With a refreshing victory after a long break, our editors share their takes and standout performers on the encouraging Mallorca 0–4 Barcelona for the culés.
98 days later, Barcelona returned to action. While more could have gone wrong than right, Barça impressed with a promising 0–4 win away at Mallorca. With much to comment on it, we ask our editors to voice their opinions and share their most impressive player of the game on Saturday’s excellent re-start for the leaders.
Just what the doctor ordered
The wait was worth it for Barça fans as they got a routine win in Mallorca. It was perhaps Quique Setién’s squad most complete game and their first half was everything culés had been asking for during Ernesto Valverde’s era. The shape of the team, especially defensively, was perfect as the players finally seemed to understand Setién’s tactics. In defence, it was a 4–1–4–1 with Messi not pressing, and the Catalans soaked up the pressure correctly. The Mallorca players had to innovate to get in behind the rock that was Barcelona’s defence.
Also, the fact that it was more about the unit than an individual was refreshing. Only Antoine Griezmann had a sub-par display last night, and every other azulgrana raised its level, and that’s mostly thanks to the break. The press the Barça eleven applied on the Mallorca men suffocated them, and the full-backs’ positioning was out of this world. In the first half, they were playing like wingers but were moved back in the second half with Setién being more conservative. Still, every player played their part in winning this battle, and it was beautiful seeing Barcelona as dominant as today.
Standout performer: Ronald Araújo
Lionel Messi scored once and assisted twice for his return, but he wasn’t the one that caught my eye tonight. Of course, the Argentine is the best, but his display was typical for his standards. On the other hand, Ronald Araújo lived up to the hype in his first league start with Barcelona. The Uruguayan centre-back was rock solid in defence and justified Setién’s decision to bench Samuel Umtiti. With the ball at his feet, Araújo was confident and had a 94% pass completion, only 2% short of Jordi Alba’s 96%.
Moreover, he looked at ease playing next to Gerard Piqué and even outshined the La Masía graduate on many occasions. He blocked many shots when Barça suffered to get the ball from Take Kubo’s feet. He nearly got his first goal with Barça too, but the post had other ideas. Overall, a high-quality performance from a promising defender who will have given Quique Setién some reasons to use him more often this season.
For Mallorca, it was former La Masía prospect and current Real Madrid loanee Take Kubo who impressed the most | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
On the right track
It was far from a perfect performance, but the blaugranas came into this match with an excellent mentality and reaped the benefits. Attacking right from the start, the early goal definitely helped boost the confidence even more. From there, it was domination for Barça. Not perfection, but Mallorca couldn’t cause any real danger, while the attack led by Lionel Messi could have scored even more. It’s a great result away from home, especially given the circumstances, and hopefully Barcelona can build on it as the title race progresses.
Standout performer: Lionel Messi
The basic choice, but he was undeniably brilliant. Similar to the team as a whole, we’ve seen him perform better. However, there was still no player who influenced the match like him. He was creating left, right and centre, with six key passes and four big chances created, per SofaScore. He got his end product as well, with two assists – the one to Alba being particularly brilliant –, and a late goal to cap it all off. As much as things have changed throughout the past few months, Messi is still the same.
Fresher than ever
Precision, clarity and fluidity in Barcelona’s gameplay helped them stand a cut above Mallorca during the entirety of the game as following those three ideals led them to a triumphant victory over a melancholic Mallorca side. Despite being away from action, for what seemed to be an eternity, Quique Setién’s men were determined to acquire a grand victory, which is exactly what they did, thumping four goals and playing its football in harmonious fashion.
A variety of beautifully created goals, each innovative in their own way and Martin Braithwaite’s debut goal for Barça, along with a Messi masterclass made this a laudable performance for the men in baby blue.
❛ We had many doubts. We weren’t sure what was going to happen. Conquering matches in these circumstances is very important ❜
Standout performer: Lionel Messi
Although many Barça players rose up to the occasion, lending a tremendous hand to the team, there was only one man who seemed to have procured this title, and that was none other than Lionel Messi. The Argentine looked sharper than ever and was a constant menace for Moreno’s men. A goal and two assists to mark his return earns him the man of the match designation as he helped his Barça side cruise to an exultant victory. With his beard trimmed, hair coming down and typical knack for scoring goals, it appeared as if Leo had gone back in time and brought a younger version of himself. If the azulgranas desire to continue winning games, they will need their captain to continue performing in the same faultless fashion.
Mallorca lost at sea
After a lot of time, a lot of waiting, a lot of anticipation and reminiscing from the fans, Barcelona were finally on the pitch again and was the waiting worth it. Setién’s side looked better winning 4–0 than anyone could have expected after a long time since their last competitive match. The team’s excellent tactical approach along with the individual brilliance of a few players was a joy to watch. Mallorca were not an impressive side as a whole while ex-La Masía player Take Kubo was delightful to the eye. With an excellent job by the Catalans, they maintain their lead at the top whereas Mallorca find themselves in a difficult situations in the battle to not get relegated.
Standout performer: Lionel Messi
With undoubtedly impressive performances from various players such as Jordi Alba, Sergi Roberto, Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong and Arturo Vidal, in any normal team the battle for the man of the match would have been very difficult. However, this team has the Argentine genius Lionel Messi. With one goal, two assists, six key passes and four big chances created, the little genius was undoubtedly the star. With more goals and assists than any other player in La Liga this season, Messi has come out of the long hiatus as strong as ever.
As if the break had never happened, or as if the break had really happened. Barcelona took advantage of all the benefits the break could give them, in the form of some much-needed rest, while they did not embrace the negatives that this could have provoked. Ultra competitive from minute 1 to 90+3, when Lionel Messi put the cherry on top of the cake to a brilliant individual and collective performance, the La Liga leaders had no mercy with a Mallorca side that is certainly suffering from the circumstances. With Quique Setién implementing fresher ideas, Barcelona showed a lot of promise at Son Moix.
❛ Nobody can beat me ❜
Standout performer: Martin Braithwaite
Lionel Messi will deservedly be the Man of the Match based on individual level, but when it comes to one’s real expectations, it is safe to say that Martin Braithwaite has been greatly exceeding them since signing for the Spanish giants in February. While mocked at first for coming from Leganés, in this opening game he already reaped the rewards of training three times harder than the rest. “Barça’s plan is only a third part of my training. There’s no one who trains and works as I do”, he said during the break. With his first goal as a culé, Braithwaite is really pushing for a spot in the starting XI.
Koeman at Barcelona: Overcriticised and underappreciated
Credit and criticism should each be given where both are due. With Ronald Koeman, however, there has been a considerably larger share of one than there has the other, and to such a point, it seems unjustifiable.
To call the Dutch manager out for late substitutions or perhaps incomprehensible tactics is perfectly fair. The line is drawn when one decides to pretend as though all he had done was turn gold to dust. He has had to undergo a panoply of trials and tribulations, many of which are unheard of among Europe’s elite.
In this article, Barca Universal explores the revitalisation of Barça’s mentality, Koeman’s underrated improvements to Barcelona, his adaptability to diverse situations and why he should be given more time to implement his ideas.
A mentality reborn
Barcelona’s feeble mentality on big occasions has often been a subject of great torment to their supporters. Once at the helm of Europe’s elite, the element of nostalgia is a tough one for their avid supporters to rid themselves of. They long a return to the greatness they once held onto so tightly, though perhaps irrationally.
The Garnet and Blue are stacked with dextrous individuals full to the brim with the zeal and zest that comes with youth. While optimal for future successes, these individuals are years away from achieving the rank of world-class. Nevertheless, Ronald Koeman has had to instil, both in them and the veterans that have run the big stage so long, his ferocious attitude and never-go-die mentality.
As Warren Buffet once said that “No matter how great the talent or efforts, good things take time.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it would be completely unrealistic to expect that the Catalans’ wounded spirits be completely healed just a few months following several consecutive European annihilations.
Ever since the turn of the year, the Catalans have shown a palpable increase in their self-belief, and such is illustrated by their four comeback victories this season. The most remarkable of the quad was that against Granada in the Copa Del Rey. Down by two goals and in desperate need of a dramatic comeback, the Azulgranas broke loose from the jaws of defeat, recording one of their most enthralling victories of the season.
There are, of course, times when Barça have stumbled, and one need not look any further than a fortnight ago, where Barcelona had their wounds from yesteryear brutally reopened by a rampant PSG side. No one ever said that the path to recovery would be an easy one, but it is clear that Ronald Koeman’s mentality is rubbing off onto his players and is steadily developing a profound resonance with them.
Following arguably their best performance in what seems like aeons against Sevilla two nights ago, Gerard Piqué had this to say:
“We can fight for the league, for sure. Today we dominated Sevilla, they didn’t create us chances, we played in their half…I trust this team a lot, let’s hope we can achieve something big. If we manage to turn the tie around on Wednesday, the season completely changes.”Gerard Pique | Post-match interview v Sevilla
The competitive attitude is building up gradually, rising to a crescendo that simply can’t be matched and sooner or later, it’ll culminate in a trophy of some sort.
Ameliorated, but underrated form
As has been said before, to brush off all that Ronald Koeman has done to improve the team and solely focus on the negatives would be nothing short of peddling a narrative. The ex-Valencia boss has seen an unprecedented change to his fortunes, and it would only be just to acknowledge them.
In his book ‘Pep Confidential‘, Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola said that “Titles are won in the last 8 games but are lost in the first 8.”
Drawing parallels to Barcelona this season, their opening eight matches were horrendous, to say the least. As former champions, one would surely expect form better than just three victories in that period, but such was Barça’s tactical ineptitude that they did just that, losing to all three of their rivals from Madrid.
What many refuse, or rather fail to recognize, is the level of improvement that has taken place since. From the 21st of November, when they succumbed to defeat against Atlético de Madrid, the Catalans have gone on to win 42 points from 17 matches played, thirteen of which were won while they dropped points through three draws as well as the damning defeat to Cádiz.
In those seventeen matches, they have the highest points tally of any La Liga side, with Sevilla coming closest at 35 points from 51. They also bulged their opponents’ nets a whopping 40 times, twelve more than nearest rivals Los Colchoneros.
They incurred the least defeats and conceded the third least number of goals, all numbers which, when compounded with the statistics from the first eight games, dissipate and present a much worse image of Barcelona right now compared to how their current form would suggest.
It is also worth mentioning that all this has been accomplished with a team lacking both in quality and personnel in certain departments of the pitch. Both Clément Lenglet and Samuel Umtiti have been victims of their own abhorrent and detestable form. In contrast, Gerard Piqué and Ronald Araújo have each succumbed to injuries at crucial points of the campaign. In the forward line, the ex-Oranje manager had often had to deal with the reprehensible inconsistency in both form and finishing of his star players, including Lionel Messi being far from his best in front of the goal.
Much of Koeman’s work has been blatantly overlooked, much of this without taking into account the context behind his failures and turning a blind eye to each of his successes. The situation, in general, is far from ideal, but he has skillfully manoeuvred his way through the worst of scenarios without an inkling of gratitude. Seems rather harsh, does it not?
Adaptability to diverse situations
In this department, Koeman has possibly had as many plaudits as he does critics. His detractors will shed light on the multifarious managerial and tactical errors that he has made, and with great reason. At certain points, over the course of the campaign, he showed a crude level of incompetence, particularly in matches against tougher opposition, where he has recorded just but two victories against last season’s top 6 teams.
Doing the same thing and expecting different results is the epitome of insanity, and when offered the opportunity to atone for his errors, he has objectively been laudable.
One could point towards his quickfire matches against Athletic Club in January, where following a damning defeat in the Spanish Super Cup final, he immediately made up for the result, restricting the Basque side to just 0.21xG in a 2-1 victory.
Another more recent example is his iconic victory over Sevilla this past weekend. Having tasted defeat against Los Nervionenses just three weeks back, he restructured his side in accordance to his opponents, switched up his tactics to suit his own, and drastically shifted gears in terms of his team’s pressing. The result was the deliverance of a tactical masterclass against one of the division’s best tacticians, and this too away from home.
When it came to injuries, which are quite possibly a manager’s worst nightmare, he has on plenty of occasions illustrated his flexibility. On the back of Gerard Piqué’s four-month layoff subsequent to his injury in the Wanda Metropolitano, Koeman successfully integrated his namesake Ronald Araújo into the side and with tender care, like a potter with the softest of clay, moulded him into one of La Liga’s best centre-backs.
He did the same with Oscar Mingueza, who, up until his arrival into the first team, was even struggling for minutes in the B team. He is now not only a reliable figure in central defence, but he has also seen an unprecedented evolution into the right-back role. There be offers a starkly contrasting dynamic to the role that Sergiño Dest plays, and so much so that it coincided in him gaining far more relevance to the first team than he would have ever dreamed of.
In terms of the team’s shape, given his now complete understanding of the team, he has been proven capable of altering it from time to time and to great success. The 4-2-3-1 is proprietarily his formation, though rather than place such a hefty burden on the players with a setup they were completely novel too, he tweaked the shape to mimic Barca’s famed 4-3-3, and this perhaps was the key to him winning as many points as he did from November.
In perhaps the riskiest tactical switch one could fathom, his shift to a metamorphic 3-5-2 formation won him the game against Sevilla in the Pizjuan, a victory which to Barcelona’s demanding supporters was long overdue.
Could Frank Rijkaard’s past be his future?
When talking about Ronald Koeman, it is almost a taboo topic amongst Culés to speak of any future that does not involve him being sacked in the summer. Him remaining depends not only on how well he does for the rest of the season but also on the outcome of the presidential elections in a week’s time.
There are many parallels that can be drawn between Koeman’s Barça and that of Frank Rijkaard back in 2003. Both managers came into the campaign on the back of an immensely disappointing season, in an election year, and with teams that were more-less in the making rather than they were finished products.
The starts to both managers’ seasons were almost identical too. The pair had periods in the campaign where they seemed more like relegation candidates than they did title favourites. For the former, such was the state of the club that at one point during the campaign, they were a whopping eighteen points behind Real Madrid.
Around the halfway point of the campaign, much like with Koeman, his fortunes changed for the better, with his football flowing ever so freely. Come season’s end, Rijkaard’s side finished as runners up to Valencia, and more remarkably two points ahead of Real Madrid in third.
Unlike Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setién, Koeman’s ideal version of Barça has been witnessed on plenty of occasions. There are obvious limitations to what he, unlike Rijkaard with his big signings, was able to do. The Blaugranas‘ financial situation prevented him from acquiring around 80% of his intended transfer targets.
Given how well he’s done with limited resources and historic precedence from his Dutch counterpart showing the potential to go from strength to strength, how much more could he do with added reinforcements to one of the most talented young squads in Europe?
In Rijkaard’s second and third years at the club, he both reclaimed the long lost league title and defended whilst winning only the club’s second Champions League title to mark an era of his own at the club. The current Barça might not be able to win either this year, but under Koeman, they can take advantage of the sheer uniqueness of this season to lay the groundwork for the next. The youth the Garnet and Blue possess, both in the first and in Garcia Pimienta’s B team, is more than enough to assure them competitiveness both domestically and in Europe.
In 2003, Joan Laporta had Koeman in his three-man shortlist for the Barça managerial role, and — assuming he wins — the Dutchman’s presence now makes this seem all the more like a match made in heaven. Should he be granted the chance to form his own squad from scratch, under an entirely new regime, he could be admired as a Barça legend not only in his playing days but also in his managerial career.
Barça’s rebirth is inevitable, but it will certainly take time to be achieved. Provided the necessary tools to succeed, Koeman could, in fact, do this, but it will depend entirely on whether or not he is given the opportunity to.