In the spirit of the holidays, Barça gave us a match that was like a holiday party. You know the kind, where everybody has a great time because the bosses haven’t been invited, the kids in the mailroom take over the DJ booth and the place goes up for grabs. It’s messy, everybody’s lit and then on Monday everything is back to normal, the only remaining sign a lingering glow.
The trip to Dynamo Kyiv saw both Griezmann, Dest AND Braithwaite score more Champions League away goals than Luis Suarez has over the past few years. That’s the kind of party it was. It wasn’t that Dynamo was overmatched, as they had their moments. But wild matches often come down to talent rather than systems, individual actions that make a difference. Yet there was still a collective notion in a Champions League dead rubber of sorts, as the only question for Barça is whether they finish first or second in the group. And that notion was active.
The XI was Ter Stegen, Dest, Mingueza, Lenglet, Firpo, Pjanic, Alenya, Pedri, Coutinho, Trincao and Braithwaite. And it was weird to see everybody running, everybody pressing, everybody moving. It was weird to see a fast, dynamic right back snatching souls, setting up plays and scoring a goal. It was weird to see a 9 with pace, darting to a spot to knock home a ball. All of it, everything, was weird, and you couldn’t help but think, once again, that this is what Messi meant when he said one of the reasons he wanted to leave was because it was time to make room for young legs, for a new project.
So much fun was had that Griezmann, as a sub, soul freshly unburdened via an interview, knocked in a goal. It was all so odd, watching a team that was fun. The first half ended scoreless as a bunch of strangers gathered round the punch bowl to try and figure out who was going to do what. But things clicked nicely in the second half, and the rotation XI was off to the races, not that all was good.
Junior Firpo is a broken player, a shell of the Betis dynamo that attracted the attention of Barça. It’s a shame to see. There isn’t a situation that Firpo doesn’t find appropriate for a back or lateral pass, playing like a man absolutely terrified of doing something, anything wrong. The one time he essayed a run, the halfhearted foray was easily dispossessed by a Dynamo defender. It was the saddest part of the match, because he’s a better player than that, a much better player than that. It’s easy to pile on, but more difficult is to wonder what happened, and hope for something better for him in a different environment.
FC Barcelona comes with a lot of weight. Firpo arrived from Betis with fanfare and promise. He wound up not being seen much under Valverde, who exercised a rapid-fire hook when Firpo erred, and the damage to his confidence continued as every outing found him increasingly tentative, worried and ineffective. The player we saw against Dynamo is the nadir of that fall from grace. Buzz is that he’s on the move in January as someone’s intriguing reclamation project. The worst part is that he fell apart at the exact time when opportunity beckoned in the Ghost of Jordi Alba, who is also a shell of the left back that he was some years ago.
Riqui Puig came on, to underscore why he hasn’t been playing much under Koeman. It isn’t that he isn’t brilliant at times on the ball. It’s that off the ball, he’s a step off the beat, like a man chasing a series of taxicabs that pull off just as he gets to them. If Puig defended and tracked back like Pedri, who plays a match like he’s already watched it on video, he would be playing a lot more. Puig had moments on the ball where all you could think is, “What a player.” His forward drive, sense of where to put the ball, notion of the pass dictating the run are all Masia-based bliss. He demands movement in the way that he plays the game.
But it’s also worth asking why three different coaches now have all left us asking, “Why isn’t Puig playing more?” They can’t all hate him, can’t all have something against him. Football happens on and off the ball. Arthur was a another step-late player, so his defending resulted in fouls. And no, you aren’t supposed to rate a midfielder by how they defend, but it would also be naive to not think that at some point in a match a team is going to lose the ball, and wonder what will happen when it does. And you can watch Pedri and Puig, neither one bigger than a minute, and get two very different answers to that same question.
It’s wonderful that Koeman gave him a look, and you can bet that Puig is working on his shortcomings, just as Dembele did. The Frenchman isn’t suddenly part of Koeman’s thinking because of a sudden shift. Dembele’s tracking back has improved, the effort that he makes off the ball has also improved, and that’s what his manager wants. Puig has always had work to do to become the player that so many think he already is. That work is going to continue, and he’s going to be a fantastic midfielder at Barça someday soon. For now, off the ball he’s the clear answer to “Why isn’t Puig playing more?” And the opponent wasn’t exactly Bayern Munich.
We can indeed ask about Dest, “Why isn’t he playing more.” He scored a wonderful goal, snatched a few souls and was a general menace for the entirety of the time he was on the pitch. A defensive stalwart he isn’t, but culers aren’t all that concerned with their fullbacks as defenders. Dest is such a dynamic, aggressive player, rarely content with getting the ball and just passing it safely to someone. Mind, there are times for that quality and he will learn that circumspection. But yikes, is he fun to watch. He was a significantly better attacker than the nominal right winger, the pillow-soft Trincao. The goal he scored was a high-speed marvel created off the dead run. It has been a very long time since Barça has had a fullback that could do that.
But Dest also has the situational and spatial awareness of a more mature player, something shared by Pedri, who was in his creative element, playing off the rock-solid Alenya. To liken them to Xaviniesta isn’t fair to either pairing. But Pjanic as the foundation to that midfield, with Alenya controlling and Pedri creating was so much fun to watch, even dispensing with the “it was Dynamo” caveat. But most of all, this match was fun. A Barça match hasn’t been fun to watch since the last time Koeman rolled out a rotation XI and told it to go have fun.
What a dead rubber really illustrated is the rock and a hard place reality in which a formerly great football team finds itself. When the expensive oldsters return, they will assume their pride of place, like the Monday after the amazing holiday party, when the bosses are back and the conference room looks like nothing fun ever happened there. Koeman is playing for something difficult to achieve by this team as it sits, which is a trophy of some kind. But because his job is on the line, he can’t just take the action of a secure coach, play the kids and build something for the future. Instead we’re trapped between worlds, watching the dour, ineffective football of veterans who can’t do what they once could, hamstringing the dynamism of young players so busy filling in for weaknesses that they can’t begin to function as they should.
But Messi knew. Messi always knows. It’s just a shame Bartomeu didn’t listen.