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Barca — Mallorca: Digging deep

Barca start 2022 with a gritty win at San Moix

Xavi-ball hasn’t quite fully baked in yet. And where Barca goes, drama follows. So when 2022 started with Barca having to travel to San Moix to face an upbeat Mallorca with 17 players out due to Covid 19 and injuries, there was plenty of drama.

Drama in the Spanish media, drama on Barca twitter and drama in the fan-base of the entorno that is Football Club Barcelona.

We, the fans, actually enjoy this drama irrespective of what we say. However, from the business end of things, this drama is actually required. It keeps the club relevant. And in the news. Two things essential in today’s attention economy.

The suits who run this club understand this.

But let’s come back to the football. In short, it was not attractive. Neither is it meant to be with the players Barca have in their arsenal, as they try and hobble and rebuild after the Leo Messi years. Debt-laden, covid ridden, injury stacked and weighed down by players who are either too young or too old to create any kind of sparkling juego de posicion or the fables of tiki-taka. With a team boasting of mainly Barca B players with an average age of 23, there was every chance of Barca starting the year with a loss to a team who had won their last eight games at home comfortably.

A loss that would increase the twitter frothiness around Barca’s inability to make it to the top 4 by end of the season.

Xavi dutifully trotted out a bunch of talented youngsters who have all been thrown into the deep end at the same time this season. While the marketing slogan is dream teen, the reality is that Barca doesn’t have much of an alternative. Or maybe they created this reality to justify letting go of their prodigal son after 15 seasons at Camp Nou and to do a hard reset.

A sporting reset, an economic reset and a direction reset.

Business folks know one thing. Public memory is fickle, and one year is forgotten quickly if the narrative is created right. Fans have a curious affection for academy players, and it’s a great business narrative. It allows you to fail while garnering support to make unpopular decisions — necessary decisions at times.

The people who run Barca are all business folks, and they understand this.

No drama can be sustained if it does not have its pantomime. This match needed one. And so it was Luuk De Jong. Much maligned, much-derided, much despised Luuk De Jong, who saved Barca the blushes with a (gasp) header (precisely what we was hired for by Koeman). He should have scored two more, hitting the post twice (one of them a sensational scissor kick), but it’s ok. One was good enough for Barca to scrape through.

Three vital points. And just one position away from the top 4. Positivism swept through us, the fans.

Luuk is neither the useless footballer he was made out to be before the match, nor did he become a Ballon Do’r favourite after this match. He was just the right person at the right time at the right place today. A squad player with a specific skill set which can be exploited if the team is set up to play that way. Unfortunately, Barca will never really play that way, so, classy, reserved, and all-around good guy Luke will probably have to leave in the winter transfer window- his Barca legacy; the win at San Moix.

His xG a 0.6 for this game.

There were other positives. Riqui Puig on whom twitter football experts can be divided into two opinion classes(the useless and the next big thing) played alright. For the stats loving nerds, he had 74 passes, completed 95. 7% of them, pressed 23 times, carried the ball forward three times and had one successful dribble. He was neither useless nor inspired confidence that he was the next big thing. He was also a cog in a wobbly team trying to find its feet. Drenched in twitter vitriol Oscar Mingueza also performed reasonably well as right-back, with one assist to LDJ, completing 90.2% of his passes with an xA of 0.2 and progressing the ball twice. Gerard Pique rolled back the years and some of the weariness from his knees and marshalled the defence, progressing the ball 11 times, with an xG of 0.3, with five blocks, three intercepts, four clearances, and pressing to win back the ball 75% of the time. It was scary to watch, but it worked. Jutgla made his runs as a 9, FDJ took a modest 54 touches in the middle third to keep the midfield functioning, and Araujo somehow managed to play as left-back and not mess things up.

And yes, outstanding goalkeeper turned useless goalkeeper turned static goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen made a reflex save in the 84th minute, which was one for the ages. Barca took home 3 points mainly because of that one out worldly reflex save.

It wasn’t pretty football. But it was a team scrapping together to hold on to a win. Just.

Barca hasn’t played consistently as a team for a VERY long time. We, as supporters, often do not accept it. Messi was there to bring us home in the league and the team was set up to play for him, so much so that I suspect it forgot how to play as a team. And fight. Now the band-aid has been ripped. Now either they learn to play as a team, or the careers of many people are going to be short-lived.

But building a team from scratch with young players takes time. Look at Arteta’s Arsenal. It took two years of painfully unwatchable football for them to find their rhythm, but look at them this year, and they look like meaning business. Ask the City players who faced the Arsenal kids on Sunday. It was beautiful football from a team with no superstars but has been drilled into playing as a unit and doing the basics right over the past two years.

They played City off-the-park in the first half.

If Barca is really serious about a new sporting project and can resist the drama of results and short terminism, and give Xavi time, this team will also play better football. I don’t know of Xavi’s nous as a coach, but that doesn’t matter. It’s a game where millionaire kids of 17- 23 years are playing football. Not solving global hunger. Any team can perform better with practice, discipline, hard work, less noise, and RHYTHM. This team indeed can. One thing that Xavi has done is focused on making the “dream teens” play as a team. They are not there yet, but the effort is there.

You need to depend on others when you don’t have out worldly talent (aka Messi). You need to scrape together. Makes it ugly to watch at times, but give it time, and soon you can build rhythm by connecting the dots. By doing the basics.By gaining in confidence.

This ragtag bunch of unpolished “diamonds” have somehow taken the team to the 5th spot by the beginning of January. Time will tell whether they are actual diamonds. Still, with a few modest strategic signings (and yes Barca has the money to do that, irrespective of whatever story they sell to the media), rigid discipline, teamwork and more practise, a top 4 is achievable for this team. And honestly, that’s not bad. It ensures the Champions league dollars, additional TV revenue, lucrative endorsement deals with sponsors and time to build a competitive squad over the next two years. In the meantime Xavi can experiment as much as he wants with as many kids, to get the base formula right while getting paid to do it through the course of the CDR and Europa League — a not so bad right of passage. Better than getting whipped by Bayern 8–2 in a CL knock-out with footballers who make more than 100 million in salary.

In short, a good way to start a year with a gritty yet lucky win. Winning leads to winning. Endless analysis will not make this team good overnight, and there is a long hard road of at least two years to reach there if we at all make it. But as supporters, we hope. We hope, watch, rant on twitter, and then when we win, we hope a little more.

For now, we move forward. Europa Cup and CDR experience for the kids and Granada next in La Liga.

Game Stats:

About me

I write for fun. More about me here.

I have loved foootball for as long as I can remember and for 20 years I have supported FC Barcelona. That makes me old:). In the modern game I love the fullbacks. So that’s what I decided to call this publication. Here I will try to cobble some thoughts about FC Barcelona from time to time and of course there is the world cup this year!

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Work @ Google. Ex Adobe, SAP, LinkedIn, IBM — Musings on growth, art, investing, life and a few other interests