As a vegetarian, your life is limited. Hot dogs are a big miss for this non-carnivore. Various soy concoctions claim to be just like the real thing. They aren’t. No matter how much you stare at them, they aren’t. A pressed soy cylinder ain’t beef, stuffed into a skin casing. Which is interesting when we think about staring at Barça, the best team that so many really don’t like that much.
It is illustrative to go back and watch Barça from the Guardiola era. My heavens, it was amazing. It seems like the teams didn’t care about defending, but there were Puyol and Abidal to put the lie to that, and Valdes in case anything got past them. They defended by making the ball, and thus the opponents, move. The ball flitted around at such a pace, players and leather sphere moving in a syncopated, synchronized dance of opponent death. It is the best football that any of us have ever seen, and almost certainly will ever see.
It is also a time capsule.
The genius coach of that unmatched group of athletes, Pep Guardiola, has moved on to Manchester City, where he has become a cause celebre by lovers of all that fancy positional play stuff, midfield, etc. Watching the Barça v Sevilla and City v Arsenal matches might lead some to wonder what the difference was, why people left Barça’s match unsatisfied and were thrilled with City’s, especially as Barça had a more difficult opponent. You saw so many of the same things, from balls zipping around midfield, opportunistic goals and one-touch passing, long passes being popped over to wingers and defenders playing out from the back, or way up the pitch.
Both teams have 31 points from 11 matches, both teams are topping their respective leagues. One team has a certified, lauded genius legend as a coach. The other team has some guy nicknamed “Ant,” who people are only now getting around to thinking, “Hmmm, might be worth writing something the job dude is doing over there.” And a bit of recognition spills Valverde’s way, after yet another “Uh, oh … ” match turned into a reasonably calm win. And right now, there is someone reading this, chafing at the notion that Valverde should even be mentioned in the same breath as Guardiola, that their teams play so differently, one right and one wrong, and how dare you!
Be that as it may, the larger question is what is a team trying to do when it takes the pitch, besides win? Establish a rhythm and system of play, control a match so that it can have success in a predictable manner, maintain a structure. There are fewer speculative shots from Valverde’s team, because those mean lost possession, which means a loss of control because the opponent has the ball. It makes sense. And without delving into notions of “right” and “wrong” possession, every coach wants the ball, because the ball is the point. When you have it, even if you want nothing to happen, you can make that happen.
Opponent attacks fill culers with anxiety not because a goal might be looming, but because over the years, we have become accustomed to our team having the ball, controlling the match. Luis Enrique’s run-and-gun style frustrated because it was all too loose, and didn’t seem to value possession. Valverde’s view of possession is different from Luis Enrique’s, different from Guardiola’s. Right or wrong? That’s subjective. It’s just different.
The Sevilla match was glorious and frustrating, like more than a few Barça matches this season because it demonstrated the glowing possibility of this team as well as the potential pitfalls. Again, Barça sparkled in the first half, then ran out of energy and concentration in the second, allowing an opponent to make life more difficult than it should have been. This was seen most notably against Athletic Bilbao as well, where a match that should have been done and dusted by halftime turned into something of a contest, with the tired protagonist taking body blows before coming out on top.
Also as with Athletic, the Sevilla left Barça supporters with a feeling of crisis, rahter than exultation at what the team is working toward. Someone on Twitter said the match sucked, even as in a previous Tweet they admitted turning it off after Sevilla equalized. So there’s that.
There are things that aren’t going to change. That soy dog isn’t going to morph into a bratwurst. Valverde isn’t going to suddenly have a dark-haired Iniesta, bereft of the ravages of time, Xavi back, Turbo Messi, a younger Busquets, etc, etc. He has what he has. So what are we seeing when we watch Barça? The ghost of anticipatory expectation, or a group of athletes who are being worked into something interesting via a process that we get to see every week.
It’s easy to spend an entire match just watching Messi, and the things that he does to insinuate himself into a dominant position, often without scoring a goal. Movement, influence, passing and effort. Even when he flags, you see him sashay over a zone, his head on a pivot as he understands the effect that his presence has on opponents. But there was also the not at all coincidental return of lustrousness with the return of Iniesta, a player who is past it only in his own context, a man who is still better than most midfielders in the game at dictating tempo and making a ball do magical things at his feet.
The other interesting thing to note is how the role of Busquets changes with the presence of Iniesta. He slides back a bit, still with the same elegant, effortless destructocreationist role, but he is less often caught in spaces that bring into question the pace he never had, forcing him to do things that you need a long-gone French gazelle or a rapid Portuguese to manage. The blessing and curse of Barça as constructed by Valverde is that it needs Iniesta to be at its fullest flower. While there is no shame in that reality, it is a complex one when one of the chief architects is an aging legend.
Sevilla was destroyed by movement. A three-headed demon ran at Sevilla, and Messi was saved by the keeper. A brilliant pass for Alba led to a shot that was stopped from Busquets. Then Suarez missed a chip, and a Rakitic rocket went just wide. Iniesta created a glissando from distance, and Suarez turned what would have been a sure goal into another rueful personal moment. Alcacer pranged a header over.
But finally, the pressure came to be too much as yet another incisive pass, this time for Alcacer, turned into a defensive error that the prodigal striker slotted home. It was pure, and the kind of goal that everyone who understands the kind of player he is has been expecting to see more of, a strike created through alacrity — sharp movement into a space and a clinical finish. More movement, the aggressive run from Rakitic, distracted the Sevilla defender just enough to allow the wayward touch.
Then it was Iniesta again, creating an opportunity that Alcacer got too fancy with, then Messi, dancing around the entire Sevilla defense, being found by teammates in two different parts of the box, finally unleasing a pass for Alcacer that was so magical it found the striker unprepared. Time after time, Barça created opportunities through pressing, effort and movement, and Sevilla was left with desperate intercessions and attempted Barça passes that, thankfully for them, were just off the mark.
After a sloppy conceded goal from a team that should never have been in the position to give it up, a timely substitution of Paulinho restored energy and balance, and the match returned to Barça’s control. Suarez missed, Pique pranged a shot off the crossbar before a spectacular pass from Rakitic was volleyed home by Alcacer, to restore the lead and result in the final margin.
Much was made of the period in which Sevilla found its way back into the match. Less — as in hardly anything — was made of the way Valverde astutely corrected the problem, by adding Paulinho and Deulofeu (again on the left) to restore attacking balance and energy. And that was that. Not much more was made over the two-striker solution that Valverde tried in an effort to find space for someone, either Alcacer or Suarez, who had his best match in some time in terms of everything except his job, which is putting the ball in the net.
The 2-1 was a scoreline that flattered Sevilla. It could have been far worse, and in light of the fact that Suarez is still struggling and Messi didn’t have his best match, there is reason for optimism. One of the complaints leveled at Valverde is that there isn’t a system. There is. It just isn’t the system that people want to see. Valverde has devised a setup that somehow, has liberated the one player in world football who no team wants to have space. This has been accomplished through wing play and movement. It isn’t coincidental that the best Barça displays come with Semedo in the XI. He is a problem solver, even as he is still working his way into things. But his one-touch play facilitates Messi playing on the dead run, which makes him impossible to stop.
In Manchester, Guardiola spent millions in the summer window to build a team that is close to ideal. Valverde lost his second-best player, has his striker mired in a slump of epic proportions and then the big summer signing limped off for four months. He has still crafted a team that is defying all expectation even as, when you watch it, is playing to expectation. This team is supposed to be doing exactly what it is doing. It is as much a mirror of its coach as the Luis Enrique and Guardiola teams were mirrors of theirs. This team is calm and grounded, logical and full of effort. The biggest problem is that the system also needs Iniesta. Rakitic is better with Iniesta, so is Busquets, so is Messi. All three have a player who mind and feet work at the pace necessary to make the game move quickly enough to destabilize opponents. Why was Iniesta given a contract for life? It wasn’t just P.R. He is still a magnificent player.
The other biggest problem is the effort part of that equation. All that running means you need a deeeeep squad. Valverde doesn’t have that. Will that tell, barring any potential winter window reinforcements, at the business end of the season?
This Barça is a flawed team. It’s also worth noting that the other team to almost as gaudy a start to the season was Tata Martino’s side, and we know how that season ended. But this team isn’t a fatigued, psychologically damaged mess. That is one key difference. Another is that Valverde isn’t a caretaker like Martino was. He has a system, and it is difficult to imagine him doing anything except listening to a player saying, “We aren’t playing the right way,” before thanking him for the comment and returning to training.
This team might not win anything this season. But that won’t mean that its coach and its players haven’t done a remarkable job. In many ways, they already have. Just look. That plate of pickles ain’t gonna become chocolate cake if you stare at it long enough. But pickles are useful, too, in the right application. Some people even like pickles.