It was a nice two weeks, but now it’s back to earth for Barcelona, a reminder of the structural problems that the club is working through.
The loss to Cadiz was reminiscent not only of previous games where the Barcelona players shot themselves in the foot with unforced errors, but also of the lack of competitive spirit of previous years.
It wasn’t long ago when Messi and Suarez were calling for the team to be self-critical. At this point awareness isn’t enough. Ronald Koeman needs to hold his most prominent players accountable.
The reality that the club has no money to spend means that Barcelona will have to work with the players they have, from the old guard of the past decade to the academy players desperate for a chance to prove themselves.
Fans will also have to do themselves a favor by having realistic expectations. This season is going to be a roller coaster. In many ways, Barca world has been treated to a fantasy that was never going to last.
Messi was a dream. The greatest of all time. But he isn’t, and never was, an alien or a god. For a fan to describe him in this way is understandable. But for the club president to do it, and other people in charge of making consequential decisions, was evidence that they were not equipped to do their job.
In the long run Barcelona would do well to copy the model of most German clubs. Above all else, be solvent. Second, show some respect for the game and build a team by evaluating how each piece fits into the bigger puzzle.
It may be true that Messi’s presence hinders the team more than it helps these days. His team-mates are far too deferential, and need to get it in their head going forward that the game doesn’t need to flow through him. Part of the problem is that Messi is essentially a positionless player. Ultimately he goes wherever he wants whenever he wants, which is hard for a manager to plan for tactically.
The problems of the defense have been well documented, but it would be a mistake to place all the blame there. The defensive errors are a symptom, not the disease. The disease is the attitude. The Barcelona players, starting with the veterans, after years of winning on account of Messi’s greatest, have become entitled. And it’s an attitude that has spread to every corner of the club. Barcelona needs to learn that you win through hard work and passion on a consistent basis. There is no substitute.
Against Cadiz, Barcelona should have been ruthless the second the game started, and overwhelmed their inferior opponent by throwing all their talent at them. Instead we got the all too recognizable complacency of possession for the sake of possession. 82%. And what to show for it?
Strong criticism needs to be given to Sergio Busquets. It’s not personal, and I’m not sure it’s even something he can correct, but what made him exceptional in the past no longer works. It’s not his lack of speed, but the decision making, and it’s infecting Frenkie de Jong as well. Side to side and backwards, it’s hard wired into his brain, not fun to watch, and plays into the hands of opponents like Cadiz who sit deep and park the bus, waiting to pounce on a mistake.
The one exception was one of the best plays of the game when Busquets played a sharp through ball to Sergiño Dest, who came very close to scoring the goal that could have turned things around. Players like Dest are the future because of the dynamic runs he makes off the ball. Constantly overlapping and running behind, and then straight into the box. He was the most dangerous player on the night, and for fans looking for something to cheer this season, put your hope on the American.
But players like Dest, and even Jordi Alba who really has been working hard down the left flank, need midfielders who will find them.
Koeman needs to play Riqui Puig and Carles Aleñá now. Both players, but Riqui especially, have shown that forward is their favorite direction. They are also eager to earn their minutes, and not as tainted by past failures.
If La Liga starts to get out of reach, use the young players as much as possible, make this year a tryout. Because of the injuries everyone will still be needed, even the players who have been letting the team down for years.
Accountability means that they aren’t entitled to the same prominent role. Let’s see what “baby Barca” can do, and not just in throw away games. The best way for Koeman to foster this new culture is to start with Messi, who should be part of the rotation like everyone else.
After all, there are no gods on the pitch, just people willing to fight hard for every minute they’re given.