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The past, the present, and the next wise decision Barcelona should make in the summer

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Photos via Imago

Written by Stanley Ifekauche

Awarded best club of the decade (2011-2021) by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS), FC Barcelona have, in the last two years, looked like a side that will have nothing to do with next decade’s award. The past, the present, and the next wise decision Barcelona should make in the summer

At this time, two years ago, it was quite obvious that the Blaugrana were going to retain the league title. It wasn’t all rosy in terms of the team’s performances, though, but Ernesto Valverde, the world’s best player, and the rest of the team were able to bring home the league title. Then came one of the most humiliating exits from the UEFA Champions League the club has ever encountered since the competition was rebranded in 1992. They were also unable to retain the Copa del Rey, getting embarrassed against Valencia in the final.

Fast-forward to 2020, the management of the famous garnet and blue stripes could no longer house the team’s head coach. In all honesty, Barcelona were not where they ought to have been as a club. On the 13th day of January, the club officially announced an agreement between itself and Ernesto Valverde to terminate the head coach’s contract. A breath of fresh air for so many Cúles it would seem.

At this time the club was clear on one thing. It would welcome a manager whose tactics were similar to that which it had been known for in the last few decades. This development opened the door to the appointment of Quique Setien which seemed reasonable to the board at the time. After all, he wasn’t new to the league, he adored the Cruffian Ideology and he had done well at Real Betis.

Setien was far from the breath of fresh air he was made out to be initially. (Photo via Imago)

A couple of news outlets even stated that the win at Camp Nou while managing Betis had left a huge impression on members of the board even before Valverde was given a final opportunity. What would accompany this appointment would be glimpses of hope for the club via displays of high pressing & quick movement of the ball.

Soon after, though, Barça crashed out of the Copa del Rey in the quarterfinals to the second most successful side in the competition’s history — Athletic Bilbao, shipping eight goals in what would become the most humiliating single game tie in the history of the UEFA Champions League, and conceding the league title to bitter rivals Real Madrid.

In the midst of all this, one thing was certain. Clear as day was the fact that the quality in the Barcelona side was not what it used to be. The world could see a big difference between what the club used to have as far back as 2005 through 2015 and the crop of players in 2020. This was due to a dip in the form of certain players but majorly due to mediocre signings made by a mismanaging and, overall, dysfunctional board.

Presently, under the guidance of Ronald Koeman, the team has once again found purpose. Right from the get-go, you could see the work being put in. Besides moving the ball a lot quicker, attempts to win the back possession of the ball via the famous “Barcelona Six Second Rule” no longer depends on what ground the team plays on. It’s no longer a Camp Nou affair.

Now they play as good on the road as they do at home. Again, the Blaugrana aren’t seen as over-dependent on Messi as they were in previous seasons. These days, goals and assists come from various position in the team. Defenders aren’t left out as fullbacks are encouraged to not just create goal-scoring opportunities via crosses and square-play but also get on the score sheet more often. One would expect nothing less since the man in charge of the team scored over a century of goals playing in a similar position.

It has not been a completely joyous ride under the present boss, though, has it? Barça still encountered the same complications that haunted their previous campaign. The manner in which they let in goals and the amount they let in had cost them the Spanish Super Cup earlier on, before getting them tossed out of the Champions League in the Round of 16 against Paris Saint-Germain.

Not all fun and games. (Photo via Imago)

Fortunately, it seems the team has managed to get ahead of their defensive lapses. Koeman’s recent 3-4-3 formation provides extra protection at the back and has helped the side keep clean sheets. It’s left to see if it is a long-term setup or just for the moment till key players gain fitness.

Cúles can now see the possibility of dominating football once again. The team, without a natural centre-forward, has scored approximately a century of goals with the backdoor finally secure and seem to be in pole position to pick up a trophy or two, life is quite good for a Barca fan today; however, it’s not as good as it should be for a club like FC Barcelona. Work still needs to be done in the summer.

The Blaugrana clearly lack in some key positions. They struggled to get a replacement for Luis Suarez while he was at the club and even after his departure. Under Koeman, however, the team has had 19 different goal scorers already this term, registering over 90 goals in all competitions. It wouldn’t be insane to think that a natural centre-forward, although needed by the club, should not top the club’s scale of preference going into the transfer window.

Club legend Luis Suarez left before the club nailed down a replacement. (Photo via Imago)

The second key position to strengthen is defence. The club desperately needs a top-class centre half and seem to have reached an agreement with Manchester City for the transfer of Eric Garcia. With this settled, it leaves us with the third key position, and it is one to be prioritized come summer. Not just because it is an integral part of attack, midfield & defence for the club, but also because of the financial return and how it can bolster other positions.

The modern-day fullbacks are of great importance to not just Barcelona but every team whose tactic is possession-based. It is at this point that a good fullback/wingback means as much to the team as a good midfield setup does. When teams depend a lot on possession, they usually keep a high block. You see, what happens is that the team’s constant craving to regain and retain possession of the ball pushes the opposition backwards, thereby producing (willingly or unwillingly) a medium, or in most cases, low block.

This is where the fullback/wingback’s work is cut out. At this point, the player doesn’t just side back with the centre-halves but moves up the pitch to create numerical advantage. This can be in midfield (as an inverted fullback) or far up the pitch, stretching the opposition’s defensive setup. Eventually, when the ball is lost, and there is the threat of a possible counter-attack, the fullback/wingback must return to his/her half in the quickest way possible.

Long story cut short, a Barça fullback not only has to be quick but also has to possess the highest form of athleticism. The best of the bunch currently is Jordi Alba, with Sergino Dest coming in as a close second. The Holland born American has been a shining light for the club down the right-wing. Since the departure of Dani Alves, the right-wing position has not contributed half as much going forward as it did in the past.

Messi has since preferred to combine with Jordi down the left-wing while playing through the middle. Nelson Semedo tried to make use of the space vacated by the little magician on the right flank and often ran it well but for his poor final pass. He was able to make use of tight spaces, beating an opponent or two with his skill and explosive pace, but he often came up short in 1v1 situations in Barça’s defensive third.

Regardless, an impressive amount of Barcelona fans still believe he was a better fullback in the famous red & blue stripes than Sergi Roberto is. Dest, however, has proven to be better than both of them, and as a reason, has become a regular in the starting XI alongside Alba. The problem remains that the Blaugrana feature in more than 50 games a season, so they can’t have Alba and Dest partnering in all the games.

Does Roberto do enough to warrant an immediate starting spot in the team? (Photo via Imago)

Although Roberto frequently showcases good vision and great crossing ability in the opposition’s final third, Sergi lacks a ton of qualities that makes a fine fullback/wingback. His lack of positional awareness in 1v1 situations is alarming, as is his lack of athleticism and speed. Further, the Spaniard does not have an eye for goal, and messes up when he does the occasional chance to shoot.

These attributes he lacks has cost Barça on numerous occasions in the past. Therefore it is high time he vacated the position, completely. Koeman’s newly found setup at the club does not require his versatility anymore.

He featured mostly as a fullback in the past, then as a midfielder (as extra protection in front of the defence line) and sometimes on the right-wing in a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2, under Valverde. All of which is not necessary today. Koeman’s new tactical innovation with Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong sitting in front of the backline is enough protection as it is.

Considering where the club is financially and considering the loan of Emerson Royal coming to an end at Betis, it’s rather salient that the first order of business during the summer transfer window is the sale of Sergi Roberto. In other words, Emerson in, Roberto out is the next wise move Barca should make in the summer. Of the other players facing possible transfer, Roberto’s is the only spot with a confirmed replacement coming in the summer.

It will only be wise to let go of Roberto first in the summer and invest the proceeds from his transfer into the centre-forward position.

Emerson Royal, 22, broke into Atletico Minero, where he was later scouted by Barcelona & Real Betis. There soon was an agreement amongst all three parties, with FC Barcelona acquiring his services for €12 million but loaning him to Betis for two seasons. Fortunately, Emerson has had the opportunity of encountering a similar situation that he will face at Barça during his time in Seville.

Emerson blazes down the wing with poise and confidence. (Photo via Imago)

With Nabil Fekir drifting into midfield from the wing — like Messi —, the 22-year-old had the chance to show off his offensive ability. Emerson also covers a lot of ground rather quickly. His pace and athleticism have helped him defensively, as well. Conclusively, he is much better than Roberto in 1v1 situations and showcases a great work rate. This is the natural switch in the guard for Barcelona, who will have to let go of a long-term servant for the club, whose term, unfortunately, has come to an end.

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  1. Avatar

    Alex

    07/04/2021 at 10:40

    Barca should drop Roberto’s asking price from 60 to 45 million. It would easily bring in 35 to 40 million with Robertos versatility and playmaker ability

Opinions

Copa Del Rey final: Forgetting El Clasico, Supercopa Final and more

Darren Looney

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Photo via Imago

What seemed very unlikely at one stage in Barcelona’s season is now just one game away from a trophy. Saturday sees Ronald Koeman’s men contest this season’s Copa del Rey final against a familiar foe in Marcelino and his Athletic Club side at the Estadio de La Cartuja in Seville, the scene of the Athletics’ manager’s most recent cup final triumph over the Catalan side. 

The pair met in the Supercopa de España final back in January, with Athletic Club coming away from the tie as 3-2 winners after extra time. The defeat was a demoralising moment for Barça, as the Catalan side were just a minute away from victory until Asier Villalibre equalised.  

Going into the final, Barcelona find themselves in another disheartening moment of the season after coming up short to bitter rivals Real Madrid in a 2-1 defeat in El Clasico, a result that could prove crucial in this season’s title race

Barcelona were unable to cope with Madrid’s counter attacking display. (Photo via Imago)

The potential of the season collapsing looms over the Catalan side, with doubt creeping into some of the players’ minds, with Jordi Alba being the first to express it. 

Marcelino could not have asked for a better result to face Barcelona off the back of, as the Spaniard has a history of punishing dejected Barça sides. For Koeman’s men, the Clasico result must be swept aside because the manager in opposition dugout on Saturday provides a subtle reminder of what can happen if they fail to do so, the 18/19 season. 

Forgetting El Clasico 

“I don’t know, eh,” Jordi Alba’s words to Gerard Pique after Barcelona’s defeat to Real Madrid are simple, but those that know the place they are coming from know that they have the weight of fear and trauma behind them. 

The conversation between the pair started with Pique stating “Relax, we will win [the cup final]” with the fullback replying “I don’t know, eh.” Unable to hear the centre back responds with “What?” before Barça’s fullback states again, “I don’t know [if we will win it].” 

Alba is known to crumble in big games, under pressure. (Photo via Imago)

Alba’s doubt most likely casts back to the defeat in the Supercopa final, but in those words, “I don’t know” are the results of Anfield, the Valencia cup final, Bayern Munich and all the other setbacks the club have experienced in the last few seasons.

The 32-year-old knows the importance of El Clasico and the knock-on effect defeat can have in the weeks after, especially considering the importance of the latest chapter of the fixture. 

Ronald Koeman cannot allow this psychological doubt to creep back into his team after doing phenomenally well to banish it over the last four months. There are positives to take from the weekend’s events, and it is here where the Dutchman can start to reaffirm the confidence shown throughout the Blaugranas’ 19 games unbeaten run. 

Although the defeat was a setback in Barcelona’s pursuit of La Liga, focussing on the game itself, the difference between the sides was not that great. 

It was a classic tale of two halves, with Real dominating the first with their counter attacks and Barça the second with their high positioning and possession. Koeman should find solace in the second-half performance, as his team came within the width of the crossbar of rescuing a point despite the added battle of monsoon-like conditions. 

The match was somewhat ideal preparation for the final, as Athletic Club are also fantastic in transitions and are specifically very effective on both flanks of the pitch, areas of space that were exploited by Real. However, they are themselves in a sour spot, having already lost the Copa del Rey final 2020, against Real Sociedad, which was played no more than 2 weeks back.

Bilbao will be hoping to win at least one of the Copa del Reys. (Photo via Imago)

Koeman will need to address this throughout the week, and it would not be a surprise if the Dutchman opted for four at the back for the cup final.  

Another positive for Koeman is the timing of this cup final, as a result on each side of the coin could have an enormous effect on Barça’s season. Although defeat has the potential to ruin the Catalan sides season, there is no better way to bounce back from a defeat to Real Madrid than lifting a trophy, and it could be a springboard towards doing the double. 

The problem for Koeman with addressing the doubts of Alba and others is not only the uncertainty left by the Clasico but the final of the Supercopa de España as well. 

Expelling the Memories of the Supercopa Final

January seems a lifetime ago in terms of how Ronald Koeman’s team has developed over the months since. The formation has changed, Barcelona started winning big games, and a winning mentality has been firmly instilled in the squad. The Catalan club as a whole are moving in the right direction, and winning a trophy will somewhat symbolise this.   

The Copa del Rey final will be the fourth time this season Barca have faced Athletic Club, winning two out of the three previous meetings. 

Despite this, it is that single loss that has the potential to cause problems in the minds of the players on Saturday. The final of the Supercopa de España was the match that got away and reminded everyone in the squad of the embarrassing moments the club has experienced over the last three seasons. 

Barça were one minute away from securing their first trophy since lifting La Liga in May 2019 until Asier Villalibre equalised to take the final to extra time. Iñaki William put Athletic Club’s name on the trophy with a wonderful strike leaving Koeman’s men dejected. 

Inaki splashed water on Barcelona’s dreams. (Photo via Imago)

Jordi Alba’s doubts regarding this season’s Copa del Rey final most likely stems from this game, and if the full-back is thinking this way, there could be others as well. 

Going into the final, Koeman must focus on the two wins the Catalan side have had over Marcelino’s men. The last time the sides met, Barcelona won the match 2-1 at the Camp Nou and performed brilliantly with the scoreline flattering the Basque side. Barca exploited Athletic Club on the wings and created multiple chances to score goals, with the winner coming from an Oscar Mingueza cross down the right. 

Koeman can also turn to Athletic Club’s form for inspiration, with the Basque side winning only 4 of their last 14 matches. Within this run was a defeat in last years edition of the Copa del Rey final, in which Marcelino’s side lost to local rivals Real Sociedad 1-0.

At present, Barcelona are a much better side than Athletic Club. Form, head-to-head meetings, and the quality of players all fall in the favour of the Catalan side but having mentioned all this doubt, and how Koeman can address it, the fact is that there might still be some thanks to a recent encounter with the Basque side’s manager Marcelino. 

The Ghost of the 2019 Final

In the 18/19 season, a Lionel Messi inspired Barca side were charging towards an unexpected treble at the start of May. With the league already wrapped up, two fixtures stood out within the final month of the season, a trip to Liverpool and the Copa del Rey final.

The result away to Liverpool left Barcelona dejected. (Photo via Imago)

On the 7th of May, the infamous night at Anfield occurred, where Barcelona let a 3-0 lead from the first leg slip and failed to reach the Champions League final. The experience was confidence shattering and was not ideal with the cup final around the corner. 

The 2019 Copa del Rey final was contested between Barcelona, and a Marcelino led Valencia. The Southeastern outfit won the tie 2-1 thanks to two first-half goals from Kevin Gameiro and Rodrigo. As a stand only fixture, there is nothing special about this tie. However, the significance of this final to current events lies in the weeks that lead up to the final. 

In the 17 days between Anfield and Andalucía, that one match would consistently nag away at the Barca players. Gerard Pique recently called that night the worst defeat of his career and previously stated that he believed that if they won that night, they would have claimed the Copa del Rey as well. 

Fast forward to now, and the similarities are present. Barça go into a cup final against a Marcelino led side after a disheartening defeat in an important El Clasico

Luckily for Ronald Koeman, things are much different. The Dutchman’s team is certainly a better one who have been in fantastic form of late, the defeat in El Clasico did not end Barca’s hopes of winning La Liga, and despite Jordi Alba’s doubts, the player’s confidence will not have taken the same level of a confidence hit the Anfield defeat brought.  

However, it is still a memory that remains and Marcelino will only remind them of that.

Ruining Barcelona’s party. (Photo via Imago)

The 2021 Copa del Rey final is nicely poised for fans of Spanish football. For Barca fans, it will ultimately show whether this team has overcome their psychological traumas of the past. The signs in the previous rounds seem to suggest that they have, but with Barcelona, you never know. 

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