Villarreal 0, Barça 2, aka “Respect due”

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.

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Written by:

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.

28 Comments

  1. joshi
    December 11, 2017

    Kev, nice article as usual. The one criticism I have of Valverde is that he continues to play 442. I do not think Paulinho adds much in this formation. I would much prefer a 433 with Paulinho vs. Rakitic to round out the midfield three with Busi and Iniesta. Alcacer is not going to give you goals unless the net is wide open, but he does destabilize defenses. Hoping Dembele can do the same when he returns.

  2. Hristo
    December 11, 2017

    “The team wasn’t struggling, wasn’t really in danger of losing as much as tallying another draw”
    Actually, we were always looking likely to concede until the red card.
    Of course the subs make a difference. Paco is unjustly benched for Suarez. Paco avarage a goal or assist a game.
    Playing Denis in midfield is another incomprehensible decision by Valverde. Roberto at RB, who was yet again burned out for pace.
    Our Right side is a dead wood, with Roberto and Rakitic being totally useless, we have nothing to offer but to slow the game down. This is on the coach. He creates the struggle by playing over and over his players our of position. Finally, he introduced a player who deserve to start and we praise him?
    Every body know Rakitic and Roberto slow down the game when they are played in this fashion. Valverde creates difficulties with this system. Having to depend on Mats, who is the best keeper right now…

    Our coach is at best incompetent. This is a fact. It is not an interpretation. Unable to reward deserve.
    The obvious cannot be avoided, though seldom it can be delayed.

  3. Bruce Wayne
    December 11, 2017

    Lads. It’s only Chelsea…

  4. Bruce Wayne
    December 11, 2017

    And Neymar & PSG have their baptism of fire.

  5. Jim
    December 11, 2017

    Well, well ! Before getting onto the match what about that draw ?

    RM vs PSG ? Yesssss ! One of them goes. Good news for us. Chelsea isn’t a disaster although at some point they will hit good form .

    Anyway, Hristo, everything we write here is usually just opinions. We need to remember that, every bit as much as it’s fair to suggest that coaches, despite knowing more than we do about the game, don’t always get it right. I remember Pep’s fantasy goal of playing a midfielder in every position !

    Having said that, I think it’s fair to say that our right side isn’t pulling its weight offensively. Folks know my long held opinion of Rakitic and I think a growing number would agree that SR isn’t a RB. ( I’m gonna say here that the guy goes up in my estimation as a person each time he plays- he leaves nothing on the pitch. He also runs well with the ball but crucially usually only into space). Not his fault, he isn’t a RB. He’s a mid, one I think would be better than Rakitic but not really good enough for a great Barca team. Bit the same as Rafinha. I hope he comes back all guns blazing, I hate seeing players’ careers dogged by injury, but I don’t remember his work as fondly as is sometimes suggested. I suppose he does carry the ball though.

    I’m generally in tune with the gist of the article in that we are in a waiting period and need to adjust expectations accordingly. When EV lost Dembele I thought there was a genuine chance that we’d be out of it before he returned. EV has cobbled together a side which is getting the results – that is a fact – and for that he deserves great credit. Don’t agree with him starting one up front and if he proves to be this defensive after Dembele’s return then he will deserve criticism but I don’t think that’ll be the case.

    What will be interesting for me is whether he now accepts that we need someone playing up front with Suarez. That, to me, is obvious. It gives us bodies in the box which as Kxevin says, frees up Suarez, who I thought had a great game throughout. I was happy enough with the four in the middle when it freed up Iniesta but I’m not sure what the reasoning is when he’s not. We’re getting very little from anyone there bar Busquets. I for one have not been clamouring for a midfield that plays the ball about very slowly in front of the opposition but he’s no creativity about it. ( I’m also not entirely sure how Umtiti has been raising hell from the back but maybe that’s just me). It would be a mischaracterisation of our play in Pep’s time to suggest that the team moved the ball slowly or aimlessly. There were games when fewer balls were played forward quickly but that was because of the lack of movement or bodies up front. There are realms of videos on YouTube with us slinging a quick incisive ball forward for someone to run onto. What they did very well was to keep changing the angle of attack until a gap opened up then like a shot they were in. However, no matter what I think, the team is doing what it has to just now and I am actually quite chuffed that they have shown the fight to be where they are.

    EV also deserves credit for tightening the defence. Both Semedo and SR when they are playing are becoming more aware of the need to shuffle across to help the CBs if they are drawn out. There is a problem with Alba in that he has become one of only two or at most three creative players in the side so we need him bombing up and down . That means we can’t always rely on him being there although he swept up magnificently yesterday. He’s been great all season. At the moment, after Messi, Busi, Iniesta and Pique he’s the only other one whose loss through injury would affect the team much. Suarez too, actually, because he is good in a crowded box. Paco made the difference yesterday as much by just being the extra body as through what he did although I liked his energy and as I’ve said before he’s worth a longer look. He’s not a play up front on his own against a packed defence forward, though.

    I’m actually quite optimistic about our chances of a major trophy. For a start if we lose La Liga now there’ll be tears and acrimony ( and that’s just me). However, one of the two CL favourites definitely exits next round – is that a harder choice than you thought it would be ? – and for me the next most worrying team is City who are a light version of us but improving quickly. They are breaking passing records ( I counted over twenty in a move yesterday leading to a chance), controlling the games and Pep is now even confident to have a go at the non believers in his post match interview saying that he had been told you couldn’t play this way and his team were now proving them wrong. I worry a little about them. They are due a big result in the CL somewhere. He has them believing. Still don’t think their defence can handle an on form Messi though. Once Umtiti returns our defence will take some breaking down as well.

    So, there is no reason we can’t go a long way in the CL this year if we can sort ourselves out offensively.

    • Bharath
      December 11, 2017

      Absolutely agree with every point!
      On the Umtiti raising hell from the defense part,
      You can see that his aggressiveness on any player in the space occupied by an opponent in the gap left by Alba when he goes forward is crucial. It makes us a lot of compact, and lets Busquests patrol the centre more instead of having to shuffle constantly to the left. Vermaelen, for all his qualities, is just not the kind of player who would thrive in this particular task.

      This essentially has a multiplier effect on our attack, enabling us to keep constant pressure.

  6. Bruce Wayne
    December 11, 2017

    Can someone please explain to me Guilleme Balague’s beef with us? He’s always seeing something wrong with us.

    • December 11, 2017

      Ballague is a die hard Espanyol fan so no surprise that he is always finding some way to hate on Barca!

      • Bruce Wayne
        December 11, 2017

        Ah. That explains that. I actually thought he was a Madridista.

  7. Lionel Richie
    December 12, 2017

    HOW THE HELL ARE THE CLUB ALLOWING MASCHERANO TO LEAVE IN JANUARY?
    CAN’T HE WAIT UNTIL THE SUMMER?

    • December 12, 2017

      Masche wants to be in the WC squad, which is his last chance, even if he isn’t a starter. And since Sampaoli taking charge, he has not felt the same surety in the first elleven like before. He needs consistent minutes on the pitch to impress Sampaoli. Thats all.
      If it was the previous season, am sure Masche would have left only in the summer.

  8. December 12, 2017

    Jim, me too agree with you on , how Umtiti raises hell…
    Whatever it is EV deserves lot of respect. His substitutions are the most unpredictable ones and are almost always working. I still dont know why is persistent with Rakitic, who looks like a passenger many times, and SR in RB
    Also agreeing with you from your previous comment on Messi looking mentally tired. I think physically too. Gone are the days when Messi used to get lot of rest on the pitch. He is now constantly moving and more than ever, especially when Iniesta not present, every one seems to be looking for him now. Am getting worried for the little man, but my appreciation for him grows with each match.
    Messi – Alba connection is quite repetitive and predictable but they can still change the match and it is getting close to the level of Alves-Messi connection. The latter was not as predictable and we had incredible interplays between them, even inside the box.
    But all the kudos to Alba, who is among the best players in the team now. Not just for what he offers in attack. How many times have we seen him doing that last second challenge or clearance..
    And Alcacer, he seems to have lost wait from previous season, right?

  9. luisthebeast
    December 12, 2017

    The level of criticism to Valverde on twitter is amazing.
    It s normal because fans always try to find easy targets when things go wrong,like a 23 games unbeaten run.
    He doesnt start Denis,idiot.
    Denis start and is average?
    Valverde must use him in right side.
    He starts Roberto as RB.Why he benchs Semedo?
    Semedo starts and he is average?
    Valverde killed his confindence.
    We play 4-4-2 oh why?
    We dont have wingers,maybe?
    And so go on.
    But he have Messi!
    Oh wow he have a 30y old Leo and a 33 y old Iniesta and some players that previous coach brought to the club and now they are useless.
    Keep hating but the boss doing his best with a unbalanced and aging squad.
    We were the team with less km in CL,no secret with some players who cant run as some years ago.

    • georgjorge
      December 13, 2017

      A very good summary, and you are right about the 23 games unbeaten. I don’t know anything about RM fans, but imagine the kind of criticism Valverde would be under right now if Barcelona were in their place. Contrary to what some imagine, winning game after game both in La Liga and the Champions League isn’t a given by any means.

  10. luisthebeast
    December 12, 2017

    But i understand,he is nt a philosopher like Pep,a hard guy like Lucho,he is a man trying to do his job without the tools they had.
    And tbf Pep when he left,there were a system and clear ideas.
    Lucho the only he left was the trophies.
    Tactics and ideas for 3 years were in a break.

  11. December 13, 2017

    Barça Twitter is a bastion of Laportism, Cruijffism, Pepism and Negativism. Everything is the worst, nothing is as good as it used to be. People love to bitch and moan, but more than that, they need to be heard and agreed with, need to stay relevant and hip – and that mostly means “Grumble, always find something to grumble about.”

    Also, due to the fact that Barcelona twitter is the above-defined bastion of -isms, the negativity is focused, used and abused to bash the current board, which is corrupt, inept, vile, useless, stupid, corrupt, miserly, spendthrift, actively pursuing the destruction of the club while at the same time selling its values to fund building a monument to their enormous vanity in the Espai Barça project – which is unnecessary and in any case MUCH WORSE THAT WHAT LAPORTA APPROVED, HALLOWED BE HIS NAME!!! – all at the same time, of course.

  12. PPos
    December 13, 2017

    I think Valverde is doing a great job. Barca twitter can shut up. We are undefeated!!!! And not only that, we are the team that has conceded the least in Europe this season. That’s mind boggling compared to last season. We have the most goals scored and least goals conceded in La Liga with a short squad! that’s only going to get better, when the new signings come. The mill is saying that Griezmann is coming this summer. The money has been set aside. Coutinho possibly this winter if liverpool can snatch Lemar. Ozil maybe on the cheap. Arthur is a possibility too.

    There’s our insurance for the next couple of years. Fairly young players with gobs of skill.

    • Davour
      December 16, 2017

      I think you are overestimating Barca Twitter – it really can’t. EV has done a fantastic job. “Boring” at times, and a little over-reliant on Rakitic (for rational reasons, though), but it is understandable. He is building from the back, just like the team. And we must remember that having Messi is not only easy, in terms of coaching. Not to speak of a Suarez out of form (for whatever reason) and no Neymar. For me, his trial by fire will be Dembele, as well as approach in CL. He has not a lot of experience from CL, but plenty of cup mentality from Athletic.

      We’ll see who’s coming, but if Masche leaves, somebody HAS to come in Jan, and I wouldn’t hold my breath for any further additions. Very little chance Coutinho comes now – why would he give up CL for La Liga only? And why would Barca want a cup-tied player for 150m? Maybe this Arthur fella, but would he be ready to make a substantial contribution immediately? We’ll see.

  13. Jim
    December 14, 2017

    Forget your Christmas ads with their blue monsters dancing couples, perfect snow scenes and the like. This is what our club think it’s about.

    https://www.fcbarcelona.com/xmas

    Smiling through tears of pride and not ashamed to admit it. We are so lucky.

  14. realdox
    December 17, 2017

    what is your take on potential matchup between us and Manchester City

  15. Jim
    December 17, 2017

    Waiting for our game on a slow weekend with ice everywhere and no golf so I’ll bite first.

    This is a difficult one for me, Realdox. For a start any game won’t be for a few months even if we both survive next round. City are flying at the moment but they still have the real winter to go with poor grounds and more and more they will face teams which set up more defensively as happened to us. Spurs yesterday felt they could go toe to toe and failed miserably.

    For me, there’s no doubt that Pep has built a team which is lovely to watch. You can see his stamp on the style of play, the possession of the ball, playing out of the back in silly situations etc They have now added play which is very pleasing on the eye as they get used to his style. Their front line ( and midfield ) are all capable of destabilising good defences through their movement, pace and ability on the ball? They also, however, are working their tails off for him and pressing as if their life depended on it. I’m enjoying watching them this season, as opposed to last, because they are so easy on the eye.

    Against us ? Well, the big variable is us. First of all,

    1. can we impose our possession game on them ? If they have more of the ball they will kill us. They have too much pace for us to cope. The thought of that front three ( and it will be a three) running at us is worrying. Only Alba has the pace to deal with that and he will probably be posted upfield at crucial moments. So we need to be able to slow their attacks. Which brings us to the next ingredient

    2. The press. At times this year our press has been great but it does seem it’s an effort. Suarez, for all his criticism, does a power of pressing up front often unaided by Messi making it fruitless. Can our midfield keep up a press ? You have to look at Ini, Rakitic, Paulinho, Denis and wonder. The heart might be willing but enough pace to close down effectively ? Dunno. If Messi is going to continue as almost our only creative force ( we just can’t expect Dembele to hit the ground running after that type of injury. I’ve only pulled a hamstring before and it took me several months to trust it again ) then we can’t expect him to waste that energy too much on the wrong end of the field. Yet he’s the talisman. If he presses the rest of the team lift their press exponentially.

    3. Our attack ? Two factors for me here. First we need to have enough up front to move their defenders about. Dembele will help with that, both in causing trouble himself but also in taking some of the weight off Suarez. If we can get a midfielder into their box regularly as well Suarez will find spaces. Again, however, you come back to Messi. I’m almost tempted to say the result would come down to whether he can produce a top display for him. If he does he can change a game on his own but he’ll have a better chance of doing that if Alba, Iniesta, Suarez and Dembele are attracting attention elsewhere. I’d love to know what Pep will say about marking Messi.

    So, who wins ? If we don’t play well ( for whatever reason – formation, lack of energy, injuries – and they genuinely believe in their game they do.

    If we go into it in a positive mindset, If we have Iniesta ( absolutely essential ) on form, if we put out a genuine forward line, if we can press at important times and Messi plays, we win, undoubtedly. Pep has done a superb job there but their players generally aren’t better than ours. TS has been great this season, Pique is world class ( despite the detractors) Umtiti needs to stay closer to Pique and allow nothing between them because they will have to cover for each other but is a genuinely great defender and Alba will need to cover even more ground at both ends but has the engine. Way better defence than they have, especially when you include Busi’s vision. Still not been convinced by their back line at all this year.

    Their forward line is excellent but better than a Messi, Dembele, Suarez ? Not for me. The difference between great players and world class players. So we’re left with the midfield. I fear both De Bruyne and Silva. Last time we met De Bruyne destroyed us defensively with continual diagonal runs through our defence. We were really lucky nothing came of it. We have nobody to cope with that so we need to be more clever. Silva will be tricky but he’s getting on and Pep has been asking a lot of him with both playmaking and defending. I reckon there’ll be a dip there in the second half of the season. No, midfield for me holds a lot of the answers as it so often does.

    You have to say though it’d make a great final. I’d love to watch Pep ruffling Messi’s hair again after being destroyed by the wee man . . . again.

    On another note, as I watch the Sunday Football writers Neymar seems to be all over the papers after his dad recently met with Perez. Talk of discussions of a €220m transfer. Can I have clarification of what sort of abusive words might be acceptable here in this situation in case I need them, Kxevin ? There are some good Scottish ones spring to mind . . .

  16. Bharath
    December 17, 2017

    Regarding a game vs City..

    The key to the whole matchup would be Busquets. Pep’s teams place a lot of pressure on the opponent’s DM, and in most cases, they panic. I’m still not sure that they can do that to Busi. If we can get past that initail press, we’rr through on goal. I agree with Jim here that Iniesta would be vital as well. His composure would be absolutely vital in midfield. The only isuue is whether he would be able to defend against Silva and De Bruyne, when City would invariably have solid spells of possession. The way they move around in order to create overloads is stunning, very very difficult to stop.

    I’d also add that we have a decent chance against their front three. Don’t think Umtiti and Pique would be threatened too much by either Jesus or Aguero. Sterling can also be handled quite well. Its only Sane that really concerns me.

    I do think that we’re being a bit pessimistic here. Sure, City are a great team, a joy to watch (Probably the most entertaining in the world atm). However, we forget that we have a certain Argentine genius on the team, Him dropping into midfield would greatly take the pressure off us in the press we would face. Moreover, Dembele vs Delph is a very lopsided battle, as well as he’s adjusted to the LB role.

    All in all, a fascinating tie, that could have all sorts of results!

  17. realdox
    December 17, 2017

    Manchester City is a very good team right I agree with your point Jim expecially with thier attacking play.
    but as you highlighted above the only area where they seem Superior to us is there midfield with the like of Silva and kdb wrecking havoc but defensively I think we top them but in my own opinion I think it will be down to how our mildfield cope with there interplay and how quick they distribute the ball within themselves and the front three..
    the reason I wish for that match up is because we both love to have ball and always willing to attack(no offense to Mourinho team here) and I don’t think there desfense can handle an in form Messi expecially with Fabian Delph as the left back … I will love an in depth look at things from tactical perspective…in between is there any 4 who play like busquet right now¿ If you pay attention to their match against united , the only time united attack led to their first goal in the first half around 43 minute or so..

  18. Bruce Wayne
    December 17, 2017

    The referees have got to step up their game before El Clasico. This is getting out of hand. But anyway, Suarez is back.
    And then there’s Messi who could have broken that record but decides to assist Suarez. Class.

    • georgjorge
      December 17, 2017

      Suarez on his own had a goal disallowed and an obvious penalty denied (not that the latter would have mattered, with Messi cursed from hitting anything but the post today). Add that to the two goals he did score, the penalty he did get, and I think he is indeed back!

  19. georgjorge
    December 17, 2017

    I’m perfectly happy to admit that me writing off Suarez prematurely was a bit stupid. Right now, he’s just as good as he ever was. The opponent was very bad today, but the increased sharpness and decision-making is obvious.

    Depor was just what was needed before the Clásico, except for Messi scoring a hattrick of hitting the post instead of a real hattrick. A bit of rest for Iniesta and Alba as well as Busquets, and a game that was over after 50 minutes.

    I expect a cautious and controlling midfield for the Clásico instead of a lot of offensive power. At least, that seems prudent to me given our slow centrebacks and their lightning-fast counterattacking abilities. I really hope for Semedo at RB this time and would probably go with

    Semedo – Piqué – Vermaelen – Alba
    Sergi Roberto – Rakitic – Busquets – Iniesta
    Messi – Suarez

    with Messi staying near the box most of the time instead of dropping back into midfield.

  20. squeen
    December 18, 2017

    A couple of fun talking points:
    1) Luis Saurez is now tied for 3rd place in La Liga top scorers with 9 goals..
    2) Paulinho has more goals (6) than Griezmann (5), Ronoldo (4), or Benzema (2)
    Yeah, old guys!
    3) I am instantly sick (because of last year) of Real Madrid having “a game in hand”.

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