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Kevin Williams


The malleability of absolution, aka “If one is responsible, then everyone is”

So. Barça ended a 3-match losing skid with something that wasn’t as much a comeback as a bit of common sense rearing its head.

“Hey, what say we stop hitting the ball directly AT the keeper.”

Messi scored a goal so all is right in the culer world again, but for me something more interesting happened — not for the first time, but for the first time a confluence of happy events conspired — two players who are objects of scorn had the temerity to have very good matches. Song and Mascherano.

For me yesterday’s match was different because I didn’t watch it live, instead choosing to take advantage of a picture-postcard Chicago day to log 60 miles on the bicycle. This gave me the rather extreme pleasure of being able to watch the match, and scroll through my social mad-ia timeline as things transpired and quite frankly, laugh.

The sound of silence

Quips are often made about the sound of crickets denoting the absence of sound, but in fact they are loud little critters, who more correctly have a knack of filling IN the silence at times when it is most still. “What a lovely night. So quiet, so still. Listen …”

Cricket! Cricket!

So perhaps the sound of silence is the best way to describe the “room” as unfavored players have good matches, which makes it no less heelarious. Song was quite good yesterday, whereupon we heard … nothing. Then late in the match, he unleashed a beauty of a pass that dropped right onto Tello’s boot, and I was able to look at my Twitter timeline to see that one person commented on it. One.

And I got to thinking about errors and absolution, bouquets, silence and brickbats and a comment that got this post rolling.


When ciaran returned to these pages it’s a safe bet that being inspirational wasn’t part of the plan. And yet the comment in Levon’s previous post crystallized a lot of what I have been thinking about players and how they are discussed:

I like your comment but can’t agree with all of it.

For the same reasons you like Masch, Alexis & Alves and want to cut them slack you don’t see the need to do the same to Cesc. He puts as much effort in as any player in our squad, has made himself the fittest he has been in his career and covers more ground on average than Iniesta does. He can’t make himself a faster player, just like Mascherano can’t make himself a taller one.

As for not adding anything from a sporting standpoint, I disagree. He is out of form, and generally doesn’t play well against incredibly fit, physical teams but he still gets lots of goals and assists in a sport that is won by goals, not possession.

Playing to his strengths, like we did in the first half of the season, made us a better team and we abandoned it. He can’t be blamed for that just like we couldn’t blame Messi if we became a route one team and asked him to win aerial balls.

And there it is, the malleability of absolution. When things aren’t going well, it’s generally unfavored players who get stick. In looking at the arc of that scorn, since everyone has their own unfavorite, what is usually evident is that pretty much everyone is a culprit except for, usually, a chosen few.

The blame game

You see this most often when the team concedes a goal. “Whose fault was it!?” One of my favorite writers on the game, Richard Whittall, penned something and analyzed a goal with this question in mind: what REALLY happened?

As he notes, mistakes were made, but let’s not forget that the player who scored the goal is pretty damned good. Look at the Bale goal that sealed the Copa victory for RM. “Pinto could have done more.” “Mascherano could have done more.” “Where was Alves?” “Why didn’t Bartra just take the yellow and put him on his butt?”

But in the blizzard of butterfly wing flapping things that have to happen to score a goal, Bale just pulled one out of his butt. Neutrals fell off their chairs. Culers said “Our defense sucks.” The versatility of a worldview. “Why doesn’t Pedro play more often! He is a textbook clinical finisher.” Until he isn’t. Then he is, and everything is right again. Whew!

"Hit it over there! Over there!"

“Hit it over there! Over there!”

The board is another example. I don’t like them even as I acknowledge that they have done many good things to help their view of the sound fiscal future of this club. They aren’t responsible for everything from bathtub ring to trench mouth, even as only a blinkered maniac wouldn’t concede that the board has made significant, verging-on-shameful errors as regards the sporting side and club governance in general. “Our squad is fine.” Sure, if everybody stays fit, if that squad plays one match per week with no mental stresses. Otherwise, the squad is NOT fine.

That said, that our high-priced team couldn’t put even one goal past Granada or Valladolid isn’t the fault of the board, even as the board created the conditions that led to mentally fried players out there shambling about.

You stink! Not him. YOU!

As ciaran points out above, we can’t beat on Fabregas then give other folks a pass. Fabregas gets slagged for falling short on the attacking end of things, but without knowing what his mission on the pitch is we can’t really assess whether he is failing. It is evident that he does tons of donkey work, necessary while Iniesta is off sprinkling fairy dust and Xavi is trying not to be a turnstile when we cede possession.

But Fabregas is an unfavored player. He cost too much, always tanks from mid-season on and doesn’t show up against big teams, goes the narrative. And then there is Messi. “Don’t you question Messi. He has done so much for us in the past.”

History is past. He has also been good to extraordinary at times this season. Few give Xavi a pass for what he has done in the past. “He’s past it, has to go.” “If that old man had retired, we would still have Thiago!”

Neymar injures his foot for 4 weeks and some think it’s a plot to prepare for the World Cup and screw Barça. Messi took 8 weeks to heal a hamstring. Other players form is discussed, and whether they should start in matches. Not Messi, which makes sense, or does it? Because of his talent and match-changing potential, you HAVE to start Messi. The wonder of the past defines potential of the present. But Messi is, arguably, just as mentally and physically busted as the rest of the team. Anyone who blames Messi is wrong. Completely.

But by the same token to absolve Messi of any examination is equally erroneous. He walks, at times stands there. Some very respected journalists including Graham Hunter suggested that maybe, just maybe, the reason for Messi’s desultory effort against Atleti in the CL was that he was pouting. A few of us noticed. Probably others as well. But can’t say anything, because … well … look at what he has done for us in the past. True or false, there wasn’t even discussion.

“How DARE you question Messi, you ingrate?! You’re either for us, or against us!” But asking questions doesn’t mean a lack of support, or that you value the player any less. You can’t blame Messi any more than you can blame anyone else for anything in this everything all at once season. But you can ask questions, even as you acknowledge that no coach alive is going to sit Messi. Why? Look at yesterday’s free kick.


Either, or, neither, never

The board screwed up. “Song was purchased instead of a CB. Damn him!” But in the absence of Keita, the value of a similar type of player is of value. “He isn’t Keita.” That isn’t the point. So you buy that player AND a CB. Ditto for Neymar. Instead the failings of the board lead to supporters defining a player as the alternative. Song is defined as a crappy CB, even though he is no more a crappy CB than Busquets. Both are midfielders being played out of position.

It was said that Song COULD play CB, which is different from “Song IS our CB.” People will raise questions about Song’s quality of play, which isn’t the issue here. We as supporters have to step back and take an objective look at things. Would the team purchase a player whose NT coach and most recent professional coach believe is best in attack, and say “Voila! Our new CB!”

That would make the people who did that so stupid it’s a wonder they are capable of walking erect. There is other stuff that makes up the picture, then as now.

Other factors

Iniesta has been brilliant this season as he has adapted to the new role that Martino wants him to play, usually as that shuttle between midfield and the attackers. He has even added a bit of goalscoring danger that is more than welcome, since a player who has the ball in as many danger spots as he does really should be banging in some goals.

But there is a general absence of goals from our midfield. In the Treble season, Xavi had 9 goals. The year we last won the CL, Xavi had 14 in all competitions. This season, he has 4. Iniesta has 3 this season, in all competitions.

What this means for me is that the two players who have the ball the MOST, are the ones least likely to score. That is something else to look at this season, when we are looking for reasons things are the way they are. Is it happenstance, or another sign of a busted system, a Way that needs a rethink in a season where tika taka has most been like catenaccio. Why Martino chose to make that adaptation is in his head, and in the heads of the players to whom he imparted that information.

Some speculate that verticalidad wasn’t sustainable over the course of a season. Others say that he threw up his hands in the face of all the “That isn’t our Way” talk and said “Here’s your Way. Now choke on it.” As with most things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

This season has been a collection of chickens coming home to roost, from neglect of the sporting project by a board distracted by other things to a blizzard of external complexities that rip at the fabric of this team’s cohesiveness. But I look at the collection of talent on our roster, see how long they have played together, how the way Barça plays has been instilled in them almost since birth and I wonder … as a blasphemer, I wonder. Because it seems to me that even coached by a gibbering chimpanzee, this team should be able to knock a goal or two past Valladolid and Granada.

And then I wonder what else is going on. “The board didn’t buy a CB.” Okay. So does that explain why they couldn’t score against two teams in the bottom of the table? Look at the chances that were missed in the first half against Athletic. Pedro scuffed some weak shots at the keeper. Messi spurned a couple. Sanchez probably hit the bar on a dare. “I BET you can’t miss from 6 feet away!” “Hmph! Bet I can!” Certainly concentration is some of it. So is doubt, which makes a player start wondering how he is going to fail rather than how he is going to succeed, that snakebit, “What NOW” feeling.

I wrote in a previous piece that an employee isn’t going to give of his best for a management that he thinks doesn’t have his best interests at heart. It’s also clear that our players are, again as I previously noted, mentally hammered.

So in the rush to judgment that finds only unfavored things and people culpable, I suggest a different tack, that it is everything, a collection of crap dragging a team of excellent players down. Because if it is this player or that player, this coach or that coach then it is also the totems, the sacred players who nobody wants to criticize. We can’t have it both ways.

Kevin Williams is a journalist with the 'Chicago Tribune', based in Chicago, Illinois. This article first appeared in the Barcelona Football Blog and is republished here with permission.