The FC Barcelona season is two matches old, two matches in which the team has already demonstrated that it is ahead of last year’s unit in a crucial area: psychology.
Last season, Barça excelled against the top six sides, but suffered all of its damage against lower-table sides. In facing off and dispatching two of them by identical scorelines while in disarray in the wake of the Neymar departure speaks volumes to the ground work that Valverde has already done. But the hard work has only begun.
The technical side of all of this season thinking can be seen in this season preview over at Between the Lines. Essentially the club has replaced, over the past two seasons, three of the key profiles necesssary to have it go back to playing the kind of controlling football that Valverde seems to want, in Alves (Semedo), Keita (Paulinho) and Abidal (Umtiti).
That is only the beginning. As the recent Spain match showed, it is possible for a team to play the kind of football that Barça and Spain used to. It takes a complicit opponent and the kind of structure that Spain now has. Iniesta is back, people crow, louder than those who say that he never left. But if you look at how Italy played against Spain, it made life easy.
You can pause the frame at any point, draw a box around the midfield and you will only see Spain players. Italy tried a “modern” approach of wing attacking and crosses, but without the proper personnel to do it. By ceding the midfield to Spain, Italy helped Spain sparkle. They also committed to controlling Asensio, thinking that he would be a key player — then Isco killed them with a pair of golazos. Being ill-equipped in approach to chase a match, Italy was never going to catch Spain, and that was that.
Saying that Iniesta is back or Iniesta never left is wishful thinking that ignores the passage of time. He is a magnificent player, and will be essential to Barça and Spain, properly used. Spain has it easy in that they don’t have to rely on Iniesta every week, when wear and tear will become evident. They can work their wiles against opponents, many of whom will be as compliant as Italy as they try to break Spain down from the flanks.
Barça is a different matter. Opponents won’t be as complicit, spaces not as open. With all of the focus on midifeld and how the club has failed in that key area, what is forgotten is that during the glory years, the emphasis on that area was prime and results still tailed off because opponents found the answer. Coaches aren’t stupid. Is there any reason for that to be different now? Were Spain to play France, with its dynamic mids and forwards, packed with pace and ability to close down, how different would the result have been?
What will Barça do? If the Miami Classic and the first two matches are any indication, Valverde will be going for a modified version of the usual command and control notions. Tighter passing lines, less risk but still with an idea that Barça will have verticality present in players such as Dembele and Semedo. Valverde’s Barça could, in theory, look something like Guardiola’s first team with Messi, Henry and Eto’o. People forget that team’s balance of control and verticality because the short passing became the thing that everyone loved. But Barça won a treble with that balance, and had to shift as opponents figured it all out.
Luis Enrique had a different problem in that he had the three best attackers in the game and had to figure out how to maximize their talents. He would have been a fool had he not just decided to get them the ball, even as people slagged him for that approach. But he had the same set of problems in a different way as Guardiola: when opponents adapt, what do you do?
Guardiola tried a series of transfers, cycling through the likes of Ibrahimovic, Villa and Fabregas. Luis Enrique tried adaptations and a different kind of transfers, opting for theoretical improvements such as Andre Gomes, a potentially rangy, physical mid capable of driving the ball and also controlling play, and Paco Alcacer, a mobile, quick forward with a hard shot, an alternative to Suarez. Neither one worked in their first season, and are two massive question marks for this season.
But when Gomes didn’t work as planned, leaving aside the mental mess the team was over the course of the season, Luis Enrique had the problem of opponents who had it figured out. So they walled off Neymar, which cut off the team’s source of creativity as so much of the burden fell to the Brazilian. This isolated Suarez, and by Messi being mid/right focused, it isolated the three best attackers in football, a trio whose interplay fueled a treble.
Valverde saw this, like everyone else in the game. He began life with Neymar, and now must plan a different one. In many ways his task isn’t all that different, as he was never going to approach the game in the same way as Luis Enrique. Strangely, this made the loss of Neymar less damaging. What is also potentially interesting is that Dembele might be a better fit for what Valverde is planning than Neymar was.
For 145 million, people are expecting goals, but Dembele is an astonishing associative player and a creative force the club hasn’t had in some time. He won’t score as many goals as Neymar, though he will score some. But his presence could open up the Barça attack in ways not seen before. As a Neymar/Iniesta hybrid Suarez will get the service he has been missing as Neymar tried to beat a trio of defenders, and Messi will get the playing space he needs from movement created not only by Dembele, but by movement.
This is why, as people watched Spain and wonder why Barça can’t use Iniesta in the same way, it’s because that is impossible. Sergi Roberto is a player more suited to the way that Valverde will be approaching the control aspect of the game — smart, mobile and indefatigable, capable of covering lots of ground to retain control of the ball in a more dynamic way.
People will see a double pivot more than purists than would like, but the creative destruction of Busquets is magic, and is most effective up the pitch as he turns possession changes into scoring chances. Paulinho will, if he works as planned, buttress Busquets’ freedom to take risks. With creative, mobile CBs such as Pique and Umtiti, coupled with Semedo on the right.
There should also be a more balanced Barça attack. For all the talk about Neymar leaving because he wanted primacy, but Luis Enrique had already handed him the keys. The primacy he craved was psychological rather than tactical. Under Luis Enrique and Neymar, Barça became a left-focused team, even more so as Messi moved more central rather than right. Note the outing when Valverde ran Semedo and Vidal at an opponent. Imagine Semedo and Deulofeu as another possibility, with Dembele and Sergi Roberto on the left.
That is a metric crap ton of theory and hope, far more than supporters who want a sure thing are willing to embrace, but uncertainly is the way of any new season. This one is no exception. A lot will have to happen, but a couple of things will make life easier.
Real Madrid is weaker. Pepe, James and Morata are gone, which takes top-quality depth from them. They made some good depth additions with the likes of Ceballos and Asensio, but in strengthing midfield they are potentially running into the same problems as Barça did: who’s gonna put the ball in the net.
Only a fool would call PSG a super-team. Yes, they picked up Neymar and Mbappe, but are still the same PSG everywhere else. That makes them beatable.
Barça already has mental fortitude. Nothing like no major silver to motivate a group of champions. And if even half of the “ifs” work out, this team will have a bright, exciting season ahead of it with a treble not entirely outisde of the realm of possibility.
The challenge for supporters will be to wash this messy transfer window and the attendant feelings of impending doom from their heads. The window wasn’t as bad as many think in that two key needs were addressed, particularly if folks such as Gomes come good. If that doesn’t happen, look for the team to make moves in the January window.
For now? Patience. Which will be the biggest challenge for everyone connected to the team, from board and technical staff to supporters.