Barça rehab, because mentality matters

When Barça Femeni got tonked in the 2020 Champions League final by Lyon, it didn’t leave a scar, it started a fire.

Sport is fond of the idea of want, which is rather a nebulous thing. You can’t define it, have no idea how to quantify it even as it’s one of those words that is used so much we think we understand what it means. “They wanted it more.” But … doesn’t everyone want it just as much? When athletes come to compete, do any of them think, “I don’t really want this. I’m just here because it’s my job.”

Femeni, like the trophyless squad that Pep Guardiola took over, was filled with the determination to not have what happened to them ever happen again. We confuse “want” with a lot of things. Determination, coolness under pressure, higher levels of skill. A team or player might not want something more. They’re just better at something. Did Messi want that free kick that just missed vs Atleti any less than any of the others he has put his left foot through? Of course not. So we should question the notion of want, or maybe substitute it for something like psyhological preparedness, or reflexive defaults under extreme pressure. When does failure beget failure?

In this excellent colunn by Sid Lowe on Atleti and their championship, he writes about the last five matches of the season, when everything was at stake. Instead of “good morning,” the greeting was, “We’re going to be champions.”

Makes you wonder what the greeting at Camp Nou was.

In thinking about a Barça season viewed by many as a failure that was in reality exceeding expectation, a rare opportunity was afforded a club that had no business being where it found itself. And the public line was “we have five finals.” Maybe, just maybe, given how the team has performed over recent years in crucial matches, the idea of “five finals” wasn’t exactly the way to put it.

Koeman out is a weird thing given that just a year ago it was “Koeman in.” And the manager isn’t the only problem at a club. This was also true at Napoli, where Rino Gattuso was shown the exit after his team drew 1-1 to Verona with Champions League on the line. Players perform, but it’s the job of the manager to get them ready to play, to instill them with what they need to accomplish what they need to accomplish. That Griezmann finish against Eibar was brilliant, but nothing was on the line. Compare that with the deft, assassin’s touch of that Correa golazo that equalized against Valladolid. With everything on the line, Atleti executed, and a big part of that is because of preparation, because of mentality.

Ah, the m word. It’s fair to wonder whether Barça has the champion’s mentality, that idea that failure isn’t an option. My chosen sport, cycling, is big on mentality. On fast group rides, you see the same people get shelled at the same spots, or at a given speed. Do they ever think, as many do, “Go one telephone pole farther this week,” “Go one mile an hour faster. Just try.” Good question. Great athletes don’t accept failure. More correctly, they don’t acknowledge it as part of their thinking.

Yet what happens when a club fails, and fails spectacularly, year after year after year. Italy. Rome. Anfield. Bayern. PSG. What happens to a club’s mentality at a crucial time? Five finals. Five points in total from those “five finals.” Compare that to Real Madrid, with four wins and one draw, to Sevilla. Or Atleti, who won the matches they had to, coming from behind to do it. It’s fair to wonder whether the biggest value of a Barça clearout is a mentality change.

Ages ago in a top-flight women’s tennis match, on the brink of an epic upset against the best player in the world, the underdog was up 15-40 and 5-2 in the deciding set. She then got the yips, and collapsed. A commentator said of the meltdown, “She’s finished at the top level.” It’s the kind of experience that scars an athlete, that makes them start to wonder. And once that happens, yonder lies madness.

Jordi Alba, for all of his defensive issues, is one of the best left backs in the world. Jordi Alba is also someone who has been repeatedly found wanting on the big stages at crucial times. Pique, Busquets, Ter Stegen, the list goes on. At what point does a team go from expecting to win to hoping to win to working not to lose? The difference is subtle, and gradual. And the manager’s job is to stave that off. Guardiola instilled work habits, rote repetition and work. Sled dog levels of work, and belief. If we do this correctly, we will win. Atleti’s belief was in suffering, in the kind of pride in gutting out results that is their mark. “We fight.” Real Madrid have institutionalized winning. Late goals, penalties that come from pressure not just on opponents but on officials. Mentality.

What does Barça do, besides succumb? The Granada match is a classic instance of the team’s level of play with something big on the line. Two of the easiest goals you will ever see scored were tallied against the defense of a team that should have put the match away. Every one of the final “finals” were winnable yet failure was the predominant mode. What happpened? Supporters point to so much, but is it simply that a team fails so much that it gets to the point where under big pressure failure becomes a default setting?

It’s more than old legs. Atleti has veteran legs. Real Madrid is stuffed with veteran legs. At crunch time, they delivered and it was a Luis Suarez goal (speaking of old legs) that kept them from pulling off yet another comeback title run. Last year Barça collapsed — again — and Real Madrid won out to lift the Liga title. And there again, blaugrana players spoke of “finals.” Does that add layers of pressure that a team by now used to failure can’t surmount? Interesting to consider, especially with Koeman on the hot seat, along with 10-13 players, dependent upon whose rumor you kinda sorta trust. A larger question is how do you get failure out of a team?

The psychology of sport is a weird thing. Luis Enrique had a team psychologist. Koeman didn’t believe in one. But the things that played out in the stretch run of the season didn’t have to do with rosters, or legs. It was a simple matter of execution, and Barça didn’t. As Laporta and the club technical staff sit down to evaluate how things are and what to do about them. you can’t help but wonder how big a mistake it would be to rule out the very real possibility that the club simply has too many players who have become too accustomed to failure. And if you can’t change the mentality, maybe it’s time to change the players.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.