Valencia 0, Barça 1, aka ‘At the death while dying’

In all of the talk about whatever this mythical thing labeled “the Barça Way” is, as in “They just have to start playing the Barça Way again,” we have forgotten a great many things, so many of which made themselves evident as Barça wrestled mightily with a Valencia side they should have been able to swat aside.

Barcelona football is attacking, possession football. That doesn’t necessarily mean 444 passes resulting in a perfect goal. It might mean a CB making a run to feed a mid, who makes a run to feed a winger, who makes a pass to feed a charging mid. Attacking, possession football has lots of forms.

What made the Guardiola teams great, aside from having once-in-a-lifetime players in a system that perfectly suited their skills and that football wasn’t ready for the advent of, is automations.

Tennis players work on shots, hit countless thousands of topspin backhands up the line so that when they have to hit one when it matters, it’s automatic. Automations defy moments, defy intensity or pressure. It’s just doing what you’re supposed to do. When surgeons have someone’s chest cavity open, and some medical parameter doesn’t cooperate, they don’t panic. They fall back on knowledge, and the countless incisions, stitches and moves they have acquired over the years.

Guardiola’s teams were some of the most gloriously automatic that football will ever see. If this, then that. The ball always had a place to go because that is what they worked on, countless hours, developing something much more than a telepathic bond: they developed trust in the system, trust that if this happens, then that will happen. Iniesta knew that Xavi would be exactly where Xavi was supposed to be. Messi knew that if he made the run, the ball would end up where he needed it to be. Those automations were magic. They eviscerated teams as if by reflex because it was by reflex. They just did what they did.

During the Valencia match, Xavi’s team looked like it had no idea what it was doing, what system it was playing. Everyone looked like strangers, thrown together that morning for a local tournament. Passes were clunky, runs late or early then offside. During the match, I noted that people screamed about Dembele and his inadequacies, then Raphinha came on and evinced the same tendencies. Made runs to nowhere, lost the ball, disappeared for stretches, etc.

This isn’t a knock on either player, but a question about the ecosystem in which they are being asked to live. Neither one is a Neymar type, where you give him the ball and say, “Do something.” They never have been. So they are going to struggle when you ask them to do what they can’t. Dembele isn’t losing balls and making bad decisions because he isn’t good enough, or lacks football IQ, etc. He’s losing balls and making bad decisions for the same reasons Raphinha is: he is put in a situation where he doesn’t have options. Where is the system of play?

What’s more galling is that coming off the Athletic Club match, where Dembele was the exact kind of player he could be, notching a goal and three assists, there was indeed a system of play that allowed him and the team to excel. He wasn’t “go do something.” He was a part of an attacking system that created space and maximized his possibilities to do good, without forcing him to make bad decisions.

The Guardiola system didn’t let people make bad decisions. That was its beauty. Do this, and this will happen. Alexis Sanchez came in, and never quite coalesced into the player his immense talent dictated, because he was a “Wheeee!” player. No knock on him, but systems need players that aren’t automatons, but players that trust the system, rather than than thinking, “I know I’m supposed to feed Iniesta who is making that run, but the CB is leaning the wrong way. I can just dribble past him and wheeee!”

The work that Sergi Roberto did to enable Dembele will be unappreciated, but he was wonderful against Athletic Club. But then, against Bayern, it was back to dumping the ball to Dembele and saying, “Do something.” And again vs Valencia, who just put two or three men out on the wing and said, “Not today, Satan.” Sergi Roberto wasn’t there, but Balde was. Was there a way to recreate what worked against Athletic Club, or to at least try?

Once the “Do something” method didn’t work, Barça was then just running around, lots of possession and industry, to what end? The team doesn’t have a system of play. That it doesn’t have a heart either is an extra-tactical problem that Xavi will also have to solve.

Against Valencia, Barça played like a team that got its heart ripped out by a vastly superior opponent only a few days prior. No resilience, no fire. Valencia has improved, but they aren’t that good, and certainly aren’t good enough for Barça to need a 94th minute wonder goal to brush aside. Does confidence come with systemic confidence? It’s a question worth asking. Guardiola inherited a psychological mess of a team coming off a trophyless season after which its manager was fired, and won a treble. Is a player confident because he or she is confident, or are they confident that they are equipped with the necessary tools to build what they want to build?

Xavi has a fragile team. It’s has-beens, never-will-bes, nascent players and kids. More than anything, that team needs a structure. That it doesn’t have one is on the manager. This isn’t any kind of “Xavi out” nonsense, even as my view is that he should have taken an intermediate step from Al Sadd to Barça. But he’s here now, and will have make a shovel, then dig out of a hole.

“But injuries.”

Yes, Barça has been plagued by injuries this season. Let’s not forget that in that first Champions League final, Guardiola’s back line included a DM and a past-it fullback. It kept a clean sheet. Why? Everyone knew what to do.

When this current Barça team breaks down, the Jenga tower dissolves into the wind. Everybody is out of position, and everybody is panicked, chasing the ball instead of moving to spaces that can preclude bad things happening. Consider how many times this season the defense has been victimized by a free man that nobody thought to mark because they were busy running back to defend. And in rushing back to defend, they made it impossible to in fact defend.

Great teams have confidence that everyone will do what they are supposed to do. You build that confidence on the training pitch, just as that tennis player is on the practice court, or that surgeon is simulating a liver transplant. The brain has to make everything automatic, a routine. Players will still have to improvise, and every system, including Guardiola’s, allowed for that — those moments of genius. But as with free jazz, there is still a structure, a foundation.

Barça has one healthy CB now, a broken fossil that should have been moved on in the summer. Next to him was a shell of a fullback that should have been moved on in the summer. But they are here, and will have to play, since Barça also doesn’t have a right fullback so the left fullback has to play on that side. So how does the team play, how do you minimize the deficiencies of those players?

Ansu Fati started, and looked like a 30-year-old. It’s grim to consider the effects of that injury and the subsequent surgeries. They have conspired to diminish him. We still don’t know the full effect, but watching him against Valencia wasn’t fun. He’s working his way back to something that we still don’t know the full nature of, but he isn’t there yet. None of us wants to consider the fact that this might be it.

But it wasn’t even that this or that player wasn’t good. None of them were particularly good individually, except for Balde in flashes, and Kounde. The system, or lack thereof in which they were laboring, wasn’t allowing them to be anything. And this is all above and beyond the psychological stuff.

Sometimes, when people have a broken heart, they go to work. Colleagues say, “You can take the time,” and the person says, “This lets my mind focus on something else.” They forget pain through process and tasks. Guardiola’s team drew and lost its first two matches. Their manager said, “Keep doing what we’re doing. It will work.” And he got the players to believe that. And it did.

Only a fool would say that Barça is a team that is only a system away from not being a Europa side. It’s a flawed squad. But a system is a foundation, a thing that can make clear what you need, like a malfunctioning string of Christmas lights. Fix that bulb, and voila. There is already talk of transfers, but to what end, for a team that doesn’t even really know how it wants to play?

A house needs a foundation before you can add walls that get painted, furniture that gets added. Barça right now is a pile of construction materials. Xavi has much work to do.