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Barcelona’s changing fortunes in La Liga under Koeman




Photo via Imago

There are innumerable storylines to describe what has been, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most difficult seasons for Barcelona in at least a decade. Fresh from a damaging 2-8 thumping at the hands of current treble holders Bayern Munich, the Catalans have had to fight tooth and nail to get to where they are now. Hope has finally found its place back at the Camp Nou, and with it, expectations have begun to brew.

In this article, Barça Universal takes a deep dive into Barcelona’s La Liga season, exploring three distinct phases of the current campaign, all leading up to the final ten games of this incredible domestic season.

A volatile start to the campaign

Matchday 1-10

To describe the start to the campaign as anything less than tumultuous would be an understatement, as anything and everything fathomable that could go wrong did go wrong.

First team captain and club legend Lionel Messi no longer desired to don the iconic Garnet and Blue jersey he had worn since his teenage years, owing to the club’s deplorable management and sheer lack of competitiveness in recent seasons. Indeed, after two and a half years of Ernesto Valverde’s horrendous management of the squad, coupled with former President Jose Maria Bartomeu’s abominable reign at the helm of the club, the Argentine had lost all hope in the club, and understandably so. Knowing the only route out of the club would involve a strenuous judicial process with the club he held closest to his heart, he much preferred to wait out his career, down to the last second.

Messi looked like he didn’t belong. (Photo via Imago)

His mental state reflected in his performances in both the league and the Champions League. In the Primera División, the Argentine failed to score a single open play goal until matchday seven, and this too coming against Real Betis. In Europe, it was much the same. In the four group stage games played, he scored thrice, but all from the penalty spot. Throughout these games, he seemed to have lost his flare. His dribbling often lacked meaning, his decision making was at an all-time low, and his freekicks, one of his many defining traits, seemed to have fallen completely out of his grasp, with a majority landing in the tenth row or meeting sensational stops from opposition keepers.

To some extent, his form could be attributed to his hopelessness when faced with the situation at hand, but there were bigger problems in play: tactics or a complete lack thereof. Ronald Koeman returned to the Nou Camp a legend and was more than ready to risk losing it all for his beloved Barca. With him came Henrik Larsson, another legendary figure in Barcelona’s history. The ex-Everton manager came with a set plan and formation: the 4-2-3-1. Given its success in Holland as well as with Southampton in his time there, there was little reason not to replicate the same at Barcelona.

Things started off rather well, with consecutive victories — and clean sheets — against Villarreal and Celta de Vigo, but everything derailed from there on out. The Blaugrana were completely and utterly incapable of forging a consistent run of form, or they did, and it was all poor. Subsequent to the victory at Balaídos was a four-game winless run involving a loss to the struggling Getafe and a thrashing at home at the hands of defending champions Real Madrid.

On their return from the international break, Koeman’s forces were dealt yet another blow, this in the form of a defeat at the Wanda Metropolitano to leaders Atletico de Madrid. By matchday 10, the Catalan giants had already tasted defeat four times, drawn twice with just four victories – and this too against mid-tier opposition.

It was in the bigger games when the Catalans’ tactics and mentality were put to the test that they fell flattest. Not only did they lose, but they did so deservingly. The sheer lack of synchronisation, cohesion or planning on Ronald Koeman’s side was utterly loathsome and painfully repetitive.

Fati pulled the club through several games early on. (Photo via Imago)

To add insult to injury, unlike with Ernesto Valverde, where a reprehensible collective performance could be salvaged by individual brilliance, it was personal failures that put the nail in the coffin for Koeman’s men. Easily avoidable penalties, poor positioning, a lack of communication, unexpected injuries and “schoolboy mistakes” were largely to blame for Barcelona’s almighty fall from grace.

With just about a third of the season wrapped up, Barça had next to nothing to look forward to. Spirits broken points dropped, and pressure mounting, this was anything but the start Culés expected. Reality quickly settled in, and following such a harrowing start, objectives switched from challenging for the league to merely making the top four.

The only thing worth smiling about was that Bartomeu had stepped down from his presidency, but that brief moment of euphoria was inevitably snuffed out by the team’s disgraceful form.

A work in progress

Matchday 11-20

Ronald Koeman’s first sixteen games with Barça were an absolute rollercoaster. The team had somehow won more points in their six Champions League group stage games than they had in ten in the domestic league. There were several motifs prevalent every time Barcelona dropped points in either competition — more so La Liga: poor substitutions, awkward team selections, questionable tactics and the infamous 4-2-3-1. Koeman gradually got a better understanding of his forces, and with this, more command over what to do and when.

The first substantive improvement was the return of the single pivot and a formation closely resembling Barcelona’s timeless 4-3-3. Koeman ate the humble pie, subtly admitting that his one size fits all in terms of a setup approach was not the way to go. The latter is a setup most of the squad was familiar with, and subsequent to its return — either through correlation or causation — was the start of a positive run of form.

Koeman had to come up with quick solutions. (Photo via Imago)

On basic statistics, they won eight in the league, drawing twice against Valencia and Eibar respectively through a familiar foe in an individual error. Expected to lose the three relatively big games against Basque opposition in the form of Real Sociedad and Athletic Club Bilbao — twice —, they passed both tests in the league against the odds and with merit too.

More than merely winning against their opponents, the Garnet and Blue were able to supplant the dreadful football they played in their opening ten league matches with a more cohesive — though not always exciting — style of play. The pressing, passing and possession gained more and more value as time went by, and with a sensible structure came less ludicrous defensive mistakes.

There was a sense of desire and teamwork that had not been seen at the club for quite some time. More and more automatisms formed, resulting in better results and more tolerable football. Be it at the back with the defensive fortitude of Ronald Araújo, centrally where the midfield returned to being a priority at the club, on the right with the re-emergence of Ousmane Dembélé, or out left with the growing bond between Jordi Alba, Pedri González and Lionel Messi, the team played in a manner that was recognizable for the first time in a while.

Pedri has been sensational all season, earning him a Spain call-up. (Photo via Imago)

This being a work in progress, mistakes were bound to happen at some point. Alba’s exuberance and offensive nature made his defensive absences and lapses in concentration cancerous on the counter. Whilst from afar, one could say that the team’s mentality was on a northward trajectory, it took a steep dent following the defeat to Athletic Club in the Supercup final, where Barça’s inability to stay put in a do or die situation — even with seconds remaining — cost them their ‘easiest’ title opportunity.

What the Garnet and Blue could take away from this phase in their season is that they has indeed progressed. With the sheer number of chances created, as well as those of the opposition mitigated, the Catalans knew that they were on the right track to — if not challenge for the league title — consolidate a place among the division’s top 3 come matchday 38

Innovation and rebirth

Matchday 21-28

Barcelona’s season was ained to fall apart right around this point. The Blaugrana had a 10 game window which included both semifinal legs against Paris, three matches against Sevilla and if matters weren’t difficult enough as they were, they also had an away trip to the nightmarish Anoeta. This had the writings of yet another run of abhorrent form that the Catalans would endure, perhaps even culminating in Ronald Koeman’s sacking.

Against the seemingly insurmountable odds, Barça made it through most of it, with the key to this coming following the demolition at the Nou Camp against Paris. The first leg of the Champions League last 16 was as big a mess as one could envision, but it was in this grand failure that Barça found their new essence.

In La Liga, the tie in the Ramón Sanchez Pizjuan was expected, by Culés and Nerviones alike, to be a walkover game for the hosts. Just three weeks prior to this game, the Europa League Champions had comfortably beaten their Catalan counterparts, and back in the arena of their most recent domestic defeat, they were expected to fall apart yet again.

Much to the surprise of both camps of supporters, the Blaugranas won, the bigger shock being that it was not only a victory but a tactical masterclass too. It was a vintage performance from the away side, overpowering their hosts in every conceivable way, quantifiable or not. With Koeman’s latest tactical revelation coming in a 3-5-2, every single player on the pitch put up a performance worthy of a Champions League final.

The pressing was as coordinated as it was asphyxiating; the passing as quick as it was pristine; the positioning as scrupulous as it was meticulous. The attention to the most minute of details was taken into consideration by the Dutch manager, delivering a game dubbed one of the best in years. In the reverse fixture just three days later, with a 0-2 deficit, it mattered not that Koeman’s tactics were widely known to the general public, as his forces put their best foot forward, coming from behind on aggregate to beat Sevilla 3-0 in the Camp Nou.

El Presidente coming up clutch. (Photo via Imago)

The turnaround against Paris, while an onerous task, was nonetheless an envisageable one regardless. The former Spanish champions failed to advance, but they left the French capital, and the competition as a whole, with something they hadn’t for the better part of 5 years: pride. Both the club and its most valiant of supporters could pride themselves in knowing that the eleven on the field gave their all. The football, even bereft of victory, was finally pleasurable.

Before the international break, Barça had one more test — the away trip to San Sebastián. Everything in history had the writings of a defeat on the horizon, but knowing they had their tactical superiority behind them, the Catalans and their fans went into the tie, for once in a long time, fearless.

In perhaps their most dominant display of football in three and a half years, Barcelona ripped La Real to shreds. La Erreala had conceded just ten goals before Barça’s visit — the league’s then best home defensive record but ended the night with a 60% increase in goals shipped in their backyard. A performance that may have secured another season for Koeman.

Symbolic to Barcelona’s equanimity throughout the game was a glorious tiki-taka — for lack of better terminology — goal. With incisive passes, and a bright smile strewn across Lionel Messi’s face come the end of the move, the victory encapsulated all of Barcelona’s progress this season. Games are finally watchable, enjoyable, and Barça, unlike under Ernesto Valverde, plays football that leaves you longing for more.

Barcelona have found a way. (Photo via Imago)

What next for Barça?

It is an unpopular opinion, but the Champions League was an unnecessary distraction. Barcelona had no possible way of winning it, and advancing a further round would have been nothing more than two extra fixtures to interrupt their La Liga campaign.

The way forward much depends on what Barça wants. On the one hand, finishing in the top 3 is an enormous achievement on its own. It has, of course, been a tough season, with injuries, form, among other unforeseeable events coming between Barcelona and their title challenge. Finishing above Real Madrid is a must, though going above Atleti, despite their rough patch, is not all that realistic. The Garnet and Blue could take this as an opportunity to play youth and prepare themselves for the next ride, but they could also look a bit further ahead.

Atleti will not budge easily. (Photo via Imago)

Just four points behind Atlético and with ten games to go, winning La Liga is still very much a possibility. As Pep Guardiola said in “Pep Confidential”, leagues are won in the last eight games. Real Madrid ran away with the title with 10 games to go, and the Blaugrana are now presented with a glorious opportunity to do the same. With Sociedad and Sevilla out of the frame, Barcelona still have the trio of Madrid clubs as well as Villarreal and Valencia to worry about in their final ten games.

Will they take up the challenge that awaits them or fall apart in the home stretch? Only time will tell.

The beautiful game brings to all who enjoy it a plethora of emotions and my way of giving back to it is through my writing. I am here not only to share my insight on the club I hold closest to my heart but also to gain knowledge from my fellow writers.

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Copa Del Rey final: Forgetting El Clasico, Supercopa Final and more

Darren Looney



Photo via Imago

What seemed very unlikely at one stage in Barcelona’s season is now just one game away from a trophy. Saturday sees Ronald Koeman’s men contest this season’s Copa del Rey final against a familiar foe in Marcelino and his Athletic Club side at the Estadio de La Cartuja in Seville, the scene of the Athletics’ manager’s most recent cup final triumph over the Catalan side. 

The pair met in the Supercopa de España final back in January, with Athletic Club coming away from the tie as 3-2 winners after extra time. The defeat was a demoralising moment for Barça, as the Catalan side were just a minute away from victory until Asier Villalibre equalised.  

Going into the final, Barcelona find themselves in another disheartening moment of the season after coming up short to bitter rivals Real Madrid in a 2-1 defeat in El Clasico, a result that could prove crucial in this season’s title race

Barcelona were unable to cope with Madrid’s counter attacking display. (Photo via Imago)

The potential of the season collapsing looms over the Catalan side, with doubt creeping into some of the players’ minds, with Jordi Alba being the first to express it. 

Marcelino could not have asked for a better result to face Barcelona off the back of, as the Spaniard has a history of punishing dejected Barça sides. For Koeman’s men, the Clasico result must be swept aside because the manager in opposition dugout on Saturday provides a subtle reminder of what can happen if they fail to do so, the 18/19 season. 

Forgetting El Clasico 

“I don’t know, eh,” Jordi Alba’s words to Gerard Pique after Barcelona’s defeat to Real Madrid are simple, but those that know the place they are coming from know that they have the weight of fear and trauma behind them. 

The conversation between the pair started with Pique stating “Relax, we will win [the cup final]” with the fullback replying “I don’t know, eh.” Unable to hear the centre back responds with “What?” before Barça’s fullback states again, “I don’t know [if we will win it].” 

Alba is known to crumble in big games, under pressure. (Photo via Imago)

Alba’s doubt most likely casts back to the defeat in the Supercopa final, but in those words, “I don’t know” are the results of Anfield, the Valencia cup final, Bayern Munich and all the other setbacks the club have experienced in the last few seasons.

The 32-year-old knows the importance of El Clasico and the knock-on effect defeat can have in the weeks after, especially considering the importance of the latest chapter of the fixture. 

Ronald Koeman cannot allow this psychological doubt to creep back into his team after doing phenomenally well to banish it over the last four months. There are positives to take from the weekend’s events, and it is here where the Dutchman can start to reaffirm the confidence shown throughout the Blaugranas’ 19 games unbeaten run. 

Although the defeat was a setback in Barcelona’s pursuit of La Liga, focussing on the game itself, the difference between the sides was not that great. 

It was a classic tale of two halves, with Real dominating the first with their counter attacks and Barça the second with their high positioning and possession. Koeman should find solace in the second-half performance, as his team came within the width of the crossbar of rescuing a point despite the added battle of monsoon-like conditions. 

The match was somewhat ideal preparation for the final, as Athletic Club are also fantastic in transitions and are specifically very effective on both flanks of the pitch, areas of space that were exploited by Real. However, they are themselves in a sour spot, having already lost the Copa del Rey final 2020, against Real Sociedad, which was played no more than 2 weeks back.

Bilbao will be hoping to win at least one of the Copa del Reys. (Photo via Imago)

Koeman will need to address this throughout the week, and it would not be a surprise if the Dutchman opted for four at the back for the cup final.  

Another positive for Koeman is the timing of this cup final, as a result on each side of the coin could have an enormous effect on Barça’s season. Although defeat has the potential to ruin the Catalan sides season, there is no better way to bounce back from a defeat to Real Madrid than lifting a trophy, and it could be a springboard towards doing the double. 

The problem for Koeman with addressing the doubts of Alba and others is not only the uncertainty left by the Clasico but the final of the Supercopa de España as well. 

Expelling the Memories of the Supercopa Final

January seems a lifetime ago in terms of how Ronald Koeman’s team has developed over the months since. The formation has changed, Barcelona started winning big games, and a winning mentality has been firmly instilled in the squad. The Catalan club as a whole are moving in the right direction, and winning a trophy will somewhat symbolise this.   

The Copa del Rey final will be the fourth time this season Barca have faced Athletic Club, winning two out of the three previous meetings. 

Despite this, it is that single loss that has the potential to cause problems in the minds of the players on Saturday. The final of the Supercopa de España was the match that got away and reminded everyone in the squad of the embarrassing moments the club has experienced over the last three seasons. 

Barça were one minute away from securing their first trophy since lifting La Liga in May 2019 until Asier Villalibre equalised to take the final to extra time. Iñaki William put Athletic Club’s name on the trophy with a wonderful strike leaving Koeman’s men dejected. 

Inaki splashed water on Barcelona’s dreams. (Photo via Imago)

Jordi Alba’s doubts regarding this season’s Copa del Rey final most likely stems from this game, and if the full-back is thinking this way, there could be others as well. 

Going into the final, Koeman must focus on the two wins the Catalan side have had over Marcelino’s men. The last time the sides met, Barcelona won the match 2-1 at the Camp Nou and performed brilliantly with the scoreline flattering the Basque side. Barca exploited Athletic Club on the wings and created multiple chances to score goals, with the winner coming from an Oscar Mingueza cross down the right. 

Koeman can also turn to Athletic Club’s form for inspiration, with the Basque side winning only 4 of their last 14 matches. Within this run was a defeat in last years edition of the Copa del Rey final, in which Marcelino’s side lost to local rivals Real Sociedad 1-0.

At present, Barcelona are a much better side than Athletic Club. Form, head-to-head meetings, and the quality of players all fall in the favour of the Catalan side but having mentioned all this doubt, and how Koeman can address it, the fact is that there might still be some thanks to a recent encounter with the Basque side’s manager Marcelino. 

The Ghost of the 2019 Final

In the 18/19 season, a Lionel Messi inspired Barca side were charging towards an unexpected treble at the start of May. With the league already wrapped up, two fixtures stood out within the final month of the season, a trip to Liverpool and the Copa del Rey final.

The result away to Liverpool left Barcelona dejected. (Photo via Imago)

On the 7th of May, the infamous night at Anfield occurred, where Barcelona let a 3-0 lead from the first leg slip and failed to reach the Champions League final. The experience was confidence shattering and was not ideal with the cup final around the corner. 

The 2019 Copa del Rey final was contested between Barcelona, and a Marcelino led Valencia. The Southeastern outfit won the tie 2-1 thanks to two first-half goals from Kevin Gameiro and Rodrigo. As a stand only fixture, there is nothing special about this tie. However, the significance of this final to current events lies in the weeks that lead up to the final. 

In the 17 days between Anfield and Andalucía, that one match would consistently nag away at the Barca players. Gerard Pique recently called that night the worst defeat of his career and previously stated that he believed that if they won that night, they would have claimed the Copa del Rey as well. 

Fast forward to now, and the similarities are present. Barça go into a cup final against a Marcelino led side after a disheartening defeat in an important El Clasico

Luckily for Ronald Koeman, things are much different. The Dutchman’s team is certainly a better one who have been in fantastic form of late, the defeat in El Clasico did not end Barca’s hopes of winning La Liga, and despite Jordi Alba’s doubts, the player’s confidence will not have taken the same level of a confidence hit the Anfield defeat brought.  

However, it is still a memory that remains and Marcelino will only remind them of that.

Ruining Barcelona’s party. (Photo via Imago)

The 2021 Copa del Rey final is nicely poised for fans of Spanish football. For Barca fans, it will ultimately show whether this team has overcome their psychological traumas of the past. The signs in the previous rounds seem to suggest that they have, but with Barcelona, you never know. 

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