FC Barcelona is a weird team. Or it must seem that way to outsiders, who might pop into the roiling social media cauldron that is Barça Twitter, take a look around and feel sorry for the long-suffering supporters.
They might even interact a bit with some of the more aggrieved, just to get a sense of the lay of the land. Then they might hit the web to check the La Liga standings …
And drop their tablet or mobile in shock that the team they just spent time digging into isn’t in the relegation zone. That further, it’s leading the best league in the world going into the holiday break, and smoothly dispatched a usually difficult opponent while keeping another clean sheet.
That neutral will walk away, shaking their head, probably saying something like, “I don’t understand football.” But who does?
Celta rolled into the Camp Nou to do battle with Barcelona, barely after Oblak saved Atleti’s blushes again, and another 1-0 win. The Madrid side was level on points with Barça and probably looking with joy at the opponent, a resolute side that always give the Catalans fits, no matter where they sit in the standings.
Valverde rolled out with what looks to be his XI: Ter Stegen, Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Vidal, Dembele, Suarez, Messi. There are some interesting things to unpack there, but about this match.
Celta is one of many tactically naive teams that took on Barça this season, deciding that they would go narrow and mark man-to-man, which isn’t exactly the preferred option for a team of technically gifted players with excellent wing play from fullbacks and one mercurial Frenchman. But hey, what do we know?
That both goals came from outside in as Alba put in an MOTM performance should only surprise people wearing Celta kits. You just can’t give Alba the kind of space he was given and expect to live for very long. Celta did quite well surviving for 15 minutes, before the standard Messi to Alba path unfolded. The Celta keeper parried the shot, which fell to Dembele who struck home.
There is a coterie of Barcelona supporters who don’t watch the team any longer, because they can’t stand to watch the football. Boring, joyless and all. Those people should have friends tell them about the delight of a first half that demonstrated not only exquisite football defined by passing, movement and a Busquets who has returned to form (now that he has his henchmen), but an eerie feeling that after the second goal came (again via Alba to Messi), there was a calm about the proceedings.
Not only did the second goal take the life out of Celta, but Barça really could have, should have had more. Alas, the usual “How?!” finishing reared its head, robbing us of delights such as a Suarez brace, or a Messi goal scored while sitting on his backside. But the two goals were enough. More than enough, even for a desultory, energy-saving second half that saw Valverde answer the “Sub, dammit!” cries of supporters, using all three of his subs to interesting effect — or non-effect, for those keeping score at home.
The most interesting things about this by-the-numbers win were, for starters, how quickly Semedo and Vidal solidified their place in Valverde’s preferred group. It isn’t hard to figure out why, since Barça’s run of clean sheets began with this tandem locking into position. Vidal’s work rate means that Rakitic can play more of a controlling role, and that both of them liberate Busquets to do Busquets things, in a much smaller sphere of influence.
And both were brilliant, industrious and omnipresent in their own ways, the blond Croatian and the mohawked Chilean. But in filling passing lanes, pressing and doing the dirty task of ball collection, Busquets could sit and be royal. It wasn’t until the second half, when Rakitic and Vidal went off that we saw Busquets looking a bit like a turnstile, caught up the pitch as speedy Celta attackers whizzed by, catching him without his sentinels.
Semedo has a problem, if you ask many Barça supporters. Sure he defends, but he doesn’t attack properly or enough, so he isn’t a proper, effective fullback. Tell that to Ter Stegen, who twice beneitted from the Porguguese defender’s presence, pace and flexibility. Tell that to Messi, who worked 1-2s with Semedo, including one that almost resulted in the butt goal. Tell that to Pique, who is enjoying the lack of danger from the right as fewer crosses come in to test him, and fewer attackers are speeding at him with the ball at their feet, chased by a desperate Sergi Roberto.
Football too often defines its conclusions in a negative way. Even after this match, the question isn’t what Valverde is doing right, but rather what he is doing wrong.
As the season took shape, and the team seemed a bit clunky, some of us said that things would start to take shape by the winter break. And a number of things have happeened:
— Valverde has found his Paulinho in Vidal
— He has a system that both liberates and maximizes Messi
— Dembele has assimilated in a way that keeps him, the ball and the attack moving
— Suarez is back in physical form, to move defenses around at his leisure
— Lenglet has assimilated faster than many suspected, even becoming more proactive in a high line
— The attack takes advantage of space and movement in a fun way — less vertical than Luis Enrique, but in a way that understands that is has a gazelle that needs to run
Changes have been made, and this team is coming together in clean sheets and calm, mostly dominant performances. It would be encouraging for a normal fanbase, as people look forward to more adaptations and the talent that is on the roster in abundance, findings its way into the side in thrilling ways.
Valverde is coming off of a coach of the year performance last year with one that has been more complex this year as in many ways, he had to start over with Dembele, using Messi a slightly different way in the context of the new signings and leaking goals early in the season, a stretch that is the only reason the Liga season isn’t effectively over. He could still cock this up, without question, as he has many problems to solve. But how people view the job he has done and how the team is coming together will depend on what they want to see. It’s easy, after all, to find what you’re looking for when you already know it’s there.
Coutinho is a problem that Valverde will need to solve. The Brazilian isn’t playing because he isn’t playing like a player who knows what to do. He dribbles when he should pass, passes when he should dribble, counting the moments until he can drift to his right, across the face of the defense, and shoot. He is in many ways like a puppy who knows one trick, and will keep doing it until he gets a treat.
But defenses now know it and keepers expect it. What this leaves us with is a player who loses the ball a lot, dribbles too much, stops play, takes silly shots and doesn’t really know what to do in defense. He subs for Dembele and the offense stagnates, Alba is less sure what to do as Coutinho runs around everywhere. In midfield, Coutinho still doesn’t sit still, still defaults to the game that he played at Liverpool, where it worked well because of the nature of Premiership defending and spaces. In La Liga, technically skilled defenders just take the ball and feed the counter.
Right now, Coutinho is one of the world’s most expensive subs, forced into that role by the quicksilver adaptation of Dembele. In his Celta appearance, Coutinho played with the jittery disjointedness of a player looking to do something great to impress his coach, but that doesn’t work with Valverde, who wants a smooth running of the offense, ball movement and logic, rather than capriciousness.
Arthur is another complexity at the moment, though the long view assuredly has him in it. Right now, he has been displaced by Vidal for a basic reason: when the opponent has the ball, Vidal knows exactly what to do to hold up play, and/or get the ball back. Arthur isn’t quick, nor is he possessed of great reserves of energy that let him run and run and run. What Arthur can do is possess the ball, and help with the possession game. The problem is that isn’t a game that Valverde wants to play right now, except in stretches where, as when Luis Enrique brought on Xavi as a defensive weapon, Valverde wants to bring Arthur on for match control.
That this doesn’t work as it should is a function of how Arthur plays, how the midfield manages lost possession and those darn pesky opponents, who won’t make his life easier. Arthur finds himself behind play a lot. Or on defense he will overplay the ball, lose it and cause danger, as he did twice against Celta. Integrating him into a functioning system is another thing that Valverde has to solve, and not because a fan base hankering for that “next Xavi” thing faults the Barça coach for not playing Arthur all the time.
His team is short on the kinds of possession midfielders that can give attackers a rest by keeping the ball and controlling a match. On the other hand, Valverde sees what happens in turned possession with Arthur on the pitch, and understands that the team is more prone to leaking goals and opponent counters through the midfield when Arthur is on. Valverde isn’t a defensive coach, but like any coach, he hates to leak goals. Vidal and Rakitic help keep the team from leaking goals.
The seocnd half of the Celta match was a lot messier than it needed to be, but the conditions were ripe to make it a mess. With Arthur, Coutinho, Messi and Suarez on the pitch at the same time, that’s four players who are defensively less than effective. Couple that with a slow Busquets and it’s easy to see how Celta had so much second half possession. A better team might have created more danger with all of that possession.
Right now, Barça plays one way with the XI, and another way depending upon who is subbed on. Players will do what players do, but the beauty of a system is that it should continue to greater or lesser effectiveness, no matter who is on the pitch. Valverde’s Barça doesn’t yet have a system, which should be more concerning than how many minutes Arthur or Alena play, Coutinho’s confidence and any of the other 312 things that Barça supporters worry about.
As with last season, this team has a legitimate shot at a treble, but quite a few things are going to have to happen, including finding an effective way to use the intelligence of Sergi Roberto in a way that lets him and Semedo be on the pitch at the same time, keeping Malcom fit so that his role as dynamic supersub can reach full flower but most importantly (and the effective use of these players is crucial to this) coming up with a system of play that doesn’t need to XI to execute it.
If he does this, his team could win a treble. If he doesn’t, it could just as easily end up with lots of promise, some almosts and no silver. The ride will be fun.