Two Sides of Barcelona: Top of the League But Problems Persist
Barcelona had a busy summer. Club president Joan Laporta pulled every economic lever in the northeast of Spain to bring seven players to the club.
They would eventually spend over €150 million restructuring a squad in desperate need of help in one of the most dramatic transfer windows we have ever seen.
Every single penny they spent was spent in an effort to catch their Clásico rivals, Real Madrid, who are coming off a Champions League and La Liga double. Every penny Barça ever spend is with an eye on Madrid. This time it felt more necessary than ever. Xavi, the club legend turned manager, was hired in November 2021, and he needed to be given every chance to succeed. Barcelona had cycled through two managers since the unnecessary sacking of Ernesto Valverde almost three years ago. Quique Setien, Ronald Koeman and now Xavi.
Xavi’s idealism over how Barcelona should play is well-documented. There wasn’t an interview that the former Barça midfielder let slip past him without lamenting how the team were atrophying towards being just another club in how they approached the game.
The rubber has hit the road and Xavi is finding it harder than he imagined to turn his ideal into a practical style of play.
“It’s proving harder than we expected,” Xavi said in December 2021 having been in the job just over a month. “There are players that don’t understand positional play and, being Barca [players], that’s surprising,” Xavi said during the same interview.
Barcelona dropped into the Europa League for the first time since the 2000-01 season last year and barring a miracle, the same will happen this season after Wednesday’s chaotic draw against Inter Milan. Last season, the blame lay elsewhere as Xavi had taken over a hopeless situation but this season, the blame will fall squarely at the manager’s doorstep.
“In Munich, it was missed chances, in Milan there were other circumstances and today, the defensive errors,” Xavi said after the daw against Milan at the Camp Nou on Wednesday night.
That sums up Barcelona right now. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. They look like an unbalanced side with weaknesses across every line of the field. And every time they try to cover up one, another one is exposed.
“The Champions League has been cruel to us,” Xavi said on Wednesday night. La Liga has been kinder (as we’ll see below) even though Barcelona aren’t playing particularly well recently. Celta Vigo outshot their opponents 12-2 in the second half on Sunday night and lost 1-0. The feelings weren’t great then but are worse after Wednesday night.
So what are the problems Barcelona are suffering from right now?
Barcelona’s Over-Dependence on Robert Lewandowski
“We need to combine more with Lewandowski,” Xavi said after the Celta Vigo game. Against Inter on Tuesday night, it did improve but in the first game against the Italians, Lewandowski only had 30 open-play touches in the entire game as Barça fell 1-0 at the San Siro. Against Celta, he had 31. On Wednesday night he had 52 and scored twice. It was elsewhere that Barcelona collapsed but the problem with Lewandowski is one that needs highlighting.
Lewandowski arrived in Barcelona and looked like he was born to wear the blaugrana. After failing to score against Rayo Vallecano in his debut, he scored in six consecutive La Liga games. He scored a hat-trick in his Champions League debut too. In 12 games this season, he has 14 goals.
Slowly, his impact has waned and he has become increasingly detached at the tip of Barcelona’s attack at times. A team committed to a high press and with nothing to lose like Celta Vigo on Sunday night used to be the perfect recipe for a 4-0 victory for Barcelona. Instead, their build-up was non-existent and Lewandowski suffered the effects. Lewandowski didn’t attempt a single pass inside Celta’s penalty box.
This dependence on the Pole is hurting Barcelona.
Barcelona invested heavily in Raphinha and renewed Ousmané Dembélé during the summer. The previous summer, they signed Ferran Torres and the three of them along with Ansu Fati make up the surrounding cast of Barcelona’s attack. Combined, they have only scored seven goals this season compared to Lewandowski’s 14. None of the four have scored in the last three La Liga games and Dembélé’s goal on Wednesday night was the first goal scored by any of the four (Raphinha, Dembélé, Torres or Ansu) since 10 September. There was an international break during that time, but there were three La Liga games and two decisive Champions League games.
It’s not for the want of trying.
Raphinha has 27 shots this season and one goal. He only has one assist. His general involvement remains high but that lack of productivity has started to hurt the team. The combination play we are used to seeing from Barcelona is just not there. It’s one-on-one on the outside and a prayer that a cross will do the trick.
Against Inter on Wednesday night with Barcelona drawing 1-1 and in desperate need of a goal, Raphinha swung a cross into the box and Pedri, the 19-year-old leader, turned and scolded his teammate. Keep it, be patient, he seemed to be telling the summer signing. The Brazilian looked like was playing for Marcelo Bielsa again, such was the speed at which he was doing everything.
Dembélé has always been a maverick on the wing – a source of unpredictability and a player who can change a game. But having two on the same team just makes things too chaotic, too unpredictable.
Another big outlay in the summer saw Jules Kounde arrive from Sevilla. Another way Barcelona can create problems is by the French defender’s ability to drive forward in the half-space as soon as a gap appears between the full-back and the centre-back. Raphinha and Ousmané Dembélé keep the defense wide and Koundé is able to drive into and thrive in these areas without letting his defending suffer.
During his absence due to injury, Xavi has had to turn to Sergi Roberto and Alejandro Balde but neither provide the assuredness that Koundé does with the ball at his feet, his willingness to take a risk, draw a player in. He believes in his ability to recover if he loses the ball. There’s variety in his progression whereas Roberto’s passing is vanilla.
We can see Koundé’s progressive ball-carrying in the data as Koundé carries the ball 141.8 metres per 90 with Sergi Roberto at 101.6. Julen Lopetegui built one of the best teams at building out from the back with Koundé as a central tenet. He is involved in 4.8 build-ups that end in a shot per 90 compared to Roberto’s 2.7.
The French defender trained on Thursday and the club feel it is worth taking the risk on him in El Clásico. It’s unclear if he will play at centre-back or right-back given the issues with both areas but the risk they are willing to take underlines his importance to the team.
Busquets is Hurting Barcelona
Vicente del Bosque once said: “If you watch the game, you don’t see Busquets. But if you watch Busquets, you see the whole game.”
If you watch Busquets now, you’ll probably miss everything. The game is happening around the 34-year-old midfielder. Against Inter, Busquets physical limitations hindered and directly hurt Barcelona. He gave the ball away twice before Inter’s second goal on Tuesday night before being taken off.
This leads to another problem. Gavi is one of those rare players whose energy needs to be curtailed and directed properly or else it can become a problem. He is brimming with enthusiasm and is as excited slaloming through a crease in the opposition defence as he is launching all 70 kilos of himself into a challenge no matter the opponent.
That’s not to say you want him doing both in equal measure. Under Luis Enrique with Spain, he is often the spark in attack. At Barcelona this season, he is running for two and that much defending is not compatible with a balanced interior. He has no goals and no assists this season.
One of the positives from this season is that Pedri is getting into the box more and becoming more of a finisher than he has been. He has two goals including the winner against Celta at the weekend and generally looks more willing to shoot in recent times. With Gavi, there hasn’t been a chance to develop that part of his game because he is too preoccupied with what’s happening behind him rather than what’s going on in front of him.
The nature of this season’s schedule with the World Cup around the corner was never going to be kind to Barcelona’s older players. After Busquets mistake for the goal, Xavi acted and took him off in place of Frankie de Jong. That’s the natural succession plan and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it happening at the weekend against Real Madrid.
This might be the biggest problem of them all. Barcelona have not been helped with injuries but that was what the summer outlay was about. Building a squad that could compete, a squad with healthy competition and that would give Xavi the best kind of problems for a coach.
Instead, Barcelona went out against Inter with Sergi Roberto and Gerard Piqué at the back along with Eric Garcia, a player who always seem to be at the centre of raging debate about his ability, every game a referendum on his value.
Piqué’s display against Inter was a thing of nightmares. He let the ball drift over his head for the first goal and got caught a number of times on the counter. He nearly scored an own goal from a set piece and if it wasn’t for Marc-André ter Stegen’s reflexes, it might have been even worse for him.
If Barcelona are exceeding their expected goals output on one end of the field, Ter Stegen has saved them at the other end. This isn’t a recent phenomenon either; it has been happening all season. They have conceded 5.31 xG in La Liga (sixth best) but have only conceded one goal.
Ter Stegen’s goals prevented, a metric that shows a goalkeepers ability to stop shots based on expected goals on target (xGOT), show that the German is in some of the best form of his career. He is second in La Liga with 3.7 goals prevented behind just Édgar Badía of Elche. So, if Barcelona are looking for positives, at least their German shot-stopper is back in top form.
Their problem defending in transition has been a problem now for a long time and it has got worse this season. You can’t play the way Xavi thinks Barcelona need to play without being able to defend in transition. It makes everything slower, more cautious. It makes every error a potential catastrophe no matter how innocuous.
Of course, none of these problems are happening in a vacuum. Each problem contributes to the other and vice-versa, constantly feeding off each other, mistakes compounding.
“It was too many mistakes,” Xavi said after the game. “Their first goal was a clear mistake by our defence, we let them have too many chances. Football is a game of mistakes and we can’t afford those in situations like this. This is the Champions League and you pay a high price for each error you make. You need to win, to defend well, to score. We needed to play the entire game like we did in the first half.”
“This is going to affect us going into El Clásico,” Sergio Busquets said after the game on Wednesday night.
This is a brittle group of players who understand the weight of expectation after last summer’s spend. And Xavi doesn’t seem to have the solutions at the moment.
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