It’s all so normal now.
Griezmann scored his second goal of the match in the SuperCopa final. Everyone celebrated, but nobody relaxed, almost as if we could feel it. The equalizer came, and it felt as inevitable as Inaki Williams’ golazo match winner in extra time, right down to Barça strolling around like zombies in the face of yet another team that wanted it more, that had more energy and more will, even as it had less talent and a lower wage bill.
And we shrugged as it happened again.
The players were upset, the image of a disconsolate Ter Stegen sitting on the bench in the solitude of regret and failure serving as the painting of the match, the man most bothered by it who had done the most, and could do no more. He couldn’t have stopped that Williams goal, nor the other two goals that came from the usual breakdowns of a team looking to complete a script of collapse.
It isn’t that Barça is a bad team. Far from it. It’s that Barça is a broken team, back bowed by a legacy of psychological collapse. Whether it needs therapy or an exorcism depends on the person asking the question, but it needs something, a something that doesn’t come with an expensive transfer or a managerial change.
What happens to championship teams, winning teams, is the expectation of victory. We laugh about the scoreline called “The Atleti,” as they garrotte another opponent into a 1-0 submission. This season, something seismic would have to happen for them to not lift the Liga trophy. When you watch their matches, even when they’re down a goal or battling a draw, you always think, “They’re going to score.” And they do. And once they get that lead, that’s it. Defense in layers, players working as a team with a manager who builds a lineup that even when it has weaknesses, masks them with work and will.
Barça used to have that expectation. Losses used to be these weird things that left us unmoored, like we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. Even in league, one of a few dozen matches felt catastrophic. The erosion happened gradually, alongside the erosion of a team through mismanagement in the hands of a board that had the same reactive brains of a new supporter. “Buy someone!” Some people spoke early of the incipient collapse of Jordi Alba and were shouted down. The board gave him a new, long-term deal, setting a past it player in concrete. Busquets still shuffles and shambles around the midfield, always a step late now, as helpless off the ball as he is masterful on it.
A great team was allowed to slide into the kind of psychological mediocrity that creates a legacy of failure, and players who don’t know how to fix it because failure has become reflex. The few of them for whom it is still something different don’t know how to lift the group.
Messi tried to leave, tried to be the catalyst for the kind of change that he felt his club needed. But right to the end, vain, inept management blocked that effort, dooming the team to yet another cycle of talented inadequacy as they have transformed Barça into Arsenal. Marketed to the hilt, coasting on a reputation of glory days long gone, probably never to return.
Sport is about failure, so failure should be expected. When failure starts to feel inevitable, things are a mess. And that’s where Barça is. And everybody is culpable. In the last three minutes of the SuperCopa match, Koeman went straight to Manager 101, which is that you make late, late subs to disrupt the match flow when your team is up a goal, usually in the 88th minute or so. But Koeman pulled Pedri, who as it turned out was a midfield linchpin (who knew except everybody watching), and Dembele, the one player who forced the Athletic Club press into something honest, out of fear of his pace. And for them he subbed on Pjanic, who has quickly proved to be a cipher, and Braithwaite, whose principal skill is the gift of invisibility.
Athletic Club, who played a fantastic match, almost immediately pressed up, and got a reward as Busquets and Lenglet, both too slow to do anything with Inaki Williams except foul him and hope for the best, did precisely that. The ensuing set piece was, like the other set pieces on which they scored, a sonnet to failure. Slack marking, Alba ducked for some reason, and voila, another goal that Ter Stegen could do nothing about. It’s easy to imagine Ter Stegen feeling more confident in a penalty shootout, where there isn’t a defense to leave him stranded, than open play or set pieces as yet another opponent takes advantage of a mess of a left side. Opponents are attacking Lenglet because they understand that Alba will always leave him on an island, a slow, reactive target in open field just waiting to die. He won’t get help from anyone. Busquets is too slow, De Jong is now forward. The only assistance comes from little Pedri, who his manager pulled.
The last time Barça was in a SuperCopa final, the team also relinquished a 2-1 lead, but didn’t need extra time to complete the collapse. And it happened the same way, on the left side, where dreams go to die. Liverpool attacked the left on that final, cruel set piece. Roma attacked the left on its tie decider. The left side is like a welcome mat, but reflexive supporters still talk about how good Alba is going forward instead of what a disaster he is at fullback, where the principal job is as a defender. Prime Umtiti, that fleeting moment, could compensate for all of that with pace and athleticism as he occupied an almost Abidal-like role. When he went down and Lenglet was signed, that was that. Now, Alba is absent and Lenglet is in the box, creating a gaping space that opponents exploit.
And supporters, after the match, savage players like Dembele, in a reflexive pathology that is as myopic as a board that allowed Barça to have some of the weakest fullbacks in European football where Dest, who should be an apprentice, has to be a starter because who else is there? Busquets should have been replaced years ago, but there he still is. So many things are as they were and have been for too long. And the board spent 120m on Griezmann, instead of addressing real needs, like fullbacks who can defend or midfielders who can run.
It’s been forgotten that the best Barça teams in history featured a fullback for whom attacking was like a comet sighting. But he held it down at the back so that everybody ELSE could attack. Now, we rate fullbacks on how well they attack, forgetting that a team still needs to play defense and fullbacks are part of that defense. Alves could be Alves because Abidal was Abidal. There was a press, and Busquets could move. None of those conditions are present. Guardiola would have screamed had Abidal attacked like Alves, because balance.
We have forgotten so much, most notably what success feels like, what it feels like to have a team that we don’t watch with a feeling of the inevitability of failure, tempered on the anvil of institutional neglect. And we sit around, looking back instead of looking forward or even at where we are, wanting a replica instead of a contemporary version of something that might make success possible.
People ask why Messi wanted to leave? Because like a pass that only he can see, he felt this, all of it. It wasn’t all becasue of Bartomeu. It was because he wanted a fresh start, wanted his team, his beloved club to have a fresh start, knowing that his leaving suddenly makes everything possible, knowing that his staying doomed the team to playing out the grim, desultory string as it continues to slide into has-been status, as everyone talks about how great things used to be, rather than how great they might be, or can be.