Little over two months ago, the greatest competition in club football came to a close with Bayern Munich, undoubtedly the best team in the tournament, clinching their sixth European crown in a 1-0 victory against Thomas Tuchel’s PSG in Lisbon. In this article we take a look at Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona, the squad’s depth and what we can expect from them as well as the other potential challengers for club football’s greatest prize.
For Cules everywhere over the past four years, the UEFA Champions League has had starts as sweet as their ends have been bitter. Humiliations at the hands of Juventus, AS Roma, Liverpool and most recently Bayern in the squad’s 2-8 mauling have left an indelible imprint in the hearts and minds of its players and supporters. With club president Jose Maria Bartomeu affirmatively stating that this won’t be a year for a rebuild and that Barcelona will once again challenge for everything available, is a Champions League title a realistic prospect for the Catalans?
Analyzing the Squad Depth
Salient to Bayern’s European success was strength in depth. Barcelona is short stacked in several key areas that could deal a massive blow to their title aspirations.
In the defence, the Catalans are bereft of quality options in the fullback positions. While a good rotation player, Sergi Roberto isn’t truly a fullback and has wavering performances when playing there. Newly signed Sergino Dest arrived in Barcelona to fill that void. While his role is to occupy the right flank, Junior Firpo’s slow adaptation to the team as well as Jordi Alba’s injury has meant that the 19-year-old was forced to take up the left-back spot. As displayed by the past four European Champions – including Barcelona itself – having quality fullbacks on either flank is vital to the overall functioning of the team in both offensive and defensive phases, and this Barcelona does not have enough of it.
The midfield should not be a cause for concern as Koeman has enough men in his ranks to play anywhere from a double pivot to a block of five if ever the need arises. He has a perfect blend of quality, quantity, youth as well as experience to go the extra mile.
The final third is where questions arise on just how far this team’s attack can go in the latter stages of the Champions League; where chances gifted are often few and far between. There is strength in numbers, with the Dutch manager boasting seven attackers in his ranks. The general output of these players, however, is wanting so far.
Lionel Messi seems to be having trouble adapting to the novel system applied by Koeman. The Argentine, thus far, has registered fifteen shots in La Liga with just but a goal to his name – and that too via a penalty.
Antoine Griezmann, too, is having a tough run of form and seems completely void of confidence in his striking abilities whenever an opportunity presents itself. Ousmane Dembele is recovering from a lengthy injury which kept him out of football for close to a year. The bigger concern with him is his inability to gel in with the team. As per several reports, the manager is far from impressed by his tactical understanding of the game.
Of the four remaining, Francisco Trincao and Ansu Fati have shown some promise as we saw yesterday, Philippe Coutinho seems to have recovered his lost form, and Martin Braithwaite looks more inclined to take up a substitute role than that of a starter.
Overall not very encouraging signs from the European hopefuls.
A Look at Barcelona’s UCL Group
For this new chapter in the Champions League, Ronald Koeman’s men will face Hungarian champions Ferencvaros, Ukrainian league leaders Dynamo Kyiv and Andrea Pirlo’s Juventus en route to the round of sixteen.
It stands without saying that the Italians and the Catalans are favourites to win the group given the overwhelming difference in class between themselves and the rest but which of the two will win it is difficult to predict. Both clubs are under some form of reconstruction for the long term with club legends (Andrea Pirlo and Ronald Koeman) coming back managers to replenish their ageing squads with new blood with the goal of forming a dynasty for the next few years.
That said, both teams have started their road to the UCL trophy in impressive fashion; Juventus registered a 2-0 victory over Dynamo, while Barcelona hammered Ferencvaros courtesy of a Lionel Messi – Frenkie de Jong masterclass.
More often than not, it’s the side from the third pot that determines just how strenuous the group will be. With all due respect to the Ukrainians, their presence offers the Catalans a breath of fresh air as the past three editions of the UCL have featured some tough opponents such as Tottenham Hotspur and Inter Milan – twice.
Ferencvaros meanwhile are enjoying their first taste of Champions League football in 25 years and are the underdogs of the group. They did trouble Barça yesternight during the initial stages of the game, coming awfully close to scoring. While not that big a threat individually, the Fradi can lay claim to their victory over Celtic in qualifying as a reason not to write them off just yet.
We predict a couple of points seperating Barcelona and Juventus come final day; Dynamo Kyiv will prove a much tougher opponent than earlier estimated and beat one of the top two. Still, it won’t be a fairytale return for the Hungarians as they finish fourth on the standings.
Barça Universal prediction of the group:
3. Dynamo Kyiv
Assessing Barcelona’s Chances
Barcelona’s start to the campaign, while promising, should not be taken as a mark in stone. In the knockout stages of the Champions League, the Blaugrana is always unpredictable. Away from home, they almost always produce lacklustre results, only for them to atone for them at the Camp Nou. Such performances aren’t by any means sustainable and the fact that the Catalans are yet to curb this problem four years since its start shows that they truly have a long way to go before they can reasonably challenge for the title.
After a mauling as humiliating as the one the Catalans suffered at the hands of Bayern Munich, they will surely want to make amends for their failures, but it would be safe to predict them making it to the quarter-finals at worst and the semi-finals at best. Getting to the final will take plenty of fortune, tactical ingenuity and flexibility from Koeman and perhaps some individual brilliance from Messi.
A Brief Look at the Challengers
1. Bayern Munich: As the champions and the undisputed best team in Europe, it should stand without question that the Bavarians are top of the lot. They somehow bolstered their already unbelievable attack with the signing of Leroy Sane from Manchester City and will look to defend their crown this time around.
2. Paris Saint Germain: Domestic treble winners and Champions League finalists, the Parisiens will look to set the record straight and prove that what happened last season wasn’t a fluke. Boasting a stellar attack with the likes of Neymar Jr. and Kylian Mbappe in the attack, this team is capable of next to anything.
3. Liverpool: Despite their phenomenal domestic campaign, the Reds were incapable of defending their crown against Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid last season. They will look to make amends for that failure and reclaim the throne of the best.
4. Manchester City: Luck is something that the Cityzens didn’t have on their side last season. Despite creating a flurry of chances the, the Sky Blues succumbed to a 1-3 defeat to Olympique Lyonnais. In what is rumoured by some to be Pep Guardiola’s final season in England, he will look to go out on the highest of highs.
5. Real Madrid: Fifth in this list are the defending Spanish champions Real Madrid. Despite their loss to Cadiz, the Madrid based club and their manager have enough experience in the competition to go all the way.
If Barcelona intends to reclaim the UEFA Champions League title, then they can’t afford to go into the Round of 16 without adequate depth. This haunted them in the previous seasons, and the same could repeat itself this season, especially without enough quality fullbacks. However, if that is done, and the football they play is as good as advertised, then they have no reason not to become champion a sixth time.
Glass half empty: Is the season already over for Barcelona?
If the objective for Barcelona for the present season was to make up for what was lost in its predecessor, then they have gotten off to the possible start. In nine matchdays in the current campaign, the Catalans have garnered up a measly eleven points from a possible 24, and even with 30 matchdays yet to play, doubts have been cast over their title credentials.
Leagues are lost in the first eight games
In his book Pep Confidential, Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola said that leagues are lost in the first eight and won in the last eight games of any given campaign. One need only look at the Barcelona and tumultuous end to the 2019/20 season for evidence of the same.
Despite heading into the lockdown holding a two-point advantage over nearest challengers Real Madrid, Barcelona proved to be the perfect test subject for what Pep Guardiola’s experiment. In the final eight games of the season, Los Blancos won 22 points while the men in Garnet and Blue garnered up just seventeen. Why so?
Well, a panoply of systemic issues ranging from the incompetent management of Quique Setién to the atrocious defending from the back four as well as unexpected injuries were enough for the Blaugrana to concede the title.
A pattern all too similar — if not worse — is repeating itself in the current campaign. As mentioned before, the former champions have won just eleven points from a possible 24 and are on their worst start to a season since 1991-92 under Johan Cruyff. Some conspiracy theorists would argue that because it happened then, history might repeat itself, however, the context today is significantly different from that of the 90s.
With 23 points and sitting atop of the pile is Real Sociedad and they show no intention of slowing down. Not right now, anyway. Ten games into the season, the Txuri-Urdin have emerged victorious seven times, drawn twice and conceded defeat just once. They have hit the back of the net 21 times (best in the league), and have picked the ball from theirs on just four occasions.
📊 — Barcelona are currently placed 13th on the La Liga table. They are 12 points away from the league leaders (Real Sociedad), and are 4 points away from relegation zone. pic.twitter.com/DuECLJT0jt— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) November 23, 2020
Barcelona meanwhile are on one of their worst scoring seasons in recent history, averaging just below two a game while conceding just over one in each. To put into perspective just how disastrous a campaign this is turning out to be, the Catalans would need to taste defeat just once more to equal their record from the 2014-15 treble-winning season.
Much from this point on will depend on La Erreala’s form in the future. Based on expected goals and points, a dip might be on the cards, however, how drastic it will be, or if it will even come around in the first place, is uncertain.
A lack of tactical ingenuity
Koeman’s stubbornness has left the season in the dust for Barcelona. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)
A handful of the matches played during the Ronald Koeman era that have shown glimpses of how his ideal Barça side should play, however, these sorts of performances have often been sandwiched between games that were, to say it lightly, deplorable to watch.
The Dutch manager does not seem to have a set plan of action for whenever the team finds itself a goal down. In moments where his critical thinking ability is put to the test, he seldom passes. Rather than insist on maintaining control of the ball by adding a midfielder or two, he completely drains the team of them, perhaps believing in the logical fallacy that more attacking players equal to a higher chance of winning.
Not only is he inept at making proper changes to the side when in a losing position, but his willful ignorance at the failures of his favoured 4-2-3-1 also massively contribute to the team’s inability to win.
Riqui Puig should be the symbol of everything Barcelona should strive to be, however, due to his preference of one formation and one only, arguably the Catalans’ best midfielder finds himself cast into the shadows.
Everyone loves Riqui Puig…everyone but Koeman apparently. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)
If a system in which the midfielder that embodies the Barça way of playing is not playing, and the arrangement itself is barely living up to its expectations, then a continuation of the same will serve not only to widen the gap between the Blaugrana and the rest of Europe’s elites but also stray further and further away from what made them great, to begin with.
A crisis in the clinic
As if it were an epidemic within the dressing room, injuries have once again proven to be the incurable seasonal plague that Barcelona simply can not find a way around.
It would by no means be logical to place blame on the manager for these unforeseen and uncontrollable happenings, however in light of their title challenge, the more injuries come, the slimmer Barça’s chances are of surmounting a challenge worthy of being crowned the best in Spain, let alone Europe.
In attack, the Blaugrana are just one injury away from being forced into playing with three attackers upfront. It might force Barcelona to go back to using the 4-3-3, but it will stem from a position of compulsion rather than by design.
On the contrary, given the fact that Ansu Fati will be out for another three months, any lesion on either one of Ousmane Dembélé or Lionel Messi, the two most productive members of the current attack, could signal the end of any title challenge the Catalans, if there is one to begin with.
The absence of Fati and Pique will hurt Barcelona massively this season. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)
In defence, following the long term injuries sustained by Gerard Piqué and Sergi Roberto, the same horrid storyline repeats itself. The two-time treble winners find themselves just two injuries away from having just neither a centre-back nor a left-back. The shallowness the defence faces today, in comparison to the depth it nearly boasted just two months ago shows to what extent football’s hand can be as unpredictable as it is cruel.
Given the trend, Barcelona have found themselves victim to over the past two seasons, another wound might be somewhere around the corner. Of course, no one in the Barça camp wishes this upon their players, however, the odds seem firmly stacked against their favour.
Any scope left for Barcelona in this season?
Barcelona is by no means a club known to surrender, in any season — in the La Liga at least —, but finding themselves a whopping twelve points behind this early on makes the task seem almost unsurmountable. As unlikely as it sounds, the Blaugrana still do have a chance to clinch the title for the 27th time.
For this to happen, however, Barcelona will not only have to weed out some of its core systemic problems but also pray that fate’s cruel hand will not strike them another blow. The problems Barcelona face are not set in stone, fortunately. They will need plenty of mental strength, tactical ingenuity and luck to go the extra mile and do the impossible.