In some ways, it is to Ernesto Valverde’s credit that I came away from Barcelona’s 3-0 victory against Girona disappointed in the team. During Luis Enrique’s regime, Barcelona had a tendency to lose games when the team put in an underwhelming performance. Thus far, Valverde so far has been able to secure points on the road when the team is far from their top gear; the first example was Barcelona’s 2-1 comeback victory at Getafe, and their triumph at Girona followed a similar script.
When you are picking at the displeasing elements of a result, it is always more comforting when that result is a win. So even though Barcelona played one of their more disjointed and bland games in recent memory against their Catalan neighbors, the complaints refer to the aesthetics and the process, not the final score. The aesthetics matter too, of course, especially atBarça, and you can count on one hand the amount of fluid and dangerous attacks Barcelona had on Saturday night.
But of premium importance in the process, and Barcelona’s route to three points at Girona – which included two own goals – was not a path I would want Barcelona to explore any more this season. Credit to Girona boss Pablo Machín, who devised a smart gameplan that threw Barcelona off. Girona’s high line deterred Barcelona’s possession game and Pablo Maffeo’s excellent man-marking on Lionel Messi limited the Blaugrana’s creative outlet. There were gaps and channels to exploit that might have led to six or seven goals on a different day, but Barcelona’s timing on passes and runs was off, and the overall effort of the team was missing a spark.
The final scoreline flatters Barcelona in more ways than one. Their first goal was a complete fluke, and though Aleix Vidal’s lovely backheel flick that nutmegged the defender could have very easily gone in off of Luis Suarez, the ball was rolling to nobody if the keeper didn’t intervene to put it in his own net. Suarez’s goal to make it 3-0 was solid, but with the high line Girona was playing with, Barcelona could have easily scored that goal a few times in this match with a bit better timing on the runs from the forwards and a bit better passing from the midfielders (it was telling that Sergi Roberto was the only one to make that killer line-busting pass and he did so from right back).
The two own goals changed Barcelona’s ambitions in the second half. When they didn’t need to risk going forward to score another goal, they didn’t, and for me that is a fine decision from the manager at this point in the season as he tries to get as many points in the bag as possible before the business end of the cup competitions begins in 2018. That said, a slow start and a lack of chances from open play is not something unique to the Girona fixture, either. Barcelona has started slowly in a few games this season – in all three away matches, really, against Alaves, Getafe and now Girona – and have really only had segments of the game in which they went and got the result rather than ever having a prolonged spell of clinical football.
Again, that we can sit back and rate the beauty of a victory is a positive in and of itself. Barcelona was mostly fine against the top of the table in La Liga last season, it was the odd fixture away to teams like Alaves or Getafe that cost them a point or two and as a result the title. If Valverde and his team can manufacture enough of these kinds of wins to reclaim the La Liga crown, nobody will complain.
Developing poor habits or not bringing enough intensity to start a game and expecting to be able to get away with it somehow, though, is extremely dangerous. If Barcelona doesn’t correct the issues that have led to the droughts against Getafe, Girona and Alaves, then perhaps they will pop up against competition more capable of punishing Barça in the league or in Europe.
Chief among those habits is relying on Marc Andre ter Stegen to bail the team out. Ter Stegen making one or two world class one-on-one saves has become a trend early in games, and if he weren’t playing so well at the moment then a few of Barcelona’s games this season could have turned out very differently. Far too often it is the opposition that starts out on the front foot while Barcelona takes a half hour or so to generate any kind of fluidity or penetration from their possession.
The result was a positive one for Barcelona, but the performance was not. And in a funny way, this says something complementary of Valverde’s reign. That the team is still able to grind out results while the manager continues to work out the kinks with his selection and tactics is crucial.
It’s also worth nothing that Valverde isn’t the only one responsible for Barcelona’s patchy play – far from it. His most creative player behind Messi was injured in his first league start, Suarez is in the worst form of his Barcelona career, and whether Gerard Deulofeu is a Barcelona-level player is still up in the air. The only two things Valverde is solely responsible for is overusing Iniesta (at least in my opinion) and not starting Semedo in road games, where his pace and creativity on the flank have been missed. Outside of that, player form and player availability have just as much to do with Barcelona’s inconsistency as the manager’s tactics.
That said, with an important month of fixtures coming up, I hope the time when Valverde has Barcelona playing fluent and flawless football comes sooner rather than later.