After one point that feels like less, our editors comment on their takes on the 0–0 draw between Sevilla and Barcelona at the Sánchez Pizjuán.
Much to debate after the first big test for Barcelona after the coronavirus break. A test which, possibly, they did fail. A goalless draw that feels like a loss, considering Real Madrid now have the advantage in the league title race. What do our editors have to say on such disappointing result?
A tale of two halves
Barcelona desperately needed a win in order to cement themselves as table toppers, but, despite dominating the first half, the Catalans completely lost the plot in the second, showcasing a very similar outcome in the most recent Clásico, minus the loss. Nonetheless, this was a loss in many ways as the blaugranas have provided Real Madrid with an opportunity to go first in the league table.
Quique Setién’s side fell prey to its own lack of intensity and desire, which was made worse by the coach’s inability to read the situation effectively. While substituting the likes of Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati earlier on in the game might have helped the club be more direct and lethal in attack, Quique seemed to have settled with an unsatisfactory and unconvincing draw.
Standout performer: Jordi Alba
The Spanish left-back was a constant threat for Sevilla on the left flank, making several darting runs forward and solidifying Barcelona’s defence. Although Alba’s level, before football’s hiatus, had been a subject of great criticism, he has looked in sublime form in the two matches he has started so far. In addition to maintaining an imposing figure in attack against Julen Lopetegui’s men, he also proved to be an asset at the back. If Barcelona intend to compete for the title, they would require such performances in the remainder of the campaign.
Dull, drab and disappointing
Often in football, you see rapid changes in circumstances. Within split seconds. And that is exactly what happened last night for Barcelona. Yesterday’s was the first big test for the azulgranas since La Liga’s resumption. And, unfortunately, they didn’t have answers to the questions. After a supremely promising first half with energetic pressing and proactivity, the second half took a turn for the worse.
Quique Setién’s bizarre decisions with substitutions and an overall lack of interest from everyone all over the pitch resulted in a 0–0 draw. A result which could have been even worse had Sevilla taken their chances. Setién’s contradictory decision about Luis Suárez’s fitness, playing him for the whole 90 minutes in spite of saying he wouldn’t, just adds to the strangeness of the second half. A half where the players were totally static and seemed lost. As a consequence, the league can no longer be won on Barça’s own terms. It is now a matter of luck and hoping for massive improvement from here on out.
Standout performer: Nélson Semedo
The entire backline was a rare positive from yesterday’s overall performance. Marc-André ter Stegen made vital saves and helped generate numerical superiorities at the back, Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet were solid bar a few nervy moments, and Jordi Alba was good too, making a crucial potentially goal saving interception as well.
Nélson Semedo took advantage of Sergi Roberto’s absence through injury | Photo by Fernando Ruso / Cordon Press via Imago
However, it was Nélson Semedo who stood out the most. The Portuguese right-back enjoyed a great day out at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán. He was fantastic when it came to ball retention and defended along the flank very well, making some great tackles. His recovery pace was on display as well as his ability to play incisive one-twos. He also intelligently created spaces with his runs and clever touches the first half. A silver lining in the draw at Sevilla, hopefully Semedo has a lot more to show in the upcoming games.
In a game of two halves, Barcelona slipped up and will probably rue the missed chances. In the first period, Barcelona looked so engaged and as though a goal was incoming before the cooling break. They played with intensity and width and had some chances to score. After the break, Julen Lopetegui’s adjustments worked wonders and Quique Setién didn’t react well enough. It was a half of senseless passing through the middle of the pitch and no real opportunities to score.
This display surely got every culé thinking about what happened at half-time. Why were Barça so dull? Why didn’t Setién change more? Why didn’t Barcelona go for the goal? Now, it has got the Catalans praying for a Real Madrid slip-up at Anoeta on Sunday. A tough result to take, especially given the great first half the culés had.
Standout performer: Gerard Piqué
One positive from Barça’s game was their defence. Nélson Semedo had an excellent game on the right and covered a fantastic amount of ground. Also, his returns in defensive areas were crucial for the clean sheet. However, Gerard Piqué has to be the player of the match. The former Manchester United defender was imperial last night.
In the first half, Gerard completed all his passes and defended like a soldier as the Sevilla attackers couldn’t get past him. After the break, he took it upper-echelon to stop a revitalised Sevilla side that was more attacking and dangerous overall. His Mascherano-esque tackle in the box was the highlight of Barça’s game and stopped a crucial chance for the Sevillans. A vintage display for one of the greatest defenders in the world.
From hope to disappointment
During the first 45 minutes, Barcelona were everything – or almost everything – fans had been asking for for months. The pressing was highly effective, the progression into the opposing half was coordinated and fluid, and, regardless of the initial team selection, everyone seemed to rise up to the occasion.
Nonetheless, after the thirty-minute mark, and after half-time, the clash became much more even. Partly thanks to Julen Lopetegui’s tactical adjustments, such as introducing Éver Banega, and partly thanks to the worsening and poor decisions from Barça in the second half. As they failed to generate chances – this includes the first period too –, Barcelona once again disappointed at one of Spain’s most respected stadiums this season.
Standout performer: Iván Rakitić
While his introduction in the starting line-up raised a few eyebrows – to say it softly –, Iván Rakitić was a truly vital piece in all phases for the Catalans. Effective on and off the ball, he circulated the ball swiftly and was key at stopping Sevilla’s counters. Maybe, like with Luis Suárez, Setién extended his presence on the field for too long, as his and everyone’s intensity dropped in the second half. But still, if he performs at such level consistently, the Croatian being utilised often should be more deserved than surprising.
The countless storylines that have surrounded a cold season for Barcelona
Guest Writer: Ruairidh Barlow
Ronald Koeman is not doing a bad job. In fact, Barcelona are level on points with Real Madrid, sitting above them on goal difference. Not only would Barcelona fans have accepted that at the start of the campaign, but they would also have welcomed it. Probably with surprise, raised eyebrows and a grin.
Without an elite striker, with a Lionel Messi who does not want to be there, this season was supposed to be a disaster. Or a transition year, both fit. Messi had so long covered up the cracks; when the building collapsed entirely, he looked as lost as the others. The captain had given up any hope of winning with Barcelona.
And there’s an institutional crisis, the club is closer to bankruptcy than it has been since the Spanish Civil War, and there’s no president to negotiate it. Bearing all that in mind, it’s hard to criticise what is happening on the pitch. Begging the question, why is it so hard to warm up to this Ronald Koeman side?
There have been reasons for optimism at Camp Nou too. Despite some alarming gaps earlier in the season, Barcelona appear to have finally found a midfield three capable of surviving on its own – without an Arturo Vidal-shaped crutch. Either a cause or a consequence of Frenkie de Jong’s spectacular form in 2021. The Dutchman has been converted from wistful potential energy to a marauding hero in the centre of the park. The midfield belongs to him and Pedri.
Always a good gauge of the functionality of Barcelona, Busquets looks far more assured from the frail, slow problem he was six months ago. Neither of which would be possible without the mystical presence of Pedri, an authentic wonderkid. There too, Koeman must be lauded. Not only has he trusted the Spaniard, but he’s also afforded youth importance within his project. A regular demand of the fans and the club’s reputation, that like many other aspects which nourish a club, had been ignored for the last decade.
Beyond the soap opera that Koeman walked into – which has seen so many disasters it feels as if we must be close to the finale – he’s been hamstrung by extra obstacles.
Not least injuries. Messi aside, Ansu Fati is Barcelona’s best forward and inarguably the face of the club when and if Leo departs. His absence stretches across most of the season. Long under-appreciated, a pillar of that collapsed building was Gerard Piqué. He’s been missing most of the campaign too. Even Messi isn’t Messi. Earlier in the season, it appeared as if his astronomical finishing had already left the club.
The ultimate reclamation project, Ousmane Dembélé, who had neither the body or the brain to play for the Blaugrana according to many, is playing. And shining, no less. He now makes better decisions, taking responsibility not just for himself but on occasion has even done so for the whole team. Barely conceivable just six months previously.
Although Koeman did desire Luis Suárez’s departure, he certainly did not call him thinking Martin Braithwaite would be the only striker he had to call on. Other ‘superclubs’ contend with bad business, but none have dealt their manager as poor a hand as Barcelona have Koeman.
Again, on paper, there is a coherent argument that he’s doing a good job. Lingering beyond the results, the individual improvements and the nonsense he’s dealing with, there remains a doubt, though. A large portion of the media and the Culers remain unconvinced. Some exhibiting Koeman-like stubbornness about the issue. There’s a lack of feeling for this Barcelona team.
Undoubtedly reputation has tinted the conversation. While his history likely got him the job, equally, Koeman’s record as a manager is not synonymous with the success that Barcelona chase. Scoring the winning goal in the club’s first-ever European Cup has endeared him to supporters forever – which had genuine tangible value when Bartomeu was desperately grasping for the reigns of the club in August.
Naturally, that feat holds less of a place in the hearts of younger generations. Those same generations, who have only been aware of Koeman in managerial form, will also be conscious of the fact that he hasn’t won a major trophy since the Copa del Rey in 2008. He was chased out of Valencia shortly after. Certainly, there were many predisposed to scepticism.
Which often colours a performance as dysfunctional rather than developmental. But if we are to focus solely on the football itself, it’s been a season of many dawns, especially against the likes of Granada, Real Valladolid, and even Juventus (the first-time round). The pleasant moments have been promising enough to infuse hope amongst fans. Like his track record, though, the team is invariably inconsistent.
What is most curious is that those three performances mentioned were all achieved using different formations. The earliest iterations of Koeman’s Barcelona were emblematic of their manager’s personality – chiefly due to his inflexibility. Until December, the 4-2-3-1 was imposed regardless of the players available or the opponents. In itself, not a problem, yet the exploitation of soft spots was visible for too long without correction.
Even when the alterations did finally arrive, they still lack clarity. Whatever the idea is, it often comes out blurry, either in its conception or the minds of the players. Variety in attack is desirable. Too often, this variety is down to whichever individual playing at any one time, rather than an intentional change. With minor exceptions, mostly the long-awaited llegada of de Jong, there seems to be little consensus on how the team should attack from game-to-game.
Martin Braithwaite out wide seems to be a poor use of the limited skills he can offer. Like de Jong, Antoine Griezmann looks more confident, more involved and most importantly, happier. Yet, the finer details of his role are still shrouded in mystery. In his heart of hearts, he will never be the number nine Koeman could not sign. Lionel Messi’s role as freestyle point guard works best if he is surrounded by organisation, allowing the Argentine to be the chaos.
These challenges are not without difficulties. Apportioning responsibility from afar is a hard task. According to Koeman, though, none of it lies with him. Following each setback, the Dutchman has publicly demanded better from his players. Football-wise he may not be wrong. Numerous individual errors and impotence in front of goal do not belong amongst elite footballers.
Nevertheless, the modern age manager must be an amateur psychologist in every instant. A trait that unites all the managers at other top clubs is their ability to stand by their players. Koeman’s refusal to endure any of the criticism is the sort of thing players – or anyone in their workplace – remember.
That’s just the players he appreciates too. One can only imagine how the likes of Miralem Pjanić, Carles Aleñá (before he left), and Riqui Puig feel about their manager. Between the trio, they account for 8 league starts this season. A figure which increases in oddity given only Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets are the only fit players in their positions.
In particular, the furore surrounding Puig reached superlative levels at one point. Some fatigued observers have allowed this to cloud the actual issue. Ignoring the tiresome Twitter hyperbole, there is a genuine conversation to be had.
Puig may not deserve a starting place every week, but his syrup-like touches, dressing the minutes he has been given, warrant more action. They certainly have merited more than the 181 he has enjoyed in La Liga. Koeman has been hounded about it many times: to this day, he is yet to provide a rational explanation.
Neither is he flush for options on the bench. Over-complicating tactics is now a common malady in football. Still, Koeman’s counter-reaction of adding defenders when winning or attackers when losing is extreme. Both in the theory and the consequences – on just five of the 17 occasions Barcelona have fallen behind have they won.
It’s also a question of ambition. “What would Johan Cruyff do?” Presidential candidate Joan Laporta often asks himself. Add an extra midfielder in all likelihood. The great Barcelona sides would have been confident of retaining the ball, defending with the ball – being masters of their destiny. Adding a defender cedes territory to the other team and demands that they do the one thing they are poorest at: defend without the ball.
And then there’s PSG. January brought a new year, and it looked like a new Barcelona, the cogs finally clicking into place. That game put the brakes on all momentum, just when it appeared the paralysis had finally been overcome. But it was never just PSG. It was Sevilla, Atlético Madrid, and Real Madrid. All of these points of improvement, all the progress, seems to slip away when faced with a genuine challenge.
Even in the Spanish Super Cup final against Athletic Club, when Barcelona were not as poor as some suggested, the Basque side were capable of unlocking their demons again. It’s not unreasonable to expect more; no team in LaLiga has taken fewer points from matches against the top four this season than Barcelona (granted they can’t play themselves). Now, the inability to win big games in Spain has become a narrative too. Well, until Sevilla were brutally sliced open by Koeman’s men at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
Barcelona are undergoing far too complex a season for a proper appraisal. The usual cauldron of noise and egos are difficult to decipher in ‘normal’ times, let alone in this most surreal era. If the Blaugrana were playing smooth, jazz-like football with the same points tally, if they were on a visible path, Koeman would be doing an excellent job.
But Koeman’s greatest problem is that the mistakes are obvious. The rationality behind his decision-making remains a little too obscure. When changes do manifest themselves, they are tardy on a political scale. Despite Koeman navigating some of the biggest waves, basic flaws leave enough room for doubt to survive.
One of his greatest attributes is his iron will. Nevermore so than now is a strong personality a necessity for a Barcelona manager. Everything is being done in extremis though. In order to fix some of the obvious errors and answer the key questions, he needs to show the balance of a great leader. Perhaps then he will be fully trusted to steer Barcelona through next season’s storm.