Why I Hope Barcelona’s 5-2 Win Over Real Betis is a Sign of Things to Come

Barcelona, like many of Europe’s elite, are a side I love to complain about. It’s primarily down to incompetence from the board, focusing on galactico signings instead of continuing on the path Cruyff set and Pep developed. Their work resulted in the most exceptional team in the Champions League era, mostly focused on La Masia graduates and some significant signings in Dani Alves, David Villa and Seydou Keita. It’s what made Pep’s 2011 side so magnificent. A majority of that starting XI was built with players who knew the Barcelona system. It’s why Pep has never been able to build a team as good as his treble-winning side. While his Bayern side had an idea of how Pep wanted to play through Louis Van Gaal, he had to start from scratch at Manchester City, which is why his first season in England was so underwhelming.
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The problem with Barcelona since Neymar’s signing is they’ve basically turned into Real Madrid. Losing the best manager of the modern game is going to have an effect on how much value you can get out of specific players. However, the change in style and player profile has been the most significant issue regarding Barcelona since Pep’s departure. Barcelona were never a tiki-taka side because they had so much purpose in possession. They would break teams down through counter-pressing, wingers stretching the defensive line and Messi being fantastic. Pep had all of his players actually work defensively, and it’s what made them so different to Real Madrid. They never allowed any player to have a completely free role.
I bring this up because Barcelona’s 5-2 win over Betis was the first time in a while, where I’ve seen Barcelona actually look like a team. They weren’t perfect, far from it, but they showed signs of showing that aggressive counter-press with actual wingers. While this will not continue when Messi and Suarez return, it’s good to see Barcelona play well without their star players. To make it very clear, I have not watched much of Barcelona in the past couple of years. With La Liga being a pain regarding its TV rights, I only managed to watch them in the Champions League. I also missed their defeat to Bilbao, where I heard they were awful.
Here’s how Barca set up for this game:

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A very different eleven to what we are used to seeing, but there was enough quality in the team to comfortably dispose of Betis, and they showed this for the first 10 minutes. De Jong and Roberto were drifting wide to stretch the midfield, allowing Griezmann to drop deeper to find space. This made the French forward a problem for the defenders. He was effectively creating space for his teammates to exploit.
In theory, that was supposed to happen, however, in the first half, Barcelona looked so stagnant in the attack. This was especially problematic in the wide areas. Carles Perez did look threatening when receiving the ball but was consistently left isolated. Semedo kept coming inside, instead of giving Perez an overlapping run. This wasn’t nearly problematic on the left, with Alba still being a menace when going forward. Rafinha was mostly ineffective through the first half, continually drifting inside. It’s difficult to blame him since he is a central midfielder and shouldn’t even be at the club, never mind playing on the wing.
The wide areas weren’t the only issue. When Griezmann dropped deeper to create space for his teammates, the midfielders were supposed to make runs into those gaps that were created through Griezmann. This just wasn’t happening, with Roberto and De Jong not taking advantage of the space. De Jong, especially, looked very uncomfortable moving further up the pitch. The Dutchman usually plays in Busquets’ position, where he can progress the ball through the midfield. During the start of the game, De Jong received the ball inside the box. Instead of shooting as most players would, he chose to pass, which resulted in losing possession. It perfectly represented how an attacking role just isn’t what De Jong should be doing. This forced Busquets to push forward to aid the forwards, which worries me if that has to happen more often. Busquets is increasingly becoming a liability as he ages. He has never had the legs to push forward, and it’s something he really shouldn’t be doing anymore and shows how ineffective the rest of the midfield were in the attack.
This became even worse after Fekir’s goal, which in itself was not a good look for Barca. Busquets played a very risky ball to Rafinha, who looked half asleep and Betis score just seconds later. It was their first shot on goal and their first real attack in the game. It caught Barcelona off guard and put them in a position they didn’t deserve to be in. Despite the issues previously mentioned, they were still the better side, but wrong decision making in the final third and static movement was holding them back.
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One area of their game that remained consistent throughout the game was their intensity. Betis have a handful of players who are excellent in possession, with Fekir, Tello, Canales and Carvalho all being able to cause a threat to Barca. Valverde ensured his side stopped this from happening, through the forward three and the midfield pressing high to force goalkeeper Daniel Martín to pump long balls into the channels. It allowed the home side to recover possession quickly and nullify their opponents. Betis only completed 78% of their passes, showing how they struggled to build-up play. They were pushed back throughout the game due to Barcelona pressing from the front. I wonder if the press would be just as effective with Messi in the side. Since Pep’s departure, his off the ball work has left a lot to be desired. It’s such a shame to see a player who was elite on and off the ball lose that skill down to managers giving him freedom or the precise control he has over the team.
Griezmann did manage to bring his side level right at the end of the half, but this game had to end with 3 points. After the defeat in Bilbao, they could not fall 6 points behind Atletico after only 2 games. Thankfully, all of my problems from the first half disappeared. Barcelona looked so much better and didn’t have the same nerves we saw in the first half. That Griezmann goal seemed to push them to start taking risks and use the full length of the pitch. At one stage, Rafinha and Griezmann switched positions, and they looked fantastic. While it was only for around 5 minutes, Rafinha held the ball well, which led to Griezmann’s second goal. The Brazilian held possession until Roberto arrived, who played the ball to the French forward, who scored with some style.
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Semedo began to give Perez as an option on the overlap. The Spaniard is very one-footed and made his constant cutting inside predictable and easy to deal with for Sidnei, the Betis central defender. Semedo finally began making those runs for support. It enabled them to be more varied in how they attacked Betis, which led to Semedo picking up an assist for Perez’s first goal for the club. For his first start, the young attacker had a very positive impact. He looked a threat when in possession, but his work off the ball does need improvement. Yet, there is a player here who could play a part in Barcelona winning their third successive title.
This win did show a lot of the better qualities of Barcelona. Their control over games, aggressive counter-pressing and quick interchanges made them a joy to watch throughout. However, I’ll hold my reservations on whether they remain good enough to win a Champions League. Having Messi will always give you a chance, but Valverde’s slightly negative tactics in the bigger games have shown them to be weak when facing opponents of a similar level. When Barcelona concede early, it shakes them, and they don’t seem to have the drive and desire to fight. They’ve collapsed twice in Champions League semi-final, after securing 3 goal leads in the first legs. I loved the approach for the game, with the forwards actually defending for once, but you expect them to beat the every non-top 4 sides in La Liga. I’ll come back to talk about Barcelona when they face an opponent of equal level, whether in the league or in Europe.

 

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Andre Gomes and How Opinions Change

If it isn’t a surprise by now, there are many things in football that I have failed to get right since starting this blog. From Brazil or Spain winning the World Cup, Axel Witzel being a bad signing or Seri being one of the best signings of the previous summer. You can always learn from your failings so it is mostly a good thing when I get these predictions wrong. This current player is another who I might have gotten wrong in the past, that being Portugese midfielder Andre Gomes.

When he joined Barcelona for €50m back in 2016, there was a lot of pressure on him to succeed. Champions at the time, Barcelona were still looking at replacing Xavi and finding a worthy successor to Iniesta and even Busquests. Gomes was apart of a Valencia side that was ripped apart by Jorge Mendes’s sharp claws. They went through 3 managers that season, and it was crazy to think any player could come out of that side with a semblance of positivity. It was a crazy summer for Barcelona in 2016. They seemed destined to through money away. Even if you exclude Umtiti, a majority of their signings from that window are not at the club. Alcacer, Digne, Denis Suarez, Cillessen and Gomes all highlight a club that wanted players to just fill the eighteen, instead of truly challenging for first team places. Gomes was the most expensive out of all of these signings, and was arguably the worst. It can all be summed up in Barcelona’s worst defeat that season, their 4-0 defeat to PSG. Gomes started that game, and looked truly out of his depth. He was taken off before the hour mark, and looked like a passenger. He only touched the 39 times, with Iniesta touching it twice as many times. it highlighted a greater problem for Gomes, what does he add to this side? He isn’t as good defensively as Busquets, not as effective in the final third as Iniesta and isn’t nearly as good a passer as Rakitic. For a lot of money, Barcelona got a very average player, and it was clear that he didn’t have a long term future at the Nou Camp.

After another underwhelming follow-up season for Barca, he decided to give the Premier League a go, joining Everton on loan. It strange summer. Everton made a lot of business that seemed good on paper, with Digne and Richarlison being instant hits on Mersyside, while Mina and Zouma haven’t been great been great. Gomes was an important addition to the side. While I’m not a massive fan of his, he does offer much more in a transitional sense than Schneiderlin and Gueye. Both are much better in a defensive sense, and while both are good players, they cannot start them together for a season. They don’t offer enough creatively and in keeping hold of the ball. Gomes was there to add that level of maturity and spark to a midfield full of defensively minded players, and has done that. He’s completing 1.6 dribbles per game, the highest in the side, and completes the most long balls in for any outfield player for the Toffees. His contribution going forward is quite lacklustre, but he has offered very good ball retention and helps Everton begin dominating games. One of his stand out games this season was Everton’s unfortunate draw against their local rivals Liverpool. He added a level of confidence and maturity in a ground where Everton have struggled for a long time. He completed 4 dribbles and made 45 passes, with only Coleman completing more with 52. While he hasn’t been a signing of the season, he’s added an element of class to a side in desperate need of it.

When I titled this post, it wasn’t with the intention of how Gomes turned from a flop into a huge success, it was the fact that I understood him. I mentioned how he was supposed to be the future for Barcelona, but didn’t have an obvious skillset to replace any of their top talent, but moving to a lower side has brought a skillset out of him. Gomes is a good dribbler who can help certain sides retain possession. I would recommend Everton sign him, but for anything less than £30 million. While he has improved them, he hasn’t done enough yet for a side to be ripped off when signing him. Some players just have a certain level where they flourish, and Gomes has found his

Why Barcelona Have Been Underwhelming – Lyon vs Barcelona -UEFA Champions League Preview

These previews have been some of the best posts I’ve put out, and judging by the views they are attracting, it seems others agree. With only 3 left, it seems we are finally so close to finishing them. Let’s look at one of the final previews, being Lyon’s huge game against La Liga leaders Barcelona. With both teams having game defining players, it could be a very memorable tie.

Let’s begin with Lyon, who are having a fine enough season so far, but I have had some problems with them. It just bothers me when they drop points against such poor opposition, and with Lille 4 points clear and Marseille and St Etienne not far behind them, it begs the question of why aren’t Lyon doing better? Well defence is a massive problem. While their full backs are actually pretty solid, with Mendy, Tete and Dubois all performing very well, it’s put more pressure on Lyon’s defenders. While I think Marcelo is a solid defender, I don’t think Denayer is not a good player in the slightest. Jeremy Morel is now 34, and is still getting plenty of game time. It worries me that a team with such a good attack, might be held down by a central defence that is old and easy to expose. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’m not the biggest fan of their manager, Bruno Genesio. I can give him sympathy for having deal with a club who aren’t willing to spend much on defenders, which is why Denayer is even at the club. He has also added some impressive flexibility to the side, with Lyon deploying 8 different formations this season. It has mostly worked, but it was more to get the most out of what he has, and he seems to be unsure on what his best team even is. He’s played Aouar, Depay, Fekir and Traore in so many different positions, because he doesn’t know where to fit them all in. He’s tried Fekir and Depay as a striker, mainly due to both lacking a great work rate. However while both have played a lot of games there and can work on the occasion, they are better behind the striker. Depay is an amazing creator, so having him on the left or behind the striker is much more effective. Fekir is similar. He loves to get on the ball and run at defenders, and his shot locations aren’t great, with half of his total shot coming from outside the box. He’s another who shouldn’t lead the line. While Genesio’s masterclass against Manchester City and PSG is very impressive, I just don’t think he has taken advantage of Marseille and Monaco falling off as much as they have, in the same way Lille have capitalised.

What cannot be denied about Lyon is they have some of the most desirable players in Europe, starting with Memphis Depay. The Dutch international is in the form of his life at the moment. It has actually surprised me why a club like Chelsea or Real Madrid have not even considered him. While I did say I do not like him as a sole number 9, he is still an absolutely amazing attacker. He is taking 2.9 shots a game, creating 3 chances and completing 1.7 dribbles. These are all signs of a complete forward. Since Lacazette’s departure, he has been the main man at Lyon. With Fekir having consistent injury problems, Depay has been so important for everything Lyon have been doing. With his versatility, arrogance and ability, he makes for a forward who could fix any attack. It’s just so good to see Depay finally reach that potential we all knew he had. Barcelona might truly struggle to deal with him, because he can just do so much. He is so unpredictable. While Fekir and Traore could all be huge threats in this game, Aouar deserves some praise here. With incredible XGBuildup numbers and a great dribbler, it’s just amazing he’s still only 20. He is one of the best young players in Europe and has continued his amazing form from last season into this one. What has made him more impressive is the drop off of his teammates. Tousart and Ndombele have both not been nearly has good as they were last season, so it’s made Aouar look even better. I just love how good he is on the ball, and how good he is when it comes to transition. Ndombele’s dribble numbers have dropped, so it’s helped massively that Aouar has actually improved. A lot of clubs have been looking at him too, and it’s so easy to see why. He is a guy with a bright future, and is vital to Lyon getting a result in this game.

Let’s look at Barcelona. I have titled this post why Barcelona have been underwhelming, and I’ll explain. This La Liga season has been very confusing. With Villarreal and Valencia all dropping off a cliff this season, one would assume that a team that brought in huge talents like Malcom, Lenglet, Arthur and Arturo Vidal, you’d think they would be so much further ahead than they are. Real Madrid are having their worst season in years, yet they’re only 6 points behind them. While they have been winning and mostly deservingly so, but there have been consistent problems, and it all comes back to Valverde. His time at Barcelona can only be seen as satisfactory. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think he is a bad manager. He is a very good manager, but isn’t a Barcelona manager. Thanks to Cruyff and Pep, they have such a high standard for the football that is being played, that anything that isn’t at the level, isn’t good enough. He has had a mostly successful time in charge, but he has individual moments that have soured his relationship with the fans. Letting Messi leave early last season for a friendly, which lead to the club losing their unbeaten run on the last day of the season against Levante, losing 5-4 in humiliating fashion. While that was bad, losing a 3 goal advantage against Roma in a truly awful performance in the Italian capital. It’s these moments where the fans and neutrals get frustrated, because he just struggles on the big stage at times. While I can see this as his biggest fault, the biggest problem is definitely his player managment. I do think he has been given players he doesn’t neccessarily want (I’ll get to that) and he has nearly no idea how to use them, and has instead relied heavily on Suarez and Busquets, and playing them even if they are tired. Both are aging and need to be managed carefully. Rakitic is another who is loved by Valverde, but wants to play him so much, that the fans are becoming tired of him. These are all good players, but they are all becoming old, and shouldn’t be relied on as much as they are. He has massively struggled with dealing with some of the bigger signings, starting with Coutinho. His signing in the first place was strange, because there wasn’t neccessarily a place in the squad for him. He was seen as an Iniesta replacement, but I don’t think they are as similar as thought. He cannot play as an 8, because he isn’t good defensively as an 8 should be. He also isn’t and has never been a winger, but can play there. He is a 10, but Messi occupies that area so where does he fit? He is useful to have in the squad, but Valverde seems to have no idea what to do with the £142m player. Malcom is a much worse situation, because Coutinho at least plays. But that blame is more on Malcom that Valverde, because he should be at Roma, but decided to go to Barcelona, when there wasn’t even a place in the squad. Valeverde is struggling in some aspecs in one of the hardest manager job’s in the world.

Talking about Messi as a key player is pointless, because of course he is. He’s the best player in the history of the game, so he’s easily the biggest threat on the pitch. Let’s look at someone else instead, that being Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman’s time in Barcelona has been mixed. Don’t get me wrong, he has been amazing whenever he has played, but because of his issues with Valverde, and the board seemingly not liking him, it’s taken a while for him to establish himself in the side, but he’s been great. His performances in the Champions League have been outstanding. His shot numbers, chance creation and dribbling went supernova. He scored 2 in the group stages, with only Messi scoring more. He adds that creativity from the wide areas and is one of the dribblers in Europe. He is still such a promising player, and it’s good to see him finally showing it for a side that don’t deserve him.

If Lyon wish to win the round, they must deal with Busquets. The Spaniard is the best defensive midfielder in history, but he is 29 now. He is such a smart player but if Lyon attempt to deal with him, it’ll make Barcelona so much easier to deal with. The other is to hope Sergi Roberto is playing. He is good offensively, but is so easy to expose. They have to attack fast and keep hold of the ball. If they fail to do that, Messi and co will punish them.

If Barcelona want to advance, they have to play 2 in the middle. Lyon advanced as one of the few unbeaten teams, but only managing a single win. Those defenders are old, so if they play Messi and Suarez together, it might put a lot of pressure on the players at the back. Denayer and Morel aren’t good defenders, and Barcelona should find it easy to break them down. They need to use their experience. This team still has plenty of the winners from their 2015 Champions League win, and need to beat a side full of young players. Show them how winning is done. It’s why I think they will win. While a shock could definitely happen, I think Barcelona just have so much going for them to lose in the same way as last season.

Memorable Matches – FC Barcelona 3-1 Manchester United

After the international break becoming baron when discussing relevent football, let’s talk about matches from the past. Games that will never be forgotten in the minds of the fans who watched. Let’s start with a game that I even remember watching at a younger age. The second encounter in two years between Sir Alex’s United, and Pep’s treble winning Barcelona. Both sides previously played each other in the 2009 champions league final, also remembered as Ronaldo’s final game for the club. The game was quite close, but incredible games from both Xavi and Messi put Barcelona over the line. This game was the rematch, which would hopefully see Fergie finally land the victory over Pep. But we all know that is not what happened. So let’s get into it.

United’s great first 10 minutes

Let’s start with by far United’s best moment. Ferguson’s plan was to use both Park and Valencia to deal with the full backs and midfielders. Park would drop deep to stop Alves from making any as advancing runs. Valencia and Park are both incredibly good at tracking back and helping their full backs. It was a classic Ferguson move. He always liked to play players, like Park, in these big games to help nullify the opponent. United played a classic 4-4-2, with Giggs and Carrick in midfield. Their other approach to deal with their midfield disadvantage was to bring one of the wingers inside depending on which side Barcelona were playing. For example, if the ball was on the side of Pedro and Abidal, Valencia would put pressure on them, while Park would come into midfield to limit the effect of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. Both Rooney and Hernandez had very important roles. Rooney had to keep on Busquets. The defensive midfielder is so important in how Barcelona build up play. He is one is able to receive the ball and pick out a further advanced player, to help with possession. Rooney at times helped with this (we’ll get to why it didn’t work later) and Hernandez kept pressure on the back two of Pique and Mascherano. This worked so well for the first 10-15 minutes, but we will now get to why this didn’t exactly work.

A Xavi Masterclass

I constantly love to compliment midfielders. Whether it has been my constant defense of Paul Pogba, my praise for Luka Modric, my love for Vidal’s all round excellence, or the many memories I have of Paul Scholes. Xavi is better than all of the above. I fondly remember watching him, and his Barcelona teammates majestically move around the pitch and win 3 international trophies back to back. I do not think there will ever be a better player than Xavi in the middle of the park. His incredible ability at transitioning play, finding space and retaining possession will never be beaten. He was at his mesmerising best in this game. When Busquets was having a limited effect in the first half, Xavi would drop incredibly deep to receive the ball. He would usually then recycle the ball back to the centre halves, until there was space available to advance play. When Xavi dropped this deep, it left Rooney and Hernandez with a difficult decision, either stick with their role, and leave Xavi to retain possession, or try and deal with Xavi, but not full commit to the game plan. It left United chasing the game, because they failed to deal with the change that one player made. Xavi is the one who won the game for Barcelona. His dismantling of United’s plan is the reason why they cruised the game. He was recieving the ball all over the field, and he was just so good at helping Barcelona get the ball in dangerous areas. It was easily one of the best midfield performances you will ever see.

Messi at his best

If Xavi was the captain of the destruction of United’s approach, Messi was the first mate. Messi as a player as evolved dramatically since his long haired teenaged days at the Camp Nou. He began as a right winger, using his pace and dribbling ability to assist Eto’o and Ronaldinho in their dazzling displays in the final third. However Pep saw something else in him, being his ability at finding space. Messi under Pep was easily one of the hardest players to deal with when defending. If the centre backs chose to track him, it would leave space wide open in the back for one of Villa or Pedro to exploit. But if a midfielder chose to track him, it would leave the midfield disjointed. United had this similar problem. It seemed Carrick was the one with the responsibility to deal with Messi. Like the rest of the side, it was fine for the first 10 minutes. Messi didn’t have much of an involvement near the start of the game. But then the Argentine just dropped deeper and deeper, until Carrick couldn’t follow. That was the point where Messi was at his most deadliest. While many will call Messi an excellent dribbler and goal scorer. His best attribute will always be his ability to find space to receive the ball, which would bring the rest of the team into play. There is a reason why Pep told Messi to never receive the ball in the 18 yard box, because he knew exactly how good of a false nine Messi was. Throughout the game you would see Messi drop near enough in his own half, receive the ball, and just run at United. It worked so often and he was untouchable throughout the game. What helped massively was United’s inability to keep up with Barcelona. Their tireless running, aggression and high energy game was really taking its effect as the game went on, by the hour mark, United had zero legs to stand. Barcelona had that much control of the game, that United would never be able to get back into it. Messi and Barcelona were excellent in just waiting for this moment, and really made them suffer.

To conclude, this game was a huge turning point. It was the first time Sir Alex would look at a game and even admit that there was nothing he could do. While their first encounter in Rome was closer in pure ability of the players on the pitch, the rematch was not. United didn’t have the furocious front line of Tevez, Ronaldo and Rooney anymore. Fergie’s magic still brought the best of the aging and average talent throughout the squad, but there was a limit to this. Pep’s team and squad was of such a high standard that any line up Fergie put out on the day, would not have won the game. It was the first time I ever saw Sir Alex get completely outclassed on a tactical level.

It was a high point for his opponent however. This victory ensured that this team of players would go down as one of the best teams to ever play the game (and the best in my opinion). Every player in that team was at their peak, and worked so well together to produce a team that few were ever able to beat. It’s still the team that Pep is trying to equal in achievement and style. A game where the old was beaten by the new, in such a dominant display, and that is why this is a memorable match.