It’s pretty astonishing how bad a football team an outsider might think FC Barcelona was, rolling into social media to get a sense of opinions about the group. Clunky, worst manager in the game, players out of position, etc, etc.
A pair of international breaks have made things seem farther along than they are, but the season really isn’t all that old, and it’s far too young to draw any conclusions from a team that has not only had a spate of injuries, but has been without its talismanic leader for far too many matches.
Eibar, sitting 14th in the table but at home, was always going to be an interesting test right after the international break, a time when Barça is usually clunky because everyone is just rolling back from various plane trips. But for this match, Barça was sharp, focused and effective, playing the kind of football that many despaired of them being able to play. It was also the team’s third clean sheet in a row and fifth consecutive victory. Not bad for an awful team.
Questions have abounded around the team, and a home-emboldened opponent in Eibar certainly helped to answer some of them. When Frenkie De Jong was acquired from Ajax, the notions were to get a player who, alongside Busquets and Arthur, would make Barça much more press resistant, with future Champions League knockout ties in mind. Team progression in play in collective and individual aspects have helped a lot of this.
Arthur is playing more aggressively as well as in control this season, assuming the role of the forwawrd-thinking controller rather than the guy who kept the ball. The value of this, in addition to allowing he and De Jong to swap spaces on the pitch as well as allowing Busquets to play up, is that De Jong had what might be his best match in the colors.
Eibar pressed like crazy, but today there was always somewhere for the ball to go, which is essential against the press. Stranded players lead to lost possession and opponent breaks. De Jong on the ball has the telepathic sense of Busquets, able to feel pressure, move and dish, slide laterally and control. He can make forward runs into the box, or play a control game with his midfield mates. He’s surprisingly strong, able to manage challenges, and fit, still running deep into the match.
There was grumbling that we hadn’t seen the best De Jong, and blame was sought, usually landing at the feet of Ernesto Valverde. With blame should come credit. The idea of a dual pivot is often seen as defensive, but Valverde deciding to play Arthur and De Jong as an attacking and controlling dual pivot is paying dividends in every aspect of the game. The ball is moving faster and more securely, which means the team plays faster which makes the attack work more smoothly. Suarez can make his initial runs, instead of having to start from a standstill as a midfielder fought the press for position.
Busquets, De Jong and Arthur all take the ball facing the defense, which compresses time, allowing them to see more of the pitch and watch play develop. All have a remarkable knack for releasing a pass into the space about to be occupied by a teammate off the first touch. That first touch is essential if Barça is to have any success. The slower the team plays, the more vulnerable it is.
But that game also needs time. Xavi worked because he could take a pass, move to buy time to allow a teammate to open up for a pass. The team against Eibar not only tightened the spaces between players, but by having the younger, more mobile mids in the receive/move/pass role, one that both Arthur and De Jong excel at. Putting players in positions where they can play their best football seems simple, but it’s a lot more complex than we think, and vastly more so than many keyboard jockeys intimate.
Another question answered was about Griezmann, another blame plank laid across the mud pit for Valverde to step onto. He hasn’t been the Griezmann of Atleti or France, which makes sense, because Barça is neither of those teams. Eibar was far and away his best match in the colors, in part because Alba wasn’t as marauding, which allowed more space for the Frenchman, who also was able to take advantage of Eibar’s bravery. His first goal came off the break, a long pass allowing him to get behind the defense and score. It’s the kind of goal that Barça is capable of scoring more of, absent the limiting dogma of 48 passes per flawless goal.
Griezmann was involved in all three goals today, including a pre-assist for the third, with an extravagant pass from deep. He’s the kind of player who, despite people wanting to see him in a position, works best when not in any position. He buzzes around, applying himself when needed, from helping control an opponent break and defending, to sliding into various forward spaces for deft interplay with Messi and Suarez. Having an attacker who seems to be everywhere is invaluable, especially when the other two attackers can no longer press with the same verve.
What is Griezmann’s best position? Everywhere. Just let him do what he does, rather than screaming about where you see that he is. It works.
Umtiti answered some queries with an extravagant performance as he rolled directly into the XI after getting medical clearance, even playing the RCB role, one not his own. It was a throwback outing, and a reminder of the quality of the Frenchman. His calm returned. In previous outings, perhaps not as confident about his fitness, he has been too easily caught out of position, having to make the kinds of reactive plays that aren’t his forte. Against Eibar he looked fitter and in better form than he has in some time, and with those qualities came a return of the calm.
He prevented a probable goal by smoothly heading the ball away. An Eibar attacker in the Barça box was in a dangerous position. Rather than lunging in or trying to make a play, Umtiti just let him take the ball and stayed tight on his back, never allowing space to turn. It’s intervening in play without doing anything except denying space. At Umtiti’s best, he denies space, saying with his play, “You can’t do what you were planning.” It’s simple but also effective.
The other thing Umtiti brings is play out of the back, either bringing the ball out himself, or via ambitious pass from deep. The Barça attack works best when mids receive the ball from CBs, rather than having to go back and play it out themselves. There were a couple of moments where Busquets was particularly prone to this weakness. CBs who defend are necessary. Lenglet, in his generally reactive role, had a strong match, enabled by a more defensive-minded Alba, which gave him less space to cover, and a proactive Umtiti.
How can Barça play with all aspects of the game working? Quite well, as it turns out. At its best, the way that Barça plays is opponent proof. Eibar pressed and was aggressive, but it didn’t really matter. All three goals came from open play, something that was also unique for this year’s work in progress. And as one of the surest signs that it is all working, for the first time, Messi, Suarez and Griezmann also scored. Those whose minds go as faaaar back as 2014 will recall that balanced scoring was a characteristic of that treble-winning team.
And this is all happening while Messi, who has spent the bulk of the season being dogged by injuries, is working his way into match fitness, we shouldn’t forget. It’s hard to imagine that this same team laid a stink bomb of a 2-0 away loss earlier this season, that could have and should have been more. It will seem as though the transmogrification has been overnight, but that’s far from the case. It’s come over time, over training session after training session, over a coaching staff that many believe isn’t doing very much at all, honing a group into something formidable, solving problems and asking questions, with the most important answers still to come.