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Why Do Barca Persist With Valdes?

Written By Justin on Monday, August 27, 2012 | 6:53:00 PM

Wearing two gloves would help

Barcelona has been the best team in the world the last half-decade. Nobody would plausibly deny this. Led by the peerless midfield duo of Xavi and Iniesta and fronted by the comically brilliant Leo Messi, they've swept all available trophies and set new standards for passing football. So why, some people wonder, have they persisted with Victor Valdes, a good - sometimes very good - but not brilliant goalkeeper? This question was raised again this week when he gifted Real Madrid a goal. As my Madrid-supporting friend Mateo said, "It was the same old thing. We chased the ball and they finished and then Valdes gave us his customary goal." Twitter lit up with people calling him a clown or buffoon, and many wondered why Barca haven't replaced him with someone better.

Valdes is a good goalkeeper. He's gone long stretches playing exceptionally well, and has sometimes been the difference between Barca winning and losing. The reason he is questioned is that his team is so very brilliant, while he is, for the most part, merely pretty good. It doesn't help his cause that in this period of bitter rivalry with Madrid, the Real goalkeeper and captain is the universally respected Iker Casillas, a man who has captained Spain to three major international titles in a row - while Valdes warmed the bench each time. Throw in the occasional high-profile mistake, and it's not hard to see why some look at him and say, "Why this guy?"

Valdes is a product of Barca's youth system. He is a favorite son. But this in itself is no guarantee; Pepe Reina was also a product of La Maisa, but after 30 first-team appearances, he was shipped out on loan and eventually sold. 

Because Barca have so much possession, a keeper comfortable with the ball at his feet suits them. Valdes, his footwork error last week notwithstanding, is generally a very good footballer. He's quick to sweep up loose balls behind his back four and get it back into the passing rotation. He rarely kicks long, but is accurate when he does so. His distribution overall is among the best in the world, and because it suits Barca's style so well, it's likely a big reason why the club are confident with him in goal.

There was a time earlier in his career when the mistakes were hard to ignore (Liverpool fans have fond memories of a Champions League goal he gifted them at the Nou Camp), but starting around 2008, he began playing with new maturity and cut down dramatically on the errors as his team began winning every available trophy. But last season, a bit of inconsistency began creeping back in, and at crucial times, when his team needed him most. He could have done better for Didier Drogba's opening goal at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League semifinals, when he failed to prevent a fairly tame shot from slipping past him. It wasn't a howler, but then outrageous howlers are actually easier to forgive sometimes. They're one-offs. The Drogba goal was the kind of thing that has always been a part of Valdes's game: sloppy form leading to a preventable goal. In the return leg, he came far off his line when Ramires was being closed down by a defender, presenting him with an easy chip, when he would have had to produce a terrific shot to beat him had he stayed on his line. He did the same thing in the season's last Clasico, at home to Real Madrid, allowing Ronaldo to score the winning goal from a tight angle with a  simple prod because he had again left his line when holding it was the better option. That game all but sealed the La Liga title for Real.

These three goals highlight the persistent weakness of Valdes: it's not that he makes a lot of horrible clangers; it's that he allows goals that might not look so bad at first, but that a better keeper would likely prevent.  It doesn't punish Barca that often, because they're so good. Last year it just so happened that it might have cost them the two major trophies. The difference between Petr Cech and Valdes over two games last season was the difference in who went to the Champions League Final.

The twitter argument in favor of Valdes seems to be "But Barca don't need a great keeper." Why not? Why wouldn't the best team in the world want the best player they could get? Others point to Valdes's distribution, which is a better point. It remains that the best team in the world has a good, not great, goalkeeper. He's certainly not a liability, like Felix from the great Brazil 1970 World Cup winners. But neither is he in the class of some of teammates, nor of his opposite number in all those heated Clasicos down the years. 

Back row, second from left: some guy we found

Barca, I suspect, know what they're doing. Valdes grew up with many of his teammates, training with them at La Maisa. They know each other intimately, and can anticipate what each will do on the pitch in every situation. Chemistry and harmony in a dressing room is important, and in addition to his passing style suiting the team on the pitch, he seems to suit them off it as well. In Ronald Reng's excellent book about the life and death of Robert Enke, A Life Too Short, Valdes comes across as modest, dedicated, and a strong supporter of each of his teammates. That kind of character is not easy to find in the modern game. Even the world's very best keepers make mistakes. Valdes allows a poor goal every now and then; his teammates usually ensure it doesn't matter. The bottom line is that if Barca thought Valdes was a problem, they would replace him. They're a good fit, Barcelona and Victor Valdes, and nobody can complain about the results.


JOHN said...

Not that he should be so aware of it, since he plays at the best level in the world and I suppose his mind is at another level than that of us poor, humble, down to earth goalkeepers, but... did you notice he uses his right foot to place the ball towards his right side? Aren´t we supposed to use the left foot to do that, so as to be able to kick the ball away as fast as possible with the right foot should a pesky and quick forward be much closer than we want him to be? (plus, controlling a ball is usually easier with the inside of the foot)

Justin said...

That's a good point, John. Hadn't noticed it. Good spot! It might have gone smoother if he had gone from left foot to right.

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