Barça have started the season in style, with a 4 to nothing win over Villarreal. But it was a win interpreted in many different ways by football experts and fans due to its sudden change of pace from first to second half. And while Ansu Fati took the stage, one doubt has arisen over every other ones: has Leo Messi’s role been the best fit for the Argentinian?
There has been an underpredicted, unexpected start of the season at Barcelona. Some are still wondering whether the Catalan team was actually that good or if simply the Villarreal side was just that atrocious. But those are the typical preseason doubts, uncertainties that the beginning of a sporting year brings upon the judgment of a club’s preparation, both in the pitch and outside of it.
But as the result was still a net 4 to nothing in favor of Barcelona, it is fair to ask ourselves whether Ronald Koeman is already on the right path of solving this Blaugrana jigsaw, an enigma that Barça currently represents. Players going in, players going out, management in disarray and emotional imbalance. Lots of doubts, but even more ones on the pitching front, as Koeman decided to reverse the historical 4-3-3 era for a more extroverted one: the 4-2-3-1.
As many have already analyzed thoughtfully, this change implies lots of different situations and circumstances. But while there are players who will eventually adapt and others who will struggle, the main focus of Barcelona is yet again on his captain, the best in the world: Lionel Messi.
After the preseason friendlies, Koeman seemed to have found the perfect place for the Argentinian. In the three-men offensive line behind the striker, he was actually the number ten not only on his shirt, but also on the pitch: Messi was acting as the central attacking midfielder or, if you may, as the supporting forward to the main striker (Antoine Griezmann), even as a false 9 you could say. And things have been pretty convincing.
We have all seen a different Leo Messi in the last season. Fewer goals (but still a lot) and numerous assists on his belly. Yes, that was the only difference, as he led the race in every other aspect you could imagine: take-ons, chances created, key passes, dribbles succeeded, etc. And while the decrease in goals volume has been partly due to his injury issue back at the beginning of the 2019/2020 season, his creativity was heavily been overshadowing his finishing touches. While some of the fan bases may have been gutted, seeing Leo Messi creating football, magic is the best entertainment you can have in watching a football match. It doesn’t matter if he scores or not.
With all that being said, the position that Koeman found for Leo has been the one that proved the Dutch manager right during the preseason. But then La Liga came and consequently the Villarreal game. While Griezmann has always been used as a striker during the preseason, Koeman decided to move him to the right-winger position (despite promising him not to) to make space for both Coutinho and Ansu Fati. The only options for Messi have been those of playing as a classic striker or to switch positions with the Frenchman. Well, the first one was also the final one. And Messi is everything but a striker.
Many could be shadowed by the term “false 9”, but that wasn’t his role against Villarreal. The Argentinian has been the most forward player on the pitch for the entire first half. But while Messi rarely makes a back run, he often finds himself on the right-wing as to have more space and time to create something. Not on a central, too high position as a classic 9.
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This position limited Messi for the whole first half, as in the second forty-five minutes Koeman tried to correct himself by moving Leo to the right side (and he actually created more). He touched fewer balls than usual and he was involved in Barcelona’s chances creation for low to no times. Ansu Fati’s second goal has been a clear depiction of it. On a counterattack, with the number ten attacking from the right side and the young Spanish wonderkid from the left one, Coutinho chose the latter. And we rarely (never) see Barça players choose an option that is not Lionel Messi, when the circumstance occurs.
As he has always been used to come deep into the field to get the ball and have more vision on the overall offensive movements, this time his role limited him deeply in doing so. Playing the Argentinian as a classic striker means that he will have less influence on the game and his chances to impact the game will relatively be lower. As much as Barça seems to have more attacking options and less reliability on his captain this season, Messi is still the brightest light the Catalan team. And, if that’s not enough, we have always been proven wrong when starting to doubt the greatest that the sport have ever seen. Both in a culés and neutral point of view.
His performance and his weight on the game actually improved in the second half, where he made Asenjo, Villarreal’s goalkeeper, really fight for it to stay 4-0. As Koeman moved Messi onto the right position, especially during the defensive phase, the Argentinian got to have more suitability with chance creation and finishing, even though he has not scored from open play in the end. And while the right-wing position is a role that has been slowly getting out of sustainability for Messi, because of the physical impact it could have on the long run on an, unfortunately, aging player, it showed how putting him in circumstances that he finds more suitable to his qualities, actually increases his impact on the game.
Leo Messi’s body language hasn’t been great in the first official match of the season, and that’s something outside any tactical system and choice that cannot be interpreted in any way technically. The penalty that he took depicted just that: frustration, shallowness, and a little bit of carelessness. And performances are often a mental struggle, before a technical and physical one. But the Argentinian has to be put in the best conditions to play his football. Because in the end, we all know the game. When Leo Messi actually plays his football, there is not a damn thing you can do about it.
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.