Arturo Vidal: The evil we need?

So. Arturo Vidal.

In a fascinating radio interview that is so worth your time, Guardian journo Sid Lowe gets into a number of things, most of which you have already read here and are part of general discourse around the club and team. But what is most interesting to me is what Lowe has to say about Vidal, including if you gave him Sergi Roberto’s haircut, took away the tats and made him Catalan, people would be a lot more welcoming of what he does.

He’s right. But what’s fascinating about Vidal isn’t as much that as it is his status as necessary evil, the new Paulinho in that what he does isn’t welcome in the philosophical context of that thing called “Barça football.” But he does what is needed, funny haircut or no, Catalan or so. More interestingly, Vidal and his seeming effectiveness represents the most pressing complexity for this football team. He’s the reality you don’t want, the guy who does the stuff that nobody else will. He’s chaos, but he chases the ball. He’s a one-man press who runs, works, spits and kicks. He’s living, breathing morbo. He’s the antithesis of everything that has come to define this team over the last decade, and it’s worth asking whether the way he plays the game is as vexing for us as his necessity.

One description of mine about Vidal with the ball at his feet is that it’s like a bear with the car keys. It’s the same thing people said about Paulinho. Aesthetes laughed at his Camp Nou presentation as he did the ball tricks for the cameras. Can’t make runs, can’t dribble, forget about him doing rondos and all that fancy stuff we love to see to the cores of our romantic souls. Many almost begrudged Paulinho scoring goals, as if bad behavior is somehow being rewarded. It’s the same reaction by many of the same people to when Vidal scores. Yet Paulinho works for many of the same reasons Vidal works, in that both did jobs nobody else was equipped to do. Start Paulinho instead of Iniesta in Rome, and Barça probably advance. But who wants to deal with that reality, then, now or ever?

Valverde said that he didn’t want Vidal to leave, almost certainly because he understands the necessity of Vidal for the team that he has. But at the root of the problem is that the team Valverde has is the team that Valverde has deliberately built. He sent Alenya to Betis, even though the prognosis for Arthur is uncertain. But this team doesn’t need a midfield magician, a controller who makes short, sharp, logical passes. It needs a bear with the car keys. He sold Malcolm, is using Griezmann mostly as a surrogate left back with Alba as the de facto left wing. Didn’t use Coutinho properly, isn’t using De Jong properly, has no idea what to do with Dembele except make him into a really, really expensive Inaki Williams. In those conditions, Vidal is a created need that argues for its own existence.

What even more interesting is that Vidal would be a wonderful player, and a much better fit in the theoretical team that Valverde could have built, a running, pressing, chaotic thing with pace on the flanks, pressing forwards, hard-driving midfielders and fast centerbacks. Consider this XI:

Ter Stegen
Semedo Todibo Umtiti Firpo
De Jong
Vidal Arthur/Alenya
Messi
Griezmann Dembele

That lineup isn’t going to play Barcelona football, that hyper-stylized thing that we sit around mourning the loss of without fully understanding the necessity of what we see every week. But that lineup is going to be fast, dynamic, will press constantly and would probably have more 4-2 wins than 1-0 wins. It’s also a lineup that Valverde would have approximately zero interest in coaching, if anything can be deduced from his actions. In that XI, Vidal is running and pressing along with the rest of the team. He doesn’t seem like an injection of chaos because suddenly it isn’t chaos but dynamic, modern football.

In this hybrid thing we have, an entity stuck between two worlds, Vidal can change a match because … well … he moves, he chases stuff, serves as an antidote to stagnation. Barca is broken. Vidal is a band-aid. Would he be more welcome if his name was Jordi Senyera. It’s an interesting thing that Lowe raises there, and it’s also accurate for many. It’s impossible to look at Barça and not see a broken team, even if you aren’t just looking at the ghosts of rondos past. And it confounds because it wins, despite being fundamentally unable to play modern football. It’s astonishing to consider that in two of Valverde’s three years, each time his team was an away goal away from probably winning Champions League. Barça isn’t just wildly outperforming its xG. It’s outperforming logic in winning with a core of geezers in a pressing, running, dynamic modern game. It’s a team that has to win by picking its spots.

The problem with that, and something that defines Vidal as an idealizes archetype for the way this team is, is something else pointed out by Lowe in the radio interview, which is that this team dictates matches by the final score, rather than the manner of play. It’s out of control, just like Vidal. Everything seems on the ragged edge, because it is. And for all of that Vidal is, in his own way, perfect. He’s another thing for us to complain about, another symptom of The Way being lost without looking at maybe, just maybe, whether The Way should be lost, that The Way was a tactic rather than a religion, a perfect fit for a cadre of generational talents rather than anything that can be replicated by mere mortals. Even immensely talented ones.

De Jong is a remarkable player. He ain’t Xavi or Iniesta, and isn’t ever going to be. Arthur isn’t as talented as De Jong. Busquets, in all his gangly, aged glory, is another one of a kind. Puyol and Pique worked so well together because everything in front of them did. As conventional defenders, they probably would have sucked. As glorified DMs, they were brilliant. That was then. This is now, and now would be in the Barça motion picture, Vidal coming on in a super-tight shot with his speech about being the thing you hate, but also the thing you need, the agent of destruction who enables the pretty boys. And the camera would zoom in even tighter, to capture that glint in his eye.

Roll credits.

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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.