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 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.
The causes and effects of Barcelona’s inability to cope with pressure
On the back of a 1-4 trouncing at home to Paris Saint Germain, Barcelona had the opportunity to extend their 7 game-winning run in the league to a phenomenal eight, and against probably the easiest of competition to do so.
After all, Cádiz were on the back of a four-game losing streak in La Liga, having won a meagre 5 points from a possible 33, and up against a team that had won 31 from their last 33. This was as perfect a game as they came, but, as has been a motif at the Catalan club in recent years, they crumbled under pressure.
Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The defence gave away two big chances, one of which came from a ludicrous and much too easily avoidable penalty two minutes from time. As for the forward line, despite having had eleven and a half chances more than their visitors to hit the back of the net, amassing a whopping 3.56xG, they could settle for only one goal, and this too from a penalty. Ronald Koeman had a mostly tolerable afternoon, but at this point, the complaints about the team make the ever-demanding fans sound like a broken record.
In this article, Barca Universal explores some events that have become all too common when the team faces minimal adversity, stretching from the managers in the dugouts, the pressure the collective falls over for in crucial moments and finally, individual mistakes which, like a bad rash, spread to all corners of the team continue to plague the club.
Managerial incompetence in crucial moments
Barcelona’s last three managers, Ronald Koeman included, have each shown, and on plenty of occasions, certain character traits that, rather than improve the team, contribute to its inevitable downfall. What is most shocking is, despite being akin to water and oil in terms of their tactics, they each have an uncanny ability not only to fail to learn from each other but, more surprisingly, themselves.
Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setién, and Koeman have each shown a palpable level of a lack of tactical ingenuity whenever called upon. In one way or another, each one of them has taken the club farther and farther away from its roots, all while failing to replace them with anything sustainable enough to win points, or at the very least, make games enjoyable.
It comes as a shock that even in-game, whenever their set systems start to show fissures, neither one of them has consistently shown the most basic of requirements in a manager, this coming in their ability to rectify their errors.
In 2019, leading 3-0 against Liverpool, Barcelona needed just but a goal to gain a spot in the UEFA Champions League’s final. Rather than set his side up for an offensive tussle with the Merseyside club — who mind you were bereft of any real attacking talent —, the then manager deployed a controversial and rather defensive 4-4-2 formation, providing little to no width and with a clear disconnect between the midfield and the two up front.
Down by a just goal at half time, Valverde had the chance to add Malcom to attack the right flank given Andy Robertson had been taken off at halftime, but he opted not to. He had a chance to add Arthur Melo to improve ball circulation after conceding two in two minutes to Georginio Wijnaldum but instead decided to go for Nelson Semedo.
The sheer lack of order in the team, and his inability to react to reach the goals they scored, meant Barça would inevitably give up the aggregate lead and the tie as a whole. Impervious to criticism, he would continue to show this very same level of incompetence for the nine months that led up to his sacking.
Quique Setién did much of the same here too. Once admired for his Cruyffist tendencies, he fell apart under the unspoken power dynamics set in place by the heavyweights in the club, leading him to never make changes to his starting elevens regardless of how poorly an individual had played. Even when the game was crying for an intervention via a substitution, he, like Valverde, before him would cower in fear and take refuge in the dugouts, which for much of his tenure remained untouched.
Despite having three years worth of evidence on what not to do at Barça, Ronald Koeman continues to make the same exact mistakes as his predecessors. He at least makes rotations in the starting eleven every once in a while, but unless, of course, the team is in a comfortable winning position, he will wait until at least the 80th minute to effectuate any changes to the team’s shape, tactics, or personnel. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that almost every game that has seen Barca trail this season in La Liga has gone on to end as either a draw or a loss of all three points.
Against Paris, many fans observed the gaping holes left in between the defence at the halfway line and the poorly dispersed midfield and attack. This was at halftime, yet in the second period, he left it as it was rather than change up the team’s shape. The exact same mistakes occurred at home against Cádiz in both the first and second period and was only met with a change in the final minutes of the tie.
In La Liga, where the level is lower, managers can get away with a draw here and there, but in the Champions League, where every mistake is punished, they all falter, and to the surprise of no one. When push comes to shove, they all look clueless, lose their train of thought, and as has been the case in each of the last four years, the Blaugrana have lost and lost heavily to equal opposition.
Players that simply don’t make the cut
It comes to reason that not every defeat is as a result of managerial or tactical mishaps. Sometimes, and as has been the case for many years now, tactical flaws have been compounded with some ghastly individual errors, some of which lead fans to question how it is that these players became professionals in the first place.
There are many games that can illustrate this, but none more so than Barcelona’s almighty collapse against the new sextuple winners, Bayern Munich. It is quite unjust that subsequent to such defeats, only the manager’s contract is cut short. Some of the mistakes made by the entirety of the team in that game were so blatantly unacceptable that at least half the team should’ve been sacked at the end.
A score of 4-1 against Paris, or 3-0 against AS Roma this year and in 2018 respectively could be attributed to a manager’s inability to take a firm hold of the game, but when it goes beyond five, it is imperative that the players, perhaps more than their manager, be put to question.
Despite the average age of the squad on that night being over 30 years of age, everyone on the team, from Lionel Messi upfront to Ter Stegen in goal, made rookie mistakes. Leading from the front, the Argentine couldn’t be bothered to press for the ball, despite his individual mistakes directly leading to a quarter of their goals.
Luis Suárez partnering him, made just eighteen passes, nine of which were from the centre circle at the start of one half and one for each of the eight goals that Ter Stegen, a man whose capacity to play under pressure, is being questioned more and more by the year, conceded.
The entirety of the team has this impeccable ability to collectively fall into pieces, with mentalities that shrink to the sub-atomic level when faced with the slightest of adversity. The usual suspects in defence, these coming in Jordi Alba, who almost singlehandedly won Liverpool the second leg at Anfield, Samuel Umtiti, whose career essentially came to an end after the 2018 world cup, Clément Lenglet, whose in-game reactions can be outpaced by a tortoise, are often the catalysts to the team’s failure.
Football is a team game, but individual errors often do have a profound impact on the collective. How is Barca supposed to be challenging for La Liga when their defence is the one with the most individual errors leading to a goal in the entire division.
How are clean sheets meant to be preserved when individuals like Clément Lenglet concede 3 penalties in the same campaign, each leading to a loss of points. It is borderline impossible to challenge for anything when half the time, in do or die situations, you have defenders that shoot themselves, and thus the team, in the foot.
But it’s not only the defence to be blamed. The attack and midfield, charged with finishing chances and creating an air of stability, respectively, do none of the like when called upon. Against the Bavarians, the midfield was essentially inexistent, with next to no pressing, and even when applied, none of it had any coordination or impact on the much superior German machine. Passing somehow from a trio or quadruple of players whose careers are built on just that, all inexplicably goes awry or loses all meaning at the slightest instance of pressure.
The forward line, as seen on innumerable occasions this campaign and during their European disasters, somehow collectively forgets how to find the back of the net. No one can be spared from this judgment, not even Messi.
Ousmane Dembélé had the chance to kill off the tie against Liverpool, but rather than blast the ball past Alisson in a 1v1 situation, he chipped it into his arms and did basically the same thing against Paris last in midweek when he wasted a chance to take the game to 2-0, only for the visitors to equalise within seconds. The same was the case as recently as yesterday against Cadiz, whereof 23 shots made, only one via a penalty found the back of the net.
Barcelona not only have to contend with managers who show complete ineptitude at understanding or implementing the one style of play asked if them, but also a team that, when needed to perform, has not the slightest idea how.
As Johan Cruyff once famously said, “football is a game of mistakes, and whoever makes the least mistakes wins.” When it comes to Barcelona, winning goes from something that should be a regular, weekly occurrence to a proverbial mountain crafted from the tiniest of anthills.
These errors span all the way from managers in the dugouts who, despite years of experience, keep making the same mistakes to the players on the pitch, who, through a lack of attention to detail, ridiculous mistakes and otherworldly missing, never cease to contribute to the demise of the team.