The best clubs in the world boast of some of the dominating wins with the largest of margins. While the five or six-goal margin in these games affirms the quality of the side, it is barely enough for a side to win championships. A league campaign is a long one, and undoubtedly, every side faces a situation where they are unable to put any more past the opposition defence. It is at such times that the ability to hold on to narrow leads and grind out wins comes in handy.
Barcelona’s poor run late in the season is largely down to the same reason. Comfortable performances in the first half see the Blaugranas leading at the mid-game interval. However, everything collapses with a moment of negligence or overconfidence, and the side never recover.
Though it has been a common occurrence throughout the season, the past few weeks have made it glaringly obvious. It all began at Camp Nou, where Barcelona took the lead against Granada and were cruising against Granada. Till the hour mark, anyway.
However, the slack defence was caught off guard on the counter. With acres of space to run into, the visitors equalised. Soon, Granada earned a winner too late in the second half when their cross found Jorgo Molina completely unmarked in front of the goal.
The game against Valencia followed the same pattern, if not worse. Lionel Messi cancelled out Gabriel Paulista’s opener before Barcelona took a 3-1 lead via Messi and Antoine Griezmann. The two-goal margin should have warranted a comfortable finish with 20 minutes to go. However, the Catalans conceded in the 83rd-minute courtesy of poor defending from Sergi Roberto, once again ramping up the pressure for the last 10 minutes.
The situation got graver at the Estadio Ciudad de Valencia against Levante, where Ronald Koeman’s side led by 2 goals at the break. Bringing on Roberto as a centre-back in the second half cost them dearly as Gonzalo Melero and Jose Morales scored within the first fifteen minutes of the second period to get Levante level. Even a third goal from Ousmane Dembele would not suffice on the night, as Levante’s push for the third became a reality.
The Granada story repeated itself in the penultimate matchday when Celta Vigo gave their hosts the same treatment. This time, however, it was Marc-Andre ter Stegen directly responsible for it. The visitors punished the sloppy hosts in the 89th minute. An unmarked Santi Mina comfortably slotted in the rebound to secure three points.
For a side to squander leads in four games out of five is baffling. And for a side of Barcelona’s stature, more so. However, all these instances share one feature. In all the cases, individual errors led to the collapse.
Barcelona this season has seen an unacceptable level of individual mistakes. Part of the reason the defence is so vulnerable is that none of the defenders is error-proof.
Clement Lenglet requires no introduction in this regard. The Frenchman has been known to give away unnecessary penalties or get sent off at the worst possible times. Gerard Pique has let his grip slip one too many times as well, costing the team. The usually reliable ter Stegen has made mistakes this season. Mistakes that lead directly to goals. Not to forget, but Lionel Messi has been directly at fault for two goals conceded, as well.
Oscar Mingueza has had a phenomenal season. But the youngster has been caught off guard on occasion and beaten to a goal. A more extensive criticism can be made on Roberto. Since his return, the Spaniard has contributed to more goals conceded than scored.
Nevertheless, one cannot pin all the blame on the defence. An effective team would bury their chances when they have the upper hand. Heading into the second half chasing a three-goal difference brings out a very different opposition than one that is just a single goal behind.
On the contrary, Barcelona have failed to do so. In all the above situations, Barcelona had countless spoonfed chances to extend their lead. Yet, they spurned them to head into the break with a narrow one or two-goal margin. Neither Granada nor Celta Vigo would play the way they did if they were chasing three goals. It was only the narrow margin that encouraged them to take the risk and the reward.
Heading into next season, Barcelona has holes to plug. To improve their ability to hold on to leads, they need reinforcements on many fronts. To begin with, a more clinical forward is required. A skilled no.9 could help Barcelona take their half chances and seal the game in the first half.
Secondly, the defence requires urgent changes. Sergi Roberto is not fit to start for a club like Barcelona. The signing of a right-back who could give competition to Sergino Dest is a step in the right direction. Bringing in competition for the left-back spot could once again bring the defensive best out of Jordi Alba, as well. The centre-back situation is a constant with Barcelona. This window, too, the hunt for a quality centre-back will continue.
If Barcelona are to compete for the title next season, they will have to play as champions from the get-go. Grinding out wins will be a part of it. With defending leads being their Achilles heel, Joan Laporta has urgent changes to make, and fast.