The midweek Champions League match against Juventus was, for culers either remarkable or dull as dishwater.
We have all heard the arguments, the same arguments, about style, beauty, this and that, so much so that they should be shelved for perpetuity — or at least until something new and interesting happens to advance either side.
What happened on Wednesday was a team doing exactly what it had to do in an away fixture in Champions League, to win its group. Barça was supposed to advance from this group. Winning it was another matter entirely, even as many predicted precisely that.
But there was work to do.
With a big 1 vs 2 Liga clash on Sunday looming at Valencia, a lot of things had to happen in the Juventus match. Barça had to, at the very least, draw. Its star would need some rest. The team would need to get a result so as to render the last match of the group meaningless. The entire team would need to conserve something for the coming battles.
The big news, even before a ball was kicked, was that Messi would be starting from the bench. People didn’t quite know what to make of that, even as it was excellent news from many perspectives, most notably that of a mature superstar bonding with his new coach to arrive at a decision that was best for player and team.
Barça didn’t need to win this match, so how it was contested would be crucial, and Valverde had an excellent match plan that consisted of possession. Calm, probing, possession. Every coach would like to pursue the ideal of keeping the ball enough that the opponent has very few chances, so few that the match is in control and the team can leave the motor in second gear.
That this happened is significant mostly because Barça is a strong enough team to take the Champions League finalist for the last two seasons, and calmly hold it at arm’s length. There was a time at the beginning of the second half where an interminable stretch of minutes passed before Juventus, who wanted to win the group to avoid the pitfalls of the runner-up draw, got a chance to play with the ball. That chance was brief as Barça regained possession, and resumed its calm game of kickabout. The only people more frustrated than sparkle-craving supporters were the players on Juventus.
Supporters want tons of goals and wowie-zowie play, savage attacking with damn-the-torpedoes fireworks. Players and coaches want to win. The next coach that is fired for having a big lead in league, winning his Champions League group and not playing star-spangled football will be the first. Valverde has his team doing work.
Whether you find that boring or impressive depends on what you want from a team — this team. Win every match, sprinkle stardust everywhere, or get stuff done, cognizant of the reality of a short squad as a passel of injuries further limit the possible options for its coach. The Barça Twitterverse melted down at the idea of a big Champions League fixutre being contested without Messi. Some even said there wasn’t any point in watching. Those who didn’t, missed a fascinating match. Boring? Far from it.
Ter Stegen had to make one real save, deep into injury time. The rest of time there were interventions, or watching Juventus players prang balls shot from a safe distance over crossbars, hither and yon. The defenders made Juventus’ star, Dybala, look like a guy who was waiting for the acres of playing space that he had the last time he faced Barça in a Champions League match in Turin. Didn’t happen. Just frustration and mussed hair from the constant gestures of exasperation.
Coaches build teams in their own image, and Valverde seems to have structured a team of accountants. 2+2=4. Next, please. No extra energy, a dearth of emotion and red mist, just doing a job that needs to be done, time and again. You get the sense that Barça could have won this match had it been necessary, as from time to time the team would accelerate play to normal speed and find itself in the Juventus box. But most of the match was doing work, saying “No” not with the deep-lying defensive displays of teams that we usually see when someone needs a draw, but defending the Barça way, with the ball.
While so many have been grousing about quality of players, style and a “boring” team, Valverde has built a team that understands that the key to winning a match is, first of all, to not concede. Swashbucklers mistake possession-based, attacking football for the kind of pell-mell attack that never existed at the team, not even Guardiola’s teams, who ground out many a Champions League away draw by doing precisely what the team did on Wednesday.
If we have the ball, you can’t hurt us. Juventus was physical, tried to attack the midfield, but Iniesta and Busquets were calm and brilliant, as were Umtiti and Pique. Barça defended more effectively than Juventus, via a team pressed up past the halfway line, with acres of space behind it. For someone who wants to understand such a notion, that is remarkable.
Juventus had pace in Cuadrado, mercurial talent in Dybala and a lethal striker in Higuain. All were reduced to ineffectual fouling born out of frustration. The few times there was any danger brewing, a Barça player would take a professional foul, and that was that. The display might not have been glittering or festooned with goals, but it was a display of a strong team that understands what it has to do, a team that might be, despite what its many detractors say, ready to take a shot at something once everything rounds into place.
By the time Messi was subbed on in the second half, Juventus didn’t know what to do. Barça played pretty much the same, except with a genius dashing about to make Juventus even more nervous. The other interesting thing about the second half, for those paying attention, was the sub of Jordi Alba for Iniesta, so that he could play left wing with Digne as the left back. The jury is out on this wrinkle, but its nascent form held promise.
And Barça keeps rolling on. If it can manage a win at the Mestalla on Sunday, it will have a seven-point lead over the second-placed team, and at least a tem-point gap over the third and fourth-place teams in the table. The team has also won its Champions League group, and has what should be a match for the kids in Copa against Murcia in midweek.
Are things looking bright? Consider that Suarez, as his knee begins to feel better, is returning to form. Sergi Roberto will be returning soon, as will Mascherano for defensive depth, and Andre Gomes for midfield depth. Dembele will be back after the winter break, and there is talk of an addition in the January transfer window.
Tata Martino’s side also started off like a rocket in Liga, but there was always an air of fragility about that group, both physical and psychological. Valverde’s group doesn’t seem to notice anything, or get fazed at all. A player gets injured? Everyone moves around, and the train keeps rolling. Denis Suarez scoffed at the notion of the team being boring. Others do, as well, but it all depends on what you need. For now, it’s safe to marvel at a group that is, above all else, effective. And that ain’t bad.