As Barça lost the La Liga title after a home defeat against Osasuna and, especially, an extremely inconsistent season, it is time to look back at all the chronological events that occurred through this Barcelona league campaign.
“Real Madrid did their job, but we helped them a lot in that”. This is how Barcelona’s captain Lionel Messi analysed Barça’s La Liga season yesterday night, after the 1–2 loss to Osasuna in the last la Liga game at the Camp Nou this term. And there is no better way to sum it all up. Real Madrid deserved their 34th title, but Barça, oh dear Barça, you have been extremely disappointing.
While Messi spoke for about four minutes in that post-match interview, he could have gone on and on about this year’s problems. But nobody could momentarily go through all of the issues that the Catalan team is facing. What Barcelona can do…better said, what Barcelona have to do, is analyse where it all went wrong. And unfortunately the points of disconnect are a worrisome number, just as Barça’s inability to perform consistently during the season. That is if you don’t even consider what happened outside of the pitch, because that’s a moment where the situation goes south quickly. Very quickly.
There’s an Italian saying that states that “the one who begins well has already done half of the work”. Well, Barça didn’t. And their difficulties started even before that visit to Athletic Club’s San Mamés. With a summer full of transfer rumours, with “Neymar’s coming, Neymar’s not coming” amongst others, rather than the (by now) vintage hashtags wanting both Ernesto Valverde and president Josep Maria Bartomeu out of the club, Barça’s preseason was already packed with what could have easily been called an Oscar-worthy thriller.
With unfortunate circumstances, the season didn’t start well for Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona | Photo by AFP7 / Zuma via Imago
Then even worse news came from the pitch, where Lionel Messi got injured during his first training session after his holidays. An injury that seemed worriless at first, but proved worrisome at last. But with the new French addition to the roaster, the World Cup champion Antoine Griezmann, the hope for the blaugrana fans was that the latter could replace the captain without too much problems: having Messi on the field is always better than the alternative, but still, having some sort of damage control ready to go is always better than not.
The most exciting moment of our summer, though, could have never been outcasted by anything: Frenkie de Jong’s presentation at the Camp Nou. Talent takes different shapes: what a shape that of the Dutchman, what a shape. Another transfer (not) worth mentioning was the team’s newest back-up for left-back Jordi Alba, Junior Firpo.
But, as the season approached its start, nothing could have been worse than the reality that was being depicted in front of the culés‘ own eyes. Ready, start, go. First game, first loss. A 38-year-old in Aritz Aduriz took the ‘L’ out of Griezmann’s features and used it against Barcelona. Furthermore, Luis Suárez got injured and still looked as an embarrassing shadow of himself; Rafinha Alcântara was the best for Barça upon entering; and Griezmann at the beginning of his Valverde career was deployed practically as, well, a left full-back. Not a bad start. Have you already made your popcorns?
With the best friends up there both injured, in Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez, and with a clear and obvious attacking problem in terms of volume of players, Valverde was hoping in a miracle. But while the coach probably thought about Neymar Júnior, God brought on Earth two La Masía wonderkids on Ernesto’s lap. Carles Pérez firstly, Ansu Fati secondly, while Rafinha was incredibly loaned out to Celta de Vigo the last day of the transfer market, even though the squad was clearly low on volumes.
Youth, and particularly Ansu Fati, have been the main positive from this campaign for Barça | Photo by Photo Agency via Imago
With Carles Aleñá, Carles Pérez and Ansu, Barça was able to go back to some of the past illustrious youth academy successes, since the three boys – especially the latter two – were able to impose their strengths on an almost lost side. But while the season slowly went onwards, the azulgranas‘ performances remained contained around the Camp Nou’s walls and the so much awaited MSG attacking trio never took off.
With Suárez (not) fit again and Messi fully reintegrated in the team only on week eight of La Liga, Valverde’s team was able to score a lot at home, averaging 3.8 goals per game until the manager’s departure. On the other hand, it wasn’t as confident and focused away from Barcelona, where the Catalans gained only one point within the first three matches of the season, thanks to a header from then-16-year-old Ansu Fati.
After the first half of the league, Barça had already lost three times and drawn another three away from home, with the Wanda Metropolitano match against Atlético de Madrid that could have seemed the perfect turning point to make a switch. But in the end it turned out to be only a mere act of brilliance by both Messi and Marc-André ter Stegen in getting a tight 1–0 victory.
And while Real Madrid also had some issues at the beginning of the campaign, Barça was feeling way too comfortable even without their sparkling and brilliant football, even with a kind of inconsistency that was still worrying and detrimental to the title chances. Slowly, the Madrid side was gaining confidence, game after game.
The postponed El Clásico gave Barça’s world the sight of a team that nobody really knew. That wasn’t their team. That was something else. That goalless draw proved to be the lowest point in Valverde’s journey as the club’s manager, at least this term. A 0–0 that, beside being boring, was also far from what the pitch said. Real Madrid dominated the Camp Nou as has rarely been seen in more than a decade. If you add a couple of clear penalties that weren’t awarded to Los Blancos, you can’t deny the fact that that point was a gift for Barça and a wasted opportunity for Real Madrid. Almost a regret for Zinedine Zidane’s men. Valverde reached the tip of the iceberg in that match.
The 0–0 against Real Madrid was a lost opportunity from Barça to get a critical home win against their biggest title rivals | Photo by Imago
And while the draw against a bottom side team as Espanyol didn’t do the trick, Ernesto saw that tip definitely fall after the defeat in the semi-finals of January’s Spanish Super Cup, against Atlético. It can’t be denied the fact that this, to be honest, wasn’t a moment of particular brilliance from the board, rather than from Valverde. While he should have been lifted from his job after the Liverpool debacle, after the 18/19 course, that duel against Atleti wasn’t the time to sack him.
No great team sack a manager mid-season, unless it is something catastrophic – as has been Roma and Liverpool. Barça were at the top of La Liga, despite their inconsistency. And above all, they had probably played their best game of the campaign against the Rojiblancos.
While this is not the place nor the time to discuss his managerial quality, at that point Valverde deserved to finish the season because, love him or hate him, he always respected the club and gave it all achieving some results, even with the poorest Barça side of the decade. It is not random when you hear and read that he had a good relationship with the dressing room. And often times, the solidity of a group is more important than the technical skills of the group itself.
Then Quique Setién came. Admittedly, his arrival excited the majority of fans. Everyone had seen his style of play and supporters all wanted to believe that, in spite of his inexperience at the biggest stage, he could bring back some of the entertainment and energy the club was all longing for. He came with ideas, excitement for having to deal with superstars such as the likes of Messi and Sergio Busquets.
“I’m still not aware of what it means to coach the best player in the world and his teammates. Messi is Messi, Busquets is Busquets, Piqué is Piqué, but everyone must earn their place. I’m sure I will have a great relationship with them all. I am a direct and sincere person, I won’t beat around the bush. If I see something I don’t like, I’ll talk with them”
in his first press conference as a Barça manager
And culés couldn’t believe their eyes when Quique greeted young midfielder Riqui Puig on his first training session as the new manager. But he would give him the chance he deserved after the lockdown, not before. The debut for Setién was actually good. Despite winning only one goal to nil against Granada, more than a thousand passes were being made by the locals at the Camp Nou and the fans were able to see at least a shadow of their true identity, of the true Barça game. The Spanish giants seemed to be on the right path as that was only Setién’s first clash in charge.
“I don’t have titles or a strong curriculum. but I love this philosophy. My teams play good football and that’s the only thing I can guarantee: they will play good football”
in his first press conference as a Barça manager
But while the excitement was high because we were still at the top of the table, it quickly faded away in the following weeks, reaching a boiling point during the resuming of football in these summer months. After the Granada encounter, the team showed the same issues away from home, where Setién saved himself from an embarrassing defeat at Ibiza in the Copa del Rey and, a few days later, still crumbled at Valencia.
Differently from Valverde, Quique’s side has never scored as much, reaching the four and five goals mark only one time each. The performances never took off and, since the goals scored decreased, the boringness of the games increased. No matter the tactical system he chose, the results were just a spark in the unknown.
The El Clásico at the Santiago Bernabéu was a reflection that not only something was wrong, but something was changing. It was the first time since the 2012/13 season that Barcelona weren’t able to win a league game against Real Madrid in a single term. Times are different, times are changing. Either way, fans still kept their heads afloat, when coronavirus shocked the world and blocked everything. Everyone was confined in their homes with a +1 from Barça in the La Liga table over Los Blancos, who had lost to Real Betis.
Neither with results nor with the style implemented, Quique Setién has not been able to have the expected impact at Barcelona | Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images
No matter the chaos, culés were still one point ahead. But it didn’t matter. Because everyone could see how that wasn’t enough. Everyone knew how the calendar was looking for the remaining games and how the team had performed earlier. Barça should have been flawless once football resumed. But after such an inconsistent season, how could one think they would have?
Even though the first match back was a comfortable win at Mallorca, the inconsistency came back to haunt Barça and Setién couldn’t respond to it. He even seemed to have found a tactical solution to the MSG against Villarreal, but it proved just a random and tiny in-game success, rather than a sustainable one.
“I am happy with a lot of things that have improved since I arrived here”
after the loss against Osasuna
The warm weather, the fatigue and the lactic acid also did their thing, along with the board’s inexplicable transfer decisions, rumours and scandals. Since the Matchday series became live, Barça seemed like a reality show. Sporting director Éric Abidal’s comments and Bartomeu’s I3 Ventures scandal brought down to the team more and more gasoline to an already well-lighten fire.
Even more worrying technically wise was the noise surrounding Quique Setién that became louder ever since the cameras spotted Eder Sarabia, his assistant, shouting and expressing his thoughts in an unusually explicit way. Setién’s body language and words in the post-lockdown period did the rest in terms of accountability and self-confidence that a manager should inspire to his team. He showed every bit of his inexperience, starting with his clueless substitutions and lack of ones, and finishing with his behaviours.
“Since January, everything that’s been happening at the club has been weird and bad”
after the loss against Osasuna
It didn’t depict a solid environment – not that it ever was this season – surrounding a team which lacked the mental freshness to clinch another La Liga title. Barcelona haven’t lost the league because of Valverde or Setién. Barcelona haven’t lost it by drawing three games post-lockdown. Barcelona lost it because they lost points during the entire campaign. They lost points against the likes of Celta de Vigo, Osasuna, Sevilla and…that could be it. If Barça had just got all the three points from these opponents, they would have been champions. But the game is not played with the what ifs.
Barça lost it because they don’t have the volume of players other teams have. Barça lost it because they are still depending on a single individual’s magic rather than on the collective’s creativity. Barça lost it because the board decided that the best interest for the club was that of giving out on loan players as Rafinha, Aleñá and Carles Pérez, who were all fundamental in this team. Barça lost it because they lacked Barça in their veins.
The only thing we achieved this year is the welcome to the big stage to Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig, the club’s future. With Josep Maria Bartomeu’s permission. As captain Messi said, the Osasuna game is a reflection of Barça’s season. Barcelona won’t achieve anything as a team by playing as they have done all year long. They won’t achieve anything as a club behaving and managing as they have done in the last few years.
“We were inconsistent during the season. Real Madrid did their thing. We lost a lot of points. We have to do some self-criticism. We are Barça”
after the loss against Osasuna
The goal is a long-term project, rather than a short-term fix. While fans all can’t wait for the 2021 presidential elections, they have to be set on the present. Because the present consists of another title to play for. As Neymar once said, “1% chance, 99% faith”. But while the unknowns at Barcelona stay a fair number, the moments needed to achieve a spark are timeless.
But regarding the league, there’s nothing else to say other than to congratulate Real Madrid. They deserved it. But hey, the blaugranas surely didn’t help their case as much as they helped Madrid in achieving theirs. Dear Barça, you have been truly disappointing.
Ansu Fati and the return of natural wingers
In Ronald Koeman’s La Liga debut as manager of Barcelona, he handed Ansu Fati a starting place in the team. It proved to be the correct decision as the youngster stole the show. It was great seeing Barça play with proper wingers again which helped unlock the Villarreal defence.
On Sunday night, Barcelona played a strong Villarreal side. As the Blaugrana kicked off their campaign, the Yellow Submarine had already played two La Liga games. The Barça defence looked shaky at times but in the end, kept a clean sheet. They passed the ball out from the back well with Clément Lenglet breaking the press with a beautiful left-footed pass on several occasions.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets struggled to adapt to the double pivot role and was off the pace with his passing. On the other hand, Frenkie De Jong looked more comfortable in this position. His build-up play was excellent, and he covered a lot of ground. Miralem Pjanić also impressed in his cameo and will be pushing for a starting role.
In attack, the Catalan side went with a front four. Antoine Griezmann was the quietest of the forwards and sometimes found himself too wide again. Philippe Coutinho looks to be regaining some form in his preferred position. He was involved in the build-up plays and gave a great assist to Fati. Lionel Messi put in another impressive performance and seemed to be enjoying himself. The attackers linked well and there was a lot more movement than recent seasons. Their understanding should continue to improve as the season progresses.
Ansu Fati celebrating the opening goal of the match against Villarreal | Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images
However, the real stand out of the game was Ansu Fati. The 17-year-old started on the left-wing and was a constant threat down this channel. Most of Barcelona’s attacks came down the left side with Jordi Alba having one of his best games in a long time. The two players combined well and seemed to effortlessly know where space was. When Alba and Neymar used to play on the wings they would sometimes compete over the same areas. But with Fati and Alba, they looked like a great partnership
On the night, Ansu Fati scored two goals and won a penalty for the team. His first goal came after a beautiful pass from Lenglet over the top of the defence found Alba. The left-back produced one of his classic cutbacks, but this time found Fati instead of Messi. The Spanish international unleashed a confident first-time finish leaving Sergio Asenjo almost static on his line.
Minutes later, Coutinho played the young winger through and again Ansu finished at the near post. Again, Lenglet found the pass through Villarreal’s press that started the move. Fati is proving to be a clinical finisher with 9 goals from just 14 shots in La Liga. Such composure in front of goal is rare for any player let alone a 17-year-old.
“When I am handed a chance to play, I become eager to take it and make the best out of it.”Ansu Fati
The young winger was involved again when he was brought down in the penalty box by Mario Gaspar. Once again, Fati demonstrated his ability to take defenders on and beat them. His pace caused a lot of problems for the opposition’s defence. Ansu showed just how good he is tactically, as he is technically. His positioning and decision making were almost flawless, especially for someone who has had so little minutes in the first team. When he was substituted in the second half, he received a warm embrace from Koeman for his fantastic display.
The performance of Ansu last night also highlighted how important is it for Barcelona to play with wingers. Almost all the attacks came from the left-hand side where Alba and Fati played. However, there was only a handful of attacking plays coming from the right side where Roberto and Griezmann were. Having that width and pace really stretched the Villarreal defence and created space for others to exploit.
Ansu Fati scoring his second goal in the 20th minute against Villarreal | Photo by David Ramirez via Imago
“I criticized Ansu for his performance in pre-season. That’s what gave him a boost. He made a huge impact, especially on the wings.”Ronald Koeman
The second goal of the evening shows how important having that width is. With Coutinho running through the centre, Griezmann was directly ahead of him. Two defenders were then dragged into the area around Antoine which allowed Fati more space to run into. If there was no left-winger, that space could not have been exploited and the goal would not have happened.
With the success down the left-wing, the manager may consider playing with a more natural winger on the right too. The right-wing was almost invisible for Barça over the 90 minutes and this is unsustainable for the full season. The substitutions of Francisco Trincão and Ousmane Dembélé showed how having two natural wingers could work. Dembélé was positioned on the left and Trincão on the right. Both offer width in the team and are can dribble past defenders. It is something to consider when playing against teams that play in the low block.
Overall, Barcelona’s first game of the season looked promising. There was a lot more intensity in the team and plenty of movement. The competition for places should keep players’ levels high and allow for rotations. So far, the 4-2-3-1 formation seems to be working and allows for some to play in their favoured position. Ansu Fati impressed during the game and showed why having pace and width is so important to any Barça team. The performance levels should continue to improve as players get used to the system and get more minutes on the field.