OGC Nice announced on Monday that they won’t be buying Moussa Wagué after his short loan, and his season comes to an end after just 8 matches and 377 minutes enjoyed.
At 21 years of age, what a footballer needs is to play. But this is the complete opposite to what has happened to Moussa Wagué. The Senegalese right-back was promoted to the Barcelona first team last summer, after three good La Liga games by the end of the previous season. At Barça B, under Pimienta, his adaptation coming from Belgium’s KAS Eupen had been satisfactory, and the board considered he was ready to make the step up. Indeed, Wagué has always shown maturity and a fairly complete skillset, in spite of certain limitations and not excelling in any particular facet.
In the summer of 2019 some optimistic fans, myself included, even predicted Moussa to battle with Semedo for a starting spot in Valverde’s side, due to the announced move of Sergi Roberto to midfield. But nothing could be further from the truth. In total, the youngster has only featured in 8 matches, with two different teams, this campaign. A campaign that has already finalised for him. 377 minutes played, with only 4 times playing the entire 90 minutes, and 4 more fixtures in which he got just cameo appearances off the bench. Let us hope that, at least, this has allowed Wagué to improve certain aspects, but the reality is that this has almost been a year lost for him. Three big factors have influenced this unfavourable outcome: Sergi Roberto’s switch back to right-back, the loan to Nice, and the unfortunate coronavirus outbreak.
Sergi Roberto’s move back to right-back had a collateral victim
During the 2019/20 preseason, Ernesto Valverde expressed his intention to move Sergi Roberto to his natural position, midfield. “Our idea is to use Sergi Roberto in midfield this season”, El Txingurri declared. While the midfield seemed overcrowded, Valverde’s tactics and plans had changed a bit for this new term: a desire to get closer to a more positional football, the aim to use more advanced midfielders, and Rakitić’s decreasing minutes. This was translated to the pitch when, in the final preseason friendly against Napoli and the opening La Liga clash at San Mamés, the midfield trio was formed by De Jong as the pivot, and Aleñá and Sergi Roberto as the interiors.
❛ I will play wherever Valverde says. What I want is to help the team ❜
Nonetheless, the poor initial results, despite an improvement in the style implemented, as well as Semedo’s fitness problems, saw Ernesto use Sergi as the main option to replace the Portuguese. Even with Nélson back, Valverde was again more convinced by Roberto’s performances. “The seasons start with you having one idea and the players start following that plan. But later, you have to make adjustments”, the manager said.
This step back in his original beliefs had some collateral damages, though. In particular, Wagué, who had been promoted to compete as Semedo’s back-up, now saw how he was relegated to being the third-choice right-back. When Semedo was injured, Sergi would play. When Sergi was injured, Semedo would play. There was little playtime left for him. Only when both were unavailable, which only happened against Leganés, did the African start. Apart from that, he only got one minute in a home game against Dortmund, and 90 minutes in the duel with Inter at San Siro once Barça were already qualified as table-toppers of their Champions League group.
An uninspiring loan to Nice
With so little minutes, it was obvious that a solution needed to be found for Wagué. A loan to the Ligue 1 seemed the most plausible option. So, in January 2020, he was loaned to OGC Nice. There he struggled to fully grasp the associative concepts of Patrick Vieira’s football, as he was somewhat erratic in his decision making. While he was just adapting, he only got 18 minutes in Les Aiglons‘ first five matches after his arrival. Nice had been interested in Wagué given that 23-year-old Youcef Atal was injured from December until April. Despite Atal had been transformed into a winger lately, fans still noticed a big difference between Youcef and Moussa.
Barça bought Moussa Wagué in 2018 after he became the youngest African to ever score in a World Cup | Photo by Donat Sorokin / TASS via Imago
That said, Wagué had played the full 90 minutes in the last two fixtures. He even delivered a surprisingly crucial assist against Monaco. The game was tied at 1–1 when, in the 93rd minute, the Senegalese delivered a low cross for Kasper Dolberg’s backheel goal. A 2–1 victory that saw Nice climb to the fifth position in the table. With the confirmation that the Ligue 1 will not resume after the coronavirus outbreak, Nice’s current fifth position will remain as it is. Therefore, Wagué’s assist will allow the Eaglets play in the Europa League next term, although the right-back won’t be with them anymore.
An early end of the season
When it looked like Wagué was finally establishing himself as Vieira’s starter, the coronavirus stopped everything. As the Ligue 1 season came to an end, Nice declared on Monday that they will not activate the €10 million purchase option they had on Moussa. The Barcelona loanee had neither disappointed nor stood out, and the French club have considered that it was not worth paying it.
This means that Wagué is free to return to Catalonia at present, but he won’t be able to play for the blaugranas in the remainder of the season since he was registered as a Nice player. For next course the board is already looking for an exit for the 21-year-old. Quique Setién does not seem to count on him, with the club being more interested in more established names like Cancelo. Barça will try to either sell Moussa, who was bought in 2018 for €5 million, or loan him out. What’s undeniable is that in the next campaign he should play many more minutes than the 377 of the current one.
Detailed Analysis: Atletico Madrid 1-0 Barcelona
In collaboration with Anurag Agate.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. In a game marred by defensive blunders and devastating injuries, Barcelona lost the game 1-0 to fellow title-challengers.
A 1-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in La Liga left Barcelona reeling midtable. This was also the first time Diego Simeone’s side beat Barcelona in the La Liga. Coupled with crucial injuries to Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto, Barcelona now face a dire path ahead of their UCL game against Dynamo Kyiv.
Barcelona structure and formation
Ronald Koeman went in with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. Marc Andre Ter Stegen started in goal again. Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet formed the centre back pairing, flanked by Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. In the absence of Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanic stepped up to form the double pivot with the ever-present Frenkie de Jong.
Pedri and Ousmane Dembele played on the flanks, with Lionel Messi in the hole and Antoine Griezmann upfront. However, as before, Messi and Griezmann had lots of interchanging positions. Pedri played more in the half-space in possession while Dembele stayed out wide. This often made the team structure a lop-sided 4-4-2. In defensive transitions, it was always a 4-4-2 with Griezmann dropping deeper to defend. Messi restricted his pressing to zones high up the pitch.
Frenkie de Jong had the freedom to push up high in the first half. However, the absence of Ansu Fati meant that the usual overload on the left side did not work in this game. Pedri had a poor game in general. Him moving far too infield to let Alba run down the left did not quite work – the passing was far too restricted by Atleti’s excellent defending. A second-half injury to Pique meant that de Jong had to play 35 minutes roughly as a centre back, which he did very well.
Atletico structure and formation
Atletico were missing some key personnel as well, most notably perhaps, Luis Suarez up top. They also missed a regular left-back Renan Lodi, and Hector Herrera and Lucas Torreira in midfield. They lined up in a highly asymmetric 4-4-2/5-3-2 structure and style.
Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez formed the centre back partnership. Mario Hermoso played in a hybrid centre-back/extremely defensive full-back role. Kieran Trippier was the more offensive fullback, practically functioning as a wing-back. Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente joined the reliable duo of Koke and Saul Niguez in central midfield as wide midfielders. Carrasco played almost in a hybrid wide midfield/wingback role. Joao Felix and Angel Correa formed the front two.
The hybrid system was particularly evident in the different phases of the game. In attack, Hermoso would push out wide like a full back but stay in more defensive, withdrawn zones. Carrasco had the freedom to stay wide looking for overlapping runs to meet Felix’s clever passes. On the other side, Llorente would shift infield, allowing Trippier to bomb forward.
Felix himself overlapped down the left side several times, trying to create numeric overloads against Roberto and Pique, dragging Pjanic wide in the process. Carrasco’s and Felix’s overlaps on the left, coupled with Saul Niguez moving ball-near side and Correa dropping in to give options – this combination created quite a few problems in the first half. Here is an example – it led to Saul’s shot early on which was saved by ter Stegen.
The game was more or less evenly balanced – neither team were outright dominant than the other in any aspect. Here is the game data at a glance:
Barcelona enjoyed marginally more possession, marginally more shots and shots on target, and a better press than Atletico. Of course, the hosts had the all-deciding goal in their favour. Neither team generated high-quality shots overall, as the shot map and xG flowchart shows :
Barcelona’s possession superiority was pretty stale. Barcelona failed to dominate critical territorial zones, measured by field tilt – which is the percentage share of final third passes of each team. Even though Barcelona had higher field tilt, it was only marginal. What strikes out is that just the goal came when Barcelona were enjoying their best bit of territorial dominance.
Buildup to shots and goals
Next we take a look at some of the shots and the goal. Early on, Barcelona had the chance to score. Dembele burned his marker with pace and sent a cross into the box. It was met by a clever flick by Greizmann. The shot sailed high unfortunately.
Atleti had their chances on the other side as well. Soon after Saul saw his shot saved, the other flank created yet another moment of danger. A brilliant interchange of passing involving Correa and Trippier met Llorente’s clever run into the box. The shot crashed against the bar.
Towards the end of the first half, Barcelona could have scored again. There was a brilliant bit of buildup, a clever run by Griezmann to drag a defender, and then Messi ghosted blindside of the center mids to meet Alba’s nutmeg pass. The angle was too tight and Messi failed to score.
Soon after, Barcelona conceded the goal. Pique stepped up to intercept a long ball. Ideally, that should have been fine, except Pique miscontrolled the pass. That left almost everyone out of position. A simple ball over the top released Carrasco into oceans of space. But the maddening part perhaps was that ter Stegen left his box wildly to tackle the Belgian. He missed; Carrasco did not – he scored into an empty net from distance.
In the second half, Barcelona had chances to equalize. However, Lenglet headed straight at Jan Oblak twice. Greizmann headed straight at Oblak once. Barcelona failed to engineer any better chances than those. The key passes map shows the crosses into the box:
Atletico’s strength lies in engaging from wide areas. In this game, their biggest threats came again from the wide zones. Hermoso, Koke, Saul and Felix regularly released Carrasco and Trippier down the flanks. Trippier would often look for cutbacks or layoff into Llorente upfield.
Barcelona on the other hand tried to create from all possible zones. Frenkie de Jong managed to pull off a wonderful long pass into the box that Greizmann miscontrolled. Dembele single-handedly created chances from the right. The combinations of Alba and Messi created – in subdued amounts – danger from the other side.
For Barcelona, Messi, de Jong, Dembele and Alba were the bulk progressive passers. For Atleti, Koke, Trippier, Hermoso and Savic progressed the ball the most.
Both teams also tried to use width a lot. Surprisingly, Barcelona had more switches of play than Atleti, who have built their game to attack wider areas. For Barcelona, perhaps the reason for frequent switching was that they could not progress a lot directly.
The game data table posted above shows us that neither team pressed a lot. PPDA, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, was around 20 for both teams (low values of PPDA indicate high pressing). Here are the maps showing the defensive activities of both team:
Atleti forbade any progress down the centre. Upfield, they tried to press Pedri and Alba from creating too much danger. Deep in their half, they tried to force Dembele as wide as possible and tried to isolate him. Barcelona pressed all over the pitch in the middle-third. In deeper zones, they had to deal with the wide threats of Carrasco and Felix, and Llorente’s infield runs. The following plot also shows how Atleti forced passes wide and forced mistakes :
Two recurring issues troubled Barcelona yet again. The lack of chemistry and the lack of experience of the youth meant that certain runs went untracked. Atleti’s rapid front line dragged Barcelona into wrong zones, allowing trailing players to ghost into blindside runs. Saul and Llorente’s efforts at goal are perfect examples of this. In the first case, Pjanic was pulled in, leaving Saul free. In the second case, Pedri’s inexperience led to him losing his mark against Llorente completely.
Speed is always an issue that Barcelona has had trouble against. Llorente’s quick underlaps created quite a bit of trouble for Lenglet. Here is yet another example of a run – the pass from Llorente was thankfully cleared.
The goal was a combination of poor positioning and lack of speed, combined with some poor touch and terrible decision-making. Pique was out of position when he made the failed interception. No one in the team was speedy enough to catch up to Carrasco down the left. Ter Stegen should have communicated better with Lenglet and stayed in the box because Lenglet was haring down to secure the centre.
Issues have now been compounded with injuries to Pique and Roberto. If they face lengthy spells away from the pitch, Barcelona are stretched thin in the defence department. De Jong looks set to continue as a centre back for the next game at the very least and Sergino Dest will have to start. Barcelona faces extremely testing times ahead.