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Ernesto Valverde’s Borrowed Time

After the worst La Liga start in 25 years, Barcelona’s unconvincing 2–1 win last night took them away from 9th place to 4th, now just one point off of 1st. From the outside, it just looks like a shaky start that is soon to clear. This is far from the case, though.

Perennial saviour Lionel Messi was coming back from injury but after being subbed out at half time, it is becoming more and more apparent that he is not the man he was several years ago. While La Maisa was, at one point, a conveyor belt of talent, Barcelona have struggled to find the person to take over once his time is done. The most obvious choice to take on the mantle came in the form of Neymar, however his transfer to Paris-Saint Germain has left both him and the club in slight disarray. Huge transfer fees spent on players such as Ousmane Dembélé, Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann have been done so to fill various voids left by Neymar and others but and it remains to be seen whether or not any of them are up for the task. These three transfers all cost over €100 million and are all symptomatic of a very short-sighted approach to Barcelona’s transfer activity, all aided by Ernesto Valverde’s seeming inability to maximise the impact of his otherwise impactful players.

Ousmane Dembélé was football’s first €100 million transfer, ironically after and as a replacement for the first €200 million transfer. He has struggled with injuries, form and favouritism since he arrived from Borussia Dortmund in 2017. Still exceptionally young, spending over €100 million on just one inexperienced if erratic player to replace a player nearly guaranteed to become the best in the world was a bold strategy and one that is yet to pay off. One has to wonder whether Barcelona would be in better hands had they invested the Neymar money in a more frugal manner. They were never going to get a like-for-like replacement, however they could have at least attempted to make up for his departure in an aggregate. Football is, as Malcolm Gladwell puts it, a ‘weak-link sport’ where it is more important to improve your worst player than your best.

Philippe Coutinho has performed well this season, offering dynamism and flair in attack. The only problem here is that he is not doing it for Barcelona, as he is currently on loan at Bayern Munich. His arrival in Spain was intended to ease the squad through the impending departure of Andrés Iniesta, one of the best number 8s that football has ever seen. Coutinho is not an 8. He can play as an 8 but his interpretation of the role differs greatly to Iniesta, playing more as a deep 10 than the typical central midfielder Barca fans were used to. Having since played primarily as a wide-left attacker, the Brazilian international seemed to take over from Neymar but was a far-cry from the playmaking extraordinaire he was at Liverpool. At Bayern Munich, his first few games have been full of promise and hunger and the alleged €120 million option to buy may be able to cover up what was beginning to look like a gross-overspending on Barcelona’s side.

As for Antoine Griezmann, his transfer to Barcelona has been shrouded in controversy. Not quite a winger, not quite a centre-forward, Griezmann has found his best form playing as a second-striker behind a less mobile but physically imposing bigger man: Diego Costa, Fernando Torres, Olivier Giroud et al. Valverde’s penchant for shaping his team up either in a 4–3–3 or a 4–4–2 means that, regardless of how they play, Griezmann is in for some difficulties. Naturally left footed, Griezmann’s best position as a goal scorer in a 4–3–3 would be as a right sided attacker allowing him to cut inside onto his left foot, while his best position in a 4–4–2 is playing off of the centre forward. through the middle. In each set-up, both of these positions are Lionel Messi’s to take. Good though Griezmann may be, Messi he is not. At 29 by the time this season ends, the chances of him deposing Messi to claim his natural position is highly unlikely.

So how does Valverde approach this catch-22? His options are to play one of Messi and Griezmann out of position but why would he want to do either? Play the best player in the world out of position or play the latest superstar that your club spent upwards of a year and €100 million on out of position?

At the moment, the latter seems like the most practical. Griezmann is known for his hard work and tireless effort; there is every chance that Griezmann’s premium price was paid (subject to pending lawsuits, of course) to not just replace Neymar but Luis Suárez as well.

As Suárez loses his physical edge and his big game impact (he has not scored an away goal in the Champions League since his second season with the club), Barcelona have been too preoccupied with figuring out life after Messi when they should have been looking at life after Suárez as this is starting to become the most prominent issue with the club. This is where Griezmann could potentially be worth every penny for them.

In 6 league games, Barcelona have fielded attacking lines of:

Antoine Griezmann — Luis Suárez — Ousmane Dembélé

Rafinha — Antoine Griezmann — Carles Pérez

Rafinha — Antoine Griezmann — Carles Pérez

Ansu Fati — Antoine Griezmann — Carles Pérez

Antoine Griezmann — Luis Suárez — Carles Pérez

Antoine Griezmann — Luis Suárez — Lionel Messi

Thinking back to the glory days of Barcelona circa 2015, part of what made their attacking trident so dangerous was an unpredictability and variation in attack and positioning. All three players were more than capable of playing in any role across the attacking third rendering both zonal defending and man marking futile; defenders simply had hope to hold on to. In this season, Barcelona’s attack has an unpredictability but it’s less about how they will move and work with each other and more about who will be the saving grace in an otherwise stagnant set-up. No amount of super-star signings seem to be able to help crack open defensive lines in the way that MSN did. Of the seven players involved in Barca’s attack this season, it has been Ansu Fati who has shown the most promise of a bright future at Barcelona. 16 years old and holding his own among big name players. One could argue outperforming some.

Looking at those line ups, there is no consistency, no real vision of what comes next. Injuries are certainly a problem but even so, these six lineups leave a lot to be desire. So much so that the only repeated combination of players is no longer an option as Rafinha Alcântara is now on loan at Celta Vigo.

The one thing that has remained is Griezmann. Occupying different positions, he is always there. He is yet to miss a minute of action for Barcelona this season. In fact, in his entire career, he has only ever missed one game due to injury.

Had Barcelona not won against Villarreal, it could have been the final straw for Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu. Barca’s form away from home is nothing short of shocking, perfectly embodied in the back-to-back Champions League knockouts of the past two seasons; embarrassing defeats have come after leading at home before capitulating away. 2018’s fixtures against Roma should have been the early signs of something being wrong. The four goals Barca scored in the first leg were own goals from Daniele De Rossi and Kostantinos Manolas, a tap in from Gerard Pique and a goal mouth scramble poked home by Luis Suárez. Roma’s consolation was the only well taken goal of the game as a dribble from wide saw the ball reach the box before Stephan El Shaarawy made space for Edin Džeko to finish. The return leg had Roma, never disheartened, outplay Barcelona and score three without reply.

The following year, a 3–0 lead on Liverpool had Barcelona complacently looking ahead. They were set to face a very weakened Liverpool who needed 4 goals without answer if they wanted to go through. Much like Konstantinos Manolas’s header the year before, the final nail in the coffin for Barcelona came as a result of a corner kick, catching every Barcelona player off guard, seemingly too focused on who they would face in the final.

What Barcelona are currently going through has been a long time coming. La Remontada was a shining display of resilience and determination, a 6–1 win against Paris Saint-Germain but on which came after a meagre 4–0 defeat. Much in the same way that the 4–1 victory against Roma was met with a 3–0 defeat. And the 3–0 victory against Liverpool was met with a 4–0 defeat. The problems have not started with Valverde but they have certainly been amplified.

Surely one defeat away from being sacked, Barcelona have a difficult run of games as they first travel to Getafe who have, so far, only lost once this season (respectably to Atlético Madrid) and then host Inter Milan in the Champions League who have been in spectacular form since the arrival of Antonio Conte this summer. The odds are against Valverde and his players, even more so now with players like Messi, Suárez, Samuel Umtiti and Jordi Alba missing through injuries or drops in form. There are two outcomes over the comings weeks. Either Antoine Griezmann becomes a world class central striker, doing away with any notion that he needs another player to work off of or Barcelona enter into the market for a new manager, possibly several months too late.