Barcelona, another European exit, and questions of identity

At the end of another fast paced counter attack in the dying moments of the game, Lionel Messi found Ousmane Dembele, but the young Frenchman couldn’t connect neatly and sent a weak shot that hardly troubled Allison Becker before the whistle finally blew. This was not at Anfield, where Barcelona faced Liverpool in the second leg of their two legged Champions League semifinal tie. This was at the Camp Nou, where Barcelona were leading 3-0 on the night, but could easily have been a couple more if players, other than Messi, would have found their shooting boots. Messi had collapsed on the Camp Nou turf, exhausted and clearly unsatisfied by the eventual scoreline on the night. Was it really enough? They had seen Liverpool at close quarters and knew that the English side was perfectly capable of getting into dangerous positions behind the Barcelona back line time and again, with only their profligacy in front of goal leaving the scoreline on that night without an away goal for Liverpool. As it turned out, it wasn’t.

Liverpool overturned the scoreline by winning the second leg by 4-0 at Anfield and making it into the Champions League finals. This was Barcelona’s heaviest European defeat, the numbers similar to one handed down by Bayern Munich in 2013. Excruciatingly, this was that game against Roma all over again for the second year in a row. The parallels are surprisingly tragic. Healthy lead from the first leg? Check. Players looking lethargic and unmotivated as if they were playing a training game? Check. Allowing the opposition to build momentum with the crowd behind them at their home stadium? Check. Failing to control the game from midfield? Check. Ernesto Valverde leaving it too late to bring on substitutions to change the game’s ebb and flow? Check. It wasn’t the case that Barcelona didn’t have their chances to score, because Messi created three clear cut chances which put the Barcelona players one on one with Allison. The tragedy was that Barcelona’s finishing in the final third deserted them when they needed it most. Luis Suarez, Jordi Alba, and Philippe Coutinho spurning their chances. One goal was capable of changing the complexion of the tie, but it never came. Barcelona were out pressed, out thought, and except for a brief 30 minute period in the first half, were never allowed to be in the game. Liverpool were faster to the ball, aggressive and intense in their press with their striker leading from the front, and compensated for all of their wastefulness from the first leg by taking their chances in front of goal. Jordi Alba was personally culpable for two errors that directly led to goal; the kind of errors that can put your team on its backside when facing a team that’s built to thrive on such mistakes. More importantly, this was a Liverpool team that was dealing with the absence of two of it’s mainstays in attack, namely Roberto Firmino and Mohammed Salah. This compounded their worries ahead of the second leg, but the general feeling that this looked like an uphill task for them seemingly played into Jurgen Klopp’s hands. The German is as passionate and motivational as they come, with his ability to rouse his team and send his players out to battle, giving their all on the pitch a fundamental aspect of his managerial success in Germany and England. He did more of the same here by extracting memorable performances from the likes of Giorginio Wijnaldum, Divock Origi, Trent Alexander Arnold, and Jordan Henderson. The fourth goal that Liverpool scored on the night was a perfect encapsulation of what separated the two teams and was a tiny piece of insight into the state of mind of the respective teams. Alexander Arnold won a corner, sensed the Barcelona players ambling around from having conceded two quick goals when they should have been alert, and quickly sent a rasping corner kick into the Barcelona box where Origi connected and scored. The entire Barcelona back line was in a state of drunken stupor, with only Pique reacting fastest of the lot, but still late, to the move by the young Englishman. This was the kind of defending that one wouldn’t ordinarily see at this level of the game, because it put a huge question mark over some of the basic qualities that we have come to expect from players playing at the highest level of the sport. Worryingly, this was a bit more than just tactics, organisation, or personnel. This was a question of mentality and the will to survive, things which are far more complex to accurately pin down and scrutinize when evaluating collapses of this nature.

What happened in Rome last year had fueled Barcelona’s entire 2018/19 season. Domestically, no one could lay a glove on Barcelona, as has been the case for the best part of the decade despite some stellar challengers. Least of all a Real Madrid that were dealing with their own managerial changes and player unrest. This was Barcelona’s eighth league title in eleven years, and when you add the seven Copa Del Rey titles to the mix, this was the kind of dominance that is not quite normal. Ernesto Valverde, having taken charge of Barcelona at a difficult time that saw the departure of Neymar from the club to Paris Saint Germain, has indeed steered the club in a calm and efficient manner since. Focused, understated, and composed despite whatever is happening around him. It was not an easy time to be a Barcelona manager, if someone ever thought there was one. Its fascinating watching him on the touchline, like a chess grand-master poring over his board, wrestling with his own thoughts while deciding what move to make.  Valverde has reined in a style where Barcelona are sometimes capable of maintaining shape and absorbing pressure before choosing the right time to hit back, a departure from the Barcelona of yore that always wanted to be on the front foot. However, this is not something to be held against the manager. Valverde is managing a team whose best players are on the wrong side of 30 and seemingly unsuited to a season long high pressing regime game after game; the kind of style that can sometimes backfire because of its taxing nature when the key games crop up in the months of April and May. It can leave players running on empty. The relative conservatism that has seeped into Barcelona’s style is a by product of this. The team has moved on from the Luis Enrique tenure where the midfield was used as a water carrier of sorts to get the ball to the front three as soon as possible. Under Valverde, control in the middle has resurfaced by having Rakitic play as near to Busquets as possible to always afford the Spaniard an out, when in trouble. Arthur Melo has often been used as the third midfielder as he helps retain possession in midfield while affording better circulation of the ball by virtue of his ability to hold on to the ball under pressure, and pick the kind of pass that can keep the team ticking. Philippe Coutinho, someone who was bought with the express intent to replace Andres Iniesta hasn’t exactly seemed like a fit, but more on that later. Barcelona don’t really go into a game looking to impose themselves anymore, but are keen to stay in the game till the point where the comfort of the scoreline can give them the breathing space to bring out some of their best hits. While Valverde has found the results speaking on his behalf more often than not, there have been constant murmurs and sighs from some quarters- have Barcelona lost their identity somewhere along the way, or is it something that’s diluted because of the need of the times? The answer isn’t simple.

Ever since Xavi Hernandez, who left in 2015, and Andres Iniesta who left last year, this sense of ‘identity’ that drives Barcelona (especially since the Pep Guardiola years) was bound to drift away and change. The two Spaniards were not just extremely talented midfielders who played at a near perfect level with a sense of their surroundings that was out of the ordinary, these were players who had grown through the youth system and made their way into the first team playing and religiously believing in the kind of football that had seen Barcelona become the most feared team on the planet in the last decade. The sense of dominance over proceedings, the control and creativity in the middle, and that identity, was mostly down to Xavi and Iniesta, along side Sergio Busquets. This was the base on which everything else was built and executed. With that being gone, Barcelona are now ever more reliant on the genius of Lionel Messi to see them through. To be fair, this extreme reliance has preceded Valverde. In Messi, fortunately, Barcelona have a player who is not just a goalscorer, but the best passer, dribbler and someone who possesses the kind of creativity and vision that can put some of the best midfielders in the game in his shadow. As a result of this loss of creativity in the middle, its Messi who is found frequently dropping back deeper towards the center of the pitch taking on a hybrid role that includes being a number ten, a winger, and a creative midfielder rolled into one. This might sound perfect in theory and it almost always works, but this adversely affects the shape of the team when they are suddenly without the ball and the opposition hits back with numbers. When Messi plays on the right and drifts towards the center, he leaves acres of space vacant on the right where Barcelona aren’t doing a lot of defending or pressing. As a result, its one of the midfielders who need to compensate for this lack of work rate on the right side, and for the longest time this unfancied and unappreciated task has fallen on the reliable shoulders of Ivan Rakitic. When one adds the fact that Barcelona haven’t yet chanced upon a reliable right back who can start game after game, and get used to the team’s rhythm, the responsibility of the entire flank falls mostly on Rakitic. As a consequence, the finer qualities of Rakitic that were a feature of his game at Sevilla- like his ability in the final third, or his long distance sledgehammer shots, have seldom come to the surface because he has put a lid on those to serve the larger tactical necessities of the team first. He has progressively tempered those parts of his game and now functions as an important cog that keeps the team from ripping at its seams. The dependence on Messi and his consequent move deeper also means that the midfield is now more concerned with playing quick passes with him and releasing him into spaces rather than moving into spaces themselves and finding Messi or other attackers in dangerous positions. The problem is this, if Messi is in a less dangerous position, Barcelona need to have players who can find themselves on the end of a Messi pass or a move. This has not always been the case because the team does not have genuine pace on the wings at all times; the kind of players who can stretch the opposition and pull them apart to create space for someone like Messi. Ousmane Dembele hasn’t quite settled into the team because of his frequent injuries, but his is the kind of talent that looks the part for the future. Luis Suarez has been sluggish at times, and his ability to beat his marker has eluded him, while his finishing has been below par for a player of his talent. Malcom, who was bought from Bordeaux last season, has failed to attract Valverde’s attention as much as one would have hoped for. Amidst all of this, the club went and bought Philippe Coutinho with a huge outlay.

Coutinho has been a misfit, to be mild. He is not really a complete winger, and not exactly a midfielder. When played in the middle he puts additional pressure on his fellow midfielders because of his tendency to drift forward and then inside, failing to add numbers in midfield and keep the ball in circulation. That makes it much harder for Rakitic and Busquets in the middle. As part of the attack on the left, he again fails to hold his position and stretch the opposition; instead choosing to again drift inwards leaving the left flank dry. He is a very expensive number ten in a team that really has no need or use for a number ten. To compound issues further, something about his movement on the ball seems to impede the sense of continuity which Barcelona want and are known for when they are passing the ball about and breaking down the opposition. Watch any Barcelona player while in possession, and their moves seem coordinated, as if the next pass was a natural consequence of the previous one, all part of a continuum. Watching Coutinho on the ball gives the feeling that a new sequence of play has started and that precious continuity is lost, because this is a player who feels he has to make something happen whenever he gets the ball rather than become part of a collective and keep it ticking. It’s a bit like an electric guitar strumming its own tune amidst a piano concerto. In hindsight, this was a panic purchase by Barcelona having just lost Neymar to PSG and increasingly looks like a blunder that needs to be sorted sooner than later. Players like Coutinho, who are really number tens, have been having a hard time fitting into modern systems. A cursory look at the troubles of players like James Rodriguez, Mesut Ozil, Isco, and Juan Mata in their respective teams is further evidence of this trend. All of this has meant an increasing reliance on Messi in attack, and when he has one of those rare off days, it really shows.

So, in effect, what exactly is the identity, and where exactly can we locate this identity now? It’s simple, and to a large extent, its Messi. Barcelona have come to rely on the mind bending talents of one player to account for shortcomings in other areas and are guilty of papering over cracks that seldom surface against most teams but cracks that exist nonetheless; revealing itself when up against teams as motivated and hungry as Liverpool were. None of the attacking purchases except Luis Suarez and Neymar have successfully managed to lessen this burden on Messi, and with one of them having left while the other is struggling to replicate his best form, Messi dependencia is on the rise. Does it work? 9 times out of 10 it does. However, this is not the identity that is healthy enough to be dependent on, because it also puts an extreme version of pressure on the player in question, even accounting for the fact that Messi is probably used to being the main man for close to a decade now in multiple set-ups. On the other hand, how can you really not be dependent on a player like him? Which team wouldn’t? The point is to strike a balance somewhere, which is to strengthen the structures around Messi to the absolute maximum so that the team is equipped to deal with the times when he is marked or crowded out. A basic question is this- if the opposition can commit so many players on Messi, then it must free other players and parts of the pitch which need to be taken advantage of by moving into those spaces. Players who can take advantage of the numerous chances he creates in the course of a match. Players who can press, run, and stretch defenses thereby allowing Messi to do what he does best. More importantly, the element of dynamism and control from midfield needs to be brought back so that Messi can be found in more dangerous areas of the pitch, rather than he having to move deeper. Messi at the end of a pass is an infinitely better option than any other combination just because the chances of him missing are extremely slim. This is a double edged sword because dynamism from midfield cannot ensure that the same midfield also has to provide defensive cover on the right side at all times. Barcelona’s midfield used to be the heartbeat of the team precisely because they never had to compensate for the lack of work rate elsewhere as everyone was responsible for their own part. With Messi now strategically timing his runs and choosing when to exert and when not to, the team and the manager definitely need to account for this and its a trade off that successive managers have had to make; something which isn’t going to change as long as Messi is around irrespective of who is in the managerial chair.

Barcelona’s purchases in the past year or two when it comes to midfield personnel, excluding Arthur Melo, have been Paulinho and Arturo Vidal, players who are meant to break the lines and join in attack whenever necessary. This is a clear departure from the philosophy that saw the midfield personnel rely on creativity and control. This season and the last they’ve been relying on the unpredictability in the movement of such midfielders to spring a surprise on the opposition instead of the more predictable, but equally harder to defend against, control from the middle. Against Liverpool, Valverde opted for Vidal instead of Arthur and while the first leg vindicated him by virtue of the result, the second leg exposed Barcelona’s lack of control in the middle where they were given no time on the ball by a motivated Liverpool. Arthur could have come in handy, or maybe not. He hasn’t exactly mastered the task of playing 90 mins in games and his physique is yet to adjust to an intense style that sometimes leaves him catching his breath when approaching 70 minutes or so in games. Probably why Valverde stuck with his team selection from the first leg. Frenkie De Jong, who has been bought from Ajax, seems to be a step in the right direction. De Jong is a player who is endowed with immense work rate, intelligence on the ball, and a very high degree of positional awareness without the ball. He can add extra numbers in defense, midfield, and attack. Qualities that make him an ideal player if Barcelona aspire to replicate the control that saw them dominate teams into submission. The further integration of Arthur Melo and Carles Alena will provide the manager with a host of options which he can use to tactically align his team into a more offensive and controlling version of themselves. Not everyone has faith though.

Ernesto Valverde isn’t a particularly well liked figure these days, if the social media outrage against him post the Liverpool loss is anything to go by. Clamors for his sacking have been predictably doing the rounds but it needs to be considered whether this is indeed the right way or even the right time to be sacking a manager who has won the domestic double in each of his two years, but has found negotiating the European away legs a particularly tough task despite carrying over commanding leads from the first leg. More pertinently, if a team shows a lack of mettle to dig deep and withstand pressure despite carrying a 3-0 lead from the first leg, how much of that can be directly attributed to the manager who is on the sidelines? Where does player responsibility come in? This is a group of players who are hardly lacking in experience and have won everything- right from domestic titles, Champions Leagues, and World Cups, some of those many times over in the last decade. They knew exactly the task that awaited them at Anfield and knew exactly what they were not supposed to do, that is to not let Liverpool score four while scoring themselves. It’s a bit of a mystery as to why things panned out the way they did in the game at Anfield. Was it because of the apparent disinterest in many of the Barcelona players when pressing and tracking back? Or was it the inability to string together even basic passes in short spaces that they would have otherwise done even in their sleep? Or maybe it has something to do with facing a group of players who hadn’t won the competition before and were clearly hungry for it, never giving an inch of space to any Barcelona player. This is another interesting thing to ponder over. Do the established players, the ones who go into the same competitions every season that they have already won, lack the motivation to do it all over again? Is that even possible when playing at the highest level with so much at stake? Why then does it happen in Europe and not domestically? The answer could be located somewhere in there, or maybe its a combination of everything. The only thing that emerges with some clarity is that its erroneous and short sighted to lay the entire blame on Valverde’s door, because even if we assume that his tactics are at times more concerned with not conceding than scoring, then by virtue of that assumption, Barcelona should never have conceded three, and that, by itself, would have seen them beat Liverpool in the tie. Barcelona could have taken atleast one of the clear cut chances Messi created and the tie would have changed. None of which are faults directly flowing from Valverde’s supposed tactical shortcomings. He has done incredibly well in managing a team with an ageing core, and with transfers in the attacking department who are either too young to be given full responsibility or are square pegs in round holes, like Coutinho. Sacking him will only further paper over the lack of fight and will that certain Barcelona players were guilty of in the second leg, and has the effect of sending the message that it will be tolerated irrespective of which manager is at the helm. Its easy to lay the blame on one person instead of eleven, but that doesn’t make it right. Established players need to feel that their place is at risk and someone younger and hungrier is going to take their spot if they relax. That might go a long way in ensuring that lifeless displays like the ones at Anfield might not be repeated again.

There is something about teams at the upper echelons of football which leads them to regard their success in Europe as somewhat more prestigious than, say, the domestic titles, when looking at themselves in the mirror. This is not to say that there is some newer level of difficulty that the European competition throws up. Prestige should not be equated with the tougher nature of a competition. On the contrary, its far more difficult to win a grueling 38 game long season that is as much a test of the teams mental fortitude as its tactical adaptability in dealing with 19 other teams week in week out. The crucial difference is this- the league allows you a slip or two, and a team of Barcelona’s caliber are well equipped to deal with those and come back harder. Knock out games in Europe do not afford the luxury of a bad day in office. It’s unsparing, relentless, and a single blow at the right time can lay to waste an entire season of going through the group stages, the round of 16, quarter finals, and so on. This is where Barcelona have floundered in recent times. They have come up against teams who have nothing to lose, and allowed themselves that dangerous luxury of complacency that comes with a satisfying first leg result. With new players emerging, and some being bought from elsewhere, the team could have a slight makeover next season, which frankly is the only way to inject that sense of freshness into the team. Questions of ‘identity’ will crop up again and this is inevitable because this is a team that has heavily invested itself in forging that identity in the first place, and in using that to further its cause in football to good effect. But, identity cannot remain static, and maybe this is what the times are telling us. The total football that Johan Cruyff envisaged, and which Guardiola further improvised on, is only dogmatic when it comes to the elements of possession, recovering possession, and off the ball movement. Everything else can change and adapt to circumstances. Guardiola himself is the most successful exponent of this anti-dogmatism when one sees how his style has adapted from Barcelona, to Bayern Munich, to Manchester City. None of his teams played the same kind of football and only the absolute basics remain constant. Barcelona and its fans need to come to terms with the fact that players who were the fulcrum around which that identity functioned have slowly departed from the club, and unless there is a wholesale departure of players above a certain age, playing the kind of style that brought success previously is unrealistic. What is indeed possible, is to preserve that identity in some form by staying true to the basics and buying players who fit this identity, rather than splurging on the next best player on the market. Barcelona already have the most potent weapon to ever exist in their ranks by the name of Lionel Messi, and he’s in good shape to be around for another 3-4 years. They need to take that crucial step where the system and every single player maximizes the effect of this weapon and functions as a unit first and foremost, rather than using it as a shield to tide over matches.

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