Just as with most of the season, Barça wasn’t good enough against Villarreal, who strolled to a win thanks to the exact same things that have plagued this blaugrana side for the entirety of the season — well thing, to be more precise:
It isn’t good enough.
Truth is that the team hasn’t been good enough for years, a living, breathing oldies tour that various opponents have taken turns brutally exposing, in league and Europe. At the start of this season, many had the Catalans picked to win the league. And then Messi left and the Emperor’s cape was yanked away.
Atop that, the wrong manager was allowed to run things for too long, and then there was an almost Biblical plague of injuries visited upon the team. But only someone easily deluded would blame those things on the team we love and support coming up short, then getting obliterated in the Europa League.
It isn’t good enough to compete with the absolute best at nine of eleven positions on the pitch. Squad players were elevated and found out. Foxy Grampas rolled in for a reunion tour and got found out. An expensive Dutch midfielder has been, yet again, a super-expensive cipher. Player after player found wanting with no solutions in sight. We can run down the list:
Ter Stegen: Diminished. Might be better behind a better defense, but still diminished.
Alves: Wholly unprepared to do the job he was brought in for, unless that job was dressing room vibes. He was great at that. On pitch? No.
Araujo: Magnificent. It stuns me that the club jacked him around that long over paying him his money, though it doesn’t at all. Not a bit.
Pique: Fit him for the gold watch. He was good in context, the best of the rest. He isn’t up for the top level and hasn’t been for two seasons.
Alba: Undersized, slower and playing by rote, knocking in that same cross or banging the ball off opponent shins. Can’t stop any attacker from doing what they like.
Busquets: People will say he still has it. On the ball, he does. Off the ball, he’s a liability. You will be able to find stats that argue with your eyes. Believe your eyes.
De Jong: Three seasons, without a single significant injury of the type that hampered Fati and Dembele, and not a hint of the player the club dropped its pants for. A milquetoast mid.
Pedri: A gem, when he’s fit. The club should spend the off season working on that, as it did with Dembele.
Dembele: Came back from injury energized, also played defense with abandon, took a step toward becoming an elite winger. But he ain’t there yet. And he’s gone. On a FREE.
Aubameyang: An Arsenal castoff that, after an initial flurry, performed exactly as advertised.
Torres: A talented cipher who wasn’t at all particularly useful, except for tactical folks who bang on about elite movement and stuff like that.
They (finally) jettisoned Koeman and brought in Xavi to fix the mess. The club legend did an excellent job of fashioning something effective out of a mess of kids, geezers and inadequacies, an effort that, thanks also to the ineptitude of the other teams in the top four, dragged Barça to second place and a Champions League spot. The only question about that will be whether they make it out of the group stages. After that? Tick … tock … tick … tock …
Because the spine of the club, captains all, isn’t going anywhere, and not just because the club is broke. Busquets will start for another season, as will Alba. Pique will get significant playing time, and Sergi Roberto will be around to do something or other. That those four will start next season at the club defines so much of what is wrong at Barça, a big club run like a small-town butcher shop.
“Sure, Lluis can’t cut the meat like he used to. But he’s family.”
Barça isn’t going to be good enough next year, either, because it’s assembling a team from castoffs and freebies, the exact conditions that defined its winter transfer window. Kessie instead of Kamara, because that was easy. And don’t even think about Tchouameni. Christensen because it’s easy, and cheap. The other rumors fit the same template, and the team is set for another season of elevated squad players, and we will all sit around and talk about how, if everything aligns just right, Venus is in Mars and the swallows return to Capistrano, they will have a shot at something.
This group got run off the pitch by Eintracht Frankfurt. They were never in that tie. Against opposition that could run, move and had a plan, the German side could manage but one goal in a Europe League final that some years ago, Barça wouldn’t even have watched on TV, never mind watching with rueful shakes of the head at what might have been, had they only been good enough.
Everyone got fooled by a Classic win, a 4-0 victory just one short of the vaunted manita, over the league leader lacking two essential players. That match wasn’t reality. Losing 0-1 to Cadiz was.
The team doesn’t just need a player here or there. It needs an overhaul — two fullbacks, a 9 and a DM, for starters. And the club has to get over the archaic ideas that it has about salary structure, especially as it would have been happy to break that had Haaland been crazy enough to turn down the riches of Croesus. Araujo had to wait, and wait. Gavi still isn’t renewed, because of the same salary structure, according to Alemany.
The Chicago Bulls don’t get top free agents. The Chicago Bulls don’t get top free agents because the club has a reputation of not valuing them, not treating them right, not wanting to throw piles of money around like the other NBA clubs. And that club, after an extended run of glory is exactly where Barça is now: not good enough and built to stay that way.
Let’s say Fati comes back, and Torres learns to shoot anywhere instead of at the keeper, wide or over the bar, and Pedri manages to keep fit. The team will still need two fullbacks, a 9 and a DM.
It’s easy to blame Bartomeu, easy to blame the ill-considered, expensive signings being closed out for fractions of the immense sums that lured them. We have been talking about how appalling the squad planning is at the club for what seems like forever, really since Sandro Rosell oozed into the boardroom. The squad planning is still appalling because the spine is still the same, and has to be because who else is there?
And there is no money. The player with the second highest value is leaving on a free, in part the residue of a January tantrum by people who should have known better. PSG ain’t shit but they made nice to Mbappe every second, even when it seemed likely he was Madrid-bound, then capped it off with the GDP of a small nation. If PSG treats him like Barça treated Dembele, there isn’t enough money in Qatar that would have induced Mbappe to stay.
Barça isn’t a serious club right now. Its president is the king of vibes and big talk, but numbers don’t lie. He’s making deals with everyone, selling everything that he can as FC Barcelona becomes a wholly owned subsidiary of Spotify and Goldman Sachs. And the one deal, which isn’t as bad as some might make it seem, that will not only bring a cash infusion but also Liga goodwill, the club won’t do.
FC Barcelona needs money, and lots of it. Without that, every bit of talk about competing for top players is just that, the bluster of a has-been. Barça has become Arsenal, a big stadium project that needs to be paid for, fans talking about playing beautiful football as top teams run past them. Top four is seen as a success that earns another season of some Champions League cash, until they get tonked. That isn’t good enough, but for now and for the foreseeable future, it will have to be. It is what it is, as Valverde said about a team that should been dancing to “March to the Scaffold” back then.
Something has to happen to bring significant change to the roster. People talk about losing folks like Umtiti and Lenglet, but that’s only part of the problem. Puyol decided his body was done. Xavi decided it was time. Iniesta decided it was time. And that trio left playing at a higher level than any of the current captains, the same captains who will likely be strutting around the deck of the Titanic next season.
And what we are left with is the reality that the team isn’t good enough. And it doesn’t have money, so it will continue to not be good enough because it can’t afford to be better. Xavi is a manager, not a magician.
And at the end of a season of ups and downs, as eleven players ineffectually pranced about in a meaningless match, what was impossible to ignore is that even with nothing to play for, the team didn’t play much differently than it had for the bulk of the season. Not good enough.