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Analysis

Rafinha, a real chance at Barça or another quick stop?

Dario Poggi

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Header Image by Alex Caparrós via Getty Images

Rafinha, the biggest unknown Barça have had from its own La Masia in recent years, is back in training at the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper. But as we have all been used to seeing him in different shirt colours than Barcelona ones in the last few years, what will be his faith in the upcoming 2020/21 season?


It has never been a secret. The prodigal boy has always been one that all Barça fans would have loved to see perform and succeed with a blaugrana shirt on. It would have been yet another fairy tale from the Catalan pitches to the worldwide showdown. Unfortunately, not all stories have a happy ending. But as much as Rafinha Alcântara’s story is far from ending, he would certainly deserve another chance to write a different chapter in his career, this time.

The Brazilian has just returned from another loan, at Celta de Vigo, and things have certainly not gone as expected – more for the team than for the individual. Rafinha was, alongside Iago Aspas, Celta’s leader on and off the pitch. But his contribution was as low as four goals and one assist in almost thirty La Liga games, and they could only avoid relegation in the last week of the 2019/20 season. The unhappiness of a year that went far from its most predictable path it’s also very much shown in those mere six wins that he achieved in those 29 games he played. A poor net, for a poor season.

Yet in spite of not having got the chance to perform at Barça with continuity, his form has always been quite affected by the multiple serious injuries he faced during his career as a professional. The latest, after a successful six-month spell at Inter Milan during the second half of the 2017/18 season. He got back from the loan more motivated than ever, and he got his chances in the next 2018/19 campaign. But after the draw against Atlético de Madrid in late November 2018, yet another cruciate ligament ruptured began to haunt him. Again.

Fitness and technical discontinuity have always been a major part of his career. Probably, it is even unfair to him mentioning his performances, while injuries have had a key role in his lack of stability during his entire footballing spell. The 27-year-old has certainly never lacked technique. Despite not being Brazil’s finest, he is surely a unique one, combining that soft left-foot touch with a dynamism and a pace in order to be able to cover the whole field of play, with sacrifice and effort. Destined to have an important career, he is still trying to find his centre of balance in a trajectory full of uncertainty.

So, the big question is: why not? Why not finally giving him an opportunity to shine at his own club? Yes, he already had his ones. But as injuries have denied the better part of his performances and as Barça’s roaster volume has always been undercapitalised in the last few years, why not give him yet another chance to succeed in a place where he should finally feel at home?

Rafinha Alcântara Barça

Rafinha started the 2019/20 season with Barça and actually earned a place in the squad | Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce via Getty Images

Many reports are suggesting that Barcelona is finding it difficult to sell him because of the asking price of €16 million. But it difficult to understand why a club in shambles as Barça should get rid of its most promising talents. Apart from getting rid of its most senior and already used players, a rebuild should take into consideration many factors. One of which, a careful understanding of the players returning from forgotten loans could perhaps actually be helpful to the Catalan cause looking forward. Many inside the Camp Nou offices seem to forget what kind of quality can Rafinha bring to the table, especially in a situation where the club is struggling to attract new resources into the club, and old ones out of it.

Especially after what happened last season, where, after a promising preseason and an even more hopeful start of the official competitions, Rafinha got loaned out. Only the most hardcore Barcelona fans can still remember that crossbar trembling at Bilbao, where Barça lost its first matchday of the 2019/20 season. It was certainly an encouraging start, but, as happened with Carles Aleñá and Carles Pérez just six months later, the Brazilian was in the process of being transferred outside of Barcelona. Yet another opportunity missed for him. And for the club.

After so many debacles, both professionally and personally, Rafinha should deserve the right to get back on his feet where his talent firstly exploded. The Camp Nou has always been his dream to play in and approaching the peak of his career, he has not so much more time to lose. The time is now for him to decide whether he wants to be a Barcelona footballer. The time is now for Ronald Koeman to give him lots of chances, at least until the transfer window closes. But above all, the time is now for the club to finally leave aside any doubt, whether psychological or technical, and just let the flow do its thing.

The management from Josep Maria Bartomeu will almost certainly try to sell Rafinha before October 5th, but one can only hope that there will be some sort of change of heart as soon as the younger of the Alcântara brothers will caress the pitch again. And hoping is the only thing anyone can do when they are facing president Bartomeu nowadays.

For one last time, Rafinha deserves his last chance at Barcelona. Without prejudice, without doubts, without uncertainties: all or nothing.

Football is art. And art is meaningless without a touch of magic. As Italian, being in love with AC Milan since childhood was pretty common: humility, elegance and hunger has always been the common grounds. Then a little guy from Argentina landed in Barcelona, a kid called Lionel Messi. I began to get the word about him, until I watched him caressing that ball for the first time during the 2009 Champions League final: I was in love. So I decided to share my thoughts about Leo's journey with others, with the goal to create a respectful community about the greatest of all time – and some more.

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Analysis

Tactical Analysis of Barcelona’s season opener against Villareal

Soumyajit Bose

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Photo by David Ramirez via Imago

FC Barcelona kicked off their 2020-21 La Liga campaign at home against Villareal in style. They won by a margin of 4-0, marking a very auspicious and positive start to the Ronald Koeman era. 

The shape of the team

The starting eleven was, somewhat expectedly, the same set of players that started against Elche in the Joan Gamper Trophy. Neto started in goal in the absence of Marc Andre Ter Stegen. Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto started in defence, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong started in a double pivot, Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann started as nominal wingers, Philippe Coutinho started as the nominal 10, and Lionel Messi as the nominal 9. Here is Barcelona’s pass map until the first substitution (minute 70):

As can be seen, Griezmann frequently dropped deep and moved in – and he can be forgiven for that, for he is not a natural right-winger; he is an SS. Messi dropped less deep as compared to the Elche game, but he still had the freedom to roam.

The left side of the team was highly effective. Jordi Alba was a constant menace down the flank and combined wonderfully with Fati. Frenkie and Coutinho lent their support down the left whenever possible. In stark contrast, the right side was not effective at all. Griezmann had the least passes and touches among the outfielders and didn’t combine effectively with Roberto at all. Going ahead, this might be a headache to solve.

Offence

Barcelona were devastatingly good in offence in the first half. They scored 4 unanswered goals, had an overall of 17 shots in the game, 9 of which were on target. Here is a small data table compiling some stats at a glance for the game:

Here is a comparison of the shot map and the xG flow of the game; as shown, Villareal never really got a sniff at Barca’s goal and couldn’t assert themselves at any stage of the game.

All of this could’ve been possibly very different, had Paco Alcacer decided to take a first time shot instead of chesting the ball down in the path of his Villareal teammate early in the game. That didn’t result in a shot, and the rest is, as they say, history.

Barcelona’s goals came in all varieties. The first goal was a wonderful long ball over the top from Clement Lenglet to Jordi Alba, who pulled it back for Ansu Fati to smash in a great shot.

This was very much reminiscent of how Messi set up Alba for the goal against Elche.

The second goal came from a quick break. Lenglet released Coutinho from deep in Barcelona’s defensive third. Coutinho carried the ball upfield quickly, catching Villareal out with a fast break. A simple layoff and Fati took care of the rest with a brilliant near-post finish past Sergio Asenjo.

The third goal came from a penalty, won again by Fati with a burst of speed into the box, and getting fouled. There was a nice bit of buildup to that:

And finally, there was also the return of the own goal – a pass from Messi to the onrushing Busquets – yes, you read that correct – in Villareal’s penalty box led to Pau Torres poking the ball into his own net past Asenjo.

While the tempo dropped a lot in the second half, there were still plenty of shots taken by Barcelona that required Asenjo to pull off some wonderful saves to keep the scoreline down to 4-0. Most notable was the save from Francisco Trincao’s shot late in the second half. On the other end, Neto came up with a calm display to keep Takefusa Kubo’s shot away.

Passing

As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the productive buildup happened from the left side. Lenglet made a wonderful pre-assist and was assured in his passing in general. Alba was a threat throughout, with his brilliant off-the-ball runs and cutbacks to Fati, Messi, and Coutinho. Fati was a threat with his direct running and taking on defenders. Coutinho and Frenkie provided good support too. Here is a look at all progressive passes by all the starting outfield players:

Next we take a look at a wide variety of progressive/attacking passes by both teams (only completed passes are shown):

The half spaces and the left wing were very well utilized, and there were quite a few passes into the box from zone 14 as well.

Villareal didn’t breach the box as frequently as Barcelona did, thanks to some abysmal crossing by Pervis Estupinan. It was only after Kubo came on that they could get into the box with some regularity from the left. But by then, it was 4-0 late into the second half, and Barcelona had taken the foot of the gear completely.

Something that’s easily noticed in the plots above, and is a definite bit of concern, is Griezmann’s struggles with linkup play. He could not combine effectively with Roberto, and bulk of his passes were back to Busquets or Frenkie or Messi back into the midfield. If he is to continue playing as a winger down the right, he has to strengthen his combination play along the wing a lot more. Being able to take on defenders will be an additional bonus too. Right now, the right side is very limited as compared to the left. It remains to be seen if and when Sergino Dest can change the dynamic there upon arrival.

Defence

As has been mentioned earlier in the data table, the PPDA recorded by neither of the teams were particularly impressive. PPDA is a proxy for pressing intensity – the number of opposition passes allowed per defensive actions. From Wyscout, Barca recorded a PPDA of 15 while Villareal had a PPDA of 22. In other words, Barca allowed Villareal to pass around for 15 times on average before trying to win the ball back with some defensive action like tackles or interceptions. Compared to the European pressing elites like Bayern Munich or Manchester City, these numbers are pretty bad. It was evident during the game that Barcelona didn’t go all out trying to press. They picked and chose moments when to. Same goes for Villareal as well. They showed too much respect to Barca, and allowed them to build from the back very comfortably. Here are the defensive heatmaps of each team:

Its very clear how Barca didn’t try to high-press for bulk of the game, and how Villareal spent of lot time trying to defend against the threat of Jordi Alba and Ansu Fati.

For Barcelona, Gerard Pique was a rock, and so was Lenglet. Neither of them allowed a Villareal forward to run past them, and blocked and cleared all shots and crosses into the box. Pique in particular was called into action many times because Roberto was caught way up the field in transitions. Belying his age, he put forth a magnificent defensive performance in sweeping up everything that came up his way.

Issues

Busquets and Frenkie, while mostly assured in passing, had their nervy moments as well. Busquets was particularly awful in the first 20-25 minutes. He repeatedly misplaced his passes and that led to repeated transition attacks against Barcelona. In the same vein, Frenkie, who played really well for the first 70 minutes, lost the ball at least three times in the last 20 minutes. Each of the resulting attacks by Villareal were threatening, and required timely interventions by Lenglet and attentive goalkeeping by Neto to snuff out. Going ahead, this is going to be a concern. Both of them need to clean their games up quite a bit.

The substitutes

Ousmanne Dembele, Miralem Pjanic, Francisco Trincao and Pedri had short cameos in the second half. All of them looked decent. Dembele kept it simple with his passing, and I for one am glad about it. He is returning from a long injury layoff and needs to take it slow and simple. There will be plenty of time to watch his explosive pace and dribbling once he has regained confidence and has stayed fit for a reasonable chunk of time. Pjanic seemed to have shaken off his rust and did pretty well to win the ball back on a couple of occasions, and was very clean with his passes. Pedri was his usual bumbling self. He helped out defensively, connected well with the wingers in passing, and was always a threat with his runs. Trincao looked impressive yet again, and could have scored his maiden goal for Barca but for a magnificent save by Asenjo. He meant business; trying to take on defenders, and trying to shoot whenever he found an opportunity.

Conclusion

There is no denying that Villareal was abjectly poor, especially in the first half (surprising given the players they managed to buy in the transfer window). They left behind lots of space that was ruthlessly exploited by Barcelona. Not all Spanish teams are going to give up similar amounts of space to Barca in the coming games. In fact, it’s probably best to assume that none will. In such tight games, it will be interestingly to see how this fluid 4-2-3-1 with Griezmann as a wide player manage to perform. I was personally happy with the game, and only look forward to more good performances from the team.

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