Five Questions - Barcelona

reuters

Naz Majeed

1. The Manager. What has Quique Setien brought to Barcelona?

“The best way to victory is to do things right.”

The Barcelona boss is not a regular on social media, but the first line in his Twitter profile is perhaps the reason he was selected to replace Ernesto Valverde in January 2020. Seen as a proponent of the “right” way to play football, the avid chess player is a fan of midfield control and possession, hallmarks of the “best” Barcelona side that played under Pep Guardiola. His first game in charge, a 1-0 win against Granada, saw Barcelona enjoy a whopping 82% possession and string together 1002 passes, the first and only time Barcelona surpassed the 1000 mark this season. It is worth remembering, however, that while fans and experts extolled the virtues of how Barcelona passed Real Madrid to death in certain editions of El Clasico, passing for passing’s sake is not a measure of an elite side (Spain were eliminated from the World Cup in 2018 with the highest number of passes, for example). 

In the 19 games before Setien took charge Barcelona recorded 10 “fast breaks” or counterattacks in 19 games, and have a marginally better 5 in 8 since. While the sample size for Setien is still too small for a significant conclusion to be drawn regarding this aspect of his tactical style, the last time Barcelona won the Champions League came under Luis Enrique, who emphasized verticality as well as possession, and often made use of such counterattacks in big games. In terms of the number of total chances created, Setien’s Barcelona have had an average of 10.6 per game (perhaps skewed by a 2-1 win over Levente where they created 18). Under Valverde, who had been criticized for being unimaginative and boring at times, this number was 9.3, and so there is a slight improvement, at least in this small instance.

So the statistics suggest he has been a marginal improvement over Valverde, though sometimes it is the margins that make a big difference.

2. The New Signings. How have De Jong, Griezmann, and Firpo fared?

This season’s additions to the Barcelona squad appeared to be a strange bunch. Frenkie De Jong starred for Ajax in their run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2019, as well as being an integral part of the Dutch side that went to the Nations League final that same year. His displays for club and country earned him the European Midfielder of the Year award, and if ever there was a club that suited a prodigal ball-playing midfielder with fantastic all-round ability and a big-match temperament, it was Barcelona.

Cruyffian ideals aside, De Jong had already shown his mettle against Real Madrid and Juventus, as well as outclassing England and France on the international stage. In addition to a 92% pass accuracy in La Liga (ahead of Sergio Busquets, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, and Casemiro), he has also created 24 chances in 26 games from a deep-lying position, behind only Lionel Messi (on 55) and Antoine Griezmann (26) in the Barcelona side.

The assessment of Griezmann is difficult - a world-class forward that is probably unable to play in his best position, it would be unfair to brand him a failure at Barcelona, but after a protracted transfer saga, fans would have expected more from him.

Best deployed as a second striker behind a more physical presence (Diego Costa or Olivier Giroud), Griezmann has been used across the front three at Barcelona as they do not usually play with the system that his previous side Atletico Madrid or international team France do.

Of all the players that have scored at least 8 goals in La Liga (the exact number Griezmann has), he is ranked 21st of 23 in terms of minutes per goal (Lionel Messi, inevitably, is top of that list, with Luis Suarez in third place). In that same list, however, Griezmann is 5th overall in the number of tackles made (and for a side with a lot of the ball) and so he may be offering much more than just goals and assists for Barcelona.

Junior Firpo, meanwhile, is in a tough spot. Often rotated at full-back, he has found it difficult to regularly displace an ageing Jordi Alba, which in itself does not bode well for his future. Most Barcelona fans do not rate the younger Firpo, who has never made an appearance for the national side, who has called up Alba ahead of Firpo himself, which may be all the judgement required.

3. The Current Squad and Problems Faced.

One of the biggest issues Barcelona has now is an egregious one that every other side in the world would love to have; Lionel Messi. As seen above, Messi is their top performer on every offensive metric, and his presence alone can often change games.

The problem is that Barcelona is so heavily reliant on Lionel Messi that when he does not perform, the team struggles. On his day, Messi is still capable of moments of genius that defy the laws of physics, but gone are the days where he would be involved as the team presses and wins back possession, with the living legend now electing to conserve his energy to dart away from defenders to conjure up some new miracle.

But gone as well are the legs of Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique. Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal are willing runners but on the wane, and neither is in the same mould as Xavi and Iniesta. Nelson Semedo is no Dani Alves, and neither Clement Lenglet nor Samuel Umtiti bring the leadership and ability of Carles Puyol.

With Luis Suarez injured, yet another key part of the Barcelona machine is damaged, and while their crown jewel still sparkles, the insistence on looking to Messi for inspiration can sometimes be self-destructive. 

 

The slow decline and decay of the much-vaunted La Masia academy has also begun to hurt the team. The quality of graduates is suffering as fewer and fewer youth prospects find their path to the first team blocked by big-name signings and ageing superstars, many of which are on eye-watering salaries which further deplete from the long-term stability to the club.

4. The Solutions to the Problems. What do Barcelona do?

It would be wildly inflammatory to suggest that the solution would be to drop Lionel Messi, but it is worth remembering that not too long ago Barcelona faced a few months without their best players and the one who stepped up more than made up for his absence.

The suggestion is not, however, to sign Neymar from PSG. Instead, realize that in Griezmann and especially De Jong, Barcelona has the world-class talent that is currently underutilized. Messi could, and arguably should be managed like how Cristiano Ronaldo was in his final two seasons at Real Madrid, where Zinedine Zidane saved him for the more important games, trusting in his able-bodied deputies.

And we have not even mentioned Ousmane Dembele or Ansu Fati, the latter of which looks to be the one many have pinned their hopes on, while the former may have to work very hard to get over issues of consistency and fitness. If both of them begin to fire on a regular basis, Barcelona would already have Messi’s succession plan in place. 

Then there is Philipe Coutinho, on loan at Bayern Munich. The Bavarians have the option to sign him on a permanent deal at the end of this season, and should that clause be invoked Barcelona would have a sizeable war chest to reinforce their back-line and prove Marc-Andre Ter Stegen with a solid defence ahead of him.

Investing in the potential windfall from Coutinho’s transfer could see Barcelona transition from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1, with Griezmann in his favoured position behind a striker, with Messi on the right and one of Dembele or Fati on the left. A midfield two of Frenkie De Jong and Artur would perhaps be lightweight in the biggest of ties, so they would require a more traditional ball-winner that can also play a pass. Sandro Tonali at Brescia is a name often touted, fitting the bill perfectly, but rumours suggest he has been earmarked for Juventus to continue comparisons to Andrea Pirlo. 

5. The Final Grade: B

Barcelona sits in a strange position right now. Top of La Liga on goal difference, they have looked a million miles from their imperious best, and Quique Setien’s style of play does not seem to be markedly different from what it was before. The Catalans are yet to finish their Champions League tie with Napoli either, the first leg ending 1-1 at the Stadio San Paolo.

Their squad is flush with talent but have not yet found the best starting XI, and it appears that they are one Messi injury away from complete disaster.

Or a complete turnaround. A Messi injury might see Griezmann take charge of Barcelona’s destiny. De Jong could fulfil everyone’s dream of him being the second coming of both Xavi and Iniesta. The suspension of football may give Luis Suarez time to recover from his injury.

Whatever the outcome, Setien will need to find the right answers, and quickly.