Last week Carles Tusquets, the man in charge of turning the lights on and off at FC Barcelona until a new president is picked, also became the man in charge of pissing people off. That he was also the man who might be speaking uncomfortable truths only served to make people even angrier.
He said, in essence, that Barça would have been better off selling Messi last summer when he wanted to leave, and getting that salary off the books, than letting him leave for free in June.
Not surprisingly, he almost immediately started trying to walk it back, philosophically being trapped between the same rock and a hard place that FC Barcelona was trapped between when its talisman said, quite, quite publicly, that he wanted to leave. And the same rock and a hard place that Barça, the football team, was trapped between when it rolled into Cadiz. And the same rock and a hard place that many observers, neutral or otherwise, are trapped between by a grim reality: maybe it’s time for us to consider the idea that the best Barça is now a team without Lionel Messi.
This isn’t really anything to do with Messi, who is still an amazing player. But Barça right now is like that old married couple that has been together forever. They do the same stuff, watch the same TV shows, have the same dinner, take the same vacations. It’s all that they know how to do. Then one day, one of them says, “Hey, this kinda sucks.” And we read about a couple being divorced after 35 years together, and wonder what happened. Well … nothing happened.
Messi can’t be the player that Messi wants to be, needs to be, at this FC Barcelona. Everything is trapped. The same automations, the same passes, the same runs, the same system. It’s a world built around a player who doesn’t need, or more crucially, want to have a world built around him any longer. When Sergino Dest was playing left back in place of Jordi Alba, and there was no Messi for Alba to automatically pass to even when Messi wasn’t available for Alba to pass to, weird things happened. Passes to mids on the move into attack, shifting play, a mazy dribble. Barça is trapped in the quagmire of the past. Messi is there, so you give Messi the ball so that Messi can do something. Messi gives it back, you give it to him again because you’re supposed to, because what else would you do?
It’s a safe bet that Messi has lots of ideas of what could be done with that ball.
When the Barça icon said it’s time for a new project, time for younger legs to come to the fore, he wasn’t just being self-effacing. My belief is that there is no harder, harsher judge of Messi than Messi, that nobody knows Messi better than Messi, and holds Messi to a harsher light. A man who has never uttered a self-deprecating, nonsense word in his public life isn’t suddenly going to babble some self-effacing pablum about new projects and younger legs. He was looking to give everybody a way out: his beloved club, the team, a new manager, the accountants and yes, himself.
At Barça, in the blaugrana, Messi has a role. The manager knows that role, so he’s trapped. Structures of play know that role, so the players tasked with executing them are trapped. Everybody is trapped, including Messi. Koeman’s XI at Cadiz was Ter Stegen, Dest, Mingueza, Lenglet, Alba, Busquets, De Jong, Coutinho, Griezmann and Messi. My first reaction to that XI was uh, oh, for so many reasons. Where was width going to come from? The fullbacks. So when they attacked and possession was lost, what would happen in the cow’s pasture of a midfield populated by a pair of slooow pivots. Where was the press going to come from? Where was the organized defense going to come from? As predicted, Griezmann had to defend more than attack, because who else was going to?
That the two Cadiz goals came from comedic errors obscures the reality of what really happened, which is that Barça isn’t Barça any longer, but it’s still that old married couple playing out the same life, year after year, because what else might they do. It’s only after divorce, when they meet by happenstance and both have lost weight, started dressing differently, maybe different haircuts, that they consider what they, and life, were doing to each other. Could this have happened while they were together? Yes and no, because humans have such a difficult time deviating from what they know.
Even after the match, people rushed to Messi’s defense, hurling thunderbolts at the naysayers. It was reflex, rather than asking what the real problem was. They said Busquets had a good match, and what’s your problem? The same answers are the only option when the same old questions are the only ones that we ask.
Busquets did have a good match. On the ball. It’s off the ball that the systems break down, that the support structures that need to be in place because of his frailties come into effect. And those cause other breakdowns. When Alba attacks, cuts a blind pass to Messi that doesn’t have a chance of getting there and is intercepted by Cadiz, who scurries unhindered toward Ter Stegen, what then? Alba can’t get back, Messi and Coutinho are absent on defense, so Griezmann has to hustle back. Again. Which means Griezmann is too damn tired to do anything in attack except ponce about ineffectually.
When Pjanic comes in for Busquets, you see the moments where Busquets would have taken the ball, surveyed left and right, danced a little, then made a safe, 10-yard pass that he could have made in the first place. But Pjanic gets the ball and moves it, the quickness taking advantage of an available runner who isn’t there after moments of contemplation. Better? No. Different? Yes. And sometimes, different just means different possibilities and maybe, just maybe, different solutions.
Koeman has to convince Messi to become a different player at the same club in the same shirt surrounded by the same teammates. How is that going to go over? We already know. It isn’t until Messi isn’t there that other options make themselves available, that minds open to different possibilities.
In an ideal world, the team would have started the season adapting to a new life. Messi would be happily ensconsed in his role as a 9, Griezmann would be in his proper position, which is at another club, along with Coutinho. A midfield of Pjanic in the hole, feeding De Jong and Pedri would be moving the ball blithely around the pitch, while Dembele made runs to create space for Messi to slide into. Ah, for a different future. Instead there is the rote insertion of the same pieces in the same spots, and the same stuff happens. The ball moves slow, a fluke goal is given up and Barça settles into a pamtomime of how the team used to play. There is the possession and the passing, but it’s ineffectual, easy to defend, so absent a moment of brilliance, nothing gets created. And on it goes. Cadiz could walk around and kick balls away in defending its lead, twice.
Lenglet, a center back never fully suited for an idealized Barça in the first place, is now the senior defender on the back line, with expected results. That second Cadiz goal, with roots in an awful Alba throw in, still found Lenglet wanting. Pique or Umtiti would have still found a way to play the ball, to move to it. Lenglet stood there, even reactive even when he should be active, leaving his keeper to make a sudden reaction, the wrong one. He should have just hoofed the ball away, but he’s a ball-playing keeper, so he tried to do what he did, and Cadiz capitalized. That goal wasn’t anyone’s fault as much as it was everyone’s fault, right down to an ossified team led by a club legend who shouldn’t have gotten the job.
Everything at FC Barcelona looks to the past. You can honor the past without being trapped by it. The leading presidential candidate is Joan Laporta. Past. The other leading candidate, Victor Font, promises a project with folks from the past, like Xavi and Puyol. Everything is so focused on how things used to be that nobody has any damn idea how they would like them to be in the future. FC Stagnation is a club with big problems, and a team with bigger problems. And there are no solutions in sight for either entity.