We’re only two official matches into the 2018/19 season of LaLiga Santander, and already there is a notable trend occurring over at FC Barcelona and the tactical strategy manager Ernesto Valverde is implementing.
Rewind the clock to two weeks ago, when during the 75th minute of FC Barcelona vs Alaves the fourth official put up his sign to show a substitution was going to take place. Number 11 was to come off in place of number 8. In other words, Ousmane Dembele’s stint was up and in return Arthur Melo was given 15 minutes of playing time.
Normally, there would be nothing unusual or telling about this situation. On this occasion there was. Namely, Dembele (a player whose struggles last season and during the summer repeatedly made the headlines) was having one of his most solid performances since arriving at the club.
You might ask yourself whether at that point Barça were comfortably winning and Valverde just wanted to save the players’ energy? Nope, that wasn’t the case. Although, the scoreline was in favor of los Blaugrana it was only by the bare minimum (1-0). A goal that was scored by a magical Lionel Messi free kick where he decided to surprise everyone by slotting the ball underneath the wall of Alaves players.
In other words, it clearly was an uncomfortable match for FCB with little to no luster if it weren’t for a marvelous Messi (as per usual) and a dynamic Dembele (less usual). On the other hand, dressing room heavyweights, the likes of Luis Suarez and Ivan Rakitic, were having subpar matches according to their standard. One would therefore think that the logical (and fair?) move would have been to take off those players performing at a lesser level.
In any case, the decision to take off the French sophomore as opposed to the Barça seniors was made. Reluctant to make more of it than the serious sector of Valverde critics, I decided to brush off any mentioning of dressing room politics taking place.
Fast forward to a week later. Barcelona was now facing a newly promoted (but pitch-wise ill-prepared) Valladolid side that was eager to be back amongst Spain’s elite in la Primera Division after four years in “hell”. The match once again had little to no massive positive takeaways (other than no one seriously injuring themselves given the mole hole-like infested field). One goal was scored which also turned out to be the winning goal for FC Barcelona. It was scored by Dembele. On the night (and considering the playing conditions), the Frenchman was again one of the few encouraging standouts for the Catalan side.
The youngster showed ambition and confidence as he was often sought out by teammates and looked to take on defenders with his explosive runs and skillfulness on both the left and right wings. Can the guy seriously play with both feet equally well? The prospect of where this kid’s ceiling is is an exciting outlook. Which is precisely why, when once again the game clock marked the 75th minute and the fourth official approached the touchline to hold up the sign for a substitution to take place, I clutched my hands together hoping that it wasn’t going to show number 11. It did.
For a second consecutive time so far this season, Valverde decided that the auspicious attacker had done enough. Despite the match presenting a clear and present danger for the azulgrana side, el Txingurri thought it be best to take off the one trouper who scored the sole goal and was a hazard to the opposition defense. The same could not be said of others (loud cough, Luis Suarez, cough, cough!).
This weekend Barça will play yet another newly promoted side in Huesca. It is my sincere hope that we’ll see Ousmane Dembele play the entire 90 minutes if the match shows he’s playing at higher level than his teammates.
I understand that Valverde has a tough task at hand when it comes to managing this incredibly deep and established group of players (not to say egos). The last thing he’ll want is to disrupt the harmony between these guys. I also recognize that this current squad is exceptionally competitive and that taking off those players who are locker-room OGs would mean putting the current hierarchy of the team is at risk. But shouldn’t players be judged based on merits rather than status? Isn’t Valverde risking the immediate future of the club by not giving the deserved continuity to younger and more fit players the likes of Dembele, Coutinho, Arthur, Puig, etc.?
In fairness to Valverde, I’ve mentioned many times before on the Churros y Tacticas podcast, that I hope to see the day when the players themselves will be up front with the coach and avoid him having to play this aspect of locker-room politics. A more mature player himself should have enough character to admit and see when it is in the best interest of the entire team to allow for the sustained development of the younger fellas. And why not, even urge the manager to sub off the older heads instead.