Barça 5, Espanyol 0, aka “The start of something?”

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.

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Written by:

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.

24 Comments

  1. Rivaldo
    September 9, 2017

    “… fun finding out.”

    I pray that this is what will dominate these threads this season – the joy of football; the joy of Barca; HAPPINESS!
    We have become something other than this – lack of HOPE seems to describe the tone many of commentators here in recent times. Bring back the joy.

    The team seems connected for sure; Family-like. I liked the atmosphere from the stands too – they were behind this team today in a way, we the armchair fan, haven’t been recently.

    Kudos to MY Team. Barca 4 Life

  2. CentreBackJockey
    September 9, 2017

    Very satisfying to see the team build up from the back and look as cool as a cucumber. Even under great pressure from Espanyol’s high press, it looked so easy.

    Despite the the result we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. We were very fortunate with our first two goals and Espanyol fluffed two dead set goal opportunities. We have yet to be tested under tough conditions to really see how our players perform then.

    • Víctor
      September 9, 2017

      That’s the point of the article… we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. Many Barca supporters were predicting a dire and a horrible season because of the signings and Neymar’s departure… but so far, things look fine… does that mean that they will always be fine? Of course not… there are gonna be tough moments, even some harsh defeats, but let’s see how everything turns out.

  3. PPos
    September 9, 2017

    I was very impressed with the overall performance of the team. The sense of balance that Valverde has brought to the squad is very noticeable. I am absolutely delighted with Semedo. He’s fast, he’s smart, he’s got skills. He is going to become and excellent player for us. The team has regained pace in key areas. Deulofeu ran had a sprint of 34.0 km/hr. Neymar’s top speed is apparently 34.7 km/hr. I definitely agree with Neymar’s tendency to try and be the one man show on the left wing. The team is playing more cohesively as a team and not 3+9 which isn’t the way to go.
    It’s very good that we have played 3 games and given up 0 goals. LE’s team although they were very good going forward. We were piss poor on the defensive end of things. Championships are won with study defenses as Chelsea did last season in England or Juventus did in Italy.
    The true test of fire for this new squad is going to be the Juventus game in the mid-week. Dybala and Juve are in really great form and to spank them as pay back for last season will only strengthen our resolve and build confidence.
    Deulofeu was very impressive today. I can see that he’s starting to gain more and more confidence in the one on one, which is what we need. His pace really opens up the field for us, I just wish he would try and finish more often, because in order to win the all the titles, we need to have a squad that is able to hurt you from all positions, from the forwards, to the midfielders to even the defenders. That was one of the keys to Zidane’s team last season. Both the starting eleven and the substitutes contributed in the goal scoring front, because as Madrid showed today, we can’t have Messidependencia and it looks like they’re suffering from Cristianodependencia. HAHA!
    It was great to see the smiles on the players’ faces today. Messi was happy which he did not look like last game before the international break. Hopes are high. Happiness and joy is returning to Barcelona. Now let’s get rid of Bartomeu, renew Messi and Iniesta with the new President and bring in a new era at FC Barcelona.

  4. hereiam
    September 9, 2017

    As I have said all along, the team isn’t suck.
    The same team minus Neymar demolished EE at their own playground last year.
    But one or two injuries here and there, can we still dominate?
    We are as Messi dependent as ever. It’s 3-0 at 65 minutes and we didn’t sub him out.
    Messi is 30 now, are we still going to play him 90 min every match?
    Especially when crunch time arrives and we have a title race?
    50 matches a season don’t prolong careers.
    At 33 Iniesta occasionally looks like broken good already.
    I don’t have the heart to see the same happen to Messi.
    Are we just going to exhaust them and throw them out when they are broken goods?
    That’s why I’ve said future planning is important, and don’t get lost in the wins.
    Probably just me though. Sigh.

    • PPos
      September 10, 2017

      No you’re totally right, someone needs to drill into Messi that once he gets his hattrick there’s really no point in him remaining on the field. I hope Valverde realizes this, and starts a good system of rotations, but in order for this to work, he has to make sure that the bench is stepping up and picking up the goalscoring slack. I really want to see this be implemented so when crunch time comes, he’s fresh, and a fresh Messi will win you titles.

      • Davour
        September 10, 2017

        It makes no sense leaving him on after two rough NT games, that’s true, but this time it was perhaps to scaffold the newcomers, and to let Dembele be a part of a complete frontline. And let’s not forget – he is a master of on-pitch-resting!

  5. squeen
    September 10, 2017

    Put a smile on my face. I do love it when they are able to consistently short-pass their way out of the high press. Total eye-candy.

    Fingers crossed.

  6. Davour
    September 10, 2017

    Thanks for the article – balanced as always. I wrote my (positive) reaction in the last thread, but just a quick thought. It seems that summer engenders either exaggerated hope (last year) or doom (this year) – perhaps since we are starved of watching the team? I enjoyed the game immensely and see a lot of promise. I still think we are a bit thin on key creativity, vulnerable to injuries, rotation and fatigue – BUT apparently so are RM (no Modric, Casemiro, and perhaps CR). I still think that RM have renewed their squad intelligently, but these first games they have run of of their luck from last season, when it seemed they always managed to snatch the late win, and we were the ones missing sitters.

    And let’s not forget – there is the beginning of a new spine for us, too, in Umtit-Marlon-Semedo-Alena-Dembele, and – I hear – a few (more) gems in B. Finally, many comments (min included) have noted that we can still have a good season if a few players up their game (aided by EV’s system), and already we see tendencies in Gomes, Rakitic, Alba, Roberto (in mid) and Denis. Might or mightn’t happen, but so far, so fun!

  7. Messiah10
    September 10, 2017

    Was definitely impressed with the display last night. Semedo looks like a seamless fit. He & Umititi were cleaning up a lot of balls the opposition normally get to simply bc of anticipation & pace. Busi was in & has been in majestic form. Back to his best. Rak didn’t get enough mentions for me from Graham & the play by play. Alba was incredible. The only starter I thought off the pace was iniesta. He had a few(yes I said few) stray passes. Didn’t make as many runs into the danger area as well. However, he pressed like a man possessed & was constantly available as an outlet when we were under pressure. Very excited about the high tempo press & new signings.

  8. September 10, 2017

    For me, The team is reacting to the Neymar drama the best way they can by being together like a family.
    Rakitic, Semedo, Alba all were excellent, but I want to give a big shout out for Deulofeu. The kid is putting in his 110%, to prove himself to the coach and the team. His decision making, for me, was even better than Neymar’s (i know its only 1 game but my heart says he is only going to improve)
    And Dembele, little time, but he might have just put in the application for the trade mark, MSD.
    Finally Messi and Busquests!!! nothing to say.

  9. Adekay
    September 10, 2017

    I have been reading posts from this website for almost 7 months now cuz I could remember the first post I read was the comeback, since then I have always loved the authors with their creative writing which has served as a source of inspiration cuz I write for my school sports paper …..Each time I had a doubt about being a cule I would just get here read a post and feel I support the best team in the world. I was unable to watch this match live cuz I work part-time as a Barber but watching the replays it was like I was watching a team playing as a family…hope to see more of this this season and I hope barca will unleash hell upon dybala and co. on Tuesday night.

  10. Jim
    September 11, 2017

    Just finished rewatching and I have to say it’s good to have decent football back after what seemed like an endless summer.

    And the football was actually a good bit better than decent. I said at half time in the last post that the way we had moved the ball around was much better than for most of last season and as a result we would reap dividends later in the match – and so it turned out. Good ball movement, control and a lot of correct decision making went on, especially in the first half. They came out to press and gave it a good shot, yet after twenty five minutes they had had 20% possession. That just kills you. We passed all around them and once you then go ahead it takes a pretty good team to come back.

    So, as has been said, far too early to say anything definite about our chances but some things are obvious, at least to me

    – with this team in this frame of mind we can move the ball well enough to threaten anyone and free up Messi. If they’re chasing the ball so hard eventually they’ll lose him

    – not to bad mouth him ( too much) since he’s gone but my biggest beef with the side last year was the sheer number of times Neymar lost the ball. How often did we lose it last night ? That makes defending the quick break easier.

    – as Kxevin said we now have pace in the side. That will help in defence where we must have the two quickest FBs in the league and in attack as we saw.

    – with Suarez back we have our presence and movement in the box again. Add that to Deulofeu’s destabilising quick movement and that’s a handful that again makes Messi’s job easier.

    – Iniesta was still running and getting into their box well into the last quarter of his third game in around a week. He’s looking happier already playing wise with a freer role which suits him. Just wish someone important would stick their arm round him and tell him how indispensable he is to the team. Pique or Messi or even a flying visit from Xavi to remind him that nothing is ever as good again as playing football would be good. I sense he’s still worried he’s worth his place for another year which is nonsense. Did anybody get the ball off him in this game ? You don’t need pace when you have his skills.

    – another clean sheet. Mark my words, this defence could become seriously good if it can stay together. Best I’ve seen since the days of Puyol. We have four players who know their defensive job, even if the FBs are good going forward. I loved the way Semedo looks round rather than ball watching, Umtiti is getting much better at covering for Alba and slowing the play down to give time for recovery and Pique has finally taken on the mantle of organising them. Loved his high five for Semedo with his brilliant defensive header and also the way Alba roasted TS for his ridiculous run out to the edge of his box then retreating, a big no no for a keeper. Have to say though that TS’ passing was superb.

    – a lot of our players are all of a sudden playing as well as I remember them ever playing. Pique, Alba , Busi were all brilliant. In fact Busi’s display was an absolute exhibition of the skills needed to play DM for us. Don’t see that skill set in any o f the others. Add to that Rakitic had a much better game ( I’m guessing he realises he came close to leaving this summer and needs to up his game. ) Good on him if he does because both Paulinho and SR have more pace than him and could make the last part of the team a bit quicker. Competition for first team places is good.

    Now on to the harder bit. Juventus are a whole different class to what we have faced in the league so far. Can we break down their defence with our quick passing ? Can we handle their quick breaks ? They will have more of the ball so we’ll have to run more. Are we up for it ?

    Bring it on.

    • G6O
      September 12, 2017

      Rakitic is probably playing better not just because he realized he has to step up but also because there is a proper RB right now, so he does not have to cover for him.

      • Jim
        September 13, 2017

        Yeah, I’ve never really been convinced by that argument, G60. By the same token Iniesta shouldn’t have been able to contribute anything offensively on the other side as Jordi Alba bombs forward as much ( more? ) on the other side. Also, I can’t remember any occasions when Rakitic actually did anything at RB while filling in but I could be wrong there.

  11. georgjorge
    September 12, 2017

    What a game. I have the feeling this is going to be a very fun season for us.

    Juventus surely are among the best five footballing sides in Europe. First half, I thought “we can at least match them, that’s a good sign”. Then in the second half, our team just outplayed them in every way possible. Everyone had a great game, possibly except Suarez (like Kxevin said, the worst best player) and Dembélé (who I hope won’t be disheartened by the amount of time it takes to get into such a team). Iniesta still ghosting past players, Semedo and Jordi Alba snuffing out threats with pace…

    One help we had was the referee. When Messi got his yellow for protesting, he talked a few words to the referee, then he became silent. And determined. He seemed to turn the intensity up a notch afterwards (even still defending way back in the 90th minute), and it’s hard to stop him when he does that. More yellows for him please ; )

  12. Davour
    September 12, 2017

    Lovely stuff. A little shaky at times in first, but also patience, back to tiring the opponent. My commentators complained about sideway passing, and I though “wait”. 2nd we were brilliant. Iniesta was superb throughout, and Semedo is where opponent’s counters wither and die. If he keeps this up, he will be invaluable to the team.

    Dembele had a few nice moments (like for the first goal), but was not ready for this yet. Lost confidence in his passing; he will find it again, when he learns the rhythm of the team.

    Suarez is a worry, though. He loses to many balls; though he has his moments of brilliance, too. Still, must decrease those losses.

    Finally, I do think Paulinho can be a good bit part player for us, after all, from what I’ve seen. Confident, strong, fast, decent touch. We’ll see.

    Exciting, this!

  13. PPos
    September 12, 2017

    Man! Dybala was right. This Barcelona squad has learned how to defend again! It’s been four games in the season and we have conceded 0 goals! how odd does that seem? It’s great. I am really enjoying the work Valverde is doing. The crushing pressure is back, when we lost the ball we were on our bike racing down the Juventus players.

    Semedo is a beast. I really enjoy how he doesn’t shy away from anything and is willing to commit the technical foul to avoid breakaways. Umtiti was sublime as was Pique. Hell the entire squad was great. Suarez is still working off the bad off form rust.

    Are there any hyperboles left for Leo Messi? What a performance by the man. It seems that he’s regained his fire to reclaim his title as the best in the world seeing how CR7 is probably going to tie him on 5 Ballon D’Ors, and that is good for us.

    Dembele looked good, a little shaky at times, but its only to be expected from a guy who is only 20, playing in front of 90,000 people against Juventus.

    Iniesta was sublime. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen Iniesta play this well, The injuries he suffered early last season definitely killed his match rhythm and form.

    • Davour
      September 13, 2017

      Indeed. We must certainly be patient with Dembele. Any comparisons to the young Neymar are unfair (the Brazilian had plenty experience of a big stage, was a year older, if I recall, and did not set the world on fire right away at all). The investment in Dembele is like going for a young new company – it won’t generate a lot of revenue in the early stages, but might turn into Apple in the long run. I am a bit torn about him starting already, but I guess he might as well get used to it. Showed potential, really, so as long as he doesn’t lose confidence, he be just fine. Key with support from the team, and he seems to have it. Messi important in this.

      • September 13, 2017

        Me too Davour, wasn’t expecting Dembele to start. He still has a lot of acclimatising to do in this team. But my hopes for him are growing.
        And Semedo might grow into a bigger legend than Alves. what a player.
        In the first half, I was quite unhappy to see that our 3 lines had lost that compactness, with lots of space between all of them. But it got better in the second.
        If we keep growing in confidence, we will have an exciting season.

  14. September 13, 2017

    saw this comment on Busi in Guardian
    ”But I must say tonight I was roundly impressed, more than ever, if possible, by SERGIO BUSQUETS. He is a total freak of nature; always there, blocking, stopping, recovering, controlling, never (ever) losing the ball or misplacing it, helping, providing, solving, defending, attacking, covering, pushing, breaking through, opening, closing… always cleverly, tirelessly, selflessly. The team’s deep machinery; Messi’s base line; the beating heart of Barça. He never scores goals, he’ll never enjoy a fraction of the fame the little one buzzing around ten or fifteen metres further up the pitch gets. But Busquets is a footballing colossus. Why the hell is a player like him never rated for prizes or awards. He should get that stupid ballon d’or at least once”.

    • georgjorge
      September 13, 2017

      Very well said!

      Iniesta is my favourite player ever, and we all know how the Barca midfield will miss him once he retires. But as we have seen at times when Busquets was injured, a midfield without him can also look strangely disjointed. Busquets is exactly the type of player you never notice on the pitch until he’s gone, when the passes suddenly start going astray and the balls don’t get recovered as easily. He’s the ultimate enabler of everyone else around him, giving them just that extra bit of space and time to work their magic in, and I bet his teammates appreciate it thoroughly.

      • Davour
        September 13, 2017

        Second that. I do think Busquets is recognised and celebrated by most culers, but strangely forgotten or undervalued by many others. But really he is the mechanics beneath the shiny front of an intricate watch. And he is so calm, so calm, it is almost unreal. That is, to me, one of the distinguishing qualities amongst our legends – the calm; like they are always in the eye of the storm. If he has looked a little off, Busi, last year, it is not him. Couldn’t be. It’s the preoccupation with the shiny surface.

  15. Jim
    September 13, 2017

    Yeah, Busi’s problems for me were caused by the system last couple of years or so. Although, tbf, for whatever reason I also felt he wasn’t working as hard last year to make himself available at times. We’re also helped by the fact that Ini has been freed up. He came back more last night to offer either from TS or from Busi. Any aspiring DM should be rewatching over and over again this and his performance against Espanyol especially against the press.

    I’m enjoying Valverde’s style so far although it is hard to determine how much is down to a newly married, fired up, fresh Messi playing as well as he has ever done. At least I can see some evidence of coaching ( back four this year all looking across at the others more ) and also tactics ( FBs expected to tuck in beside their CB). Pique and Umtiti also clearly under instructions not to let anything down the middle of them. He may even have had a word with Rakitic that he expects more offensively but we can’t know that. He has certainly freed up Iniesta, partly by ensuring a more compact back four and we’re reaping the dividends. He’s now played four games in what, ten days ?
    And at the end of that he sprints out of defence for the ball to Messi ? Needs to sit the next one out methinks.

    I hope Valverde doesn’t do more rotation, just more sensible ones, such as not leaving out both Iniesta and Messi at the same time or the passing game will suffer. In fact the team in general put out a fair amount of energy.

    “Yesterday, Barca players ran 25 kilometers more than they did in the 0-0 draw against Juventus (2nd leg CL QF) in April last season. ” [md]

    Anyway, a lot more enjoyable than the match at Celtic Park which I recorded and watched this morning. Knew they were in trouble TV they started discussing their lineup while the pictures over it were Dalglish, Larsson and other genuine quality players. This lot, while built to attack, and can do that well , just couldn’t keep the ball so suffered accordingly, at least partly because they changed their normal setup. I thought PSG looked great, especially moving the ball around quickly but when they had the ball in the first half Celtic kind of stood off them. Motta was able to stride about in the middle able to dictate play ( at a pretty low pace ! ) in the second Celtic got closer to them and toughened it up a little which was better. I decided to turn a blind eye to Brown leaving one on Neymar and also Tierney taking out Mbappe.

    PSG could go far, though. Still to answer the question of a packed defence or a hard press so we can keep our eye on that but for a team settling in they looked good. A lot will depend on how they answer the pressure of expectations. Fun fact of the night was that their squad cost more than half a BILLION more than Celtic’s !

    Best moment of the night ? Neymar booked for diving 🙂 Oh, how I laughed . . . Really looking forward to a Neymar / Semedo tussle at some point.

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