Getafe 1, Barça 2, aka “Ahahahahahaha!”

Few of us know what it’s like to legitimately be an innocent bystander, to have an event occur and be not only blamed, but excoriated for it.

Paulinho does.

He came to Barça for EUR 40m from Guangzhou Evergrande, a 29-year-old Brazilian mid who played his way into a talent-packed Seleçao under a new coach, and became a poster boy for everything wrong with the club. He was lashed in sporting publications who should know better, and by supporters who should have not only chill, but perspective. A Twitter mob took after him, transmogrifying him into the new Douglas, a ridiculous sporting decision for too much money by idiots who should know better.

But what did the player do to earn such scorn, besides accept a dream job? When Barça comes calling you answer. What player wouldn’t? Why would he, of all people, be expected to somehow say, “Thanks for the offer, but I’m not worthy. You should turn your attentions to a more deserving target, as flattered as I am.”

Then on Saturday, at the dying moments of a difficult away match against an opponent fighting to the death in front of its home supporters, Paulinho did it.

There is a moment on the Barça counter when Paulinho senses what is possible, makes the run and raises his arm to let Messi know that he is available, before accelerating toward the Getafe box. Messi spanks the pass to him, a hard ball intended to get there quickly to give the player maximum time to make the right decision. Paulinho controls it, pushed it to make space, fights off two defenders as if they were just tackling pylons and strikes home from an acute angle.

It was one of those “Oh, crap!” goals for people with so much invested in a narrative that they would have preferred that another player score it. But it was Paulinho, early into his tenure at his dream job, doing exactly what he was supposed to do and in performing that job, he helped his team win.

Was it vindication? Do players minds work like that? Did he look at the ball, see all the faces of all the people who Tweeted excoriation at him, who made fun of him for having the temerity to take his dream job and hit it extra hard? Doubtful. He was just a player doing his job, the player nobody wanted, subbed in by the coach nobody wanted, helping the team nobody is happy with remain perfect this season.

It was a battle, but it was always going to be. It’s the reason few culers greeted the return of Getafe to the top flight with anything other than groans. In following the match on Twitter, the gloom was pervasive, and even more so after Getafe went ahead with the mother of all golazos — the first goal conceded by Barça this season — and talk turned to dropped points.

This team, however, feels different. It doesn’t look like Luis Enrique’s double side but in many ways it feels like that group in a significant way: mentality. Last season, an ongoing them of my writing about the club could be summed up in, “Do you damn job.” For all of the talk about tactics this, and formation that, the team spent too much of key moments not doing what it was supposed to.

This season, it feels different. Everyone is doing what they are supposed to, even when they are a bit dead-legged as they were against Getafe. Last season, dead legs meant gobs of possession for the opponent, and danger. This season, dead legs just meant fewer shots on goal, but the structure, the pressure, was intact. Barça had the ball, even if the runs weren’t dictating the same passes and the movement had less alacrity. This season, there was a feeling, even if some didn’t dare say it, that Barça was going to win because of a champion’s mentality.

The comeback began with Denis Suarez, another sub made by Valverde, pouncing on a ball in the box to drive into the corner. Tellingly, both moves came from mids ghosting into the box. Adding those tallies to Rakitic and Sergi Roberto makes it doubtful as the season progresses, that the same desire for goals from the midfield will manifest itself. Valverde has his mids moving forward as a consequence of team football, rather than clearing out spaces for the glamor boys to operate. It’s a significant difference that leads to opportunity, one seized by a hard-working team.

That Suarez goal was also made in La Masia, as Deulofeu made the dribble and created the chaos, Sergi Roberto made the pass. They set it up for Suarez, a player who spent a season at Barça B. This season’s team feels good, feels fun to watch, feels like something fun could happen, even in the wake of the awful injury news for Ousmane Dembele, who will be lost for as many as four months to hamstring surgery.

But even as everyone is chagrined at the injury, and whether the player contributed to it by not communicating as he should have with the training staff, it’s also important to note that Barça was buying potential in Dembele. His loss isn’t as significant right now as it will be a year from now. Deulofeu came in, and picked up where Dembele left off, pressing and creating.

And these players have the ultimate enabler in Messi, who every team is going to collapse upon. When that happens, they will be called upon to move around and peform tasks that take advantage of that space created. Messi creates many things, including yet another Chicago Bulls analogy. In the team’s drive to the first championship, it wasn’t Michael Jordan who sealed the deciding win against the Los Angeles Lakers, but John Paxson, a jump shot specialist, who took advantage of the space and passes created by Jordan. Superstars want to win. They don’t care how.

The interesting thing about Barça this season is in its echoes of early Guardiola teams in the absence of a coterie of superstars. For as much as people complain about depth, Barça is deep this year if Valverde is committed to a system of letting the ball dictate play rather that superstars. The team — any team — will be defined by its best players, but shaped by what happens when those players aren’t at their best, or are absent. When Andre Gomes has to drive play like Iniesta, and pick out a magic pass, he will invariably suffer in comparison. When all he has to do is take, receive and move to a spot to repeat the process as the team moves up the pitch, the standard and potential results are different.

A previous piece mentioned Valverde working the team like restarting a phone in “safe” mode, with stripped-down versions of the same operating system so that problems could be worked past. It is a team with a method of play designed to suit the capabilities of its players, just as Guardiola’s teams were. Never forget that his system was designed to take advantage of the technicians that he had. What would his method of play have been had he had Luis Enrique’s team? Interesting question.

At that time, Xavi wasn’t Xavi yet. He was an exceptional midfielder. Iniesta was brilliant, but he wasn’t the Illusionista yet. Messi was a ball of goals and energy, Alves was a new transfer. The players disappeared into the system. In many ways it was when they became bigger than the system they played that problems arose, because those qualities became irreplaceable.

This Barça, so far, is simpler. Sergi Roberto can make the same run and pass as Denis Suarez. Vidal can cut to the end line and make a cross just as Deulofeu can. The method of play has changed, and the strucutre has tightened the sine wave of talent as a consequence. Subs have, in a short time, gone from “Oh, crap, he isn’t so-and-so, we’re doomed,” to as with Guardiola, players working within a system. Cuenca worked well because of what he was asked to do, rather than his talent. Tello worked because he had one job — outrun that guy, then shoot when someone gives you the ball.

There is much talk about systems and tactics with Luis Enrique, but the larger issue is that he didn’t let his players, in too many cases, be the players that they are. Rakitic is a creative, attacking mid, rather than a glorified DM. Jordi Alba will play better, the more of the ball he sees and the more involved he is in the attack. It all makes sense, even as what Luis Enrique tried in getting the ball to the best attacking trio in world football made perfect sense.

Valverde is after something different, something that feels familiar because we’ve seen it before, and not just at Barça. Claudio Ranieri got success at Leicester City by giving players simple jobs, and structuring a system that let them do it. It’s coaching 101, but it requires a coach without a shard of arrogance, who understands that sometimes simple is best.

The Barça results under Guardiola began to taper off as he messed with the systen in his efforts to perfect an evolution of it. Ibrahimovic for Eto’o meant the press suffereed, which made the defense function differently. Villa for Ibrahimovic meant a difference in physicality and ultimate potential, which again necessitated another alteration. Fabregas brought about still another change. But a coach has to take risks to progress. Sometimes they work, sometimes not.

The fantastic thing about the win against Getafe wasn’t just the mentality displayed by the team. It was that players who supporters haven’t thought much of, were allowed to shine by being given a task that suited their capabilities. Asking Denis Suarez to be Iniesta is madness. But make the pass and run into the box. See what happens. If this trend continues, this joy in simplicity, this season will be a lot more fun than any of us might have anticipated.

By Kxevin

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.


  1. I only have one thing to say.
    This is how you win titles.
    You don’t win titles with flashy performances, you win titles with grit and sheer will.
    This team grew up as a team on this day.
    And that’s all I have to say about that.

  2. “Superstars want to win. They don’t care how.” Guess Neymar has yet to be a superstar, then… (sorry).

    Thanks for the piece; I guess this is what people have meant, at least partly, when screaming for a midfield. Will also make transition from B easier (hopefully Alena will get some minutes, even though he, humbly, declared he was not ready for the first team. Hold on to that one!).

  3. I just wanted to say I think the board is getting too much criticism.

    1) I’m glad we threw Alves away. Look at all the drama he is stirring at Juventus & PSG. His performances did not justify the backstage drama anymore.

    2) 220 millions for Neymar is a great price. This guy has an ego bigger than Penaldo and causes as much drama as Alves. He gets dispossessed dozens of times and misses many shots. Don’t miss him.

    3) I’m glad they put some pressure on Iniesta to perform, look how well he’s showing up.

    4) Paulinho is the strongest Barca player I’ve seen in the box since Messi.

    1. I partly agree with 1 + 2.

      Don’t agree at all on Iniesta, even though he comes across as humble I’m pretty sure that guy wants the team to win at all times and will give whatever it takes regardless of whether he is negotiating a new contract.

      As for Paulinho – having played a total of three games (starting none of them), it’s far too early to say anything, in either direction. But I think Eto’o, Ibrahimovic and Luis Suarez might have to say something about your point ; )

  4. I think he means physical strength, and I don´t necessarily agree that Messi, despite his low center of gravity and really strong legs has that much body strength. The thing is that Paulinho looks stronger than Suarez – and Suarez was the strongest-looking of them all.
    One issue I had with the Barça midfield was that apart from Busquets, who has a paper sheet jump, there isn´t a way for ter Stegen to send a long ball to the center of the pitch. Barcelona mids were constantly outmuscled. A player capable of bringing a high ball down to Iniesta, Busquests, Rakitic, or Messi could start an attack before the opposing team manages to get back to position. Right now Ter Stegen has to play it to Umtiti/Pique or Busquets, which means that the opposing team can pressure them in the Barcelona third and if not gain the ball, provide time for the defense and the midfield to tighten ranks, check twice where Messi, Deulofeu, Suarez and Iniesta are. Sometimes time is of the essence..

    1. Fully agreed.
      We always lose the first ball which is really important for our possession and midfield control.

  5. Man, looks like trouble is brewing in the PSG camp with Neymar and Cavani going head to head over who has the biggest ego and is the true star of the team. That is only going to end up badly, maybe this new PSG project is just going to turn out like the first Galacticos project, all ego, minimal trophies.

    I have to agree with ChaoticReaper on the departure of Neymar. The man’s ego is just too much. He claimed to be just about the team while in the MSN but as you can tell he’s been thinking about leaving for a while now, because he desperately wants that Ballon D’Or and just hasn’t been able to play better than Messi or Cristiano. The PSG dressing room is going to turn into a fractured item and that is going to affect their performance on the pitch, because certain players wont pass to others and so and so forth.

    I dont agree that Iniesta is being pressured to play better. Iniesta has always given his utmost for both the club and country. The problem with Iniesta last season was that he was extremely unlucky with injuries. When he was gaining good form that Valencia midfielder injured him, and you need rhythm at match level to be a great player and its way more difficult when others have that match fitness and you have to start from 0 over and over.

    I never doubted Paulinho’s signing for Barcelona. I wanted him to come last season after I saw him play for the Brazilian national team in a match where he scored 3 goals. The man knows how to arrive late and score. He’s become a much better player than what he was in Tottenham.

    I know it’s early in the season but this team is showing the grit that champions show that never say never attitude that it’s not over until its over mentality that Zidane’s team showed last season during the run in for the title. It’s great to see and we should all thank Valverde for that. He’s been very impressive. He’s not tactically thick like Luis Enrique.

  6. Still far too early for Paulinho, but he sure knows how to bring enjoyment to the fans – another powerful goal and an assist to Leo…

    Kxevin made a very important point: a “simple” system making squad players perform well. Of course, Messi is always going to score, but also another goal from Denis Suarez and another from Paulinho (bringing the number of players who can score from headers up to an incredible three if Umtiti is playing), taking advantage of a lot of movement and possession. Very convincing game even without Alba, Suarez or Umtiti. Only Deulofeu won’t be happy – a lot of effort and skill, but so often the wrong decision…

  7. Finally we have a replacement for Xaviniesta – Paulessi! P had a pretty awful forst half, but with the confidence from scoring plus Eibar letting off their pressure, he showed some good moves, not just muscle. Messi likes him (though he did like Ibra in the beginning, too…) and showed obvious confidence.

    Denis is coming along, but still a bit flimsy; sometimes makes the easy look hard and look a little speeded, but improving; he has potential if he finds his calm. Delu, not so sure; I respect his hard work, but end product is just not good enough, and Vidal should be able to challenge.

    Two gems for me: Semedo, and Busi’s assist to Messi. Thanks for the music, meastros!

    Final thought: ter Stegen is looking much more confident; he has grown into the role, and maybe Jasper’s pre-season made it clear that nothing is for free. Good to see!

    1. Semedo really continues to impress. His bursts of speed still surprise me – like the one for the penalty, where the defender clearly did not expect him to outrun him to the ball on such a short distance. Coupled with clever positioning in defense, we seem so much safer.

  8. Semedo is there for years to come and should be a starter in every game, period.
    Delofeu, contrary to his earlier years, is working hard but his decision making is still very questionable. He still got plenty of talent, just there is work to be done with him, though he is not getting younger. A lot to be improved. He tried so much the entire match to at least have an assist, and then Vidal entered and he got one immediately.
    I can imagine how Delofeu felt watching from the bench.
    Busi, magnificent, BUT, as last year, he still continues with some strange decisions from time to time to keep the ball more than he needs and sometimes it really puts us in trouble.
    It bothered me last year, it still bothers me. And im pretty sure he will continue like that regardless of the strength of the opponent.
    As for Paulinho, is childish to say about a 29 year old player that he looks promising, but he brings some new element in our play that i still cannot define it. And yes, it looks like Messi likes him which can be crucial because others follow Messi in trusting a player.
    We still have few easier games before we travel to Madrid against Atletico. We must keep this form and try not to drop points until then.

  9. If only Paulinho can improve his skills while under pressure, we definitely have an excellent box to box mfder for next 2/3 seasons. He also seem to have understood the messi movements better than some La masia kids or Messi’s friends from Albiceleste.
    At least no one will complain about the work rate of Delofeu. Bus his decision making is poor under pressure and also he seems to get hurried, owing to which he screws his own skills.
    Even Denis could be a better player with some calma..
    That Messi finish by the post, oh dear. The vision to see that gap is one thing, to execute it is something else!
    Bravo Semedo.

  10. Small thing I noticed about Paulinho, he’s already picked up the Barca norm of first acknowledging the assist provider after scoring. And he does seem to understand Messi’s movements better than many people who’ve played for much longer with the latter. The guy is adapting much quicker than I expected! He’s always been a chilled out, humble guy, which is also helping him blend in with the squad most likely.

  11. This is a wonderful Rakitic story.
    If someone know about this – Like Rakitic, many players have mentioned Messi is something else in the training ground. I wonder why he doesnt play like that in the real game then?
    My thoughts are he listens to the coach and care only for the team.
    It is quite clear that Messi has been ignoring his own prowess the last 2 seasons trying to tee up Neymar, to make him feel better.

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