Goalkeepers often make or break their team’s matches. The difference between a superb goalkeeper and a mediocre one is subtle. Sometimes, it’s a matter of interpretation. On other occasions, it’s a matter of playing style. They require knowledge about their teammates and, more importantly, guide their defenders.
At Barcelona, the keeper often needs to play as well with their feet than with their hands. Keepers such as Andoni Zubizarreta, Victor Valdés and now Marc-André Ter Stegen have all proven this stereotype right.
The German is the current starter at Camp Nou, but his recovery from surgery halted his game time. The most recent memory of the former M’Gladbach goalie is the 8-2 drubbing in Lisbon against Bayern Munich. Truth be told, this memory is unfair for him and he has been superb for his club throughout his career.
During his injury, Neto took place in goal, and his show has been fun to sit through. Never utilised last year, Neto’s last meaningful game in 19/20 came in Saudi Arabia in January where Ter Stegen was injured. The Brazilian was shaky at the back and ultimately cost his team the game. Against Atletico in the Spanish Super Cup, Neto’s display was relatively low. He shipped three goals and, eventually, Ernesto Valverde left Camp Nou.
When the news broke about the German’s lengthy unavailability, Culés weren’t serene, calling for Inaki Peña to take his place instead of Neto.
However, Neto took on the role of Barcelona goalkeeper to perfection. Competent with his feet, Neto wasn’t as solicited in goal but did well whenever called upon. In his first two La Liga games, he kept two clean sheets. Also made great saves against the league’s best attackers. From Gerard Moreno to Iago Aspas, Neto was a wall in net for his side and frustrated them. And, yes, indeed, Neto conceded a few goals, but mostly from situations where he could not have done anything about.
No more the guarder of the Net-o? (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Conceding a header against Luuk de Jong, a penalty from Jaume Mata and another one from the spot against Sergio Ramos isn’t atrocious. Although Luka Modric’s goal in El Clasico is partially Neto’s fault, the game was dead at that point, and the Brazilian pulled many ridiculous saves during the game and was arguably the standout performer for the hosts. In conclusion, Neto was a worthy deputy for the injured ter Stegen.
With MATS back, does Neto return to the bench?
Well, this question may look redundant, but it’s actually quite pertinent. An elite goalkeeper on his day, ter Stegen had a lacklustre 2019/20, perhaps his worst season at Camp Nou. His season started with hard luck, letting in an overhead kick to Aritz Aduriz and ended with conceding eight goals. The 28-year-old completely froze mentally and succumbed, much like the whole team, to Bayern’s offensive power.
Letting in shots right, left and centre accompanied by woeful footwork wasn’t a great showing from the German, especially when Manuel Neuer was in the opposite net. In the league, the former Gladbach goalkeeper conceded the most goals in one season in his La Liga career. Compared to Thibaut Courtois, who was imperial between the sticks, ter Stegen allowed too many goals and wasn’t at his peak.
Moving away from the disastrous 2019/20, ter Stegen has to get chances under Ronald Koeman. The system changed utterly. Koeman’s side has conceded many opportunities, but not many dangerous ones. Neto had an excellent time in net partly because he wasn’t as exposed. When he was, however, he failed at times.
The prime example of this was Federico Valverde’s goal in El Clasico. The Uruguayan opened the defence with his well-timed run and Neto failed to sweep up the pass from Karim Benzema in time. He conceded the opener, but he could’ve done much better.
Benching ter Stegen for the Brazilian isn’t the smartest move ever. The German is still the club’s best asset in the goalkeeping department and was arguably their second-best player last season despite all the woes. A lousy season where the club was in a precarious political position is not the benchmark.
Back to take what is rightfully his. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)
In a structured eleven, there is only room for improvement for him, and at 28, he still might be astray from his peak. While Neto is a tremendous deputy, he does not warrant a spot over his German counterpart. Jasper Cillissen was deployed in a similar role for multiple seasons, and Barça reaped the rewards in the Copa del Rey, and the former Juventus goalkeeper should be given the opportunity to life the Kings’ Cup as well.
Glass half full: 30 gameweeks to go for Barcelona
Barcelona have endured the worst start to a season this century, and even a top 4 finish seems unlikely the way things stand right now. However, with 30 gameweeks still on the calendar, fans must not lose hope.
Rebuilding is a colossal task in football. It might take decades for a fallen giant to go back to their best. Even the mighty Liverpool from the ’80s fell so low that they were unable to win the Premier League for 30 years.
In 2020, it is Barcelona’s turn to experiment with such disappointing outcomes. After years of immense success, followed by a lot of failures, Barça now find themselves as Europe’s and Spain’s laughing stock. The petulant Catalans from ten years ago who won everything are now long gone and only a few are left. From that bunch, only Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué and Sergio Busquets remain.
These three superstars have experienced their club’s worst start to the season ever. Three losses in eight games, only eleven points on the board, it is fair to assume that the Catalans are in crisis.
Barcelona have already lost some crucial games such as the Atletico Madrid or the Real Madrid fixtures. Ronald Koeman’s 4-2-3-1 has not worked miracles, and the Catalans now find themselves under so much pressure.
The start of the term has left many Culés wondering how the season will fare. As it stands, with three wins out of a possible eight, Barcelona have endured their worst start to a season in the 21st century, winning just three games out of a possible eight.
They have managed to outplay some opponents so far, including Juventus, Real Betis and Villarreal among others, often stumble over themselves, for example, this weekend against Atletico Madrid. The giants were taken aback as it was one of the first times they entered a game as the underdogs. The underwhelming performance from the team in yellow disappointed more than one Culé.
This was Diego Simeone’s first win against Barcelona in the league, but that was far from the takeaway. Barcelona currently sit 12 points below leaders Real Sociedad in 12th place, and no team in the league has managed to overcome that deficit to win the league after eight gameweeks.
Si mañana no pierde la Real Sociedad, el Barça estará a un mínimo de diez puntos del líder del campeonato y esa es una desventaja respecto del primer clasificado que JAMÁS ha sido remontada por un equipo que terminara siendo campeón. https://t.co/mBY3cv6gE5— MisterChip (Alexis) (@2010MisterChip) November 21, 2020
It is only normal to feel hopeless about the Catalan outfit’s chances to lift the trophy. If Barcelona manage to get close to the top spot this season, it would be one of their greatest achievement.
Nonetheless, Culés should stop feeling sad about themselves. They could see the glass half full and think about the title in another way.
Their side has only played eight games. They have played two games less than La Real and could still shake things up; the league is never certain. Even when Barça have comfortable leads like in 2016, other teams manage to pull their weight and come close. Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid came incredibly close to stealing the title in 2016 for example, finishing just a point below the Garnet and Blue champs.
It is okay to feel pessimistic about Barça these days, but they still have players who can make the difference. They still have Leo Messi, although unhappy, through their ranks, for example. Not to mention Ousmane Dembele seems to be finally living up to the billing and has stayed fit so far.
After eight games, Barcelona have not played a newly-promoted or a relatively weaker side other than Deportivo Alavés. The Blaugranas have already gone head-to-head with Sevilla, Atlético, Real Madrid and Getafe. These sides alone could shake up things in any league in the world.
Lionel Messi and Barcelona need to pucker up before the season goes to dust. (Photo via Imago)
Now, after visiting the Wanda Metropolitano, the Catalans have a more laid-back schedule until the 19th of December, when they host Valencia. During this time, they will lock horns with the likes of Cadiz, Osasuna, Real Valladolid and Levante in the league.
However, facing weaker opposition does not guarantee wins. Cadiz, whom Barcelona face on the 5th, are giant killers and have already beaten Real Madrid this year. Osasuna, the next league opponents, have an impressive record against Barça – one that most teams would envy. While the teams look weaker on paper, they might just stun Barcelona.
After years of dominance, the Catalans find themselves in the hardest position ever. The season for Barcelona can take two paths: Either the players pick themselves up, or they endure a season which will embark an era going downhill. Letting go of the title after eight fixtures would be ludicrous and a total lack of respect to the fans who sit through 90 minutes every three days to cheer for their team.
If the players want to play without pressure, they must stop to think they are entitled to win. After the recent results, they have to regain confidence, and it begins in Kyiv this Tuesday.