This is where you’d stick the video of Jesse Pinkman screaming, “He can’t keep getting away with it!” That depends on how you’d define “getting away” and also ignore the fact that Jesse was just a whiny loser. But the feeling is familiar to all, the lamentation that there are just some forces or beings in this world you can’t bring down, or bring down for long. They will just always be the wall that the smaller guy keeps running into.
It’s no question that Barcelona is a mess. They have taken the route that far too many municipal areas around these parts have opted for, selling off future profits for a cash injection now that we know will cause bigger problems in the future. Punting off a quarter of your TV revenues and half of your video and digital wing just can’t be a sound business policy. But that isn’t president Joan Laporta’s problem, because when this bill comes due it’s likely he’ll have high-tailed it out of the office anyway. He’s succeeded in raising Barcelona’s spending cap for this season. Is it enough for next season? Fuck you, they’ll figure it out then. There’s always more stuff to sell off. Maybe they can finally break Frenkie de Jong next summer.
But now that all the signings are registered, and the squad is fully active, for all the short-sightedness and YEEHAW nature of it all, the actual on-field product looks pretty damn tasty. Which it probably shouldn’t, if there were any justice in this world, but that’s not how the world works.
Barcelona thwacked Cadiz on Saturday 4-0, their sixth straight win in all competitions. In those six games, they’ve outscored their opponents 20-2. They’re second in La Liga behind Madrid, who have taken maximum points from their five games, with Barca’s only blemish being on the opening weekend of the season when half their new signings were still in a financial holding tank. But, Barca’s goal difference and expected-goal difference are significantly better than their biggest rivals.
As we suspected, the change of pace from the Bundesliga to La Liga certainly hasn’t knocked Robert Lewandowski off stride, not that he found the pace in Germany all that challenging either, as he’s got six goals in five league matches and added a hat trick in Barca’s opening Champions League win. Manager Xavi has found the magic potion on either side of Lewi, as both Raphina and the reborn Ousmane Dembélé (who makes passes like this) are among the leaders in La Liga so far in expected assists, key passes, and shot-creating actions per game. It has made for a terrifying frontline. It also means they can let former future conqueror of the world Ansu Fati find his feet coming back from major injury as a super sub, which again, really isn’t fair.
Xavi’s system looks a lot like Pep Guardiola’s, with the two wide forwards staying wide, leaving space between the opposing fullbacks and central defenders and behind the midfield ripe for pillaging from the two No. 8s for Barcelona. Xavi has opted to fill those spots with two very athletic, very gifted children in Gavi and Pedri, whose combined age is barely one James Milner. Gavi and Pedri do just about everything, as they’re among the leaders in La Liga in pressures in the attacking third, Pedri among the leaders in key passes and progressive carries with the ball. As sleepy as La Liga can be, having these neophytes Thing 1 and Thing 2 in midfield makes every Barca match a bit chaotic with what both can do on and off the ball. No one’s been able to handle it so far.
The key to it all, somehow still, is Sergio Busquets as the anchor in midfield, allowing Pedri and Gavi to go running into every space like toddlers at the zoo. Busquets is in the top five in La Liga in successful tackles in the attacking third, meaning he’s the main one pinning teams in their own end when they somehow get past the initial press. Busquets isn’t nearly as mobile as he used to be, who would be at 34, but as he sees two or three moves ahead he’s just always there. He’s that receiver on the football team you hate the most who just runs in from off-screen during some QB scramble to convert a 3rd-and-14. Busquets just appears.
If there’s one crack so far, it’s that Xavi hasn’t settled on defense quite yet. Part of that is that Jules Koundé was the last of the new signings to actually be allowed to suit up thanks to Barca’s financial Cirque de Whatever and has only played three times. Ronald Araújo has been bounced between central defense and right-back, an area that seems particularly weak for them (making their insistence on punting Sergino Dest to Milan all the more strange). Héctor Bellerin was brought in to provide more options at right-back, but he also couldn’t really get into the Arsenal team lately. Eric Garcia and Andreas Christensen don’t scream “lockdown.” Marcos Alonso is far better as a wing-back than full-back on the left, and is also aging quite rapidly — though the gearing down from England to Spain will do him well. Better teams will be able to get at this defense.
Which is probably the one caveat so far in Barcelona’s season. They haven’t played anyone. Sevilla is supposed to be a real team, but they have struggled out of the gate, and Barca rubbed their ass in the moonshine 3-0. Their Champions League opened at home against Viktoria Plzeň. We might learn a touch more this week when they travel to Munich to play Bayern, and could really put themselves in the driver’s seat to win what was considered the Group of Death. As far as the league goes, La Liga looks especially weak this season so far, and we may have to wait until the first El Clasico of the season in a month’s time to get some barometer of what Barca truly is.
Does that mean all this can save Barca off the field? Who fucking knows. It’s not like Barca’s popularity waned all that much in the previous years, and the prize money between first and second in Spain wouldn’t make all that much difference. They’re probably still not quite ready to challenge for the Champions League. Eventually, they’ll run out of things to sell off. They’re probably going to have to do all of this again next summer. But if on-field success was meant to at least provide cover and camouflage for the underhanded deals off the field, that looks a pretty sure bet.