The Rebirth: Barcelona Under Valverde
After a hectic summer market, including the loss of Neymar to Paris-Saint-Germain for the modest sum of 222 million euros, the Catalan club was expected to struggle this season. What could we expect with a new coach, new recruits and a new system? After half the season, I think everyone is unanimous about how Barça have been. The return of an attractive style and a more than well-managed mercato has seen them lead La Liga, including a 19-point gap between them and the eternal rival, Real Madrid. Everything seems to smile for the Blaugranas.
On paper, they play a classic flat 4-4-2, quite the opposite of the classic Catalan 4-3-3 with the legendary positional game that made the club famous. On the field, it’s a whole different case.
The system proposed by Ernesto Valverde this season is certainly the most lively and dynamic you will see in Europe this season. It’s hard to believe that this 4-4-2 allows them to perpetuate the traditional Catalan game. The Basque coach has shown that no matter the system, only the game counts.
Laterals are used here as the main axis of attack designated by Valverde this season. They play very high in the corridors, and become “false-wingers” as the team puts their foot on the ball and have the entire corridor, released by the axial mediums in perpetual motion, to hit and attack spaces. The method is not new, but very effective because it allows to bring an immediate numerical superiority in the last meters in addition to spreading the block on the width (essential against the blocks together). It also triggers an almost immediate cleansing at the loss of the ball.
Roberto and Alba on the wings
4-4-2? 4-3-3? 3-5-2?
This aggressive positioning spreads the Catalan block across the entire width of the field and thus opens spaces and exploitable intervals directly for both teams. This is where the fifth defender comes into action. To avoid blazing counterattacks, the Basque technician placed his No. 6 between the two central defenders to ensure horizontal transitions on the field in the offensive phase but also the immediate recovery of the ball in case of poor transmission.
The offensive phase:
Rakitic gets the ball
The management of the opposing counters is assured and the ball remains under Catalan control. The positioning of the laterals and the No. 6 directly disorients the opponents who will have a hard time finding the correct marking but the excess that is created keeps the ball high and long. The ball circulates on each side of the field and spaces are created as the opposing defense loses its footing (see video on the Spanish position play here). In addition, the high side offers a direct pass for almost any player if the pressing is intense, the duplication is easy and even if they are blatant in the eyes of the defenders, they often remain intractable. The game fluidifies naturally and the triangles appear. Here is a video example:
The entire equilibrium of the system here rests on the activity of the lateral ones and their capacity to strike / eliminate a vis-à-vis. This interdependence reached its peak on the 21st day of the Spanish championship against Alaves. After a counter-attack, Guidetti opened the scoring for Alaves leading 1-0. In the corridors of Barcelona, Digne and Semedo are responsible for linking defenders and attackers, but the shyness of the Portuguese right-back and the technical deficiencies of Digne left something to be desired. Barça struggled to deliver an exploitable ball directly to its finishers and the match seemed bogged down until Valverde swapped his side pair with Alba and Sergi Roberto. The match takes a different look and the Catalans are persuasive enough to score the two goals necessary for victory.
Flank heatmaps that night. Digne was too limited technically to deliver the ball in the last phase and Semedo was too shy. Alba and Roberto meanwhile did not hesitate to invest the last meters of opponents to become even more dangerous.
The stats of the first and second periods further illustrate the shortcomings that the incumbents have in creating gaps and attacking spaces. The summary of the match is available here:
Let’s take a look at one of the aspects that has not escaped the Blaugrana fanbase this season.
Purchased for 40 million euros this summer, the transfer of Guangzhou Evergrande’s former player has been much in the news. Paulinho, who was elected by Tottenham fans as the “worst transfer in Premier League history,” arrived at FC Barcelona with a rain of criticism. Five and a half months after his arrival, eight goals and two assists in 20 league games has seen Paulinho make his place in the side of Ernesto Valverde. But is that enough to be considered an important part of the Blaugrana system?
Used as a No. 8 in the Catalan 4-4-2, Paulinho often sees himself, during the match, inheriting the position of No. 9. Indeed, when the side have the ball, Lionel Messi wins and exchanges his place with the one of the relaying circles to be at the heart of the game. The eight goals scored by Paulinho with Barça immediately make more sense. The Catalan game requires, as everyone knows, a technical quality and a tactical sense above the average. The latter are not the primary qualities of Paulinho, he is sometimes overwhelmed by the game, which results in bad choice passes, slowing the advance of Barcelona’s block considerably.
The fact is that Paulinho is not endowed with a sharper sense of purpose than other Barça midfielders, but he does very well with the instructions that Valverde gives him. Indeed, one of the main goals of the Basque coach is to put the best player in the history of the sport in the best conditions to do what makes him so unique. By winning from his position of No. 9, Messi recovers the ball very low but faces the game which allows him to either distil a ball in a gap between the defenders, either to strike and pierce the opposing defense thus freeing spaces for him or his teammates. His initial position being unoccupied, it is the responsibility of Paulinho, or the relay runner who accompanies Iniesta (sometimes Dembélé) to come to occupy the tip with Suarez, freeing in turn a space directly exploitable for Messi. The marking of the opposing defense becomes a real game of musical chairs and finding the free man becomes a breeze. There is almost a total rotation of positions on the right half of the field.
Placing Messi at the heart of the game is the easiest and most effective way to let him express his extraordinary talent. The percussions and offsets he performs benefit the entire Catalan bloc and the game accelerates almost instantly. One almost always attends the delivery of a caviar of the Argentine prodigy for Paulinho to come to occupy the space, or Jordi Alba to always launch and stand out in the back of the defense.
It goes without saying that each of these mechanisms requires a prerequisite to be put in place and applied: to have the ball in a sustainable and controlled way. To get there, Valverde set up an ultra-aggressive dry-cleaning, not far from that of Jurgen Klopp, triggered almost instantly after the loss of the ball.
Barcelona pressing vs Valencia.
By recovering the ball as high, the Blaugranas can directly exploit the open spaces of the destructured opponent’s block in the reconstruction phase. We discover a still little known facet of the basic Catalan game: verticality and rapid transitions. This is where Valverde has certainly revolutionized the Catalan game. In addition to the system or players “atypical” of the era, there is slowly an acceleration of the game and a tendency to quickly transit from one phase to another. The DNA is obviously always the same, based on full-size rondo, but the Basque technician has brought his personal touch and it succeeds rather well for now.
Resulting more or less from the ultra aggressive pressing of Real in the first period, the three goals of Barça during the Clasico illustrates well this new aspect of Barcelona’s game.
Barça block and wait; they really had no other choice against the violent pressing of Real Madrid in the first period. Zidane had surely planned to score from the start to kill the game quickly but the fate did not prove him right and he paid the price in the second half. With tired players, the spaces were naturally drawn under the fresh eyes of Catalans who had no trouble exploiting them directly to score three goals in the enemy’s home. Resisting patiently in the first 45 minutes, the men of Valverde were literally able to open Real under the instructions of the Basque coach. To go further on the Clasico: the article of @PremiereTouche on the match here.
Only the titles are missing on the board to define the era. With nine points ahead of the second and 18 over the third, nothing seems to prevent Barça to win his 25th national title and certainly his 30th national cup. On the European level, the case seems more complicated but Barça is already positioned today as one of the great favorites of the 2017-2018 edition. One thing is certain, Valverde has already brought a lot to the Catalan house in half a season and the result may be even more exciting for the technician as for the rest of the community.
Photo: Getty Images