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Barcelona’s identity crisis suggests “Messidependcia” lives

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Barcelona’s 1-1 El Clasico draw against Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid was perceived as a loss rather than one point gained. Though it may only be December – with more than half the season to play – Real’s six-point lead over their rivals is an assuring gap.

The Spanish champions’ recent rut includes four draws in five games, in which Enrique’s men have struggled to impose their authority on opponents and are simply devoid of attacking flair in the final third. In majority of these matches, the Catalan side’s attack was completely tame, and you could argue that in most scenarios, barring Lionel Messi’s brilliance, Barca were rather fortunate to avoid defeat.

The treble winning season witnessed Barca go on a tremendous run of form at the turn of the year that possibly coincided with Messi moving to the right so Luis Suarez could roam laterally into the channels to lead the line. Last year they broke away from the pack in the first half of the season, but suffered a losing streak in the spring – that included a Clasico defeat to Real and a Champions League exit by Atletico – and were ultimately rescued by Suarez’s glut of goals.

Perhaps the tactical periodization so heavily mentioned when many defended Barca’s poor form under Enrique is responsible for their slow start to the season, but stylistically, the issue seems more severe. Where you could once argue Barca possessed the best XI in world football, the fear of potential injuries encouraged the club to heavily bolster their depth over the summer.

The arrival of Denis Suarez, Lucas Digne, Andre Gomes, Samuel Umtiti, and Paco Alcacer provided depth in areas that Barca felt they risked vulnerability if injuries occurred. But where you can argue that the reigning Spanish champions have a better squad, Enrique’s men haven’t necessarily progressed.

Success is often the downfall for most football clubs because if you tinker with a winning side you risk tampering with the overall balance. Yet, when clubs opt to persist with the current squad or improve depth, they often experience regression as opponents identify ploys to negate their threat and equally evolve as well.

The issue many had highlighted during the early stages of Enrique’s tenure, but in terms of the club’s philosophy following the Guardiola era, the current Barcelona side still featuring Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets is drifting in a different direction. Enrique’s signings have been predominantly direct players opposed to legitimate ball treasurers, which was an integral trait in midfield during the Guardiola era.

In truth, it starts with their work-rate out of possession: the high intense pressing, and swarming counter-press in central areas is barely displayed. Dropping into two banks of four, Messi and Suarez have remained central – though they perform their fair share of closing opponents down from the front – but Barca retreat into their base shape, conceding ample space in central areas.

Elsewhere, as witnessed in the most recent draws at the Anoeta and Clasico, when Barca encounter heavy pressing, they no longer possess the personnel capable of retaining possession until the opposition tired. Simply marking Busquets out of the match deprives Barca of control in midfield, thus leaving the front trio isolated upfront and starved of service, whereas the option of Gomes, Arda Turan, Rafinha and to an extent Denis Suarez have been overrun and out-worked in central areas.

This was also witnessed in a comeback victory over Sevilla a few weeks prior, but Messi’s second half brilliance was pivotal to the eventual outcome. Messi was forced to drop deeper to spread possession, play penetrative passes in advanced positions, and ignite breaks with his dribbling, which resulted in a goal and game-winning assist from the Argentine.

Essentially it takes away from Pep Guardiola’s initial plan of keeping Messi within close proximity of the opposition’s goal, but the Argentine’s passing range prevents Barca from simply aiming to quickly play passes into the attacking trio’s feet. Talks of “Messidependcia” have decreased in recent years, but if Busquets’ influence is negated, Enrique’s Barca now seem heavily reliant on the 29-year-old.

Messi has scored 62 per-cent of Barcelona’s goals since defeating Manchester City at the Camp Nou in mid-October, and in many of those games he’s been the defining factor between wins and losses. Though Messi wasn’t at his best against Real, he was still involved in the club’s best moves and frankly should have won the game.

To be frank, that was the negative aspect of the Clasico result from a Barca perspective. Although they squandered two legitimate opportunities to secure maximum points, it took Iniesta’s return to slightly improve the entire dynamic of Barca’s play. The Spaniard is one of the few core players remaining from prior success, and though his game is heavily based on his swift dribbling, he still represents a calm presence in possession.

But Iniesta’s lack of consistency in terms of overall displays at the club level suggests that even his presence in the XI isn’t the definitive answer. Rakitic and Suarez’s poor form, the slight tweaks to Neymar’s role – that saw the Brazilian hug the touchline before cutting inwards – combined with the unrealistic demands on the new young summer signings to immediately adapt to the Barca style coincides with the current identity issue at Camp Nou.

Once renowned for their wonderful team play and built around a ball-retention philosophy, Enrique’s Barca transitioned into an individualistic side suffering in a broken system. Coincidentally, it’s rivals Real, that pride themselves in buying the best individuals under Florentino Perez, that now represents a pragmatic cohesive side under Zidane.

Real pressed the Barca midfield intelligently at the Camp Nou, and under the guidance of the magnificent Luka Modric they comfortably disrupted the hosts play and enjoyed positive moments on the counter. Even with several first-team players unavailable due to injury this season, and Cristiano Ronaldo possibly suffering from regression, Real have found ways to win games, whilst remaining compact and defensively resolute at the back.

Ironically, now, Real’s midfielders can control games though ball retention and pass their way to victories, along with still retaining the devastating frontline that can exploit the smallest errors on the counter-attack. In what’s clearly a hybrid of proactive and reactive football, the most important element to Zidane’s success involves keeping fringe players happy, and being able to count upon his entire roster to abide by the Frenchman’s pragmatism through tactical discipline.

Real Madrid haven’t been stellar this season, but unlike Barca, when playing poorly, they’ve found ways to win games. When key players were missing, and the youngsters filled their roles admirably, meanwhile at the Camp Nou it’s difficult to harp the same tune. Enrique’s tenure as Barca manager has been equally peculiar: despite claiming the treble in the first season and a league-cup double last year, the reigning champions have failed to perform well over the duration of a full season.

Losing integral players that understood what was once Barca’s default system – like Dani Alves, Xavi and Pedro – has essentially provided a stylistic dilemma, but equally placed additional workload on Messi, in particular. Where Enrique can’t be faulted for turning to youth, Messi’s brilliance won’t overshadow the issues at Camp Nou.

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The increasing concern on individualism amongst the front three and quick counters leaves Barca without a clear systematic approach. Perhaps Iniesta’s return and the eventual winter break can allow several Barca players to rediscover their optimum form to alleviate the pressure, but with Real representing possibly the most settled side in Europe – given the personnel – Enrique’s margin for error is slim.

Barca may have improved their depth this summer, but at the moment they simply aren’t performing as a cohesive unit under Enrique, and the reliance on Messi is reaching insurmountable levels.

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Posted by on December 9, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Barcelona 3-2 Sevilla

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Barcelona remains at the top of La Liga courtesy of Alexis Sanchez’s injury time winner against a resilient Sevilla side.

Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino made two changes to the side that defeated Valencia at the Mestalla, two weeks ago. Christian Tello started along side Lionel Messi and Neymar in the attacking three, while Xavi Hernandez joined Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets in midfield.

Unai Emery made four changes to the side that drew Malaga two weeks ago, adding Jairo Sampeiro and Vitolo to the attacking three behind Kevin Gameiro. Sebastian Cristoforo played with Stephane M’Bia in the double pivot of Emery’s 4-2-3-1, while Beto started in goal.

This match came to life in the final 15 minutes once Messi gave the Catalan side a two-goal lead – yet despite their victory, Barcelona’s issues at the back are now palpable.

Sevilla’s Shape

Emery’s men faced an onslaught of pressure in the opening 45 minutes but were only down a goal, due to their shape without the ball. Emery’s men dropped into two banks of four with Gameiro and Rakitic up top, aiming to close down Busquets and Xavi – when they dropped deeper. M’Bia was instructed to track Iniesta’s movement, while Cristoforo occasionally pressed Xavi.

However, what was most impressive was Sevilla’s ability to limit the gaps in midfield and defence. Barcelona constantly aimed to penetrate through the middle but was unable to find the final ball or gap in the final third, and that was down to their compact shape and organization. This affected Messi’s influence on the match, as he often dropped deep into midfield, attempting to drag defenders out of position and find his own gaps – but the Argentine forward had little success.

Barcelona down the left

Martino’s men did enjoy success in the first half, mainly down the left hand side. It was a constant source of attack, as Tello and Dani Alves were peripheral figures for large portions of the opening 45. Neymar received the ball countless times and was encouraged to take on Coke Andujar. The Brazilian winger constantly got the better of the Sevilla fullback – due to his marvelous skills and Jordi Alba’s ability to get forward – but his decision-making and quality in the final third was subpar.

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Alba was forced to leave the match midway through the first half, thus allowing Adriano to make an appearance. This now presented Barcelona with a balance, yet neither fullback was eager to push forward – but when Alves did, he was moving centrally. Neymar continued to trouble Coke for the duration of the match, but Barcelona’s opener was orchestrated on the left flank. Adriano finally surged forward and provided a cross to the far post, which Alves nodded past Beto. It was one of the few time Alves broke forward due to Vitolo’s admirable will to track back and protect Alberto.

Martino’s men struggled to find openings in the Sevilla defence, but their narrow shape allowed Barcelona’s left-sided players freedom to penetrate.

Jairo-Vitolo

Barcelona continued to dominate possession in the second half, as they searched for a second goal. Vitolo drifted centrally early in the second half, looking to find gaps to exploit, but the Sevilla attacker realized the service was limited. Yet, two wide men enjoyed a terrific second half, due to Adriano and Alves’ will to surge forward, thus leaving space available behind them to penetrate. Jairo and Vitolo isolated the Barcelona fullbacks, and got into dangerous positions in the final third, which led to corner kicks.

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Sevilla’s first goal stemmed from majestic work from Vitolo. The Sevilla attacker won the ball on the break and attacked space after being played in by Marko Marin. Vitolo danced past Busquets and Gerard Pique, then laid the ball off for Ivan Rakitic to fire past Victor Valdes.

Besides an improvement in the minimal pressure applied by Sevilla, their were two elements of attack that led to their comeback – Jairo and Vitolo’s threat in wide areas on the break was the first positive aspect in Sevilla’s second half resurgence.

Set-pieces

Martino has been heavily criticized for the club’s decision to ignore their defensive issues. The Catalan club is in desperate need of a top-class centreback, but continue to have faith in a Javier Mascherano – Pique partnership. Also, over the past few years, Barcelona has lost players that possess an aerial threat, such as Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal, Yaya Toure and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

This season, Barcelona’s slow defenders have been exposed and their inability to successfully defend set pieces has also been highlighted. Helder Postiga made a near post run and freely nodded in a corner kick at the Mestalla, two weeks ago – and the same issues recurred against Emery’s men.

In the 63rd minute, Cala snuck between Alves and Busquets and nodded a corner kick at the near post, past Victor Valdes. The goal was wrongfully ruled off for a ‘ghost’ foul, which should’ve equalized the scoreline. Martino noticed his side’s disadvantage in height, so he took his players off the post to develop a numerical advantage in the box. Cala got the best of Busquets and Fabregas in the 82nd minute, but the Sevilla defender nodded his header wide of the net. But eight minutes later, Coke earned the equalizer, as the Sevilla fullback was left unmarked to hit the corner kick on the volley, past Valdes.

For all of Barcelona’s talent in attack, they still look frail in defence, and it’s an issue Martino needs to address, if the Catalan side aims on claiming trophies this season.

Fabregas

There’s no question about Cesc Fabregas being Barcelona’s most influential figure this season, and he continued to showcase that in the second half. Minutes upon his arrival, Fabregas made a simple run between the lines to free space for Messi to make a pass, and run into space to tap in Barcelona’s second goal of the night.

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Martino’s men began to find gaps of space between the lines and in the final third in the final 15 minutes of the match, and Fabregas played a key role in their success. His direct forward runs into pockets of space and behind the defence, along with his persistence to get into key areas in the final third, opened up space for Messi, Neymar and Sanchez to penetrate.

Fabregas’ movement and direct approach opened up space for Barcelona’s attackers to express themselves – prior to that they struggled to penetrate in central areas, thus highlighting the impact of his appearance.

Conclusion

Barcelona was dominant in possession for large portions of the match, but their lack of penetration and issues on the break and defending set pieces is alarming. Sevilla will feel they were robbed of points due to Cala’s goal being called off, and the timing of Sanchez’ winner, as their second half performance was promising – specifically Jairo and Vitolo’s

Martino’s men remain unbeaten in league play, as Fabregas’ arrival shifted the match offensively for the Catalan side. It seems evident that the Spaniard is now a key asset to Barcelona, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can sustain this good run of form throughout the season.

 
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Posted by on September 17, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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2 Guys and a MIKE – El Clasico Podcast February 26th

Unfortunately Mike “the Mod” was missing today on the 2 Guys and a Mike podcast, but Paolo and Tyrrell shared their insights on El Clasico, why Barcelona has struggled as of late and Messi vs Maradona. Hope you enjoy!

Also, SUBSCRIBE to our podcast on iTunes here: http://itun.es/i6JM4wc

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2013 in Podcasts

 

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