Cliches are sometimes rooted in truth, and the overused word mentality is one of those.
On the weekend, Real Madrid came from 0-2 down to win, 3-2 against Sevilla. People will point to various conspiracies, etc, say that Camavinga should have been sent off, etc, but does anyone really think that even a man down, RM wouldn’t have completed the comeback? When people talk about elite mentality, it’s like when Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward said about pornography, “you know it when you see it.”
Against Cadiz, a team by the by that is unbeaten against Barcelona since returning to the top flight, Barça had nothing like an elite mentality, or much mentality at all. It’s difficult to imagine this as the same team that knocked four past the very same Real Madrid team that will win La Liga this season.
Mostly because it isn’t.
The difficulty with Barça right now, and something that Xavi is only fully understanding how to manage, is that they are a spinnaker of a team — fast when full of wind, flat and luffing when not. They seem to have multiple personalities because of this very lack of a defined mentality. They play according to how puffed-up they are.
Real Madrid, conversely, does what it does. They play the same way. Better or worse on a given day, but they figure out some way to win, match after match, almost seeming to be stunned when they lose. Something weird is sundering the fabric of the universe.
Barça is getting used to losing.
Xavi’s team never recovered after that first goal against Frankfurt, and still hasn’t recovered. Cadiz didn’t have the horses to go at Barça like Levante and Frankfurt did, but Cadiz was also playing for its first division life. Barça, having just come off a midweek humiliation in its own house, was in that same house in front of a crowd of 57,000 that in that colossal shrine of football, seemed sparse. More crucially, it was quiet, and only some of it was a supporter protest in the wake of the Frankfurt home mess, where more than 30,000 opposition fans got tickets and turned the Camp Nou into an away match for the home team.
And everyone glommed onto to those Frankfurt shirts in the Camp Nou, like that was the reason for the beatdown. And the aftermath was an excellent distraction. Let’s talk about how all of those away supporters got in, rather than how Barça was completely outlassed. Let’s talk about that instead of things that are less comfortable, like how fragile the group that we support is.
Xavi’s team doesn’t yet have a personality. More crucially, Xavi’s team doesn’t have horses. It needs everything to go exactly right, needs to feel great or the systems don’t fire. When XaviBall was in full flow, the press was working, runs were being made, every ball into the box was greeted by multiple Blaugrana shirts. Today, time after time, the attacking mode was typified by a moment in the second half when De Jong had the ball just outside the box, but didn’t have anywhere to put it. So he waited, and waited, then floated in a ball that was, surprise, calmly dealt with.
But is isn’t just a question of mentality. Barça playing well is a thing that needs for everything to go perfectly because they don’t have the same level of talent as Real Madrid. With Vinicius Jr. forcing the flanks along with Ferland Mendy, and the best 9 in the game right now in Benzema, it’s easy to feel like you always have a chance.
Barça’s most active, creative player has been, once again, a willowy Frenchman who everybody wanted to send to the stands in January. He’s playing with, in a forward line, a player who Manchester City sold in a nice piece of business for them, and a couple of freebies in either Memphis Depay, who took the opportunity that Xavi gave him and watched it ooze away, or Aubameyang, who Arsenal breathed a sigh of relief as he boarded his plane to Spain. Or Luuk de Jong, king of the big goal but like his other forward mates, not a player even his mom would consider elite.
People can talk all they like about tactics and formations, but the reality is that Barça has reverted to playing like a bunch of strangers. Passes too slack, spacing all wrong, no runs, no press, gaps too large as if inviting opposition defenders to step into passing lanes. Everybody is freelancing, but really none of them are good enough to freelance. If a work of art isn’t complete until the viewer looks and reacts to it, what does it matter how good a Dembele cross is, if only a defender is there to deal with it?
Yes, the ref was pants. But it’s La Liga. What do you expect? And even had the official called a perfect match, the scoreline would have been the same, so be wary of distractions. One team wasn’t good enough.
Xavi played down the idea of being dependent on Pedri, the smallest of them all. But once that little genius went down to injury in the second half against Frankfurt, it wasn’t clear what the team lost until it was gone. Drive, creativity, defensive pressure and knowing where to be all went away, as quickly as those notions we entertained that Gavi was anything like as good as Pedri, dissolved away along with Barça’s hopes and dreams of a result against a resolute opponent.
The goal Cadiz scored was typical of the night, really. An easy caper through a defensive sieve, an easy pass directly into the box that forced Ter Stegen into making one save, then two. He needed a third because Eric Garcia was watching him make those saves instead of getting his body in between Lucas Perez and his goal. Perez nodded home one of the easiest goals he is ever going to score, and that was all they needed.
The goal wasn’t entirely on Garcia. Ter Stegen could have done better, punched or caught or something. The dilemma for this team is that it is once again a collection of individuals on an island, isolated and unsuccessfully working to stave off failure.
In attack, Barça attack was defined by waywardness, crosses and long balls. We would have scoffed, and did, had the team done the same under Koeman. Make no mistake, Xavi has improved this group immeasurably. But make no further mistake, this is a mentally fragile football team with no margin for error because of the quality of its personnel. Give it a lead and it can play from the front, assured in possession, working the ball around. Give it a deficit and a resolute opponent and trouble beckons.
People who look at where Cadiz is in the table and make assumptions do so because they aren’t entirely clear about where FC Barcelona is right now, which is early in a rebuilding process. On paper they were supposed to beat Cadiz. Just look at the standings.
Yet the bottom of Liga is no joke. And with the Catalans coming off a Europa League beatdown, confidence damaged, there was no such thing as “supposed.” Cadiz created better chances than Barça on the day. The win could have been even more comfortable than it was, them trying everything from cramps to feigned death to finish off this match. And when they did, battle won, they celebrated, feted themselves like a team working to stay in the top flight. The opponent was almost immaterial. It was three points and hope, a different kind of mentality but one also worth noting, the mentality of a fighter backed into a corner. They fought, they punched against an opponent with no answer, outmanned physically and more crucially, psychologically. And Cadiz might just get there.
And so might Barça, which has a long way to go in its rebuilding process. Truth is that it isn’t going to get there with the players that it has, but this group is good enough for the process to begin. And sometimes, that’s enough.