Football has lessons for us if we just pay attention, and the Barça mauling of Valencia has more than a few.
Before the match, BeIN’s pre-show was discussing the “poor” start that Barça has had, that it was its worst since the 2009-09 season. That this was the year in which the team won its first treble means what to the discussion? Maybe, just maybe, as with that, the cries that the team isn’t playing the right way from its supporters, that this player or that player is being somehow wasted by a coach who doesn’t trust youth, that maybe we should all let it play out.
Manchester City lost to a newly promoted side, and the indomitable Atleti got whomped by La Real. Next up was Barça, with many predicting a draw or loss, even with the sudden departure of Marcelino, mostly because Barça is the worst great team that anyone has seen. It can’t play right, its manager is terrible, traditions are gone and everything is a mess. Plus everybody is injured at the same time.
5-2. With glitter bombs and a 16-year-old star in the making.
The match was barely two minutes in when the first signs of reproach came as Frenkie De Jong, in an advanced position on the right, fed Ansu Fati for the first goal. This was a player who a coach didn’t know how to use, feeding a 16-year-old phenom that the same coach already earmarked for playing time with the first team this season, weeks ago. Yet what made the goal lovely was its simplicity. At Barça, the run dictates the pass. De Jong got the ball. Fati knew what he was going to do with it, knew that by making the incisive run it would demand that De Jong do the obvious thing. A cushioned pass hit Fati in stride, and Jesper Cillessen was off to a bad homecoming fete.
Another great thing about the goal was how quickly it moved from development to dispatch, in an blissful display of football that, remarkably, was about to be topped.
Not that much time later, Fati received a pass just outside the area and dribbled, fronted by a veteran defender in Ezequiel Garay who bodied up on this actual kid. Fati paused, assessed, stopped then exploded into action, leaving Garay for dead, knees buckled. Fati scurried to the end line and as the Valencia players were all watching him and the ball, there was De Jong, running free, and Fati made no mistake with a sharp, accurate angled pass. De Jong slammed home for 2-0. What of the “ugly football” talk now?
Fati’s mere presence was an admonition, a player many thought would leave Barcelona because the club balked at meeting his salary demands as his contract was up for renewal, a player whose father saw a bright footballing future for his son at a time when culers were despairing of any bright football future for the first team at all. So much for all that.
After the match, all that anyone talked about was Fati, even in the face of Valverde and Lenglet saying that folks should calm down, that there is a long way to go here. There was a time when Bojan Krkic was the Boy of a Thousand Goals, a player who was promoted, eventually benched Zlatan Ibrahimovic and went on to … not all that much, really.
Fati has been a delight. He’s been fun, and a breath of fresh air. People are already saying he is better making decisions on the ball than veteran players who have been capped for country, and other hyperbolic notions. He’s just a 16-year-old kid. What’s the rush? Let him be a kid who gazed around in amazement as he set the Camp Nou on fire. What’s the harm in that?
Besides, there are larger concerns, such a defense that leaked more goals, something that must give Valverde headaches because for his team to play the kind of football its supporters crave, his defense is going to leak goals as a consequence, and people will then draw conclusions about defensive weakness. Yes, some goals have come late in matches, but if you look at the goals that have “mattered,” they have a few things in common: fullback flaws and a wide-open midfield that lets opponents get at the back line all too easily.
The concept of “total football ” is near and dear to Barça but it means that well, everybody has to play it. Carles Perez missed a marker for one goal, Arthur fell asleep for another. Alba seemed surprised by the run of the Valencia goalscorer, and people lost track of Ariz Aduriz, of all people.
Some of the glitches are just focus errors that can be worked out in training. Others are assignment mistakes that will be clarified. The worrisome moments are the attacks that take advantage of the lack of pace in the preferred midfield of Busquets/Arthur/De Jong. Both Valencia goals romped through that space, as did other attacks. Combine that with a slow Pique and fullbacks usually rushing back from being pressed up on the attack, and Ter Stegen has some work to do.
If Barça wants to not leak goals, Busquets will have to sit deeper, and it will mean more Rakitic, running around in passing lanes. But nobody wants that, because this football has been wonderful to watch, compliant opponents aside, particularly the ball and player movement that served to undo a more disciplined Valencia. And shooting. One goal came from just shooting the damn ball, something that the Barça players seem loath to do. Hit and hope is an odd notion for a team of such offensive control, but you never know when a blast at the keeper is going to yield a rebound or a howler. Make him make the save.
A leaner, meaner-looking Luis Suarez dusted off his post-injury legs for a brace of bracing quality, and people are saying “He’s back,” again in a hurry. His two goals were exceptional, including a leg-shaker that brought to mind the Ronaldinho free kick against Chelsea as Suarez faked a pass before blasting a shot past a stunned Cillessen into the near-side corner. He used the same corner to slam home a Griezmann layoff in one of the easiest braces he will ever notch. It was also a reminder of what a force Suarez can be when focused and at his best. Remember that when he isn’t.
I’m also old enough to remember when Valverde was using De Jong all wrong. The setup against Valencia, with Busquets, Arthur and De Jong interchanging, popping up all over the place is a work in progress, but one that should be developed. The strength of all three mids is versatility, and a system that capitalizes on that isn’t a bad thing, even as positional discipline also needs to be instilled, with opponent counters and the Barça mids’ lack of pace in mind.
But even the Valencia match wasn’t a rebuke as much as it was a reminder that every match over the course of a season is different, every player outing is different. The leap to a conclusion is tempting and fun. But there events are, waiting to laugh in our faces with a hearty, “What’s the rush? Play it out.”