Trying to understand Valverde, aka “Take your vitamins”

The worst part about being a kid was all the stuff grownups made you do that you hated. Taking vitamins, washing behind your ears, castor oil, eating your veggies. They explained why you had to do it, but you didn’t understand. It’s gross. Why do I have to do this? It’s a lot of how this current Barça team feels, and it’s a lot of how we react.

“I’m not watching. This sucks.”
“Stupid Valverde makes my eyes hurt.”
“There is no joy. I can’t watch this any longer.”

Amid all of the hashtags and pledges from people who swear they aren’t going to watch but do anyhow, it’s worth considering why we’re seeing what we’re seeing. Arguing for what Valverde is doing is complex, difficult and as unwanted as flatulence on a first date. Not being one for tactics, you formation nerds can forget about me essaying numbers, Xs and Os. But we can look at structures, systems and maybe try to get a sense of what we’re seeing, and why we aren’t going to be getting anything better this season, and maybe next if Valverde stays.

There isn’t a real gala XI right now, but probably closest to it is: Ter Stegen, Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba, Busquets, De Jong, Arthur, Suarez, Messi, Griezmann

On paper that is a formidable XI, and it would take a proper fool to mess that up, but let’s dig in a bit, first the choices.

Ter Stegen: No brainer. Best keeper in the game who is nearing his peak.
Semedo: Flawed in many ways, from body position when taking a pass to how he moves forward. But if you want your RB to defend … Sergi Roberto is preferred by many because of how eloquently he goes forward. But if you look at other things, including how easily opposing wingers can find playing space against him, Valverde’s choice becomes clear(ish).
Pique: An aging colossus but still a colossus. Even diminished, he’s a top CB. In considering Valverde and how he thinks about players and veteran players in specific, Pique goes on the team sheet right after Messi and Suarez. He has no competition for his spot.
Lenglet: He isn’t ideal, but he works in Valverde’s back line because of the numerous limitations in the XI. Umtiti isn’t the player he was, and probably never will be, and Todibo isn’t trusted enough to even get time at RCB, much less LCB. So Lenglet, like Pique, becomes a no-brainer.
Alba: Lost a step, defensively suspect, but vastly better than any other option.
Busquets: A genius with the ball at his feet, but an increasing liability when the ball isn’t at his feet. Also there are signs that the game is moving too quickly for him, even with the ball.
De Jong: A Ferrari being used to haul groceries, a player in his first season who has earned his starting spot.
Arthur: He can’t keep fit, but when he can, he imparts a measure of control that allows Busquets and De Jong to be better than they are without him. Flawed, but best at that job on the team.
Suarez: The best pure 9 in the game, even in his diminished state. But he can’t do much of anything these days except score goals. That is a huge “but.”
Griezmann: Another Ferrari being used to haul lumber. He can’t play in his ideal position in his ideal way, but his ideal way is already being done by the best player in history.
Messi: It’s Messi, dammit.

When the ball is kicked off, here is the reality that faces Valverde, given the obvious choices above:

Two of his three attackers can’t press, can’t chase breaks, add nothing defensively. This means that the third attacker has to be ancillary fullback and DM as much as attacker, because in order to apply any kind of pressure, something has to happen because the other two attackers aren’t contributing. This means that any possession by the opponent begins life past what should be the first line of defense in a properly functioning team, a pair of pressing attackers.

One simple pass puts runners in the midfield, where the options are a chasing Griezmann, a scrambling Arthur and De Jong, and a poised Busquets. Because none of them are particuarly fleet of foot, skilled teams have little trouble navigating the midfield and getting at the defense. It seems to us like every opponent attack can easily create danger, because every opponent attack can easily create danger. One mid is usually pressed up, without the pace to chase anyone down. The other is to the left or right of the pitch, dependent upon where the attack broke down, and also without sufficient pace to chase anything down. Busquets is a turnstile on defense, so that leaves Greiezmann who, as often as not, fouls by reaching in because how else are you going to stop the attack.

Fullbacks are, respectively, pinching in toward the middle in the case of Semedo, because the team is already outmanned or, chasing back in the case of Alba, because that 1-2 with Messi didn’t work. Either way, there is a lot of playing space for an opposing winger, which is where the ball usually ends up because of that cow’s pasture. It now falls to the CBs to make reactive plays, rather than proactive ones. Even if Umtiti was himsself, he’s the wrong kind of CB for the system necessitated by the players and limitations that exist in Valverde’s team.

Because the first thing a coach wants to not do is concede a goal (it was also true of Guardiola, he just went about it a differernt way), Valverde’s dour football has roots in the limitations of every last player in the XI and how they stack upon limitations of his teammates. What we snarl about, screaming “Why are you sitting deep?” as we throw stuff at the television, is because the team has no other option. They can’t press, so they can’t press the ball loose. They can’t mark counters because of the absence of pace and physicality. So the only option becomes to absorb pressure, and let the CBs and keeper bail things out. It’s all ugly, but it’s the only option that Valverde has, given the kind of coach that he is, which is one who trusts his veterans and abhors risk.

Ah. They could possess the football, and stroke it around in nice, snug little formations. Nice in theory, but it means that every last pass has to be perfect, or lost possession starts the danger merry-go-round again. Even Guardiola’s amazing teams didn’t have 100 percent possession, and his players were at their peak, and could press.

In attack, defensive limitations force offensive deficiencies. Defenders can’t stray too far, because then they can’t get back to do their main jobs. Lenglet, a reactive CB, becomes king because the defense needs someone who can parry balls away, rather than someone who can carry them into midfield. A pressing, full-on attack is easily broken down when old, slow players can’t fix problems. Watching the rotated XI against Inter, an early counterattack saw three players: Wague, Todibo, Firpo all with the pace to chase and close. The Inter break amounted to nothing because they could get back in time. But every one of those players has a superior analog who is a fixture in the XI.

So the ball does less of the work. Spaces between players are big, because people need to stay closer to home, so longer passes are more easily intercepted by ball-hawking opponents. Barça players who have the ball are stranded more often, because of those larger gaps between players, forced by physical, hence defensive frailties. The way to advance the ball becomes to make a run with it, rather than to pass it up the pitch, from back to front. This makes the attack more precarious, because it more often than not resides at the feet of the player making the run with the ball, rather than the team supporting the player with the ball at his feet.

In attack, the entire point of the exercise becomes to find Messi, then/or Suarez, who are standing there waiting for the ball to arrive. The one-two becomes a thing, because Griezmann doesn’t quite know what to do in that game being played by Messi and Suarez, plus if he gets too far forward he risks being caught out if possession is turned. This puts Suarez on an island, where he often concrete-foots possession to the opponent, and the house of cards starts to fall.

What this all means, for so many reasons beyond the folks on the roster, is that we aren’t going to see pretty football from this team, and not just because Valverde doesn’t want to play pretty football. This team can’t realistically play it, because it isn’t tactically or physically equipped to. This sucks, because it’s throwing away Messi’s last years, it’s ugly to watch and about as entertaining as a paint bubble, but there really isn’t a better way with this group of players. That might be the worst part.

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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.