This is why you play the matches. This is why some counsel patience.
Three weeks into the La Liga season, and it has been interesting. Barça top the table, four points ahead of its eternal rival in Real Madrid, who have dropped points in consecutive weeks. Barça have three clean sheets, and are playing the kind of football that isn’t revolutionary nor evolutionary. It is simply a reaction to the personnel that the new coach, Ernesto Valverde, has to hand.
Only a crazy person wouldn’t say that it’s early days, too early to say anything except portents are good, but let’s look at what happened today:
— Messi hat trick
— Jordi Alba brilliance as he was freed tactically
— Deulofeu had an excellent match
— Rakitic was brilliant because he has a right back now
— Gomes was subbed in and was quite good.
— Dembele was subbed on and got an assist
— Paulinho came on to show exactly what he will be doing for the side
— The team evinced mental strength
The biggest thing Valverde has done is the thing that Luis Enrique didn’t do, which is to recognize, as Pep Guardiola did, that Barça is crap without the ball. So when it is lost, get it back. When you have it, keep it. The close passing game has returned, with a patient buildup, movement on and off the ball and the run dictating the pass. In the second Messi goal, all eleven players on the pitch touched the ball for Barça.
Barça is a team in full, a group of players playing as a group, rather than nine players working in service of three.
Things seem logical because of Neymar’s departure. When some suggested that the transfer might have been a good thing and explained why, so many threw sideeye. But for a team that values possession and a balanced attack, having a footballing genius on the left isn’t entirely the best thing. Neymar was something of a luxury in that he could start attacks, kick start stalled ones and in general raise hell.
This also meant that players who work best as part of an overall system were too often reduced to bit players as Neymar did his thing on the left, reducing other players to spectators and the likes of Messi and Suarez to recipients of largesse. Neymar’s presence also necessitated a high-risk style, because the objective was to get the ball to the front three as soon as possible. But if possession was turned, Barça and its defense were vulnerable, a vulnerability made even more so by the welcome mat hung out on the right side of the pitch.
The arrival of Nelson Semedo seems to have taken in the welcome mat. The new signing was fantastic today, and because Rakitic didn’t have to babysit, he could be the midfielder signed from Sevilla, a player who makes incisive passes and can drive the ball at goal.
Valverde has made the game simple again, something played by schoolboys in the park who don’t understand beating three people off the dribble or trying sombreros. The passes are short and sharp of necessity — they want to keep the ball. When the ball moves more between players, the odds that Messi will get his hands on it in a damaging position increase exponentially. It is no longer, “Hey, I can’t do anything with this, bail us out,” but rather a group of footballers playing as a collective.
Comparisons will be made, but Luis Enrique played the way that he deemed best. If someone hands you the keys to a Ferrari, what are you going to do? Haul lumber? The presence of the three best attackers in the game made it incumbent upon him to get them the ball and let them do what they don. That worked brilliantly for a while, then opponents figured it out and change had to come, too late for Luis Enrique, who didn’t have the right personnel to change. He still had that Ferrari, and still wasn’t going to haul logs with it.
When Neymar left, Valverde seized the opportunity to return to the kind of football that emphasizes the collective. Ball movement creates space. Suarez had more space than he has had in a while, and so did Messi. That space was created not through football alchemy, but simply by football movement.
This team was supposed to suck. A crappy transfer window and a coach few wanted spelled doom. To boot, Real Madrid made all the right decisions in the off season, and were poised for an era of dominance. It was easy to sit back and suggest that by getting rid of Morata, James Rodriguez and Pepe, the team was weaker in significant areas. Harder was to get people accustomed to expecting the worst to see that everything might not be terrible, that a weaker RM combined with a coach who looked to have the right ideas and an angry, focused team might all be a good thing.
There were a few mental errors, but the team was connected and involved in a way that it rarely was last season. A turnover happened in midfield, and this blaugrana blur streaked through the center of the screen to win the ball back. It was Messi, who said, simply enough, “Not today, Satan,” as last season, he probably would have stood there as an opponent break crashed against the rocks of a defense with gaps and holes.
There is, also, suddenly pace in the side. Alba showed his, Semedo showed his, Umtiti showed his, Deulofeu showed his. And it’s the kind of pace that can fix problems. A brilliant Espanyol cross floated into the box, presaging doom until Semedo turned on the jets to head the pass away. Pique gave him a shout-out, as that is a different play when Sergi Roberto is the right back, and quite possibly a conceded goal. The group is connected.
One Barça goal came from Alba making a run the length of the pitch. He didn’t stop and give it to Neymar, but rather was an essential player in the buildup. The chemistry between Messi and Deulofeu continues to build, the latter a 12m buyback who is working hard and making excellent decisions on the ball, something few would have predicted when he returend.
Writer Graham Hunter was part of the TV commenting team on BeIN Sports. His observation was that Barça is, above all things, mentally connected in a compelling way so far this season. The teams that Barça beat aren’t and won’t be Liga powerhouses, but they are the kinds of team that might have gotten a result against Barça last season. Not this one.
“Told ya sos” become nobody, but a if a season was contested on paper, we wouldn’t need to bother with playing matches. A gloomy atmosphere around the club and the team have led to a gloomy prognosis for the season, one that so far isn’t being borne out by the committed collective that does battle for the blaugrana every week. Supporters scoffed at moves made and moves not made, even as Valverde said that he had a fantastic squad and was ready for battle. Many suggested that he was whistling past the graveyard.
The club spent 145m for Ousmane Dembele, who made his debut today with some sterling touches and an assist that was notable for having been the exact right thing. He flowed into space, noted Suarez begging for the cross and made the proper decision. No hot dogging, no going for the shot himself, no taking the move a step too far and losing the ball. He slotted for Suarez, who (this time) made no mistake.
We sit around, discuss and argue, and make prediciton based on what we think is going to happen. That is fine, but then the games come. Then and only then are questions answered. It was “only” Espanyol, just like it was only Alaves. But the team looks sharp, focused and ready, with things falling into place. What’s next? Who knows. But it’s likely to be fun finding out.