Let’s take a quick trip back to last summer. Barcelona are in crisis.
They’ve just sold the future of the team to PSG, are bringing in an unheralded manager from Athletic Bilbao, buying washed up players from China, and getting dominated by their bitter rivals Real Madrid in the Supercopa.
After getting throttled 2-0 and 3-1 by Real Madrid in the Supercopa, the competition between the previous season’s La Liga and Copa del Rey winners, Barcelona center back Gerard Pique claimed he felt “inferior” to Madrid for the first time in his Barca career.
“This is a long process and there is room for improvement but in the nine years that I have been here, it is the first time that I feel inferior to Madrid,” Piqué said. “We are not in the best moment, either as a team or as a club. We must stay as close as possible and keep moving forwards.”
Everyone was piling on, authoring stories about the collapse at Barcelona, claiming the club had fallen from previous heights and now found itself in catastrophy. Real Madrid, on the other hand, were supposedly on their way to another La Liga trophy and Champions League title.
Fast forward to midway through the season and Barcelona sit atop La Liga, 11 points ahead of 2nd place Atletico and 19 points above Real Madrid. Barca have yet to lose a game in league play or the Champions League. In fact, they haven’t lost a game since the second leg of the Supercopa against Madrid in August.
So, how have Barcelona dealt with this conflict, both external and inside the club, to get back to their glory days?
A tactical change
During Pep Guardiola’s reign at Barcelona, when the Catalonian club was perhaps the greatest collective ever created, Barcelona relied on Pep’s tiki-taka style, predicated on short, fluid passing moves out of a 4-3-3 formation.
Current manager Ernesto Valverde is much more of a pragmatist than Pep. While he still encourages his team to play aesthetically pleasing soccer, Valverde’s focus is primarily about solidifying his team against opposing attacks and limiting risk.
To that end, Valverde has eschewed Pep’s 4-3-3 in favor of a 4-4-2 or 4-2-2 depending on your preferred nomenclature.
Valverde overloads the middle of the pitch with midfielders, providing stability in attack and defense, and freeing up Lionel Messi in front of them.
— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) January 28, 2018
While the formation and tactical shift may cost Barcelona some of the flair of the Pep Guardiola era, you can’t argue with the results thus far.
Valverde’s straight forward approach has been the perfect respite for the post-Neymar era. There is a renewed emphasis on the collective as opposed to just lumping Messi, Suarez, and Neymar up top and waiting for them to produce their magic.
This means that players that had seen their roles minimized in recent years have had somewhat of a renaissance under Valverde. Ivan Rakitic, Andres Iniesta, and Paulinho have all benefited massively from working with the Basque manager.
Sid Lowe of The Guardian wrote in November about why Valverde has the ideal profile to guide Barcelona during this period of supposed crisis,
“Calm in a crisis, Barcelona could hardly have hoped for a better man in charge than Ernesto Valverde. Hugely likable, universally popular and abnormally ‘normal’, a music, film and photography fan who likened his return to Athletic [Bilbao] to The Godfather Part II and proved it by taking them to Europe four years in a row – they’re down in 15th now without him – he has a startling ability to block out the noise and cut through the bullshit, to not be dragged down by it all.”
Barcelona’s newfound solidity means that while they may not produce the same aesthetic magic of a bygone era, they can grind out tough victories through their solidity, like yesterday’s come from behind 2-1 victory over Deportivo Alaves.
Messi is still Messi
Yesterday, against Alaves, Messi stepped up to a free kick just outside the box in the 84th minute with the game knotted at 1-1. The outcome already seemed decided before he stepped up to strike the ball, but that doesn’t make the result any less spectacular.
It was Messi’s 20th goal of La Liga season, which puts him far ahead of everyone else in the league. His teammate Luis Suarez is second in the league with 16 goals. Cristiano Ronaldo is tied in 10th with 8 goals (just sayin’).
Lionel Messi leads Europe in total goal contributions with 20 goals and 9 assists in La Liga so far this season, a ridiculous tally from the Argentinian.
Messi has been great for years. In fact, he’s scored 20 goals in 10 straight seasons, the first player in La Liga to ever achieve that feat. But this season feels like a new level of Messi dominance.
He’s been freed up by the tactical change in Valverde’s system. While Messi always kind of defied position, the four midfielders behind him allow the Argentinian the freedom to roam around the field, one half midfielder, one half striker, and pick out spaces and weaknesses in the defense.
In what could become Messi’s career-defining year, with a chance to bring World Cup glory to his country this summer, he’s performing at previously unseen levels.
Neymar left Barca to get out of Messi’s shadow. At the time, critics of the Brazilian’s move to Paris claimed that he just needed to bide his time before the spotlight was his as Messi was getting on in age. It’s now clear that prognostications of Messi’s demise were greatly exaggerated.
Role players stepping up
Barcelona’s roster isn’t full of World Class showstoppers like the days of yore, instead Valverde has a cast of useful, experienced, and disciplined players who can do the job they’re assigned.
Perhaps the greatest example of this is Paulinho, the Brazilian midfielder who spent the last two years playing in China after a failed spell with Tottenham Hostpur in the Premier League.
When Barcelona bought Paulinho for about €40 million this summer, the soccer world lost it. It was clear to anyone going into the season that Barca had depth issues, but buying a 29-year-old who had been playing in China, while Neymar left the Camp Nou, was hardly the solution.
Paulinho has silenced his critics, scoring 8 goals so far this season, the most by a midfielder in La Liga. The same pundits that were ripping into Barcelona’s board this summer for buying Paulinho are now heaping praise on the Brazilian.
His tactical flexibility means that Paulinho can slot into any of the four midfield positions in Valverde’s system, whether it be in defensive midfield or box-to-box runner. Paulinho is equally able to break up an opposing attack as he is to latch onto a Lionel Messi cross and he’s thriving for Valverde thus far.
Aside from Paulinho, unsung heroes like Ivan Rakitic, the ageless Andres Iniesta, and Thomas Vermaelen have proved vital for Barcelona this season.
Vermaelen, a sparely-used center back, whose career has been continuously stalled by injury, was called into action by a rash of injuries to other Barca defenders. The Belgian has performed admirably, never missing a beat, and providing the defensive solidity necessary to let the team’s flair players work their magic.
Full backs Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto have also been critical. Neither player will necessarily dominate the headlines, but their importance in attack and defense is vital.
As Valverde packs the midfield and gets rid of players on the wing, Alba and Roberto are called upon to provide width in attack, but also get back in defense and break up opposing counter attacks. The two Spanish full backs have done exactly that, both tallying 6 assists on the season, second on the team only to Lionel Messi.
To have that sort of production out of defenders is ridiculous, but it’s precisely this quality that has allowed Barcelona to thrive in the post-Neymar era of ‘crisis.’
Ernesto Valverde’s team is on a roll, able to win games in a variety of different ways. It’s still early days in Valverde’s tenure, but Barcelona appear poised to retake their crown as the best team in Europe.