At present, despite being loaded with talent and a deep bench, FC Barcelona is kinda screwed. The team is trapped between necessity and romance. Also, its three most essential players: Pique, Messi and Busquets are all entering their dotage and as such, need support systems to ensure that they can give of their best in their current condition.
The problem is that for a coach, the necessity of those support systems dictates personnel, which dictates what we see every week. Back when the trio was part of a dynamic, world-shattering XI, everybody was younger and less accommodation needed to occur for them. That was a decade ago. Now that trio is all that is left of that group of savages, and all three are 30 or older, that era of footballing dotage for outfield players even as the three also defy time.
In recent matches, Barça has kept clean sheets and scored plenty of goals, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by supporters, many of whom kinda don’t what has been necessary to stop leaking goals. Theoretical football is messed up by the Valverde XI that has (of necessity rather than choice) driven the recent successes: Ter Stegen, Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Vidal, Dembele, Messi, Suarez. That XI might also be the best compromise to meet the demands of the three different support systems.
This support system seems the easiest. Get him the ball. What complicates things is the symbiotic nature of a football team. Messi doesn’t just need the ball. He also needs the ball in enough space to work magic, and more now than ever needs other players to create that space. Defenders that he used to outrun now run him down, also dictating a different set of requirements when he gets the ball. The dynamic, explosive step off the dribble is diminished as well, leading to turned possession as a late-arriving, ball hawking defender can get the best — however temporarily — of the Argentine genius.
Messi’s support system isn’t any secret. It requires a 9 of sufficient quality to move defenders around. The reason defenses play Messi better with Munir on the pitch is that nobody cares what Munir does when he doesn’t have the ball, because of his capabilities. Suarez is entirely different, as he is one possession away from killing your team. When he moves, so do defenses, and Messi quite capably slides into that space.
The other thing Messi needs is a mobile, creative winger. The reason Luis Enrique decided to give the keys to Neymar was because a left-sided catalyst could unbalance the pitch in a way that Messi couldn’t. The problem is as coaches figured out how to play Neymar to remove his possibilities, creativity suffered and he had to stop the ball more to play off the dribble. Dembele is a different kind of winger, one with astonishing pace and quickness. He’s also two-footed, and has as sharp an eye for the pass as the shot. Crucially, he keeps the ball moving because of his ability to dribble on the move, and move with alacrity. Being two-footed doesn’t hurt. Alba is part of this network as a fast player who can run balls down and feed a pass into space for Messi. If opponents ever figure out, as they did with Neymar, that if they just wall Alba off and mark Messi, uh, oh.
Dembele with his goals has made Messi more dangerous because now you have to account for him in a way different than defenses did with Neymar. Dembele now always draws two players. So does Suarez. It’s easy for Messi to capitalize on that numerical imbalance. Valverde has, much in the same way that Luis Enrique did, created a support system in which Messi can thrive.
In midfield, that system again works to get him the ball in advantageous positions, so that Messi can run, shoot or pass. This means passes that break lines to feed Messi, rather than in the past, Xavi or Iniesta doing the work to get Messi loose, close to goal. This means a midfielder capable of playing a line-splitting pass is needed, as well as one who can help his team get the ball back quickly. Because Busquets used to be both but isn’t any longer, he now needs a crutch in Vidal, who is that pit bull of a defender and ball winner. Take the ball, feed the maw. Celebrate.
Coutinho doesn’t work as well because he’s too jittery, too fond of the dribble and shot. He also loses balls, which taxes the other support systems, and impedes the free flow of Alba, another part of the Messi system.
“Why does Valverde play Rakitic all the time??!!” Well, for the same reason that Croatia wouldn’t have gone anywhere near as far without Rakitic playing every important minute. Rakitic is essential. But he isn’t just essential for Valverde. More importantly, he is an essential part of the Busquets support system. Though many like to preserve the lanky man in the hole in amber, he is diminished, in a way that makes him and the team that he supports vulnerable. Limit Busquets’ sphere of influence and he is still amazing — as long as he doesn’t have to take more than a few steps in either direction, and cam move forward rather than laterally or backward. Busquets’ system needs to establish space control.
What Busquets needs is essentially what Messi needs, which is to get him the ball. Also like Messi, he doesn’t want to have to chase the ball to get access to it. So the complementary pieces for him have to be high energy with wide range. They also have to be versatile, as adept at making a right pass as winning the ball. And they have to run. And run. And run. And then run some more.
Busquets also needs to be able to do his work unimpeded by interlopers, nipping at his heels, so there is an element of protection attendant to his support system, one that ideally works in tandem with Messi’s support system, so that a lost ball doesn’t spell disaster for Barça. The reason Rakitic is a crucial part of this system is not only his work rate and selflessness, but his versatility. This cog in the Busquets system, because of the importance of the bullish ball winner, has to in a flash be able to morph from DM to CM to AM. He also has to be ready to unleash an accurate shot from distance, or make runs into the box. There isn’t a midfielder in football better at combining these attributes than Rakitic. Valverde isn’t blind.
Vidal is like a retriever. No matter how many times you throw the ball, he will go and get it, chasing as much as he has to as Busquets controls his limited zone and watches the magic, then benefits from the largesse as Vidal just gives him the ball back. What makes the Busquets System work is two star midfielders who are also completely selfless. That is hard to find.
The problem with Arthur is that he isn’t as versatile as Rakitic, even as he is much more desirable to the Barça Football theory. But his energy isn’t as high either. He isn’t running balls down, and retreats on defense where Rakitic and Vidal advance, meaning that now, Busquets has to run. That isn’t good. Coutinho in midfield has the same problem that he has up front. Of the current Barça midfielders, both Sergi Roberto and Carles Alena demonstrate the greatest potential at fitting into that support network.
Pique only wants to see a ball in front of him, where he can control it. He doesn’t want to see crosses coming in, doesn’t want to see an attacker running free at him. Pique’s system also benefits from Busquets’ setup in that Vidal keeps him as safe as he does Busquets, with the immense range of the Chilean. But Pique’s network also needs reactive defenders, players who have the pace and closing ability to able to solve problems that Pique can’t.
The advent of Vidal and Semedo has brought clean sheets and much easier matches for Pique. What we see a lot is, “Pique is back in form.” It’s because he has a lot less to do. Same with Busquets, same with Messi. Properly implemented, their systems simplify the game for them.
Semedo is a mostly reactive defender, using pace and physicality along with technical facility to solve problems. Sergi Roberto is a more proactive defender because he has to be, lacking any real problem solving capabilities. The romantics like Sergi Roberto at RB because of the need to have a fullback function as a winger. Pique likes his fullback to be a fullback, so that HE can function as a part-time DM, part-time AM, part-time forward. But Pique is also at his absolute best when he only has to deal with one thing. Too often with Sergi Roberto, the winger gets past the Catalan utility player, while Pique also has to worry about a runner. Too much.
The system as set up with the current Valverde choice XI lets Vidal deal with a runner while Semedo puts out fires. And it all works. The best Barça back line had a quartet of Alves, Pique, Puyol and Abidal. Alves was reactive of necessity, Pique proactive. Puyol was a fireman, mostly reactive and Abidal began his Barça career reactive, but acquired over time a bracing mixture of the two qualities that made him indomitable.
At present, Semedo is reactive, Pique proactive, Lenglet reactive, Alba reactive by virtue of necessity, as with Alves. It’s a back line that works because of the impressive ball chasing/ball winning skills of the midfield. If any one of those factors is altered — notice what happened against Celta with Vidal exited AND Arthur was added — danger awaits.
These three support systems, properly executed, intertwine like watch gears. A liberated Pique does the catch and release that Puyol used to do, feeds Busquets, who feeds Messi or one of his delegates. When an opponent has the ball, Messi, Suarez and (increasingly less often) Dembele stand, watch and wait for the clampdown. The ball returns to its rightful place at their feet, and the attack continues.
At present, there are competing systems at Barça, the footballing way and the tighter, more defensive way. The challenge will be as the season progresses, being able to get results with both systems, even as the personnel at the coach’s disposal are better suited for one or the other.