The first game of the league season is officially out of the way and as culés we honestly couldn’t have asked for a better start in terms of both results and performance. After honouring the victims of the recent terrorist attack in Barcelona and playing with Barcelona not just in their hearts, but on the backs of their shirts as well, the team recorded a comfortable 2-0 victory.
This victory has been perceived in different ways, but for most of us non-pessimists who want the team to move on from the shambolic Super Cup games this was a welcome step in the right direction. It wasn’t just a positive result, but a positive performance too.
Perspective is important in a game like this as there needs to be a balance, between optimism and downright negativity, and in order to paint an accurate picture of what this game means it is important to compare it to the aforementioned Super Cup games against Real Madrid; in particular the more recent second leg.
In said game, just from the get-go, there were two major mistakes Ernesto Valverde made when the team sheets were announced; the first being the formation he picked and the second being the personnel chosen to play in said formation.
Let’s talk about the formation first. The 3-5-2 chosen by Valverde is a formation that isn’t the most conventional but has become popular recently, with current Chelsea coach Antonio Conte using that formation with Juventus in Italy and then also adapting a somewhat modified version, the 3-4-3, with his Chelsea side. Now there’s nothing wrong at all with employing a different formation to the usual 4-3-3, but for a team like Barca that had limited pre-season training and had never really played in this formation consistently, to do so against a confident, rampant Madrid side was suicidal. You could tell that not only were the players unsure of their position in this system; they were unsure of their roles too.
The logic Valverde used in employing the 3-5-2 was that the 5 man midfield gives you numerical superiority in the middle of the park while the full-backs will be able to simultaneously offer both defensive stability and attacking impetus from their positions, without having to bomb all the way up or down the pitch. It’s a good idea in theory, but with a team that’s accustomed to playing in a 4-3-3 it was utter chaos. The three defenders had fixed positions but the midfield in front of them was a complete mess. Aleix Vidal was being pushed back because of Marcelo’s slaloming runs and Sergi Roberto, unsure of whether to stay in his position or help Vidal out, was having to try and balance the two. Andre Gomes, meanwhile, would try to burst forward and assist Suarez and Messi with attacking the Madrid goal but was ineffective in this role. This left Sergio Busquets isolated in midfield with Ivan Rakitic all over the pitch as well, meaning that arguably the best defensive midfielder in the world was losing the ball more regularly than I’ve ever seen him do so, due to the lack of support from his teammates in midfield. The absence of positional awareness from his midfield partners meant Messi had to drop back just to receive the ball and help Busi out, but this in turn left Suarez isolated up front, even with Gomes doing his best to help him. Real Madrid’s well-oiled and insanely talented midfield then simply ran rings around Barca with simple passes, opening them up as they pleased due to players being out of position at almost every instant.
To make matters even worse, the personnel Valverde had at his disposal simply weren’t suited to playing a game against a high-pressing team equipped for lightning quick counters. If you cast your mind back to the Copa Del Rey final game against Sevilla two years ago, where Javier Mascherano was sent off, Barcelona won that game because of three important players, two of who’s qualities they sorely missed against Real Madrid. Lionel Messi, Neymar jr. and Andres Iniesta were key to victory in that game, and more than anything it was one quality they all have in common that was crucial in that victory: their ability to keep the ball. This trio will always be in consideration when talking about the best dribblers of the ball, and while dribbling is mostly thought of as a tool for getting past opponents it is equally as important as a means of keeping the ball away from the opposition and giving your teammates time to think, get back in position and act during the game. These three kept the ball away from the opposition,and just when you thought they’d lose the ball, they created a chance out of thin air. This not only tired Sevlilla, but ensured they had to be more cautious defensively in order to stay in the game. This invaluable quality demonstrated by those three players in the aforementioned final is the reason Barca came out of that game with the Cup in their hands.
With Iniesta injured and Neymar deciding doubling his salary was more important than playing at the best club in the world, however, Messi was the only player on the pitch against Madrid who possessed that priceless quality. As good as the Argentine was, though, creating multiple half-chances on his own, him dropping deep and Busquets being overrun meant that he never received the ball as much as he liked, and never in the positions where he could cause any sort of serious damage. With players like Andre Gomes and Luis Suarez around him, who are not only average dribblers at best but also lost the ball at almost every occasion, it was impossible for a team who were already playing in an unfamiliar formation to position themselves correctly in time and retain the ball when being pressed. The consequences were clear for anyone watching to see.
There were of course a lot of other issues with the game too, but those mentioned here meant that the team never really stood a chance against Madrid. Valverde wanted to change things up and take the game to Madrid, but his team simply weren’t equipped to do so in the way he envisioned. A switch to the 4-3-3 after Pique’s injury instantly led to an improvement in the team’s performance, and even though Madrid did drop their intensity it still wasn’t anything to write home about. Valverde had a lot to think about before the first league game of the season.
His presser before the league game was a breath of fresh air as his words echoed the sentiments of the fanbase: the squad wasn’t ready and signings were needed if the team were to compete seriously on all fronts this season. He let his feelings be known and although the team got destroyed for it, he showed he’s not afraid to try new things (importantly so at the beginning of the season).
The team sheet for the game against Betis then, showed definite signs of improvement. With the resources the coach had at his disposal, he decided to go with a classic 4-3-3 formation with Nelson Semedo finally getting a start at right-back, Sergi Roberto taking Iniesta’s place in midfield and Paco Alcacer and Gerard Deulofeu on the wings either side of a central Messi in attack. The only real question marks in that formation were regarding the positions of the forwards and Deulofeu’s inclusion, especially after Denis Suarez impressed against Real Madrid.
The thinking behind the chosen personnel was, however, apparent once the game started. With Messi central he wouldn’t have to track back at all, and Alcacer’s willingness to help Jordi Alba out meant that any threats down the left were nullified. With Deulofeu being on the right instead of the left, his tendency to cut back in onto his right foot and hesitate was countered, meaning he could focus on crossing the ball and linking up with the excellent (and very pacy) Semedo. It was a throwback to the M-V-P front-three that made history under Pep-Guardiola, and while the players accompanying Messi up front have very different styles the idea is very much the same. Messi centrally with hard-working wingers making space and tracking back means he could focus very much on attacking through the middle and wreaking havoc on the Betis defense. Alcacer is nowhere near David Villa both in terms of his intelligent play on the left and goal-scoring ability, but the idea was similar, and as long as he can do the dirty defensive work Messi will thrive. The Argentine also had a quiet game by his lofty standards but still managed to hit the post on three separate occasions, meaning the players either side of him were complementing him well. The problem here is whether Luis Suarez will be able to play the ‘David Villa role’ that Paco Alcacer was attempting today. The Uruguayan prefers playing centrally and isn’t always committed defensively, meaning putting him in that position will be a struggle, so it remains to be seen what Valverde will do once the Uruguayan is fit again.
Further back in midfield, Sergio Busquets looked a lot more comfortable with passing options either side of him but the stand-out midfielder of the night was Sergi Roberto. Having a point to prove with the recent signing of Paulinho, the hero of the Remontada was all over the pitch, but this time in a good way. His pressing was constant, his energy a spark for the rest of the team and he even got into promising positions in the final third, being rewarded with a well-taken goal. As much as Ivan Rakitic has been vital for the club over the past 3 years, Sergi Roberto showed today that he’s more than ready to take over from the Croatian and if Valverde has to choose between one or the other Roberto has to be the one picked to start.
It is important to note, though, that the midfield lacked creativity at times due to Iniesta’s absence, and against stronger teams Rakitic and Roberto may have been punished for that. If Valverde intends to use Messi as a false nine, creative midfielders who make intelligent passes are very important to ensure the Argentine doesn’t need to drop deep to create, and while Xavi Hernandez is long gone, a midfielder in his mould may be joining the club soon. The rumour mills are insistent that Jean Seri will be pursuing his trade in Barcelona soon, and if that does happen Valverde will have a smart player on his hands, the type of which Barca have sorely missed. It remains to be seen how exactly Valverde will cope with the surplus of midfielders at his disposal should the Nice midfielder’s move come to fruition, but it is a problem he would love to have.
The standout players against Betis were all players who a couple of years ago we would never have imagined would be starring in a Barca game, which is telling. Deulofeu grabbed a couple of assists after a shaky start and is intent on working for his place, tracking back whenever needed. The aforementioned Roberto was monstrous in midfield, as has already been discussed in depth, and the board that is a laughing stock worldwide for their signing of Paulinho will have been delighted with the performance of their other summer recruit, Nelson Semedo. The Portuguese looked very comfortable on the right and although not tested defensively, was electric on the right and caused mayhem every time he went forward.
Ernesto Valverde has learnt a lot from his first 3 official games of the seaso. Yes, the two teams he has faced so far are on opposing ends of the football spectrum in every sense, but he should and will be positive about the future. He has a few really talented players at his hands in addition to the best player in the history of the game, and with a few signings and some tweaking this team should be able to compete against the best on the pitch.
Their is no doubt among fans that the board has made serious mistakes and need to go because of it, but Valverde has nothing to do with that and needs to be given the time and the pieces he requires to prove that he can do wonders with FC Barcelona. He’s voiced his concerns, shown he’s open to change and trying different things and that he learns from his mistakes.
At the end of the day the game against Betis is a matter of perspective because of the opposition, performance and it’s timing in the season, but the positive signs are there to see and build on, which for now is a very important step in the right direction.