Guillem Balague examines how Barcelona have improved under Ernesto Valverde
Guillem Balague examines Barcelona’s improvement under new coach Ernesto Valverde.
Back in August, it seemed Barcelona were in for a long season.
Neymar’s departure to Paris Saint-Germain had left a cloud over the club and their defeat to Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup did not bode well.
Ernesto Valverde had inherited problems on and off the pitch, but fast forward two months and the picture looks very different.
Barcelona’s 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao was their ninth in 10 La Liga games. They are eight points clear of Madrid at the top of the table, with 28 goals scored and just three conceded.
Since those Spanish Super Cup defeats in August, Barcelona have won 13 of their 14 games in all competitions, and optimism has returned to Camp Nou.
So what’s changed under Valverde? His use of Lionel Messi is the most significant factor.
The Argentine has been given a more central role and it has paid off. Messi has raced ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo in the scoring charts, hitting 12 in La Liga and 16 in all competitions.
Having dropped deeper and deeper under Luis Enrique, Messi is now playing closer to the opposition box. It’s allowing him to take up dangerous positions more frequently than in previous years.
Messi is averaging 6.7 shots per 90 minutes in La Liga. It’s more than in any of his previous seasons at Barcelona and it’s also the most by any player in Europe’s top leagues this season.
Messi is on course for one of the most prolific campaigns of his career, and his brilliant form has ensured that Luis Suarez’s struggles have not been costly.
With Messi moving into the centre and Barcelona predominantly playing without out-and-out wingers, the Uruguayan has found the pitch congested through the middle, scoring just three goals all season.
Fortunately for Barcelona, however, there have also been valuable contributions from other members of the squad.
A lack of depth was a big issue for Luis Enrique last season but this year the players further down the pecking order are stepping up.
New signing Paulinho and academy graduate Gerard Deulofeu have chipped in with important goals and assists. So too have Denis Suarez and Sergi Roberto.
For many supporters, Barcelona’s playing style under Luis Enrique went against the club’s traditions. It was about bypassing the midfield to get the ball to the front three as quickly as possible.
Valverde has changed that. The 4-3-3 formation is now a 4-2-3-1, and Barcelona’s midfield has become the focal point of the team again.
Even though they do not play wonderful football, they are controlling games in the way you expect from a Barcelona team, attacking and defending as a unit.
The stats show how Valverde has adjusted the style. Barcelona are making more passes from open play than last season – and more of them are going backwards.
It reflects the change in their build-up play. Instead of getting the ball directly to their forwards and asking them to do the rest, Barcelona are showing patience with the ball, probing for openings and pulling teams apart with passing.
Out of possession, they are well organised and hard working. Valverde has got Barcelona defending from the front, working as collective and pressing their opponents high up the pitch.
The players have bought into Valverde’s ideas. Barcelona are facing just 2.8 shots on target per game compared to 4.2 per game last season. As a result, they have only conceded three goals in La Liga.
Barcelona need to keep it up as they prepare for more big games at home and in Europe, but they already have a little breathing space in La Liga.
Two months into the season and things are looking brighter than anybody expected.