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.