Las Palmas 1, Barça 4, aka “The future looks bright”

Imagine being — if rumor is true — Ernesto Valverde, watching Barça prance and dance against Las Palmas yesterday in a potentially tricky away romp that barely saw the team get out of third gear, without two key members of the XI and the best player in history not at his mercurial best.

Luis Suarez was razor-sharp and Neymar, a player many supporters can’t wait to see the back of for some inexplicable reason, had a direct hand in all four goals, including an absurd chip over distance for Suarez, who made no mistake.

It seems ridiculous in many ways that a team this good might only win the Copa. And the easy thing is to sit back and snarl because things aren’t going exactly to plan for Barça which, these days, means the team isn’t going to win the treble. More difficult is to recognize that we love a team that is capable of some astonishing football and a team that, despite the dire predictions, has a core of young talent that will be fascinating to watch develop even as the next coach must oversee the easing into the golden years, the remnants of the best home-grown collection of football talent that the game has ever seen.

We got just a glimpse — well, more than a glimpse of that future as Las Palmas was dismantled amid somewhat controversial circumstances as makeshift right back Lucas Digne took down Prince Boateng. The referee, Gonzalez Gonzales, decided upon a yellow rather than strict adherence to the rulebook, which would have called for a straight red as Digne was last man.

What is interesting about this situation is how it typifies the in many ways the snakebit season Barça has had to manage. Digne was playing right back because Vidal was injured, Sergi Roberto was suspended and because Gerard Pique was out with a stomach ailment, the man who probably would have played RB, Javier Mascherano, had to play CB. Of course Mascherano was injured during pre-game warmups, necessitating a start for Marlon Santos, just called up from the B team. Later in the match when Digne was subbed to rush off and buy his lottery ticket, Andre Gomes was called on to play RB.

It’s been that kind of a season.

The first goal was lustrous, and a couple of things will be forgotten about that shouldn’t be. The first was the delicate, supremely confident dance that Marlon had to do in order to feed Busquets, who then had to do his own dance to get the ball to Iniesta. And he didn’t just have to do a dance. He also had to execute a perfectly weighted backheel pass to a teammate. From there, the Maestro fed Suarez — as suddenly in form as he was out — and watched the result like a chef in the kitchen who already knows the dish is going to turn out perfect. Suarez slid the pass to Neymar. Done. It was 0-1 via an astonishing goal that not only got from one to the other with alacrity, but also managed to demonstrate supreme skill with every touch of the ball. It was a stupefying goal.

Barça isn’t hard to play for because of the many things that people cite. It isn’t any particular system. Rather it’s the fact that everything happens so quickly. Busquets made a play under pressure that almost any other midfielder extant would have played back to the keeper or a CB. He did something that should in reality be impossible, and fed Iniesta, who had a nanosecond to do what he did with the ball. It required perfect control and vision as well the ability to slot a ball over distance. Wait a fraction of a moment and Suarez is offside, leaving Barça to continue to struggle with Las Palmas. Everything has to happen in your mind so that by the time the ball gets to your foot the only thing left is a reflex action.

Umtiti can sparkle not only because he is good, but because the way that he played at Lyon prepped him for his role at Barça. But even he has moments where his mind doesn’t work at Barça speed. Some players can accelerate their brains, others can’t. That, more than ability, is a success definer at Barça — can you keep up? Compare the alacrity with which Paco Alcacer is moving now to his first appearances. Notice how differently Gomes moves now. All of that takes time.

Most footballers are reactive, because actions force a reaction to them. The best footballers are always ahead of the game, always know what is going to happen because their skills are so high that it frees their mind to play the match a few moves in advance. By the time a player reacts at Barça, it’s too late. The hole for the pass is gone, the attacker is now offside, the defender has regained his balance. It’s the biggest reason a transfer can’t be adequately evaluated until a second season. It takes time to learn to play the game that quickly.

The second goal was Ronaldinhoesque, as Neymar was on the sideline, seemingly under the control of a pair of defenders, who are playing Neymar to make the run. But Neymar has already seen Suarez, perfectly positioned between his attending pair of defenders, and understands that if he can get the pass to him, a goal will result. But every move will have to be perfectly timed. Neymar unleashed a pass of astonishing quality. Lemos was running with Suarez, and had cover. Had the pass not been perfect, he would have made the interception. But it was, so he got to stand there and watch Suarez slot home. Javi Varas rushed out to smother Suarez, expecting a bit of loose control, expecting the finish to not be as sublime. Wrong. The pass was such that Suarez just one-timed it.

On the third goal, the moving parts required to have that Rakitic pass plop where Neymar could get to it, that Neymar already had the presence of mind to see how Varas was playing him and try the header across the face of goal to the far post. We just struggle to understand, sometimes, how this stuff happens and how necessary it is that it happen.

The fourth goal would have been a favorite had that first goal not happened, a goal that is also in many ways symbolic of future Barça, a high-speed thing that, even as many anticipate the team being handed over to Neymar as playmaker and showrunner, was symbolic of the fact that this has already happened in many ways. A pass over distance finds Alba in full-speed stride as he runs onto the ball, with Neymar running at full speed because he already knows what is possible. Alba slots to Neymar who doesn’t slow down and, with the deftest of touches, slides the ball past a charging keeper into the far corner.

There was no time for anything in this perpetual motion gem of a goal. If anyone pauses, everything is done. No goal. It was a goal reminiscent of the type we see Neymar generate with Brazil, high-speed joga bonito that leaves a team helpless. Future Barça.

Many will assert that the goals, not being born of 32 perfect wee passes from perfectly positioned players, aren’t Barça goals. But which Barça? As a team evolves to face the new set of challenges that pop up to potentially thwarts its ambition, the way that it plays will of necessity become malleable.

But a future is also based in youth. At the end of the match, Barça ended with a passel of young talents on the pitch, even as many scream about Barça not having young talent: Gomes, Alcacer, Neymar, Denis Suarez, Umtiti, Marlon. The last two, in particular Marlon, sparkled. The Barça B defender, in addition to key plays and interceptions, had 82 passes, more than any other player in the XI. But they weren’t just passes. They were Barça passes, that take advantage of time and space to create an imbalance that can be leveraged into danger.

The last time we saw Marlon with the XI, he wasn’t the player that he was yesterday. He was stronger, smoother, calmer on and off the ball, reading play like a CB trained in the Barça system and reacting accordingly. He was in places where a freshly called-up CB shouldn’t have been. Young players make mistakes, don’t fully understand how play is developing and where they are supposed to be. And Marlon will have those moments where he won’t. But not yesterday. Against Las Palmas he and Umtiti were like a badass boy band where every song is titled, “No,” except for the “None Shall Pass” B side.

Yes, Las Palmas got a goal. Yes, people sought to blame someone or another. But the simple fact is that it was an excellent goal of the type we customarily see against Barça and that work in our favor, usually — goals of a high quality involving a sequence beyond the customary capability of an opponent. So they get one, and that’s that. Some will view those goals as an indictment of the defense, but what they really are is part of the game and the risks attendant to playing a high line with CBs that function more like DMs while fullbacks are pushed up in attack. The future will continue to feature those kinds of goals. Sorry.

But at the end of a match where people were disappointed because the impossible — Sevilla beating Real Madrid at the Bernabeu — didn’t happen, the observant could be buoyed by something wonderful happening. We got to see a little peek at the future, and it’s bright.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

13 Comments

  1. luisthebeast
    May 15, 2017

    My thoughts about Valverde:He came to Greece two times to coach Olympiacos,a team that won 19 from last 21 Leagues.Yeah wow i know:-P
    But he is the only coach that Olympiacos fans still remember and admire and sing sometimes his name when things dont go well.
    Why?Because under him the team played the best football and they were really a joy to watch(I dont support their team btw).
    Main things was the high pressing,the fast circulation of the ball,good midfield play and fast wingers.
    In his days Olympiacos played really like a good European team not a team from a poor league,trying to defend and destroy opponents game.
    The main problem was that after 60-65m the energy of the team dropped a lot and that have to do with the fitness level of Greek teams high pressing.
    He also had to deal with two presidents,far worst than Bartomeu.Believe me Bartomeu is a saint if u compare him with Greek clubs presidents.
    So he is nt,as many believe,a “yes sir” kind of manager.
    Thats all for now!

  2. *~ Dumangõli - Oüdyaar, Aisalangådi ~*
    May 16, 2017

    \\

    can we bring in a woman as the next barca manager?

  3. Messiah10
    May 16, 2017

    Valverde isn’t the answer for me. Las Palmas have been on cruise control for much of the 2nd half of season after they thought they were secure. We need a coach that inspires. Not one that can’t motivate players to finish a season strong

    • Anders
      May 16, 2017

      Not sure if the context just went over my head, but Valverde isn’t coaching Las Palmas. In case it was just a typo, I don’t think Bilbao has finished this season poorly at all. 9 wins in their last 14 in the league is pretty good with the players at his disposal.

  4. May 17, 2017

    Assuming it is Valverde, have seen a lot of people talking about how the choice doesn’t inspire them. So what. It isn’t supposed to. The job of a coach is to help the team win matches.

    Given the limited recruitment options of Athletic, Valverde has them in a European position. Quite impressive. They also play an excellent type of football, even as that football will probably have no bearing on what he does at Barça, because he will have different players at his disposal.

    • Rami
      May 17, 2017

      Public and mainstream perceptions are always temperamental and fickle, Remember a few months back when sampaoli lead most of the polls by a noticeable margin, Now, After a CL exist against liecster, And wobbly results with sevilla, It’s hard to see anyone shout out him name, Without checking their right and left shoulders to see if anyone is looking.

      If those majority voices that called out for sampaoli were based on a clear criteria and concrete views on his coaching skills, methods and style, Informed based on his history, Then the last few months shouldn’t have changed their views, But the fact his ‘stock value’ plummeted this much in the middle of a season, Exposes what charade the whole ‘best coach for fcb’ is, Akin to Hollywood culture, One moment you’re the cool personality, The man of the hours, leading the front pages of tabloids , A month later, You’re old news, And no one wants anything to do with you.

      Whoever our next coach will be, And it seems Valverde is the one, His time at FCB will be a roller coaster of downs and tiny ups just like it was with enrique, One match you’re the worst thing that ever happened to FCB, The next match, You’re not so bad but we could’ve gotten someone better.

  5. TITO
    May 17, 2017

    Well, no favors from Celta tonight.
    The ref also didn’t do us any good, that second goal, that penalty/red card call…

  6. G6O
    May 17, 2017

    So it looks like Madrid will win by a margin of 3 points.

    Now can anyone honestly say that things like the blatant penalty not called against Villareal or the goal not given against Betis had no influence on the final outcome?

    • Davour
      May 18, 2017

      Well, technically, the goal against Betis would have given us two points more, not enough if RM win against Malaga – but sure, it is annoying. But we missed so many chances, it is hard to blame anyone else. It is always easy in hindsight to pick out moments that cost us the title – losing at home to Alaves or away to Deportivo seem to me the most disappointing ones, together with dropping points in the first Clasico. But given that people call this season a failure, and we are one win away from being champions, I guess there are good reasons to be optimistic for next season, given a few key arrivals and departures.

      • Dar_vincy
        May 18, 2017

        I agree with you, Davor. The Deportivo match was particularly the one I find most disappointing. Prior to the match, we just achieved one of the greatest comebacks in football. We were playing against a team prancing in the relegation territory. On top of that, the players knew their fates were in their hands and just need to win the remaining games to be champions. Yet, they approached that match with the most repulsive attitude a team in their position should exhibit. Changed line-up or not, we shouldn’t be losing to them, especially with Suarez and Messi present. Most annoying was that same team was a cakewalk for Madrid’s second team few weeks ago. Hopefully, we’ll learn from this.

  7. Kd
    May 18, 2017

    Agree with Kxevin, a coach is there to win matches. Whether he inspires or is a tactical genius is besides the point. Most of us would agree that Zidane is no tactical guru a la Guardiola or Allegri. But he managed his squad really well. They had the players and he mostly needed to find a formula and stick to it. I think he has done a wonderful job with the Real squad and his management style is so similar to Ancelotti. Anyways coming back to Valverde, here’s a guy who has been in the reckoning for the Barca job for a while. He was in the reckoning during the Guardiola times and also when we hired Enrique. In fact its high time he is given the job. If you have seen Athleti playing you wopuld know that he plays sparkling front foot football. He doesn’t have too many choices to recruit players for them and he has still consistently managed to do the job well by making sure Athleti are always in the top 4 or top 6. And if he can bring one or two Athleti players with him, even better. I would be quite satisfied with his appointment. Atleast the brand of football will be enjoyable. And come on now, we gave a chance to Pep, Tito, Luis who either didn’t have much top flight experience or did not perform miracles with the other teams. So why not Valverde. I think he will be a good signing.

    • Davour
      May 18, 2017

      Valverde seems to me a level headed guy, with tons of experience who is worth a shot in the spotlight. He has Barca experience, and from Athletic he knows the focus on home-grown talent. He does not seem afraid to give young talent a run. For now, I would rather bring a guy like him than some hot shot coach with too many ideas that will take time to implement. Really, Barca do not need innovation at this point, but stability to let the talent shine. I hate to give credit to RM, but this is really what Zidane has offered – good man-to-man management, solid team work, no fancy stuff. He has used his strengths really well, and combined with some luck things have played out in his favour. To LE’s credit, I think he brought a good winning mentality to the team, too, but it was somehow broken buy the clasico loss last season, and has not been recovered since. Doubt has crept in and undermined confidence, aided by lack of fortune and by lack of new players stepping up. It is hard to keep things running smoothly all of the time.

      So, Valverede, if it is indeed you: decide on how you want to play Messi, and build from there. Signings must be designed to scaffold his and Neymar’s talents – Messi playmaker, Neymar the chaos-maker – and to allow Busquets to play his game. And, of course, finding a way to wake up Suarez for a final (?) excellent season would be welcome… We still have the best players in the world – if not as many of them as we used to!

  8. georgjorge
    May 18, 2017

    Haven’t seen any mention of it, but Barca B will have play-offs to decide whether they can get back up to the second tier division next week. If they make it, it will be a nice step towards improving our La Masia talents again – better opportunities to practice for the first team, and a more attractive B team to get into overall.

    Anyone know anything about their coach, Gerard López (not as a first team candidate just out of interest)? Haven’t watched any B games this season.

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