Barça 2, Sevilla 1, aka “That ain’t no hot dog!”

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.

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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.

12 Comments

  1. Davour
    November 9, 2017

    With a glass of cold, quality vodka, pickles are gold.

    I find it difficult to understand how people can be so critical of Valverde, especially considering the circumstances. You can have objections regarding some tactical decisions, selections etc., but it is undeniable that he has done a very good job. With a Suarez of old (and perhaps a health Dembele), there would most likely not even be a discussion. With Neymar, the team looked fabulous during pre-season. When Iniesta has been playing, the team has stilled looked rather fabulous at times during the season.

    We can see that that he has squad a bit thin on top quality, and that is probably what is worrying many. It seems so fragile, and too filled with quite good, rather than very good, players. But they, too, have played parts and made a difference at times.

    It is obvious to me that Valverde knows what he is doing (as is evident from players’ comments, like Busquets recently). He is trying to instill something and see where he can go from there. Building from the ground up. Many criticise he is not giving youth a chance, but that is surely because young players need a platform, and it is not yet ready. I feel he has been overusing Rakitic, but again – I sort of understand why. No revolution, but reform; slow and systematic change. Building with the bricks at your disposal (and Rakitic showed against Sevilla what a player he can be).

    It will be fun to see what Dembele will add; what Deulofeu can do to the left, what Alena can do when he is added to the more settled system, etc. For me, adding Coutinho (if possible) would make a world of sense now. Add a Suarez finding his feet, and this can be fantastic.

    • georgjorge
      November 10, 2017

      I also don’t understand the criticism (of Valverde per se, as opposed to specific coaching decisions). Is it a Twitter thing? 10 wins and a draw against Atleti in the league, 3 wins and a draw in the Champions League, and as you stated all that with a rather thin squad.

      My one criticism would be the role of Sergi Roberto, who has gotten playing time as a starter at right back over Semedo (who I would prefer a lot at this position). I really think Roberto would be good enough to start a game in midfield over Rakitic or Paulinho at this point, but he never seems to.

      Other than that, Valverde definitely has a good plan and the capability to put it into place. I never felt as relaxed when the opponent was attacking, both counterattacks and slow build-ups. It seems everybody knows their defensive job very well. Creativity in attack is lacking when Iniesta isn’t playing, and is very dependent on Messi, but that’s what you would expect under any coach with one main forward in a slump and the other one having left just before the season started.

  2. PPos
    November 9, 2017

    I think the January transfer season will make or break our season. If we are able to get Coutinho, we might be able to give Iniesta the rest he needs to not keep on getting injured. Our captain is still a beast, but fragile, Father Time has definitely taken its toll. It seems lately that he’s injured every other week, which sucks because he’s still a delight to watch.
    I’m personally very happy with Valverde’s job so far. He’s added a defensive stability that we were sorely lacking under Lucho. There’s a system in place not just the front three and then the rest which is not how a team should play. Oh Turbo Messi, he was mesmerizing to watch. I remember watching him and seeing him running into 5 players and believing that he would beat them all and score, which he often did. But nonetheless, Leo is still magnificent. His game has changed but what I love about him is that he doesn’t have to rely on his physical prowess to impose his will unlike CR7 whose struggled are very apparent this season due to the lack of service, and his impotence at not scoring, he’s basically in the same hole as Suarez. Strikers are fickle beasts, when on song they can do anything and everything and will score but when off the doubts come, the extra touches happen and the frustration builds. If we get a penalty, I hope Messi gives it to Suarez to ease the nerves, The only way to break a funk is to play your way out of it, and I know Suarez will. He’s too good not to.

    I think we definitely need another center back because Vermaleen is trash and should be sold. There are a bunch of names flying around but if we have the money, i think we should buy Koulibaly. The man is a beast, but he’s very expensive, and there’s not way he should settle for a part time role, but I think Pique could use the competition.

    Valverde asked the board that his only request is that they buy players that are good enough to create competition within the squad. That was one of the reasons why we Madrid was so successful these past two seasons. They had a bench that was clipping at the heels of the starting eleven every game unlike ours.

    I heard that Arsenal just put a 30 million tag on Ozil. I think we should snap him up, He might be an ex-Real Madrid player but the man has tremendous vision, and at 30 million. He seems relatively inexpensive in today’s market, and he’s still fairly young.

  3. Hristo
    November 11, 2017

    I think Valverde is somewhat slow. I can’t escape the idiot decision to bench Semedo who been playing terrifyingly well, play Sergi out of position, when He is one of the best players in the world who can do what he does, accelerate the game. Receive the ball facing the opposition, find space on the go, under cool head. We have all seen these qualities in Sergi. Instead of playing Busi, Sergi Paulinho, who, all three complement each other, Valverde benches Semedo, and plays Sergi as RB. So far all of our coaches do things half right.

    And if we don’t win anything this year with Messi playing like he does, we’ll, it s a failure.

    • georgjorge
      November 12, 2017

      I voiced the exact same criticism above, but I think you are too harsh on Valverde based on that one criticism. I would amend your last sentence to “So far all coaches of all teams do things half right”. There are no coaches who get everything right – not Guardiola, not Heynckes, not Ancelotti, nobody. I would gladly settle for a coach who has a plan and does most things right.

    • November 13, 2017

      Semedo wasn’t “benched.” Semedo was rotated, and subsequently played two matches in a row. A coach will use his personnel based on their strengths and matchups. The mistake many make is in thinking that Valverde sees an RB when looking at Semedo and Sergi Roberto. There are issues with that.

      Sergo Roberto’s skill set isn’t wasted when he is on the right. If you notice his playing position, it’s a lot like that of Dani Alves, who functioned at a right-sided mid as much as an RB. We often see Sergi Roberto on the right when Iniesta is in the XI, then he will slide over when Iniesta is subbed off.

      Valverde has made that decision to keep Sergi Roberto’s intelligence and playmaking ability on the pitch, while also maximizing Iniesta’s zone of influence. Whether anyone views that as “slow” is a matter of interpretation.

      Also, what we don’t know about Semedo is what his muscular profile is. The physios do. Often, fast players have a preponderacne of fast-twitch muscle fibers. If you look at, say, 100m sprinters such as Usain Bolt, they spend a lot of time injured. In football, players such as Jeffren and Bale are extreme examples of this complexity. Fast-twitch fibers need more care and feeding, as well as rest.

      What we don’t know is what the physios are doing to keep Semedo fit, but presumably that will include rotation of the sort we are seeing.

      There are also persistent rumors of attitude problems from Semedo, a rumbling under the surface. This, too, might be related to his playing time.

      The larger issue here is that a coach isn’t in any way less intelligent for not doing what any of us say we would. This doesn’t mean they don’t get decisions wrong. They often do. But they make their calls based on risk assessment and information that none of us have. And when we evaluate their decisions, it is invariably with the 20/20 clarity of hindsight. Maybe, in that exact same situation, we would do the exact same thing. It’s probaly worth taking a long view, over the arc of an ongoing season.

  4. Jim
    November 13, 2017

    I’m not sure we can make any lasting judgements on EV at this stage. What I think I know so far ( without getting into known unknowns etc ! ) is that

    1. The defence is performing better and not giving me the jitters every time we are attacked. For me, it looks like an increased emphasis on the notion of realising situations earlier and being able to cover each other better. I’m also clear that this is the best CB partnership we have had in years. ( I would take slight issue with the mention in the article of Puyol and Abidal but omitting Pique who is possibly the single largest element but that’s minor ) . It is also clear that TS has got over any wobbles he had early on in his time here and is slowly turning into a top keeper. Still far too flappy and slightly weak on cross balls for me but getting better all the time.

    2. Messi is on fire !

    3. EV was left a mess in midfield. LE had little interest in it once Suarez got going with the other two. Then,when the neglect became obvious, he went out and bought very poorly – no, not just poorly but with little idea of what we needed. That is my biggest beef with him and I’m left with the impression that he is a very average manager. Could be wrong but we’ll see in his next job. So what signs do we have that EV has any better understanding? Well, for me, he plays and overplays Iniesta. That’s a good sign. He has free Ini a little from heavy defensive duties. Tick ! We’re hearing talk about him getting rid of four or five and demanding that we concentrate on quality in their replacements. No bad thing and you can perm any four you like from the list. Doesn’t really matter for me. We need quality. Players who can take in and control a bad ball, have eyes in the back of their heads, are as comfortable moving or passing forward as across or back and can carry the ball past the lines. A steep ask and it’ll cost. I’m thinking I only know two or three names who might fit .

    Anyway, with all that EV gets a pass on the midfield situation for me. No, it’s not as I’d like but it’s what he has and he’s doing fine with it. I’ll know more when I see his purchases.

    4. As Kxevin has said, how can we not appreciate the situation we are in almost half way through the league programme ? He lost Neymar and Dembele, has an only slightly above average midfield and seems to have all the players buying in judging by their public comments. He has also by his start turned a slightly concerning opening by RM into a ( nearly) crisis situation and heaped pressure on them. What’s not to like ?

    5. Did I mention Messi ? We are living on borrowed time with him as, sooner or later, self protection for the WC will kick in, but at the moment he is as good as I’ve ever seen him. He’s running a lot for the team and has the demeanour of someone who believes in the manager.

    So, overall I’m quite impressed by Valverde so far. He got us over a difficult period as smoothly as could have been done. He doesn’t shoot his mouth off or antagonise the press and has handled the Catalan situation pretty wisely.

    Finally, I’m not as impressed by SR in midfield as others have been but I would agree that Semedo needs a run at RB. When we get to the games where he comes up against fast, tricky wingers ( you know who I mean ) I think his worth will be more obvious. I can’t find it in me to criticise SR given the amount he puts into every game but I’m not seeing an imposing presence. There seem to be regular cameos but not consistent quality so far for me. I would put him ahead of several others though and he wouldn’t be one I’d sell.

  5. Jim
    November 14, 2017

    Ok, tonight for one night only I’m supporting Neymar. There, I said it !

  6. Jim
    November 14, 2017

    Hmm, seriously Neymar? One great through ball and about ten lost possessions ? That’s show pony stuff , I’m afraid. I’m needing better from you tonight if you’re going to stuff England. Tbf, neither Coutinho nor Paulinho have looked great either although Brazil are all comfortable on the ball as you’d expect.

    Mind you, England are refreshingly short of ability to keep the ball or pass incisively. I reckon the mascot in the canary suit should get a game for England given the keepie uppie skills he’s just demonstrated.

    Sorry to hear about Aguero. Apparently he fainted at half time in their game anyway taken to hospital. Seems to have recovered but not good news.

    Finally, catching up on some Barca news. What’s this about Griesmann ? Say it ain’t so.

  7. Jim
    November 14, 2017

    Second half started and Neymar has moved central. Good ! He’ll get a lot more space there and can hopefully do some damage.

  8. PPos
    November 14, 2017

    AHHH! I hope we get Griezmann for 100 million, the man is only 26 and definitely a player that deserves to wear the Barcelona number 7 instead of Arda Turan

  9. ooga aga
    November 15, 2017

    another injury…Masche hurt vs.Nigeria….out four weeks…

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