At Barcelona, a Feeling Worse Than Sadness

They would have expected anger. As Barcelona’s players chased shadows on Tuesday night, as Bayern Munich toyed with them and teased them and tore through them, time and time again, they would almost have been waiting for the fury to come, for the Camp Nou to bare its teeth.

That is the way it has always been, after all. Barcelona has never been an easy crowd. The club has long worried that it is, in fact, a theater crowd: sitting there, quietly, demanding to be entertained, quick to make its displeasure known if not just the result, but also the performance, is not up to scratch.

There were plenty of points on Tuesday night when the crowd might have turned. After the second goal, perhaps. After yet another uninterrupted Bayern attack. After it became clear there was no way back, not in 90 minutes, and maybe not for some time. The players would certainly not have been surprised by it. They might even have been anticipating it.

And yet it did not come. Even as Bayern ran in a third, completing Barcelona’s humiliation, there was no shrill chorus of whistles, no torrent of jeers washing down the stands, no great guttural roar of frustration and disappointment. There were flashes — Sergio Busquets and Sergi Roberto were booed from the field — but they were occasional, fleeting.

Instead, the players were subjected to something far more damning, far more telling, infinitely worse: pity.

That, more than anything, was a measure of how far and how fast this club has fallen. On a Champions League night, as its team was dismantled by a putative peer and rival, the Camp Nou crowd — among the most demanding in sports, an audience spoiled by a decade of some of the finest soccer in history — was not spitting fury but offering gentle, sincere encouragement.

The fans sang the name of a teenager, the midfielder Gavi, not because of anything he had done but simply because of what he had not. They applauded when Barcelona threaded a handful of passes together. They urged the team forward. They recognized, in essence, that for the first time in ages, Barcelona needed their support.

There is no great profit in dwelling, yet again, on how it has come to this, or in chastising the club for its profligacy, its absurd recruitment, its financial recklessness, its pigheaded belief that the sun would always shine and the good days would last forever.

There is no point listing the succession of nadirs that have served as signposts: the defeats in Rome and Liverpool and Lisbon; the loss of Neymar and then, this past summer, of Lionel Messi himself, both to Paris St.-Germain.

They have been illusions, after all. Nobody knows quite, not yet, where the bottom might be, how far Barcelona might still fall. In its own way, this defeat to Bayern was no less harrowing than the 8-2 loss in Lisbon a year and a lifetime ago: not as dramatic a collapse, of course, not as eye-catching or as immediately shocking, but just as comprehensive, and just as instructive.

It was not just that Bayern was better in every single position: stronger and fitter and more technically adept. It was not just that Bayern was better coached and better organized and more precise.

It was that Bayern seemed to be playing modern, elite soccer, full of pressing triggers and rote movements, while Barcelona — for so long the team and the institution that defined cutting-edge — had the air of a team from the past, parachuted in from the 1950s and told that now the game is actually about inverted wingers occupying half-spaces. The 8-2 was, in a certain sense, a freak result. This was not. This was just an illustration of how much better Bayern is, these days, and of how far from the pinnacle Barcelona has drifted.

And perhaps, in that, there is a glimmer of hope. The era of the superclubs, and the shrieking hyperbole with which those teams are covered, has a distorting effect. Obviously this Barcelona team is weaker than its predecessors, drastically so. Evidently this Barcelona team is a long way short of Bayern Munich and Manchester City and Chelsea and the two or three other teams that might harbor some sort of ambition of winning the Champions League.

But it is not, in terms of its raw materials, a bad team by global standards. Marc-André ter Stegen remains one of the finest goalkeepers in the world, and Jordi Alba one of the game’s best left backs. Gerard Piqué is not, all of a sudden, a terrible defender. A midfield built around Pedri and Frenkie De Jong has a rich potential. Once Ansu Fati and Ousmane Dembélé return, there is promise in attack, too.

A smart, innovative coach might not be able to turn that team into a Champions League winner, might not even be able to craft a side that could beat Bayern Munich. But there is certainly talent enough there not to be humiliated, not to look passé. Teams like Red Bull Salzburg have only a fraction of Barcelona’s ability — yes, even this Barcelona, reduced as it is — and yet can emerge with credit from games with Europe’s grandest houses.

There is no reason to believe that Barcelona, with a more progressive coach than Ronald Koeman in charge, could not level the playing field at least a little. Without question, it should be possible to forge a team that does not look surprised at the fact that an opponent from the Bundesliga might press high up the field.

It is likely to be a forlorn hope. There has been little to no indication from Barcelona that this is a club likely to make an imaginative, forward-thinking coaching appointment. The likeliest replacement for Koeman is Xavi Hernández, a player raised in the school of Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola, an echo of the past rather than a glimpse toward the future. Nostalgia is Barcelona’s opium. It dulls the pain, but it deepens the problem.

There is no reason to believe it is even a team ready to build around its young talent. After all that cost-cutting this summer, Barcelona celebrated by signing the journeyman Dutch striker Luuk De Jong on loan. It remains a place affixed to the short term. Both Pedri and Fati are out of contract at the end of this season; so parlous are the club’s finances that it may yet find that it cannot retain one or both of them.

Without that sort of intervention, then, this is all that is left: a hollow shell, a shadow team, a side that looks like a bootleg imitation of Barcelona rather than Barcelona itself. For more than a decade, those blue and red jerseys represented style and panache and adventure and excellence.

The sight of them, for all but the most hardened Real Madrid fans, brought a jolt of excitement, a sharp thrill of expectation to anyone who loved soccer. They were Messi and Ronaldinho and Rivaldo and Romário and Guardiola and Laudrup and Cruyff. They were Berlin in 2015 and Wembley in 2011 and Rome in 2009 and Paris in 2006. They were Real Betis fans standing to applaud in defeat and the Santiago Bernabéu rising to its feet in despair.

That is not what you think of when you see Barcelona now. You think, instead, of what it was and what it has become. You think of a club that has had its bones picked clean by its rivals, that has been left grasping at the shadows of its past. You think of how it used to be and how this is not the same. You see a team dressed as Barcelona but not a Barcelona team.

Not so long ago Barcelona inspired awe. Now, that has been replaced: by sorrow at how far it has fallen, by regret that it has come to this, and most of all, most damning and most telling of all, infinitely worse, what Barcelona inspires above anything else is what the Camp Nou showed its team, its diminished heirs of impossible giants, on Tuesday night: pity.

This is how it is with Manchester United, these days. It is endemic, habitual, seemingly scored into the very fabric of the club over the last eight years.

On Saturday evening, Old Trafford was lightheaded, still swooning from the sight of Cristiano Ronaldo in a red jersey once more. United had beaten Newcastle. Ronaldo had returned with two goals. The club was top of the Premier League, being spoken of not only as a title contender — and let’s face it, Manchester United, four games into a season, is always a title contender — but as a force restored by the gentle touch of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a colossus once more bestriding the world.

By Tuesday night — 78 hours or so later — it felt as if United was on the verge of crisis. It had been beaten, in the last minute of extra time, by Young Boys of Bern, the sort of team that English soccer culture pigheadedly refuses to take seriously, in the sort of game that a Premier League team is told it has to win by a succession of pundits who have never seen its opponents play.

Solskjaer’s tactics were under the spotlight. His substitutions were being queried, his choices questioned, his capability doubted. Could United hope to fulfill its soaring ambitions while he remains at the wheel? Would the club be able to rescue its season by qualifying for the last 16 of the Champions League, or was disaster waiting around the corner?

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle. Manchester United is a very good team. It is stocked with enormously talented players, including one of the greatest of all time. But its squad lacks the coherence of some of its rivals — most notably Manchester City and Chelsea — and its style is not as highly defined as, say, Liverpool’s. Solskjaer is not a dogmatist, like Pep Guardiola, and he is not a tactician in the same league as Thomas Tuchel. The fanfare and the fatalism are both overblown.

What is significant, though, is the persistence of both, and how quickly the atmosphere around the club can flit between the two. There is no team quite so volatile in European soccer as the modern Manchester United. That does not necessarily predicate against success — if it did, José Mourinho would have had a very different career — but it does suggest that the club is not quite where it wants, or needs, to be.

An extended section this week, reflecting the fact that so many of you got in touch to offer your own ideas as to how soccer’s calendar might be amended — and improved — from 2024 onward. I can say with some certainty that the readership of this newsletter is substantially more creative than FIFA’s task force on the subject. Admittedly, that is a low bar, but still: Well done, everyone.

Let’s start with Will Clark-Shim, who proves the value of simplicity. “Here’s my uneducated flyer: What about the World Cup every three years? While I appreciate the value of scarcity, it’s a real shame that we don’t get more meaningful intercontinental games between top national teams. A three-year cycle would allow for a World Cup one year, continental tournaments another, and a respite for the men (with the women taking center stage) in the third.”

It is strange, isn’t it, how we are all in thrall to the tyranny of even numbers? We have major sporting events every four years because that is what the ancient Greeks did — an Olympiad, like a lustrum, is one of my favorite weird units of time — but there’s no real reason for it to be the case now, and there is a neatness to a three-year cycle that is appealing.

Arvand Krishnaswamy goes even bigger, asking: “Can’t the World Cup become a knockout cup like the F.A. Cup? Every country participates and like the F.A. Cup you may end up with unexpected victors.” This is hugely impractical, Arvand, but it would be extremely enjoyable. There is, too, the core of an idea here that might work: Would it not be possible to blur the lines more between qualifying and the finals, so that it all feels like one tournament?

An alternative from Arthur Amolsch, who sees the value in turning “the regional national team tournaments into World Cup qualifiers. That occurred to me as I watched the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup. The top ‘X’ number of teams would qualify; in CONCACAF, that would be three. Absolute ties would be settled with a one-game playoff in a neutral country.”

This would have value in several confederations, and most clearly in South America, except for the fact that it reduces the income streams for everyone, by cutting the number of games. That would, I suspect, make it unpalatable across the board.

To his enormous credit, nobody had more ideas than Fernando Gama, whom I have come to think of as a reliable source of common sense. The pick of them were reducing the number of teams in top flights — he proposed a maximum of 16; I would go up to 18 — and condensing “all international matches to a six-week break from mid-December to the end of January.”

He would also advocate a clear demarcation of mid-May and June for further international engagements — either more qualifying or a major tournament — with July ring-fenced as a month of vacation for all players every year.

Two more, unrelated to the World Cup. The first is from Joe Morris: “Do you think transnational leagues have died a death as an idea to strengthen domestic football among smaller nations? Obviously the Super League was transnational, but that was very much about entrenching the advantages enjoyed by the elite, rather than improving the prospects of a Dinamo Zagreb, IFK Goteborg, Red Star Belgrade or Celtic. Will these ideas be left for good or do you see them making a comeback?”

At this point, it feels as if they are not at the forefront of anyone’s mind. Combining the Dutch and Belgian leagues was floated by some Belgian clubs last year, but with little to no support from the other side of the border. That’s a shame: Cross-border leagues, to my mind, are both spectacularly straightforward and hugely needed to help smaller markets close the gap just a little.

S.K. Gupta, meanwhile, combines the last two editions of the newsletter in one suggestion. “You have covered the problem of players on loan who never play for their own clubs. One of the solutions to these issues would be allowing the consolidation of clubs to include B teams in lower leagues. This would give teams a financial incentive to develop players, give them regular playing time in lower leagues, and not constantly loan them out.”

I do not like B teams as a concept — though I see the advantages — but I am convinced that partnerships should be allowed: elite teams pairing with lower league sides, investing in their facilities, training their coaches, and loaning them the cream of their youth teams. That enables the smaller team to retain its identity, but provides the bigger one with something it lacks.

All of these ideas are available to Arsène Wenger, should he wish to get in touch.