I’m a big fan of the Catalans, ever since the time of Cruyff the club has held a truly elite status. With an intense rivalry Real Madrid, these clubs could be seen as the Oxford and Cambridge of the footballing world. However, if you watch or follow La Liga, you’ll know everything’s not truly elite in Catalonia’s biggest city. Recently getting a 4-0 drubbing but Paris Saint-Germain, an uninspiring win over Atlético Madrid in the Copa Del Rey as well as being very unimpressive in what’s turning out to be a very interesting title race. So, what has gone wrong?
Style of play
Now I’ll get the obvious and biggest ones out of the way first. If you were going to word associate with Barcelona I could guarantee you’ll say, “Tiki Taka”, the style of play in football characterised by short passing and movement, working the ball through various channels, and maintaining possession. And you’d be right. Pep Guardiola, Louis Van Gaal and Cruyff all have implemented strong and disciplined passing games to their teams, to the point it’s almost tedious to watch sometimes. But so often, Barcelona have mesmerised us with the unparalled and unrivaled beauty of their football. However post Pep, and the years leading up to now, there had been managers who tried to develop the club’s tiki taka.
Martino for example tried to implement a pressing style to win the ball high up the pitch and pass the ball around. Where it worked in one way, it didn’t in others. Pressing and passing aren’t polar opposites in terms of style, but asking the likes of Messi, Neymar and Alexis to contribute in slick passing football after tirelessly getting it back, you ruin some good attacking movement. This style, while a good concept, lacked the right players. While Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi were, in my opinion, members of one of the best ever midfield combos, they weren’t heavily press-savvy. Granted Pep used pressing in his style, it wasn’t the main feature of his play.
How does this link to now? Luis Enrique tried to develop Martino’s style in his own way. The 14/15 season saw Luis Suarez move to Barcelona with Alexis leaving the club. But this wasn’t the only signing. You may remember Rakitic joining in the same season, while this confused some and it should, this signing was clever. It allowed Barcelona to press high up the pitch. Iniesta had been reported to be unable to play with Xavi like they used to, due to both losing physicality; Iniesta adapted his game to be more passing orientated, and so Enrique bought Rakitic.
Rakitic is basically there to press high up the pitch and feed that golden front three of Messi, Neymar and Suarez. Iniesta and Busquets offering a building platform. However recently we’ve seen another shift. Enrique is basically trying to give Neymar and Messi massive roles in the team to be their creative forces. While on the one hand we’ve seen Neymar and Messi so influential and mesmerising on the ball, Enrique has all but alienated the midfield. They’re attempting quick balls wide or over the top. This is what PSG exploited. There was so much space left in areas in which Draxler, Verratti and Di Maria found to devastating effect.
Reliance on the wrong players
This is the most interesting and confusing part of Barça’s issues. Now I’m actually a big fan of André Gomes and I genuinely think he’s a massive talent, but he should not be the main man in Barcelona’s midfield when there isn’t a style of play that benefits their structure. Gomes is being asked to pass, press, defend, create and position himself. Busquets and Iniesta are clearly not redundant, but if you have a style of play that Enrique is trying to put across that alienates most midfielders, Gomes cannot handle it.
This is the same case as Rakitic. Sergio Roberto, a natural central midfielder, is being played out of position at right back after Enrique didn’t buy a significantly good replacement for Alves. Everyone at Barca thought Aleix Vidal was the answer but recently he suffered a rather gross injury. Even before that Enrique barely even played him and was a rare occurrence in the match day squad.
How can they fix it?
If there’s one way to solve a midfield problem then going internal is probably the best way to go about it.
The most important way of fixing Barca, which I’ll conclude with, is to play a style they specialise in. If you have so many midfielders who are so good with the ball, the logical way of fixing their style is to go back to the old one but increase the passing tempo. Iniesta and Busquets are insane with the ball in their feet and therefore should be relied upon. It isn’t necessarily rocket science for “Lucho” to fix Barcelona: he just needs to swallow his pride and change his style, before he’s cut up and swallowed by the Barcelona loyals.
I massively love Barcelona and hope they give PSG a good game in the return leg, but right now I don’t see it.