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Saturday, November 27, 2021

Barcelona’s decline is no surprise, it’s their new reality

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    Sid LoweSpain writer

“It is what it is. We are who we are.” Gerard Pique wasn’t wrong, but that didn’t make it right. In the final minutes of Barcelona‘s opening Champions League match, the fans were having a whale of a time. From the south stand came laughter. Every time the ball was passed, there was another cheer. But it had nothing to do with what was happening on the pitch: they’d found a ball of their own to play with. It was better that way.

Out on the pitch Barcelona were losing 3-0, defeated on the opening night of the Champions League for the first time. The club that had gone 38 consecutive European games unbeaten at the Camp Nou was about to lose three in a row — from one record to another. They’d not managed a shot on target all night. That had never happened before, either. They had let in three goals, you couldn’t help thinking, because their opponents didn’t really need them to let in any more.

Yet this was not a sudden collapse, still less a one-off. It was not that much of a surprise, either. Their opponents were Bayern Munich, a genuinely good side. The last time they had met, only 13 months before, but a lifetime ago, Bayern had put eight past them and since then, Barcelona had lost all three of forwards who started that game: first Luis Suarez, then Lionel Messi and then Antoine Griezmann. On Tuesday night, Ansu Fati was injured, and Ousmane Dembele, and Sergio Aguero and Martin Braithwaite.

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Standing at the side of the pitch at the end, Pique said there were “I don’t know, four or five” kids out there. There were three 18-year-olds and a 17-year-old on the pitch. This, he said, is just the way it is. “Frankly,” he said, “we’re not among the favourites.”

When asked about his captain’s words, the coach Ronald Koeman agreed. There is a “gap” between Barcelona and teams like Bayern, they said. And few could disagree. Just look at the team sheets. The front cover of one Catalan newspaper ran with “Sad reality.” It is what it is.

There was an acceptance of that reality, which may have been part of the problem. There was resignation, not rebellion. Not just after the game, but before it too. Even during it. For 20 minutes or so Barcelona had played quite well, they had resisted. It might not have been much, but it was something. It was noisy at the Camp Nou and you could almost sense supporters looking around and thinking: Well, this isn’t so bad. And then it was.

Writing in AS, Santi Gimenez recalled Mike Tyson’s famous line about how everyone has a plan until you punch them in the mouth. In recent years, the ease with which Barcelona have collapsed when they’ve been hit is alarming — there’s a deep mental trauma to the way they lost 4-0 at Anfield in 2019 — but just as important this time is that the plan appeared to be to just try and get through it somehow, maybe fearing a trauma far worse. To continue the metaphor, it’s as if a smalltown flyweight, standing there before Iron Mike, decided to hide in the corner of the ring, cover his face and hope to avoid getting punched in the mouth, counting the seconds until the bell.

Which, of course, they couldn’t do. And if Bayern didn’t pound away at them until they knocked them through the ropes and onto the judges’ table below, cartoon birdies circling their heads, it was because, well, what for? Once the first punch had landed, with defender Eric Garcia backing off and Thomas Muller‘s shot deflecting in, it was done. But still Barcelona stayed there, hanging on. As if to say, “Well, we lost, but at least it wasn’t 8-2. At least we can still walk out of here, live to fight another day.” It’s like they knew they couldn’t win and the only question was about how they would lose or, somehow, hold on for a point. Like there were some defeats that wouldn’t matter. And, actually, maybe that’s true, but that’s where the debate lies, and some of the frustration too.

“It is what it is” is a line that was forever held against former Barca manager Ernesto Valverde after that chastening defeat at Liverpool — mostly by people who clearly didn’t understand it right. (And one day, it might be worth revisiting Valverde and the two successful seasons sandwiched between three unsuccessful seasons, a lid kept on a coming crisis.)

Back then, the Spanish set phrase “es lo que hay was not used as an expression of inferiority or acceptance of the inevitable. This time, while still a set phrase, it was. This is the just the way it is. Everyone knows that, but you’re not supposed to accept it. Or are you? Barcelona can’t be a small team. Or can they? Must they? Is it what they are?

Everyone knows about the club’s debt (almost €1.4 billion). They are aware of the reasons for this summer’s emergency measures, even if they might question which measures were needed and how they were applied. Most fans welcome the fact that something is actually being done and are realistic enough to know that it affects the team, their expectations altered accordingly. You can’t not notice that Messi went, either — for all that things might have been handled differently, Messi’s exit is the ultimate expression of the crisis, the ultimate punishment for the economic failures of the Bartomeu regime.

You also can’t have failed to notice how old some of those players are now, and how old they look. You can’t have failed to notice how young the others are. These kids in whom hope is deposited. Jordi Alba‘s flaws are nothing new; you know that if Sergio Busquets gets turned, there’s a problem. You know that Samuel Umtiti, sadly, just doesn’t have the knees now even if he does still have the contract. You heard Sergi Roberto get whistled as if he was the biggest problem you have. And you know he’s not the solution either.

You know you signed and sold Emerson, that you couldn’t sell the people you really wanted to sell. You know there is a reason why those players that did come arrived as free agents and on small contracts, and why none of them are Erling Haaland. You know about the injuries. You will have heard Koeman say that there were literally no more forwards available; you might even agree, even after Yusuf Demir came on. You might have agreed with him saying that last season was a transitional year. Although, transition towards what? And, what does that make this season? And how long does it take, and how far does it go?

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Jurgen Klinsmann says Barcelona looked like they lacked leadership in their 3-0 loss to Bayern Munch.

If you’re of an optimistic or realistic mind, you may be in favour of patience, even while that’s a virtue for which clubs this size don’t usually have the time. When Koeman says the team “will look totally different in four weeks,” or when Pique says “I’m convinced we will end up competing,” you might be on the same page as them. You may have been one of those excited by the introduction of Gavi, Demir and Balde, or the emergence of Nico. You probably do like Ronald Araujo, and you may believe in Garcia. You might like Riqui Puig, even if the manager doesn’t. You must be excited by Pedri.

But none of that makes it easy to watch, even if you agreed with the tactical approach for now. And, more importantly, none of that makes it an easy process to work through. Because if you have to be patient, you have to be patient. If there is belief, you have to believe. Everyone has to, which is not easy. Because if, on Tuesday night against Bayern, there was a certain acceptance of reality, there is a difference between accepting and embracing. And if Koeman and Pique said it is what it is, the president who has to oversee the process can’t or won’t. He also isn’t at all sure that the man in charge should.

While they were trying to put the defeat in context or a dose of reality, the following day, club president Joan Laporta published a 30-second video in which he said that this was a “scenario that we always anticipated.” Yet he also said that he was “indignant and disappointed.” He asked for patience twice and support/trust three times and vowed: “We will fix this.”

Most fans welcome Laporta’s willingness to communicate, explain the situation and be open about the crisis; they certainly welcome the feeling that he is trying to actually take action, but it is a curious video: short yet repetitive, pleading, lacking the charisma that normally defines Laporta. It also changes everything. By its very existence, things are different now. If this is reality, if your team is unbeaten in the league and if you really genuinely want patience, how does a video like this really help?

Javier Tebas recently accused Barcelona of being mentally held hostage by Florentino Perez, the Madrid president; there’s actually a bit of a hostage vibe about this video. There is little by the way of explanation, including: fix what exactly? Laporta asks for trust for those running the club, but not the manager. He asks for patience, but “indignant” isn’t a word that invites it. His clear, public disconnect with Koeman mitigates against it.

“Indignant” is not really a word that fits with a situation you foresaw, either. Unless, of course, it is Koeman doing this you foresaw, your mistrust of him confirmed. Fix…that? It’s already public knowledge that Laporta wants Koeman to play a certain way, which is not this way. That for all that the structural problems are a reality, for all that the squad is unquestionably weaker than it was, for all that Bayern are a huge side and better than us, reality — our reality — needn’t be this.

The very fact that such doubts are there makes coming through this harder — certainly coming through it together. As one sporting director puts it, there are two types of managers: weak and strong. And once the players know he is weak, he is finished. There is a hint of a threat to his manager in the video, a very public reproach. More to the point, there’s been more than a hint of a threat in previous briefings, stories immediately following meetings with media. Koeman has called him out on those, the whole thing increasingly open.

There have been reports that Laporta will give Koeman three more games — such ultimatums always seem absurd — which means he might as well give him none. Which, put bluntly, many would welcome. But your manager is your manager until he’s not.

Laporta does not believe in Koeman, and Koeman does not trust Laporta. In the summer, Laporta publicly admitted that he would keep Koeman only if he couldn’t come up with something better. He couldn’t. Koeman is still in the job because of the cost — €12m that Barcelona don’t have — of kicking him out of it. Better if Koeman goes, but he won’t: This is the job he always wanted even like this, one that deep down he knows he probably wouldn’t have got in different circumstances.

And so here they are, stuck in a marriage of convenience that, like so much else at Barcelona, has become deeply inconvenient. But then, like so much else at Barcelona, it is what it is.

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