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.
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.