It’s Roma. Now what?

There is a line in the excellent Jonathan Wilson Champions League preview (in which he logically predicts Barça to advance) that is worth having a look at in the context of this team, and what Ernesto Valverde has had to do. Of necessity.

This Barcelona are not the side of 2009-11, nor even the side of 2015, but they do have a happy knack of not losing.

And the Champions League wrap from Gabriele Marcotti gets to the truth of why we’re here, right now, this season:

But you can’t judge this Barcelona side against the ones in recent history. No recent Barca team faced the preseason handicaps that they faced. They’ve had to change and adapt, and, of course, the process is still ongoing, which is why you get nights when they need to be carried.

The biggest problem with Barça is Barça. It becomes necessary to view each team under each coach as a separate thing. But in looking at a particular team out of context, complexities arise. Luis Enrique’s teams were chaotic at the end, but even more so compared to their predecessors. And then there is Valverde. Let’s have a look at how he is working, what is effective and his necessities.

When building a house, what to start with? Foundation. Valverde had the most difficult job of any Barça coach since Guardiola. Vilanova came in and had everyone, as did Martino. Luis Enrique came in and still had Xaviniesta, plus Suarez and Neymar. Valverde didn’t have Xavi, had an old Iniesta, a rapidly aging Suarez and Neymar, who left in the summer. Then he had Dembele, who broke. The most reliable thing Valverde had was the defense, which was what he worked with. The adage goes that championships are won with defense, which is only partly true in football. But if you can’t score a goal, you’re better off if you don’t give one up.

Chelsea worried me because of Willian. We can be relieved that Barça didn’t draw Liverpool because of Mohammed Salah, the player closest to Willian that is left in the competition, even as Liverpool’s defense isn’t as solid as Chelsea’s was. For me, Barça is set to win Champions League because of how tight it is at the back, because of the foundation built by Valverde, fronted by Messi, augmented by players such as Suarez and Dembele.

Luck comes up a lot with this Barça team. There is often talk of luck and mistakes when it comes to Barça goals, where somehow goals that are conceded by Barça are evidence of a fundamental weakness, a flawed system waiting to be exploited. But we should be clear about something:

Almost EVERY goal is the result of an error. Rare is the goal that is just so remarkable that nothing could be done to prevent it. Most goals, someone gives up possession in the wrong spot, or a shooter isn’t closed down — something happens that should not have, and the goal is scored. Players create errors as well through pressure, slack control and things such as that.

People often mistake Valverde for Mourinho philosophically, which is one of the greatest errors that I have seen to glance off this exceptional team. If they were parents, Mourinho doesn’t want any of the kids to have any fun. Valverde wants the kids to have fun, but also remember that you might skin your knee and that’s okay but be careful, and did you do your housework before you left, and make sure the back door is locked before you leave for the playground. Okay. Off you go.

Valverde isn’t a defensive-minded coach, but rather a coach who understands the value of having the back locked down so that the front can play freely. Messi has never been more liberated from defensive responsibilities. There are times when he pitches in because he understands the moment. But Barça are, in effect, playing with eleven in attack and nine in defense. Compare that with Guardiola’s side, with a spry Xavi and Iniesta as well as Henry working like a dog, and of course this team is going to come up short.

But taken on its own, it is remarkable. It needed Paulinho because Gomes didn’t work, needed Coutinho because Iniesta isn’t what he was, needed Dembele not because Neymar left, but because the Barça system, properly implemented, needs a winger.

People scoff at this team for various reasons. They are disgusted that Paulinho plays for it, without realizing what he does. They think that an opponent shot on goal or attack is a portent of doom. This team is going to give up attacks because of being two players down in a crucial area. With a press, defense begins with the forwards, who apply the pressure at the outset. Suarez mostly preps for when Barça get the ball back, and Messi picks his spots. This means that if an opponent can break into the midfield at pace, as they sometimes can, they will be able to get at the back line.

But the structure of that back line, interlinked play backed by a pair of excellent CBs and on form, the best keeper in the game right now, means that when shots do come through, they can be dealt with. It’s different. The days are long gone of the midfield circulating the ball around, and it isn’t just philosophy. Where are the players to do it? In the Manita Classic, Messi was deep with Xavi and Iniesta, pinging the ball around working up the pitch. For Valverde, he is lurking around the center cirle, waiting for the ball to come to him.

Note the defensive effort that Dembele put in against Chelsea, augmentative effort that helped Sergi Roberto and Pique, effort that is also necessary from a Barça winger, especially in a system that trades, of necessity, ball control for defensive tightness. The foundation is solid.

Every now and again, we see some of what people expect of “Barça football.” That initial goal against Chelsea saw the opponent with just two touches, a sustained effort of passing, triangles and ball control that was amazing to watch. That it resulted in a goal was even more exceptional. Valverde, a pragmatist, makes sense of what he has, which is an incomplete team.

Let’s look at the players who haven’t worked out: Vidal, Alcacer, Denis Suarez, Andre Gomes, Deulofeu. What if they had? How different would the team have looked, aside from the coffers being 40m to the good because Paulinho wouldn’t have been required. Gomes playing the channels, Denis Suarez contributing to the possession game on the left or in midfield, Deulofeu working as a destabilizing winger, Alcacer a forward who is also a defensive workhorse.

Because none of that happened, the starters have to play an unusual number of minutes for Valverde. Coutinho is an immense help, so is a fit Dembele, but the team needs more. In summer, business will be done. Expect every player on that list to find a new forever home, though Gomes will be given a harder look than any of the others because of his exceptional talent.

Arthur and Alena will come to midfield, and expect Arnaiz to get a good, solid look on left wing. Assuming the club can fast-track the Coutinho passport, Yerry Mina becomes the Vermaelen on the bench. Semedo will be even more solid at right wing, which means that Sergi Roberto adds to the midfield ranks. Coutinho will be fully assimiliated and able to play European football, as well. And there is that persistent Griezmann rumor. Potentially, the XI is:

Ter Stegen
Semedo Pique Umtiti Alba
Busquets
Messi Coutinho
Dembele Suarez Griezmann

Yikes. Then, and only then, will we be able to see the kind of football that Valverde wants to play. And that potential glamor will be built upon a rock-solid foundation that is being laid this season, one in which Barça is still unbeaten in Liga and Champions League. This team has an eight-point lead in league and is in the Champions League quarterfinals, without having lost a match. Luck? It’s a phrase often bandied about with Valverde and his players. How much luck does one team get? Week after week, opponent after opponent, lucky? At what point should we start to wonder if something else isn’t acting upon results?

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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.

13 Comments

  1. Andh'ol Roin
    March 18, 2018

    Man, you are right, but you are also not right.. Yes, Vv wins and is cautioa and the team plays well… But it is the exact same team all the time, the choice is almoat always to rely on the old guard to win those games. You talk alena but how often did we see him? Was Mina not great when he played? Was he? So why do we play a basically injured Pique in liga matches anymore? How about the awesome Paulinho, which i couldn’t agree more, does his absolute best to prove he belongs and he does, why does he keep playing over a busi jr from time to time? Is every single player in the world which is not in our starting 11 right now, is he really impossible to play in this barça system, which isn’t quite “that” barça system anymore? I mean, let’s be honest, Paulinho is the exact example that some could. Maybe alena, or semedo, or busi jr or could we try an atacker from time to time to pair with luis? Let’s be honest, this season gave vv enough chances to try, because when raki or busi tire, their performances drop, same goes for andres or even sergi roberto who literally played every game this season. I don’t know man, there is a new coach, yes, but the old guard is playing and winning every match until now. I just don’t want to see them trashed in the semis by some team which obviously isn’t the better one, just the one who was more rested, fit and with a clear head on their shoulders.

  2. Grindelwald
    March 18, 2018

    Great first half, seems Bilbao aren’t even interested in playing today but they’ve quite improved in this second half though. One of the easiest games we’ll play all season. Pls, I want to see more of dembele Messi combo, dude’s very creative with great speed of mind!

  3. Víctor
    March 18, 2018

    Does anyone think that Valverde chose to be less aggresive in the second half perhaps to not thrash his former team?

    Because, really, I can’t find another explanation for the difference between Barcelona’s first and second half.

    • barca96
      March 18, 2018

      Tired legs and tired minds. They gave it their all in the first half to kill the match. What EV should’ve done is inject fresh legs. Dembele needs time but I don’t understand why he keeps getting taken off so early.

      Messi, Pique, Alba, Paulinho were tired.

      • Víctor
        March 18, 2018

        Yeah, true that. Tiredness did come to my mind, but just a few minutes after writing that. Big match against Chelsea midweek surely gets you a toll.

        Barça’s twitter, not surprisingly, went nuts because of that second half. Saying that Valverde is an idiot, pussy, coward, etc… however, I do feel that, had Barcelona kept going forward looking to score more (and doing so) the reaction would be: “LOL, Valverde, this game is already over, why waste the players’ energy and risking more injuries? Let them calm down a little, tough schedule ahead… donkey manager, etc…”

        Alena not getting minutes, though, was a bit of a let down for me… should have been subbed in the last 10 minutes or so…

  4. barca96
    March 18, 2018

    What is the point playing Gomes and leaving Alena on the bench? After more than 1.5 years he hasn’t improved and his best performance came when he was playing in the RB position.

    Give his spot to Alena. He didn’t get any game time at all this week. What’s the point in calling him up from the B team and have a match where there is a spot in midfield but give it to Gomes and Paulinho? Both don’t have long term future at the club especially the former.

    Why is EV running some players into the ground? Messi, Pique, Alba. Ok, there is no replacement for Messi but Digne could’ve come in for Alba and Vermaelen/Mina could’ve come in for Pique.

    Messi will be knackered after the international break. Likewise the other key players. And after they come back from their NT duty is when they always lose form. When will the managers ever learn?!

    Umtiti is half man half amazing.

  5. TITO
    March 18, 2018

    Well, those first 30 minutes or so was as Football as you will ever get from a team. Certainly, proving something to people claiming that we are only pragmatic under EV.
    If they were more clinical and selfless in the final stage of an attack, we could have been 4,5 up in the first half.
    As for Roma, since i watch and follow the Serie A as much as i can, they are a level or two bellow the strenghth of Chelsea, so we shouldn’t have any problems progressing, but regardless, we must be carefull and play football as we know it.

    • georgjorge
      March 18, 2018

      Fully agree on that first half, what a performance after a tough midweek match!

  6. georgjorge
    March 18, 2018

    Second half was just Barcelona doing the things absolutely necessary to see the game out, understandably after a tough midweek game (and I agree with the point made above about key players needing rest, it’s not Dembélé and Coutinho who need to be subbed off but Piqué, Alba etc.).

    But let’s talk about that first half, one of the most enjoyable of the whole season for me so far. It was beautiful. The quality of play was very high, but another thing is that when I watch this team now, I get the feeling of a real TEAM, of the players enjoying playing with each other, fighting for each other, taking care of each other. That’s as football should be, and to see it done at the highest level warms my heart.

    A special couple of players: Dembélé – after a discussion with Kxevin, I was ready to accept that he just would take some time to adapt. Lo and behold, he had a good game against Malaga with an assist, then a smashing and important goal against Chelsea, and now he plays like a fully adapted player at times. That’s astonishing, and if he continues adapting at this rate we can expect many wonderful things from there. Umtiti – incredible composure. I just love looking at his face, this mixture of both fighting spirit and calmness. Can we call him the Xavi of Defending already, for never going in rash but always taking his time to assess the situation and then choosing the best alternative?

    By the way, I’m slightly drunk but you can probably see that from the above text ; )

  7. Víctor
    March 18, 2018

    8 point lead becomes 11 point lead. Good times for the team.

    9 games left, 27 points. Of course, nothing is written in stone yet, but at least is gonna help to lower Liga pressure a bit.

  8. Chiu
    March 18, 2018

    – with 11 points gap , la liga is 99% done. time to rest Messi in la liga more often, and let him focus in the CL knock out games only. We should take care of Messi before he decided to do “self protection” mode for his last World Cup, imo. Visca Barca

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