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Barcelona have sacrificed speed for solidity under Ernesto Valverde

LONDON -- The images were familiar, Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta celebrating in front of the 2,000 Barcelona fans at Stamford Bridge, but the performance was not. At least not to those that haven't followed Barca's evolution under Ernesto Valverde closely.

Valverde's side dominated the ball against Chelsea, having over 70 percent of possession, but they were actually second best for large parts of the 90 minutes. The Barca coach didn't quite go as far as to admit that, but he did say the 1-1 draw, secured by Messi's 75th minute strike after Andreas Christensen's mistake, was a "positive" result.

Positive, presumably, because it could have been much worse. Before opening the scoring, Willian had already hit the post twice. Eden Hazard fizzed a couple of warning shots just over the frame of the goal, too. Barca, meanwhile, only really had one good chance before their goal: a Paulinho header that was criminally off target.

For those expecting Barca to turn up in London and blow Chelsea away with fast-paced, exciting football, then, there was disappointment. But for those that have watched the Catalans regularly this season -- especially in their last four league games -- it wasn't surprising.

That's because Barcelona's priorities have shifted slightly under Valverde for several reasons.

Barca's 4-3-3 was exploited last season

Barca lined up at Stamford Bridge with a 4-4-2 formation, which is loosely speaking the shape they have used all season. Basically, Neymar has been replaced by a fourth midfielder, in this case Paulinho. Valverde has used the Brazilian's departure to make Barca more solid, with two compact banks of four.

It's not the glamour you might associate with Barca, but one defeat in 39 games shows it's working.

Former Barca and Chelsea player Albert Ferrer told ESPN FC the change has been the key to their success this season. The 4-3-3 of the Luis Enrique era was being too easily exploited -- case in point being the drubbings Barca received at the hands of Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain last season.

In a roundabout way, Ivan Rakitic agreed. Speaking before the Chelsea game, he said it would be "difficult" to resort back to a front three now.

Valverde is working with what he's got

It's impossible to talk about Barcelona's season without harking back to Neymar. So here we go again. Losing him to PSG was a blow but it was also an opportunity for Valverde, whose previous teams have often been more effective than spectacular.

Without Neymar, he's been able to build a more solid side without having to risk upsetting any big stars. Rather than building a team around certain players -- Messi the obvious exception -- he's building one in his image, trying to get the best out of the players he has at his disposal.

There are elements of Barca's image in there, too, even if it's not the full "Total Football" some Johan Cruyff-ites may prefer. There's much more control than there was under Luis Enrique, whose side had more weapons playing in space on the counter-attack. Against Chelsea, for example, Barca had over 70 percent of the possession, while Sergio Busquets completed 128 of 139 passes -- a Champions League record for the current campaign.

Barcelona are less-eye catching, but more effective.

Waiting on Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele

That could all change when Barcelona have their two club-record signings integrated. Coutinho and Dembele have not yet taken off at their new club. The former only arrived in January and is cup-tied in the Champions League, while the latter's season has been ruined by injuries.

Valverde has had so much success with a more cautious approach, that he's resisted the temptation to throw them straight in. How he feeds them into the side could shape what we are going to see from Barca, if not for the rest of this season, then certainly next year.


As Coutinho and Dembele settle, there remains a certain amount of Messi-dependence. Invariably, if the Argentine doesn't create or score himself, Barca don't either. Luis Suarez has his moments, too, but he's often chasing dead ends while waiting for Messi to wave his wand and conjure up a chance.

Iniesta can still add quality at times as well but there's a lack of consistency from the 33-year-old across 90 minutes now.

Experience has brought patience

Barca have reasons to look forward to the future -- Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Samuel Umtiti, Coutinho and Dembele -- but the present is still dominated by the past. The spine of the team is made up by players that have won consistently for the club during the last decade.

Many of them are now in their 30s (Gerard Pique, Iniesta, Messi and Suarez) and others will join them there in the next year (Alba, Busquets and Rakitic) and they don't play with the zest they once did. Perhaps the biggest demonstration of that is the difference between Messi's performance at Stamford Bridge as a teenager in 2006 and his display on Tuesday.

Not as much zest, then, but plenty of experience, which has taught them to be patient. Often this season there's been the sensation that Barca are happy to sit back and keep things tight, waiting for the perfect moment to exploit a tiring opponent or, as against Chelsea, seize on a mistake. And as Antonio Conte lamented, it can only take one.

Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.


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