In looking for a summation of the match yesterday, a proceeding that oozed to an inevitable result, it would be:
A Europa League side lost to a better Europa League side and its new manager got outfoxed by a better manager.
Reactions during and after the match were interesting because a great many of them still seemed to believe that Barça is somehow slumming in the Europa League. But that level of competition, with the second-tier European sides, is where the team belongs. Being a top side isn’t just having a quality XI when everybody is fit. It’s having subs, having depth, having performers who don’t come with big price tags and small performances, or a manager with options as limited as his thinking.
Admittedly that is a lot of boxes to tick, and when our beloved football team ticks all of them? It’s a Europa League side, and not one with a shot at winning the tournament. Could they have gotten farther with a better draw? For sure. Farther with better injury luck? Without a doubt. But FC Barcelona is a Europa League side, for all the reasons enumerated above. No shame in that admission, just as there isn’t real shame in getting booted by United.
But in the view through the still-smouldering embers of another European season lost, the way the team went out is worth a bit of analysis.
In the first leg, Xavi rotated his back line because of “injury concerns,” even as he rolled out Pedri, who had the second-most minutes in his legs after … Ter Stegen. The next match was Cadiz, a side flirting with the relegation tier, also a side coming to the home of a team with at the moment an 11-point lead in league. And Xavi also rotated for that match, which leads inquiring minds to wonder what the hell was he thinking during that first leg.
Those familiar with my blatherings know that I don’t believe Xavi’s team has a structure or way of playing. It’s a haphazard mess with too-wide spaces, sloppy on and off the ball and just waiting to be victimized by an opponent with drive, physicality and energy, coupled with willing runners up front. Araujo could pocket Rashford, so Ten Hag brought on Antony and suddenly it was like, “Hey, where did this other guy come from?” And that was that.
But for a manager with the pedigree of Xavi, deep roots in pass and move, controlling football, how the hell is a team that he manages so utterly dimwitted on the ball? Kounde, De Jong, Busquets, Balde, Raphinha … you name it, they passed to a United player, too often in a position where the damage was immediate. Both United goals came off turnovers that should never have happened, lost possession on the wrong side of the halfway line, springboard attacks for an offense that had been creating not much of any significance before that initial moment. After than first goal, United brought on Antony and started running downhill.
Xavi has deep experience in European football — dominating, successful European football. He was the linchpin for Pep Guardiola’s magnificent sides. When he took over Barça, everyone was expecting at the very least a team that respected possession of the ball. What we have instead is what too often looks like a pinball game with bumpers strewn haphazardly about. A team shouldn’t panic in general, but when it panics in possession, problems invariably ensue.
People had words about Kessie’s clunkiness as a part of the buildup to that first United goal. But you don’t give a player like Kessie a pass like that at a spot like that at a moment like that. Busquets booted that ball straight into the air without a care in the world where it landed. He had options, and chose the wrong one, something Xavi’s team does with a regularity that makes it feel like reflex. What are they working on in training, if they aren’t working on possession and rondos? Shooting? Volleyball drills?
And part of possession is control. On the match day, some Luis Enrique and Guardiola-era matches were on the docket, just for funsies. Those players had control. They spanked passes to each other with verve, and those passes were controlled and the ball moved on. Balde received a pass that was hit with a bit of leather and it was like stumbling through a field of thorns for him. “Well, the pass was hit hard.” A Barça player, especially one raised in the system, should be able to control those passes. Keep the ball. You can’t create anything if you don’t have it. And if you do have it, the opponent can’t create anything. It’s like in trying to play more dynamic the team forgot about the ball.
Possession football is at the core of what FC Barcelona teams do, even if the path to that end might differ. This team and the way it plays makes Ousmane Dembele seem positively introspective and parsimonious on the ball. And that ain’t right, no matter how you look at it. If they are better in possession, perhaps we are, today, chuckling about them Atleti-ing their way to a Europa League title after having dispatched the best side in the tournament.
Instead we’re asking the same questions we are left to ask in the wake of any European exit, one of the biggest about mentality. Second half psychological collapses are becoming a trademark of Xavi’s team, in league and in Europe. The other manager is always going to make adjustments. You can make tactical adaptations even if you don’t make player adjustments. Ten Hag put a runner into that space created by Balde running forward. What do you do if you’re managing that other team?
To be sure, the team has had unfortunate injury luck this season, losing key players at key times. Losing Dembele and Pedri for this second leg was almost cruel as both were the exact players needed to beat that United side, one to make them pay on the wings, the other to exert midfield command and control necessary to keep the team from being (as) stupid on the ball.
But where is the system that compensates for those absences? Who steps up? Raphinha is half the transfer fee of Dembele, which is fair because he’s about half as good. He did absolutely nothing on a stage where he should have been champing at the bit to deliver a performance that would cement his position in the side. Ferran Torres was more effective in a too-late cameo, given the energy that he brought to the proceedings.
The system is still flawed. You have a forward who needs service to deliver on his big transfer fee, so figure out how to get him service. Just hoofing passes into the box ain’t it. A team’s season shouldn’t fall apart because a couple of kids weren’t around for a key exam. Xavi is learning on the job and his team is suffering for that. Laporta took a stab, hoping that new manager lightning would strike twice. Guardiola rolled in, won a treble. Xavi could still win a domestic double, we shouldn’t forget. We also shouldn’t forget that his team is a mess, even as it is also as thin as a puddle. How does it want to play?
When Quique Setien was first being brought up as a potential Barça manager, on a TV appearance I said I didn’t want him anywhere near the Camp Nou because his Betis teams made the same errors time and again, almost like they worked on those mistakes in training. Here is Xavi, whose team has that characteristic. It has learned nothing from failure and neither, it seems, has the manager. He will stay, because it’s far too soon for any hashtags. The success that Arteta is having at Arsenal points to the value of patience.
But it also points to the value of squad building, another aspect in which Barça is failing, unless you think that renewing bums like Marcos Alonso and Sergi Roberto is a good thing. Raphinha didn’t step up. If you were playing the, “time for De Jong to step up” drinking game you would have cirrhosis by now. Hard questions need be asked about Fati as well, such as would he benefit from a loan.
Yet we know what will happen in the summer. Rumors will pop up of exits, the rumored players will say they are happy in Barcelona (and who wouldn’t be?), and nothing will happen. The roster will look pretty much as it does now, and the same results will ensue. So it goes with a club struggling for revenue, trying to rehab a squad on a shoestring amid an environment of seemingly capricious fiscal dictates from the league office.
Xavi’s job is hard enough without having players who aren’t or can’t perform when needed. His back line is excellent, when fully fit. Midfield is another matter and the attack is dire when Dembele isn’t there. Another quality winger is needed. Raphinha had a good performance for a match and people were crowing about not needing the Frenchman. They are silent now because the “attack” isn’t good enough without him on the wing.
Some are trying to find positives from the match, but really there aren’t any unless you consider that there is something in the value of understanding exactly where our team is — a Europa League team. Is there shame in that? Only if you convince yourself that same team is a Champions League team despite clear evidence to the contrary.