Barcelona had not lost to Benfica since 1961. They had not started a European season with consecutive defeats since 1972-73. They had last lost back-to-back Champions League group games 21 years ago.
And yet, the most damning thing about their 3-0 defeat in Lisbon on Wednesday was that it wasn’t a huge surprise.
By most reasonable football definitions, Barca are in crisis. They have won just three of eight games in all competitions in 2021-22. Spiralling debts of more than €1.2 billion meant they could not give Lionel Messi a new contract or conduct any meaningful recruitment, even as club captains took pay cuts.
Those dire financial figures also mean they have a spending cap barely an eighth of the size of Real Madrid’s for this season, so January is unlikely to offer much of a chance to change things. And, in Ronald Koeman, they have a coach who appears increasingly out of his depth, unable to inspire his players or maintain much cordiality with the suits above him.
There is speculation that Barca’s next game could be his last in charge… and it just happens to be against the champions. How has it come to this?
It should be repeated that many of Barca’s problems are not of Koeman’s making. He was appointed by Josep Maria Bartomeu after the historic ignominy of that 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich, when years of squad mismanagement came home to roost in one horrifying performance. With no money to keep Messi or greatly improve the team, Koeman has been hamstrung in his efforts to build a side capable even of competing for pride, never mind titles.
It’s also true that Koeman’s system is a mess.
There’s a semblance of playing ‘the Barca way’. For one thing, they love having the ball: the Catalans average the most possession in La Liga this season (68.4%), while their average of 4.54 passes per sequence is the highest in the division, and only league leaders Real Madrid (112) have put together more sequences of 10 passes or more than Barca (106). They also press high, restricting opposition teams to just eight passes per defensive action on average, the best figure in the league.
The trouble is, they don’t seem to make the most of these positives.
Despite ostensibly pressing with intent, their return of 53 high turnovers is only joint-seventh in La Liga. Despite controlling the ball for the majority of matches, they have only created 55 chances from open play – eight teams have created more – and attempted 72 shots, the 13th-highest tally in the competition.
For context, Sunday’s opponents Atletico Madrid have attempted 96 shots this season, the third-most in the league, created 10 more goalscoring chances than Barca and played 44 more passes into the penalty area – and all while facing a league-low 45 shots on their own goal, 14 fewer than Koeman’s men. Even taking into account Barca’s game in hand, these are notable differences.
A Messi Divorce
Barca knew they would miss Messi. Koeman knew they would miss Messi. Anyone who has ever kicked a football knew they would miss Messi.
But, boy, they really do miss him.
Barca finished La Liga last season with 85 goals, 18 more than any other side, 30 of which were scored by Messi. They outperformed their expected goals figure by 11.04, with only champions Atletico doing so by a greater margin (13.95). Messi himself exceeded his xG by 6.21, enough to see him overperform expectation by the joint-fourth highest rate among Europe’s big five leagues.
Excluding penalties and own goals, Barca outperformed their xG of 74 in 2020-21. Their 583 shots, the most among La Liga teams, each carried an average value of 0.13 xG.
This season, Barca have scored 11 goals, which almost exactly matches their xG – and that is despite the average xG value of their shots increasing very slightly to 0.15. Without Messi’s abnormal abilities, they are reverting towards the norm.
It’s amazing how much better things look when someone is there to stick the ball in the net.
Which brings us to Memphis Depay, the big positive of Koeman’s time in charge.
Trying to fill Messi’s shoes might be beyond mere mortals, but the way Depay has settled into his role as Barca’s attacking lynchpin has been extremely impressive. The Netherlands forward has fulfilled his former international boss’ requirements, leading the line with aplomb even when the team around him has floundered.
Depay has managed three goals and one assist in all competitions, more than any other Barca player. With 2.5 expected assists, he can consider himself unlucky not to have a greater tally of goal involvements, too. To date, Depay has attempted 22 shots, more than three times as many as any teammate, and created 18 chances, six more than the next-best figure posted by Frenkie de Jong.
Among LaL iga players in all competitions, only Karim Benzema (16) and Vinicius Junior (14) have mustered more shots on target than Depay (13), while only three players in Spain’s top flight have completed more dribbles than the former Lyon and Manchester United man (21).
He has embraced the pressure of leading the Barcelona line in one of the toughest periods in their recent history. He just can’t do it alone.
If Koeman’s reign is to survive this weekend, he will have to hope Depay can produce some magic against Atletico – although even that may not be enough.
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