When you have a wife who works in IT and use a computer, there are ample opportunities for you to feel stupid. Those opportunities are also illustrative, such as when you are running a memory-intensive video conversion suite, then try to run a memory-intensive browser, and scream about how come “this stupid thing won’t load! AUGGGH!”
And you wife says, because the computer can’t do both of those things easily. Stop one, and the other will run more smoothly. Ernesto Valverde isn’t in IT, but he understands the value of dynamics, and systems working more smoothly when they are unloaded.
FC Barcelona has played four matches. The team has scored 12 goals, and conceded none. Each opponent has sparked episodes of whataboutery from various quarters, because if you need for a team to not be working as well as it quite obviously is, you will find what you’re looking for.
But what Ernesto Valverde has done is simplified the game for players who needed simplification. Because of that simplification the team is playing differently. It sounds simple, but it isn’t.
Last season with Neymar on the team, everything was different. He was the principal attack starter, and had the ball at his feet a lot. He stopped, started, took risks, lost balls, had moments of genius. It was all part of the deal. It not only made the Barça attack left-centered, but isolated Suarez, who also didn’t move as much as he should have been to take advantage of the spaces created by his attacking mates. Messi was stranded because he became a bailout, the “I can’t do anything with this, so you try” option that forced him to create from midfield, or take Quixotic runs at defenses.
The system was predicated on getting the ball to the three best attackers in the game, or creating defensive instability when one of them did something all magical and stuff. It’s what people never understood about the Luis Enrique approach because they always wanted something else, something other than what was. If you have Messi, Neymar and Suarez, of course you’re going to get the ball to them every chance and in every way that you can. The difficulty with that was system overloads.
Defensively, the right wing was a mess. Pique and Sergi Roberto were slow, and Busquets was central. Every attack that went down that side from a talented opponent created danger, even with Rakitic lending a defensive hand. On the left, things were better because Umtiti had pace, but he was too often exposed because Jordi Alba was gone and Iniesta couldn’t cover ground like he used to. If Neymar didn’t track back, a mess was usually in the offing.
In midfield, as much as people wanted passing, capering and dynamics, Iniesta was covering too much space in attack and defense, Busquets was left with too much space because Rakitic was off doing something else and Iniesta isn’t the player that he never was on defense. In attack, because everything was predicated of necessity on getting the ball to the trident, what was the role everyone else had while the trident was doing its thing? As a consequence, none of the sytems were working in simplest fashion.
Against Juventus, we got to see three of the four summer transfers in their intended uses, as well as getting to see their overall effect on the system as it stands. It’s important to note that everything is still a work in progress as a team comes together with a new coach and new teammates. Messi was spectacular, and seems to have reached a new level. Our own Barça Chief pointed out on Twitter that people are praising the system for that win, when Messi was at his most absurd. But what if that system working is a big part of why he’s able to be so absurd? The pitch is spread. Where there is space for Barça, there is fun.
Valverde understood that space is crucial — controllable space. Don’t make Iniesta have to run 30 yards to cover someone. Don’t give Busquets a void that spans sideline to sideline. Rakitic, on his game, is a midfielder who is fond of the through ball, who can control play and will make opportunistic runs into the box to score goals. But he has to be in position to do all of that.
Because Nelson Semedo looks to be a beast, Rakitic can relax and Pique is less stressed. Balls that Busquets might have to run to chase, Semedo has covered. With the addition of a single player so much improves, in attack as well as defense. Semedo is doing on the right what Abidal used to on the left, and it liberates Pique to be what he used to be when he was so exceptional beside Puyol. Everybody has less to do, so they are better at those tasks.
Dembele is pace, control and chaos. One play, the ball was just knocked into space to let him just go get it. He did, which destabilized Juventus and created a chance. Because Messi no longer has to think about playing right wing and is supported by a working midfield that is tasked with that instead of just getting the ball to the attackers, Messi can pop up in dangerous spaces without having to beat 2-3 players off the dribble. Dembele is Deulofeu, enhanced. Both play on the right wing so that the tasks of Messi can be purified.
But because Dembele isn’t a real attack starter who needs the ball all the time as Neymar did, ball movement has returned, along with player movement. Barça as a team ran 25km more than in the 0-0 Camp Nou Champions League exit against the same team. That stat in and of itself isn’t as noteworthy as what Barça did with that movement, which was to almost constantly force play, and play as a team. Messi was tracking back in the 90th minute.
Paulinho came on, and the banter started on Barça Twitter. But if you watched what he did, it was essentially what he does for Brazil, which is pass and move, pass and move. In a system predicated on ball and player movement, there is value in that. It lets mids reset, allows for natural pause, gives another player scanning for the through ball. For those who watched him, the effect was interesting as he shifted the fulcrum for a triangle, serving as a refernce point.
A very good analysis of his potential came from the excellent tactical site EUMD, where ht was suggested that he is, simply enough, an enabler for the skill guys. When the mids pinged the ball to Abidal or ping it to Umtiti, so they can move and reset the attack point — that’s Paulinho. Should he be younger and cheaper? Sure. But he is what he is, and it’s time to address what he does for the side rather than what we think we need him to be, or what we think the team needs, something apparently different from what the coach needs.
Valverde had requests, and the technical staff was able to fill some of them. We are beginning to see the effects. Juventus was interesting because it was a real team, a Champions League finalist from last year. That they were dispatched as Barça threw down a marker wasn’t as interesting as the how. Liberating players for simplified tasks seems obvious. That simplicity might just be what will have Barça surprising people this year.