The long coronavirus break might have given all players, and particularly Lionel Messi, the chance to get the much-needed rest they could not enjoy through the regular season.
If there’s one man that’s going to reap benefits from football’s temporary time-out, it has to be Lionel Messi. While fans across the globe have been aching to bless their eyes with Messi masterclasses, it would be unfair to hide the fact that the Argentine looked rustier than ever before football events were adjourned.
A surprisingly mediocre display against Real Madrid, a subpar performance against Real Sociedad and a goal drought that stuck around for quite a while was tremendously worrisome to watch. Considering Messi had set his standards higher than the moon, him not able to bang goals on a consistent basis and terrorise oppositions like he normally did was by no means pleasing to witness.
While some claimed that the number 10 was overburdened, others assumed he was simply carrying an injury, which he had no option but to hide, in order to save Barça’s sinking ship. Though whatever the situation Messi was going through, one thing was certain: he desperately needed a break. Now that he got what he yearned for, what should fans expect from the menacing genius?
Taking a look at recent training clips, it would be safe to assume Leo’s claws are itching for success. He seems to be in the shape of his life, ready to pounce on anyone who dares to question his brilliance.
Lionel Messi did look fatigued in the months prior to the unexpected break | Photo by Imago
At 32 years of age, Leo will definitely not have the capacity to start games on a consistent basis, but at the very least, he will have the motivation, the hunger, and the desire to perform whenever the opportunity is given to him. A lion who has not feasted in over two months would undeniably be drooling over teams, and that’s exactly what spectators should expect: a bloodthirsty animal who just wants to torment opponents with his spectacular abilities on the ball.
Under Quique Setién’s reign, Messi has had the privilege to act with a lot more freedom in the centre of the park. Whilst he is believed to be far more lethal in front of goal, against various oppositions the little genius was seen to have ample flexibility when he dropped deep. This will not only allow him to be the prodigious playmaker he is, but also help him be relatively active upfield bearing in mind his fitness level seems to have recovered.
Another factor which should make Messi so fearful on the field is the reintroduction of his best buddy, Luis Suárez. The Uruguayan underwent a knee surgery, which caused him to be away from action for nearly two months, but it was evident that without him on the field, Leo lacked a presence he could rely on in attack. Notwithstanding that Luis has lost his flare as a striker, he played a crucial role for the team, and that was being Messi’s reference point. Antoine Griezmann failed to take that demanding role upon himself, therefore it wasn’t surprising seeing Messi often look ineffective in the final third. Now that the indestructible duo is back in business, Leo must undoubtedly be relieved.
❛ Physically we are well, we have done work at home. For many players who have not had holidays in recent years, it has been good for us to be able to work physically. We have also had more time to recover and rest. Players like Messi or Griezmann almost never have a break, between World Cups, the Copa Américas, Euros…Now they have had time to rest ❜
All in all, the possibility of getting to observe Messi at his very best would be a treat to the eyes. While countless fans would rather have football continue without any stoppages this season, as long as it helps Messi recoup and rest, this hiatus could be termed as a blessing in disguise.
After being a part of such a backbreaking season where the club had to even sack Ernesto Valverde, any player would require time to adjust to new surroundings and mentally be prepared for what’s ahead. This should surely help the Barcelona captain be the imposing figure he is known to be, and without of a shadow of a doubt, RCD Mallorca would already be melancholic at the fact that their first game is up against a vicious Messi, who has already made them pay in the past.
How Zidane’s Real Madrid beat Koeman’s Barcelona
The highly anticipated day of El Clasico, the clash of eternal rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid finally arrived. The Blaugrana were just two points ahead of Los Blancos with the same number of games played. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are at their most vulnerable right now; recent losses to Sevilla and Chelsea had already demoralized the team. Additionally, Luis Suarez – their top scorer -, is injured.
El Clasico has incredible importance on its own. Add to that the fact that it will be pivotal in the title race, and it becomes apparent how much it means to both sides. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at how Real Madrid managed to conquer Barcelona in a 2-1 victory.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 3-5-2 as expected. This formation is one that has contributed to Barcelona’s recent positive results significantly. Though this could be viewed as a 5-3-2 or even a 3-5-2-1 at times, the basic principles remained the same. Barcelona would look to build up from the back. The backline of Ronald Araujo with Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza on either side of him was the platform upon which the team would build-up.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets would be the deepest player, with Frenkie De Jong and Pedri Gonzalez as the two interiors. These two youngsters would operate in the half-spaces as their roles entail, but they would drop back and join the attack as well. Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest, the two wing-backs, would look to stretch the opposition and would be positioned high up the field.
In attack, Lionel Messi was joined by Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman would operate through the centre as Messi would usually drop back and have the freedom to move across the pitch.
Zinedine Zidane has often been labelled as someone who manages big egos well but doesn’t have tactical expertise. Purely a misconception, this match was an example of how well the retired midfielder sets up his team. What was most admirable was how Zidane finds the perfect role for his players’ profiles.
Real Madrid were deployed in a 4-1-4-1. Casemiro would play between the lines, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos just ahead oh him. This formation could also be viewed as a 4-5-1, which would be a 4-3-3 when attacking. In defence, Eder Militao and Nacho were the centre-halves with Lucas Vasquez and Ferland Mendy as the full-backs. To support the midfield as well as the attack, Vinicius Junior and Fede Valverde would act as wide midfielders.
Karim Benzema, the number nine, would drift into the channels or drop a bit deeper as required. He was the key to Madrid’s fluid attack. There would be a constant staggering between Benzema, Vinicius, and Valverde. When Benzema dropped deep to fight for the second ball, Vinicius and Fede would move forward and provide passing options. At times, Vasquez would overlap, which was Valverde’s cue to drop back. The players would also switch roles.
Madrid’s defensive organization
After getting a lead, Real Madrid were still proactive but to a lesser extent than earlier. They would even have five players defending at times, transitioning into a 5-4-1. Their timing and organization was impressive nonetheless. As we see in the image above, Ousmane Dembele is about to receive the pass. Immediately, Casemiro presses him, while other players start moving forward to close the distance to possible passing options. This meant Barcelona had little time on the ball deep in Madrid’s half.
The pressing shown by Los Blancos was very fine-tuned. The players were unsurprisingly not hesitant to play a physical game as well. As the earlier image shows us, Ousmane Dembele would receive the ball ahead of the defense and attempt to involve other players. Pedri and de Jong were the most obvious passing options. However, for them, the passing would more often than not be out wide. This was forced due to Madrid’s structure which prevented them from playing through the middle.
Arguably one of Barcelona’s strongest moves is when Messi plays Jordi Alba through between the full-back and centre-halves. Though it was effective at some points in the match, this was clearly something Zidane expected. When either full-back would have crossing options, the full-backs would look to block the cross.
Simultaneously, the centre-halves would track Barcelona’s attackers Messi and Dembele. These two being the only two forwards, Mingueza’s goal was one of the few times the team actually had more players looking to attack. Casemiro would be in the box looking to clear the ball or cover for any defensive holes.
What went wrong for Barcelona?
Ronald Koeman’s team selection was well-thought-out. Shifting de Jong to midfield was a smart choice. However, as the scoreline clearly shows, some issues persisted.
One of the main ones being the lack of attackers in the final third. This was a formation with two attackers on paper, but one of them was Messi. Expecting the argentine to make runs off the ball and act as a target man is highly unrealistic. He does best when he’s on the ball. This would leave Dembele alone upfront. The Frenchman isn’t a classic number 9 who takes shots on the swivel and can establish himself in the box. Against a defence that was sitting very deep, he was unable to run onto the ball between the full-backs and centre-halves the way he likes to.
The image above shows a common scenario observed in the first half. Receiving the ball in the final third, Dembele turns to face the defenders. As they don’t lunge in, rather trying to contain him. he is unable to beat them in a 1v1. There is plenty of space with no Barcelona players highlighted in the image. This lack of attackers was one of the reasons Koeman switched to the 4-3-3. Shown below, the 4-3-3- allowed Pedri and Dembele to be more involved.
Below, we have a visualization showing the PPDA stats for both teams. A lower PPDA means a higher pressing intensity. As we can see, Barcelona were clearly pressing much more than Real Madrid throughout the match. Despite this, they failed to create enough chances. To demonstrate this, we can observe the xG graph.
As the xG graph shows, there were some situations when the Catalans had a chance to change the score-line in their favour. Among other reasons, Dembele’s inability to play as a striker and inefficiency in finishing was clearly affecting the team. The visualization below the xG graph shows the shot map. It further reaffirms the observation that Barcelona need to improve in front of the goal and in terms of the quality of chances created.
With a higher number of shots, Barcelona still had a lower xG than their rivals. Another indication of low-quality chances is the size of the circles in the box for both teams. The smaller the circle, the less likely it is to end up in the back of the net. The stark contrast is one of the many indicators that there are major issues to be resolved in attack for Koeman’s side.
This loss will hurt Barcelona, even more so as it strengthens the notion that his team doesn’t show up in big matches. If Koeman’s side wants to be Champions, now is the time to give their all. One cannot ignore the fact that the Blaugrana have a lot of work to do to be deserving of the La Liga title. Whether or not they will be able to do this remains to be seen.