One year, some friends and I decided to do a fun ride, a century. A hundred miles, just for giggles. At about mile 65 or so, we bonked. No energy in the legs. At mile 66, we came across a bakery. About 30 bucks worth of Pepsi and pastries later, we hit the road like a rocket unleashed, a sugar buzz that lasted until about mile 99. We dragged it across the line. Job done.
It’s hard not to imagine the Barça team under Xavi as the pastry-fueled trio of which I was a part.
Had someone told you, when Ronald Koeman was jettisoned into the sun, that this team would be sitting second place in league with five matches left, you would have laughed. Yet here they are. That’s the good part.
The bad part of course is that Xavi’s group has achieved a first in its third consecutive loss at home. And it gets worse: those teams were Eintracht Frankfurt, Cadiz and Rayo Vallecano. But wait … it could get worse still. The last five Barça matches are against Mallorca, Betis, Celta, Getafe and Villarreal. It suddenly isn’t inconceivable that the team, in the form that it is in, would drop all five, drop out of the top four and find itself in Europa League positions which, given that it’s a Europa-level team at present, probably isn’t all bad.
Some have attributed the Barça surge, where the team went unbeaten for 14 straight and Dani Alves was quoted as saying something like, “It’s good for Real Madrid that we are hitting form too late,” or some such, to a new manager bump. Not from this seat. This team is playing dramatically worse now, Koeman-level football that has many scratching their heads and wondering where XaviBall went. But it isn’t all that mystifying if you look at what happened over that period, a sugar buzz.
Dembele came back fit. So did Pedri. Adama Traore sparkled for a couple of matches, Aubameyang looked like the player that Arsenal seemed crazy to want to see the back of. The press was working and everything was a party. But managers rarely make magic. Spinning straw into gold is the exclusive province of wizened ancients of fairy tale fame. At some point, usually once fatigue begins to settle in and opponents adjust, a team becomes exactly what it is.
This is the reality. Not that consecutive winning streak. Frankfurt really should have won the leg in their house. Levante used the same tactics to force a late comeback out of Barça for a route one win. But already you could see the factors: tired legs due to a lack of quality depth, forcing starters to play and play and play, Teams figuring out that Barça is a high possession, low control club that is an easy knockout if you can get at the back line more quickly, players reverting to their norm.
Aubameyang isn’t scoring in bunches any longer. He’s now a tired-looking veteran with a first touch that too often touches balls to the opponent. Adama Traore is that wind-up toy that does only one thing, and will keep doing it until you tell it to stop. Ferran Torres is a work in progress whose shortcomings are clearer with each outing. That was the January transfer window, a double espresso.
Once the buzz wore off, the team still had poor fullbacks, was still slow with a chasm for a midfield that got even worse when the slow mids were caught up pitch, and only an oozing DM was the lone barrier. The flanks looked like welcome mats to opposing managers, who diagrammed plays that emphasized fast transitions, and the farther forward Jordi Alba got (his defensive renaissance during the Great Prosperity was a consequence of his acting like a fullback), the more susceptible the team was to transitions.
In attack, that slowness that defined the defense also defined the attack. Barça needs soooooo muuccchhh timmmeeee to even get to the point where it can create a shot that it becomes increasingly difficult for it to score. A Barça goal from open play has become like one of those elaborate constructions of falling dominoes. If any one thing goes awry, it starts all over. And if one touch goes bad and possession is turned, odds are high that the danger of conceding will be real.
This is the team that Xavi inherited. It’s the same team that Koeman said wasn’t very good. Xavi did some psychological work, got them believing, got that buzz going. One good manager watched how they worked and the light bulb came on. Frankfurt hit them hard. And that attack became a template, reducing the attack to cross and hope, which is no way to do anything except lose to relegation contenders.
And so many talk about the one thing, the “if only” that will make it all work because recognizing that this team is as it is leads to a dark place. On a recent podcast I suggested that it would take this team as long as three years of rebuilding to be ready to compete at the level that many think it’s already at. Fullbacks, mids and an attacker is a lot. To get the kinds of players who can work at an elite level takes even longer, especially for a club with no money, who is about to lose its most dangerous creative attacker on a free in June.
People will attribute all of this to Bartomeu, and that’s certainly an affirming notion. But it happened long ago, when Sandro Rosell wanted to show Guardiola who was boss. Then Tito Vilanova’s tragic story stopped the team’s tactical and psychological progression, not to mention on the sporting side of matters.
Luis Enrique came in and, with the three most dynamic attackers in football, won a treble that was more an aberration in that it wasn’t sustainable. Once opponents figured out how to wall off Neymar, the magic dried up. Then came the succession of transfers that didn’t work out, coupled with injuries and big, long-term contracts resulting in a lot of today’s dead weight.
And then Messi left, the glue holding so much together.
Many observers always cautioned against embracing the Xavi uptick, that reality for the team was something quite different, that the rebuilding process had just begun. But success is seductive. It takes a lot of willpower to not hop on for the ride, until the engine starts spewing smoke and the ride grinds to a halt. It’s then that you realize the rest, the one tire that is almost flat, the crack in the windshield, the threadbare seats. And you have it towed to the mechanic to begin the restoration process.
There is nothing “wrong” with this Barça team. This was the team Koeman had, it’s the team that Xavi has now. At some point, things regress to a norm. Barça never had the horses, even during that amazing unbeaten run. It had some magic, some belief, some fresh legs and a sense of newness. Now that’s all gone. “They are who we thought they were,” said a grumbly American football coach who just lost a game to a team that had no business beating his team.
Sure enough, that team became what it is. They all do. Even ones that we think are possessed of magic. It’s really just a sugar buzz.