Barça 3, Juventus 0, aka “Liberation”

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.

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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. squeen
    September 13, 2017

    Enough time has passed I’m starting to feel as though Neymar was like a girlfriend that we all had, that deep down we knew was too hot and too worldly for us to keep. At some level we always knew (s)he would eventually leave us for some rich guy and move to Paris. Even though it still kinda hurts, we are partially relied that we no longer have to pretend to be something we are not, and can just go back to being ourselves.

    Also, I think Messi & Co. are trying their best to make us feel better after the breakup.

  2. ChaoticReaper
    September 13, 2017

    Let’s talk about Suarez. Would the team be even better with Deolofeu on the left?

    • majatt
      September 14, 2017

      Would depend on the opponent. Against Juve, probably but once he’s in form he’s too good a goal scorer to bench unless Deulofeu steps up.

    • Messiah10
      September 14, 2017

      Not in my opinion. You can’t take a guy like El Pistolero out of your 11. This is a player who was the first to score 40+ in Liga single season besides Messi & oil can. When on form he’s unplayable. I’m still not convinced on Deolofeu. I’m waiting for him to do a Deolofeu. Maybe he won’t. I’d still rather have the fight & spirit Suarez gives each game.

  3. PPos
    September 13, 2017

    Not really. Deulofeu doesn’t have the confidence yet to take shots on and try and finish, hopefully it comes because with his pace coupled with great finishing, and you’ve got a dangerous player on your hands. Suarez is in a funk, but he’s playing his way out of it. He has to.

  4. ciaran
    September 14, 2017

    I always feel that Deulofeu is better on the right and Dembele can play equally well on the left but I suppose they could interchange.
    Deulofeu got more involved in play in his matches so far than Dembele. I feel that he has more to prove and is working harder. I don’t think that he’s a better footballer but he did deserve to start vs Juve.
    In the Espanyol match, Deulofeu played something like 60 minutes and had 40 passes. Dembele came on and had somewhere around 10. Dembele’s passing is currently verging on the terrible. I’m not saying that he isn’t capable but he fails at the most simple pass that someone like Paulinho would be thrown in jail for.
    We need to much more slowly integrate him.

    • September 14, 2017

      Agreed completely.
      Coach and team and fans should not hurry with Dembele. And Deulofeu is playing as if he needs to prove it. so. lets start with him for the moment.

    • Davour
      September 14, 2017

      Wholeheartedly agree. I was a bit disappointed that he (Dembele) started. It was obviously too early, though he had that important touch leading up to Messi’s first, and one or two runs that indicated his potential. But it was also a blow against Deulofeu and the notion of meritocracy – Gerard has not set the world on fire by any means, but he has worked hard and been useful. He deserved this start and it would have done Dembele good to wait. Now, it seems like a galactico start, skipping the line, which is not fit for a 20-year old who is not at that level (yet). Potentially, it will benefit Dembele to have had the experience (if it does not hamper him – how will he react to being benched now?), and we’ll see what Delu is made of (will he be determined or despondent?), but it is a gamble. Overall, EV has had a promising start, but this aspect was not part of that.

    • Messiah10
      September 14, 2017

      I think a lot of his passes are still nerves. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be 20 & become the 2nd most expensive player ever, then thrown onto a CL match(group, but still) against Juve! You look around and there’s Messi making fools of defenders, Ghostface is pinging diagonal balls at your feet, and Suarez is making runs all day long that you can feed. Busi is bossing and you think, “do I belong here?” or “Holy Sh@$!” That would be mine at least

  5. Jim
    September 14, 2017

    Guys, we’ve just won the last two games with an aggregate of 8-0 ! Don’t know about you but I’m pretty excited round about now and not about to throw rocks at anyone.

    We have :

    A back four looking consistent and impressive, yet to lose a goal since the real season started. I’d just point out in passing that this board bought TS, Semedo, Umtiti and has Marlon learning the ropes. No plans for the future ? Alba ain’t old either and Pique’s positioning and reading of the game is so good he could go on for ages.

    A midfield which despite not getting the personnel we wanted, not really through any fault of ours, is playing its full part in re- establishing our passing ways. Busi and Iniesta playing as well ( almost ) as they ever have and Rakitic with his place under threat looking keen to impress and contribute more going forward.

    A forward line which is scoring for fun with two world class best in position players and two keen talented youngsters. Deulofeu, written off by nearly everyone ( winks to Ciaran ! ) available to help with rotation.

    A manager who seems at this early stage to have realised that if we don’t lose goals or the ball we keep pressure on the other side which will tell as the game goes on. If we pass quickly we are back to reaping the rewards as we used to.

    What’s not to like ? No, think for a minute about all the arguments you now want to put forward against what I’ve said. They’ll all have some merit but alternatively we could just say that we see this is the start of a system which looks as if it might work and a team prepared to work it’s socks off. By all means put them forward but at the same time think back a month and give thanks !

    On a few small issues, I wouldn’t see Dembele playing as a slight against Deulofeu. Deulofeu has played better than most imagined possible and has a still higher ceiling so yes he could have played against Juventus but we also have a very talented and valuable youngster who has committed to us and needs time to learn his trade so they will both get time over the season, especially when it comes time to rest Messi and Suarez who were both well overplayed last season. Dembele would have been dying to get his first start so nice that he did. However, Messi will only agree to rest if he knows the team is playing well and the replacements can handle it.

    With regard to Suarez, we’re not gonna spend the whole season slagging him only to have the same result as last season are we ? When he ends up with a ridiculous amount of goals AND assists despite being ” the best worst player”. What an insult. If you spend any time watching one of our games watch the little things he does which don’t get shouted from the rooftops but which cause goals and settle matches.

    Take Tuesday’s game. Have you,any idea how hard that cushioned return from Suarez, with us struggling to break them down near half time, back to goal with two defenders right next to him was ? He had to take all the pace off it and play it to exactly the spot for Messi to have any chance to run onto it at pace ( goes without saying Messi’s part was unbelievable!) Or how about the perfect first time pass to send Messi away for Rakitic’s goal ? And he was still at the back post for Messi’s ball across goal. If he’s not there, there’s no need for the defender to panic. It’s not going in and it’s slow.

    Yes, he duffs the odd pass that has me cursing and I’m sure he was rushed back from the injury earlier than maybe would have been wise given the matches coming up but for goodness’ sake, realise what we have in him. We spent too much of last year with him isolated in the box virtually on his own with two CBs yet he amassed a great number of goals and assists. I think the system this year may actually suit him better, post Neymar, so let’s not have the arrows over a few fluffs. Don’t think there has been a decent forward ever who is remembered for his misses rather than his goals.

    Finally, I’ve been reading ( not here ) folk going on about Messidependencia getting worse. Not from where I’m sitting. The point now is that there is less focus on him because the team isn’t losing the ball so easily. We’ve been knocking it about so well and Messi is so clever he can stand about, pretend he’s not interested and as soon as he gets a yard or two of space through the defence getting dragged about, boom, he’s off. That is down to the team releasing him from pressure and boy will he take advantage over the season. There were times against Juventus when we played about twenty passes reasonably quickly at the end of which Messi was in oceans of space wandering about on his own. That is what we want.

    Now, all this could disappear with the wrong injury or individual errors but at the moment it’s looking pretty bright from where I sit so I’m not gonna lie. I’ve enjoyed it so far.

    • georgjorge
      September 14, 2017

      I largely agree with you (though it makes me wonder what could have been had the club made all those nifty transfers to strengthen the defense AND not have screwed up so many of the midfield ones. Sigh).

      Just a minor point, me saying that Suarez had a couple of bad games isn’t in any way saying he’s not an awesome player. He will undoubtedly be once again very important for the team this season. “Best worst player” (or was is worst best player?) for me is more an expression of disbelief about how a player can do so many things so well (like you mentioned) and then go on to misplace a couple of easy passes as if they were impossible for him. By the way, although I love to see him at Barca, doesn’t he seem like the PERFECT fit for Simeone’s Atleti? Just imagine the epic fights a forward line of him and Diego Costa could have with defenders!

  6. Jim
    September 14, 2017

    I take your point, Georgejorge, but if he went there I reckon the major fight might be between him AND Diego Costa !

  7. CentreBackJockey
    September 14, 2017

    Speaking about why Deulofeu did not start in the Juve game. I think it is wise he didn’t play. Just around the corner our next game coming up is away against Getafe. Getting a result here is way more important than getting our moral busting win against Juve. In the past Getafe have consistenly been a banana skin opponent and we’ve walked away many times with a draw. Potentially Deu could get a start in this game and maybe a few other players with fresh legs starting too.

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