From the Spurs match thoughts, worth keeping in mind as we delve into the Valencia draw:
On the down side, Liga returns over the weekend, where teams aren’t proud, don’t mind reducing 90 minutes to a joyless slog through a defender-crammed final third. Attacks peek their heads out like paranoid meerkats, popping up when advantageous but otherwise, staying in their holes.
This is exactly what happened. Valencia drew up in an excellent match plan that takes full advantage of the grim reality of not only this Barça team, but teams going back to Guardiola’s vaunted sides: the struggle against the low block.
What is different about this team is that is can’t survive any lost possession without conceding goals or excellent scoring chances. And there are errors. The Valencia goal came from a play that a sharp Pique makes. As he himself said after the match, he had made some errors that have cost the team points. That he also went defiant, saying that now it seems like every time the team concedes it’s his fault, is a bad sign.
And the “Valverde out” legions are growing, another silly sign of a nonexistent crisis. Thankfully, the board isn’t that stupid — or at least not that panicked yet, and certainly not sufficiently panicked enough to introduce a degree of chaos that would be attendant to jettisoning its coach fewer than 10 matches into a season, a coach who is so far perfect in the Champions League group stages, a group which paranoid supporters figured foretold doom. Fire Valverde and you might as well switch from blaugrana to white.
Which brings us to Valencia, and yet another low block, a parked bus of intelligence and movement, a bus affected only by a moment of genius from Messi, a rocket into the lower corner to equalize the match. From then on, Barça had full control of proceedings, passing and probing, looking for weaknesses and creating chances.
Football matches come down to moments, and this one came down to two: the miscontrolled corner, and Coutinho deciding to go for the perfect shot, instead of just shooting, something weird for a player so fond of shooting. And it was a hard-earned draw in the savage Mestalla, a draw that could have been a win, just as it could have been a loss. Instead it was a draw, and people lost their minds, after a run of dropped points in the Liga and a run that coincides with poor form by Real Madrid, who lost to Alaves.
Hay, Liga, indeed.
As you can imagine, Barça Twitter went balistic. Valverde doesn’t have balls, Valverde waits too long to sub, Valverde made the wrong subs, Valverde doesn’t have any tactical sense.
Matters were compounded when, after the match, a translation that got the words but not the spirit right, featured the coach saying that he waited so long to make substitutions because he didn’t know exactly what changes to make. And people looked at that statement without looking at what happened: Dembele and Rafinha were subbed on, and the team played worse than when Coutinho and Arthur (resepctively) were on in their steads.
As many including me have been saying for this young season, Valverde is a coach with problems, with a deeper but incomplete squad. The other problem is that one of the squad’s key players from last sesaon, Paulinho, returned to China. As a very astute Twitter observer said, echoing what many of us were already saying: Barça is pretty much the same team from last season.
Not only is it pretty much the same team from last season, but the XI essentially features the same players. “Oh boy, wait until we get a full season of an assimilated Coutinho and Dembele,” we said. And at that first time when Dembele, Ccoutinho, Messi and Suarez were in the eleven, everyone was excited. And then reality struck, which was that none of those four were all that interested or capable from the defensive side of things. So danger beckoned every time an opponent got hold of the ball. The reasons were clear, even if they weren’t always seen.
Rafinha is just a different midfielder, another variant of small ball. Dembele brings pace, a shot from distance and ball skills to the left side, just as Coutinho brings … the same, except he doesn’t render Jordi Alba ineffective. The squad got deeper, without getting any more effective, which is rather an odd thing to say. But the XI, as its core, remains the same as last season: Ter Stegen, Semedo or Sergi Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Coutinho, Messi, Suarez, Dembele. This season, there is the addition of Arthur, who brings control to the midfield, if not real creativity. Yet.
So against Valencia, Arthur and Busquets teamed with the rest of the squad to help keep the ball, and keep it some more, and keept it some more, passing it around a packed, effective Valencia low block that moved around to block entry to everyone, made smart interventions to stave off last-ditch attacks. And Barça played the kind of midfield-dominant football that people have been craving, led by a controller, the vaunted controller in Arthur. There were tricks, flicks, backheels and almosts. And Valencia didn’t break.
Valverde had subs warming up, and he waited. And waited. And waited some more. And the subs were ineffective. “Make subs!” “Those subs suck! Make different subs! You know, the ones that work!” The subs and their effect showed exactly why Valverde waited. “Make subs!” Making subs just to make changes, or to bring on fresh legs happens to what end, particularly if the team plays worse. It’s coaching busywork. Make those subs earlier, as some of us asserted, and what probably happens is the same 1-1 draw.
This team isn’t as bad as many suspect, nor is it as good as many believe. It’s a work in progress in the hands of a man who many believe is not up to the task. He is. For this team, this particular team. But it will take time, even if we don’t want to provide that time — not that we have any say in the matter. We’re just fans. Demanding fans who want magic, joy, the precarious beauty of a crazy goal such as the one Arsenal scored against Fulham, filled with headers, backheel flicks and crazy magic. Nope. Because no team that plays Barça wants to be Huesca. Or PSV. And the pass magicians face another Quixotic quest against yet another low block.
What if the kind of football that everyone wants Barça to play doesn’t work in the modern game any longer, because of how defenses are drawn up, because of how players move. The man who created its glories, Pep Guardiola, doesn’t play that way any longer. Didn’t play that way at Bayern Munich, and doesn’t play that way at Manchester City. Arthur has come to help the team play that kind of football, and opponents know how to deal with it. So now what? The team and bench are stocked with players whose very existence is a shrine. Barça football. Cherished, vaunted Barça football. And teams just erect a wall and watch the passing display from behind it.
The team wins enough to win a championship, does it because it has the best player in the history of the game, has players that can present moments of absurd brilliance that become decisive. We scoff at those moments, however, even though they have been hallmarks of Barça teams for years and years, because of a devotion to an ideal that doesn’t exist any longer.
We don’t want a goal from individual brilliance, unless it’s Messi. Beyond that, we want a 424-pass edifice to the art of football, an attack of sustained joy that results in an eminently logical goal.
Valverde has a team that he is the wrong coach for as regards philosohpy and expectations of a demanding fanbase. He wants to win by being what he is, a dour man who mostly dresses as though waiting to enter a funeral. This is true even as he is the right coach to extract the maximum from this collection of veterans. But we expect him to be daring, swashbuckling when he is the kind of coach who might wear a belt and suspenders. He wants his team to be secure, to not leak goals. Then if the solid structure works and Messi has a moment, his team still wins, 1-0. A Simeone scoreline. We went him to make bold decisions, bold subs. Not gonna happen. He will wait, and read, he won’t be bold. Failing? We knew that about him going into last season.
Bad coach? Nope. Conservative one? Yep. More tentative and hesitant after the Roma debacle of last season? Sure seems so. And this is the coach who has to solve the problems that bedevil his team.
Despite all of that, we all know what is going to happen in La Liga because it does every seasaon. Upstarts find their way into the top four, but by the winter, they are gone, nestled in their familiar positions in the table, and the same three teams are up top, sometiems in different order.That is as immutable a part of the world as the Barça fanbase seeing a crisis, seeing doom. He knows what he has, knows what he can do with those players. We will want something different, something daring, something spine-tingling and joyful. That isn’t going to happen with Valverde. But he has what he has. And we have what we have.
But none of this is what anyone wants to hear. Sorry.