School’s out for summer. For some as regards the Blaugrana, to cite Alice Cooper, school’s out forever. We know how the season went as regards results, and it was fantastic. In August, as we surveyed the wreckage left by a Neymar departure and then Real Madrid laying waste to things in the Spanish SuperCopa, nobody knew what to think, except “poor Valverde.”
Then it got worse. The club brought in a talentless coot from China, a young RB from Portugal and a dazzling talent from Germany who showed up in diminished fitness, thanks to the strike he had to call to get his transfer. Then the talent broke doing (of all things) a backheel, and things looked even worse as Liverpool stuck to its guns, despite a desperately wantaway Brazilian.
And then weird things started to happen. Real Madrid saw the negative effects of sending away talented bench players, and Atleti, though strong as usual defensively, struggled to score goals as they waited for their infusion of energy in Diego Costa. Suddenly Barça had a Liga lead, and nobody quite knew what to do, what to think. And the lead kept growing, and still nobody knew. The team hit a funky patch, never losing but drawing, and the gap closed as the anguish began. Ah, now people knew what to do. DOOOOM!
Then the ship was righted, and the club sailed to a Liga championship sullied by a single defeat in the pentultimate match. The team did the domestic double, but all wasn’t right in Culerville. The play wasn’t right, formations weren’t right, nothing was right, except the results. And that was wrong. And after Roma, even those weren’t right. Draws were losses, wins were losses, everything felt like a loss in a season that in the wake of 90 crap minutes, had nothing. The Levante loss only made everything worse. The mood in the Barça social media world would have led an outsider to believe the team was about to be relegated.
And now it’s over. Isaiah will be working on a broader, deeper season in review, so let’s focus on the coach and players. How did they do? Let’s start with the coach, and attackers:
Ernesto Valverde: 7: The results were fantastic, the methods not always so. When he was signed on, it was because of his pragmatism, his ability to extract the maximum from a flawed group of athletes. And Barça was a flawed team. Valverde fashioned a system that allowed Messi to become even more decisive, through movement. If you looked at Messi’s heat map for the season, it would be easy to consider him a midfielder. But midfield was his launching point. The structure and movement of the Valverde system enabled Messi to have the freedom to move, unmarked, to positions where he could score goals or make key passes. This sounds easy, but it isn’t. In the past, Messi would have to make runs or dribbles, beating banks of defenders and making magic. This season, he would run to a spot in the box or just outside it, and there was the ball. Motion offense? Sure, if you’re into labels. But Valverde put the team in the service of its best player not only from logic, but from pragmatism. Messi is the best passer, scorer, dribbler, anything else you can think of. You don’t want him in a space where he can be controlled. Stick and move. On the negative side for Valverde, he lost faith in his own program at key moments, including his rumblefish, Paulinho. When he called for the Brazilian’s transfer, it seemed the world was going to end. Then Paulinho just did Paulinho things. Rumbling around the midfield, playing wall passes, helping in defense and running the channels into the box. People screamed about his tactical lack of discipline, like he wasn’t doing what his coach told him, because it was effective. Paulinho had a fitness and fatigue-related form dip, and didn’t get back into the rotation until it was too late, as Valverde moved away from the system involving Paulinho that helped Barça build its lead. Paulinho would have made a difference in the Roma match, where Valverde rolled out the wrong XI for the occasion, and failed to change it once the outcome and attack were clear. At times, the team didn’t seem to have a system. But there were also matches where, when an opponent didn’t cower in a low block, exquisite football. We forget that, particularly in the wake of a season defined by two matches. That is a shame.
The big knock on Valverde is that he prioritized Copa, and didn’t rotate enough. Of course, the same people say that everybody sucks, except for Messi, Pique and Iniesta, admittedly an exaggeration for effect. Valverde had a limited squad, in world where only a treble would do in evaluating a coach, particularly a new one. Gomes didn’t work out. Neither did Alcacer. Denis Suarez came on line late. Had he played the entire season as he did the back half, Valverde would have had more options. As it was, he had a short bench of qualitative necessity. Slating Gomes as worthless then slating his coach for not rotating him in more just doesn’t wash. Valverde did the best that he could with what he had even as he made key errors in Rome. Many will say not starting Messi at Levante was an error, but that defense. You can’t give up five goals. The challenge with Valverde is to not reduce the season to two matches.
Lionel Messi: 9: In considering the season of this remarkable player, week in, week out, match after match, it’s so difficult to find fault. Yes, he should have tracked back more on defense, but in big matches, he worked his diminutive Argentine ass off. He passed, moved, ran, got fouled, scored goals and went Pichichi again. He is the best player any of us have ever seen, and he thrived in a system that used him as the fulcrum to devastating, decisive effect. Think about this: Messi was Pichichi, and he hit the post 14 times. The goal that he missed, that we all knew he was going to score until he didn’t, was a massive one. You can guarantee he replays it in his head, on the doorstep in Rome as the ball bounced to him. Just as when he talked about the shot he missed at World Cup, how he struck it with too much instep, you know he knows now that he had more time, that he could have been more calm, that the moment created urgency. That one goal would have marked another time that he saved his team. Again. But like the Champions League result, that moment shouldn’t detract from what was a magnificent season. And that match shouldn’t have had to come down to that goal.
Messi’s heat map says midfielder. But opponents are going to watch game film to ask themselves how, match after match, Messi found himself in positions to wreck stuff. His reading of the game is intuitive and that, in conjunction with the structure his coach set up, meant that time after time, Messi was exactly where he was supposed to be. It was brilliant to watch. And were it not for laggardly teammates, Messi also would have had more assists, in addition to his having hit the post 14 times. In continuing the Michael Jordan analogies, this Barça team was most like the “supporting cast” that Jordan hailed when the Bulls won championships. And it worked.
What is scary is that next season, with a fully assimilated Dembele, a full season with Coutinho and other needs addressed in the forms of Alena’s promotion and the Arthur transfer, Messi could be even better, even more decisive.
Luis Suarez: 6: Statistically, Suarez had a really good year. His goal tally was almost up with Messi’s, as was his finishing percentage. Suarez scores bags of goals, but not even his family and closest friends would call him “clinical.” That is one problem. Also, his diminution of skill related to a big body aging was clear to see, and that affected his play as he spent too much of the time glowering in frustration. His movement tailed off to the extent where he was either offside or stranding runners. The quality of his first touch was at a new low, and he missed key goals even as his numbers were about what they always are. The psychological effects are knock on in that the more frustrated he gets, the easier he is to play for defenders as he seems to berate himself into ineffectiveness. He will need a part-time role next season. This season it was clear why. Too often he was the place where attacks went to die. People want to sell him, but the club never will. Not while there are 30 goals a season in that big body of his. Valverde will have to learn how to get the most from him in a part-time role.
The good things that Suarez does involve movement and aggression. He creates space for fellow attackers through his presence as he drags defenders around. Some of his ineffectiveness relates to lacking a playmate in a system that left him isolated for too much of the time. The rare occasions that he and Alcacer got to team up often led to good things. Suarez missed Neymar nore than any player on the team. Yet it is perhaps typical of Suarez’s season that one of the biggest goals of the season, a potential equalizer against Levante that would have kept Barça unbeaten, found him in perfect position for an open header and a flawless pass found him. He headed it over the net. And that was that.
Ousmane Dembele: Incomplete: It’s hard to evaluate a player who was lost for most of the season, then struggled with fitness and assimilation for the rest. His talent is clear, as are the things that he will need to work on over the summer. It’s hard to remember that he is only 20, such is the hype and transfer fee. He is electric, a player who makes you rise from your seat when he gets the ball. He has vision, the ability to pass off the dead run and the ball explodes off his foot. If any oft-broken 20-year-old can still be said to be worth 140m, it is Dembele. But he lost six months of the season and that affected the rest of it. He came back out of shape and tentative, and mostly looked a mess. When Valverde started him in the pivotal home Champions League leg against Chelsea, many wondered why, but it was clear: the way Chelsea plays means that Dembele would have oppotunities to run with the ball, and losing it wouldn’t be as expensive on the opponent counter.
This also explains why he did not start against Roma, a fast, physical, counterattacking team. The problem, and one of the biggest problems the team had was without Dembele, there was no way for the attack to threaten the defense with pace and getting in behind it. But the way Roma attacked would have made Dembele’s losing the ball expensive, particularly as he isn’t all that interested in tracking back. If Griezmann does come, that is the biggest part of Dembele’s game that he will have to improve. But like Neymar showed, such a thing is possible.
Functionally, Dembele will be a new signing next season. He will get to have a full immersion period with the team, barring the World Cup complexities in team building and structure. But he will be a much better player next season than this one, which makes next year already exciting. But Dembele’s presence and the fact that Messi is already teaching himself how to work with him, will probably make the JDP crowd sad. You don’t buy Dembele then stand around playing JDP. He isn’t that kind of player.
Paco Alcacer: 3: Sometimes made a difference when he played, but those times were rare. He never stood out enough to grab consistent playing time, which is earned in training. That is on him. And too often he subbed on and vanished. He had some key goals this season, most notably against Sevilla. But all in all, hard not to consider this a failed transfer who will move on.
When he was signed, he was a quick, mobile striker who could also play on the wing. He had a knack for being in the right place, and was a lethal finisher. Ultimately he had the same problems that Munir had, but Munir wouldn’t have cost the club 30m. Alcacer didn’t thrive in the compressed spaces that the Barça attack had to deal with, and that doomed him. A conservative coach such as Valverde will shorten his rotation to players that he can trust. Alcacer never made that list, something that affected the team. As we screamed about Suarez, saying that Alcacer couldn’t be worse, that wasn’t true. Because if it was true, he wouldn’t have been the cipher that he was.
Next up: Midfielders