Reliable greatness can be a bit predictable and frankly, kinda dull, which is why this year’s version of FC Barcelona is one of the most interesting teams we have had to watch in some time.
At its apogee, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona was reliably excellent, and great fun from a fan’s perspective. But the matches weren’t all that interesting. Every Culé knew they’d win each game, the only question was how by much. This year’s team is very different, a true work in progress that is defined in many ways by its sometimes brilliant/sometimes no show French attacker Ousmane Dembélé. Consider, on a micro level, a great athlete such as Roger Federer.
When Federer was in his prime, as reliable as the United States national banking institution, he was fantastic to watch from an aesthetic worldview, but not so much from a sporting spectacle. He was going to win, the only question was in how many sets. Now, as Father Time takes its toll, Federer has gained beauty in his humanity, in his struggles. His margins are gone, so his matches are compelling human dramas as he struggles with himself. Serena Williams is another example.
Tennis makes a great source of human drama because an athlete not only has to execute in the face of a stimulus from an opponent, but in the face of external conditions. There are weather conditions such as wind, a sometimes hostile crowd, and monumental stakes that determine prize money, world ranking, and more often than not, legacy. Above all, there’s pressure. So much pressure. Williams’ matches are exquisite now that she is no longer a juggernaut. At 37, she is no longer the ruthless champion she once was: we saw that when a 20-year-old, relatively unknown Naomi Osaka defeated her in straight sets in this year’s US Open Final. Like Federer, she battles her rivals, herself, and at times you can see that doubt creep in, that hesitancy where she used to charge and obliterate, now she wonders if she can, and we wonder right along with her. When she triumphs, she enjoys it more, and we feel it more. It’s beautiful.
And here we are with this flawed, potentially magnificent Barça, led by a dour, conservative coach who is still something of a cipher in that he reveals so little of himself. His team, augmented by summer signings, is still essentially the same, which is much of the problem. The complexities that plagued it last season still exist, even as some squad depth has been gained. It is still slow in midfield, it still lacks control when possession is lost, it still lacks a modern fullback. Ernesto Valverde still has a lot to sort out in a relatively short window of time.
Because of the overwhelming focus placed on midfield and attack, so many overlooked potential shortcomings, as if this team would just be able to unleash Coutinho, Messi, Dembélé and Suárez together and outscore everyone. Reality isn’t like that. Reality is much more humbling. Reality is an aging, overplayed Rakitić, a waning and weary Busquets, a declining Piqué, raging against the dying of the light, and Alba, never a defensive stalwart, finding himself tested more and more as no-longer-fearful opponents venture forth.
Suárez himself has said that he is old, that the team would do well to consider his successor, and there is Messi. Always Messi, still decisive even as he struggles with his surroundings, with people who often aren’t what they should be. What a magnificent, flawed entity this team is, right down to its young, mercurial talent, who could be an all-conquering superstar if he could only show up to things on time. The margins are gone.
The great Guardiola teams had a massive margin. Those teams could play at 50 percent and still be more than good enough to win. We would grumble that they only won 2-0 or 2-1 instead of 5-0, such was the reliability of that amazing group of players. But those teams also lied to us in many ways. In the here and now, people scoff at the notion of individual brilliance, rooted in the belief that it was the Guardiola system that made those teams so great. The analogy carries back in history, to the Chicago Bulls teams that won six rings in eight years under the leadership of Michael Jordan. People talked about and dissected coach Phil Jackson’s “Triangle” offense, diagrammed its workings on talk shows, and acted like the real reason that offense worked wasn’t because of Michael Jordan, who was surrounded by a perfect complement of players.
Guardiola’s Barça was amazing. The structure, the passing, those exquisite triangles (again). What we forget is that all of that was being executed by the greatest players in the game at almost every position, in their prime. That entire system had a foundation of individual brilliance. Does it work as well without Xavi? Without Iniesta? Without Dani Alves, who was the best RB in football, or Abidal, who was the best LB in football. Note how frail the system got when key players exited or were injured. Football places too much value in systems in this day of the cult of coaching, and not enough value in understanding that you still need the horses to run the race.
Valverde’s Barça is something of a mess, a quality that was exposed by Betis in a 3-4 victory at the Camp Nou. After the match, all of the talk was about Quique Setién and his football. Busquets signed a shirt and gave it to him, and one post-match report had a supporter saying Betis was one of the best opponents Barça had ever faced.
Even if that supporter had hopped onto the bandwagon during the Pep years, he’d have still seen José Mourinho’s Inter Milan defend like gladiators against the 2010 side, Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern humiliate the 2013 side, Diego Simeone’s Atleti grind apart the 2016 side, and Massimiliano Allegri’s Juventus knock the 2017 side into a concussion. Those were ferocious opponents. This, on the other hand, was just a disastrous performance from the home side.
Barça were crap. Unalloyed, unmitigated crap. Back in the day, with more margin, Barça could be crap and still win. This current team has no margin. It’s a high-wire act every week that can dismantle Real Madrid 5-1, spank Sevilla, run rings around Inter or struggle with Levante and lose to Betis. It’s a weird, messy thing that could win a treble or go trophyless, an excellent machine that is no longer automatic.
Supporters want their team to win. They don’t want any uncertainty. They pretend to like the drama, but not really. Look at how Barça supporters freak out when Ter Stegen even has to make a save. “Egads! We conceded an opportunity to an inferior side! This defense is unfit to wear the mighty Blaugrana shirt!”
Neutrals want a great match of football, with plenty of goals and plenty of drama. When something doesn’t work out, everyone wants a reason that hews to their worldview, because as humans, we seek affirmation of our own deeply rooted beliefs. After the match, Valverde said, essentially, “We were crap.” But that isn’t interesting, even as it is accurate. What is more interesting is the football thing, that Setién won by playing the same brand of football that Cruyff pioneered, the same brand of football that many Barça fans grew up watching under Guardiola, the same brand of football that is considered to be a non-negotiable aspect of the Culer religion. Setién’s football won because Valverde’s flawed, human group was, on this day, awful, outplayed, outhustled, outrun, everything. Yet even a lazy, inept, error-laden Barça only lost by a goal to a team that played the match of its sporting life. Had Valverde’s team played at even 60 or 70 percent to its potential, Betis would have taken a beating. But the conclusion becomes the answer, and instead of examining the reasons behind the defeat, we sit and blaspheme an imperfect team for having imperfections. Barcelona are, on its day, the best team in football, yet they do not have an undisputed claim to the throne like they once did under Guardiola. They are not robots, they are humans who make mistakes, as we’ve come to know all too well at the Stadio Olimpico and the Butarque this year. Nonetheless, it is this humanity that should be so absorbing for us to watch.
A great tale needs struggle and tension. How legendary would the Hercules myth be had he not had his trials? Who wants to watch a Greek God rise to Mount Olympus without having to slay the Hydra first? Who wants to watch a tennis player ace every point and win every championship? Who wants to watch a football team win all the time, even as that winning bathes us in affirmation?
This Barça is my favorite team to watch since Luis Enrique’s treble-winning side of 2015, not because of its strengths, but because of its flaws. We should embrace them, revel in them. Rather than reacting with rage and recrimination because the team didn’t win again, it’s worth appreciating the flawed humanity of a group of athletes that, like Federer and Williams, are nearing the end of their run. They are all wrestling with humanity and trying to extract the last bits of greatness from a storied history.
That can be so beautiful, if we just let it be.
By: Kevin Williams