Now, at the tail end of the season, with a team and parts of a fanbase hanging on to hope like FC Barcelona is hanging on to that Super League charter, reality beckons.
Barça exceeded expectations. If someone had looked at the morass that Ronald Koeman inherited and told me they would have won a Copa, secured a non play-in Champions League spot and had a sniff of a chance at winning the league, laughter would have ensued. This team was and still is a collection of has-been, kids and never-will-bes. When one of your match-changing subs is Martin Braithwaite, exactly where are you in the overall scheme of things.
This has been a weird, wild season, particularly in La Liga, that will end with Atleti as champion, and deservedly so. They overperformed, building a points lead that withstood their regressing to mean, kicked off by Levante (that team again) kicking at the foundation of their lead like a rambunctious upstart. But then, with three matches to go, in the sternest test left, they beat La Real. They had to, and they did.
It’s worth comparing that with Barça, who had two changes to go top of Liga. One, they spurned by losing to Granada. The second, they kicked away by drawing with Levante. There were lots of questions, and screaming and recrimination, but the reality is that Barça was in with a shout at something it in no way deserved through a bizarre combination of luck and capricious Fate.
Barça is a top four team in Liga right now. A lot of people let the presence of Messi and past history make them think otherwise. Messi is diminished, and past history is past. In the present, the team is flawed, deeply flawed, and third place is where it belongs. And people search for blame instead of reality.
Koeman did a great job of remanufacturing this team into a group capable of meeting expectation. Like a remanufactured auto part, it works just fine. But you aren’t winning races with remanufactured brake calipers. The stress of a sustained event will expose flaws, just like the stresses of a sustained Liga season. At the end, Barça looked too often old and tired, like a group whose key players have about a zillion matches in their legs, a group let down by years of institutional neglect and mismanagement. That’s what they are.
Messi sparkles for a half of football, usually. That’s his norm these days, and it’s unreasonable to expect much more from a player who is 33 but whose football legs have seen enough mileage to make him about 40. Pique returned and Koeman pressed him right into service with a sigh of relief. He was the player on the scene for a great many season-defining goals since that return, from Mbappe unleashed to the Granada winner and the Levante equalizer. Busquets needs a network of support so that he can do what he does. The instant that falters … Sergi Roberto returned, as awash in inadequacy as any fullback in the league.
We scream that those players are pressed into service instead of asking what the alternatives are. Dest is an 18-year-old apprentice. At Bayern, a suitor for his services, he would be third in the RB hierarchy, learning the game and getting occasional match time. That is where he should be, rather than starting for Barça. We’re reminded of that almost every time he faces up against an opponent. As Dest attacks they dispossess, as Dest defends he is chasing, trying to figure out what went wrong.
On the left, Jordi Alba attacks, and throws in that same, reliable pass. We assess fullbacks like wingers in culerdom, not considering notions such as can they stop an opponent from doing anything. Barça has the poorest fullbacks of any big club pressing at the gates of being a contender for anything related to silver. It also has a slow, porous midfield anchored by a player who at his best wasn’t athletic but got things done with just enough capability and a warlock’s ability to read a match. He’s in the company of an 18-year-old wisp and a Dutch whiz still finding out where he best fits.
It’s a team with no structure, no way of playing. It’s individualism in the hands of a puppemaster who lacks confidence, even if the parts were up to standard. This is the team that has, in all honesty, surprised with a Copa trophy. The squad was in with a shout at the Liga title through the failure of others more than any merit of its own. It’s important to not let that deceive us. There is a quest for blame, and most point at Koeman, who really has done quite a good job. The biggest problem now is that his racecar ran afoul of those remanufactured parts. He missed quite a few turns and got too deep in braking zones so yeah, driver error. But those parts, man.
The biggest task that Koeman has succeeded at is making himself obsolete. In the rebuild project, he was always going to be a stopgap. He’s a season ahead of schedule, which is laudable. That accomplishment also means that Barça finds itself in the odd position of possibly jettisoning the manager it just picked up at the beginning of this season. The perils of rebuilding.
Like any project, different people will see different things as it moves along the road of progress. But as culers, instead of mourning a missed championship, gathering the torches and storming around looking for the monster to blame, we should be looking at this season as a progress point along the road. The Copa was quite good, given the state of this team. Youth players have progressed and even excelled. There is a nucleus for something good, provided the people in charge now have the guts to make hard decisions. Their predecessors didn’t, which is why things are the way they are.
No, Barça isn’t yet Arsenal — that solid top four side that always makes Champions League, falters in knockouts and does just well enough. But without firm leadership and key decisions, that is one possible road the club is on.