It was the evening of May 3rd, 2011 and after a first half of scoreless domination against their arch rivals in the semi finals of the biggest competition in the world, FC Barcelona finally pierced Real Madrid’s defence with a moment of magic. Andres Iniesta received the ball from Dani Alves and played what one local commentator called "a pass from the Gods" into Pedro who collected the ball superbly and slotted left-footed past Casillas. Nearly four years later, that pass has rightly been remembered almost as well Messi’s slaloming goal a week earlier in Madrid. What has largely been forgotten however, is the other moment of magic that directly preceded Iniesta’s through ball, namely, the pass that found Alves in the first place. In an attempt to claw back the 0-2 deficit from the first leg, Real ended up with five players pressing Barça’s defensive area. Spotting this, Barça’s then goalkeeper Victor Valdes, glided a 25 yard pass over the heads of two Madrid players and down into a tiny pocket of space on the sideline where Alves was waiting. The Brazilian had received that type of pinpoint pass many times before and now that his keeper had given them their first 5 v 5 opportunity of the night, he knew what to do. The rest is (what became) history.
Though Valdes’ contribution to this piece of history is just as important as Iniesta’s was, the fact that it wasn’t even reported in most post-match reports seems to crystallise a problem that has grown in import over the last two years. Namely, a lack of appreciation from within the club for the critical role the Barça keeper plays in their "tiki taka" system, not only in providing an additional passing option to his defenders under pressure but also in helping to set the tempo of the entire game. Given the number of times Valdes saw the ball every game and given his exquisite passing ability, he had arguably more influence on his team’s outfield play than any other keeper in the modern game. Yes, his long-distance accuracy could catch out those well organised high pressing teams (who have been the bane of Barça since 2010) by finding, in the blink of an eye, Alves on the right flank or Iniesta on the left or even, on rare occasions, whatever nominal number 9 was playing down the middle. But more importantly, by distributing the ball over short to mid-range distances with speed, one or two touches, and a high degree of accuracy, he was able to recycle Barça’s attack all the quicker. This is a tactic that had a wearing effect on opposition teams and, over the course of a game, it could destabilise them to an even greater extent than his long-range passes could. It’s not something you can see immediately but when one quick pass follows another, the opposition are pulled further and further out of formation until eventually an opening reveals itself and when that tempo is set from the very back, that opening is exposed all the quicker. Furthermore, when Valdes was helping set the tempo, it kept his own outfield players alert during moments when they might otherwise have taken a breather and, as such, it prevented their momentum from dropping even momentarily. In the absence of that tempo, well marshalled defences have the time to predict and adapt their structure so as to prevent any gaps from opening. Being an honours graduate of La Masia, this is something Valdes understood intuitively which is why he was always keen to unleash a quick throw or darting pass and get his team’s attack underway again. That’s also why Barça fans became truly concerned when he announced his intentions to leave and why the powers that be were so culpable in letting him feel so under-appreciated that he did leave.
However, since his exit and the emergence of a more traditional keeper in the form of Claudio Bravo as his replacement, it seems many Barça fans not to mention those on the coaching staff have continued to overlook just how important the goalkeeper is to Barça’s attacking style. Bravo started the season with a series of clean sheets and has continued to help shut out opposition teams right into the second half of the season. And given the disarray of our defence last season, this alone has endeared the Chilean to the hearts of Barça fans. But is there a cost? Though more composed and tidy on the ball than most keepers, he undeniably moves it with less speed and penetration than his predecessor did and as the ball finds its way out of the Barça half more slowly, the midfielders are having to do more to raise the tempo than when Valdes was sending it out at pace.
This season’s away form has perhaps underlined this as the team has often struggled to open up resilient home defences. Furthermore, in November, the Blaugrana failed to score at the Camp Nou for the first time in over three years. Now, it's a bit much to lay all the blame for this at the goalkeeper’s door. There are still several things that Luis Enrique needs to tend to including establishing a settled first XI and clarifying his instructions to his players but given the highly interconnected nature of Barça’s system, the goalkeeper might just be one of them. Yes, Bravo has defended his goal admirably (although it’s worth noting that Enrique has tightened up the entire defence), but anyone concerned about Barça’s continuing inability to break down stubborn defences should begin to ask the question: are the strong defensive statistics (for which he is only part responsible) blinding us from a relative lacking in Bravo’s passing?
What makes this issue even more relevant is that we already have Valdes’ heir apparent waiting in the wings, perhaps even impatiently so. After making his name as an astonishing passer at Borussia Mönchengladbach, Marc-Andre ter Stegen was the first name on the sporting director’s (who’s that again?) list when the transfer window (what’s that again?) opened last summer. However, when Enrique arrived, he went straight after Bravo. This struck many as strange because Bravo seemed a little high profile to accept the backup spot. Now, whether Lucho saw Bravo as *his* man and was going to make him the first choice keeper from the beginning or whether ter Stegen’s hand injury during preseason and the subsequent good run of Bravo was the deciding factor, the Chilean has nonetheless become the first choice for La Liga while the German has had to be content with playing the cup matches.
The question of who should be Barça’s goalkeeper, it seems, has been firmly closed. But it’s fair to say that after an admittedly shaky first game, what is becoming glaringly obvious is that not only has ter Stegen settled into the role of shot-stopper and keeper sweeper but his passing is perhaps even faster, more audacious, and more accurate than Valdes’ was! To put it modestly, it’s been everything we wanted from him. Sure, he’s outperforming Bravo in every relevant department from average passes per game (21.7 v 19), key passes (0.2 v 0), pass accuracy (83.8% v 82.2%), to average number of long balls per game (7.3 v 3.9) (data sourced at http://www.whoscored.com) but what’s most apparent is that which match statistics don’t tend to capture: the much greater pace at which the ball comes back out at the opposition. Meeting the ball first time or with no more than one touch, he repeatedly finds players in space both at close range and at distance (sometimes serious distance).
Of course, it’s still too early to properly judge ter Stegen’s impact on the team’s tempo even if one could reasonably expect his statistics to get even more impressive once he and his teammates develop a proper rapport. But if he continues his good form in the Champions League and Copa del Rey (the two tournaments that Barça are still fighting a level battle for) and his team can make a significant dent in those competitions, then the goalkeeper question should, at the very least, be reopened for discussion. At that point, we might finally get to see what ter Stegen can bring to the Barça dynamic.
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