Barcelona lost at home on Sunday, 2-0, to Villarreal. As was their custom this season, the hosts dominated possession, completing nearly twice as many passes as their guests attempted and firing off 15 shots to a bare four for the Yellow Submarine; as was also their custom this season, they couldn’t summon the creativity or touch or precision—the juice—to punch any of those suckers into the net. Players a competently run club of half Barcelona’s stature would never have to rely on committed hilarious defensive errors on both of the visitors’ goals. It was ugly; it sucked; I found myself hoping they might send Luuk de Jong out there to give them hope for a late goal, and horrified by my disappointment when they didn’t. None of that, though, can take the shine off of Sunday’s great news for Barcelona fans everywhere: The season is over, and nobody has to watch them play again for a while.
My family and I spent much of last week away from home, in New York, visiting the Defector gang and doing goofy tourist shit. (It rocked.) Our initial travel itinerary had us riding the train back home on Sunday afternoon; all week I’d been expecting to miss Barcelona’s season finale, and had had the idea that this was a bummer. Then we decided, on Friday evening, that we should grab available seats on an earlier train so that we’d have Sunday afternoon to unpack and decompress before going back to work and school. We were in Delaware when it occurred to me that this meant I’d be able to catch the Barcelona game after all, and when I discovered all at once that I felt about this the way that you feel about remembering that you have a dentist appointment: Bleccchhhh.
With good reason. I would like to call your attention to the events of the 55th minute on Sunday, to illustrate. First, a crafty Ferran Torres touch led to a foul and a free kick on the very edge of Villarreal’s box. The free kick led to a corner; the corner led to a hopeless, rushed, miles-wide 25-yard attempt by Jordi Alba; the ensuing Villarreal goal kick led, pretty much instantaneously, to the visitors sprinting downhill at a scrambling Barcelona defense. If you have watched Barcelona this season, you have seen that sequence, with minor variations, roughly 900 times.
What happened next will seem familiar as well, if not in the details then in its overall character. Barca’s back line, in this instance the persons of Dani Alves and Clement Lenglet, couldn’t sort out who’d mark whom; Villarreal’s Alfonso Pedraza, who’d scored their first goal by running in behind a sleeping Adama Traoré, ran in behind him again; this time Traoré caught up in time to cut off the pass by the goal line on the left side of the box … where he committed the absolutely insane mistake of clearing the ball directly to the penalty spot, where Villarreal’s wide-open Moi Gómez collected it and banged in the visitors’ second goal. This was the type of defensive play that would make teammates scream in shock and horror if a 10-year-old did it in a pee-wee league. It’s also just kind of what Barcelona was like, this season. More bleakly, Traoré just kind of is the caliber of player Barcelona has had to rely on.
What a miserable season! Give club legend Xavi, brought on as manager in November to remediate the apocalyptic condition of the club’s soccer and its public relations, all due credit for the grim, desperately necessary work of grinding out a return to the Champions League at all costs. The results, at least, improved sharply under his guidance; if that’s largely a testament to the players who joined the club and/or returned to health not long after his hiring, well, fine, but surely it’s also some kind of testament to his qualities as a coach and leader. As for the soccer itself, and particularly its aesthetic qualities, that all remained pure dogshit, sweaty and brainless and one-dimensional, at virtually any time 19-year-old Pedri wasn’t on the pitch. What other big club hid the ball out on the touchlines more shamefully than Barcelona, or spammed blind, feeble, lottery-ticket crosses from outer space more desperately? To watch Barcelona under Xavi, nearly as much as under his doomed predecessor Ronald Koeman, was to see … well, exactly what Barcelona is, now: A club that cannot afford both dignity and its stadium’s water bill, and drew a red line through the former for the sake of the latter.
Even the meager self-justifying consolation of hard injury luck—Pedri, Gerard Piqué, Ansu Fati, and Sergiño Dest are just some of the first-teamers significantly hobbled during the season, and Ousmane Dembélé didn’t take the pitch until November—isn’t available to Barça and its fans. A club of Barcelona’s size and prominence that hadn’t spent and mismanaged its way into the darkest depths of debt-hell could never be reduced all the way to panic-buying Adama freaking Traoré by the struggles of Abde freaking Ezzalzouli; would never have to look for a provisional savior in 32-year-old Pierre-Emerick freaking Aubameyang when borrowing Luuk de freaking Jong didn’t fix everything. It’s a shambles all around.
It also could have been worse. The ugly work is accomplished: The second-place La Liga finish, won by or maybe in spite of all those shameful crosses, all that furtive skittering up the touchlines, guarantees participation in next season’s Champions League. The present, mercifully, is over, and so it’s possible for fans to argue over differing paths to an imagined but plausible-seeming brighter future, instead of contemplating the apocalypse. If the club sells off Frenkie de Jong to buy a bunch of name-brand 35-year-olds who can’t get them out of the Champions League quarterfinals, I am going to jump-kick my television into a ravine.