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Barcelona can't keep grasping at the past to stay giants in the modern game

Barcelona has little strategy beyond Lionel Messi's brilliance at this point. (Photo by JOSE JORDAN/AFP via Getty Images)

There is only one plan at FC Barcelona. Only one idea. In the end, the club always returns to Johan Cruyff, the club’s eccentric Dutch savior both as a player and a manager, who has now been dead almost four years. Whenever things go off the tracks, or threaten to, it’s back to trusted old Cruyffismo. Never mind that he starred for the club in the mid-1970s and managed it in the late ‘80s and the first half of ‘90s, unrecognizably different eras in the sport.  

Yet the belief in Cruyffism – essentially a Hispanicized “Total Football” of obsessive possession and positional interchanges – is unshakable. Again and again, the club comes back to his ideas, to his philosophy, to his methods. Because Cruyffism is a kind of security blanket for the club. Even though the game, as the top clubs play it now, has moved away from a fixation on possession to an infatuation with full-field pressure. 

Pep Guardiola ushered in a new era of Cruyffismo in his glorious spell as manager, endorsed and advised by Cruyff himself. When his assistant Tito Vilanova succeeded him, he kept things the same. But Tata Martino went a tad more practical in his playing style and was soon shown the door. Luis Enrique deviated even more, with a heretical direct approach, but had the silverware to back it up. Finally, Ernesto Valverde drifted further still, and so when it all began to look shaky this season, he was fired, never mind that Barca sat in first place and was still in every competition. 

It was time for a Cruyffist.

In came Quique Setien who, on paper anyway, is underqualified for the job. He had successful spells with Las Palmas and Betis Sevilla, which displayed a very pretty brand of soccer. Yet neither job would have prepared the 61-year-old adequately to keep a dynasty with deep cracks in its foundation together.

But Setien is an ideologue. He’s a pure Cruyffist. He won’t stop talking about it. And he seems like he can’t quite believe that he lucked into his dream job – after former Barca standouts Xavi and Ronald Koeman, and perhaps others, turned it down – an implausible prospect just a few months ago. 

Because in case of emergency, Barca always breaks the Cruyffismo glass.

Never mind that all the silverware of the past 11 seasons is as much to do with systems and ideologies as the fact that Barca had Lionel Messi, the greatest player of all time, and some combination of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Luis Suarez and Neymar.

Thus far, Setien’s side barely squeaked past a 10-man Granada and needed a 94th-minute winner to come from behind and beat third-tier Ibiza in the Copa del Rey

Saturday brought Barca’s first big test of the Setien era, away at an ascendant Valencia. And Barca failed it, losing 2-0. 

Barca was outplayed in the first half, hogging possession but creating absolutely nothing of note. And were it not for its standout goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, it would have been down by several goals at the intermission.

Because the German saved Maxi Gomez’s penalty after Pique clumsily bundled down Jose Luis Gaya in the box.

He also saved when Sergi Roberto cleared a header into Pique’s feet, caroming at goal. He made a double-save on Gomez and Kevin Gameiro, with help from the post. And he saved again on a daisy-cutter from Francis Coquelin. 

Just after the break, Gomez’s shot deflected off Jordi Alba and went in, finally giving the home team the lead it deserved. 

Only then did Barca start steadily pinning the hosts back and creating chances. But Frenkie de Jong’s effort had nothing on it, and Messi flashed a shot wide of the far post before smacking a header wide. Goalkeeper Jaume Domenech read Messi’s free kick well and pushed it wide. 

In the 77th minute, Valencia finally broke Barca’s resistance with its second goal. The team cunningly managed by Albert Celades – the Barca product who made his debut under Cruyff, as it happens – galloped through the gaping holes in the Barca defense before finding Gomez, who finished cleanly.

A third goal from Gabriel Paulista  was disallowed for a shove on Busquets in a routine tussle before the corner kick, sparing Barca from further ignominy.

The point was made all the same. The Catalans were not unlucky to lose this game to a team that spent the first third of the season in the bottom half of the table. They may have made some handsome combinations, but they were undone by a team that was better organized, that made better use of the spaces. A team that looked, well, more modern.

With Setien, Barca has gone back in time. But the flash and results of the past have yet to return. 

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