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Three things Barcelona need to focus on to defend their La Liga crown this season

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Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Trailing behind Real Madrid and Girona in the league standings, Barcelona are confronted with the bitter reality that defending the La Liga title is a challenge as toilsome as claiming it in the first place.

But despite a rocky campaign thus far, there is enough time for Xavi to turn his team’s ailing fortunes around.

The Catalan giants are known to have clawed their way back up from worse, and having once already embraced victory at the finish line, there is no reason to believe Barcelona will not be able to emulate their past glories.

Fulfilling the following prerequisites will ensure Barcelona solidifies itself as the table-topper at the end of the campaign:

1. Building around the midfield

Xavi was once the crown jewel in Barcelona’s midfield. Having won all there is to win at club and international level, he cemented himself as one of the greatest midfielders of all time.

But while his profession as a player may lead onlookers to believe otherwise, as a coach, he has often preferred building through the wings rather than the midfield.

Instead of handing all authority to the midfielders, Xavi’s fondness for playing high-voltage football has been a staple of his play style since taking over the helm.

pedri barcelona
Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

However, such an approach has seen the team needlessly descend into excessive verticality and chaotic game states at times.

Although the lack of a natural defensive midfielder complicates matters, dominance through the center has traditionally yielded results for the Blaugranes.

Barcelona’s performance against Porto was a tale of two contrasting halves, captured best by a single strategic adjustment: a heightened engagement of their most technical players.

It was only when that talented midfield trio started to combine after proceedings that advantages started to emerge.

The game plan from Xavi was clear in the first half – to force long balls and exploit the spaces Porto were leaving behind. A game of transitions was favored, and Joao Cancelo was tasked with creating the difference as the advanced full-back.

However, it was impractical for the most part because of how little Barça were progressing with the ball. Possession was neither abundant nor meaningful

The hosts were constantly trying to look for the wingers from deeper areas of the pitch, rushing plays without placing them in productive scenarios.

Barcelona turned over a new leaf entirely when the team realized that their biggest source of advantage was the midfield. The moment passes started being strung together in midfield, the game turned on its head.

Building on the spurts of brilliance seen in the second half against Porto, Xavi recreated a similar dynamic against Atletico Madrid, and the consequence was that Barcelona thoroughly dominated, having only been let down by poor finishing.

With Pedri taking double the touches he normally does, Frenkie de Jong tasked to orchestrate plays, and Ilkay Gundogan venturing forward, Barça set the tempo of the game at their own pace, rather than engaging in a game of pinball.

At the end of the day, it’s a simple concept: the more touches your best players take, the more you will dominate. 

And right now, Barcelona’s midfielders, when in close proximity and responsible for guiding possession rather than acting as mere bystanders, are unbeatable.

2. Fixing the press

As imperative as the team’s on-the-ball principles are, ensuring there is harmony out of possession is equally vital.

Currently, Barcelona’s pressing department is a shadow of its former self. While the previous two games showed great promise, a lack of cohesion between players has been a recurring theme this season.

Barça’s press does not lack intensity; the issue is not of a lack of pressing but rather a poor attempt to execute it.

Doubts are apparent between players. When one decides to jump forward, they are not accompanied, and hesitancy in actions means players do not move in synergy.

Barça is failing to win the ball back in the opponent’s half constantly this term, exposing the team’s mid-block where the lack of natural ball winners significantly comes to light.

Xavi’s men are winning fewer balls in the opposition’s half (on average from 21 to 15), and thus the opposition manages to advance all too easily.

jules kounde ronald araujo
Photo by PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images

Large distances between players force the likes of Ronald Araujo and Jules Kounde to pull out heroics when in reality their work to clean up risky counterattacks should be minimized.

Without compactness off the ball and excessive time spent defending counters, Xavi’s men resultantly lose patience in possession.

As such, huge gaps between players force the team to either go long and hasten play — resulting in more dispossessions — or wait for the team to reorganize which is predictable and slow. The team finds itself stuck in this loop regularly.

The best way to solve such discord is simply to instill cohesion in the pressing and coach players on how to anticipate actions rather than react to them.

Furthermore, building familiarity between players is crucial. Formulating one trusted XI will help go a long way instead of tinkering excessively.

While injuries have not helped, the fact that Barcelona have yet to repeat the same lineup this season shows a deprivation of regularity.

3. Executing chances in the final third

Now, of course, a coach can not be entirely blamed for a team’s inefficiency in the final third, but when it seems to find no end, lack of clinical finishing certainly becomes a cause of concern for the coaching staff.

Barcelona have created the most chances in La Liga this season, but have simultaneously missed more big chances than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues this season (34).

Several opportunities once again went down the drain against Atletico Madrid, doing injustice to what was one of the Catalans’ best exhibitions this season.

lewandowski
Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images

Last season, Robert Lewandowski’s conversion rates were a sight for sore eyes, especially in the first half of the campaign.

As of today, though, his finishing continues to draw grievances. In fact, the Pole has the highest expected goals in La Liga (9.15) but has only scored 7 goals, while missing a whopping 10 big chances, which ranks him second highest in the league.

Numbers like these should ideally compel a harsher reaction from Xavi, who continues to name Lewandowski in the starting XI time and time again. The arrival of Vitor Roque in January should, ideally, shake up things, though.

If Barcelona are to compete for La Liga once more, fixing their act up in the final third will be essential, and certainly requires a greater reaction towards some of the biggest culprits in the XI.

Moreover, paying emphasis on shooting drills in training should certainly be on the agenda for Xavi, as wasteful finishing proceeds to plague an immensely talented team.

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