A night to forget against Bayern Μunich for Barcelona and, particularly, for Marc-André ter Stegen. But, despite conceding eight inexcusable goals, the keeper has earned the right to not be pinpointed all hate.
Misery, chaos, embarrassment, shame, pity, loss –– all these words are not enough to describe how Bayern Munich roasted Barcelona without remorse on Friday night. While the club and its fans are in pain, 28-year-old keeper Marc-André ter Stegen is under persistent criticism attacks since his heads-down performance in the Champions League quarter-finals. Ter Stegen made history by conceding eight goals –– EIGHT. This happened for the first time in the Barça’s history since more than 70 years. With this, the long going debate of being Germany’s number 1 came to an end for many as Manuel Neuer took the lead in the race.
The loss is real and frustration, understandable. However, one bad game has changed it all for the blaugranas‘ goalkeeper. Ter Stegen has been accused of being a bad keeper because of this unfortunate match. It is indeed sad how the anger and annoyance of disheartened fans made them forget his role during the whole season. The culés often forget that football is a team game and it demands team effort: over-relying on Lionel Messi and Ter Stegen won’t help them every time.
Realistically speaking, when the club is in shambles, how can one blame a single member of the squad? When the defence is weak and the overall team is giving an infuriating performance, how can one expect from the keeper to bring a miracle to stop the tide coming in from the other end? When all passing lanes are covered and there’s no option but to clear the ball and see how the Bavarians are superior in duels, how can one expect the keeper nothing but to give the ball away?
It doesn’t get much worse for a goalkeeper than conceding eight times, but the blame should be shared | Photo by Manu Fernández / Pool via Getty Images
That said, Ter Stegen’s performance facing German giants cannot be justified. Something was up with him. Something was wrong. The footwork was not usual. The confidence, shattered. It seemed as if he has been possessed or was jinxed. The goalkeeper who is known for saving the team became painful to watch. And it all happened in ninety minutes.
From a tactical point of view, yes, distribution and other factors down to the system were adding to his horrendous performance, but the number 1 was clearly not himself. He was not who he has been during matches like this before. Time and time again he faced similar situations where pressing was going around him and rivals were blocking his passing options but he came out clean making his teammates proud. What went wrong on Friday, then? This could come down to one answer: Manuel Neuer.
Everybody knows that the proxy war between the two Germans has been going on for a long time now. The flickering rivalry between both the keepers was a point of discussion before this game as well. Since things went quite ugly before, it was predicted that there would be pressure on both to do better. Conversely, the pressure hit the younger keeper alone, making him anxious. At least his performance was giving that impression. Five of those eight goals could have been saved, but he failed. He was nervous, he was scared.
Nonetheless, there is a reason why Die Mannschaft‘s international has been called the Lionel Messi with gloves. He has given hope to the Spanish squad and his lovers by saving struggling matches uncountable times. Putting the Argentine aside, if there’s anybody among Barcelona who is reliable as well as capable of becoming a saviour for the team during difficult times, that’s him.
“Really hard times. I feel really sorry about what happened yesterday. I’m disappointed. I don’t want to look for excuses because there are no excuses. We certainly need a change”
Marc-André ter Stegen
on social media after the Bayern defeat
Ter Stegen’s loyalty and admirable performances for Barça have been proven throughout this season’s La Liga and even before that. Without a shadow of a doubt, for years, he has proven himself to be the best possible goalkeeper for the azulgranas. Even so, the fickle behaviour of masses is questionable. It’s disturbing how the aforementioned points are not being considered and the errors he made in one clash suddenly wiped out his contribution towards the club.
Some say Ter Stegen is a glorified bottler, other comments on how he doesn’t deserve to be in the top five. Some want him to be sold, rest comment on how Neuer strolled. Nobody, thus, says that maybe the poor man was too eager to save his teammates that this fear of losing made him do the mistake of writing the history of a bewildering defeat. And this is a mistake that needs to be forgiven when it comes to Marc-André ter Stegen.
The countless storylines that have surrounded a cold season for Barcelona
Guest Writer: Ruairidh Barlow
Ronald Koeman is not doing a bad job. In fact, Barcelona are level on points with Real Madrid, sitting above them on goal difference. Not only would Barcelona fans have accepted that at the start of the campaign, but they would also have welcomed it. Probably with surprise, raised eyebrows and a grin.
Without an elite striker, with a Lionel Messi who does not want to be there, this season was supposed to be a disaster. Or a transition year, both fit. Messi had so long covered up the cracks; when the building collapsed entirely, he looked as lost as the others. The captain had given up any hope of winning with Barcelona.
And there’s an institutional crisis, the club is closer to bankruptcy than it has been since the Spanish Civil War, and there’s no president to negotiate it. Bearing all that in mind, it’s hard to criticise what is happening on the pitch. Begging the question, why is it so hard to warm up to this Ronald Koeman side?
There have been reasons for optimism at Camp Nou too. Despite some alarming gaps earlier in the season, Barcelona appear to have finally found a midfield three capable of surviving on its own – without an Arturo Vidal-shaped crutch. Either a cause or a consequence of Frenkie de Jong’s spectacular form in 2021. The Dutchman has been converted from wistful potential energy to a marauding hero in the centre of the park. The midfield belongs to him and Pedri.
Always a good gauge of the functionality of Barcelona, Busquets looks far more assured from the frail, slow problem he was six months ago. Neither of which would be possible without the mystical presence of Pedri, an authentic wonderkid. There too, Koeman must be lauded. Not only has he trusted the Spaniard, but he’s also afforded youth importance within his project. A regular demand of the fans and the club’s reputation, that like many other aspects which nourish a club, had been ignored for the last decade.
Beyond the soap opera that Koeman walked into – which has seen so many disasters it feels as if we must be close to the finale – he’s been hamstrung by extra obstacles.
Not least injuries. Messi aside, Ansu Fati is Barcelona’s best forward and inarguably the face of the club when and if Leo departs. His absence stretches across most of the season. Long under-appreciated, a pillar of that collapsed building was Gerard Piqué. He’s been missing most of the campaign too. Even Messi isn’t Messi. Earlier in the season, it appeared as if his astronomical finishing had already left the club.
The ultimate reclamation project, Ousmane Dembélé, who had neither the body or the brain to play for the Blaugrana according to many, is playing. And shining, no less. He now makes better decisions, taking responsibility not just for himself but on occasion has even done so for the whole team. Barely conceivable just six months previously.
Although Koeman did desire Luis Suárez’s departure, he certainly did not call him thinking Martin Braithwaite would be the only striker he had to call on. Other ‘superclubs’ contend with bad business, but none have dealt their manager as poor a hand as Barcelona have Koeman.
Again, on paper, there is a coherent argument that he’s doing a good job. Lingering beyond the results, the individual improvements and the nonsense he’s dealing with, there remains a doubt, though. A large portion of the media and the Culers remain unconvinced. Some exhibiting Koeman-like stubbornness about the issue. There’s a lack of feeling for this Barcelona team.
Undoubtedly reputation has tinted the conversation. While his history likely got him the job, equally, Koeman’s record as a manager is not synonymous with the success that Barcelona chase. Scoring the winning goal in the club’s first-ever European Cup has endeared him to supporters forever – which had genuine tangible value when Bartomeu was desperately grasping for the reigns of the club in August.
Naturally, that feat holds less of a place in the hearts of younger generations. Those same generations, who have only been aware of Koeman in managerial form, will also be conscious of the fact that he hasn’t won a major trophy since the Copa del Rey in 2008. He was chased out of Valencia shortly after. Certainly, there were many predisposed to scepticism.
Which often colours a performance as dysfunctional rather than developmental. But if we are to focus solely on the football itself, it’s been a season of many dawns, especially against the likes of Granada, Real Valladolid, and even Juventus (the first-time round). The pleasant moments have been promising enough to infuse hope amongst fans. Like his track record, though, the team is invariably inconsistent.
What is most curious is that those three performances mentioned were all achieved using different formations. The earliest iterations of Koeman’s Barcelona were emblematic of their manager’s personality – chiefly due to his inflexibility. Until December, the 4-2-3-1 was imposed regardless of the players available or the opponents. In itself, not a problem, yet the exploitation of soft spots was visible for too long without correction.
Even when the alterations did finally arrive, they still lack clarity. Whatever the idea is, it often comes out blurry, either in its conception or the minds of the players. Variety in attack is desirable. Too often, this variety is down to whichever individual playing at any one time, rather than an intentional change. With minor exceptions, mostly the long-awaited llegada of de Jong, there seems to be little consensus on how the team should attack from game-to-game.
Martin Braithwaite out wide seems to be a poor use of the limited skills he can offer. Like de Jong, Antoine Griezmann looks more confident, more involved and most importantly, happier. Yet, the finer details of his role are still shrouded in mystery. In his heart of hearts, he will never be the number nine Koeman could not sign. Lionel Messi’s role as freestyle point guard works best if he is surrounded by organisation, allowing the Argentine to be the chaos.
These challenges are not without difficulties. Apportioning responsibility from afar is a hard task. According to Koeman, though, none of it lies with him. Following each setback, the Dutchman has publicly demanded better from his players. Football-wise he may not be wrong. Numerous individual errors and impotence in front of goal do not belong amongst elite footballers.
Nevertheless, the modern age manager must be an amateur psychologist in every instant. A trait that unites all the managers at other top clubs is their ability to stand by their players. Koeman’s refusal to endure any of the criticism is the sort of thing players – or anyone in their workplace – remember.
That’s just the players he appreciates too. One can only imagine how the likes of Miralem Pjanić, Carles Aleñá (before he left), and Riqui Puig feel about their manager. Between the trio, they account for 8 league starts this season. A figure which increases in oddity given only Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets are the only fit players in their positions.
In particular, the furore surrounding Puig reached superlative levels at one point. Some fatigued observers have allowed this to cloud the actual issue. Ignoring the tiresome Twitter hyperbole, there is a genuine conversation to be had.
Puig may not deserve a starting place every week, but his syrup-like touches, dressing the minutes he has been given, warrant more action. They certainly have merited more than the 181 he has enjoyed in La Liga. Koeman has been hounded about it many times: to this day, he is yet to provide a rational explanation.
Neither is he flush for options on the bench. Over-complicating tactics is now a common malady in football. Still, Koeman’s counter-reaction of adding defenders when winning or attackers when losing is extreme. Both in the theory and the consequences – on just five of the 17 occasions Barcelona have fallen behind have they won.
It’s also a question of ambition. “What would Johan Cruyff do?” Presidential candidate Joan Laporta often asks himself. Add an extra midfielder in all likelihood. The great Barcelona sides would have been confident of retaining the ball, defending with the ball – being masters of their destiny. Adding a defender cedes territory to the other team and demands that they do the one thing they are poorest at: defend without the ball.
And then there’s PSG. January brought a new year, and it looked like a new Barcelona, the cogs finally clicking into place. That game put the brakes on all momentum, just when it appeared the paralysis had finally been overcome. But it was never just PSG. It was Sevilla, Atlético Madrid, and Real Madrid. All of these points of improvement, all the progress, seems to slip away when faced with a genuine challenge.
Even in the Spanish Super Cup final against Athletic Club, when Barcelona were not as poor as some suggested, the Basque side were capable of unlocking their demons again. It’s not unreasonable to expect more; no team in LaLiga has taken fewer points from matches against the top four this season than Barcelona (granted they can’t play themselves). Now, the inability to win big games in Spain has become a narrative too. Well, until Sevilla were brutally sliced open by Koeman’s men at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
Barcelona are undergoing far too complex a season for a proper appraisal. The usual cauldron of noise and egos are difficult to decipher in ‘normal’ times, let alone in this most surreal era. If the Blaugrana were playing smooth, jazz-like football with the same points tally, if they were on a visible path, Koeman would be doing an excellent job.
But Koeman’s greatest problem is that the mistakes are obvious. The rationality behind his decision-making remains a little too obscure. When changes do manifest themselves, they are tardy on a political scale. Despite Koeman navigating some of the biggest waves, basic flaws leave enough room for doubt to survive.
One of his greatest attributes is his iron will. Nevermore so than now is a strong personality a necessity for a Barcelona manager. Everything is being done in extremis though. In order to fix some of the obvious errors and answer the key questions, he needs to show the balance of a great leader. Perhaps then he will be fully trusted to steer Barcelona through next season’s storm.