Betis 0, Barça 5, aka “Businesslike savagery”

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.

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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.

14 Comments

  1. luisthebeast
    January 21, 2018

    Great post.The transfer of the summer for Barca was Ernesto Valverde.I remember people said back then that the board hired him because he will be a “yes man”.
    They forget to say that Valverde rejected twice the opportunity in the past.Why?He was nt ready.
    I knew that this time was ready.And his work speaks.Not the results.
    But we watch again a team,a team that defends and attacks as a unit.Where every player know his job and even if 6-7 players rotate in a midweek game,style is the same.
    I will be honest,i was happy when Valverde came but did nt expect so soon so many positive things.
    Great job boss.

  2. TITO
    January 22, 2018

    I heard the applauding when Messi made that dribble by the end of the game.
    But in one moment the whole stadium started chanting something, but i couldn’t tell was it Betis or Messi…it sounded the same to me.
    If they were chanting his name, then kudos to them.

    • January 22, 2018

      Yes, me too heard it as Messi by whole stadium, whoever was left by then.
      Me thinks Semedo is going to be huge for us. HIm and SRoberto both playing is going to make our right side quite good.
      Quite gutted for TV. such a pity.

  3. squeen
    January 22, 2018

    This juego de posicion fan is completely satisfied. The control in tight spaces is back (even without Iniesta!). Roberto is gold. Rakitic was dazzling (and I don’t just mean his new hair). Wonderful match and far from a one-sided event until the end.

    Better without Neymar?.—definitely more fun to watch (except for the PSG comeback which was just insane).

    The match isn’t complete until I’ve read your article on it Kxevin. Thanks again!

    • squeen
      January 22, 2018

      Also, Kxevin, you need to be careful with that pen of yours.

      First you write about Paulinho, and he gets injured. Now Vermaelen! Careful with that sword!

    • Víctor
      January 22, 2018

      Neymar’s departure was a blessing in disguise. Just look how is he getting along at PSG. Surely you don’t need that type of player at Barcelona, regardless of their quality. And, speaking of quality, he isn’t really one of the best players of all time. He wasn’t the 1st, 2nd or 3rd best player at Barcelona, either.

  4. Jim
    January 22, 2018

    Well, for me he certainly wasn’t in the top three while Xavi was here. However, despite the fact that I don’t really like the way he conducts himself there is no denying he is one of the few genuinely world class players around. He did help to skew our play to a more vertical style but in the end it was LE who made that decision. He could still damage our CL hopes in the future. I don’t fancy the idea of him up,against SR although given how both played it may be Semedo with SR in midfield. Be interesting to see how PSG fare against RM, probably without M’Bappe.

    Anyway, a great result on Sunday night. And a great second half display. I’d go along with the idea that their press was likely to run out of energy but the first half was pretty even. In the end, again, we ran out winners largely because of the quality of Messi and Suarez up front plus great composed defending. I thought other good displays came from Busi and also Rakitic who worked the swapping with Busi well. I particularly liked seeing Busi’s control and passing vision further up the park. Hmmm, .

    . A bit of a shock seeing how poor TS’ distribution was on the night. Haven’t seen that really ever from him. A sign of how well they had us tied down ? Good to see Umtiti back and not suffering any ill effects. I confess I was encouraging him not to run at full tilt in the second half. Good that TV’s injury isn’t bad.

    Credit is due to Valverde who I’d agree has blended this team well and developed a decent style of play. I’ve been banging on for years about the stupidity of both FBs up raiding at the same time. He’s stopped that. Busi, as Kxevin says, has had too much work to do and he’s devised a kind of job share with Rakitic which looked interesting. He has also got Messi buying into the press, although maybe at least a part of that is being shamed by his pal up front who dashes from one to the next as if his life depended on it. I like it anyway because if Messi is doing it then the whole team will.

    I’ll finish with Messi and Suarez. Two unbelievable performances. Both of Suarez’s assists were technically difficult and hit to perfection, as indeed were both the goals. Heavily involved in four out of the five goals. Messi ? As the commentator beautifully said ” No words . . .” It was lump in the throat time after his alien move and the crowd rose to him. Credit to them but if you weren’t going to acknowledge that then you’re cold hearted and not really a football fan. (Loved the genuine picture of him with Guardado’s young kid after the match too. )

    He should be getting that around Spain, like Iniesta does, even though he’s not Spanish. His one in a generation ( at least) quality, the fact he never goes down if he can avoid it, his humility and the fact he is a great role model should count, for me. I mentioned in a previous post the fact that a few years ago the Scottish fans gave Ini a great reception as he trotted off at half time in the Hampden game. That sort of thing just has a togetherness and respect feel to it. If a Madrid player did what Messi did on Sunday night against us I’d be sorely tempted to stand at the end ( don’t worry, I’m secure in the knowledge that they don’t have anyone even remotely capable ).

    Looking forward to Coutinho now.

    • Víctor
      January 22, 2018

      I do not deny that he is a world class player, but he never was on the top 3 for Barcelona: Messi, Busquets, Iniesta, Xavi and maybe Pique and Dani Alves were the best players when Neymar was around.

      Of course that’s not to say that he wasn’t important in several matches. Especially the PSG comeback, sadly, rumors seem to be true: he wanted to be the “star” of this team, and that’s something that doesn’t go well with the club’s philosophy.

    • January 23, 2018

      Its that quality of his, to not go down even if there is any possibility to continue his run, which makes me think we will not see another player like him anymore. Future generations will observe learn and build on players like Messi, but this particular aspect, I doubt. In fact, that moment, when he was clearly being hugged back by the defender in their box, and him still going forwards, was unbelievable. it was in their box!!! 200% penalty call if he stopped or went down, but he didnt.
      I watch football since Maradona. Not a single super star of football showed this quality, so consistently.
      What Joaquin said after the match of Messi is something what we mere mortals would talk about a star. Even his compatriots talk about him with respect!!

    • January 23, 2018

      Jim, Ter Stegen’s pass completion percentage was around 78 percent. Given that Betis decided to play the outfield players, leaving Ter Stegen to attempt risky passes to generate a build of play, that is quite good.

      That option — the long pass — for Ter Stegen is one area where Paulinho was missed. Without him as a big outtet to take those passes and hold the ball, more of Ter Stegen’s longer attempts than usual went awry. But that is also a consequence of our outfield players not really being equipped for that kind of play, taking a pass under pressure and holding the ball. Something to work on, because other teams are going to try what Betis did, to remove Ter Stegen as an offensive weapon.

      • Jim
        January 23, 2018

        Yeah, I wasn’t intending to have a go at him, Kxevin. His distribution and general play has been great this year. It was more the passes directly to opponents rather than near misses I found unusual but like you Im pretty sure it was the heavy marking against the shorter pass. I also wondered if EV had instructed him to try to bypass the press on our defence before the game. There were a few times he had Pique free on our byeline but he didn’t use him where he would normally. We do sometimes forget how hard it is to take a long ball under pressure with an opponent right beside you as a result of the time the ball takes to travel, especially as you’re facing your own goal whereas the opponent is facing forward and can see everything.

        • January 24, 2018

          Oh I knew that, Jim. Just wanted to clarify a bit, and talk about a tactic that I think we are going to be seeing more and more as teams try to figure out how to upend the hydra. Umtiti’s return will do a lot to disable that as he will return to his press busting role.

  5. TITO
    January 23, 2018

    The winter transfer period is slowly becoming equally important as the summer one.
    I cant help but thinking that Neymar transfer triggered a lot of changes. Couple of years ago it was unthinkable of splashing hundreds of millions on reinforcements during winter.
    Additionally, as it seems, we will see some bombastic offers and deals this summer.

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