Display at the El Clasico held at the Bernabeu calls for us to take a deeper look at Ernesto Valverde’s role in building a steadier version of FC Barcelona
“Buffalo soldier, dreadlock rasta:
There was a buffalo soldier in the heart of america,
Stolen from africa, brought to america,
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival.”
Fitting words for the struggle of Buffalo Soldiers – men who were forgotten, sent to a fight for survival. If there were anything to take from the song its the immense pride taken in fighting for everything you stand for, and to succeed and have great men write songs about you.
Tonight’s performance by FC Barcelona was nothing worth writing a song about, and saying this for a team that has built legends around beautiful, total football might be considered a criminal offense in Catalunya.
But as Ernesto Valverde chose 4-4-2 at the Bernabeu, the world somehow seemed to make sense. Fighting for his survival as soon as he joined Barca – Valverde has more than steadied ship.
Losing the heir to the throne of the world’s best player to PSG was his first acid test. Handling it like a true professional, he stayed away from transfer talk and instead spoke of his task to make Barcelona, somehow, a better team.
In the Super Cup against Real Madrid, Valverde seemed out of depth. As Madrid bounced to their 4th trophy of the calendar year, Barcelona were reeling. Gerard Pique admitted as much that since he arrived, for the first time, Madrid were superior.
A few months, another trophy for Real Madrid and an unbeaten run for FC Barcelona saw them collide in a Clasico. Before kick off, Cristiano Ronaldo wanted a guard of honour from Messi and the Blaugrana, as the Real Madrid led by him are the first to ever retain both the Champions League and Club World Cup titles in history. Valverde responded by saying he wouldn’t expect one, cheekily suggesting that the Liga title race was over.
In the first minute, I would have paid to have been on the Barcelona bench, and would have suffered a severe stroke, as Ronaldo headed in past a flapping Ter Stegen. But the referee (ironically, for once) was up with the play and flagged offside.
For the next 15 minutes Madrid tried and laboured towards goal, bundling away promising attacks into Barca shirts. As Madrid frantically looked for space around the Barcelona shape, one must wonder if Valverde smiled to himself as his troops carried out their task. Seeing Barcelona play is normally a orgasmic experience. Flowing football instead was replaced by pragmatism, exemplified by Vermaelen taking a tactical foul and a yellow card almost as much as every tackle and brilliant piece of positioning on the field.
For the first time in a long time, witnessing Barcelona play a half of football that was messy yet compact enough to survive a Los Blancos onslaught was a different kind of pleasure, and one couldn’t help but think of the man who was fighting fire from day one at the job.
As the game went on, and Madrid left gaps, another soldier rose and almost beat Keylor Navas with an acrobatic finish. No, it wasn’t to be for Paulinho tonight. But man has his career resurrected under Ernesto Valverde. Injury to Ousmane Dembele has helped his cause too, with the gaffer forced to change tactics and gameplan to accommodate the Brazilian in place of the precocious talent.
For 45 minutes, Zidane’s Madrid were stifling Valverde’s Barcelona. With Kovacic shadowing Busquets, however, he was bound to tire and when he did, Sergio made Real Madrid pay. A turn, a couple of passes, and Suarez reels off celebrating his 10th Liga goal. Says a lot about the standard of the league that he remains second in the scoring charts, behind Messi himself.
And what can one say of those two that hasn’t been written already. They combined along in the box to force Dani Carvajal to channel his inner Iker Casillas and get sent off for handball literally ten minutes later. In between, Sergio Ramos slapped Suarez in front of the referee. Messi scores from the spot, never missing a chance to score at the Bernabeu and Aleix Vidal bundles in an effort that showcases why Real Madrid still chase David De Gea even after Navas saved their bacon all afternoon.
This was smash and grab, FC Barcelona style. Absorbing pressure and solid at the back, for the last 45 minutes this team looked like they have all bought into the vision of a new Barcelona under Ernesto Valverde, and a 14 point lead can testify to that. Pragmatism, passion and Paulinho are symbolic of this version of the club.
As Zidane and Perez must now wonder what could have been but for having a more powerful bench or an in-form Karim Benzema – Valverde and Barcelona are heading for The New Year, evolved and looking forward to 2018.