As lots of people ask “What happened” at Barça, the answer is so obvious: fear.
We can point fingers at poor decisions, institutional rot and all that stuff, but everything comes back to fear — of change, of damaging a project, of killing the golden goose. It’s the same kind of fear that has turned La Liga into a man afraid to leave the house because everything is as he likes it, then he goes outside and gets overrun because everything is so different. But Barça is the purest example of this notion, a club shackled to its unprecedented success, hooked on that drug. And everyone connected to the entity like so many remoras: media outlets, supporters, sponsors, presidents and board members are focused on recreation rather than adaptation. If you never leave the house, it’s easy to convince yourself that your way of living is the best.
The illness and subsequent death of Tito Vilanova is something that is still hard to process. What isn’t often looked at is what happened to the sporting project. Barça has spent the last decade trying to either recreate or hang on to something that was a one-off, so its football project never developed. Vilanova’s illness was sad, but little is said, except by weirdos like me, how that year and the ensuing interregnum essentially stopped development of the football project, tactically.
When Guardiola left, Vilanova took over and right away, we saw an adaptation, a dynamic version of the tactics that had seen success. It was wild and exciting. More vertical and dynamic, yet still with roots in the tactics (not system, which is limiting). When he began his battle with cruel fate, Jordi Roura was a caretaker, working to keep things from falling apart, and he wasn’t fully up to the task. And then came Tata Martino, a caretaker entrusted with keeping the seat warm until the chosen one arrived. He tried to continue something of the Vilanova adaptation, but the team rebelled, and regressed.
Then came Luis Enrique, the heretic who made people ask “Where is the midfield.” Well, it’s right there, getting the ball to the horses who were going to run the race. His team started out winning a treble then quickly went downhill, because it was based on having great players do great things. As soon as opponents figured out that walling off Neymar was a pretty easy solution, stagnation began and his answer was a series of ill-fitting transfers that looked to build a hybrid approach to the game.
He left, Valverde arrived, then Neymar left. So the pragmatic coach set about working with what he had to implement something that would have some success. It wasn’t about innovation or evolution. Let’s just get this work done, and get some results. More clunky transfers of players who don’t fit what the club is trying to do because who the hell knows what the club is trying to do. Fire Valverde, hire Setien. Fire Setien, hire Koeman. Liga success deluded and seduced, because life in the hothouse does that. In a slow, tactical league, the team with Messi wins. That math is simple, until the problems with the team become such that even that isn’t enough any longer.
Then they turned Messi into an impediment instead of a gift, by working to “maximise his time left” instead of forcing him to adapt along with the project as the team and how it played football changed of necessity. And now they’re stuck with a bunch of expensive relics, and players who don’t fit an antiquated ideal of play. The lack of development, the stink of the sporting project is so bad that a player who should be thinking of nothing more than retiring at the only club he has ever known, is looking for a way out so that he can adapt into the player that he is now, rather than spending another season trapped with his ghosts. Yet what Barça has done to Dembele is typical of the club’s sporting project and everything around it. Let’s take one of the most dynamic players in the game, and make him play wall passes with Busquets as the ball oozes up the pitch, then slag him because he doesn’t play “the right way.” He isn’t perfect. Far from it. There is lots of improving to be done, but it won’t happen at Barça as the club presently stands, because the tactical approach isn’t in place to improve Dembele or anyone else. There’s still the illusion of “going for all the trophies” instead of looking to create something useful and repeatable, a team that can have success in this modern game of football.
Whether Dembele is a good or bad transfer is almost immaterial to the reality that almost everything at the club was set up to make him into a bad transfer. Same with Griezmann. Same with Coutinho. “All the holes here are round, son. You’re square? Well, you better shape up, or get out.” Maybe the square peg adapts into a hexagon, and people say, “Well, not bad, but still doesn’t fit.” Fit is impossible because of the endless litany of errors and clinging to something that should have been discarded. And Barça is now standing on its front porch, blinking in the too-bright sunlight as people in electric cars zip past.
Recent Champions League results have made a lot of people suddenly start asking “What’s wrong with La Liga?” Well, nothing if all you watch is La Liga, or if you don’t watch Liga at all except for Champions League. Barça in its heyday, then Real Madrid in the dulling glow of its pomp, convinced people that Liga was still a thing on the European stage. Football, meanwhile, was getting faster and more technical. You could watch other leagues and see them adapting. Ligue 1 adapted to face the PSG challenge. Bundesliga adapted to face the Bayern challenge. Serie A adapted to face the Juventus challenge. Meanwhile in La Liga, teams improved a bit, but what mostly happened is the big two shrunk. There is lots of talk about how great Atleti is playing, but a shell of a Real Madrid is but a few points behind them in the table. Hay, Liga? Maybe. But that’s also a bad sign.
Barça has laid so many eggs in Champions League that it’s now a club tradition. Those failures should get a wing in the Museu, so much a part of club lore have they become. And in this, a pivotal summer for FC Barcelona in every way, everyone is still looking backward, still looking to recreate. Pimienta, the Barça B coach, talks of DNA and people lap it up, instead of asking what happens when DNA isn’t enough, when “the right way” gets run over by a rampaging French forward named Mbappe.
“We just have the wrong players so we can’t play the right way,” is often heard, rather than asking why everyone else is changing, and what are we doing. Rome didn’t do it. People focused on the unfavored. Anfield didn’t do it. More focus on the unfavored. Bayern should have done it, but nope. Manager. This player sucked, that player sucked. PSG rolled in, and it was, “Dembele sure is a sucky fullback.” Yet the same questions linger about relics and their place in modern society, in a modern game.
In summer, Barça will have some very serious questions to answer. The hope is that they ask the right ones.