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:
Semedo Pique Umtiti Alba
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?