Joan Gamper may get the plaudits for having raised Barcelona, but his most prestigious lieutenant, the one to spike Gamper’s Catalan fervour and lead the Cules into their first Golden Age, was an Englishman, Jack Greenwell.
I once attempted to entreat a friend of mine to a consideration of how a team like Barcelona—acolytes of the three-man midfield if ever there were any—would look in the instance of them using that most English of midfield forms, the midfield two. Before the thought experiment had even been fully posed, I was being viciously lampooned by said friend—who is, I must admit, still a friend—that what I was proposing was tantamount to suggesting that Harry Redknapp should succeed Luis Enrique, then at the end of a mouthwatering first term, at the Catalan helm.
“Yeah, mate, of course: Shawcross and McCauley to stick it up ’em at the back, big Big Bobby Zamora* and four-four-f*****g two.”
Who looks the dafter now?
Last year it was the old 3-4-3 made new; now the 4-4-2 comes true again. It’s easy enough to see staid versions of this hardy, earthy shape; in fact, one could see all the virtues of the formation and all its vices in one place, in one game, each set of attributes neatly apportioned to one team apiece. That game was the recent Clasíco, in which Barcelona decisively prevailed 0-3 over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. The result more or less insists that if there is still a title race—and both Atletico and Valencia dropped points as well that same matchday weekend—Real Madrid will not be party to it.
Zinedine Zidane fielded a strangely repressive iteration of the 4-4-2 at home, notionally in attempt to reprise the anti-Barca tactic that worked so beautifully in the Spanish Super-Cup; flood the midfield with water-carriers and have Mateo Kovacic pursue Lionel Messi to left-back, to right-wing, to Timbuktu if that’s what the marking assignment demanded. The formation held no room thereby for Real’s creators in chief—the creaking Gareth Bale, the protean and underused Marco Asensio, and Isco, the meringues’ best player—opting for a front two of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, the last two players who can currently be relied on to thrive in the absence of consistent service.
The result of Zidane matching Barcelona’s shape was that his team were torn to shreds and taught a lesson. Kovacic quickly grew tired, there were yawning lapses of indiscipline (surely a career afternoon to forget for the unusually hapless Dani Carvajal); the strikers were isolated and inspired little when they weren’t. Barcelona, on the other hand, were magnificent. But in a 4-4-2? How? Surely it is anathema to the Barcelona way; what about all the fluid and compressed central ball movement that is the club’s calling card? Won’t someone think of Iniesta?
Had it not been for Ousmane Dembele’s long-term injury early in the season, it is highly likely that the tactical switch we are about to consider would not have happened. The 4-4-2 might be a more stereotypically appropriate formation for a head-down, balanced personality like Valverde; born in Extremurda, he moved to the Basque Country as an infant, a region known for the naturally tentative draw of its culture. Valverde’s reserve might lead to the conservatism of the 4-4-2 tradition; but it remains highly unlikely that he would have arrived in Barcelona bent on changing the system that had so consistently leveraged the synergy of Lionel Messi and the Masia core. Immediately opting to a 4-4-2 in this sense would have been less a play-it-safe move from Valverde than a bravura show of daring.
What Valverde certainly is about is solidity. Fastidiously attentive to set-piece defence, obsessive about the denial of his opponents, Valverde is a bulwark against the see-no-evil offensive purism that thrust Barcelona to glory as often as it ushered them into corridors of underperformance, as it did in the days of Rivaldo and Kluivert, or during the post-Guardiola interregnum. Purism seems the dirtiest word of all to Valverde; his Barcelona can be seen pressing like the plague urchins of old against Real Betis, and then feeling out Real Madrid in the early offings the following week. He is a man prone to tactical over-preparation; what seems like fairly constant if differently posed selections from the tactical catalogue actually conceal a teeming richness of game reading.
But is solidity necessary when you have the most vengeful forwards in the world on your books? What Valverde has done with Messi is both optimal and minimal: he has liberated him, placing him notionally in a flat two high up the pitch, encouraging him to feed off of Suarez’s more limited station to do what he does best, dropping deep to overcrowd the midfield and then running like hell towards the final 3rd with the ball. Although Messi’s resumed prodigy in front of goal is certainly worth a remark or two, the nuts and bolts of Valverde’s deployment of him are not; Messi defines the system, and yet he does not, given that system is designed to allow him freedom from the constraints of definition. Messi roams, stealing away markers as he does, and can measure his own output rate, having few defensive responsibilities even in Valverde’s defensively responsible set-up. This has resulted in the profusion (c. 50% of total) of strikes that Messi has charted in the final third of games this season. He remains fresh off his own pragmatism, while the opponents wilt.
The real definitive piece in Valverde’s Catalan 4-4-2 is not Messi, but Paulinho. Managers and their key players can often be alike in profile; although Valverde was altogether more unassuming a figure of appointment, neither he nor Paulinho would have been summer acquisitions Barcelona’s legions of armchair ultras craved. And yet it is Paulinho, if we look back again to that Clasico, who shows us why Valverde’s 4-4-2 is a successful one. A player of physicality and stature, he stands at a precise centre of Catalan tactical estimation newly vacated by Iniesta and even Sergio Busquets: he hoovers up the loose balls Valverde’s system is designed to discharge; he holds responsibility for making sure the flat front 2 do not grow isolated. Paulinho is fundamental to both Valverde’s fundamental aims, and the endurance of Barcelona’s ‘way’ through the shift to 4-4-2, by providing the vertical link. The dynamism of it grows from the two-way vertical interchanges between Paulinho and Messi, examples of which ran rife through the Clasico; it was often Paulinho who was Valverde’s raumdeuter, and it was often him to whom the chances fell. Add to that a certain Lampard-esque ability to materialise as the spare man and he has helped himself to a glut of goals this season. Paulinho’s primacy justifies why under Valverde Barcelona do not score so freely as they have done; but it is his offering of a certain adhesive set of attributes that has made them both the best and the most unbeatable team in Spain this season.
Now, beyond the deep-lying forwards and onto Andres Iniesta; so long have we feared the twilight of his career now that it’s no longer apparent whether or not he is of extraordinary native longevity, or has merely been immaculately preserved and accommodated by his last several coaches as a Barcelona player. Whatever the truth, Valverde’s approach—the doubling down on Jordi Alba’s natural athleticism—gives Iniesta legs other than his own; Iniesta is never over-burdened with the stretch or the press, as Valverde’s tactical system persistently attempts to localise Barcelona’s press on the team in possession’s left side. This is not just so that the ball has a higher likelihood of being turned over near Messi; it liberates Iniesta from the pressure of the dirty work, out of the left as he is often situated these days.
Although he has steadied his rate more recently, Luis Suarez is afforded less room to be so bombastically effective playing as one of a strike partnership under Valverde. He was so prolific in his first seasons at Barcelona owing not merely to his chemistry with Messi and the prodigal Neymar, but because of the axial movement of the Enrique-era Barcelona; the mutual connecting off-the-ball movement of Messi, Iniesta and Jordi Alba (forming a diagonal line from defensive third left to wide right with Iniesta as the fulcrum) consistently opened a diagonal passing lane to Neymar through midfield. Suarez was able to profit not only off of the clean channels of delivery but off the huge gulfs of space thus opened to his predatory instincts in this 4-3-3 system, not to mention the wild-card element of Dani Alves’ evergreen deliveries from wide right. In Valverde’s 4-4-2, Messi tends to drop to then charge at the defence upon deep reception, delivery from wide right is no longer a consistently fruitful outlet, and as we have seen in the aforementioned Paulinho factor, Suarez is now more likely to be the isolated snow-plough facilitator as opposed to the beneficiary of the movement around him. His movement is still the most elite among world number 9s; Valverde tends to use his tigerish love of pressing more deliberately than past coaches, and the Uruguayan and his thankless shifts are key points of facilitation for his team. Nevertheless, the result is that while Suarez is still averaging approximately the same number of shots per game, his conversion rate pales in comparison to the days of MSN, to say nothing of his assist rate; he did not score in six attempts in the UCL, and has assisted only two goals all season.
Even when playing a role that used to be savoured for its orientation around width, for its ability to bypass the enervated confines of the midfield by virtue of pace and trickery, Barcelona still manage to make the 4-4-2 almost all about the middle. The depth at which those vertically roving forwards are comfortable operating serves as the orientating principle of Barcelona’s 4-4-2, an electric revival of an old warhorse. Richer in steel and guile than fantasia these days, Valverde’s reinvention of the formation has nonetheless made Barcelona contenders again, only months after it looked like Real Madrid would be leading a magnificent coronation through.
*The history of FC Barcelona does in fact find room for a Zamora; not Bobby, but Ricardo, a tall and lithe 6’1″ keeper, known for wearing a cloth cap and a white polo-neck jumper on the field, earning the nickname ‘Il Divino’. Managed by Jack Greenwell, and a mainstay of Barcelona’s first great team in the 1920s, he was known for his athleticism, quick reflexes, shot-stopping abilities, and bravery in goal. So brave was he, in fact, that he played irrespective of a broken sternum to help Spain become the first non-British team to ever beat England in a competitive international, prevailing 4-3 way back in 1929.