With the passing of time and loosening of the collective tactics, Barça have gone to rely on Lionel Messi more than ever. But this will have to change if they are to aim at the Champions League title.
That scent, that smooth fragrance, that sweet perfume of the most iconic anthem there is in football. That melody, is here. With just a few hours dividing Barcelona from its next European challenge, the harmony inside the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper is already anxiously buzzing for football. And there is no better football than the Champions League one.
As the greatest club competition in the world is approaching its new beginning, the unknowns are many, the doubts are even more. A new format, a new timeframe, a new way to approach the competition are only some of the numerous aspects that have to be decrypted this time. Unique circumstances lead to unique solutions. But at Barcelona they are not really unused to such situations. What the hell, they are too used to it.
While the factors surrounding this last third part of the season are different for everyone and in any way by any other historic happening, Barça loves to get a little too comfortable, a little too early. Especially in the last five years or so. As the legends and the superstars has slowly left the club, one thing never changed though: Lionel Andrés Messi. And that’s the problem.
Before starting to call me mad, let me explain. It’s obviously not an issue the fact that the greatest to have ever kicked a ball is still playing at the Camp Nou. Of course it is not. The issue comes when your team depends mainly on that single individuality. However good he is, no matter the influence he may have on the game, nevertheless the greatness he constantly displays on the pitch, we are talking about an individual’s brilliance in a collective’s game. And Leo Messi is the very maximum in all those categories.
“They are playing with a new system which makes them even more dependent on Messi, as he is responsible for making a difference with his dribbling, shooting from outside the area and combining with teammates. But as we saw against Napoli in the Champions League, Messi is targeted by opponents and if he doesn’t show up the team immediately feels it”
Barça legend on Barça’s over-dependence on Lionel Messi
In a timeframe where the Barcelona environment is each day more and more downhearted from the sad vision the club is showing, being solely reliable on a player just adds more fire to the chimney. As much as Barça fans should be honoured and football enthusiasts lucky to witness the greatest player of all time playing in their own era, it comes with great sadness seeing a club not providing the right supporting cast to a yet aging human being.
As years go by, the team’s dependance on Messi is proportionally increasing, while his legs are actually decreasing their pace and fatigue capacity. Instead of helping the Argentinian to complete the masterpiece, to get that cherry at the top of the cake, they are actually making him putting together that cake by his own.
Messi should lead, but not carry, Barça | Photo by Marc González Aloma / Zuma via Imago
The levels depicted by the Champions League are the very best you could find in the world, in terms of football capacity. While the probability of winning the trophy is greatly influenced by a luck component, as all knockout trophies are, the skills that set the tone of the competition should still be the finest you should have to get your standards right. There is not much time to think, usually. This time, there’s definitely none.
One legged-ties and conditions’ uncertainties have given the freedom to the underdogs to run as fast as they can, while the most experienced teams the chance to prove their worth. Unpredictability can run its course, too. It is a circus, you will have to be able to ride it.
This high standards set by the competition is a clear outlook on how you will be able to win it: unity. Only a cohesive group of players, fully committed and at their maximum effort, can believe and dream to lift this trophy. And as any healthy group, there has to be a leader. That captain that holds up the ship and makes sure that it is managed the right way. That icon that leads the way and helps to carry it. He does not put the ship on his own shoulders, but he rather shares its weight with the rest of the crew. A leader leads the way, but only the strength of the group can actually carry the journey to its completion.
Let alone what Messi has done for football, what he has done for Barcelona is something unrivalled. Something that no human being will ever be able to surpass, nor replicate. The numbers cannot describe the greatness of a player like Leo, but they can still show a pretty good outlook on what he means for the club: 10% of Barça’s total goals scored in its history came from Messi, whether by netting the ball or by providing an assist. Insane stats, but you still expect something like that from the greatest.
But as we approach Barcelona’s clash against Napoli in the second leg of the Champions League’s round of 16, it is interesting to take a closer look at some dynamics in the continental contest. While Messi is scoring in his 15th consecutive Champions League season, there are some numbers that outline a deep discouraging issue at Barça.
Since the 2017/18 season, which is the first season where Messi’s natural successor Neymar Júnior left the club for the promised wealth granted to him by PSG, Barcelona’s goalscoring stats could have been incredibly negative, if not for the little man. In this specific timeframe, the little genius scored 20 goals in the competition while Barça’s second top scorer has been…ehm, own goals (7)! If you cannot spot the Catalan club’s reliance on the number ten and his influence on the game live, while watching the matches, week after week, you should get your eyesight checked; if you still cannot spot it after hearing about this stat, you should get yourself checked.
Many times an extraordinary Messi alone is not enough | Photo by Catherine Ivill via Getty Images
Again, when 12 goals in 10 games and a ten out of ten performance in a first leg of a semi-final that ends up in a triple lead it is not enough, you have to admit issues. Liverpool was a complete depiction of Barça’s situation: two goals and an extraterrestrial performance in the first leg, four chances created in the second leg, and Barcelona still managed to suffer its second consecutive European debacle. What else?
There should be a supporting crew that actually supports the main character, and physically there is. While Barça’s roaster is not as impressive as blaugrana fans are used to, in terms of volume in this particular aspect, there are players who could load off some pressure and weight from Messi’s shoulders. The likes of Luis Suárez, Ousmane Dembélé, Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann are only his attacking partners and are amongst the elite in football. However, having a name is not enough anymore.
The Uruguayan is already a couple years that has been slowing down rapidly, while Griezmann is yet not comfortable with Barça’s style. The youngsters out there are wonderkids, but while 17-year-old Ansu is over performing and actually doing the best he can, even with clear, natural, teenager’s self-seeking issues to be controlled, Dembélé is constantly worrying about not getting that diamond body of his rifted and, unfortunately, he is losing that game with the same rate.
Leo Messi has been giving away hopes after hopes, season in and season out, for years now. His involvement in both the team’s chances building and eventually their finalisation has been increasingly staggering and has also been the reason why last season, the 2018/19, has certainly been his most complete and, arguably, his best one.
“It’s true that there are players who think of connecting with Messi too much. I would do it too. Messi resolves 90% of this team’s games”
No matter the goals, no matter the assists, no matter the key passes nor the chances created, his implication in the team’s performance is abnormally higher than what you can ever expect. His stats compete with teams, not with other players. And while this acknowledges yet again his greatness, it also indicates how this Barcelona side is just Leo Messi, in his good days and his bad ones. And often it is not even enough.
While waiting for some sort of miraculous event to have occurred during this three weeks period, every football fans know that you cannot expect a complete overturn of a situation in that short period of time. Even if Quique Setién miraculously found the secret receipt to the poison, it couldn’t have the time to deliver its effect. And since the Barcelona manager hasn’t found any solutions to Barça’s dependability to Leo since his announcement in January just as his fellow colleague, Ernesto Valverde, it is difficult to predict a sensible change.
“I always say to my players that if the ball is at the feet of the best players, there’s a chance things will turn out well. That’s why they look for him [Messi], you know that he will do something. This dependence is normal. I prefer that they give it to him. I’m relaxed”
What has to happen, though, is being able to witness more harmonious movements throughout the entire squad. The result of a constant training on principles and ideas has to eventually give its fruits, in one way or another. The everlasting sensation of accomplishing something worthwhile, still, has to be something developed through the years, through a style, through a club identity that, unfortunately, has been widely disregarded in the last few years at the expense of an alien.
Make no mistake, how come Barcelona is always labelled as favorites even in such critical technical, tactical and environmental conditions? One name: Leo. One surname: Messi.
Analysis of the left-back problem at Barcelona
On the 22nd of June in the year 2012 Barcelona re-signed once one of their own, Valencia speedster, Jordi Alba, for 14 million Euros. Once part of the club after coming through the esteemed La Masia academy, he was to replace Eric Abidal, the French left-back who had given much to Barcelona over the years but his unfortunate health problems meant it was the need of the hour to move onwards. Fast forward 8 years and a massive 335 appearances for the Blaugranas, the man who was initially dismissed as ‘too short’ by the Catalan club stands as a gargantuan figure who made the left-hand side his own.
It is unpropitious for Barcelona that time cannot be rolled back, because if they could, they would definitely look no further than the little man they signed in 2012 to fix their current concerns at left-back. As things stand, however, Alba is 31 and clearly regressing as each season passes. While he still has an excellent command on his attacking skill, it’s the defensive issues faced by him and the other fullbacks that puts the team in hot water consistently. Moreover, one of the key aspects to his game is the pace and acceleration he brought near the touchline, and that is one area that is bound to regress with age. It is, therefore, the correct time to look for a replacement for the Spaniard; otherwise, the Blaugranas risk being set back a few years as happened with replacing Dani Alves.
This train of thought was what Barcelona had in mind when they signed Junior Firpo from Real Betis in August 2019. He was, at that point, a highly well-regarded prospect in La Liga, with several teams including Real Madrid and Manchester City posing interest in the Dominican. However, Firpo’s attacking threat was nowhere close to the Spaniard. In the 17 appearances he did make, Junior Firpo had a low xA (Expected Assists) of 0.06 per 90 last season as compared to Alba’s 0.14 per 90. Additionally, he had 3.71 passes into the final third per 90 as compared to Alba’s 4.75. Finally, Firpo was never able to recreate the kind of understanding Alba had with team captain Lionel Messi which made the duo lethal. The young left-back never makes the same runs into the box as Alba and the Argentinian is often left wanting more in that regard.
Junior Firpo, at the moment, simply does not match up to Jordi Alba at all.
Defensively speaking, Firpo did attempt more tackles than the Spanish veteran – 2.12 tackles per 90 as compared to Alba’s 1.03 per 90 in 19/20, but it is often due to necessity as he is caught out of position very often. This trickles down to the fouls, which stand at 3.1 fouls per 90 for 24-year-old, as compared to Alba’s 0.74. Consequently, Firpo picked up 5 yellow cards while Alba picked up 7 in a little more than double the starts, indicating a lack of discipline in Firpo’s case. The duo is similar with regards to successful pressures, as Alba had 2.8 successful pressures per 90 last season and Firpo had 2.65 for the same.
Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images
For what it is worth, Firpo does bring a touch of aerial dominance into the picture, but that is hardly a requirement for the left-back of a team like Barcelona. The youngster’s growth has stagnated over the season, and he showed no signs of adaptability when it came to moving from a 5 at the back system at Betis to a flat 4 at Barcelona. Maybe with time, Junior Firpo becomes an able replacement, but with multiple players past their peaks, including long time mainstays Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique who have been so crucial to the Blaugrana’s defensive system, Barcelona must bring in a fresh face. Someone who can fill the massive shoes of Alba quickly. We, at Barca Universal, therefore, look at 3 possible replacements for the Spaniard who can complete the Blaugrana’s search in that position.
Going the Jordi Alba route: Alex Grimaldo
A name Barca connoisseurs will be familiar with, Alex Grimaldo is also from the once-famed La Masia, and was one of the highly touted prospects before he chose to move to Benfica, eyeing the possibility of more playing time since Alba had a tight hold of that spot at Barcelona. Now that Alba is ageing, it might be time to dive in for another trusted La Masia prospect who will know the workings of the club from his academy days.
Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP via Getty Images
Grimaldo is a short and lean player, with a boosted acceleration – a profile very similar to that of Alba. Often used as a midfielder in his earlier days, he has the decision making and a great handle on what to do when he has possession of the ball, which is a massive bonus for a team like the possession hungry Catalans. He has a tremendous attacking output and is genuinely fearless, something Firpo is clearly lacking. The 24-year-old Spaniard has racked 22 assists in 88 games in the Primeira Liga and is one of the top fullbacks in the league. His xA per 90 stood at 0.21 as compared to Alba’s 0.14 last season, and he also led the numbers for tackles, making 2.34 successful tackles per 90 as compared to Alba’s 0.58. When it comes to passing, Grimaldo completed 83% of his passes last season, whereas Alba made his passes at a completion rate of 87.1%.
While Grimaldo is short in stature and teams often look to go over him, he still has the positioning to make up for the same and has the pace to make up ground if he falters. Something prime Alba can massive relate to.
The short-term, big success option: Nicolas Tagliafico
The red and blue of Barcelona owes a lot to the red and white of Amsterdam. From players like Johann Cruyff and Jari Litmanen to more recently, Luis Suarez and Frenkie de Jong, there have been a plethora of players who have represented both the clubs. Now that Barcelona have been looking to offload the regressing Suarez, Nicolas Tagliafico could turn out be an interesting option to entice Ajax for a swap deal.
Photo by JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images
The Argentine left-back moved from Independiente in 2018 and has since appeared 65 times for Ajax. While he is not as much of an attacking threat (8 assists in 2 seasons), the 28-year-old does give Barcelona something they desperately need in their current predicament – defensive solidity. Compared to Alba’s 25 tackles attempted in the 19/20 season, Tagliafico attempted almost four times that number (96) and successfully completing 61 of them, compared to Alba’s 14. He was also able to block 10 shots compared to Alba’s 5.
However, the defensive side of the game is not all he provides. He is solid while in possession as well, completing 86% of his passes, and playingi in one key pass every game. He also created seven big chances last season, of which only four were converted. Tagliafico stands at a modest 5’7”, but he does have the lung-bursting stamina in him, which will be a criterion to consider while replacing Alba. In buying Tagliafico, Barcelona could potentially look to employ something their Blanco rivals in Madrid successfully did after buying Ferland Mendy – plug the defensive errors from the wings and solidify the defence as a whole.
The left-of-centre option: Jose Gaya
Barcelona looked towards Valencia in 2012, and maybe the solution lies there in 2020 as well. Jose Gaya has been one of the most highly-rated left-backs in La Liga for years. Despite, that, he is only 25 years old, but has already racked up 144 appearances for the club. With Valencia having a fire sale, it would be the perfect time for the Blaugranas to target their academy graduate.
Gaya is a very attacking fullback who tends to occupy areas on the left-hand side byline a lot. He is an outstanding crosser and attempted 3.08 crosses per game in the 19/20 season. He had a total of 939 touches in the mid and final third combined, showing his tendency to push up in the opposition half and receive the ball high up the pitch. If he loses the ball, Gaya has the electric pace that can help him catch up with opponents quickly. He is not afraid to complete a challenge and is hard to take on, given his short, but robustly built. Gaya was one of the standout players in what was a rather disappointing season for Valencia, and Barcelona should grab the chance to buy him with both hands, especially after his excellent display against them in La Liga this season.