Barça 2, Inter 0, aka “Easy does it”

Messi was out. What would happen? More than anything, that was the idea of the time before Inter Milan and Barça kicked off in the Camp Nou. How does a team replace the greatest player in the history of the game, facing off against a dangerous opponent. Valverde decided to replace Messi not with any one player, but with a notion: control.

The idea of control is an odd thing, because it’s difficult to really understand what it means in the context of football.

For Barça, the idea of control was established by the legendary Pep Guardiola sides. You control the ball, the movement of the ball and the tempo of the match. Your opponent gets the occasional sniff, the occasional shot at goal. The keeper might even have to make a save or two. But for the most part, Barça is in control. English football supporters and pundits, in many cases, called that manner of football “boring.” Where was the running? Where was the adventure, the swashbuckling? Who wants to see runts doing rondos?

Barça supporters, that’s who. The idea of a “controller,” clamored for by so many, was shaped by the idea and ideal of these teams. Nothing happens because it isn’t allowed to. When it works, it’s beautiful. And, if you want, boring. No running, not many goals, usually none by the opponent. Football is being played, mostly by one team.

When the transfer of Arthur was accelerated to the summer, there was joy from people who knew his game. Here was the controller. He was gradually integrated, gradually indoctrinated, playing here and there. Then he started a match, and that was that. Now he has started three consecutive matches, and will almost certainly start a fourth on Sunday, against Real Madrid. He and Busquets are the eye of the hurricane. The ball moves back and forth between them until it is ready to move to an attacker. If there isn’t anything in the making, the ball returns to them. The press works to work the ball loose, so that it can be returned to them. Keep the ball. Under pressure and physical strain, keep the ball. Spins, short dribbles, just keep the ball. The ball is never in isolation. If you watch closely, Busquets and Arthur are never far apart. Control makes it essential that they become symbiotic.

Pity Inter Milan, who came into the Camp Nou tied on points with Barça, looking at a showdown for the undisputed top of the table. They defended, rolling with ten behind the ball, banks of four and five stacked, all to prevent anything from happening, and still it did. Twice. Enough to have more than enough for Barça to win, because control can work with the right amount of talent. Both Barça goals came from the play moving, the ball moving, runs dictating passes but in a more dynamic way, and excellent finishes capping off the move. And yes, there was individual brilliance, particularly in the first goal. Because like it or not, individual brilliance is what makes the difference between Barça and Huesca.

Footballers know what to do, and they do it. It’s their job. Where talent comes in is where a Luis Suarez is pressed in the box, and has the time created by his control, skill and awareness to make a perfect pass to Rafinha, who has the skill to control and shoot accurately almost in the same motion. Ordinary teams don’t score those goals. You could give them the entire sequence up until the ball arrives at Suarez’s feet and it would look the same. But from there, you wouldn’t get the same result. That is individual brilliance, and it is a necessary part of excellence.

That match was so much fun to watch, and in an odd coincidence, a mirror of the last time Inter came to the Camp Nou during the group stages. Again, Messi was out and again, it was a 2-0 scoreline. And again, brilliant football was played with exceptional control. The cast was quite a bit different then, but then as now, it was Barça football.

There are so many Xavi comparisons being made with Arthur that are, for me, inaccurate. Folks need to go back and watch Xavi. Close control and a few spins to get out of danger don’t a Xavi make. It was said of Xavi that he played into the future, because he saw passes that nobody else could see, saw runs coming that nobody else did, runs that dictated otherworldly passes. Xavi’s spins were quite often followed by forward runs to create space and time that allowed him to dictate the match and its tempo. Arthur doesn’t do that yet. He isn’t creative enough yet. Arthur is more a secondary Busquets than a Xavi. But the talent is there. As Arthur gets more adventurous, we will see more of his gifts, and those will be fun times.

But he still won’t be Xavi. What he is at the moment is an essential part of the FC Barcelona XI, because he allows the team to play football as the club likes and as its coach prefers.

Those who are on Twitter should make a point of following Navid Molaaghaei. He’s a smart observer of the game, and a font of knowledge about the academy. After the match, this was one of the things that he Tweeted:

And frankly had any other coach been behind that result and performance last night without Messi, the reaction would’ve been different. But I’m sure the Camp Nou crowd enjoyed every second of it. 😊 Even the Inter fans were silent for 85 minutes. Theatrical performance.

In the social media aftermath, many said that the match was “boring,” or “uncreative.” Those are things that, to a neutral observer, have roots in the notion of a team’s coach. But there are some things to consider. Arthur didn’t come to Barça and decide to play like he does, didn’t automatically know how to work with Busquets, how to integrate into the whole of what the team is trying to do. Rafinha started, and people scoffed at Valverde for giving him that runout. Rafinha did what he does, helping with control, tracking back on defense, running, working, creating. Then he scored the goal.

Valverde started Rakitic, who played a fine, fine match, and Suarez, who aside from his usual stumbles and bumbles, was a beast. Valverde devised the XI and the match plan that helped his team continue to walk a Champions League group that so many predicted they would have trouble with. The reassessment of Valverde, the best worst coach this club has seen in a while will probably never come because there are too many people who want too many things. And the coach is wrong when he doesn’t do those things. Malcom, Dembele are two favorites right now. There is a “need” for those skill sets that has been established by observers. Even as Barça controlled Inter to death yesterday, there was still the idea that Valverde was an obstinate fool for not using those players. He was stupid for sitting Semedo for Sergi Roberto, who did exactly what was expected of him in his coach’s match plan, a performance that was integral to the team strolling against Inter. Pique was on his magisterial form, and Lenglet continues to look like one of the smartest buys of the summer. Alba was smart and more controlled. The team structure was mostly rock solid. And it’s worth asking how that happened.

At the Camp Nou when Arthur was subbed off for Arturo Vidal and a loss of control, people whistled this Valverde decision, forgetting that Arthur was going to be starting again on Sunday, because what he does has become integral to what the team does. It was later learned that Arthur had a slight niggle, and was pulled as a precaution. Whoops.

Yes, there were glitches. Coutinho, in trying to do too much, did too little and had a poor match. The team is still poor in transition defense, hence the need for control, but the physical profiles required for the team to not be poor in transition aren’t really part of the roster. The choice midfield is too slow, and always will be. So keep the ball. And it worked.

As a team and as a footballing notion, Barça is still taking shape. So far, it’s been fun to watch, even as it has been frustrating at times for an ambitious spectator who thinks that he knows more than the manager. And to be sure, Valverde would laugh as he explained to me why my notions are mirthful. But he has some problems to solve, chief among them is Ousmane Dembele, his integration and how to keep 140m from becoming a lost investment. Will we as hungry supporters be as patient as Barça was against Inter? Probably not. But this season can be a lot of fun, just as yesterday’s match was, if we just let it happen.

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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.

20 Comments

  1. October 25, 2018

    The comments in the previous post, when the lineup was posted, were mirth-inducing, and exact echoes of what was being seen on Twitter. And then came the match. It’s funny because on Twitter, I was talking about how and why Rafinha made sense. Then he came on and did exactly that, plus scoring the winning goal.

    It’s all funny. I am fond of saying that we don’t know anything, so let’s have fun with all this stuff. Yesterday’s match was a great illustration for that notion.

    • mvarfi
      October 25, 2018

      Thanks for providing the cherry on top of a thoroughly enjoyable match.

  2. Víctor
    October 25, 2018

    Yep, we can disagree with Valverde’s ideas and tactics and, perhaps, his overall approach to the game. However, it’s also clear that he is not a clueless coach.

    Sure thing, he does mistakes (oh, surprise) and he may fuck up at times… but last season showed us that he is also capable of doing the right subs and manage games to get a victory. People said that he doesn’t know how to win without Messi… well, he has done that before (in La Liga games) and yesterday he did it again, and against a big rival… not a mid table club… so, maybe we should give some credit to him? Not saying to give him a blind vote of confidence, but at least the benefit of the doubt…

    Match boring or uncreative? Well, I guess that it could been less boring if Inter created more chances and perhaps tied the game… the team did what it had to do, get the advantage, control the game via possession and look for a chance to widen that advantage… they did so, and after that second goal you could feel that the victory was already Barcelona’s… just a matter of minutes to end the match.

    Good result, but just like every other game and result… one thing at a time, let’s hope that the team keeps this fighting spirit and bring it on against Real Madrid. The season is still young…

    • Khing_prince
      October 25, 2018

      On the second paragraph. Maybe we should save the applauses until after sunday.

      • Víctor
        October 25, 2018

        Fair enough. My point wasn’t to say that we should applaud Valverde, but rather just aknowledge that he isn’t an idiot…

  3. Osas
    October 25, 2018

    Well , I did enjoy the match, especially how we frustrated them with passes and its true Author doesn’t create enough , with more game time , I think he’s getting there . He is becoming braver with every match and frustrates his marker. I don’t envy his marker. B Valero was angry all night . Without Messi, being in control makes a lot of sense. If they can’t get the ball ,they can’t hurt us.

  4. Khing_prince
    October 25, 2018

    ¿Donde esta Malcom?!!

  5. mvarfi
    October 25, 2018

    @DAR_VINCY
    You and I perceive things a tad differently. You see Malcom being disregarded for no good reason. I see him being groomed for the Copa matches. Only time will tell. In the meantime, and in the spirit of trying to enjoy the players picked to play to the fullest, why don’t we wait till the end of the year before we start conjecturing on why Valverde deems Malcom better suited to the bench. Just a thought.

    • mvarfi
      October 25, 2018

      PS. Meant to be read “enjoy to the fullest”.

      • Dar_vincy
        October 26, 2018

        Good point, Mvarfi. It would seem though, from the promises shown by Malcom during the preseason, that he possesses the requisite quality to function successfully beyond the Copa games. Though the coach still reserves the prerogative to field whomever he prefers, it could be discombobulating at times seeing quality players relegated to the bench, especially for no extrinsically convincing reason. Though I must say this isn’t an attempt at kvetching on every of EV’s decisions; just a concerned fan thinking of how we could be better with the right personnel, even if it won’t matter ultimately. Guess we’d have to wait till the end of the season, like you pointed out, to make a comprehensive assessment. It’ll be interesting to see how we’ll line up on Sunday. I’ll wager the coach sticking with the same lineup against Inter.

      • mvarfi
        October 26, 2018

        Whatever the lineup, I’m looking forward to Sunday’s match, albeit with a few butterfies in my stomach.

    • Dar_vincy
      October 26, 2018

      For someone who was enarmored and enraptured by Pep’s legacy with us as well as the enormous impression on us, I still find myself glued to his pressers, interviews, etc. Can’t help but admire his intelligence and personality.

      • mvarfi
        October 26, 2018

        I don’t feel the same connection to Pep as you do, because I’m a relatively new Barca fan. But, I suspect that I would have been just as suseptible to his charm and genius as you were had I started following Barca a decade earlier.

  6. squeen
    October 26, 2018

    Kxevin: To quote Dylan,
    “And everyone of them words rang true
    And glowed like burnin’ coal
    Pourin’ off of every page
    Like it was written in my soul”

    I am not being flippant here. I agree so very strongly with what you’ve put to page. I believe that during the EV/Neymar era an unprecedented growth occurred in the Barca fan base, but many of those newer supporters are now looking for a very different kind of football to be played. They yearn for Malcolm/Dembele/Semedo (hell, ANYONE!) to dash up the sides and stop playing “boring” (possession) football. With a fan base so ideologically split, the old axiom of “you can’t please everyone” is now doubly true with Barca.

    What do I personally want?

    You know it.

    Kxevin, you coined it.

    (Wait for it…)

    It’s some god-bless-it CAPERING SPRITES!

    And by jiminy, I think I’m starting to catch a glimpse or two of them again. Just when we thought they had all grown too old and feeble to ever dance again. (Seriously, what was the average age of our side last game?)

    He’s the thing—and for me and all the supporter that long for that unique/special Barca-style it can’t be overemphasized—in that last game we played “our football” WITHOUT Xavi, Iniesta, OR Messi.

    That’s the heart of our fear isn’t it? That the our beloved “style” of football dies after the last of those diminutive geniuses leave the game. That it’s obsolete, the game has “moved on”. The adrenaline rush fans of other clubs get from the end-to-end sprints, is instead reserved (by many “old-faith” fans) for rapid passes in tight spaces, amazing feats of ball-control followed by brilliant finishes that NO ONE ever saw coming.

    It’s hard not to get excited by 22 years old Arthur—not because he’s anywhere near as good as Xavi at tearing a hole in an opponent with astonishing vision (that’s Busquets job or Messi’s these days, right?), but because he represents a hope that a certain beloved style just might not go extinct at the big-club level. That there IS a next generation—even if La Masia is not producing it. Xavi/Iniesta/Busquets—their influence on the game reached far beyond just Catalonia and Spain. It touched Arthur copying Xavi-turns in his parents hallway in Brazil. I’m sure there are others.

    Rakitic, god bless him, is just a very different type of player from the man he was forced to replace. He is slow with his passing-decisions, doesn’t really run with his head-up, and does much better as a (quasi-stationary) defensive midfielder. Nevertheless, what Kxevin said about the Busquets/Arthur symbiosis, was also somewhat true last-year of the Rakitic-Busquets duo. The team did a bit better with control (losing only 2 games!) when Rakitic was withdrawn, and Busi had a “buddy”. It was a conceptual “return-to-basics”. Valverde gets credit from me for that—Barca started to look more like Barca again.

    Valverde in his 1st outing abandoned “verticality”, and fast-breaks for a more dour (to steal Kxevin’s wording again) defensive control. Some folks hated that, damned the man, and desperately want Dembele in so we can get back to long individual runs (and the associated harrowing/exciting loss of possession–whee!!!). Heck, maybe Dembele only wanted to come to Barca to play like Neymar—maybe he only had the “new-look Barca” in mind when he joined. After all, he was only 15 when Pep left. (…and yikes!, look how France plays!) Maybe the strict reality of the current team is a massive disappointment for him, and hence his crappy attitude. Maybe football’s not fun for him anymore. (Too much talent at an early age can hurt your character-development.)

    To those keepers-of-the-faith I say this, “Lose the anger. Stop worrying about trophies. Enjoy these magic moments”. if you are lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the rare and elusive Midfield Sprite.

    (Of course I will totally recant and scream bloody murder if RM beat us this weekend and will immediately demand Valverde’s head on a platter along with the Twit-mob.)

    (just kidding)
    😛

    • georgjorge
      October 28, 2018

      Squeen, your words also ring very true with me! Although I wouldn’t call Arthur a sprite, he’s a bit too tall for that. But you might be spot on about Démbéle, the Barca he joined might well be the one he envisioned when he saw Luis Enrique’s team. Which is very different from Valverde’s team.

      Pumped up for the Clásico now!

  7. Dar_vincy
    October 26, 2018

    For someone who was enarmored and enraptured by Pep’s legacy with us as well as the enormous impression on us, I still find myself glued to his pressers, interviews, etc. Can’t help but admire his intelligence and personality.

  8. October 26, 2018

    Does anyone else fell a kind of dull sickness in the pit of their stomach when they hear talk of Barcelona selling the naming rights of the Camp Nou to f**king Mediapro?
    It is such a grotesque violation of so much of what I fell in love with when I first started to support Barca (1996 as a red-faced little chap of 15 sitting in the Nou Camp watching Ronaldo strutting his stuff).
    I remember I used to take such pride in the fact that Barca didn’t even have a sponsor tarnishing their jersey. Barca were different (along with Bilbao on that front), they had another kind of class other than their players, they were ‘more than a club’. Those words seem more and more brittle, like a faded echo of glory from a time long since past.
    I understand things have changed, more revenue is needed because of Nouveau money clubs and it has become utterly corporate and such principles have been hollowed out.
    But seriously- Camp Mediapro? Camp {insert grubby corporate name here} is a blight on the grand image of this club. Do you think Man U or Liverpool fans would accept Old Trafford or Anfield being changed?
    I haven’t bought a Barca jersey since they put a sponsor on it (that’s my personal principle, but I accept it is now part of the modern world of football). But I do not accept the name change of the Camp Nou. I think when that happens I won’t go to another match there again (hopefully it won’t happen before March next year as I’m going to watch them play Real Sociedad!).

  9. amit91barca
    October 28, 2018

    A few lines to give a tribute to el classico ( Game of thrones style )
    ” The long night is upon us
    and it brings the storm
    The White Walkers are in the town
    and hungry for the crown.
    We are without our KING IN THE NORTH ( Azor Ahai)
    Yet we will stand strong and burn them all.”
    Happy el Classico
    #Visca el Barcaaa !!

  10. Jassper
    October 28, 2018

    lemme hear you say VALVERDE OUT!!!!

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