When you buy a house, it comes with the stuff that other people decided was worth something — remodels, projects, landscaping. Maybe some of it bothers you enough to do something about, maybe some of it doesn’t. Either way, you have to make do with a home that isn’t quite your ideal, unless you decide to tear it down and build something to your exact specifications.
But where will you live in the meantime?
Adapting that complexity to football, one of the biggest problems for new coaches is O.P.P., other people’s players. If we look at the arc of Barça and its current roster, it’s interesting to see how things have arrived at this point.
In 2008, Pep Guardiola took over from Frank Rijkaard, and began the process of remaking the team. Out went Edmilson, Zambrotta, Gio Dos Santos (who wasn’t as good as hiding as brother Jonathan), Deco, Ronaldinho, Henrique, “Uh, Oh … ” Oleguer, Crosas, Ezquerro and Thuram.
In came Keita, Pique, Pinto, Hleb, Busquets, Caceres, Alves.
The makeover was significant, but there were plenty of players such as Gudjohnsen and Sylvinho, left over from previous coaches. What is also interesting is that the only players still on the roster from that treble-winning squad are Messi, Pique, Iniesta and Busquets.
In the next season, more changes came as Pedro and Jeffren were added, along with Ibrahimovic (in the absurd cash plus Eto’o disaster), Maxwell and Txigrinski.
The following season, Villa, Mascherano, Afellay and Adriano were added, Villa being the most significant in the wake of the fire sale of Ibrahimovic to Milan. This was also the first year of Barça as an “austerity club,” under the aegis of its new president, Sandro Rosell, who moved on Txigrinski, as much to show his coach who was boss as any sporting notions.
The next year, Fabregas and Sanchez came in, while Sergi Roberto, Deulofeu, Bartra, Montoya, Muniesa, Rafinha and Jonathan Dos Santos were promoted.
Guardiola left, and Tito Vilanova assumed the coaching reins. Alba and Song were added, while Keita, Afellay and Cuenca left.
After that sad, tragic season, Martino took over as coach, and Neymar was added.
At this point, holes were beginning to form. The system ideally needed a 9, experiments that began with Guardiola, were neglected for obvious reasons under Vilanova. The CB deficiencies were clear, and clearly ignored. Structurally, Fabregas was an albatross, and Thiago Alcantara moved on, the effects of which are arguably still being felt. This was also a period when Barça began the process of hanging on to players for too long, because no viable alternatives were in the frame.
And then came Luis Enrique, who got the same makeover capabilities as Guardiola, and the first significant transfer activity in an off season for the club since the 2008-09 season. Added were Ter Stegen, Bravo, Rakitic, Luis Suarez, Mathieu, Vermaelen and … Douglas.
Out went Puyol, Sanchez, Valdes, Pinto, Fabregas, Song, most notably. The result of that makeover was a treble. That 9 was added for Neymar and Messi to play off. CB solutions were found and Rakitic was in fact what Fabregas was hoped to be. Bravo was the shot-stopping keeper, and the rest was history. Things began to go bad the very next season, however, when Xavi and Pedro moved on and Turan and Vidal were added, failed transfers both. It got even worse the next season, which is the one that is most affecting this one, even as the problems began many seasons before this one.
Gomes, Alcacer, Digne, Umtiti and Cillessen were added, all except two of them transfers that created more problems than they solved, and the worst transfer summer for the club since the year that Alba and Song were added, in terms of sporting effect. Valverde came in, Neymar left and panic ensued. Dembele was added, a transfer that will look a lot better next season than it does now. Paulinho came to solve a problem created by the team structure, and Coutinho came in winter. Yerry Mina won’t matter until next season.
When Enrique’s O.P.P., in the form of Alcacer and Gomes, failed, that left Valverde with a great many problems to fix, especially for a coach faced with two attackers who aren’t really going to defend all that much, which creates difficulties in face of the Cruijffian doctrine that Valverde is so often accused of spitting in the face of. As Cruijff said, the attackers are the first defenders, the defenders the first attackers. Messi and Suarez, however, don’t defend like, say, Henry and Eto’o. This isn’t a knock as much as an observation from the real and tactical senses, and it forced Valverde to look for a player that allowed him a degree of physicality and control in midfield, but who could also run the channels to make up for the gaps in attacking when Suarez is mucking about on the wing. That player was, like him or not, Paulinho.
In part the loss of Mascherano necessitated his arrival. To take a longer view, the loss of Thiago Alcantara also necessitated his arrival, as the tean had to get control in a different way. What Paulinho, who is limited technically and not up to the skill level of a Barça midfielder, does is run around, play wall passes and help defend. All of these are necessary as Messi stands, waiting for the ball, and Suarez needs the ball delivered to him before anything can happen. If Paulinho has to dribble and make runs, the system is broken. People snarl about Paulinho making runs, rather than understanding that something else is broken, necessitating those “runs” of his.
Gomes failed. He is never going to become the player that he was at Valencia for Barça. That failure was massive, because Gomes was the idealized player that would have negated the need for Paulinho. Deulofeu failed, which meant that wing play went away, even with the arrival of Dembele, who broke for five months. Alcacer, at Valencia, was a nuisance player, someone who darted about to find spaces, then capitalized on a hard, accurate shot — sort of a low-rent Eto’o. He also tanked, so Suarez has to play, and play, and play, and …
Should the club have kept Munir? Valid question, particularly given how Munir has performed, albeit in an entirely different situation with more space than he would have been afforded at Barça, and how Alcacer has performed. Munir could have not played about as often as Alcacer, and saved 30m. But transfers are about potential, based on past performance. Alcacer seemed a good move at the time if, like Gomes, the Valencia version showed up. It didn’t. So O.P.P. broke the system.
People scream about Thiago Alcantara’s departure in terms of a lot, but the effect now is worth considering. The club has signed Coutinho, and Arthur will be coming in the winter. It also tried Gomes. In every case, the intention was the capture some of the skill set that Thiago has. Combine all of them, and you get Thiago, who can run the channels and play wall passes, create off the dribble, control at the base of midfield and score goals from inside the box. Without getting into the attendant narrative about who left or let do this or that, from a strictly skills and tactical viewpoint, the departure was significant.
Equally significant were the years of neglect of the CB position. Again, O.P.P. is killing Pique, who can’t NOT play. Yerry Mina is the first RCB the club has signed since Pique returned from Manchester, an action that is ridiculous and short-sighted. Umtiti is brilliant, but how is that the only good CB that the club has signed since Pique? Mathieu and Vermaelen are serviceable, and Mascherano was always a stopgap, who could only play CB for Barça, really. A solution should have been found before now.
Left back is another difficulty. Digne hasn’t worked out to be what anyone expected, so Alba has to play, and play, and … Grimaldo is oft discussed, but anyone who watches him play and thinks he would have been playing any more than Digne has the kind of optimism that makes the world a better place. So Alba plays too much, despite being tactically and physically limited, something exploited in draws or losses at Deportivo, and by players such as Bale and Dzeko.
The biggest problem with O.P.P. is Sergio Busquets, and not having a viable sub for him. This reality forced Valverde to have to Hamburger Helper his midfield defense by playing a double pivot with Rakitic and Busquets, the former another player who doesn’t really have a viable analog.
If we want to scream about how Valverde plays, it has to be in the context of his available tools. When Rakitic is out, who does that job? Nearest to him is Sergi Roberto, but it isn’t at the same level, so Busquets has to cover more space and is found wanting. He has to play Paulihno, and should have against Roma, to gain a degree of control and defensive solidity in midfield. He has to play Suarez all the time, has to play Alba all the time, has to play everyone all the time. It isn’t a question of rotation, but more a question of what happens to the level of play when subs enter. Denis Suarez is great in a sub role. He makes things happen, makes forward runs and now that he is playing like a man rather than a boy, is a delight to watch. But defensively? Sheeeit.
Marlon is at Nice, quite likely never to return. Vermaelen is on the bench, where because Umtiti is more fitting to the style Valverde wants to play, he sits. If you are going to play a pickup football match and you have a nice, new shoe and one past its time, where your ankle wobbles and one toe aches after every ball strike, which boot are you going to use? That is Valverde, a coach who sits at the nexus of years of poor planning, missed transfers, makeshift crap and statements made by boards and coaches. He has what he has.
“He should have rotated in the Copa.” With who, without making it look like a new coach is dumping the Copa? Let’s say he has an XI of:
Semedo Mina Vermamelen Digne
Denis Suarez Alena Sergi Roberto
Those are, in effect, the subs. Who wouldn’t laugh if Valverde brought out that XI? Heavy rotation? There you go. Then what, after the Copa is lost and culers say Valverde can’t even win a “gimme” competition such as the Copa. This year was vastly more fraught than we realize.
What will happen this summer? Alena will be promoted, and Arnaiz will get a look. Arthur will come in winter, Griezmann will come in the summer. Who will leave? Gomes, Alcacer, Vidal and a few other players as the team gets a rehab more than a makeover. Dembele will be fully fit, and Valverde should do pretty well with that group. He will also play differently with that group. That’s part of the deal. Of course he had to play boring-but-effective football this season. What were his options, if you look at the arc of transfers and personnel. If anything, he tried to be too interesting against Roma, and it cost him. Roma’s press precluded playing the ball out, but long balls to Sergi Roberto or Luis Suarez were lost almost immediately. Paulinho would have been much more effective at taking those passes, as well as helping defensively right outside the Barça box, where Roma ran riot. Reality dictates necessity.
Nothing has, for me, changed about my view of Valverde. He has been brilliant this season. My mind strains to think of a better candidate for coach of the year, even as he won’t win it, and Barça supporters won’t back him for such honors because so many are busy seeing theory instead of reality. Reality is this: a collection of failed transfers and players who aren’t good enough have dictated Valverde’s options. Yes, he is conservative. But the talent also forced that upon him.
What is most interesting about next season is that potentially, it could be as close to an idealized Barça, especially with another (essential) CB signing to accompany Pique, Umtiti and Mina. And then we will see what Valverde wants to do. Right now, so much of what he is doing is what he has to do, because what are the viable options?