After 19 La Liga games, Barcelona are third behind their two fiercest rivals in Atletico Madrid, who look like runaway leaders this season, and Real Madrid, who are second. A disappointing start to the 2020/2021 season followed a cataclysmic 2019/20 campaign. Being third after 19 games is an achievement Culés thought would not possible after ending the year in seventh. Either way, maybe a little too late to kickstart a title challenge.
However, the new season started well in the Champions League. After five wins in five, including an excellent away victory in Turin, and only needed to keep the deficit below two goals against Juventus at home to top the group officially. A brace from Cristiano Ronaldo scored two penalties, and Weston Mckennie’s superb effort stunned the Catalans was enough to keep the Blaugranas at bay. For the first time since 2006, Barcelona did not top their group.
The second half of the season will be crucial for the Catalan giants. They need to show more fight, and there are many reasons why.
First, Real Madrid seem to be in crisis too, and they seem even more lost than Ronald Koeman’s men. Second, Paris Saint-Germain and Neymar visit Camp Nou in a few weeks. Third, Barcelona cannot end their season in third and out of the Champions League round of 16. These three objectives show how much Barcelona need to improve to please their fans.
Well, before analysing the future, let’s delve into the past. The Culés have to look back at their side, and the main talking points of the term so far, to figure out which changes should be made. Three subjects have emerged the most from Barça’s performances in the first half of the season.
Player performances: The good, the bad, and the improvements
The first big talking point has to be player performances. When your captain is unhappy, it is bound to impact the morale and form of the entire squad.
Well, this season, Lionel Messi’s form has been discussed heavily. The Argentine was held hostage by Josep Maria Bartomeu this summer. He wanted to leave but stayed after fears that his case might go to court. In an interview with GOAL, La Pulga announced he was staying against his will. His performances took a big hit ever since.
Messi started the season with a penalty against Villarreal while Ansu Fati stole the spotlight with two goals. The Argentine also looked toothless, as if he had lost all his magic.
However, once Bartomeu resigned, the captain smiled again, and he showed improvements away against Juventus. After that, Messi kept improving, and his game against Athletic Club in La Liga was magnificent. Two goals, an insane pass to open the scoring and then going to the top of the La Liga scoring charts — Lionel Messi is certain.
Continuing with the improvements, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, Frenkie de Jong, and Sergio Busquets deserve a lot of praise.
The French duo – Griezmann and Dembele – started the season in the worst way possible. The latter, though, became a definite starter after recovering from an injury. His performances against Juventus, Eibar, and Athletic Club convinced the Culés and Ronald Koeman, who was singing his praises.
In Griezmann’s case, he ghosted several games before springing to life. His recent form and his goals in November showed how much the World Cup winner could influence Barça’s displays.
Moreover, de Jong is inarguably one of the best midfielders in La Liga currently. His late runs into the box, his ball progressions, and his goal contributions have made everyone forget about his below-par start in a double pivot. His partner in crime, Busquets, also had a tough time with the same formation. The Spaniard loves playing in a solitary pivot, and he has shown it.
Among the constant performers, Ansu Fati and Pedri were among the best youngsters in the world this season. Fati’s start combined with Pedri’s insane performances and surprisingly high confidence — in a new environment — with the ball have made them starters in Koeman’s eyes.
Other youngsters who impressed were Ronald Araujo and Oscar Mingueza. The Uruguayan is now the team’s stalwart in defence while Mingueza is definitely not going back to the B team anytime soon. Sergiño Dest also rocked the right side.
Clément Lenglet is the embodiment of decline, though. The French defender’s mistakes cost him. After being an undisputed starter, Lenglet is now a liability at the back.
Jordi Alba enjoyed a great first half of the season with nine goals and assists, but his defending also cost his side, especially in the Super Cup final. Before getting injured, Gerard Piqué was not at his best, either, and epitomised Barça’s woes in defence.
Finally, Philippe Coutinho has been abysmal. The Brazilian had three more-than-decent games in the league but then showed nearly nothing. This should be undoubtedly Barça’s record signing’s last season at Camp Nou. No more extra chances.
Koeman’s tactics: Returning to Barça’s roots
The main reason several players improved was Koeman’s late, but an inevitable change of formation. After five months of playing in a dysfunctional 4-2-3-1, which cost the side in big games, Koeman chose the historically proven 4-3-3.
The 4-2-3-1 seemed too offensive, tipping on one side of the scale, and looked like an implementation taken from FIFA – the game. Messi, Griezmann, de Jong, and Busquets all suffered in this lineup; it benefitted no one barring Ansu Fati, who will unmistakenly continue to perform in the 4-3-3 as well.
For many months, Koeman’s tactics consisted of playing the same players in his lineup and subbing on attackers when it did not go according to plan. It happened in El Clasico with Dembélé and Griezmann coming on and at home to Eibar when Coutinho became part of the double pivot.
After the Eibar game, Koeman went back to basics. He tried a 4-3-3. Busquets would be the single-pivot while de Jong and Pedri were interiors.
In the first game of the new year, de Jong scored from a Messi cross. The Dutchman’s new duties made him look like a completely different player. Pedri also had many chances in that game and continued his superb form.
The 4-3-3 also suited the attackers, who found it easy to connect. Messi, Dembélé and Griezmann complemented each other well. In the game against Granada, the forwards were relentless, and they combined for some special goals. Against Bilbao, their genius was as obvious as it could get, and while Dembélé did not contribute directly to the goals, he looked like his Dortmund-self.
It is fair to say that Marc-André Ter Stegen is back to his best. The German put up a stormer against La Real and saved an effort from close range against Elche. Moreover, the goals he conceded against Athletic were far from save-able, while one came as a result of Messi’s error.
All in all, the side looks revitalised in the 4-3-3. The base looks strong, and Koeman must build on it. When Barça will have everyone back, they will have options to rotate and rest definite starters when needed.
Bad luck: Recurring injuries, unforced errors
The last talking point, and perhaps the most important. While Koeman’s Barça is far from the best, they have experienced extreme bad luck.
In a hectic season with an impossible calendar, Barcelona have had a lot of absentees. From Sergi Roberto’s two-month setback to Fati being sidelined for five months. Not to mention, Piqué’s heart-wrenching knee injury, the Catalans could not have asked for worse luck this year.
Also, those are big injuries. We must not forget, ter Stegen missed the start of the season, Messi was injured for the Super Cup semi-final, Dembélé missed four weeks, and Araujo was out for a month, as well. These are some of the more “regular” injuries suffered by the Blaugrana squad.
The injuries have meant that Koeman cannot pick his best squad, or at least does not have the luxury of choosing his side. For example, Dest had to play every game from November onwards and got a minor discomfort as a result. Mingueza replaced him in the end, but the La Masia graduate is nowhere near as effective on the right as the American.
Moving on from injuries, mistakes have hampered the progress Koeman wanted to make. Let’s put it simply: Every time the side made one step forward, someone had to take two steps back.
One would expect the rookies’ mistakes. Errors such as Mingueza’s header against Cadiz or Araujo’s dispossession against Eibar are normal for youngsters. You could even imagine a more experienced player like Lenglet freezing for a moment just like in the Cadiz loss.
However, even the leaders in the side have made mistakes leading to goals this season. Seasoned professionals such as Messi and ter Stegen have gifted sides some humiliating goals. The goalkeeper’s mistake was a harder pill to swallow as it came against Atletico and gave them the win and potentially the title.
One could stop and think: Has the Bayern loss made everyone in the side that much worse? Do they even believe in themselves anymore?
Well, let’s see what the future holds. In the end, even after all those adventures, Barça find themselves in a calmer situation and might have an outside shot at silverware this season.