Marc-Andre ter Stegen has been a rock at the back for Barcelona for over six seasons, complementing his match-winning saves with defence-splitting passing, helping the team play the ‘Barça way.’
Goalkeeping is probably one of the most thankless jobs. In the local games I used to play at my village, being a goalkeeper was often equated to being too lazy to run. On the other hand, at the highest echelons of football, goalkeepers serve as the biggest scapegoats. While a striker who scores thrice in a match is a hat-trick hero, a goalkeeper who saves three goals is ‘just doing his job.’
A decent season of protecting the goalpost may get ruined by one mistake. Whole careers getting tainted due to a single unfortunate error occurs more often in the goalkeeping world than one can imagine. Marc-André Ter Stegen, Barcelona’s first goalkeeper, has had his fair share of so-called ‘bloopers,’ only to bounce back, stronger and more determined. Being a sweeper-keeper who often steps out of the box and savours the ball at his feet, ter Stegen has always played a risky game.
When Claudio Bravo moved to Manchester City in 2016, and a young ter Stegen was anointed in his stead, many among the Barcelona fans knitted their brows at the club’s decision and the young German’s capabilities. In their defence, Bravo was (and arguably still is) a top-level goalkeeper, and ter Stegen’s early performances at Barca had left behind a lot of questions. His miscalculations and positional errors cost them a few goals and a few points early on.
However, instead of hiding in the shadows, ter Stegen owned up to his mistakes: “It’s my fault, I’m really sorry. If I hadn’t made the mistake we could have won this game,” he said. But rather than altering his approach to the game, he dug his heels, strove on and got better.
Ter Stegen learnt from his errors, and only rose thereafter. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP via Getty Images)
“Sorry if my way of playing makes you nervous, but that’s how I play,” he explained to the fans. This was fundamental in how things turned out for Ter Stegen and Barca. He could have easily buckled under the pressure and changed his ways. But above and beyond the confidence that he showed in his style of playing, he was also assessing what his team’s requirements were. So what is the Barça mould for a goalkeeper?
Clichéd as this might seem, the answer to this question also brings us back to the way Barcelona plays out the ‘Cruyffian Way’ of ‘Total Football.’
“In my teams, the goalie is the first attacker, and the striker is the first defender.”Johann Cruyff
This is a marked deviation from the traditional role of shot-stopping that is attributed to goalkeepers. Modern football values keepers who are good with the ball at their feet; who can deliver pinpoint passes and act as an outlet for the defenders to recycle the ball and initiate the next attack.
“The game has changed a lot during the last years, now the goalkeeper is very important, he needs to be confident with his feet. That’s very important at Barça, it has been for a very long time, and they were searching for someone who is happy to play with his feet.”Ter Stegen
Ter Stegen’s biggest strength probably, is that his head is in the right place. Just as he did earlier in his career, he was one of the first to apologize to the fans following the heart-wrenching losses in the last few seasons. He is also known to be one of the most level-headed figures in the Barca dressing room where things are not always easy.
Another important factor is his consistency. He barely misses games. Apart from early this season, Ter Stegen also has not had many injury lay-offs. In terms of his performance, again, he has been steady and dependable with few surprises for anyone to question his lead, which also makes it difficult for his competitors to get a peep into the team – as Jasper Cillessen found the hard way. But that is a blessing as far as the team is concerned.
For all his strengths, Jasper Cillessen was not good enough to take the starting spot from ter Stegen. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
On the pitch, ter Stegen is quite versatile. Yes, of all the adjectives to describe a keeper, this is probably the least used. But that is the kind of skill-set that he has to offer. He is an excellent shot-stopper. With saves per game score of 2.25 and 14 clean sheets, he was one of the best in La Liga last season, and int he Champions League, only to succumb to eight goals to Bayern Munich – through no fault of his own.
But the German’s contribution to this squad is much higher. In his two matches since his return from injury, ter Stegen has clocked a passing accuracy of nearly 97%. And this is no fluke. His pass success rates in the league for the recently concluded 2019/20 season was 86%, with a total of 1235 attempted passes. The 2018/19 season followed a similar pattern, as he ended the season with an average of 83%. This, it should be mentioned, after having attempted around thirty passes per game.
His passing range is also noteworthy. While Barça prefers to play from the back using short passing, ter Stegen also launches some very effective long balls. This resulted in two assists for goals last season, one each to Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann. He was the only keeper to provide an assist in Europe last season and the first keeper wearing the Blaugrana in the last hundred years.
The fact that he is comfortable with both his feet also helps this cause. It was his passing range that enabled former manager Quique Setien to try out a different method of bringing the ball from the back. One of the central defenders would take a short goal kick and pass it to ter Stegen, who would then try and passing it to the defensive midfielder, thereby taking the high-pressing strikers out of the equation.
As a result, the 28-year-old started stacking more touches and passes than many of his teammates who played in the outfield. Essentially, therefore, ter Stegen switches into the role of a central defender or a midfielder, as and when the team requires him to.
“Marc is incredible…he’s like a midfielder for us. It was a perfect pass that left me with just the goalkeeper to beat.”Antoine Griezmann | Post Match Interview vs RCD Mallorca
His sense of position and reading of the game is also excellent, as one can often see him switch towards the left and right of the goalposts, to give his defenders a viable passing outlet. This helps the team stretch the pitch further and also recycle the ball and initiate the next attack. The priority in possession and passing the ball continuously makes it important to have a keeper like ter Stegen who can handle the pressure of having the ball at his feet.
In addition, the fact that Barca usually play with a high line of defence requires them to have a ‘sweeper-keeper.’ One does not need to look too far back to see how this works out and how crucial it is that it does.
Ter Stegen airlines. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Last month, Barcelona visited the Mendizorrotza stadium to play the home side of Deportivo Alaves. Owing to the fact that ter Stegen was still recovering from his surgery, the Barça rear guard was completed by Brazilian Neto Murara — just as it was, since the beginning of the season.
The turning point in this tough match was in the 31st minute when Gerard Pique made a back pass to the goalkeeper. True, it was not a pressing situation, Pique actually had several options further up the pitch. In his defence though, this was a move for which he never had to think about twice; for usually the pass would be received deftly by ter Stegen, who would showcase his sublime passing.
In a momentary lapse in concentration, Neto fumbled in collecting that pass. Luis Rioja, the opposing striker, saw this opportunity, stole the ball from Neto’s unsure feet and led it to an open goal. Despite an hour of trying hard and even playing with a man advantage in the last half an hour, all Barça could do was level with Alaves and concede a draw.
The point here is not to blame Neto; nor is it an attempt to say that ter Stegen is infallible. But the German’s skill set has become inseparable with the way the Catalans play their game, and the fact became evident in his absence.
📊 — Against Betis, Ter Stegen completed 31 out of 33 passes and 6 successful long passes, more than any other Barça player on the pitch. pic.twitter.com/ER0i8x3mZG— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) November 8, 2020
It is easy to look at the big European losses that FC Barcelona has had over the past year and blame the German shot-stopper for those, but one should remember that they would not have reached that far in the knockout stages without him guarding their goal. Barcelona’s backline, of late, has been quite brittle. And if there is anything that is holding them together, that is the German wall standing tall at their back. There is a reason he was awarded the Aldo Rovira Award for the best FC Barcelona player in the 2019/20 season.
Amidst all the crises and tribulations that the club has been going through in the past few seasons, of players underperforming, revolting and losing focus, ter Stegen has been doggedly steadfast, both on the field and off it. That he has recently extended his contract with the club till 2025, is, therefore, a piece of welcome news for the team and the fans. For, the guardian angel protecting the Barca goal has all the capabilities of becoming the leader of a squad that is slowly but surely transitioning into a younger and futuristic squad.
Koeman at Barcelona: Overcriticised and underappreciated
Credit and criticism should each be given where both are due. With Ronald Koeman, however, there has been a considerably larger share of one than there has the other, and to such a point, it seems unjustifiable.
To call the Dutch manager out for late substitutions or perhaps incomprehensible tactics is perfectly fair. The line is drawn when one decides to pretend as though all he had done was turn gold to dust. He has had to undergo a panoply of trials and tribulations, many of which are unheard of among Europe’s elite.
In this article, Barca Universal explores the revitalisation of Barça’s mentality, Koeman’s underrated improvements to Barcelona, his adaptability to diverse situations and why he should be given more time to implement his ideas.
A mentality reborn
Barcelona’s feeble mentality on big occasions has often been a subject of great torment to their supporters. Once at the helm of Europe’s elite, the element of nostalgia is a tough one for their avid supporters to rid themselves of. They long a return to the greatness they once held onto so tightly, though perhaps irrationally.
The Garnet and Blue are stacked with dextrous individuals full to the brim with the zeal and zest that comes with youth. While optimal for future successes, these individuals are years away from achieving the rank of world-class. Nevertheless, Ronald Koeman has had to instil, both in them and the veterans that have run the big stage so long, his ferocious attitude and never-go-die mentality.
As Warren Buffet once said that “No matter how great the talent or efforts, good things take time.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it would be completely unrealistic to expect that the Catalans’ wounded spirits be completely healed just a few months following several consecutive European annihilations.
Ever since the turn of the year, the Catalans have shown a palpable increase in their self-belief, and such is illustrated by their four comeback victories this season. The most remarkable of the quad was that against Granada in the Copa Del Rey. Down by two goals and in desperate need of a dramatic comeback, the Azulgranas broke loose from the jaws of defeat, recording one of their most enthralling victories of the season.
There are, of course, times when Barça have stumbled, and one need not look any further than a fortnight ago, where Barcelona had their wounds from yesteryear brutally reopened by a rampant PSG side. No one ever said that the path to recovery would be an easy one, but it is clear that Ronald Koeman’s mentality is rubbing off onto his players and is steadily developing a profound resonance with them.
Following arguably their best performance in what seems like aeons against Sevilla two nights ago, Gerard Piqué had this to say:
“We can fight for the league, for sure. Today we dominated Sevilla, they didn’t create us chances, we played in their half…I trust this team a lot, let’s hope we can achieve something big. If we manage to turn the tie around on Wednesday, the season completely changes.”Gerard Pique | Post-match interview v Sevilla
The competitive attitude is building up gradually, rising to a crescendo that simply can’t be matched and sooner or later, it’ll culminate in a trophy of some sort.
Ameliorated, but underrated form
As has been said before, to brush off all that Ronald Koeman has done to improve the team and solely focus on the negatives would be nothing short of peddling a narrative. The ex-Valencia boss has seen an unprecedented change to his fortunes, and it would only be just to acknowledge them.
In his book ‘Pep Confidential‘, Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola said that “Titles are won in the last 8 games but are lost in the first 8.”
Drawing parallels to Barcelona this season, their opening eight matches were horrendous, to say the least. As former champions, one would surely expect form better than just three victories in that period, but such was Barça’s tactical ineptitude that they did just that, losing to all three of their rivals from Madrid.
What many refuse, or rather fail to recognize, is the level of improvement that has taken place since. From the 21st of November, when they succumbed to defeat against Atlético de Madrid, the Catalans have gone on to win 42 points from 17 matches played, thirteen of which were won while they dropped points through three draws as well as the damning defeat to Cádiz.
In those seventeen matches, they have the highest points tally of any La Liga side, with Sevilla coming closest at 35 points from 51. They also bulged their opponents’ nets a whopping 40 times, twelve more than nearest rivals Los Colchoneros.
They incurred the least defeats and conceded the third least number of goals, all numbers which, when compounded with the statistics from the first eight games, dissipate and present a much worse image of Barcelona right now compared to how their current form would suggest.
It is also worth mentioning that all this has been accomplished with a team lacking both in quality and personnel in certain departments of the pitch. Both Clément Lenglet and Samuel Umtiti have been victims of their own abhorrent and detestable form. In contrast, Gerard Piqué and Ronald Araújo have each succumbed to injuries at crucial points of the campaign. In the forward line, the ex-Oranje manager had often had to deal with the reprehensible inconsistency in both form and finishing of his star players, including Lionel Messi being far from his best in front of the goal.
Much of Koeman’s work has been blatantly overlooked, much of this without taking into account the context behind his failures and turning a blind eye to each of his successes. The situation, in general, is far from ideal, but he has skillfully manoeuvred his way through the worst of scenarios without an inkling of gratitude. Seems rather harsh, does it not?
Adaptability to diverse situations
In this department, Koeman has possibly had as many plaudits as he does critics. His detractors will shed light on the multifarious managerial and tactical errors that he has made, and with great reason. At certain points, over the course of the campaign, he showed a crude level of incompetence, particularly in matches against tougher opposition, where he has recorded just but two victories against last season’s top 6 teams.
Doing the same thing and expecting different results is the epitome of insanity, and when offered the opportunity to atone for his errors, he has objectively been laudable.
One could point towards his quickfire matches against Athletic Club in January, where following a damning defeat in the Spanish Super Cup final, he immediately made up for the result, restricting the Basque side to just 0.21xG in a 2-1 victory.
Another more recent example is his iconic victory over Sevilla this past weekend. Having tasted defeat against Los Nervionenses just three weeks back, he restructured his side in accordance to his opponents, switched up his tactics to suit his own, and drastically shifted gears in terms of his team’s pressing. The result was the deliverance of a tactical masterclass against one of the division’s best tacticians, and this too away from home.
When it came to injuries, which are quite possibly a manager’s worst nightmare, he has on plenty of occasions illustrated his flexibility. On the back of Gerard Piqué’s four-month layoff subsequent to his injury in the Wanda Metropolitano, Koeman successfully integrated his namesake Ronald Araújo into the side and with tender care, like a potter with the softest of clay, moulded him into one of La Liga’s best centre-backs.
He did the same with Oscar Mingueza, who, up until his arrival into the first team, was even struggling for minutes in the B team. He is now not only a reliable figure in central defence, but he has also seen an unprecedented evolution into the right-back role. There be offers a starkly contrasting dynamic to the role that Sergiño Dest plays, and so much so that it coincided in him gaining far more relevance to the first team than he would have ever dreamed of.
In terms of the team’s shape, given his now complete understanding of the team, he has been proven capable of altering it from time to time and to great success. The 4-2-3-1 is proprietarily his formation, though rather than place such a hefty burden on the players with a setup they were completely novel too, he tweaked the shape to mimic Barca’s famed 4-3-3, and this perhaps was the key to him winning as many points as he did from November.
In perhaps the riskiest tactical switch one could fathom, his shift to a metamorphic 3-5-2 formation won him the game against Sevilla in the Pizjuan, a victory which to Barcelona’s demanding supporters was long overdue.
Could Frank Rijkaard’s past be his future?
When talking about Ronald Koeman, it is almost a taboo topic amongst Culés to speak of any future that does not involve him being sacked in the summer. Him remaining depends not only on how well he does for the rest of the season but also on the outcome of the presidential elections in a week’s time.
There are many parallels that can be drawn between Koeman’s Barça and that of Frank Rijkaard back in 2003. Both managers came into the campaign on the back of an immensely disappointing season, in an election year, and with teams that were more-less in the making rather than they were finished products.
The starts to both managers’ seasons were almost identical too. The pair had periods in the campaign where they seemed more like relegation candidates than they did title favourites. For the former, such was the state of the club that at one point during the campaign, they were a whopping eighteen points behind Real Madrid.
Around the halfway point of the campaign, much like with Koeman, his fortunes changed for the better, with his football flowing ever so freely. Come season’s end, Rijkaard’s side finished as runners up to Valencia, and more remarkably two points ahead of Real Madrid in third.
Unlike Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setién, Koeman’s ideal version of Barça has been witnessed on plenty of occasions. There are obvious limitations to what he, unlike Rijkaard with his big signings, was able to do. The Blaugranas‘ financial situation prevented him from acquiring around 80% of his intended transfer targets.
Given how well he’s done with limited resources and historic precedence from his Dutch counterpart showing the potential to go from strength to strength, how much more could he do with added reinforcements to one of the most talented young squads in Europe?
In Rijkaard’s second and third years at the club, he both reclaimed the long lost league title and defended whilst winning only the club’s second Champions League title to mark an era of his own at the club. The current Barça might not be able to win either this year, but under Koeman, they can take advantage of the sheer uniqueness of this season to lay the groundwork for the next. The youth the Garnet and Blue possess, both in the first and in Garcia Pimienta’s B team, is more than enough to assure them competitiveness both domestically and in Europe.
In 2003, Joan Laporta had Koeman in his three-man shortlist for the Barça managerial role, and — assuming he wins — the Dutchman’s presence now makes this seem all the more like a match made in heaven. Should he be granted the chance to form his own squad from scratch, under an entirely new regime, he could be admired as a Barça legend not only in his playing days but also in his managerial career.
Barça’s rebirth is inevitable, but it will certainly take time to be achieved. Provided the necessary tools to succeed, Koeman could, in fact, do this, but it will depend entirely on whether or not he is given the opportunity to.