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.
The numbers behind Frenkie de Jong’s revival at Barcelona
How has the shift away from a double pivot and into the right side of a midfield trio affected Frenkie de Jong’s performance and with it Barcelona’s?
Coming into this season, many believed the arrival of Ronald Koeman would help get the best out of Frenkie de Jong. In Koeman’s Dutch national side, de Jong had been one of the star performers, giving fans reason to be optimistic.
To open the campaign, Koeman implemented the 4-2-3-1 he had utilized with the Netherlands, which placed de Jong on the left side of a double pivot in midfield. While the former Ajax man played well, a more recent tactical shift away from the 4-2-3-1 has seemingly allowed him to reach new heights.
Starting with Barcelona’s away victory over Huesca, de Jong has played on the right side of a midfield three in the new midfield implemented by Koeman. In that more advanced role, the Dutchman’s freedom to roam forward has noticeably increased. He seems fresher, happier, and more impactful on the course of the match.
With that in mind, what do the numbers say about de Jong’s recent performances? What is he doing more of? What is he doing less of? How is this helping the side? Time to investigate.
Moving across and up
To start off, how about a little visualization of this role change? In theory, there should be significant differences between the positions de Jong was taking up earlier in the season compared to recent matches. Looking at where he played his passes from certainly backs this up.
It has been quite the shift. Not only has the Dutchman transitioned from the left half of the pitch to the right, but also higher up towards the opposition goal. In these last four La Liga games, de Jong has been operating much less in the defensive half of the pitch, plus one can see his territory stretching further to the attacking penalty area.
What about the areas de Jong has played his passes into?
Some more basic trends are visible. As the left pivot, one can see de Jong’s hot zone extending diagonally towards the left-wing. As the right interior, he seems to be passing to a more refined, central position, often in the right half-space.
An additional method that can highlight these differences is clustering de Jong’s actions. This allows us to see which passing patterns he repeated with the most frequency. For instance, his top clusters for passes played in the double pivot further reflect his tendency to play out to the left-wing.
That first cluster does show some activity higher up the pitch on the right, but outside of that, it is all passes played from the wide left or left-central positions. In comparison, de Jong’s pass clusters for the last four matches show him favouring shorter combinations from slightly to the right of the centre of the pitch.
The same can be done with the passes for which de Jong was on the receiving end of. Doing so provides further insight into his movement to get on the ball. Once again, the early season shows that left side dominance, and also just how far back de Jong was playing.
All of those lateral switches the Dutchman received in the defensive half, the short passes from the likes of Clément Lenglet, and the back passes from the attacking third all point to a deep-lying playmaker. Fast forward to his time as the right interior, and things look very different.
For one, we can see his passes received up and down the right flank. Additionally, there have not been as many deep passes received around the Barcelona box. Instead, de Jong has been getting the ball further into the attacking third, even in and around the penalty area frequently.
So, simple observation and data show the Dutch international phasing into a new role. Now that the basics have been established, though, the true insight has to be drawn from how this shift has made de Jong more productive. Given the new positions he is taking up, he must be contributing to different aspects of the game than he was before.
Adopting a new statistical profile
Moving to different areas and playing passes to different zones is only what is on the surface. To dive further into the Willem II academy product’s transformation, what matters most are the different actions he performs in these areas.
In order to investigate this, de Jong’s stats in matches on the right of the midfield three can be compared to his stats in the double pivot. To level the playing field between different metrics that occur at varying volumes, percent change will be utilized.
In this case, a positive change, or per cent increase, reflects an action he is performing with more frequency in the last four matches than in the opening sequence of the season. There are twelve key metrics which have increased by 10% or higher and five, which have more than doubled (over 100% increase).
Note: These stats are provided by Football Reference via StatsBomb. They have all been adjusted on a per 90 minutes scale.
Right off the bat, it is clear to see the increased freedom and dynamism in attacking areas. His non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes have shot up dramatically by 256%. Furthermore, he is carrying the ball into the penalty area far more often. Getting much more involved in creating goals — goal-creating actions are the two offensive actions leading directly to a goal.
The increases are not just on the offensive end, too. The Dutch international has been a more active ball-winner in his new role, with tackles, interceptions, passes blocked, and successful pressures all up. More specifically, his tackles and pressures in the middle third of the pitch have increased, reflecting the fact that he is now able to step up further on the pitch when out of possession.
In short, de Jong has been more active in the attacking penalty area, supplying a spark to create chances or get on the end of them himself, while also taking advantage of the freedom to step out and press with more intensity.
On the other end of the spectrum, what has de Jong started to do less frequently?
The most significant decrease has been to his switches of play, or horizontal passes across the pitch. As a right-footed player, de Jong was much more suited to playing these switches from the left side of the pitch because he could cut inside and ping the ball across.
Elsewhere, the inverses of his increasing metrics can be seen. By staying in the middle third more often and moving up to join the attack, de Jong has to take up fewer responsibilities in the defensive third.
Furthermore, there have been drop-offs in several metrics associated with playing deeper. The Dutchman is getting involved in fewer aerial duels, fouling less, and playing fewer long balls, which was also reflected by those pass clusters.
It might be surprising to see that his passes into the penalty area have dropped. Still, given that his carries into the penalty area and his shooting numbers have increased, this reflects the fact that de Jong is getting into these advanced positions with the ball himself as opposed to playing it in.
With these metrics taken into account, one can appreciate what has truly made de Jong so effective recently. The new role has given him more freedom and room to roam, but he has taken great advantage of that with brave runs, incisive play, creativity, and ball-winning.
While the sample size is still small, this new role seems to be the best one for Frenkie de Jong going forward. Not only does the 4-3-3 allow the Dutchman to shift up and make the most use of his strengths, but it allows him to play into the team’s success as well.
With a player of de Jong’s calibre, it should not be surprising that what seems to be his best span of matches at the club so far has yielded four consecutive convincing wins. That is the type of impact he was brought in to make, and it is brilliant to see it unfold.
Of course, there are more difficult tests in the future for de Jong in his new role, but from what he has shown so far, there is a lot more to look forward to.