It was always going to happen this way, always going to be an alley fight, always going to be something that would test the effectiveness and mettle of an incomplete Barça side.
Few knew what to expect when the team rolled out against Athletic today, particularly with a Valverde lineup that inspired some head scratching: Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Paulinho, Gomes, Messi, Suarez.
And at the end of 90 minutes, 40 or so of which were fraught, it was another three points on the board, and more wondering about exaclty how is Barça doing it, which is the question on many — okay, most lips. It seems illogical only in the context of expectations, which seem to remain constant no matter who is in the colors, but there are a few things worth considering:
The club had transfer plans, and only realized half of the most significant ones, only landing Dembele. In devising a system, Valverde’s notions are incomplete. When Dembele went under the surgeon’s knife, Barça became a team without Neymar and with one of its key weapons, Luis Suarez, mining a strain of abysmal form. Pique is also off, as is Busquets. The test of Valverde’s acumen is, therefore, what to do with the hand that he was dealt.
He did a few things, including unleashing Deulofeu against some opponents, with a simplified set of tasks. Against Athletic, he opted for a control-based lineup, one that would not only keep the ball, but be able to hold its own against the physical approach of Athletic. In the first half, this worked like a charm, poor finishing the only thing that kept Barça from a 2 or 3-goal lead. Tactically, it worked. Execution-wise, except for the goal scored by Messi, arguably it didn’t.
The difficulty this created was in the second half, when it was known that Athletic was going to come out like lions, and Barça had no answer to the effort and energy being expended by the home team. The second half was, putting it kindly, a mess. Poor decisions were made on and off the ball, movement was poor to nonexistent, everything was a mess. The success that the team had today was a team effort, but was underscored by the magic of three players: Ter Stegen, Messi and Umtiti.
A team is a collection of players, but some are more equal than others. Ter Stegen is the reason Barça won this match. His saves, time after time, kept Athletic out of the net. In the outfield, Umtiti continued his excellence. He is easily one of the top five CBs in the game right now, quite possibly even top three. And Messi is Messi.
The team in many ways held station so that its big guns could do what they do, and they did. Time after time, Inaki Williams came up against Umtiti and left with his tail between his legs and without the ball. Ter Stegen isn’t a colossus, but he has hops, and gets low witih exemplary speed. Messi simply manages to see the game and the pitch in a way matched by no other player in the game, or the game’s history, almost like he can see into the future. Those three were essential today in a match that was a team effort defined by the brilliance of the above trio.
Barça is winning matches because unlike last season, they are concentrating, and performing basic tasks well, in the manner of a well-drilled team. Players are getting in front of shots, feet are blocking and deflecting passes, all of which serves to disrupt opponents. You need a way above average sequence of play to be able to catch Barça out, even as expectation says something different as a lot of people expected this team to be poor.
This is a team that has been so successful for so long that people have in many ways lost the ability to deal with anything that isn’t unruffled perfection. Possession by the other team is a cause for panic, a shot causes rending of garments and a shot on goal? Cue the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. But because the team performs the basic tasks well, and has elite players at key positions, that mixture is enough for the team to be able to win matches — albeit with varying degrees of comfort.
The one match that Barça has drawn, part of a run that has led to the team marking the best start in Liga history after 10 matches, it could be argued could also and should also have been a win, the 1-1 away to Atleti. As has been written in this space before, Valverde of necessity has started this season in “safe mode,” stripped of all frills and superfluous apps, and it is working.
Paulinho was supposed to be a waste of 40m. Instead he has been a key player, notching crucial goals including the one that allowed everyone to relax today. The run that he made to put away the second goal is one that wouldn’t have happened in his absence. What he does is exactly what he does. Is it pretty? No. It isn’t frills and curlicues. But the rapport he has built with Messi and the physicality that he brings to the Barça midfield are some of the things that make this “safe mode” work.
Gomes has been quite good this season, his best performance of the season coming against Athletic.
Valverde has devised a system that liberates Messi. Look at the goal that he scored today. He played a series of 1-2s with Paulinho then Alba, making a run from deep. He had the space because of the system that allowed him the freedom to be where he, in effect not wants to be but needs to be to facilitate him being his best. Sometimes that is midfield, sometimes in the box, sometimes making runs that render him unmarkable in the chaos of swirling bodies and a moving ball. His strike home was as excellent as his miss was horrifying. It was at the end of an excellent first half that made the 0-1 lead feel deserved.
It was in the second half that things went awry. Ter Stegen had a remarkable number of long clearances, as the Athletic players marked up on dog-tired Barça players who weren’t making the required movement. It was so bad at one point that Sergi Roberto couldn’t even complete a throw-in, as an Athletic player fronted the stationary recipient and turned possession. The team stopped doing the simple things well, or at all. Long passes became the thing, speculative hits because the pressing Athletic players weren’t allowing proper play out of the back, or in midfield.
Subs were required, but only one came: Semedo for Gomes, returning Sergi Roberto to his natural spot at midfield, and shutting down one of the flanks from which Athletic was making life difficult for Barça. His reason, post match, was that the players he had on were the best at dealing with set pieces, so there they remained, a distressingly negative way of thinking from this chair. Why not fresh legs that could make the runs and movement that would result in conceding fewer set pieces? Dunno. He has his own ideas, and in ten matches, his team has won nine and drawn one.
Against Athletic as well as in other matches, Barça has generated some beautiful, beautiful football. It has been at those times that the team has also been most dangerous. Even as supporters cry about ugly football, it is because they aren’t paying attention to the beauty. Accepting what you have is an odd thing. By January, Dembele will have returned, and Valverde can resume the task of structuring an ideal team. Also in January, it is expected that the team will attempt to resolve the other significant question remaining from the summer window.
Until then, we have what we have. And even though it seems as though the team is winning with smoke and mirrors, what the match against Athletic showed is something different. The team is winning by doing the basics right. It was only when those basics were abandoned due to tiredness that danger beckoned. Barça is winning. It’s winning because it’s doing work. Guardiola came in and said, “Run, you bastards, run!” Luis Enrique shored up the defense and fitness of the team. Valvderde has emphasized a focus on the basics. All three methods have been effective. Add talent, and the reasons that Barça is winning are a mystery to no one who takes a close look.