Barça 2, Villarreal 1, aka “Battle between new and old”

You won’t see a weirder, or more thought-provoking match than the midweek encounter against Villarreal.

In the mirth-filled world of Barça Twitter, the #valverdeout hashtag is trending again, because Don Quixote tilting at yet another windmill is quite inspirational. It will have the same effect that it has always had. But recent quotes have been quite interesting. Here are two:

Valverde: ” … it’s results that dictate my fate. … Two good results can end a crisis.”
Messi: ” … everyone worried the coach might be sacked at the end of last season because we didn’t meet our objectives, but it was more the players’ fault than his.”

A very interesting read from Graham Hunter makes the blasphemous statement that “nor is sacking him the real solution to what’s been going wrong.” Nothing made that point more clearly than Villareal, a match of two matches that spotlighted some of the real issues that need to be solved, for folks paying attention.

The first match featured the XI of: Ter Stegen, Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Firpo, Busquets, Sergi Roberto, Arthur, Messi, Suarez, Griezmann, aka the “Yeah, this ain’t gonna work,” XI. Not only does it include Suarez, where all good things go to die of late, but because it includes Suarez, it makes Griezmann less effective as he is playing outside the spaces where he can have the most influence. It also includes a molasses-slow midfield just ripe for romping, and the same gala CB duo that works, but is also incompatible with the kind of football that people want Barça to play, as well as the kind of football that it probably should play. Fun, right?

The two goals came from a Griezmann header off a Messi corner, and an astonishing golazo from Arthur from distance. That both goals were uncharacteristic says a lot about this XI and its effectiveness, which wasn’t really because it consisted of Messi running around trying to make magic, and everyone scrambling to be in what they think might be the correct position to capitalize on his capricious genius. Strategy, formation, tactics, nah, nah and hell nah. Never has there been a purer depiction of marbles in a bowl.

Suarez was whistled when he eventually subbed off, and he should have been. He was dire, just as he has been for some time, even for those who were fooled by a couple of goals against a listless, reeling Valencia. He’s in a phase that isn’t a phase any longer, where he can’t do anything, and it is damaging the team in every phase of the game. It forced Messi to make runs that pitted him against multiple defenders, and Griezmann to run around on the fringes, trying to find a way to be effective. The midfield mostly fed Messi the ball, and watched.

Now, this is the way that we are used to seeing Barça play, and a way of play that meets a lot of needs. There’s the need to have Messi be brilliant, and what better way than to give him the ball? There’s the “Messi will have to save them yet again,” group, that likes the idea of Messi saving them yet again, with his brilliance. Then there’s the “They’re wasting Messi in midfield,” which has many of the same voices as the “savior” camp. These groups all align at the “Valverde out” group, because the messy, disjointed football with everyone taking too many touches and being unsure what to do is a consequence of the shambolic setup.

Most interesting was the Santi Cazorla goal, which perfectly illustrated why Barça have conceded the most goals in Liga, and why that trend looks to continue. But let’s be clear on who Cazorla is, aside from a lovely man who everyone wishes the best for. He’s a diminutive midfielder, never fast even at his best, which he isn’t any longer at age 34 and after a slew of injuries that might have driven a less-determined player into retirement. It is THAT Cazorla who waltzed through the Barça midfield like he was on a Sunday stroll, stopped and unleashed a shot from distance that beat Ter Stegen. The closest player to him was Griezmann, who was desperately tracking back, but couldn’t quite get there.

When an opposing mid strolls through your midfield and right before he unleashed his shot, the nearest player is a forward tracking back. you have a lot of problems that you need to solve. CBs were sitting back, mids outpaced, fullbacks elsewhere. We have seen it happen time and again, particularly this season, and we always ask, even though it’s obvious, “How are teams able to create so much danger every time they get the ball?” But when the only players who can actually run are the fullbacks, complexities arise.

The biggest news of the match was Messi picking up a thigh strain, and having to come off at the half. Ousmane Dembele came on, and it was time for the second match to begin, the one where we were reminded of what an astonishing talent he is, but also his effect on his team as well as the opposition. Dembele is a different kind of “Uh, oh … ” player than Messi. When the latter runs at defenses, it’s with the ball at his feet. The years have taken their toll on his pace, so usually defenses can group at his predicted terminus, and that’s that.

Dembele on the other hand, is mercurial. He stops, starts, accelerates with alacrity, makes defenses more uncertain and hesitant, which creates spaces in a different way for teammates. This was the second phase of the match, interesting mostly for its slight shift in the absence of Messi, which made the deficiencies of Suarez even more stark, as nobody was looking to play 1-2s with him. But it was the third phase of the match, the “modern football” one, that was the most fun. Ansu Fati came in for Suarez and suddenly Griezmann could do what he does, which is raise hell, flanked by a couple of young, fast dynamos. It was so much fun to watch even if no goals manifested themselves. It was also a reminder of one of the principal complaints about Valverde, which is his team selection.

The idea of “modern football,” with team speed as a primary notion, with fast fullbacks and wing attackers, with a mobile, versatile forward and a midfield that controls the ball to allow the attack to thrive, is fun to watch, properly executed. That it also needs CBs different from those Barça presently starts is another complexity, but things are as they are in that regard.

OUr first glimpses of this football came in pre-season, when all of the geezers were either on vacation, or recovering from national team duty. So it was the “Wild Bunch,” a group that was young, fast and mobile, as well as fun. The press was thriving, everybody tracked back to control opposition counters, and it was amazing. We saw it again during the Betis dismantling, a match that had many wondering how the team would fare without Messi and Suarez. That some of the best football we have seen in some time resulted should have been a harbinger, but it was never going to be. Valverde would have to resign himself to seeing millions and millions of Euros resting on the bench, and taking more risk. The freedom of his hand in choosing either option when the full squad is available is in question, even if he was capable of overcoming his reflex conservatism and trust in veteran players.

Which leaves us where, exactly? Hoping for injuries so that the team can use the players that best fit the way the game is being played in the here and now seems an odd way to go about things. So does hoping for a coach to be fired when that isn’t going to happen, particularly when the coach isn’t the entire problem. Maybe what we’re left with is uncertainty, wondering which Barça team will show up based on the starting XI, sitting back and enjoying what will probably be a roller-coaster of a season.

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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.