The thing about new begnnings is the complexity of what was known, what is known and what was hidden.
It goes without saying that Messi made a lot of people look better than they are. So players like Antoine Griezmann, who had the crutch of “Well, my best position is where that wee Argentine is,” are exposed, and it ain’t pretty.
But let’s start at the beginning, with La Real, a match that on paper was a daunting proposal, a challenging way to start the season for a group suddenly — as with Neymar’s departure — bereft of a key component at the very last minute of things.
This was a match that flattered to deceive, as La Real was curiously passive, letting Barça have its way, only attacking late in the match when proceedings were all but done and dusted. It should have been a cause for alarm at how quickly their two goals came, how rickety Barça looked, but people were awash in the flutter of expectations.
Players looked good who weren’t really tested, tactics worked because there really weren’t all that many of them, and it was easy to kick the can down the road, ignoring reality in the glow of victory.
Athletic Club at home was like being grabbed by the ankles and dunked in an ice bath. They pressed, harried and bullied and Barça was found wanting in almost every aspect of the game.
Going into the season people suggested that the defense was going to be a complexity. The only real additions were in attack, though Emerson at right back promises much. It was known that Eric Garcia wasn’t possessed of any standout physical qualities, so not sure why anyone is shocked that he was so brutally gutted against Athletic Club and the Williams brothers.
Let’s be clear about Eric Garcia, lest Masiaflation plop rose-tinted lenses over our eyes: If he was of the highest quality, City wouldn’t have allowed him to leave, never mind on a free. Don’t kid yourself otherwise. This isn’t to say that he isn’t good in his limited wheelhouse. But a CB who doesn’t have pace, or physicality and isn’t good in the air isn’t exactly going to roll in as a defensive rock. Anyone who thought otherwise must not have watched much of Garcia at City or the Euros this summer.
He’s elegant on the ball, and the best description I have heard of Garcia comes from Ramzi (@footballmood) on Twitter, who described Garcia as a player who knows exactly what to do but isn’t always physically capable of doing it.
The defense was always going to be a worry because nothing was done to improve the most glaring deficiency, which are the fullbacks. Dest wasn’t ready to start at Ajax, much less Barça, and Alba just isn’t a top-class fullback. No team with any pretensions of doing anything of significance can be satisfied with a pair of fullbacks of the quality of those two.
The other CBs are a dignified geezer, a kid and a pair of French uncertainties, one on the way out, the other should be. Couple all of that with a midfield that still can’t stop the ball when it’s coming at them and you have all the makings of what we saw against Athletic Club: a “WHEW!” in the making. Get used to it.
There are bright lights. When Emerson came on for Dest and the Athletic Club attacker tried what had previously worked against Dest, Emerson just shut it down and took the ball. It was nice to see, and promising for that side of the pitch.
And then there’s Memphis Depay. He came on a free from Lyon, and those who watched him in Ligue 1 thought, “If he can do what he did at Lyon at Barça, whooo, baby! But how the hell is he going to do any of that with Messi around.”
Then Messi left.
Depay doesn’t know what life was like with Messi, so he’s just balling. Dynamic and aggressive, Depay is already demanding more from his teammates than they are capable of giving, so he’s doing stuff himself, like that solo golazo, a thing of rage and beauty that equalized. Depay also had the match on his boot, but pushed a shot just wide of the far post.
A player of that quality coming to a club that desperately needed him on a free is a piece of astonishing luck. Team him with De Jong, who is in his pomp this season, and you have the start of something wonderful. And don’t forget that Fati and Dembele will be coming back as well this season. And Koeman seems to think that Coutinho, another of the “I would be great if not for Messi” brigade, will finally live up to his promise.
Two teams told us what we already knew about Barça, even as Barça showed us that up front, the team is almost ready for life without the greatest player in the history of game. This is something of a surprise, how quickly they just rolled on. Depay helped a lot with his effective, dynamic presence.
Griezmann, however, has not. Yes, he works, yes he does stuff off the ball. You don’t pay 120m for that. Messi is gone. That position is vacant. Griezmann is the exact same player he was when Messi was at the club, and that just isn’t acceptable. He is at times influential, but he is rarely decisive. Depay has already taken over the team, leading and driving. Griezmann is as associative and tidy as he always has been. The team needs more from him. Excuses are gone, and there is nowhere to hide.
Koeman has some problems to solve, the same problems he needed to solve last season. A season of bargain-conscious tranfser shopping hasn’t brought him any solutions. Are the tactical wrinkles he can offer? Not with the state of the current personnel. Nico Gonzalez isn’t ready, so Busquets has to start. That’s a problem off the ball.
The team can’t play out of the back because pressing opponents won’t allow it. The one ball-carrying CB Koeman can call upon, Umtiti, he can’t call upon because the club wants him gone. That means long passes straight into the teeth of a wating press. Ter Stegen, when fit, is a possible solution with his long pass distribution. Neto is nothing like that. uncertain in distribution at best, dire at worst.
Barça is a team assembled and sustained to orbit around a sun, but that sun is now shining in Paris. With just over a week left in the window, no solutions make themselves apparent. And two matches, in Getafe and Sevilla, await, very different tests of a team that is still working to find its way in a world it was and is wholly unprepared for.
The most optimistic outcome of the La Real/Athletic Club/Getafe/Sevilla opening quartet would be two wins, a draw and a loss. Should that happen, hope for this season would abound. The team was a mess against Athletic Club, exposed in every aspect of the game, yet still had a chance to win. That is encouraging.
What isn’t as encouraging is that they could just as easily have gotten tonked as gotten a draw. It’s early days, and the great post-Messi experiment is only beginning. Barça is still coming together, and is nowhere near as good as it’s going to be. But if solutions aren’t found for the defense, fullbacks in particular, we will never find out just how good the team might possibly become.