16th August 2017. Hectic scenes in the stands at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu as Real Madrid have just defeated Barcelona 2-0 on the night, and convincingly 5-1 on aggregate, to lift the Supercopa de España.
Whilst Real Madrid fans would have taken great pride in seeing their team embarrass their eternal rivals, Barcelona supporters worldwide presumably sat in horror as, coupled with this result, their superstar winger Neymar had recently transferred to Paris Saint-Germain for a world record 222 million euro transfer and new coach, Ernesto Valverde, had virtually no previous experience in charge of a top European heavyweight.
The Spanish born coach, however, who had previously been earmarked by Johan Cruyff as ‘one of the most outstanding and promising coaches in Spanish football’, remained confident in his ability and swiftly made changes.
In the wake of these dire performances, Valverde made two signings, one of which would heavily shape the following season and help stamp his mark on the team.
The 40 million euro release clause was paid to Chinese Super League side Guangzhou Evergrande for Brazilian attacking midfielder Paulinho and almost two weeks later, 105 million euro plus add-ons was shipped out to Borussia Dortmund for the transfer of French winger Ousmane Dembélé.
While the former transfer raised a considerable number of eyebrows around the globe, it turned out to be the most influential of not only the two, but of Barcelona’s entire summer spend.
With Deulofeu – bought earlier in the summer and deputising at left-wing following Neymar’s departure – being ridiculed by fans for his performances in the Supercopa and with the team looking lost and directionless in both legs, Valverde decided to implement a change from the traditional Barcelona 4-3-3 formation to a more old-fashioned 4-2-2, much to the chagrin of Barcelona fans with a pro Cruyffism mentality.
The switch from the de facto three-man midfield brought many improvements to a side that, in pre-season, looked incredibly unbalanced.
In the 4-3-3, which Pep Guardiola mastered impeccably, the deep-lying defensive midfielder would, more often than not, sit back and contribute more to the defence, which would be vulnerable when the two full backs overlapped, thus allowing the other two more attacking midfielders a free and creative role in the final third, their link up with the attacking front three seeming almost telepathic.
Valverde came to the realisation after the heavy defeats to Madrid that a switch to a 4-4-2 would add more stability to the team and help shore up the defence, while still maintaining their attacking threat, spearheaded by Luis Suarez at centre-forward, with Lionel Messi playing just off him as a second striker or ‘false nine’.
In Valverde’s 4-4-2, the midfield is the most important position. The duo most frequently found in the centre of the four is Busquets and Paulinho, with Iniesta and Rakitic occupying the outside left and right respectively.
Whilst Rakitic does primarily stick to his outside right position, linking up with offensive right-sided full back Sergi Roberto and also with Lionel Messi when he drifts over to his natural right-wing position, it is the left side where play is more important and influential.
Due to Iniesta’s preferred position being central midfield, he likes to drift inside from the left. This, along with Neymar’s exit, frees up the space for Jordi Alba to make surging runs forward from left back.
This sequence has been of great beneficence to Barcelona all season and has also brought out the best in Alba as he has contributed to three goals and nine assists so far this season, with most of his assists going to Lionel Messi.
In the centre, Busquets, as he did in a 4-3-3, drops back to help out the defence. This, in turn, allows Samuel Umtiti – the left-sided centre half – to drift ever so slightly across to the left, to cover for Alba when he bursts forward. As for Paulinho, he acts as the box-to-box midfielder.
His role is to occasionally track back in defence, especially when the opposition counter attack, and also to make late, surging runs from deep in to the opposition box to get on the end of a cross coming in from either flank. This has shown in Barcelona’s play this season as he has contributed to eight goals so far this season from midfield.
Whilst this Barcelona is not as fluid or as fast in their attack as previous teams – such as Guardiola’s or Enrique’s respective iterations – the switch to a 4-4-2 is being considered as a success.
Having lost only once in all competitions since the Supercopa – the loss in question a 0-1 defeat to Espanyol in the Copa Del Rey, although Barcelona would turn the tie around in the return leg, winning 2-0 – and being eight points clear and unbeaten in the Spanish league with only eleven matches remaining, the future for Barcelona under Valverde is looking overwhelmingly positive.