Valverde and the Art of Deception

Several months in, Valverde’s Barcelona are not what they seem.

There have been pronounced highs and lows, and while that’s understandable for a team still getting accustomed to a new coach, the volatility has been confusing to culés used to controlling matches and needing to play well to win.

There has been a surprise at the results, at the decisions made, at the side’s new direction and approach, questions over whether it can all hold up, and how it’ll fare against the elite. Wingers such as Deulofeu were tried and discarded, and instead four central midfielders with license to roam and make forward runs became the early defining feature of Valverde’s Barça, at this stage of the season at least until Dembélé’s return.
No player encapsulates this element of surprise — of not quite knowing what is going on and the reasons behind so much success so soon- better than Paulinho. He embodies the lowered expectations of the squad as a whole, which most agree is less talented than in years past, and what they are then actually capable of doing. On the one hand, he was written off before he had even put on his boots, his goals and usefulness eventually celebrated as there was (for once!) joy in being proved wrong. But it is the unpredictable nature of his football itself and how he incorporates this ability to catch opposing defenses off-guard which disorganized a team as good as Real Madrid.

And it is that which makes him like his coach, as both tread onwards by forging a successful path against the odds and by defying the conventional wisdom which holds so much weight.

During the Clásico, the Brazilian’s positioning, in fact, was often farther forward than Lionel Messi’s, thus perfectly compensating the Argentine’s more midfielder-like tendencies and need to get on the ball. His runs were direct, his timing ideal. He just appears, as if out of nowhere.

And, so, it is precisely this what Valverde has done on a larger scale — seemingly randomly but with great attention to detail, he’s bringing back players that were left for dead. It has been a completely unexpected revival. His style may be unorthodox, and his methodology unexpected in imposing his vision of a different Barça, but it is gaining followers and convincing others to abandon fixed mindsets and isms.

While there is little of Cruyff in his solid 4–4–2 beyond a few basic positional play principles, the desire to simplify the footballing tasks of each individual is a shared trait. In no match was this more evident than this latest Clásico. As a result, there hasn’t been the usual stylistic outcry at the abandoning of the 4–3–3, at the team spending longer spells defending with two lines of four, the comparatively lower possession stats and increased attention to transitions. The compactness and solidity comes at a cost, however, and the tradeoff means the loss of a winger/third striker, so the passing patterns in this new system are inevitably different.
The unmistakable results, of course, help for the players to buy into his ideas. In the first half, Barcelona defended far closer to their own penalty area than Valverde would have been comfortable with, even considering what he had set his team out to do. Gerard Piqué (with yet another stellar performance at the place that shares his name) had to give Sergi Roberto defensive help and cover on numerous occasions, as Real found Cristiano Ronaldo in promising positions several times early on in the match. However, as has been the case all season, Zidane’s side didn’t capitalize on this first half positional and tactical superiority. Valverde had planned a risk-averse match, and by surviving the first half, he was proved right.

According to former Barça coach Cesar ‘Flaco’ Menotti “a football team is above all an idea,” a sentiment that fits in with the Cruyffian credo the club prides itself on. Even though the ideas Valverde has in mind are different from what we’re accustomed, not as firmly within the Barça school as other coaches, the clarity of his idea and how well it is being implemented and executed makes it quite obvious that the team already has his imprint. So while the basis of Valverde’s coaching is the transition, and Cruyff’s is the ball, there are loose connections that live on, the joining of several different philosophies within the same overarching vision.

Zidane, however, didn’t recognize that Valverde’s Barça is a slightly different beast. So, like Mourinho before him, the plan was to stop Messi at all costs, even if that meant introducing Kovacic at the expense of Isco — their best player in 2017. The hope was to disrupt Barcelona’s build-up with a man-oriented high press, the Croatian given the joint-task of stopping either Messi or Busquets depending on where in the pitch the ball was. However, this revealed a very costly Zidane misunderstanding as to who this Barça are right now and how they play. For the Catalans, the build-up is now less important than the moment of transition, the spaces more important than the ball, specific moments more significant than longer periods of complete control. Zizou had taken the bait. 
For this is a side that punishes like Luis Enrique’s, but is capable of surviving in a way not seen since the Asturian coach won the treble in his first season. Despite being better initially, the French boss can have no complaints at the three goal unravelling.

The key, as always, was Busquets, who waited for the perfect time to draw the Madrid press to him, foreseeing an unstoppable and well-worked attack several steps ahead of everyone else. Like a bull-fighter, he picked his moment to jab and in doing so showed how well he understands his coach’s football vision. Football is founded on space, time, and deception, again in the words of Menotti, and Valverde knows that Busquets has internalized all three. It was this understanding that allowed the trio of Busquets-Iniesta-Messi to find each other, as if time had stood still — this was Barça at its purest, in the blink of an eye it was again evoking memories of the past.

With Busquets’ provocations setting the stage, it was the Argentine’s form of deception that tilted the encounter once the defensive midfielder had made his contribution. “In Argentinean society, deception is considered an art form,” Real Madrid legend Jorge Valdano once pointed out. As an Argentine, he will need no explaining of the cultural significance of potreros like Lionel. These are the tricksters, the kids from the street that grow in confidence when they disrespect the establishment. There is a cultural playfulness in their deceitfulness. Just like Valverde’s Barça that Messi leads.

So, the shoe came off, the pass was made. It was the most delicate of daggers, as if Messi’s tiptoeing on one sock, like a little kid on Christmas, were done silently in the comforts of his own home, not away at the Bernabéu to an audience of millions.

For the Blaugrana it was the perfect image to sum up their cunning exploits — whether those be a Busquets feint or drag-back, Suarez once again getting the favorable bounces with each dribble after an agonizing few months, or another iconic Messi photo, this time of him with outstretched arms. But most of all, it summarized the guileful manner of the man in charge.

Compared to the famous masterclasses and humblings of the recent past, this 0–3 Clásico win at the Bernabéu felt less magical than its predecessors and more like a magic trick. It seemed the odd-man out in the collection of historic blaugrana conquests… despite the difficulty in the execution and the incredible final revelation. It feels artificial, a bit staged, yet we are, at this moment, willing to be fooled, to be enchanted by such slyness.

After all, there is fun to be had amidst so much trickery, glee in the mockery, beauty to be found in the ways Valverde’s Barça have performed so many well-timed acts of deception.