In thinking about this Barça team and why it works so well, dogs came to mind. Or more correctly, the movie “Kindergarten Cop.”
You know it. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an undercover cop, posing as a teacher. He takes a chaotic class of kindergarteners and turns them into a well-oiled group by giving them all something to do. “When I blow the whistle, go and pick up ONE toy. How many?”
What Ernesto Valverde has done is he has empowered an already excellent football team by giving everybody a job, a role in the overall success of the group. When you look at the biggest difference from the Luis Enrique years, it is that the team has gone from being an entity devoted to feeding the three greatest attackers in the game to a unit from which an attack can come from anywhere.
Luis Enriuqe would have been a fool to employ this method with a player such as Neymar, working off a genius like Messi. Chaos worked because it destabilized. The team won a treble because nobody had any idea what the hell was going to happen, or who was going to cause it.
Opponents adapted in the second season, which is how things went from a treble to a double. Last season, mental fatigue kicked in, in part a symptom of not having clearly defined roles, not knowing what to do, not having a job. “Get the ball to Neymar” broke down when opponents walled him off with two or three defenders, which meant Messi had to come bail him out, or Neymar would try something and lose possession. Because nobody else had a job, nobody quite knew what to do when the opponent had the ball. It was the wrong kind of chaos.
Valverde began playing a different way with Neymar, who was working in a more controlled fashion, given a zone of operation rather than “Wheee!” You could also see the structure that Valverde was already working to build behind the Brazilian. When Neymar left, everything had to change as the offensive catalyst changed. What Valverde did was switched from slightly controlled freedom in the hands of a wizard to empowered control in the hands of the entire team.
Sergi Roberto can start an attack. Busquets can. Rakitic can make a run, or Semedo can bust up the wing. At one point against Betis, Umtiti lobbed a pass to Paulinho, who rainbowed to Messi, whose return ball was just off. It was amazing, and also typical of a Barça that, even as the juego de posicion crowd isn’t in any way satisfied, understands the roots of command and control. Spaces are tighter, ball movement is more secure. The only person who is allowed to take risks with the ball is Messi, and only close enough to the opponent box where the defense can deal with the transition should possession be lost.
Some will think of the Betis outing as a match of two halves, but it was clear in the first half, the way Betis was scrambling, running and chasing, what was going to happen. Rakitic summed it up in a very logical manner:
“We knew Betis would press high. It’s very important to have patience and wait for the right moment. And in 2nd half that moment arrived and we took advantage of it in the best possible way. We have to continue like this”
A tired, pressing opponent is going to make errors, going to turn possession. It is inevitable. Even as the Barça goals came in a flurry of brilliant plays, they were all goals in which Betis was broken by their own errors. A steal, and Raktic slots home. Another steal, and Busquets finds Messi. Rakitic hits Suarez with a rainbow that gets slammed home off the volley. Another turn of possession in midfield, and Messi calmly rolls home. The last turnover found Messi feeding Suarez, who slammed home into the roof of the net. In the same way Messi uses a defender’s motion against him, Barça let Betis create its own destruction.
The team works in overlapping zones of influence. Last season, the brilliance of Busquets was diminished by having too much space to cover. This season, he sits like a spider in a web, then strikes. His life is easier, made even more easy by being able to move up the pitch to create as Rakitic slides into the hole, an effective alteration of an already effective system. It makes Busquets better, and gives Rakitic new life as a creative force that works in the box-to-box mode, like Sergi Roberto, but only one of them at a time.
In 20 Liga outings, Barça has conceded nine goals. The squad is unbeaten, has a double-digit lead over the second place team, and fourteen over the third-place team. In the Premiership, a race that everyone considers done and dusted as Pep Guardiola and Manchester City have laid waste to the league, the gap is 12 and 15 points, respectively. Barça is a couple of wrongly disallowed goals this season away from being absurd. Oh. Real Madrid is in fourth place, the last Champions League spot, at +19.
This team works because nothing is forced. As Rakitic described, it is patient. There is no forcing the ball to Messi. Valverde has made the greatest player in the game as much a part of the overall structure as Guardiola when he coached the Argentine. Sergi Roberto will run past Messi to feed Semedo. Rakitic or Paulinho will make a driving run to slot through for Suarez. Messi is still the ur, but the team understands how it should play, that everyone has a job and that when all is said and done, the greatest player in the game is there, waiting.
The first goal came from Suarez and Rakitic, the second essentially created by Busquets. Then it was Suarez and Rakitic again. Messi was brilliant once he decided it was time to do what he does, but the match was decided without him, if you consider the Rakitic goal as the decider. This is important. Messi has always wanted to win. He wanted teammates, rather than playmates. Luis Enrique tried by fully activating Suarez and Neymar, and it worked. The team won a treble and a double.
Valverde is making it work by making Messi part of the unit, and everybody is thriving as a consequence. You can stop Messi, and Barça can still get you. As the team moves through European competition, increasingly able to focus and marshal forces for that, this diversity of approach will become important.
Valverde rolled out an ideal formation against Betis, with Semedo at right back and Sergi Roberto as a free agent in attack. He did the same things that make Paulinho so effective, making intelligent runs in the channels, with and without the ball at his feet, destabilizing space in a manner that created danger and cost Betis energy. The team kept playing the same way, but the Betis players’ movement was less crisp. They moved to meet passes with less alacrity, left a footstep more of a gap in passing lanes. And that was that.
There has, of late, been a lot of talk about the team being better without Neymar. No. The team is different. With Neymar, the team was effective in one way. Without, everyone has to assume parts of his tasks. Alba does some, Rakitic does some, Suarez understands his role as that target man who takes the pass and holds up play as Neymar used to.
What might be most remarkable about this season is that its entirety has been an adaptation. Neymar left, Dembele came, then broke. Coutinho came, and was broken when he arrived. Yerry Mina has arrived, and is working into the squad. Barça could, potentially, be even stronger a month from now with a fit Dembele, Coutinho to rest Iniesta in Liga and Copa and Mina working his way into the group. Lucky? No. Valverde built the team from the back up, clean sheets as the foundation for excellence, so that if they don’t score five goals, they only need one or two. There hasn’t been anything lucky about this season, one in which the injury bug has bitten hard. Vermaelen is the latest to pull up lame, going down just as Umtiti returned, in the same way that Umtiti made way for Vermaelen, chasing an attacker up the left sideline.
People seem flummoxed by the success of the team, but think about it this way: You can start a new job, sitting down at your clean, empty desk in front of a bright new computer, with no instructions other than, “Make this widget.” Or, you sit down and there are online manuals already keyed up on the screen along with a specific set of steps to follow in making the widget. At the end of that first day as both workers show off their widgets, how surprised would anyone be that the second worker has made a textbook widget?
Anything seems easy, once you know how.