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Analysis

Barça and the “Messy” Conundrum

Nassif Ali

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Header Image by David Ramos via Getty Images

Lionel Messi has informed Barça of his intention to leave the club and, on their part, the board have pointed out to the whopping release clause that they believe is still valid. A stalemate has been reached in a case that will not be solved overnight. As this saga drags on, what are the real options in front of Barcelona? Should they let him go for free or force him to stay?


Lionel Messi wants to leave FC Barcelona. As shocking as it is, the football world is coming to terms with this piece of news. The Barça faithful, on the other hand, are still trying to wrap their head around it. After all, it is Lionel Messi, who has, for a decade and a half, enthralled them with the miracles he performed on the pitch. For once, they are hoping he would replicate that magic off the ground as well. They demanded president Josep Maria Bartomeu‘s resignation. The president offered to step down, provided Messi promised to stay for another year.

The truth of the matter, however, is that Messi has made up his mind. His time at the Catalan city has come to an end. He knows it, the people close to him know it and even the club knows it. Why did the president offer to resign, then? For the sake of posterity? To be able to say in the future that “I tried, I offered to step down”

As it is the case now, Messi and his lawyers believe that he has a right to walk out of Barça for free, whereas the club – and curiously La Liga – pointed at the ginormous release clause of €700 million. It is clear, though, that Messi does not want to sour the relationship with the club where he plied his trade for nearly two decades. He requested a meeting with the board. Nonetheless, in a desperate attempt to avoid going down in history as “the president who sold Messi”, Bartomeu refused to meet him. The sooner the president realises that the said ship has sailed, the better for him and the club.

The Messi case is quite messy (forgive the pun) and Barça needs to sort it at the earliest so that they can refocus on rebuilding the squad. A prolonged and publicised legal battle with Messi would be an unnecessary and criminal distraction for the new manager Ronald Koeman and the new squad that he is trying to put together. One that should be avoided at any cost. But how do they deal with the present situation, and what are their options?

The good

One thing is certain: there is no way that Barça can come out of this conundrum without getting hurt. To lose the best player in the world, while the team is still coming to terms with one of the biggest losses in history, is no walk in the park. That said, they can still minimise the losses and create something positive from this fallout. And for this, they need to sit across a table with Messi and his prospective future employer, to negotiate a transfer fee. The fact that Manchester City seems to be the destination that Messi has in mind is, in fact, good news for Barcelona.

Bartomeu Messi

It doesn’t seem like Bartomeu will win many fans’ hearts, but he could at least improve his reputation with the right decisions ahead of the post-Messi era | Photo by Lluís Gené / AFP via Getty Images

Barça needs reinforcement in their backline and has been following young centre-back Eric García and left-back Angeliño for some time. Both are currently wearing the Sky Blue kits of Manchester City. If Barcelona could negotiate a fee in the area of 100 to 150 million plus these two youngsters, they could come out of the aforementioned messy situation with something positive. They would have addressed two of their problem areas as well as bagged enough money to acquire the central striker that they have been pursuing for some time to replace an outgoing Luis Suárez. Messi might be off their books, but in exchange, they would now have three young stars capable of taking the club into a bright future. Needless to say, it will all depend on how the two clubs negotiate for the exchange and who makes the most of the given opportunity.

The bad

Would it be terribly bad to let Messi go for free? Maybe not. It is a fact that many Barça supporters would not be happy with such a suggestion. Yet it is a thought worth reconsidering, simply for economic reasons if not anything else. The fact is that even if they let him go for free, Barça might benefit from it. 

For one, this would also give them an opportunity to rebuild the team from the ground up. Ronald Koeman can then work with a clean slate to put together the next generation of this legendary club. What is the point of rebuilding the team around Messi, if he is going to leave next summer anyway? Secondly, and more importantly, they can avoid paying €100 million to a player who does not want to play for them anymore. This could have a huge impact on how the wage structure is mounted at Barcelona right now. To say that it is mismanaged will be an understatement.

While on one end of the spectrum there are high earners – whose contribution on the field has been average at best – like Luis Suárez, Antoine Griezman, Ivan Rakitić and Samuel Umtiti on the other end there are players like Marc-André ter Stegen and Clément Lenglet who, despite being regular and consistent with stellar performances, are being criminally underpaid. The disparity becomes much clearer when you consider that Messi earns almost the double of his nearest contender – almost one third of the whole wage bill! 

Even if it is true that Messi does enough to earn every penny of it, that does not help the club in managing its finances or its personnel, better. Currently, Barça is one of the top three teams in the world in terms of the amount spent on player wages. Thus, along with the planned sale of a few high earning seniors like Suárez, Rakitić, Umtiti and Arturo Vidal, when you take Messi’s salaries off the bill the club’s wage expenditure becomes much less and more balanced. They will then be in a more comfortable position to pay remunerative salaries to other key players as well as make some necessary purchases. 

The ugly

One thing that the board at Barcelona should remember is that there is always the possibility of the situation getting worse. And Barça is on the brink of one such situation right now. Any organization in the world would find it difficult to work smoothly with a disgruntled employee in their ranks. If the said employee happens to draw a salary of nearly €100 million, it gets even worse.

Messi Barça Case

Nothing may change Messi’s mind of leaving Barcelona | Photo by Alex Caparrós via Getty Images

Barça is on the verge of a revamp, and while it may be the case that they want Messi to be the centre of this new squad that they are devising, they need to understand that it is a lost cause. Even in case they managed to force Messi to stay, how would the Barça manager build his whole squad around someone who does not want to be there in the first place? Not to mention the disregard that they would be showing towards a player who has given so much to this team – a player who, arguably, is the greatest of all time.

Barcelona fans won’t have to think too far back to get an example of how things can get ugly. In 2017, Neymar Júnior decided to leave Barcelona. Paris Saint-Germain were willing to pay his release clause of €222 million. And yet, due to differences among the parties, the saga dragged on for months, causing an unnecessary distraction to the team. The court cases that followed stretched all the way till June 2020.

Conclusions

As this case seems to have a definite end, Bartomeu’s legacy at the helm of Barça might very well be “the president who sold Lionel Messi”. Nonetheless, it may still be possible for him to rectify it as “the president who successfully manoeuvred the club through Messi’s departure”. It is bad enough that Messi wants to leave, so the club should make sure that it doesn’t get ugly. It is up to the management to turn things around and give its long due attention on revitalising the team and bringing forth the rise of a new generation.

No player is bigger than the club. Even so, Messi has given the club enough over the years to deserve a respectful departure. Meanwhile, the club must rally behind its new coach and help him and the squad leave all this behind as they start preparing for an exciting new season. FC Barcelona is, after all, més que un club, more than a club.

In my thirty years filled with accidental decisions - that got me as far as a PhD in history - one deliberate constant has been football. I have been an avid fan of the beautiful game since the 1998 world cup. Back then, in India, following football meant reading about it rather than watching it. I owe much of my love of the game and passion for writing about it, to those fantastic sports journalists and writers who could recreate the excitement of the whole game in a few succinct words.

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Analysis

Detailed Analysis: Atletico Madrid 1-0 Barcelona

Soumyajit Bose

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Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

In collaboration with Anurag Agate.


Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. In a game marred by defensive blunders and devastating injuries, Barcelona lost the game 1-0 to fellow title-challengers.


A 1-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in La Liga left Barcelona reeling midtable. This was also the first time Diego Simeone’s side beat Barcelona in the La Liga. Coupled with crucial injuries to Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto, Barcelona now face a dire path ahead of their UCL game against Dynamo Kyiv.

Barcelona structure and formation

Ronald Koeman went in with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. Marc Andre Ter Stegen started in goal again. Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet formed the centre back pairing, flanked by Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. In the absence of Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanic stepped up to form the double pivot with the ever-present Frenkie de Jong.

Pedri and Ousmane Dembele played on the flanks, with Lionel Messi in the hole and Antoine Griezmann upfront. However, as before, Messi and Griezmann had lots of interchanging positions. Pedri played more in the half-space in possession while Dembele stayed out wide. This often made the team structure a lop-sided 4-4-2. In defensive transitions, it was always a 4-4-2 with Griezmann dropping deeper to defend. Messi restricted his pressing to zones high up the pitch.

Frenkie de Jong had the freedom to push up high in the first half. However, the absence of Ansu Fati meant that the usual overload on the left side did not work in this game. Pedri had a poor game in general. Him moving far too infield to let Alba run down the left did not quite work – the passing was far too restricted by Atleti’s excellent defending. A second-half injury to Pique meant that de Jong had to play 35 minutes roughly as a centre back, which he did very well.

Atletico structure and formation

Atletico were missing some key personnel as well, most notably perhaps, Luis Suarez up top. They also missed a regular left-back Renan Lodi, and Hector Herrera and Lucas Torreira in midfield. They lined up in a highly asymmetric 4-4-2/5-3-2 structure and style.

Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez formed the centre back partnership. Mario Hermoso played in a hybrid centre-back/extremely defensive full-back role. Kieran Trippier was the more offensive fullback, practically functioning as a wing-back. Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente joined the reliable duo of Koke and Saul Niguez in central midfield as wide midfielders. Carrasco played almost in a hybrid wide midfield/wingback role. Joao Felix and Angel Correa formed the front two.

The hybrid system was particularly evident in the different phases of the game. In attack, Hermoso would push out wide like a full back but stay in more defensive, withdrawn zones. Carrasco had the freedom to stay wide looking for overlapping runs to meet Felix’s clever passes. On the other side, Llorente would shift infield, allowing Trippier to bomb forward.

Felix himself overlapped down the left side several times, trying to create numeric overloads against Roberto and Pique, dragging Pjanic wide in the process. Carrasco’s and Felix’s overlaps on the left, coupled with Saul Niguez moving ball-near side and Correa dropping in to give options – this combination created quite a few problems in the first half. Here is an example – it led to Saul’s shot early on which was saved by ter Stegen.

Game Stats

The game was more or less evenly balanced – neither team were outright dominant than the other in any aspect. Here is the game data at a glance:

Barcelona enjoyed marginally more possession, marginally more shots and shots on target, and a better press than Atletico. Of course, the hosts had the all-deciding goal in their favour. Neither team generated high-quality shots overall, as the shot map and xG flowchart shows :

Barcelona’s possession superiority was pretty stale. Barcelona failed to dominate critical territorial zones, measured by field tilt – which is the percentage share of final third passes of each team. Even though Barcelona had higher field tilt, it was only marginal. What strikes out is that just the goal came when Barcelona were enjoying their best bit of territorial dominance.

Buildup to shots and goals

Next we take a look at some of the shots and the goal. Early on, Barcelona had the chance to score. Dembele burned his marker with pace and sent a cross into the box. It was met by a clever flick by Greizmann. The shot sailed high unfortunately.

Atleti had their chances on the other side as well. Soon after Saul saw his shot saved, the other flank created yet another moment of danger. A brilliant interchange of passing involving Correa and Trippier met Llorente’s clever run into the box. The shot crashed against the bar.

Towards the end of the first half, Barcelona could have scored again. There was a brilliant bit of buildup, a clever run by Griezmann to drag a defender, and then Messi ghosted blindside of the center mids to meet Alba’s nutmeg pass. The angle was too tight and Messi failed to score.

Soon after, Barcelona conceded the goal. Pique stepped up to intercept a long ball. Ideally, that should have been fine, except Pique miscontrolled the pass. That left almost everyone out of position. A simple ball over the top released Carrasco into oceans of space. But the maddening part perhaps was that ter Stegen left his box wildly to tackle the Belgian. He missed; Carrasco did not – he scored into an empty net from distance.

In the second half, Barcelona had chances to equalize. However, Lenglet headed straight at Jan Oblak twice. Greizmann headed straight at Oblak once. Barcelona failed to engineer any better chances than those. The key passes map shows the crosses into the box:

Passing Characteristics

Atletico’s strength lies in engaging from wide areas. In this game, their biggest threats came again from the wide zones. Hermoso, Koke, Saul and Felix regularly released Carrasco and Trippier down the flanks. Trippier would often look for cutbacks or layoff into Llorente upfield.

Barcelona on the other hand tried to create from all possible zones. Frenkie de Jong managed to pull off a wonderful long pass into the box that Greizmann miscontrolled. Dembele single-handedly created chances from the right. The combinations of Alba and Messi created – in subdued amounts – danger from the other side.

For Barcelona, Messi, de Jong, Dembele and Alba were the bulk progressive passers. For Atleti, Koke, Trippier, Hermoso and Savic progressed the ball the most.

Both teams also tried to use width a lot. Surprisingly, Barcelona had more switches of play than Atleti, who have built their game to attack wider areas. For Barcelona, perhaps the reason for frequent switching was that they could not progress a lot directly.

Defence

The game data table posted above shows us that neither team pressed a lot. PPDA, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, was around 20 for both teams (low values of PPDA indicate high pressing). Here are the maps showing the defensive activities of both team:

Atleti forbade any progress down the centre. Upfield, they tried to press Pedri and Alba from creating too much danger. Deep in their half, they tried to force Dembele as wide as possible and tried to isolate him. Barcelona pressed all over the pitch in the middle-third. In deeper zones, they had to deal with the wide threats of Carrasco and Felix, and Llorente’s infield runs. The following plot also shows how Atleti forced passes wide and forced mistakes :

Two recurring issues troubled Barcelona yet again. The lack of chemistry and the lack of experience of the youth meant that certain runs went untracked. Atleti’s rapid front line dragged Barcelona into wrong zones, allowing trailing players to ghost into blindside runs. Saul and Llorente’s efforts at goal are perfect examples of this. In the first case, Pjanic was pulled in, leaving Saul free. In the second case, Pedri’s inexperience led to him losing his mark against Llorente completely.

Speed is always an issue that Barcelona has had trouble against. Llorente’s quick underlaps created quite a bit of trouble for Lenglet. Here is yet another example of a run – the pass from Llorente was thankfully cleared.

Conclusion

The goal was a combination of poor positioning and lack of speed, combined with some poor touch and terrible decision-making. Pique was out of position when he made the failed interception. No one in the team was speedy enough to catch up to Carrasco down the left. Ter Stegen should have communicated better with Lenglet and stayed in the box because Lenglet was haring down to secure the centre.

Issues have now been compounded with injuries to Pique and Roberto. If they face lengthy spells away from the pitch, Barcelona are stretched thin in the defence department. De Jong looks set to continue as a centre back for the next game at the very least and Sergino Dest will have to start. Barcelona faces extremely testing times ahead.

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