Luck. Ugly. Winning ugly. Boring.
When FC Barcelona hired a dour man nicknamed The Ant, few were that giddy about the potential for the team. There were other names that were better, other names that were more revolutionary, other names that got supporters more excited than Valverde. And still he came.
Villarreal came at Barça in their house, with everybody behind the ball, the typical way of dealing with the potential of Barça. As with with every match where an opponent fields everyone behind the ball, Barça had a hard time in the final third for many reasons: too reliant on Messi, Suarez still in the depths of his form funk (despite his fabulous goal). But most crucially, the team plays too slow, as many suspected would happen without the catalyzing effect of Umtiti raising hell from the back.
Ter Stegen made a couple of fantastic saves to keep the team in the match, while the opponent struggled with the low block because the way the team plays makes it easy. The biggest thing missing in the absence of Neymar is someone to take advantage of teams when they decide to attack — that hard charger up the wing to take a pass and convert defense into offense in a couple of seconds.
As it is now, what the team does is what so many have been clamoring for, that deliberate passing control style, that inexorable effort that gives defenders plenty of time to get back into the lovely low block, using ten behind the ball to deny space to Suarez, and collapse on Messi whenever the team forced him the ball, which was often. They forced him the ball even when there were better options available, which again, made life easy for the defense.
The team wasn’t struggling, wasn’t really in danger of losing as much as tallying another draw — but not one that came from blown ref calls or blown chances. Rather the struggle came from nothing good being able to happen in the final third because of clunky passes, crap movement and poor control. They would give Messi the ball, and the defense would collapse on him yet again, daring him to beat four or five defenders to make some magic. That didn’t happen.
This is one of those times where coaching enters the frame, when that man who few respect for the remarkable job that he has done, did something right yet again. The team had to play faster, so Valverde subbed in Paco Alcacer, the poster child for the “Sell his ass NOW!” brigade of last season, despite the people who cautioned patience due to the difficulty in assimilating at Barça. The same Alcacer who has helped the team gain six vital points this season with his efforts, and he did what he does.
Not only was the game faster, but the ball moved faster, and Suarez had someone to remove the pressure from Suarez. The result was almost immediate, as the Villarreal keeper just beat Alcacer to a cross. Then some slick interplay had him as the nexus of yet another quicksilver attack. Suarez sparked, controlled with a sublime first touch, rounded the keeper and slotted home for the lead.
Villarreal was down a man thanks to a wild, out-of-control tackle on Busquets, and the losing team’s manager carped about the crazy action that put his team down to ten. That wasn’t it. Everything was faster, as Valverde got the subs right for yet another time. And the match turned. And a question was posed for Barça Twitter: Is there a coach who has done a better coaching job than Valverde?
The consensus was of course. Lots of people. Burnley, Napoli and of course, Guardiola at City. And there is no question that Guardiola has worked wonders at Manchester City, taking the Prem by storm and setting a record for consecutive wins. Burnley is fighting hard, punching above their weight and surprising people in the Premiership. Napoli is in contention, third place in Serie A, playing pretty football of the type Barça supporters say the team will never play again.
And Valverde keeps doing what he does. He took over a team that nobody rated, even though he had the greatest player in the history of the game at his disposal. No talent, no match changers, just an aging squad that had a crap transfer window. The season started, and things started to happen. Neymar left for PSG, depriving the team of an essential component in its attack. Valverde adapted. The team bought Ousmane Dembele, Valverde adapted again. Then the star signing went down with an injury that has kept him out after one start, and Valverde adapted again.
Supporters clamored for control, and Valverde brought that back. Midfield control, positional play — even if it didn’t happen in the exact right way people wanted — were back, thanks to Valverde. The team wasn’t playing the exact right way, but it was being built in stages like a house rises from the foundation up.
He built the team from the back, solidifying the defensive approach so that the team stopped giving up stupid goals, stopped making the kinds of mental errors that plagued the squad last year. And it worked. The team was solid. The clean sheets came, and so did the wins. Everything was solid. “Boring,” “workmanlike,” “winning ugly” were some of the things we heard about the team, and the results kept coming.
The team won its Champions League group, and built a substantial lead in La Liga over the very teams that everyone said were going to be so much better than a poor Barça. Even after the Villarreal match, with goals from Suarez and Messi, goals that came from movement, then from intelligent pressure. And the team won again. Luck? Maybe. Maybe not. But there is no team less respected, led by a coach even less respected, that is doing as well. Coaching? Naaah. At what point do we admit that maybe, just maybe … naaah.
People will keep downrating Valverde and his team, and hopefully the team will keep winning, keep getting results, keep getting disrepected. That team isn’t perfect, didn’t spend hundreds of millions in the transfer window to get everything almost exactly right. Barça won’t be quite right even when Dembele comes back into the side to create the kind of pace-driven verticality that changes matches. Umtiti will return. Alcacer has suddenly rounded into shape as a left-sided attacker. Buttressing the back line is the best net minder in the game. And they will fight. And supporters will doubt them. And the game will go on, because football is football.
Barça might not win silver, but there won’t be any denying, by those paying full attention, of the remarkable job a calm — preternaturally calm coach has done.
P.S. Congrats to Leo Messi, who with his tally that sealed the win, also equaled Gerd Muller’s record of 525 goals for the same club. Yow.