Real Madrid were officially crowned champions on a night where Barcelona lost their unbeaten home streak. The Catalans have been poor and inconsistent for a major part of the season. The problem is rooted far deeper, but it is time for Barça to be self-critical and assess their situation with proper changes.
There couldn’t be a more painful night for the Barcelona faithful. Watching Real Madrid lift the title whilst losing at home to a mid-table Osasuna side on the same night was a hard pill to swallow. As hard as it was to watch, there has not been too much backlash at the result. Madrid might have had several refereeing decisions go their way, but they churned out the results.
Barcelona have been very mediocre, it is not even debatable. It tremendously hurts to say this, but Real Madrid deserved this title over the blaugranas simply because the latter have been poor.
The struggles of the club
Barcelona is in shambles. Physically, mentally, psychologically; the board, the manager, the players; finances, transfers, injuries. The club seem to be in deep trouble from every angle. The fanbase has been silenced in the worst way possible. Watching such mediocre football played week in and week out has rendered them emotionless. So much so that a single dribble from any player other than Lionel Messi becomes a talking point for weeks.
Dropping points doesn’t hurt as much anymore. It has become a routine to expect 75 minutes of dull football with maybe two or three instances of individual brilliance. As the club’s life slowly ebbs away, the life gets sucked out from the fans too. But who can be held responsible for this? The board? The players? The manager?
The board’s reign of terror
It is a known fact that the entire problem stems out from a single seed. The board. President Josep Maria Bartomeu has replaced the spring Blossoms of Barcelona and made it a graveyard. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Barcelona’s problems off the field are far more serious than those on the field.
The relationship between the board and the players has broken down beyond repair. Lionel Messi has also been quite vocal about the same. Relations have broken down to such an extent where the club captain now threatens to leave his home. And rightfully so. The directive have taken the players for granted. They have run coordinated social media attacks on high-profile stars of the club to hide their own mistakes.
The board needs to be accounted responsible for the club’s failures | Photo by Alejandro García via Imago
The I3 Ventures scam that was so comfortably denied by the president was beyond shameless. More than €900,000 were spent on this social media monitoring and attacks, to make it appear that players take all the decisions at the club. The firing of Pep Segura, newly-appointed vice president Emili Rousuad and six other board members was yet another smokescreen to cover the reality.
The lack of planning has been impudent. In the January window, the club found itself in dire need of a striker. Not only did they fail to sign one, but the board managed to sell two existing attacking options in La Masía graduates Carles Pérez and Abel Ruiz. With Luis Suárez and Ousmane Dembélé out with long-term injuries, the club found itself in need of an emergency signing.
Since the departure of Neymar Júnior in 2017, only three or four out of 13 new acquisitions have made an impact of any magnitude in the team. Poor scouting and questionable transfer decisions have left a permanent dent. The departure of Arthur Melo in such an outrageous manner, along with the loan of Jean-Clair Todibo and Carles Aleñá, fail to make any sense. Naturally, the biggest cause of concern has to be attributed to the board.
Players have to be more self-critical
Once a player dons the prestigious red and blue colours of Barcelona, he is expected to play and defend that pride with paramount passion. However, as Lionel Messi has said innumerable times, this is not a winning team.
“This game represents the entire year. We have been an erratic and weak team. We have to be critical of how we have played, starting with the players, and the rest of the club”
on the disappointing season
To say that the team is mentally fragile is an understatement. They have never recovered from the defeats in the last two seasons of the Champions League. The panic is evident to everyone who watches. The players often look flustered when it comes to holding on to leads. The last ten minutes of every game seem to be agonising. It does not look like a winning or confident team on any measure. It was a similar panic that cost the team the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup this campaign. Not to mention that the match against Osasuna followed the same blueprint.
“Roma, Liverpool…the fans are running out of patience because we are not giving them anything. If we want to fight for the Champions League, a lot has to change. Like this, we will lose to Napoli”
after the defeat to Osasuna
With unplanned contract extensions and enormous salaries to even squad players, the situation is not very great. The club can’t seem to figure out an exit formula for any footballer, because of the large wage bills and long contracts. Confusion at the administrative level has had its effects on individual performance too.
Every time the Catalans walk out on the field, they are far too predictable. It is a known fact that they can not break open a low block, and opponents exploit this. Whenever it appears that they might have found the trick, another disappointing performance follows. With the existing inconsistency, it is high time to buckle up and reassess the situation before it is too late.
The managerial aspect
Coach Quique Setién has come under heavy scrutiny after the sudden collapse in the title race. While there have been larger factors operating outside his circuit, he hasn’t largely helped himself either. It is no secret that he has been unable to exploit Messi‘s prowess in front of goal. The line-ups are often confusing, and substitution feels quite late at times. The team seems to lose steam very quickly.
“I agree with some things that Messi said. We need to be self-critical and improve”
after the defeat to Osasuna
The azulgranas boast of more possession on paper but struggle to break down defences. The goal conversion rate has seen a rather steep fall since his appointment too. A trophyless season is never received well, and he finds himself at the receiving end of heavy criticism. His decision to ostracise Arthur from games after his transfer is baffling, given how Barça’s future Miralem Pjanić continues to drop masterclasses for Juventus.
“Will I be the coach for the Champions League? I hope so, but I don’t know”
There have been positives, like the rise of Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig, but is that enough for him to keep his place? With RAC1 already reporting that he has overseen his last game as manager at the Camp Nou, it looks to be a question of when rather than if.
The state of Barcelona at present is a pitiable sight. Burning out Messi’s final years as a player because of administrative tensions is devastating. It is a fact that the team has been miserable, but the board has been even worse. Now is the time to buckle up and introspect.
It would appear that starting from scratch would be the best option. Elections are the only event that can prevent the collapse of this club. A rather difficult Champions League stares Barcelona in the eye. Unless there is a major turnaround by the players, it will be a long dark couple of months up ahead.
How Zidane’s Real Madrid beat Koeman’s Barcelona
The highly anticipated day of El Clasico, the clash of eternal rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid finally arrived. The Blaugrana were just two points ahead of Los Blancos with the same number of games played. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are at their most vulnerable right now; recent losses to Sevilla and Chelsea had already demoralized the team. Additionally, Luis Suarez – their top scorer -, is injured.
El Clasico has incredible importance on its own. Add to that the fact that it will be pivotal in the title race, and it becomes apparent how much it means to both sides. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at how Real Madrid managed to conquer Barcelona in a 2-1 victory.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 3-5-2 as expected. This formation is one that has contributed to Barcelona’s recent positive results significantly. Though this could be viewed as a 5-3-2 or even a 3-5-2-1 at times, the basic principles remained the same. Barcelona would look to build up from the back. The backline of Ronald Araujo with Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza on either side of him was the platform upon which the team would build-up.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets would be the deepest player, with Frenkie De Jong and Pedri Gonzalez as the two interiors. These two youngsters would operate in the half-spaces as their roles entail, but they would drop back and join the attack as well. Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest, the two wing-backs, would look to stretch the opposition and would be positioned high up the field.
In attack, Lionel Messi was joined by Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman would operate through the centre as Messi would usually drop back and have the freedom to move across the pitch.
Zinedine Zidane has often been labelled as someone who manages big egos well but doesn’t have tactical expertise. Purely a misconception, this match was an example of how well the retired midfielder sets up his team. What was most admirable was how Zidane finds the perfect role for his players’ profiles.
Real Madrid were deployed in a 4-1-4-1. Casemiro would play between the lines, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos just ahead oh him. This formation could also be viewed as a 4-5-1, which would be a 4-3-3 when attacking. In defence, Eder Militao and Nacho were the centre-halves with Lucas Vasquez and Ferland Mendy as the full-backs. To support the midfield as well as the attack, Vinicius Junior and Fede Valverde would act as wide midfielders.
Karim Benzema, the number nine, would drift into the channels or drop a bit deeper as required. He was the key to Madrid’s fluid attack. There would be a constant staggering between Benzema, Vinicius, and Valverde. When Benzema dropped deep to fight for the second ball, Vinicius and Fede would move forward and provide passing options. At times, Vasquez would overlap, which was Valverde’s cue to drop back. The players would also switch roles.
Madrid’s defensive organization
After getting a lead, Real Madrid were still proactive but to a lesser extent than earlier. They would even have five players defending at times, transitioning into a 5-4-1. Their timing and organization was impressive nonetheless. As we see in the image above, Ousmane Dembele is about to receive the pass. Immediately, Casemiro presses him, while other players start moving forward to close the distance to possible passing options. This meant Barcelona had little time on the ball deep in Madrid’s half.
The pressing shown by Los Blancos was very fine-tuned. The players were unsurprisingly not hesitant to play a physical game as well. As the earlier image shows us, Ousmane Dembele would receive the ball ahead of the defense and attempt to involve other players. Pedri and de Jong were the most obvious passing options. However, for them, the passing would more often than not be out wide. This was forced due to Madrid’s structure which prevented them from playing through the middle.
Arguably one of Barcelona’s strongest moves is when Messi plays Jordi Alba through between the full-back and centre-halves. Though it was effective at some points in the match, this was clearly something Zidane expected. When either full-back would have crossing options, the full-backs would look to block the cross.
Simultaneously, the centre-halves would track Barcelona’s attackers Messi and Dembele. These two being the only two forwards, Mingueza’s goal was one of the few times the team actually had more players looking to attack. Casemiro would be in the box looking to clear the ball or cover for any defensive holes.
What went wrong for Barcelona?
Ronald Koeman’s team selection was well-thought-out. Shifting de Jong to midfield was a smart choice. However, as the scoreline clearly shows, some issues persisted.
One of the main ones being the lack of attackers in the final third. This was a formation with two attackers on paper, but one of them was Messi. Expecting the argentine to make runs off the ball and act as a target man is highly unrealistic. He does best when he’s on the ball. This would leave Dembele alone upfront. The Frenchman isn’t a classic number 9 who takes shots on the swivel and can establish himself in the box. Against a defence that was sitting very deep, he was unable to run onto the ball between the full-backs and centre-halves the way he likes to.
The image above shows a common scenario observed in the first half. Receiving the ball in the final third, Dembele turns to face the defenders. As they don’t lunge in, rather trying to contain him. he is unable to beat them in a 1v1. There is plenty of space with no Barcelona players highlighted in the image. This lack of attackers was one of the reasons Koeman switched to the 4-3-3. Shown below, the 4-3-3- allowed Pedri and Dembele to be more involved.
Below, we have a visualization showing the PPDA stats for both teams. A lower PPDA means a higher pressing intensity. As we can see, Barcelona were clearly pressing much more than Real Madrid throughout the match. Despite this, they failed to create enough chances. To demonstrate this, we can observe the xG graph.
As the xG graph shows, there were some situations when the Catalans had a chance to change the score-line in their favour. Among other reasons, Dembele’s inability to play as a striker and inefficiency in finishing was clearly affecting the team. The visualization below the xG graph shows the shot map. It further reaffirms the observation that Barcelona need to improve in front of the goal and in terms of the quality of chances created.
With a higher number of shots, Barcelona still had a lower xG than their rivals. Another indication of low-quality chances is the size of the circles in the box for both teams. The smaller the circle, the less likely it is to end up in the back of the net. The stark contrast is one of the many indicators that there are major issues to be resolved in attack for Koeman’s side.
This loss will hurt Barcelona, even more so as it strengthens the notion that his team doesn’t show up in big matches. If Koeman’s side wants to be Champions, now is the time to give their all. One cannot ignore the fact that the Blaugrana have a lot of work to do to be deserving of the La Liga title. Whether or not they will be able to do this remains to be seen.