The great thing about life, particularly as embodied by sports, is that the lessons are constant — none bigger than the reality that we don’t know anything.
Sure, we know objective stuff such as statistics and final scores. But as we sit around and endeavor some vague predictions or notions, it becomes clear that we don’t know anything. That even the people whose jobs it is to know something, often know nothing. And if the position of Barça in Liga and Champions League doesn’t say that as eloquently as anything, then you haven’t been paying attention.
None of us have seen Valverde fall to the floor and laugh, cackling so hard that he gasps for breath, waving his one, limp hand in a desperate plea for mercy. But had you told him in August that he would have a 9-point lead over second place in Liga, 14 over Real Madrid and walked the Champions League group, you most likely would have gotten that reaction. Because it seems there was a time not long ago that everything was the worst, and the club and team were in crisis — real or imagined.
— Neymar left
— An institutional crisis faced the club in a censure motion effort
— Neymar left
— Iniesta was uncertain
— Paulinho (!?) came instead of a more useful player
— Dembele, a work in progress, came for a big pile of dosh
— Neymar left (!)
— Suarez was still mining his ongoing funk
— Atop all that, a new coach who few were all that excited about except, curiously enough, Pep Guardiola
As the team — which is still unbeaten — rolled on, everyone pointed to the next match as the one that would find it out. Juventus, then Sevilla, then Atleti, then Valencia, then this team or that, and finally Real Madrid, an opponent who sparked the team’s sharpest group effort yet, even without its best defender and crucial attack starter in Samuel Umtiti. Culers are right in sideeyeing this present, exalted status, but can also be forgiven for doing a bit of math and feeling like a weatherable storm is approaching, rather than seismic doom and Armageddon. Essentially, Barça will have to — assuming that the Madrid teams in the top four win every remaining match — either draw five times or lose four times. Then Atleti takes over the lead. Real Madrid winning the league is beyond the realm of possibility.
As the winter break ends, the team enters a period during which there will be stretches of matches every three days, thanks to being alive in all of the competitions, a luxury that the second-place team doesn’t have. There is much talk of January transfers, but it’s difficult to know what will or won’t happen, and we know pretty much feck all anyhow, who knows what will happen. Here are some notions, which are just about as valueless as anything else you might see floating around in the Barçaverse.
Who’s in the house?
Again. We know nothing. We know that the idea that Mascherano will leave the club for China in the January window for a sum that is something like 10 is the prevailing bit of rumor out there. “Acuerdo total” and all that, but still. We. Don’t. Know. We hear that Arda Turan is being shopped around, that he and his agent are close to a deal with this club or that. Same caveats apply. The latest rumor is that Deulofeu and Vidal are being shopped around as well, via loan, sale, trade for a small mammal. Inter seems in the frame, as well as Roma and Atleti. Same caveats.
There is also the persistent rumor of the arrival of Colombian Yerry Mina, who will be the fourth CB when Mascherano leaves. Let’s assume for an instant that all of these rumors are true. Here’s what Valverde will have to work with, moving forward.
GK: Ter Stegen, Cillessen
CB: Pique, Umtiti, Vermaelen, Mina
MD: Busquets, Gomes, Rakitic, Iniesta, Denis Suarez, Rafinha, Paulinho
FB: Digne, Alba, Sergi Roberto, Semedo
FW: Messi, Dembele, Suarez, Alcacer
That is 21 players. The same 21 players, with zero leeway, through a busy, busy back period of the season. Because only eleven can play at a time, there are ten surplus players for rotation, etc. Because the players who would be, potentially, leaving didn’t play very much and Dembele and Rafinha have been gained, it almost feels like a surplus. Mascherano has been knocked and is just back, Deulofeu in the doghouse, Turan surplus to requirements, Vidal a rare appearance.
What of the possibilities? Because Mina will have to assimiliate, it’s really like having three CBs. The odds that he would come in and slide right to the task at hand like Umtiti did are pretty thin. But he and Vermaelen would be the rotation/injury options. The gala XI doesn’t change, with subs listed in parens:
Ter Stegen (Cillessen), Pique (Mina), Umtiti (Vermaelen), Alba (Digne), Sergi Roberto (Semedo), Busquets (Gomes), Rakitic (Rafinha, Paulinho), Iniesta (hahahahahaha!), Dembele (Sergi Roberto, Rafinha), Suarez (Alcacer), Messi (Oh, come on.)
If a roster of 21 players can be considered very deep this one is it, because of the quality at each position. Let’s also look at the other possibilities.
— Busquets slides forward and Rakitic into the hole
— Alba at LW and Digne at LB
— Messi up front with Suarez, Rafinha at the 10 with Gomes and Sergi Roberto
And that’s just a few. Valverde has a lot to play with, and has suddenly acquired massive technical versatility in the persons of Umtiti, who means that Busquets isn’t the sole attacking option out of the back, or Iniesta has to start from deep; Dembele, who opens up the pitch and is that right winger who can free up Sergi Roberto. He can also team with Semedo for the blazing-fast attack that can threaten opponents in a different fashion. Valverde has a team of players who can migrate all over the pitch, which creates a bevy of options that, despite everyone clamoring for this or that January signing, will probably only result in the team needing to fill one of the CB slots.
The return of Rafinha means that Valverde has a player who can now accelerate the game like Iniesta, who defends and can shuttle the ball from back to front, freeing Messi and Iniesta of that task. It’s weird to think of players returning from injury as important signings, but you couldn’t reasonably get players like Dembele or Rafinha in the market, so it is almost like transfers as they come on line, because they haven’t been available all season and each is capable of changing the way the team plays in a significant way. The overall roster quality also increases.
Another benefit is that Rafinha and Dembele, with the lead that the team has in Liga, can feel less pressure to make immediate contributions, especially with the knowledge that their roster positions are safe. It is impossible to imagine a better scenario for Barça as the team returns from the winter break.
In summer, many were dissecting a “crappy” window for Barça and predicting doom. That didn’t happen. And it won’t happen even if the team doesn’t win silver this season. But the real story here is how Valverde has fashioned a roster that was in fact stronger than many gave credit for into one of the best teams in the world and for me, a legit Champions League contender.
Calm and dour, Valverde has worked in the margins. Everyone is talking about Guardiola and the brilliant job he is doing with a record-setting Manchester City. Valverde is doing his thing in relative anonymity, a situation that is in some ways exacerbated by the resistance of those who follow and chronicle the game to admit that assessments and evaluations weren’t exactly correct. People who predicted that Real Madrid can still win the league are sticking to that. People who think that Valverde was the wrong choice are sticking to that. You can find evidence to prove anything. And there will be more “Wait until this opponent” matches.
Meanwhile, Barça is ready. For what? Who knows.