a goal.
Nothing is good right now, and the results, which in league are deserved, show it. And everybody is panicking, because of the belief in price tags, salaries or transfer fees instead of a system, a way of playing, a style that gives people tasks, instead of just running around with the ball, then passing it to someone else, who runs around with the ball. Pedri started, which was amazing, but spent his match doing defensive donkey work because of the deficiences is GeezerLand. As with Rakitic babysitting the right side of the pitch, another creative attacking player is reduced to doing scut work. He does it willingly and well because he’s 17 and full of the joy of playing for Barça. People wanted more offensively from Pedri, but when his task was what his task was, then what?
The XI is like a nursing home staff, working to protect and preserve the elderly. And the players know. They’d be crazy not to. They understand that Alba is past it, the Lenglet is playing above his level, that Busquets is done, that Pique should be in emeritus status right now. They see how much more easily Messi is dispossessed. The signs are all there, but stlll they go on. Koeman was a baller for benching Griezmann in favor of Pedri, but there are still many other problems to be fixed, and it doesn’t seem that anyone has any idea how to fix them. Because short of going to the Land of Oz and asking the Wizard for brains, courage and a heart …
Making matters worse, Koeman waited until the 80th minute to act like a 12-year-old boy playing Football Manager. “I’ll just put on all these attackers, and we’ll win.” Griezmann, Trincao and Dembele came on in the 81st minute, too late for any of them to even catch the flow of the match, much less make a difference. Griezmann vanished, Trincao was visible but ineffective, and Dembele ran around and tried stuff, and goody for him. Koeman compounded the mistake by bringing on Dembele AND Trincao, putting the latter on the right and Dembele on the left, where he has proven time and again to be less effective. If the manager can’t manage a match, how the hell is anything on a larger scale going to happen?
Instiling a mental change in a team is more than coming in and saying, “Things are going to be different, staring right now.” Guardiola understood that. He didn’t just tell the players to run. He told them why they were running and showed them what they were working toward. Barça won’t finish mid table like it is at present in the standings, but it has the mentality of a mid-table team. That is a bigger problem than any tactics, good or bad matches from loved or hated players, or penalties given that some thing shouldn’t have been. On pitch is almost as big a mess as off the pitch, and people are going to be lining up to take advantage, until someone on that group of players decides that it’s time to become a team.