In the world of narratives that makes this season, assessed by many, a pathological, reactionary mess, the Villarreal win was noteworthy for a pair of delightful moments that were pure — and that also serve to remind us of how little we know about Barça and what actually goes on.
Before the match, there was a kerfuffle about Valverde not trusting youth. And then, in the second half, as with the Betis match, he brought on Carles Aleña with the match on the line. And as with Betis, he did what he does, which is work, help with ball control, defend and attack with style and intelligence. The sub for Vidal turned out to be functionally apt, as the team lost nothing in energy.
And then, when hands were wringing about the precarious 1-0 lead that Barça was holding on to, it happened. Messi found Aleña with a stupefying pass, and the Masia whiz chipped the keeper. He lit up, the Camp Nou lit up, culer faces everywhere lit up as this young man, who wanted nothing more than to succeed at his boyhood club, who came back from a long-term injury setback, patiently played with the B team to regain his fitness then took his rightful spot with the first team, scored a goal. At home. At the Camp Nou. In the shadow of the academy in which he was raised as an athlete and young man.
The run dictates the pass. That is how they learn it, how he and Messi understand the game, and how the goal was created. Messi saw it, and Aleña did it.
That goal didn’t just bring an exhale of relief in putting the match out of reach. It brought joy. In the post-match interview on BeIN Sports, Aleña looked like he would be able to float home. Maybe he did. It sure put a massive grin on my face, because this is how it is supposed to happen. The system raises a youth player, shepherds him through the ranks and then he finds a home in the first team, making his mark by scoring a crucial goal in front of the home fans. There are time when this game is pure and beautiful, and that was one of them.
How does Valverde handle youth players? Does he trust them? Think of how many coaches bring on academy products in meaningless matches, or when the first team is blowing out an opponent. Valverde got to know Aleña, and trusted him enough to play him with his team’s ass on the line. And he delivered. Yes, Valverde has lots of flaws as a coach, and his substitute of Vidal wasn’t greeted with anything like approval by the Camp Nou denizens. Then Aleña made him right, yet again.
And then there was Ousmane Dembele, who started and sparkled, who turned in an MOTM performance for the constant danger he created for his overall work rate and for taking a step toward becoming, before our very eyes, the player everyone thought was coming when 140m went to Germany, and he came to Barcelona.
He attacked, he won balls, he didn’t break off his runs, didn’t wane by the end of the first half, assisted the Pique goal, created the danger that served as catalyst for the second goal, and eviscerated a Villarreal defender, who requests that in lieu of flowers, you make a donation to the charity of your choice.
You know the stories, you know the sideeye, you know what people have been saying about him. The Barça-centric sports dailies have him heading off to Liverpool, or Arsenal, or PSG with some cash for Neymar. He’s late, he’s unprofessional, he is a video game addict.
And he did it again, with another brilliant performance, this time in the starting lineup. How has Valverde been handling him? There are many who say as a failure, this willowy speed merchant who can murder with both feet. Dembele didn’t care. He kept working, kept training hard, kept earning his coach’s trust, which was repaid today. And Dembele needed to be brilliant. Coutinho was poor, so poor. Messi was off his usual standard, and there was no Suarez.
So he and Semedo formed a partnership of gazelles, overlapping, darting, creating, sliding balls up the line for each other to run onto. Yes, Dembele lost some balls in dangerous places. So did Messi, Rakitic and a few others in the XI. But none of them played like Dembele. And as we ask about how Valverde is handling Dembele and whether he is failing the young Frenchman, maybe today’s performance is speaking louder than our speculation. Maybe it’s saying, “I’m fine, and y’all don’t know a damn thing.” Maybe.
The match itself was typical of what Barça faces these days: a bunkered-down opponent, ready to play off the counter, running at the defense with a speedy winger. When Barça has the ball, there are ten opponents behind it, who spend most of their waking moments kicking away anything created by a Barça player, as well as the nearest Barça player. It is the kind of footballing reluctance that turns an attack into a Quixotic bashing at the same damn windmill.
Yet even at that there were moments of scintillating football, almost chances that used ball and player movement to slash as the edifice created by Villarreal. This was another match deeped unworthy by social media cognoscenti who steadfastly refuse to consider circumstance, who seem to believe that football is played irrespective of what an opponent does. Run, pass the ball and those low blocks, the bane of every Barça team in existence, will magically disappear.
Yes, Villarreal had stretches of play, and hit the post early when Ter Stegen and Lenglet played a dangerous game of “After you, my dear fellow.” But this was, overall, the best match the team has played in league in quite some time. The attack was calm and controlled, using movement and the wings to prise open the Villarreal block, and it worked, time and again as passes flitted past outstretched boots, or the marvelous Villarreal keeper sprung into action.
The team responded as a unit when possession was lost. Gone are the days where we can talk about a Barça player losing possession in a dangerous spot. Every time the team loses possession now, there is danger. Jordi Alba’s flank becomes an opponent target zone with Semedo is on, and Villarreal positioned players around Busquets, ready to pressure him or force him to cover more space than he can, and ever could. But he, Rakitic and Vidal formed a symbiotic beast that (mostly) kept things tight.
When anything did leak, Pique, whose form has been erratic of late, was majestic today on the ground and in the air, sharp and focused. His headed goal was exceptionally well taken, and he stood up more than one Villarreal attacker who underestimated the quality and wiles of a 31-year-old CB.
Today wasn’t a great Barça match. It wasn’t stardust football, as Ray Hudson says, wasn’t sprites tripping the light fantastic. But it might have been the best match that an opponent allowed the team to play, which is also a standard worth considering. The team battled though another stultifying mess, and even if the football wasn’t allowed to be beautiful, two players who have endured a lot for various reasons, brought us joy.