There is no more elegant way to say it: Barça got its ass kicked. In its own house.
The day after, the tizzy in culerdom is that more than 30,000 Frankfurt supporters were in the Camp Nou, how did they get all those tickets, something must be done, blablabla. It’s a lovely, convenient distraction from the reality, which is that the home side didn’t do very much to shut those visiting fans up.
Home match that felt like an away one? Just this past weekend they turned a loss into a draw into a win at Levante. The team has won matches at the Bernabeu, and it doesn’t get more hostile than that. Put up and show up. Only one team did that, and that team is advancing in the Europa League in a deserved win.
Let’s not kid ourselves here — the only reason the tie wasn’t already over is that Frankfurt finished like crap in their house. The two matches were essentially reruns, with Barça being overrun by a team that does all the stuff they don’t like opponents to do: physical play, intense pressing, occupying passing lanes, getting back quickly on defense as the Barça attack oozed up the pitch, lightning counters when they got the ball. Opponents have also figured out that the flanks are a giant “welcome” sign, allowing them to get the ball directly into the Barça box to test their non defenders.
The result of this tactic bore fruit in the first five minutes, as Eric Garcia, like Lenglet against Levante, decided that rather than just keeping his body between the attacker and his keeper, he would do something. It wasn’t much contact, but there isn’t an attacker in football (except Messi) who isn’t going to feel that contact and go down, arms raised in supplication. Garcia argued, because you’re supposed to, but he earned it. Yes, those have not been given, but it’s rare. “Soft” penalty? Nope. Penalties are digital. On or off. That one was on.
As I wrote in the match preview, if Frankfurt scored first it was going to be a long night. And so it was. For XaviBall to work, a number of things have to happen, but most crucially, an opponent that is a tactical fit is also required. Barça was too slow in every phase of the game — except when Dembele had the ball — to trouble Frankfurt. Many will be deluded by that late flurry that resulted in a couple of goals, and think had the match gone on longer, etc, etc. Nope.
The team was shown up and out by an opponent playing modern football. There is a rigid insistence that a team doesn’t need athletes, just needs to play the right way. When a group gets outrun to every loose ball, loses every 50/50, watches opponents caper through a wide-open midfield bereft of a DM, what kind of posicion do you have to juego to keep that from happening? Send Xavi a note if you know.
Even Araujo had an off night, mostly because everything was happening so fast and with such unrelenting quality that he didn’t know what to react to. Part of the learning process. As noted in the match preview (again) at this level of the Europa League, it was about learning about the intensity of European football, via opponents close to Champions League quality. Barça saw, the question is what will they learn?
The result was fair. Barça is precisely the team that everyone suspected it was. Araujo called the knockout a “failure,” but it wasn’t. Barça wasn’t good enough to win the Europa League, because it is a team that is in process, building into something interesting under a new manager. It was cool that the group got that far, and as the dust was settling in the wake of Koeman, anybody who would have said back then that this team would be in second place in league right now would have gotten laughed off the face of the earth.
Yet here they are, flaws and all. People will wax on and on about tactics, but it wasn’t even all that tactical. Frankfurt just walked up and punched Barça in a mouth, stood there and said, “What are you going to to about it?” Barça didn’t have an answer, except to bleed. They conceded a goal off a throw-in, which is an answer of some sort, to be fair.
This team is better than it has a right to be at this point in time, and Xavi is to be commended for the job that he has done, just as Frankfurt should be commended for coming into the Camp Nou and playing a fantastic match. Barça wasn’t that good, but they also weren’t allowed to be that good. Once Frankfurt saw that Dembele was the only real danger, they fronted him with two to three defenders, confident that nobody else was going to do any harm.
At times when Barça had the ball, it circulated so slowly that the Frankfurt defenders could just walk from side to side. There were no runs to test the integrity of the back line, though wayward crosses were lofted into an area controlled by the opposition, and headed away, about as harmful as a cotton ball.
In response, Xavi brought on more and more attackers, just like his predecessor. Adama Traore came on and promptly vanished. Luuk de Jong came on, and made you wonder what might have been had he come on sooner. Probably not much, but speculation is fun. And lots of things will be taken from that match, but really only one thing should be taken from it: Barça isn’t of the caliber necessary to compete in Europe right now. Frankfurt didn’t get lucky. Yes, the official had the stank, but he wasn’t why Barça took a beating. They just weren’t good enough at this point in the team’s gestation process. No shame in admitting that.
What’s next? Well, once the distraction of the Frankfurt hordes plays out, the club is left with the same questions that it has had since the beginning of the season, and it didn’t really answer them in January, despite the flurry of transfer activity. Those were just bandages over cuts that are still there. Barça needs more quality, more athleticism and pace, needs to learn to play with more intensity and structure, needs tactical flexibility, a thing that comes with better players.
But the first thing is the simplest, yet also the most difficult, which is to admit that they just weren’t good enough.