Going into yesterday’s game against Sevilla, things were finally starting to look up for the team. After all, before that, they had beaten that same squad 2-0 at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium in La Liga and were raring for revenge in the Copa del Rey as well. Ronald Koeman’s new system was looking like a success, and players like Sergiño Dest and Ousmane Dembélé were coming to their own. At first glance, life for everyone at the Camp Nou was finally going in the right direction. Everyone expect Antoine Griezmann, that is.
The news that he’d be starting the all-important clash against Sevilla on the bench must’ve been tough to hear. After all, that was his third game in a row where he would sit on the sidelines instead of being included in the gala XI. For a player of his calibre, reputation and status, that is almost unfathomable.
First, there was the game against Elche. Barcelona managed to win that one comfortably, putting away three goals to snatch all three points on the night. Griezmann, however, would participate only for 14 minutes before the final whistle with no real contribution to his name. That change came on the back of the necessity to rest the Frenchman. Next was the first of the two victories over Sevilla, and that one was even worse.
Griezmann found himself on the bench for the whole duration of the game, not even getting the chance to play in what was a glorious day for the Catalans. With everyone happy for the result, the performance and camaraderie, we completely forgot about Griezmann, our €120 million signing. And that was the main issue. How can you forget about him when he’s supposed to be a key player in this squad?
Then came the third game as Barcelona welcomed Sevilla to the Camp Nou for the return leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final. And Griezmann? Well, sadly he was on the sidelines again as Koeman seemingly couldn’t find a way to squeeze him into his new and refined system. But this time around, with Barcelona needing one more goal to force extra-time, the Dutchman was somewhat forced to call upon his World Cup-winning bench-warmer just before the 70th-minute mark.
The ‘Griezou-signal’ was lit, and the former Atlético Madrid superstar sprung into action, making his presence felt almost immediately. Of course, the highlight of his evening was sending Diego Carlos back to Andalusia with that excellent dummy and assisting the goal, but for the most part, the work he did won’t show up in stats.
This is the crux of the problem too. Griezmann does so much for the team, and yet, all of it is so difficult to put into something palpable. Yes, he’s also scoring goals, but when he’s not, he’s often getting attacked for not doing enough. This, needless to say, is harsh and sometimes even unfair.
But it’s also not exactly that simple either. A striker will always be judged by his performance in front of goal. Roberto Firmino of Liverpool is maybe the greatest example. There are not many others of his elk in the footballing world, but despite all the incredible things he makes possible for the Reds, the Brazilian was still harshly criticised once his output had gone down. The same may be happening to Griezmann.
He’s an unbelievable utility guy — a player whose movement both creates and exploits space while also offering an outlet in tight spaces and in transitions. The problem is that despite all of that, the unmeasurable will never outweigh the measurable in the eyes of the fans.
Of course, that’s unfair, but it’s also expected. Not everyone is an expert, and we often take things at face value, which is not ideal but rather the path of least resistance. So it’s always easier to write him off because the stats tell you to do so. Even the eye-test might not initially present you with a palpable contribution worthy of a €120M signing. But it is there, hidden underneath.
And the best part? It’s finally starting to show in the stats too. Let’s take his 57 minutes played against Sevilla as an example. Had it not been for that excellent assist, many wouldn’t have bothered to even look at him twice, but it was very much an incredible display.
According to SofaScore, Griezmann recorded 36 touches on the night, deploying three key passes, one of which was the crucial assist to Gerard Piqué, completed both of his dribbles, maintained excellent accuracy with 23/25 passes and won five out of his six ground duels.
Not to mention, he continued to display his incredible work-rate off the ball, filling in for the limping Pique as a false-centre back. We have come full circle, yes, but the World Cup winner made an incredible inside the box against a pass that was well on its way to an unmarked Youssef En-Nesyri.
So in that single be-all, end-all performance against a tough opponent, the Frenchman has managed to participate in all phases of Barcelona’s play. Now that is what you call a palpable contribution if there ever was one.
But even if you wanted to make an argument that this is not happening consistently enough, stats beg to differ. Griezmann may be struggling but even so, his output is getting better and better with each passing game. Again, consulting SofaScore for all of our stats, it’s fascinating to see him grow over time.
In his first season at the Camp Nou in 2019, Griezmann was only able to register 12 goal contributions (eight goals, four assists) in 23 games. The next year, that figured rose to 14 goal contributions (12 goals, two assists) in 44 games in 2020. And now in 2021? He’s only 17 games in but already at 16 goal contributions (seven goals, nine assists), eclipsing both of his previous two tallies. Quite impressive, to say the least.
Griezmann for Barcelona so far:— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) March 4, 2021
2019: 12 goal contributions (8 goals, 4 assists) in 23 games.
2020: 14 goal contributions (12 goals, 2 assists) in 44 games.
2021: 16 goal contributions (7 goals, 9 assists) in 17 games.
— @SofaScoreINT pic.twitter.com/oE8ETbuZXT
But that is not all. With a total of 27 goals, he is already the third-best French goalscorer in the history of the club, equal with Dembélé and 22 behind the legendary Thierry Henry. His nine assists across all competitions for the Blaugrana, however, mean that he’s recorded more than any other La Liga player in 2021 so far.
So however you turn and however you choose to look at it, Griezmann is still performing admirably. Maybe more is expected from him but that’s only because we know that he is world-class.
However, it still remains to be seen whether Koeman truly believes there’s a place for him in his new system. If so, who would he be replacing anyway? It’s a tough question that’s very difficult to answer and despite his obvious improvement, nothing in life or football is guaranteed.
Griezmann, just like everyone else, will have to fight for his spot in the team. Whether he emerges victorious or not won’t depend entirely on him, though. As for us, we can only wait and hope for what’s best for the club, whatever that may be in the long-term.
Copa Del Rey final: Forgetting El Clasico, Supercopa Final and more
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.