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.
The psychology at Barcelona: A leaf out of Jurgen Klopp’s book
Guest Contributor: Darren Looney
“When I came here, the size of the club was a burden. Now it’s our safety net, it’s our trampoline, it’s our home, it’s our basis, it’s everything to us. Now we are Liverpool before the club was Liverpool and we were just the guys who were trying to be good enough”.
In Melissa Reddy’s book ‘Believe Us’, Jurgen Klopp, the man who led Liverpool to become champions of England, Europe and the world, details how a change in psychology from having the clubs past success being used as a noose around their necks to becoming fully confident individuals, helped the club end their 30-year wait for a league title.
FC Barcelona has a noose of its own hanging over the Camp Nou at present. It has been placed there by former president Josep Maria Bartomeu, having left the club in a state that is unable to match the success seen over the last two decades.
The incoming president and manager will be the ones left to cut it free, and with limited economic resources to do this, a change in the mindsets of the lads could play a part in helping the club get the most out of what they already have.
Barcelona’s current state
The Josep Maria Bartomeu’s presidency oversaw a circus rather than a football club. In this timeframe, Barcelona lost the respect of its fellow European giants through humiliating performances in the Champions League, selling Neymar Jr. to Paris Saint Germain, poor recruitment, and a squad constantly breaking under pressure.
Players such as Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Lionel Messi, and Ousmane Dembele, of those that started in the latest Champions League match, have all been through the most of these embarrassing moments, which has no doubt left some trauma.
Others in the squad have laid witness to Bartomeu disregarding the club’s motto ‘MÉS QUE UN CLUB’ with his handling of club legends Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi’s transfer situations in the summer. That could not have inspired the non-senior members of the squad with any confidence.
Adding to that, players like Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho, Junior Firpo, and Antoine Griezmann have had their names constantly attached to rumoured player plus cash deals, such as the Neymar offers, which can lead to them questioning if they are good enough. This is the sort of psychology you do not want around a club trying to compete.
When asked about whether a sports psychologist would benefit FC Barcelona back in December, Barça manager Ronald Koeman stated, “I don’t believe in psychologists and mental [issues]. If you play for Barca, pressure exists, you know that, and you have to overcome it”.
This answer shows the Dutchman’s ignorance of the importance of a player’s psychological state. Additionally, it also shows arrogance about the club and the stress that comes binding with it. Ignorance that is evident in the pictures of Lenglet, as he left the Camp Nou after Sunday’s match in tears, most likely due to a lack of support. The kind of lack of support that eventually leads to careers dissolving.
In the same press conference, Koeman stated that “this team has enough personality and experience” to get through bad moments. This “experience” is also susceptible to being psychologically overwhelmed, the dressing room at halftime at Anfield is evidence of this.
Whether it is Koeman or the next president’s manager, one will have to get a hold of this problem. Luckily for them, the blueprint of how much power the manager can have over this can be seen in the place Jordi Alba shed his tears.
The Jurgen Klopp effect
When Jurgen Klopp arrived in Liverpool, one of the first things he addressed was a change in psychology from the supporters. He wanted the fans to believe in the process, and in his first press conference, he enforced this by saying, “we need to feel the confidence and trust of the people”.
In ‘Believe Us’, Klopp speaks about the psychological state he found the players in when he first arrived. He claims that “The players were obviously listening to all the voices saying they are not good enough for the club or that I can’t wait to get rid of them.” A situation some Barca players find themselves in now, as mentioned earlier.
One of the German’s first instructions was for the players to pay no attention to comments outside of him and his coaching staff, a message that took longer than expected to resonate, as the team collapsed in the title race halfway through the next season.
Klopp explains that the collapse was down to the players not complying with this request. The German explained how the players were focused on people saying, “they don’t have a plan B for deep-defending sides, they can only play one way”. A criticism that Cúlers this season know too well.
Klopp emphasises the importance a strong mentality within games had on the Red’s fortunes and claims new players alone would not have been enough. This is a note worth taking for those looking at Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe to change Barcelona’s fortunes.
It took Klopp years to convince some players that they were good enough to play for a club as big as Liverpool. New players added to the quality of the squad but that psychological attitude to keep going for the full 90 minutes, no matter the score, is what led the club to their recent success. This was visible countless times over last season as well, as Pool continued to take hits at teams till the last minute till they eventually broke. Barcelona, too, have been on the receiving end of their incredible mentality.
Koeman might be right in that the players do not need a sports psychologist. However, Lenglet’s incident exhibits that the psychological state of his players is something that he must take control of and not ignore.
Next season has the potential to be an important one for Barcelona’s near future. With a new president at the helm and a potential new manager. The Catalan side needs to banish the psychological doubts leftover by Bartomeu’s reign and move forward as one unit.
The fans and players need to get behind the project put in place, as Jurgen Klopp puts it “when you agree on a common idea and work towards it together, you can create something special”.