Flinching, failure and when veterans stop being leaders

Ages ago now, during a tennis player’s epic choke against Steffi Graf, as she turned a one set up, 5-3 in the second set and 15-40 on match point into a three-set defeat, one of the commentators said, with more than a bit of sadness in his voice, “She’s done.”

Sure enough, that player was never the same.

The trauma of that kind of failure lingers, gnawing at the egdes of consciousness like a nagging injury that affects how a player moves. Try as you might, it’s there. The danger of repeated failure is when it happens again, and starts to feel like a habit you can’t break.

When FC Barcelona plummeted into the Roman abyss, the effects weren’t known at the time. It’s easy to speculate that such an event made the next time easier, so many weren’t surprised when it happened again at Liverpool, in pretty much the same circumstance. And in the here and now, match after match demonstrates the same damaged team, evinced in the damning record that Barça has lost more results from the 85th minute on than any other team in La Liga.

Injuries aren’t just physical. But when we think about damaged players, we do think physical injuries. Ousmane Dembele is fragile. It’s often said that he’s made of glass. But if you consider the mental strength that it takes to come back from injury after injury, and have the hope and optimism that this match, this sprint, this run will be the time your body won’t let you down, we might reconsider the ideas of his fragility.

At the end of the Granada match, the most recent late points drop by Barça, Pique, Busquets and Alba all had key errors in the sequences that led to the Granada equalizer. To be sure, the team failed in its task, but veterans, especially when they are captains, are supposed to be the bulwarks. When the strongest player on your team is a young defender in his first full season with the first team, it’s fair to wonder about the notion of being “past it.”

We assert that players “still got it.” And we always mean physically. How often do we think about whether a player has “still got it” mentally? Panic is a weird thing because it’s reflex conditioned by past failures, or a fear of failure so strong it forces an unnatural reaction. That late-match open net miss, that golden chance scuffed off the side of the boot. The psychology of football is endlessly fascinating, and the great players are defined by a mental fortitude.

The cost of Messi leaving Barça isn’t just seen in things such as marketing and sponsorship deals. The value of looking over and seeing number 10, the man with all the answers, ready to save you yet again, is immense. And even as Messi was there during the collapses — don’t forget his miss on the doorstep in Rome that could have sent that tie and maybe history in a different direction — he never collapsed. And that strength buttressed the team in those intangible ways that defy metrics.

Think about the last Barça free kick, post-Messi, that got you on the edge of your seat. It’s just another set piece now instead of an opportunity for genius. When Messi left, something important went with him.

The captains are Sergi Roberto, Alba, Pique and Busquets. All are veteran players on the blunt end of those “still got it” discussions, system players slaved to a way of playing as much as the way of playing is slaved to them. And even as we discuss the physical — lost steps, diminished ability to cover ground — are the captains psychologically equipped to do what is necessary to ensure that the team they are leading doesn’t fail? Evidence points to the contrary.

When Busquets got pantsed against Real Madrid, he had “help” from two people: a 38-year-old fullback living out his masters footballer fantasy camp dreams, and a young CB, caught out because of the sudden nature of catastrophe. Even Ter Stegen was frozen in place, where a different keeper might have charged Vinicius, at least choosing to die with their boots on, so to speak.

We can look at the physical things that led to that goal and nod our heads, and talk about taking better care of the ball, and possession, and all that stuff that assures, and keeps us from thinking about the stuff that is more complex. But the yips manifest themselves in things like lateral or backward passes when forward pass options are available, in pushing a ball out for a corner rather than taking the time to control, survey options and make a better decision. The yips compress time psychologically. We say, “Why did he do that? He had time to play the ball the right way.” That’s the yips.

When you captains get the yips, behavior that repeatedly damages the team at a time when they should be the bulwark, what then of the discussions about whether they still “got it?” Do they?

Araujo plays with a confidence that Umtiti doesn’t. One knows his spot is secure, the other knows nothing but doubt. Knees, rust, pressure to impress enough to get another chance. Those contribute to the yips as well, and we say that a player is “playing tight.” When every last decision you make matters, just relax and play is a different thing than when you were one of the best CBs in world football.

But Araujo also plays differently than Pique, Alba or any of the captains with the match on the line. Is it more than the impetuosity of youth? Gavi hasn’t tasted that abject failure so he doesn’t understand why late in matches everything collapses around him. Fati piledrove that header in against Real Madrid because what ELSE would you do? The return of Pedri will also help, as one of the youngest among them rolls in like a grownup. Young legs are also young minds and different mental templates.

Barça is a damaged team, by failure, collapse, by physical frailty. Excuses are made, that “Well, Busquets isn’t the problem, the system is.” But isn’t it fair to ask other types of questions, to look at yet another late collapse and speculate?

We often say about young players that they play like they don’t care. It isn’t that they don’t care, but rather that they don’t have a template for failure. Success has paved their path to where they are, so they have no reason to flinch, to look at that pass coming at them followed closely by a charging, pressing defender and think, “Oh, man, do I have enough time to control and pass and … I’ll just push it out for the set piece.” They just do what they do, and we say they “have ice water in their veins,” or are “so composed.” Nah. They just don’t know any better, and that’s good.

Fati, and Nico, and Gavi, and Pedri, and Araujo are wonderful to watch not only because they are exceptionally talented players. They understand the game differently, react to failure in a way that questions rather than accepts, even as “accepts” isn’t the right word. It’s one of the great values of young players.

Xavi brought Alves in as an example, presumably for the young players, but don’t you wonder about who else Xavi was hoping he would help?

Key players on Barça are past it. And just because they can perform some of the physical functions that they used to doesn’t mean that they aren’t still past it. Moving on is hard. Iniesta left after Rome. The rest stayed, and are now captains. Rome becomes Liverpool becomes Atleti in a SuperCopa becomes Celta and Granada in league. Surprise becomes a repeat becomes a trend becomes reflex. The cruel thing about failure is that it becomes easier the more you repeat it.

Xavi’s biggest challenge won’t be instilling a system of play, but rather equipping his team with a different kind of psychological template. It has to, once again, learn how to win. And the interesting question is whether it’s time to consider whether that will be possible with some of the players who are, at present, inked into the XI.