I caught a glimpse of Valencia celebrating their Copa del Rey win over Barcelona in the locker room of the Villamarín. The Estadio Benito Villamarín is the home of Real Betis in Seville, and served as the site of the cup final. A final that, as recent as a few weeks ago, seemed certain for Barcelona to win.
They carried a three-goal lead with them to Anfield against Liverpool, but that game resulted in a total collapse that mirrored and stretched last year’s crashing out of the Champions league at Roma. The league’s been won, but the cup which Messi had all but pledged to bring back to the blaugrana slipped away yet again.
Anfield closes in on Messi
What has followed has been some kind of listless sleepwalk through the end of the season. A daze. Checked out, maybe?
The style of play that Valverde has implemented sees the team usually hold a 4-4-2 that can frequently withstand pressure and through Messi, offer enough attacking occasions to squeeze out two goals.
But many fans are left cold by the style of play that has shifted from the fast triangle passing and positional one-upmanship that they flexed during the golden days of la masia-identity football. I thought it would be interesting to look at the attacking results of the team this year, compared with the 2012/2013 season where we similarly won the league, but not the Champions or Copa del Rey.
Looking at data of the 61 competitive games played this season, a few things are notable. Though they are one of the most imposing teams in the world with the consensus world’s greatest player, Barça scored two or fewer goals in 38 games this season. Out of those 38, they won 21.
Naturally you have to score to win, and the more they score the more Barça tend to win. Of the 23 games they scored three or more goals, they won 21. They scored four or more goals on thirteen occasions this season.
In 64 competitive games played over the 2012/2013 season under Tito Vilanova (with Jordi Roura as his surrogate when Tito was getting treatment in New York), Barça scored two or fewer goals in 34 games. Of those 34 games, they won fifteen.
In the 30 games where Barça scored three or more goals, they won every one. They scored four or more seventeen times.
Comparing the two seasons, we can tell that they used to score more goals, and when they scored more they also were more dominant in securing wins.
This season the team was more comfortable getting wins without scoring more than two than they used to be. However, they are scoring two or fewer in a higher percentage of games than they used to: 62.3% compared to 53.1%.
This translates to much less of the exciting clever, attacking possession that used to embody the motto of being ‘more than a club.’ This is why supporters complain of a loss of identity and the dreaded ‘p’-word–philosophy.
But the disappointment of our talisman is the thing that hurts hardest for fans who aren’t obsessed with getting out the guillotines to purge the board, the players, and management.
It’s because we believe in magic. We’ve seen it. But now, the system that seemed tailored to produce it has been reduced and shifted to the style that most people play. Where the variables can allow physicality to overcome the players with the most guile.
So the calls to dismiss Valverde–who has still won the league in both of his years at the helm–are not based only on results, but also on the noticeably more conservative approach taken. Valverde did not inherit the team directly from Tito and Pep, he instead got it after Tata Martino and then Luis Enrique ran things for four years. Martino was unaware of how to replicate that ideal, while Lucho seemed disinterested in using Guardiola’s recipes.
Compared to Cholo’s Atlético, or Zidane/Lopetegui/Scolari/Zidane’s Madrid, Barcelona have been a model of consistency and serenity in Spain.
But that serenity has been earned at the expense of the attacking set up that kept their opponents under constant threat, and their fanbase exhilarated. A finely struck blow (either from Roma, or Liverpool, or Valencia as happened yesterday) and the comfort is disrupted without repair.
How to regain that rhythm remains the dilemma.