Managers often have many conundrums to solve during a season. Usually, the problems arise when a rising star is performing or when an established player is out due to injury. At Barcelona, one player is so important that he often has to play every minute of every game.
Lionel Messi, the Argentine legend, has been the main man at Camp Nou for more than a decade. The Barcelona captain has seen friends leave the sinking ship while he steadied it time and again, with repeated impressive displays every campaign.
Oftentimes, Messi’s importance has led to his teammates believing in La Pulga and nobody else. Some players would only look for Leo, even if ten players marked him. This dependence over Messi has not does not come as a problem for Messi, but more so for Barça.
Some players have been complacent for too many seasons, turning up only when Messi wants too. Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona was the epitome of this over-reliance, with the #10 saving them from dropping points on multiple occasions.
The Basque manager’s side strolled towards two league titles. Messi was the top scorer and top assister of the side. Granted, the La Masia graduate had two bizarre seasons under Valverde. His stats in every aspect of the game were astronomical. He finished the 2019 year by winning a league title. However, when Messi switched off, the whole team switched off.
Against Roma in the Champions League, the six-time Ballon d’Or winner was not at his best, but so were his teammates. The reliance on Messi became so toxic to the Barcelona players that benching him became impossible for every manager. After the lockdown, Quique Setién played Leo in every game possible, for example.
Then came Ronald Koeman. The Dutchman was a legend in his playing days. He had to deal with an unhappy Messi for the first few weeks of his tenure, on the back of the Messi transfer saga.
The 33-year-old may have been unhappy off the pitch, but Koeman did not bench him. In fact, before the Betis game, the 57-year-old left Messi on the pitch for the whole 90 minutes of every game. Having travelled to Bolivia with his national team and not had a rest this season, Messi contracted a minor knock on Wednesday after his eleventh competitive match since the 27th of September.
Many Culés wanted to see their side without Leo, mainly because the side possesses a lot of attacking talent. From Ansu Fati to Ousmane Dembélé; Antoine Griezmann or Pedri, Koeman can pick from a really talented bunch to replace his captain.
Is it finally Dembele time? (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)
The Dutch manager came through with a completely new front line. Fati, Pedri, Griezmann and Dembélé all started next to each other for the first time, as Barcelona got ready to host Real Betis.
On paper, that team should demolish many defences and especially Betis’ rather susceptible backline. However, the first half did not go exactly to plan. Many recurring problems were apparent in this half, including the problem to finish. The Catalan giants did not look as dominant as they did in the second.
After a missile from Dembélé, Barça had to make Betis pay for their frail backline, and they nearly did. Fati was fouled in the penalty box, only for Griezmann to miss the resulting penalty kick. Worse news came after, as the youngster, this fixture would be his last in 2020 as the foul caused a ruptured meniscus.
Before this reign of dominance from the Catalans, they had already created enough danger to be four or five goals in front. Griezmann missed many more chances; including the sublime pass from Pedri, for example. Ansu Fati also had his chances as the young forward often came close with his shots from distance and was unlucky not to be rewarded for his brilliant display.
The Barcelona captain has featured in every other game for his boyhood club. Still, Barça have struggled with finishing, and not chance creation. In Europe, the Catalan giants have created 59 opportunities on goal and only scored nine goals. La Pulga has started every encounter in the Champions League and his finishing has not been much better than his teammates’.
Against Betis, chance creation wasn’t a problem. Dembélé created many chances with his runs with and without the ball. On the other side, Pedri was not as creative, but Griezmann compensated for it as shown in the first goal. The fact that Barcelona’s opener came from a spark of genius; a recurring theme under Ronald Koeman.
Against Juventus a week and a half ago, the french winger still had to score from afar to open the scoring. Similarly, Griezmann’s equaliser against Alavés last week also was a moment of genius. Messi started both games and the poor finishing was still apparent.
Under Koeman, there is some reliance over Messi, but it is in no way, shape or form as big as it was under the last few coaches. The lack of finishing in the first half just made the Catalans more eager to score against Mauricio Pellegrini’s side, and that coincided with the number 10’s entrance.
Besides, Barcelona still created many chances, so they did not ‘need’ Messi on the pitch; not as much as some people are trying to say, anyway. What the 33-year-old did was instil confidence in his side with his genius. Griezmann returned his invisible assist with a genius pass on the play that led to the second penalty.
The Catalan frontline was just too good on Saturday, and they only needed an offensive leader to score those wasted chances. Ideally, Culés would want Griezmann to be that leader. At 29, the Frenchman has been struggling in front of goal but was by far the most experienced attacker on the pitch.
Griezmann showed against Betis that he needs some time and trust, the goals will come. (Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images)
Messi came to the pitch and showed the way to teenager Pedri, out-of-form Griezmann and opportunistic Dembélé. This is not over-dependence; this is just what a 33-year-old captain does. Had Leo had missed his penalty or not scored the second, his leadership and form would still be a source of interrogation for Culés, but he did not and endorsed the role of saviour perfectly.
Depending on a player is undeniably the wrong way to go. But it is natural when the player in question is a six-time Ballon d’Or winner. Rather than being criticised for their first-half performance, the forwards must be praised for their ability to link up with their captain. This is why Lionel Messi is a role model for many players. He leads by example and is the most important part of Koeman’s system.
The first half against Betis was excellent form the offensive side of the game, scrutinising the team, or more so the attackers is unfair. Instead, Culés should be grateful they have this kind of frontline to let Messi breathe a little. Nonetheless, Koeman cannot turn a blind on the defensive aspect of the game, which was way more problematic on Saturday.
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”.