Barcelona and Messi beat Inter Milan 2-1

Guest post by @the_cameraman_

We got one!!!…barely.

After the first half, I was all set to write a review of the game talking about how badly Ernesto Valverde was outcoached, how ragged Luis Suarez was with his touches, and how Lionel Messi (understandably) is not fully match fit. Then….

Well, football is a crazy sport. Although not so crazy when you stop to think about it. Valverde was outcoached. Suarez was ragged in the first half then brilliant in the second and Messi is still gaining match fitness and really only had enough stamina to push for a short burst during the second half. Thankfully, he picked the right time.

The thing about this FC Barcelona team is that despite the coaching woes, despite the board fighting behind the scenes with the players, and despite the apparent need for a new conditioning coach to help prevent injuries, man-for-man Barcelona still has more talent than pretty much any other club in the world. And when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Players like Messi, Suarez, and Marc-Andre ter Stegen are capable of winning games all by themselves. Our problem is that they have to do that in the first place.

So, while we are not lacking in talent, we are lacking in three critical areas: coaching, leadership, and vision.

The first one is obvious. Valverde is a good enough coach for a slightly above average team, but he’s not the man to make a good team into a great one. He’s not a stupid man. But he lacks the personal dynamism to impose his vision onto the club and his players.

Take Diego Simeone for instance. I personally hate the way Atletico Madrid plays. I especially hate it because they have the players to adapt to a far more beautiful style of play but instead choose to play like back alley thugs.

I hate it, BUT it’s effective. It’s his style. He has the personal magnetism to get the entire organization from the locker room to the board room to buy in. Because of that, they went from also-rans to legitimate contenders.

I am not suggesting the team adopt a bar room brawling style. But I am suggesting the reason why Pep Guardiola was so effective at Barcelona wasn’t only because of the Xs and Os. He inspired a movement, not just a tactical approach. He led his team and they bought into the style. Pass and move. Try the difficult pass, but if you lose it, it’s on you to win it back inside of six seconds. Less one on one moves, more movement without the ball. We are stronger together than we are individually.

Valverde changes his style with the wind and thus no one, neither inside the locker room nor in the audience, has any idea what identity we are trying to hold. He lacks the strength of character to put veterans on the bench. Except for Rakitic, apparently. Although I suspect that is more of a mandate from the board. Speaking of which, aside from making Malcom’s life a living hell, he also lacks the strength to stand up to the board in all but the most meaningless ways. Truly, he is just… lacking.

But, I suspect he will be gone after this year win or lose. So, honestly I lose less sleep over that then problem number two. Leadership.

This comes from within the locker room. I’ll give you another parallel to highlight the problem. I live in the United States and am a big fan of American Football (the NFL) as well. My favorite team is the Tennessee Titans. We’re not great. We’re not bad. We’re just kind of…. there.

A couple years back we had a very talented group of young players all in their 1st or 2nd season (similar to a team stacked with Frenkie de Jong, Arthur, Riqui Puig, Carles Alena, Ousmane Dembele, Carles Perez, and the like). So, in the offseason, rather than sign a big name talent, the general manager instead signed a number of below-the-radar players that weren’t stars by any means, but they were all team captains in the place they came from. The team didn’t add much speed or size that year, but they added leadership. They also increased their winning percentage dramatically.

The difference between the current Barcelona and Pep’s version is not only due to talent. Yes, it’s hard to replace Andres Iniesta, Xavi, and an emerging Messi in their prime. More important to that team, in my opinion, was Carlos Puyol. Puyol was an absolute gladiator who quite simply would not let his team lose. He may have been outpaced or outsized by his opposing number more often than not, but he simply refused to accept anything less than total effort. He demanded it from himself. He demanded it from his teammates.

Clearly we do not have the same players now. Clearly our current team chemistry wasn’t forged by growing up at La Masia together the way that team was. But we also don’t have someone vocal in the locker room simply refusing to let a single player give less than 100%.

Messi is the greatest player of all time and commands respect from his teammates simply on the basis of his accomplishments. But I don’t get the sense that he scares the sh*t out of his teammates.

I dislike Cristiano Ronaldo for a multitude of reasons mainly related to the fact that he seems to think the game is about him rather than the team. With that said, I must admit he does has a certain psychotic streak that while it makes me hate him, it also forces his teammates to be on their toes. I can’t believe I’m paying Ronaldo a compliment. Yet there’s a reason he’s rarely on an underperforming team either in league or internationally.

I’m not suggesting Messi become like Ronaldo. Heaven help us. It’s also not naturally in his character. We should be thankful for that. We do need more vocal and demanding leadership inside of the Barcelona locker room. A player like Puyol who would not just yell at his players to work harder, but will bleed for the colors himself and leave everything on the field.

Good coach or bad coach, work rate is something that the players have to take responsibility for themselves.

Lastly, we come to vision. This may not be as easy to explain as coaching or leadership but it relates to both. The world fell in love with Barcelona largely because of the philosophy credited to Johan Cruyff and total football. It didn’t matter that our players weren’t the biggest or the fastest. They were the most organized. They had the best chemistry. They’d all been trained literally since they were in grade school to understand and run the exact same system to the point that they could move the ball up the pitch blindfolded.

Somewhere along the way, the organization as a whole lost track of that overall vision. As our profits grew, so did the ambition of our signings. We once chided Real Madrid for it’s Galactico signings, but now we were doing the same thing.

We definitely got a lot of new talent in the door but out the window jumped any semblance of team chemistry. We seemed to have forgotten basic things like, in order to run a 4-3-3, you need width. Not three forward players who all want to play centrally and leave the sideline official alone to catch up on his Instagram.

We had players coming up through the ranks who innately understood team chemistry, but they were quickly sold off at bargain basement prices and their development time was eaten up by more expensive outside signings.

While the urge to acquire the best players is understandable, by losing touch with the cradle to the grave Barcelona mentality, we lost touch with who we were as a team. Combine that with a coach whose style varies by the week and a leadership vacuum within the locker room and we are left to try and win games on individual brilliance alone.

Don’t get me wrong. We are not a bad team. Barcelona is certainly not as bad as my favored American football Titans squad. We still have the talent to bring home every trophy by the end of the season.

However, if we expect to even make it to the next round of the Champions League, let alone make it across the finish line, we need to step back and have a hard look at where we stand, how we got here, and how we are going to address the areas where we are deficient.

Despite today’s result, Messi, Suarez, and MATS can’t save us every time. The good thing is that they don’t have to.