Soccer doesn’t always get it right. Maradona knows the bodies that govern it are hapless and corrupt—we’re going to be playing an international tournament built on the back of slave labor in the desert a few years from now—but the game itself also isn’t entirely fair. Anyone who’s watched Fergie’s United bang in a 93rd minute match-winner knows this. Teams show up for games poorly prepared and out-talent the other side. They can’t string three passes together and somehow score two goals. Cause and effect occasionally cleave in a sport where the ball can ricochet strangely once and change everything.
Barcelona beat Atlético Madrid 2-1 on Sunday and didn’t play well. It wasn’t individual brilliance that saved them this time, but some elbow grease and fortune in the penalty area. Both goals were scored off deflections, first from Yannick Carrasco onto Rafinha’s right foot, then a pinballing sequence off a free kick that ended with Stefan Savic blocking Messi’s shot only for Messi to poke the bouncing ball past Jan Oblak. Beyond that, Barça were outplayed. The pitch was slow and Atleti were fast. Koke was the best midfielder in the game and Sergio Busquets, who’s having a curiously bad season, had a difficult time handling the high press. Marc-André ter Stegen made a couple nice saves, Atleti’s forwards missed a few chances, and that’s more or less why Barcelona didn’t lose. They won because soccer can be nonsensical.
It’s not unusual for this sort of thing to happen, but it’s strange no matter how many times it does: the win over Atleti put Barcelona one point short of Real Madrid in the league table (sort of: Madrid still have a game in hand), relighting the fuse on a title race that ostensibly went dead months ago, and Luis Enrique is almost certainly going to get fired once the season is over, even if Barça take La Liga off Los Blancos. Stranger still, the decision—which seems like it’s already been made even if it hasn’t—would be justified. Barcelona have such high standards that something that merely looks like failure but technically isn’t is justifiable grounds for dismissal.
They are, of course, all but out of the Champions League after getting thrashed 4-0 in Paris. That loss laid bare Enrique’s deficiencies, as Unai Emery’s PSG pressed the Barcelona midfield and Lucho couldn’t devise a plan to break it. He’s not a keen tactical mind. His success with Barça has been due to a broader stylistic shift he instituted when he arrived at the club. Enrique understood that tiki-taka didn’t suit a faster and more muscular side than Pep Guardiola managed and so he encouraged a more vertical approach, drawing teams forward with short passes, then dismantling them with long diagonal balls. It’s up for debate how much credit Enrique deserves for this, since those diagonal balls land at the feet of perhaps the best front line in the club’s history, but he saw what his predecessor Tata Martino didn’t, and it’s given Barcelona a Champions League title, two La Ligas, and two Copa del Reys.
Enrique’s Barcelona haven’t been solved by the rest of Spain or Europe, but they have declined. Andrés Iniesta is finally starting to show his age. Dani Alves is gone. There’s no one to spell Busquets in the holding midfield role when he’s injured or off his game. (André Gomes ain’t it.) Enrique isn’t imaginative enough to reinvent them again. They need some new ideas and some new players. This happens at big clubs, and it’s not anyone in particular’s fault. The same core doesn’t stay soaring indefinitely. Parts need to be replaced, concepts refreshed.
There may not be a truly great, team-for-the-ages type of squad in all of Europe this year. Bayern are just now taking to Carlos Ancelotti’s approach. Juve have experienced some growing pains amidst a couple tactical tweaks. Monaco and Sevilla are upstarts and Atleti are inconsistent. PSG aren’t leading Ligue 1. Chelsea aren’t even playing in Europe. Real Madrid, as ever, are hard to pin down because they don’t have a clear aesthetic other than luxury. It’s one of those in-between seasons where the traditional powers are merely very good and there’s no Dortmund or Napoli-like second tier club that’s hitting its stride.
The folks running Barcelona are widely loathed by supporters—and for good reason; the club is still embroiled in the shady money-hiding scandal that brought Neymar to the Camp Nou—but if they’re going to get one thing right, they can at least recognize a down cycle when they see one, and work to head it off. In this respect, getting waxed by PSG might end up reaping some positive effects. There’s a universe in which Barcelona drew a weaker opponent in the Champions League and made a deep run against a flawed field and, in this one, they might still win La Liga and the domestic cup. But no matter what the record says, it’s clear to anyone who’s watching that Barça are crying out for change. It’s important not to conflate results with process in this capricious game.