Atleti 1, Barça 0, aka “We’ve been here before”

Given the different tenures of the Barça fanbase, it’s difficult to know how many were around for the last year of the Frank Rijkaard tenure, when everything bad that could happen, did.

This feels like that, but worse, because that team had a deep well of talent, laid low by psychological malaise and circumstance. This team has a bunch of geezers, kids and misfits, laid low by psychological malaise and circumstance. They were defeated by Atleti for the first time in league since February, 2010. And it wasn’t even that they lost, as much as the way that they lost, a bunch of slack-shouldered players pushing the ball around like singers lip-syncing the hit music of a much better artist. No effort except from a few players. No energy, except from a few players. Atleti played them off the pitch, and the 1-0 scoreline was deeply flattering. The bigger problem is that right now, FC Barcelona is a broken team.

It’s so bad that Pedri, a 17-year-old kid who was manhandled into insignificance by Atleti, was sent out to give the post-match remarks. And before we deal with that, let’s get out of the way the thing that is weighing heavily on the club right now, which is the loss, almost certainly for the season and quite possibly the end of his career, of Pique.

In the second half, an out-of-position Alba shoved an Atleti player into Pique, who was moving to clean up his mess. That player fell into Pique’s planted leg, and the knee joint moved in a way that knee joints aren’t designed to move. The team talisman was in tears as he left the pitch, a hurt made even worse by his last significant action being a blunder that gifted Atleti the winning goal. Condolence posts on social media are coming from former players, who know better. They watch the video, and they know. Anyone who is an athlete, or follows sports, watches the video, and they know.

After that moment, the team, already fragile in the wake of the gift goal at the end of the first half, diminished even further, to ghosts, pantomime footballers going through the motions. So yes, a kind soul can say that the locker room was in shock, and worried about Pique, too worried to attend to league-mandated niceties such as sending players out to talk to an assemblage of journalists. Let’s be generous that way, because why not. Besides, they were already a psychological wreck before Pique went down, and have been since Roma. Every time they have faced a situation that required any fortitude, this team has flinched. It’s the front foot against a compliant opponent, or it’s nothing. And against Atleti, in a must-win match if there is to be even the illusion of hope of anything good happening in league this season, they punked out. There’s no better way to phrase it.

There might not be a more fitting symbol of the state of this team than how easily Messi is dispossessed, and how willingly he accepts it. We all remember the Messi who took every lost ball, especially when it was taken from him, as a personal affront. He charged after the would-be miscreant with the fire of a wronged hero, looking to set the world right. Now he just walks, and turns his head to watch things develop as they head in the other direction. It’s easy to say that today, Messi had his team, the one that he has carried for so long and that now needs to carry him but isn’t capable of it, playing with ten. But that would be wrong.

The problem with Messi right now is that he is still capable of greatness, but he needs to be a different player to do it, and it is impossible, both spiritually and tactically, for him to be that player at Barça. When Bartomeu dug in his detestable heels and said, “Pay the clause or stay,” the damage that he did to the club was incalculable. He made the captain, the leading light of the team, unhappy, forcing him to choose between fighting the club, the family that has given him so much, or accepting everything and staying. He chose to stay. What that action did, an unforgivable bit of hubris from an operator who should have known better, is say to Messi, “You’re just an employee, so shut up.” But Messi wasn’t just an employee, he also became a disgruntled one.

Bartomeu should have sat down with Messi, should have looked him in the eyes like a man and asked him, “What do you want?” When Messi said, “To leave,” Bartomeu should have facilitated that. Instead he took an action that he assumed would save his corrupt soul and in doing so, he damaged the team. But not before burdening it with a manager who the players don’t appear to be willing to play for, a man who will always be viewed as “their” manager, rather than “our” manager. And for a group that has mishandled everything except the ability to hoover up any stray sponsorship dollars and sell things, the damage done to this team will have pride of place as their most complete failure.

There is now one fit centerback on the team, in Lenglet. Todibo is in Portugal. Araujo is recovering. Umtiti is recovering. So De Jong, who was brought to the club amid much fanfare as the midfield savior, the man who would get the club playing the right way again, whatever in the hell that is, is now playing center back. The manager started one of the worst fullback pairings in the league in Alba and Sergi Roberto, a pair of defensive doormats that opponents routinely take advantage of. And because of their deficiencies, the rest of the defense is also suspect, and everything falls apart. After the goal, everyone wondered what Ter Stegen was doing. He was trying to save a situation that he read, and deduced was a shitshow. His only error was in missing the ball and the man. Foul the ball carrier and his team gets into the locker room at zeroes. The only thing a manager should tell Ter Stegen is, “Next time, take out the man as well as the ball.” As the kind of keeper he is, he’s supposed to do that, and we’re supposed to understand and deal with that.

It was the heavy touch of Pique that did the damage, with a back line pushed up because it was playing, pressing to make something happen. Once that touch happened and the ball bounded to an Atleti player, only Lenglet was back. He turns like an ocean liner and ambles more than runs. So Ter Stegen did the calculus, and moved. He got caught. Happens. But his team didn’t have his back, didn’t score. This team doesn’t have anyone’s back. Late in the first half, Carrasco did a WWE takedown of Dembele, the one player doing anything at all in attack, and everyone just walked away, leaving Dembele laying there to be dealt with by the team physios. Nobody got in anybody’s face, nothing happened. Just a shrug, to match this shrug of a season that, frankly, can’t be over soon enough so that the team can, under a new president and board, begin the process of rebuilding.

Endings aren’t supposed to be bitter and ugly. Xavi, in his dotage, was an integral part of a treble-winning side. Iniesta, in his dotage, sat with sad eyes, watching his team capitulate. Busquets stayed too long, even too decrepit for emeritus status. Messi is an unhappy employee, and Pique has almost certainly suffered a season-ending injury. The fairy tale that began with a president making the club’s greatest player stay, and everything thinking, “Let’s win one for Messi and send him out in style,” is a failure-slaked mess of institutional and sporting failure.

We can be angry, but a more fitting mood is sadness. And not just for Pique, who deserved better, but for Messi, for Busquets, for our hopes and dreams. People will line up to gleefully chirp “Told ya so,” and come out with a litany of “Neener neener” statements about how right they were. For me, it’s just sadness. It didn’t have to be like this. None of it did. Fati is done for the season, and probably Pique. Young and old, laid low by contact injuries. Heores are now shadows of what they used to be, a very real crisis created by men who mismanaged an institution into the shambles we now see. They made FC Barcelona into an overleveraged former playboy, living off overdrawn credit cards in a rickety house. There isn’t joy in that. There can’t be for anyone who loves this club. The talents that brought us such great joy over the years don’t deserve to go out like that.

The team didn’t just lose a match today. It lost hope and motivation. And so did we. It didn’t have to be like this, but it is. The question now is, what next?

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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.