After it was all over, after yet another loss to a Bayern Munich side that didn’t even need to leave third gear, the supporters cheered, urged their players to come out for a curtain call.
It was consolation, a “Nice job, we appreciate you” that you see in teams that are inferior, but supporters want them to know that there is nobility, even in failure. The players looked sheepish, almost ashamed at the support they were being shown in the wake of a match whose three-goal margin wasn’t reflective of the gulf in quality between the two sides. It was more a mercy killing than an obliteration.
After the match came the inquest, and people took to their usual corners. Some journalists predictably decided Dembele was their person, posting stats, heaping blame on the back of one of the only players who tried, who put out on a night of futility.
Others suggested there was more talent than was evident, and wondered what happened.
There were a few who looked at reality and understood — this FC Barcelona team isn’t good enough to compete with the best squads in Europe, not in any parameter worth measuring. The real inquest was the 90 minutes that even after Barça’s Champions League fate was already decided, still meant something to a team, to a club, to a fanbase.
Problem was it meant something to Bayern as well. When you have your foot on someone’s neck, you’re loath to take it off. Rather than the almost casual approach they took at the Allianz that allowed chances and hope, allowed people to “If only” their way past the graveyard of reality, Bayern was an executioner. They allowed nothing, their every movement exposing yet another weakness in the Barça side. They could keep possession if they wanted, always an open man to receive the ball. Or they could counter, slicing open a defense in name alone to score with ease.
To the credit of the Camp Nou faithful, they cheered, chanted, banged drums, found hope in any and all forays even as they knew this one, like the previous ones, would be doomed. But make no mistake, those faithful also know football. Witness the whistles for Busquets when he slinked off after another ineffectual zero of a performance against a top side, or their support of a futile Balde run because at least he showed some spine, some effort.
If any two moments could be said to encapsulate the match, it was the first Bayern goal, where a pass into space found Sadio Mane, who outran Hector Bellerin with ease, and slotted home almost casually. The other was when Ousmane Dembele, taking advantage of a loose Bayern moment, had daylight, had space. Alphonso Davies rocketed over to contest, and that was that. Two high lines, but one had the ability to problem solve, the other just stranded a past-it player whose free price was about right, on an island of failure.
Predictably after that goal, Barça collapsed, leaving Dembele and Balde tilting at windmills, Lewandowski losing his personal battle with De Ligt and everybody else just made to disappear. It was a bleak match to watch, but also an illustrative one: a Bayern side that isn’t as good as it used to be is still the bar, like those height markers at roller coasters — your team has to be this good to be here.
People will say “if only” this or “if only” that, if Araujo and Kounde hadn’t been knocked against Inter, maybe kinda sorta. Barça might have made the knockouts, but it still wouldn’t have been good enough. And that should be the result of the inquest. In an October that everyone said was going to define the season, they failed every crucial test. Twice against Inter Milan, once against Real Madrid, then against Bayern. And heading into November, Barça is out of the Champions League and in second place in league.
A proper inquest would ask questions of the retro tour that brought back Laporta, who brought back Xavi, who brought back Alves and kept past-it legends who stayed because they liked life in Barcelona. And who wouldn’t? It would ask questions of the technical staff that bought a cut-rate Dembele instead of a fullback that could play football, that threw 55m at Fernando Torres as Manchester City bit their hand off saying yes, that filled roster slots with free players who turned out to be quite expensive after all, in what they cost the team.
It’s easy to pick on individual players. The hard part is looking at a club, a system that is almost religious for culers, and wondering if it all shouldn’t be thrown out. “We just have to play our football” rings hollow about a system that was found out when Guardiola was still at the club, yet people are still dragging that hoary old carcass around. “We don’t need athletes, we need technicians.” Tell that to Pedri, the most technically gifted player on the pitch, chasing the ball when Bayern had it like a cat chasing a toy. There is no “playing our football” when the other team won’t allow you to play anything at all.
Everything at the club needs to be reconsidered, but it’s doubtful that anything will. Bayern comes along every few years to ask crucial questions about Barça. They asked it over a 7-0 hiding. They asked and got an answer they didn’t like from Luis Enrique’s side. Then asked again. And again. And again. But instead of a club listening to the answers that were so clear, so evident, it doubled down, bringing in a club legend for manager who is learning on the job, and not catching on as quickly as anyone would have hoped.
Xavi got outmanaged last year in Champions League, and got outmanaged again this year. Al Sadd, the PSG of the Qatari league, is a far cry from FC Barcelona. Expectations are higher, opponents more daunting. Instead of the best manager in a league, you’re the newbie, making errors and trying to correct them before things get too far gone. And you’re failing as in key match after key match, your team isn’t ready to play, isn’t mentally equipped to manage any adversity whatsoever.
And there aren’t any more levers to pull, though maybe some folks might be wishing for an escape hatch. It wasn’t even that Barça was bad against Bayern. It wasn’t anything at all, just a practice squad for Bayern to get a light workout against. And that is the cruelest part of that Champions League exit. Coming off the high of the Athletic Club victory on the weekend that came hot on the heels of a win over Villarreal, both matches finding the team rampant, Bayern was quite the comedown. It was always going to be for anyone paying attention, but hope is that thing that makes sport magic, that makes us tune in or head for the stadium.
There was a time that Barça didn’t need hope. Hope was for their victims, another group about to put its head on the chopping block. And now it’s come to this. Like a failed marriage that falls prey to hundreds of little things that went wrong, FC Barcelona has, at the end of a decade of mismanagement, a trend that looks set to continue, has failed. Again. Out in the group stage. Again. And as everyone runs around looking for culprits, the answer isn’t that hard. It’s everyone. And now, what next for a club that needs to move on, that should move on, but won’t?