This is shaping up to be one of those seasons for Barça, with another crazy match in the books against Alaves, defined by a moment that defines how messy this team is right now, tactically and psychologically.
Alaves scored their goal off a contraption of errors, as Lenglet bats it to Pique who bats it to Neto, who for some reason tries to control it. Alaves player steals, laughs, scores, celebrates.
What made that goal such a clunker is that Pique, when the ball came to him, had three teammates standing in open space in front of him. There was a time when his first reaction wouldn’t have been playing it back to the keeper, an obvious play for some teams but something of a surrender for Barça, a proper attacking team. Well, in theory, anyhow. The lack of confidence from the scrambling defense means everyone makes the “Whew!” relief play rather than doing something more ambitious. And oh, for Ter Stegen in nets, who would have batted the ball back to Pique, then screamed at him for risking a hospital ball in the box.
FC Barcelona is playing right now like a guitar virtuoso who lost his confidence and has to look at his hands, but he can’t look at his hands and the sheet music at the same time, so notes are dropped. Open teammates are being missed, almost 70 instances of lost possession, people just running around doing stuff without any structure of sense of a shared path. They all want to score a goal, but there are eleven different ways on how to do that. There should be only one. And as people scrambled to find a player to hang goat horns on, Ray Hudson got it right (again), saying the biggest problem with the first half was Barça sleepwalking through it.
Post-match saw the first #koemanout hashtag, which is pretty ridiculous. Yes, the team has eight points from the first six matches. And to be sure, Koeman has a nice sense of some subs, but not much tactical sense of what and how to do with those subs. But to be clear about what happened today, Barça was collectively crap in the first half, picked it up in the second but kept missing excellent chances, making bad decisions in the final third or got stonewalled by a excellent keeper having a fine match. All of those things add up to more dropped points — from the Barça perspective, it should be noted, since Alaves played its hearts out and deserved a point.
There was indeed stuff that Koeman got wrong. Yanking Dembele for Trincao resulted in the right becoming a dead zone, which meant Messi up the middle on a series of risky dashes that played right into Alaves’ hands. He subbed off Fati for a ficus tree in Braithwaite, another clunker of a sub. But Dest for Alba, Pjanic on to move De Jong to CB and Pedri on were very sharp subs, particularly the last two, which brings us to the next stop on this ride.
Barça is carrying four players in the XI in key areas, and those players are all causing problems. Busquets was poor. Again. At what point do we stop saying “He had a bad match,” and hold the gold watch ceremony? Poor decisions on the ball, slow off the ball, useless when the opponent has the ball. Ray Hudson said that it was the worst match he’d seen Busquets play, and you remember people saying that about the last match Busquets played as well. At what point is an aberration a trend?
Pjanic came in and immediately, the midfield gained purpose and drive as he dished out bombs, and could move on defense. Adding Pedri to that midfield added even more drive, as the footballing bargain of the decade continues to play like someone who is 17 going on 30.
Alba isn’t just a headless chicken who has one move and is useless after that. He insists on playing as a winger despite no longer having the pace to get back to cover, which means that Lenglet and Pique get dragged out of position on opponent attacks, that flow right through the midfield because Busquets isn’t there, and Lenglet is reactive so he watches an attack develops at which point he looks to react. He also isn’t the quickest of players, so when in trouble he fouls.
Pique dawdles on the ball, and wants to compensate for no longer being that quick out of the blocks by giving a cushion. So now Barça is playing with not one, but two reactive CBs, both slow afoot, both turning like ocean liners. De Jong moving to CB brought a back line playmaker willing to look forward and progress the ball, a nice change from the CBs, just shuttling it safely to a fullback or mid for proceedings to continue. If Barça is going to play the kind of football that supporters crave, a pair of reactive CBs is impossible to sustain, because of how play is forced to develop. It’s also risky on defense because by the time an opponent counter develops, it’s often too late. It’s never been easier for opponents to get shots or goals against Barça. There’s a reason. Acres of space in midfield, more space on the left means ease of access to a scrambling back line. Pique is still the best CB on the team. And that’s a problem of squad planning and zero thought of progression, of a smooth transition from legend to capable young lion.
And then there’s Messi, who is increasingly looking his age. There were growing signs of it. This season, that he has lost that amazing acceleration is clear. He’s losing balls, is significantly less successful in take ons and is dispossessed with ease, even in 1v1 situations where he used to leave a defender dead in his boots. His decision making is also off, as he ignores open teammates, takes dribbles a beat too far before using a teammate as a bailout, or tries a low-percentage shot. Against Alaves he dribbled to the end line and tried a near-side shot against a keeper not only on form that night, but sufficiently good that you’re never beating him at the near post. Not even if you’re Messi. He wanted to leave. He knew. Bartomeu was never going to let it happen. He should have.
It isn’t that Messi isn’t still an amazing player in the right circumstances, but rather that those circumstances don’t exist at Barça, and can’t. Here, he has to be Messi!. Scoring goals, mazy dribbles, taking on defenders, even when he isn’t that player any longer. Letting him leave would have let him and the team find new identities. Instead everyone is trapped.
The issue with having all four of those problem players in the XI is that their collective deficiencies hamstring the rest of the team to an extent that makes every aspect of the pitch messy. De Jong, his own performance issues aside, isn’t the best De Jong even as the best De Jong hasn’t been particularly memorable. And the 438 players on the roster who fit the 10 profile have to play out of position because Messi’s there. The right back has issues with Pique out there, which makes people like Pedri who should be running about being a genius have to perform as another defender. All while Messi and poor performance detracts from the offensive potential.
None of this is a surprise, as all are 30+ with lots and lots of miles in their legs. It also isn’t surprising that it was all going to happen at once, because a board and technical staff that did nothing to plan for the clear decline of key players just fiddled while Rome burned, leaving the team bereft of a clear sub for any of them. Pjanic can start for Busquets, but the attack loses the magic that Busquets used to be able to perform. Dest can start for Alba, but then you have a midfielder who has also lost a precious something playing RB, because your best RB is playing LB. Firpo is a psychological wreck, so he isn’t in the frame. And you simply can’t sit Messi, philosophically, institutionally or fiscally.
The subs that Koeman made dealt with three of the four problems. That Barça didn’t score was through no fault of Koeman, even as his ill use of the tools at his disposal hangs heavy around his neck. Pedri should be in the XI. His quality and effect on the match are indisputable. Puig? Alenya? Good questions both, and both are the kinds of players who excel at driving the ball forward and making smart decisions with it. Neither has seen the light of day. Braithwaite has come onto the pitch and disappeared at every instance. Trincao is talented, but he isn’t going to be the kind of dynamic player who makes stuff happen. He’s a locksmith. So the Alaves defense essentially had a bunch of technicians on the ball. Those are easy to play against. Dembele making runs? Fati making runs? Both options sow panic and create space.
Barça played a much better second half than first, thanks to the Koeman subs. But it’s still a collection of players rather than a team. La Liga is too good to try to get by on individual quality now. This leaves Koeman with some hard decisions, and without a fully free hand to make them, tactically, philosophically and institutionally. Which means what, exactly, aside from culers maybe suddenly having to care about Europa League? Well, probably precisely that unless an allegedly brave manager becomes in fact brave.