Nostalgia is one of the purest human conditions. It’s unavoidable.
The problem with looking back is not only that you run into stuff. You create an impossible dream. Every match that Barça plays now, no matter the competition, the broadcast team talks about how it isn’t the team it used to be. We natter and comment on social media about things that need to change so that the team can be what it used to be. Barça presidential candidates are running on either overt or implied nostalgia. It’s everywhere, unavoidable and inevitable. We even cling to perceptions of players.
At Huesca, Barça played a team that had everyone behind the ball, and at least eight in the box with every attack, not counting the keeper, who played an exceptional match. Barça got one goal, a lustrous thing created off the foot of Messi and finished with aplomb by De Jong. And that was the goal that was needed to gain the three points.
Earlier in the day, Luis Suarez was key to Atleti winning another close-run match. So of course, the nattering began. Shouldn’t have let him go, blablabla. Thing about Suarez is, if you have a bottle and a can opener, that opener is pretty useless. So you lend it to your neighbor, who has a can. Works great, right? That’s Suarez. Barça wouldn’t be any better with Suarez because of the difficulties he created. Atleti? A pressing team that defends like they have 14 players on the pitch can afford to support a striker who has one job. Suarez is their can opener. Barça, however, is still standing there holding a bottle.
The now-gone board, the worst in the club’s history, was always reactive. They fired Valverde late, thought about replacing Suarez late, left the Messi situation late, etc. etc. It’s almost as if they ran the sporting project by looking at what the fans were talking about, but on delay. “Hey, they don’t like Valverde. What should we do?”
The other problem is replacements. If you fire Valverde but leave the team exactly as it was, you jettison the precise kind of pragmatist needed to solve a set of very particular problems. When you replace him with a smooth-talking idealist, who was fired from Betis because that team was a mess that kept making the same mistakes, etc, etc, what are you getting? When you fire him and go for a tough-talking club legend, what do you get? That’s why everything is a mess, because nothing was planned.
Sold Semedo, got Dest. Too late. Suarez was moved a full season too late. The problem isn’t that he’s gone, it’s that he was replaced with Martin Braithwaite, a nice man but one who is ill-suited for the job and the number he inherited. Dest is thrown into the XI not because it was time, but because there were no other options. Busquets is still starting because instead of looking at his play two seasons ago and thinking, “Hey, we need to fix this. Now,” he’s still starting because of a team that hasn’t evolved in any significant way, while the rest of the game has.
Even Messi is burdened with his ghosts. He has diminished. Greatly. Valverde hid that. Setien didn’t because he didn’t really know how because of his idealism. Koeman doesn’t know what to do. Messi isn’t a part of a system. Messi IS the system. You devise a system to figure out how to extract the best from the best player in history. As long as he is with the club, it isn’t about systems. It’s about him.
“Messi isn’t finishing like he used to.” No shit. Messi isn’t the player he used to be. So put him where he can take fullest advantage of his diminishing skills. It took a cold-eyed pragmatist like Valverde to look at Messi and say, “Set it up so he always has high-percentage shots.” Done. And people were talking about Messi being ageless. Nope.
And yet the mistake wasn’t firing Valverde, just as the mistake wasn’t moving Suarez. The mistake was in doing nothing else. Suarez was declining for years, yet nothing was done. Busquets was declining for years, yet nothing was done. Alba’s deficiencies have been clear. Nothing was done. And now, when the sporting project needs action, a caretaker is occupying the boardroom, turning the lights on an off, paying bills and going home.
But even if everything was being run perfectly, it would still be impossible for Barça to be anything like what we expect, because those days are gone. Guardiola left for a new project, one that gave him everything he wanted so that he could build something new. Messi wanted to leave in the summer because he wanted to be part of something new, wanted to revinvent himself. If Messi goes to Manchester City and doesn’t become that team’s 9, you will be able to knock me over with a feather. It’s so obvious.
He can’t do that at Barça because nobody who runs, watches, analyzes or does anything related to that club wants to see Messi as anything other than a player who isn’t what he was, and why not? Because in football years, he’s old. Let him be what he is, rather than what he was. Xavi is gone, Puyol. Gone. Iniesta. Gone. Setien came in talking Cruijffian priciples and people ate it up, still under the delusion that if a team plays the right way, it will win. Meanwhile faster, younger, smarter opponents treat Barça like the aged anachronism that it is, that plastic-covered sofa at grandma’s house that looks new, but the under that plastic the springs are shot, the upholstery is compressed.
We won’t be able to understand Barça until we let Barça go. This isn’t a mediocre team compared to how it used to be. That team is long gone. Let it go. This is a team of baubles, hastily assembled by people who were just buying stuff with no idea of what they wanted to erect. “Got some cinderblocks, a few bricks and some hardwood floors. Let’s get to it.” Roof? Uh … Walls? Um …
In the immortal words of Valverde, “it is what it is.” This team is what it is, its manager is what he is. We can assume they already know that the only achievable goal this season is to finish in the Champions League positions. This team, with roots in neglect and reactive ineptitude, isn’t equipped for anything else, and it won’t be until someone who knows how to plan and run a sporting project based in the now, not the past, takes the reins. For now, we have the mess that we have, and that’s all that we have. And we look back sometimes because what we’re looking at isn’t all that pretty.