As football returns to close the most hectic season in modern football, we take a look at the meaning of such groundbreaking change in the present edition of Europe’s premier competition: the Champions League.
Football fans are the people most entitled to their opinion in the whole world. They do not accept being wrong and will fight until the end for their ideas to be accepted and valid, especially on social media these days. Social media have made people care more about being right than discussing a matter like civilised individuals.
For example, a handful of Premier League fans, with a few of them joking, of course, wanted Liverpool to get an asterisk next to their title win and this was the debate for the whole quarantine. At the end of the day, Liverpool deserved their title whether English fans like it or not. However, if these people wanted to continue their reasoning, they would have to put an asterisk next to whoever wins the Champions League’s name.
After Liverpool, the Champions League will have a new champion in this year’s edition, and it will be a deserving one regardless of who it is | Photo by Javier Soriano / AFP via Getty Images
The new format of the Champions League seems like a World Cup, and this could mean a lot of things. First, it is not necessarily the best team that’s going to win. Four knockout games without the away goal ruling mean the team on top that day will go through, and that seems fairer. Barça would have won their last two Champions League ties if they didn’t play the reverse fixture and who knows what would have happened in the semi-finals or the final.
Nevertheless, does that mean that the 2019/2020 Champions League season is less valuable? Is that format, that rewards the best players on the day, valid enough to crown the champions of Europe? Well, to answer these two questions shortly, yes. Football is football, and it can be played in any way, shape or form.
This format resembles the old editions of the Champions League a lot. Wikipedia says that about the earliest editions of the Champions League: “Introduced in 1955 as the European Champion Clubs’ Cup, it was initially a straight knockout tournament open only to the champion club of each national championship”. If one disregarded the fact that it’s not only the champions of each European country that participate, they would compare the 2020 Champions League to the 1955 one and found next to no differences.
Do Real Madrid get stripped of titles, the same way Liverpool do, won before the complete rebranding in 1992? Of course not, and it would be stupid only to count Madrid’s eight modern titles and completely devaluate their five early wins against Juste Fontaine’s Reims side or Eintracht Frankfurt just for the sake of rebranding.
Losing is not a failure, as long as the team gives its all | Photo by Filippo Monteforte / AFP via Getty Images
Now, what does it mean if Barça win this edition of the Champions League? The most straightforward answer is to say that, would they become champions of Europe, they would have the bragging rights until the next final, just like Liverpool have done. Nonetheless, there are multiple outcomes if they lose.
The first one is to defend Quique Setién‘s side, but only if they play the right way.
Against Athletic in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals in January, Barça played well and were just unlucky in the final third. Culés understood and weren’t too fussed about this loss, only if it meant the team would focus more on La Liga and the Champions League. If the Catalans lose to a 90th-minute goal against Bayern Munich in the quarters after having more shots, more of the ball and playing better overall, Setién could be proud of his team’s performance but also aggrieved by the result, of course.
It could also play in his favour, and players could back him up if they feel luck wasn’t on their side. Still, if Barça lose in a humiliating way, as many are fearing as they would face Bayern Munich in the quarters, Setién may have to go, and he will get the same deserved criticism he got after losing the league in July.
But winning could also play against Setién. As many don’t like this World Cup-like Champions League, Setién’s win could mean next to nothing for some culés or some socios whose voices mean a lot to how the club is run. All in all, the winner of this edition of Europe’s most coveted competition will still be champion of Europe and rightfully so. For Setién, this competition is the last chance to save his job and bring long-awaited success to a collapsing club. Let’s hope the culés know what’s at stake this time around.
Analysis of the left-back problem at Barcelona
On the 22nd of June in the year 2012 Barcelona re-signed once one of their own, Valencia speedster, Jordi Alba, for 14 million Euros. Once part of the club after coming through the esteemed La Masia academy, he was to replace Eric Abidal, the French left-back who had given much to Barcelona over the years but his unfortunate health problems meant it was the need of the hour to move onwards. Fast forward 8 years and a massive 335 appearances for the Blaugranas, the man who was initially dismissed as ‘too short’ by the Catalan club stands as a gargantuan figure who made the left-hand side his own.
It is unpropitious for Barcelona that time cannot be rolled back, because if they could, they would definitely look no further than the little man they signed in 2012 to fix their current concerns at left-back. As things stand, however, Alba is 31 and clearly regressing as each season passes. While he still has an excellent command on his attacking skill, it’s the defensive issues faced by him and the other fullbacks that puts the team in hot water consistently. Moreover, one of the key aspects to his game is the pace and acceleration he brought near the touchline, and that is one area that is bound to regress with age. It is, therefore, the correct time to look for a replacement for the Spaniard; otherwise, the Blaugranas risk being set back a few years as happened with replacing Dani Alves.
This train of thought was what Barcelona had in mind when they signed Junior Firpo from Real Betis in August 2019. He was, at that point, a highly well-regarded prospect in La Liga, with several teams including Real Madrid and Manchester City posing interest in the Dominican. However, Firpo’s attacking threat was nowhere close to the Spaniard. In the 17 appearances he did make, Junior Firpo had a low xA (Expected Assists) of 0.06 per 90 last season as compared to Alba’s 0.14 per 90. Additionally, he had 3.71 passes into the final third per 90 as compared to Alba’s 4.75. Finally, Firpo was never able to recreate the kind of understanding Alba had with team captain Lionel Messi which made the duo lethal. The young left-back never makes the same runs into the box as Alba and the Argentinian is often left wanting more in that regard.
Junior Firpo, at the moment, simply does not match up to Jordi Alba at all.
Defensively speaking, Firpo did attempt more tackles than the Spanish veteran – 2.12 tackles per 90 as compared to Alba’s 1.03 per 90 in 19/20, but it is often due to necessity as he is caught out of position very often. This trickles down to the fouls, which stand at 3.1 fouls per 90 for 24-year-old, as compared to Alba’s 0.74. Consequently, Firpo picked up 5 yellow cards while Alba picked up 7 in a little more than double the starts, indicating a lack of discipline in Firpo’s case. The duo is similar with regards to successful pressures, as Alba had 2.8 successful pressures per 90 last season and Firpo had 2.65 for the same.
Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images
For what it is worth, Firpo does bring a touch of aerial dominance into the picture, but that is hardly a requirement for the left-back of a team like Barcelona. The youngster’s growth has stagnated over the season, and he showed no signs of adaptability when it came to moving from a 5 at the back system at Betis to a flat 4 at Barcelona. Maybe with time, Junior Firpo becomes an able replacement, but with multiple players past their peaks, including long time mainstays Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique who have been so crucial to the Blaugrana’s defensive system, Barcelona must bring in a fresh face. Someone who can fill the massive shoes of Alba quickly. We, at Barca Universal, therefore, look at 3 possible replacements for the Spaniard who can complete the Blaugrana’s search in that position.
Going the Jordi Alba route: Alex Grimaldo
A name Barca connoisseurs will be familiar with, Alex Grimaldo is also from the once-famed La Masia, and was one of the highly touted prospects before he chose to move to Benfica, eyeing the possibility of more playing time since Alba had a tight hold of that spot at Barcelona. Now that Alba is ageing, it might be time to dive in for another trusted La Masia prospect who will know the workings of the club from his academy days.
Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP via Getty Images
Grimaldo is a short and lean player, with a boosted acceleration – a profile very similar to that of Alba. Often used as a midfielder in his earlier days, he has the decision making and a great handle on what to do when he has possession of the ball, which is a massive bonus for a team like the possession hungry Catalans. He has a tremendous attacking output and is genuinely fearless, something Firpo is clearly lacking. The 24-year-old Spaniard has racked 22 assists in 88 games in the Primeira Liga and is one of the top fullbacks in the league. His xA per 90 stood at 0.21 as compared to Alba’s 0.14 last season, and he also led the numbers for tackles, making 2.34 successful tackles per 90 as compared to Alba’s 0.58. When it comes to passing, Grimaldo completed 83% of his passes last season, whereas Alba made his passes at a completion rate of 87.1%.
While Grimaldo is short in stature and teams often look to go over him, he still has the positioning to make up for the same and has the pace to make up ground if he falters. Something prime Alba can massive relate to.
The short-term, big success option: Nicolas Tagliafico
The red and blue of Barcelona owes a lot to the red and white of Amsterdam. From players like Johann Cruyff and Jari Litmanen to more recently, Luis Suarez and Frenkie de Jong, there have been a plethora of players who have represented both the clubs. Now that Barcelona have been looking to offload the regressing Suarez, Nicolas Tagliafico could turn out be an interesting option to entice Ajax for a swap deal.
Photo by JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images
The Argentine left-back moved from Independiente in 2018 and has since appeared 65 times for Ajax. While he is not as much of an attacking threat (8 assists in 2 seasons), the 28-year-old does give Barcelona something they desperately need in their current predicament – defensive solidity. Compared to Alba’s 25 tackles attempted in the 19/20 season, Tagliafico attempted almost four times that number (96) and successfully completing 61 of them, compared to Alba’s 14. He was also able to block 10 shots compared to Alba’s 5.
However, the defensive side of the game is not all he provides. He is solid while in possession as well, completing 86% of his passes, and playingi in one key pass every game. He also created seven big chances last season, of which only four were converted. Tagliafico stands at a modest 5’7”, but he does have the lung-bursting stamina in him, which will be a criterion to consider while replacing Alba. In buying Tagliafico, Barcelona could potentially look to employ something their Blanco rivals in Madrid successfully did after buying Ferland Mendy – plug the defensive errors from the wings and solidify the defence as a whole.
The left-of-centre option: Jose Gaya
Barcelona looked towards Valencia in 2012, and maybe the solution lies there in 2020 as well. Jose Gaya has been one of the most highly-rated left-backs in La Liga for years. Despite, that, he is only 25 years old, but has already racked up 144 appearances for the club. With Valencia having a fire sale, it would be the perfect time for the Blaugranas to target their academy graduate.
Gaya is a very attacking fullback who tends to occupy areas on the left-hand side byline a lot. He is an outstanding crosser and attempted 3.08 crosses per game in the 19/20 season. He had a total of 939 touches in the mid and final third combined, showing his tendency to push up in the opposition half and receive the ball high up the pitch. If he loses the ball, Gaya has the electric pace that can help him catch up with opponents quickly. He is not afraid to complete a challenge and is hard to take on, given his short, but robustly built. Gaya was one of the standout players in what was a rather disappointing season for Valencia, and Barcelona should grab the chance to buy him with both hands, especially after his excellent display against them in La Liga this season.