Football in the age of pandemic can open unexpected windows on how the elite go about their business. Coaching instructions are heard more clearly in empty stadiums. More substitutions mean more strategic decisions. Then there’s the politics of the touchline cooling-break, an extra opportunity for a team-talk.
In the second half at Celta Vigo on Saturday, where Barcelona pursued the points they needed to maintain their neck-and-neck pursuit of Real Madrid in La Liga's title race, Barca assistant coach Eder Sarabia had something he wanted to say to Lionel Messi, the captain. The hydration break was his opportunity. Twice he tried to engage Messi. Twice the Argentine appeared uninterested, Messi walking away, muttering something and then turning away, without eye contact.
The footage of the incident looks like damning evidence of a schism, and scrutiny of it has dominated the build-up to Barcelona’s meeting with Atletico Madrid on Tuesday, a tough assignment in Barcelona’s unforgiving chase of an in-form Real Madrid, who have a two-point lead with six matches to go.
“I don’t give it any importance,” said Barcelona head coach Quique Setien of Messi’s cooling-break cold shouldering of Sarabia. “There are always differences of opinion. I wasn’t always an easy player myself. What we have to do is convince everyone of a common idea.” Setien, who won three caps for Spain in the 1980s, may not have been an easy player; but nor did he ever have the status that Messi, the most powerful individual at Barca, brings to any ‘difference of opinion’.
Setien’s will not be the last word on the fallout from a troubling trip to Vigo, where Barcelona twice held the lead before drawing 2-2. Immediately after the game, striker Luis Suarez, asked to address a poor sequence of results away from home - Barcelona have drawn their last two on the road - identified clearly where he felt responsibility lies.
“The coaches are there for a reason, to look at these situations,” said Suarez, scorer of both Barcelona goals. “We give everything out on the pitch. There is the feeling that, away from home, we are dropping the big points that we didn’t in previous seasons.”
The tensions between senior players and coaches carried over into the dressing-room after the match, with players critical of Setien’s tactics and his substitutions. One of the substitutes, Antoine Griezmann, had an unhappy 10 minutes. The €120 million (Dh495m) summer signing was placed on the far right of Barcelona’s defensive wall when Celta’s Iago Aspas beat it to score the second equaliser. Goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen signalled Griezmann’s turning his body away as the key to Aspas’s successful free-kick.
But the chronic, debilitating schisms are those between the players and their bosses. Confrontation has become second nature at Camp Nou. In September Messi criticised the club’s summer recruitment. Since January, when Setien, along with his deputy Sarabia, were appointed to replace Ernesto Valverde, the dressing-room and the executives at the club have frequently been in open dispute.
When Valverde was sacked, sporting director Eric Abidal publicly cited the players' loss of confidence in Valverde as a cause. Messi very publicly disputed those claims. When the season was suspended because of the coronavirus crisis, the board, and president Josep Maria Bartomeu, were again at odds over the salary concessions the players should make.
Barcelona have lost tens of millions of euros through the shutdown, and the club, already in a delicate economic position, are acting with urgency ahead of the next transfer window. A swap deal in which midfielder Arthur, 23, will go to Juventus, and Miralem Pjanic, 30, will come to Camp Nou was finalised on Monday.
Arthur will remain part of the Barca squad until next month at least, and indeed came on as a substitute at Celta, hours before passing his Juventus medical. The Brazil international may have his mind elsewhere but, in a thin squad, he is still needed, with senior midfielders Frenkie de Jong and Sergi Roberto recuperating from injury, and a hectic schedule ahead.
Setien could do without such distractions. The Arthur issue is one among many. At the weekend, the former Barcelona captain Xavi, now coaching in Qatar, reminded, in an interview, that his "dream is to manage Barca". Xavi was asked to take the job in January and declined.
The current head coach knows any future at Camp Nou beyond August hangs on results in the next three weeks. Setien came into the club, with Valverde abruptly removed, with Barcelona top of the league. He came into the restart with Barca first in the table. They are now trailing in second.
In all, Setien has overseen a mere three away wins in nine away games, and lost his first clasico, at Real Madrid. It is Madrid who have the momentum, and the healthier signs of team spirit, in the race for the Spanish title.