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.
Barcelona’s rebirth is inevitable, but it will take time
Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner. In early March, the club will finally get their long-awaited new president following the tyranny that was Josep Maria Bartomeu’s tenure. And perhaps ‘tyranny’ may be a bit too harsh of a verdict, but how else would you call years of systematically destroying the club, consciously or subconsciously, plunging it deeper and deeper into the abyss? On second thoughts, ‘tyranny‘ will just have to do.
But all of that is firmly behind us now. In just weeks’ time, the Catalan giant will rise once more, reborn from the ashes of its fallen self to conquer the world anew. But things in football are never really that easy, are they? Everyone knows you can’t win all the time.
Even the greatest of teams such as Pep Guardiola’s very own Barcelona had their rise, peak and subsequent downfall. And there are not many clubs out there who have faced the harsh reality of building new dynasties from scratch as much as Barcelona have.
So if history is any indication at all, change takes time and the upcoming presidential tenure at the club will be no different. But let’s get one thing clear right away – this is not meant to bash any of the three candidates nor promote them either. All three of Joan Laporta, Victor Font and Antoni Freixa have their own visions of the direction in which to take their beloved club.
However, to think everything will suddenly and immediately change upon their appointment would be foolish. No, in March, we’re not getting the rebirth; we’re only getting the very beginning of one. With a new president sitting in that chair and appointing a new board, Barcelona will once again lay the groundwork for future success.
The immediate appointment of the new upper hierarchy might boost the morale, of course. And that in itself could then translate to a boost on the pitch as well. But a new president can only do as much in such a short amount of time. The real battles are always fought on the pitches and there, Barcelona are still looking like a broken team.
This too, of course, can be fixed over time. With the appropriate staff behind the scenes, a much better scouting department, physios, psychologists and a step-by-step tactical and squad overhaul, we can start hoping for result. But those are all long-term goals that require patience both from us the fans and the team itself.
Unfortunately, years of failure in the market, chasing ghosts of our pasts and blind picks, have resulted in a financially distorted club. Where once was wealth and prosperity now we only have crumbs of former glory. Yes, Barcelona are still a powerful outfit that can and should be aiming to attract only the very best.
But we also have to remember that each of the three candidates is seemingly putting a lot of emphasis on going back to the roots. ‘The roots‘ here mean La Masia, the academy and the youth. But just as is the case with any sporting project, especially the ones founded on the strength coming from within, this takes time to develop. Rome wasn’t built overnight. Nor was La Masia or Barcelona’s legacy, for that matter.
The Azulgranas really do have incredible talent in their youth ranks and this is definitely a pool of players that should be utilised in the future. We shouldn’t, however, expect to find the new Golden Generation right around the corner.
We have been fooled into thinking the likes of Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi are the standard and the rule. Unfortunately, as much as we like to keep telling ourselves otherwise, they are very much the exception to the rule; the standout and likely a one-in-a-million crop of players that flourished under a brilliant manager.
So many things had to be in the right place for them to make it, and somehow, the stars had aligned back then to ensure their development into footballing giants. It would be foolish to expect the same thing to happen again, or rather, to happen that quickly.
But with the right foundations, the right personnel, trust and hope, why shouldn’t we believe in it happening once more? After all, we have the secret recipe for success but are too afraid to use it. Why? Well, the times have changed since Barcelona last ruled the world.
Back in 2009, success was not guaranteed nor was is so expected and the fans were nowhere near as spoilt as they are now. Back then, the coach actually had the time to build a squad, groom them and mould them in his image. That’s what Pep did and miraculously enough, it didn’t take him years, not even months, to start making something truly incredible.
And in so many ways, 2021 mirrors that exact same situation. Before Pep’s time, Frank Rijkaard had been struggling for a while and his team, despite having some big names, was in a need of an overhaul. In that regard, Barcelona were entering their transitional period, the same one they are experiencing now.
Rijkaard bowed out from the stage having finished third in La Liga and having exited both Copa del Rey and the Champions League in the semi-finals. It was a valiant effort for a broken team but ultimately, he finished his tenure with a trophyless season. But in so many ways, that 2007/08 campaign was a start of a new story; one that promoted trust in the youth, power from within and confidence in the beginning of a rise to glory.
So what can we learn from that? We must accept that change is sometimes necessary but that it can cost a lot. In football, results and trophies matter, that’s in the nature of the sport. But sometimes you have to take a step back before you jump two steps forward. 2020 wasn’t easy and 2021 is looking equally as exhausting and challenging. But it’s also necessary.
Already, in a season that may seem full of pain, anger and disappointment, we’ve seen glimpses of what’s to come. Players like Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Ronald Araújo rising to the occasion to guide us to a better future. That future may also be without Lionel Messi, the one player who embodies this club the most.
But we should also remember Pep had to lose, or rather let go of Ronaldinho to kickstart his great overhaul. Both players were and still are icons of the club but a new era requires new heroes and new leaders. So even if Messi leaves this coming summer, the world won’t suddenly stop, nor should Barcelona’s strive for greatness.
In March, a new president will get elected and the foundation for a better future will finally be set. It will take time and it won’t suddenly solve all of our problems.
But it will give us a push that we oh so need. Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner.
Don’t give up hope in the moment of our greatest triumph.