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Barcelona’s inability to come back from a deficit: Mentality issue or a tactical deficiency?

Domagoj Kostanjšak

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Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS/Getty

The best teams are known for their ability to win games even when the odds are stacked heavily against them. Such teams simply adapt to the situation and have both the mentality and the tactical prowess to overcome such a scenario. Of course, those very best teams tend to avoid falling behind if possible altogether, but it happens to everyone nonetheless.

Barcelona used to be such a team. After all, the word ‘Remontada‘, which literally means ‘comeback’ in Spanish, is still the word most associated with the Azulgranas. The world will likely never forget when Luis Enrique’s Barcelona did the impossible and overturned a 4-0 deficit to beat Paris Saint-Germain on 8 March 2017 at the Camp Nou.

The whole city rumbled in ecstasy, excitement and happiness for the Catalans did something that was deemed unimaginable at that time. ‘If they can score four, we can score six’, were Lucho’s words prior to the game and wouldn’t you know it, they did.

But what no one even imagined at that point was the fact that the fabled Remontada would be the last notable thing Barça would do in the following three years in the Champions League. Of course, there would be other comebacks, for sure, only the Catalans would end up on the receiving end of those glorious and, undeniably, desperate, and humbling moments.

Fast forward to 2020 and the club seems to still be struggling with the very same things. Even if we disregard the debacles on the Merseyside and in Rome, La Liga has plenty of examples to offer. After all, once Barcelona go behind in games, there is simply no coming back anymore.

The ghosts of Anfield are still watching over Barcelona. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty)

The stats support this thesis. According to Transfermarkt, the Catalans have gone behind six times in the domestic league this season and have managed to salvage a total of two measly points from those games, courtesy of just two draws they have accumulated – once each against Sevilla and Deportivo Alaves.

This also means all four defeats they have suffered this campaign came from games where they were initially behind and couldn’t channel their inner Remontada spirit to overcome the deficit. Needless to say, that’s a huge red flag and an indication of far bigger issues than at first visible to the naked eye.

But this is exactly where Ronald Koeman comes in. Barcelona are a fragile bunch, that much we certainly know. After all, the collapse at Anfield and Stadio Olimpico were both tactical mishaps but also a mentality issue as a whole. Not to mention that the flashbacks from Rome followed the team to Liverpool the very next year, ultimately sealing their fate and leading them to doom.

But Koeman of all people is hailed for his exquisite man-management and ‘player power‘. He demands authority and turns weak-minded players into tilt-proof machines. Or so we’ve heard at least. So far, however, apart from the words of praise from within the squad itself, we haven’t seen any palpable proof of such claims.

Cádiz, Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid and Getafe are the last four games Barcelona have lost, and in all four games, the Catalans conceded first and then couldn’t reciprocate. This definitely indicates the mentality issues are still there because the response simply wasn’t, and there was no one to push them to overcome the deficit.

Fingers are often pointed towards Lionel Messi as the team’s captain, and perhaps, at times, rightfully so, but we know Leo is not your usual captain. He leads by example rather than his voice or body language. This approach will undoubtedly be criticised by many until his final days in Catalonia, but there is only so much strength one man can muster to undo years of decline in the squad.

Koeman has not been a tremendous help for Barcelona from the sidelines. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty)

And then there’s Koeman. Ernesto Valverde would usually assume his usual position in that trademark squat on the edge of his area, ever-watchful of his team’s misfortune but unable to change their untimely demise. Quique Setién had a different approach. When Barcelona were down and out, so was he, seemingly deeply in his thoughts with head bowed down and looking to the floor, almost like he’s trying to rip the solution out of the ground. But he never could.

Koeman, for all his pedigree and reputation, is in a rather similar boat. When things go sour, the coach will go back to his seat beneath the stands and do nothing. It’s almost as if he is offended by the effort put in by the team – or lack thereof.

Finally, we come to the tactical part of the whole narrative. Valverde and Setién either didn’t have the personnel or the tactical knowledge to mount a Remontada of their own and Koeman, even though he will pull the trigger, is also lacking in this department.

Yes, the Dutchman may react with lots of personnel changes, but that always looks like a panicked move rather than a sensible approach that could turn the tides back in their favour. Throwing all your attackers onto the pitch, sacrificing all forms of team structure along the way, and hoping they somehow score a goal is not a tactical approach.

So you can blame the players for not trying and at times, certainly rightly so, but the truth is the coach is also not helping much – or at all – to fix the situation. The blame should go both ways, and both parties have to accept they’re not doing things to the best of their ability.

Only then can things start to change. But until that moment when differences can be put aside, and the team gets a clean slate to work with, can we really expect a significant improvement?

Whether that happens with Koeman in charge or someone else, however, remains to be seen.

I’ve been a Barcelona fan for more than half of my life. What started as blind love is slowly turning into professional writing. Now, I get to write about Barca, analyse them, and voice my opinions on them across platforms. I’m happy to be a part of this big project.

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Santiago Bernabeu: Lionel Messi’s conquered ground

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Photo via Imago

With the second edition of El Clásico in the 2020/21 season less than 72 hours away, the footballing world is once more about to come to a standstill. Its master, a certain Lionel Andrés Messi, has ripped almost all the records pertaining to this tie to shreds. The Argentine maestro holds the record for the most goals as well as assists for any player against Los Blancos and will seek to add to this tally once Barcelona sets foot in Real Madrid’s Alfredo Di Stefano stadium.

Being a Barça player, every encounter against the eternal rival will be a special one. With the Clásico being played away from the ever-iconic Santiago Bernabéu due to the reconstructing taking place, we here at Barca Universal thought to re-live three of the 6-time Ballon D’or winner’s most memorable games in the Spanish Capital. He is, after all, the individual with the most goals for any player in the Clásico, and with goals come memories that will be indelibly etched in the history books for aeons to come.

3. Pep Guardiola’s False 9
Real Madrid 2-6 Barcelona | 2008/09

“Lionel Messi takes his time, and walks it in. Start shining the trophy now, the league may well be Barcelona’s.”

The Catalans’ 2-6 victory over Real Madrid is just one among a host of iconic performances that the Merengues were unfortunate enough to bear witness to in their own backyard. This humiliation in particular, against their biggest rivals, is one that the Madrid faithful will never truly scrape from their minds, not only for their sheer inferiority to Barcelona but the consequences that Pep Guardiola’s tactics would have on their ultimate enemy.

The bald genius, as some call him, gave new life to Messi, and such was his aptitude in this role that he continues to this day to terrorise defences in precisely the same way. Sitting between strikers Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry, the Argentine was tasked with acting as a false 9 in such a way that he would attract defenders to himself and punish his hosts for the slightest of lapses in concentration.

Putting theory into practice, La Pulga’s first contribution of the night came in precisely this manner. He lured a familiar foe in Madrid captain Sergio Ramos out of his den by occupying Zone 14, played a delicate chip into Henry who darted into the vacated space, and, cool as you like, he curved the ball past Iker Casillas to equalise the score for the Garnet and Blue after Gonzalo Higuain helped Madrid take the lead.

Lionel Messi at the forefront of destruction. (Photo via Imago)

Bewildered, and with their lead lost, Real Madrid’s incapacity to handle the little man meant that this was just the beginning of possibly their worst nightmare. Carlos Puyol helped Barça take the lead just two minutes after this, and just after the hour mark, Messi would add further gloss to the scoreline.

The Catalans’ asphyxiating press proved too much for their Madrid counterparts to contend with, and it was in precisely this manner that they got their third. Xavi Hernández dispossessed Lassana Diarra following a pass from Casillas, and laid the ball on a plate for the Barça number 10. With acres of space and an infinite amount of time to think, he went one on one with San Iker, and with ice in his veins, placed the ball into the bottom corner of the net to essentially expel all hope Los Merengues had of mounting a comeback.

Even with a quarter of the game left to play, Messi was far from done with his torture of Madrid. Still, in his free role as a false 9, the Argentine drew left-back Gabriel Heinze towards him, released the ball to Xavi and darted into the newly vacated space. Casillas had the chance to make amends for having conceded the early goal, but Messi had other ideas. He faked one shot, and with the Madrid captain’s positioning now off, the Argentine took full advantage, slotting the ball past the Spaniard at the near post to record his 22nd goal of the season, as well as seal the Manita for his side.

Far from finished with his systematic dismantling of Madrid, he would play a massive role in creating the sixth and final goal for three Blaugrana. He lacerated the Madrid backline with a through ball to Samuel Eto’o down the wing. He then delivered a ball to Gérard Piqué, who slotted the ball past his Spanish comrade to record the sixth and final goal for Barcelona.

It was by some accounts his individual best performance against Madrid, but he would have another equally brilliant moment just two years later against his eternal rivals.

2. The best on the planet
Real Madrid 0-2 Barcelona | 2010/11

“Away from two, three, four… Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. How good is he!”

The 2010/11 campaign saw Pep Guardiola mould what is largely considered to be the best football team ever to have graced the earth. Their football was as enthralling as it was captivating; their passing as exquisite as it was crisp; their pressing as coordinated as it was choking; and to cap it all off, they had a version of Messi as majestic as he was deadly.

In stark contrast to the 5-0 annihilation and mesmeric football on display in the Nou Camp following the Catalan elections the year prior, this match was marked with a host of needless fouls brought about by the ruthless aggression of José Mourinho’s forces. They were out to avoid, at all costs, the sort of drubbing they had faced just the year prior, as well as end their decade long quest for a European crown. Lionel Messi had other ideas in store for them.

Bombarded by the ludicrous foul play by Sergio Ramos and Álvaro Arbeloa, the Argentine endured one of his most gruesome matches against the old enemy. Crafty as he is, he still ran circles around the Madrid defence whenever the opportunity presented itself, but such was the marking against him that he would always meet around five or six players laying in wait for him.

The match seemed closer to a draw than it was anything else, as Barça were incapable of finding their way through the white wall of Madrid.

Madrid maintaining social distancing from Messi. (Photo via Imago)

Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and for the Garnet and Blue, Lionel Messi was that man. From Barcelona’s right flank, Ibrahim Affelay skipped past Marcelo Vieira with relative ease, and once at the byline, he played a sumptuous low cross into Messi’s path. Arbeloa failed to make any contact, and ready to pounce on the perfectly weighted ball was the bane of their existence, in the form of a little man with a 10 on the back of his shirt. He tapped the ball home, through Iker Casillas’ legs and into the back of the net to get that all so crucial away goal.

Real Madrid were in trouble. Their game plan might have involved shutting Barça out for the most time they possibly could, and perhaps seek an away draw in the Nou Camp to get to the final in Wembley. Disgruntled, and incapable of processing what had just happened, the capital club began leaving enormous spaces, the sort that Messi lives for.

With three minutes left to play, the then two-time Ballon D’or winner played a quick one-two with Sergio Busquets near the halfway line. Even with a sea of white right before his eyes, the Argentine didn’t break a sweat. He gracefully weaved his way past four Madrid players, and one on one with San Iker, he slotted the ball home with his right foot to seal the victory. No one could have foreseen this happening. Well, no one but that little magician in Garnet and Blue.

Even though Rob Palmer said it in a different game, Harry Houdini had nothing on Messi’s magic, and that goal was evidence of that. He had the audacity to craft such a move out of relatively nothing, in a champions league semifinal, and against his arch-rivals no less. Simply Messi.

1. It isn’t over until he says it is
Real Madrid 2-3 Barcelona | 2016/17

“Lionel Messi does it again he’s superhuman! Lionel Messi has just, exploded La Liga into life.”

On a run of six consecutive games without either a goal in all competitions against Real Madrid, doubts were raised over just how much Lionel Messi could do in this edition of the Clásico, especially bearing in mind the level of the version of the hosts he was up against. Los Blancos were, by many accounts, Europe’s best team that year. Fresh from a rather controversial 4-2 thumping of Bayern München in the Champions League, confidence was high in the Madrid camp, and with reason.

Barcelona needed to win to keep their La Liga title hopes alive and do so by any means necessary, and win they did, in quite emphatic fashion too.

Much like in 2011, Messi would be the unfortunate victim of a host of fouls from Los Blancos. Casemiro was hovering near Messi, and had already attempted two-card worthy challenges on the Argentine, only receiving one for taking him down near the centre circle. Not too long after, Marcelo Vieira elbowed him right in his mouth, somehow avoiding a red card for what seemed a deliberate offence from the Brazilian.

Los Merengues triggered him one time too many, and with the lion now awoken and infuriated by the needless assaults on him, he went on his hunt for goals. Subsequent to an extensively long possession phase by the Catalans, Ivan Rakitić, from the right halfspace, found La Pulga briskly making a run towards him. With one touch, he put his opponents to a standstill, the second and with their motion against them, he rid himself of all Madrid’s defenders, and with his third, he calmly slotted the ball into the back of the net past a helpless Keylor Navas.

With time going by, hope quickly faded away. Even without Sergio Ramos in defence following his crude two-footed challenge on Messi himself, all of Barça’s efforts on goal were met by save after save from the Costa Rican goalkeeper. To make matters worse, just four minutes from time, substitute James Rodriguez scored the equaliser to kill off the Blaugranas’ spirits — or so he thought.

With twenty seconds left to play, the Garnet and Blue showed their mental fortitude in its finest form. Sergi Roberto skipped past two Madrid defenders and made a darting run into the central midfield. He then laid the ball off to André Gomes, who immediately played the ball into Jordi Alba’s path. The Spaniard instinctively played the cutback to Messi, and for that one second, time stood still.

Dani Carvajal, noticing his error, ran right towards him. Keylor Navas, who by then had already produced at least ten saves, was perfectly positioned on the right. In front of him were two of his own teammates. Everything about this shot should have made it impossible to go in, but with this little man, is impossible even a word? On his left foot, and with 80,000 Madridistas whistling him, the 6-time Ballon D’or winner curled the ball into the back of the net, making it 2-3 in the final quarter of a minute and breaking the hearts of all Merengues before him.

What followed was easily the coldest celebration of all time. In front of hoards of Madridistas and a sea of white, Messi took his shirt off, reminding them who ran the place. It was the ultimate way to score his 500th goal for his beloved club, and in such a way that not a single Madridista will ever forget. All eleven players from the other aisle either fell to their knees in awe or lamented in bitter frustration. They had just been crushed, and crudely so, by a man they once so desperately wanted and could never have.

Iconic. (Photo via Imago)

The question remains, what sort of a mark will Lionel Messi leave on the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium? Well, in due time, in perhaps his final Clásico, with the league on the line, we’ll find out.

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