On Saturday came a respite of sorts for Barcelona. After a month that included a spat between star Lionel Messi and the club’s sporting director and a strange and awkward social media scandal, not to mention a loss to Valencia that gave the league lead to Real Madrid, the Blaugrana enjoyed an easy 5-0 romp over relegation-challenged Eibar.
Well, sort of. Eibar took the early initiative, nearly scored in the opening minutes (it was negated by an offside call) and frustrated the Barca attack. But before malaise could set in, Messi happened.
Twenty minutes later, after another bout of shakiness, Messi scored twice more — first in another act of individual brilliance and then again, after a brief and unsuccessful act of benevolence. After a turnover deep in Eibar’s end, he centered for Antoine Griezmann, who miscontrolled the ball so clumsily that a defender accidentally knocked it back to Messi, who said, “fine then” and completed his first-half hat-trick. Messi added a fourth in the second half, then Arthur a fifth, and Barca cruised to a win that, combined with Levante’s upset of Real Madrid on Saturday evening, put them back in first place in La Liga.
Long minutes of unease interrupted reliably by moments of incomparable brilliance. It’s been the Barcelona way for a while now. And after a particularly turbulent time both on and off the pitch, Barca lead their league and are again one of the betting favorites to win the Champions League. It’s incredible, not least because Messi himself said last week that his team “are not at the level to fight” for Europe’s top prize.
This definitely hasn’t been Barca’s finest season, though
The table on the right shows that Barcelona’s style of play hasn’t changed much through the years. This team hogs the ball like few others and generally scores in one of three ways: Messi doing something amazing, set-pieces (potentially involving Messi doing something amazing), or the proverbial “pass the ball into the net” long possession. They attempt fewer crosses than anyone else in the league, they take the second-fewest headers as shots and they attempt the fewest aerials.
They might be one-dimensional, but it’s a pretty good dimension.
Still, with four losses and four draws in 25 league matches, they’re averaging just 2.2 points per match. That’s on pace for 83-84 points overall, which would be their lowest total since 2007-08, their last season before Pep Guardiola took over as manager. It’s also noteworthy that a team also hasn’t won La Liga with less than 87 points since that same year — neither Barca nor Real Madrid have hit on all cylinders this go-round.
So what’s gone wrong? It starts with defense
Barca are allowing 1.16 goals per match. That’s not horrible, but it’s only seventh-best in the league this season. It’s also a 44-goal pace for the entire campaign: they haven’t allowed that many since giving up 47 in 2002-03.
In terms of expected goals, Barca’s defense started showing some serious cracks a couple of years ago: their xG total allowed per match oscillated between 0.85-1.03 each season from 2010-11 to 2016-17, but it’s been 1.15 or higher every year since. And this year has seen some very poor spells: eight goals allowed in an early four-match span, a 3-1 loss to Levante, and six goals over four recent matches.
The team’s overall save percentage is 65.9%, Barca’s worst in seven years, but while that number can be pretty random at times, Barca’s overall defensive actions are almost universally down: compared to the last 10 seasons, their 8.9 interceptions per 90 minutes are by far their lowest total, and their 49.4 ball recoveries and 14.4 tackles are second-lowest. Barca’s best defense has always been a ball-control offense, but the team has typically posted better numbers than this.
They also aren’t creating quite as many dangerous touches
At their most dangerous, Barca were able to play keep-away for days but also move on to Plan B or C when necessary. They were adept at long passes when the short passing game wasn’t getting it done, and they were at times a devastating crossing team with Messi, Neymar and an in-his-prime Luis Suarez up front.
Now they make it a bit easier on you. Even if you can’t stop the short passing game, you can at least prepare for it. As the table shows, while Barca are enjoying as much possession as ever, they aren’t necessarily doing a ton with it. Of course, they don’t have Neymar anymore, while Suarez is past his prime and even out injured with a torn meniscus. This underscores the current state of Barca’s roster: it got old quick, and it hasn’t yet cycled through to a new generation.
Compare the 2019-20 Barcelona squad to the 2014-15 iteration, the last Barca team to win the Champions League. The 2014-15 squad not only featured Messi, Suarez and Neymar. Sergio Busquets was 26 years old and entering his prime, as were fellow midfielder Ivan Rakitic (26), forward Pedro (27), and defenders Gerard Pique (28) and Jordi Alba (25). Plus, legendary midfielders Xavi (35) and Andres Iniesta (30) and defenders Dani Alves (31), Javier Mascherano (30) and Jeremy Mathieu (31) all had something left in the tank. Since then, Neymar left for another super club (Paris Saint-Germain), and Xavi, Iniesta, Alves, Pedro, Mascherano and Mathieu all either retired or moved on to smaller clubs/leagues. Meanwhile, Messi, Busquets, Pique, Alba, Suarez, and Rakitic all passed 30. Messi even grew a 32-year old’s dad beard, which… no judgment here.
Veteran additions like Griezmann (28) and midfielder Arturo Vidal (32) have been fine, and lord knows there’s an ocean of younger talent finding its way — forwards Ansu Fati (17) and Ousmane Dembele (22), midfielders Frenkie de Jong (22) and Arthur (23), defenders Junior Firpo (23) and Clement Lenglet (24), etc. But Barca are dealing with an issue that has at least temporarily dragged down just about every successful club at some point.
Cycling from one generation to another is hard.
Setien’s solution: be even more Barca-like
It’s impressive that Ernesto Valverde lasted as long as he did as Barca manager, while overseeing this transition period. He replaced Luis Enrique in the summer of 2017 and won two league titles and a Copa del Rey. But consecutive Champions League collapses — to Roma in the quarterfinals in 2018 and, famously, to Liverpool in last year’s semifinals — made his job security tenuous, and he was finally sacked on Jan. 13. Former Real Betis manager Quique Setien took over from there.
Setien is as possession-hungry a manager as has existed outside of wherever Guardiola is living in a given year, and his influence has been in some ways predictable: Barca have become basically a concentrated version of themselves. They’ve gone from possessing the ball 64 percent of the time under Valverde to an almost unheard-of 73% with Setien and from 681 pass attempts to a ridiculous 790. Their tempo was already plodding and slow but it’s become almost stand-still: they’ve gone from 87.2 possessions per match to 86 and from a direct speed of 1.3 to 0.9. (Direct speed is, as defined by Opta, the number of meters the ball travels upfield in a given sequence divided by the total time of the sequence. No one else in La Liga is below 1.4.)
A lot of this shift has come in their own half: Barca have gone from averaging 271 passes in their defensive end to 361. Busquets and Barca’s defensive personnel are taking on a lot of work playing keep-away: Busquets has gone from 87 passes per 90 minutes to 113 and from 67 passes received to 95, and the threesome of Piqué, Samuel Umtiti and goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen have gone from averaging a combined 186 touches and 163 pass attempts per 90 to 257 and 228, respectively.
Is this fundamentally exciting? Not in the slightest! Worst yet, it could at some point make them vulnerable to a particularly effective pressing team (hello, Liverpool). But it should be noted that Eibar and Getafe rank second and third, respectively, in La Liga in possessions won in the attacking third, and Barcelona just outscored them by a combined 7-1.
This “keep-ball” style is helping to wear opponents down a bit, and some timely and effective pressing of their own doesn’t hurt. They’ve gone from winning 4.5 possessions per match in the attacking third to 6.7, with Griezmann, Rakitic, de Jong and Fati all creating havoc in their opponents’ half. The result: the ball is ending up at Messi’s feet more frequently.
Under Setien, Messi is averaging 63.8 passes per 90 minutes (his highest rate since 2011-12), 7.5 shots (his most ever), 1.0 assists (he’s never averaged more than 0.6 over an entire season), and 93 touches (his most since 2010-11). Are these rates sustainable? Possibly not. But nothing that’s happening appears to be dramatically outside of anyone’s skill set.
Now comes the real tests in Spain and in Europe
On Tuesday (after a coronavirus test, because it’s always something), Barca will play at Napoli in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16, then head to Madrid on Sunday to battle for first place in the league. From there, it’s a visit from sixth-place Real Sociedad, a refresher against Mallorca and the return leg against Napoli. Setien’s changes haven’t been particularly thrilling, but we now find out if they’re as effective as they’ve been out of the gates.
FiveThirtyEight’s club ratings think this key stretch will also be a happy one. It gives Barca an 83% chance of advancing past Napoli and an 11% chance of winning the entire tournament. (Napoli, by the way, probably aren’t a team that can take advantage of Barca’s theoretical vulnerability to pressing: they won only 3.3 possessions per match in the attacking third in Champions League group play.) Back in Spain, it gives the Blaugrana a 58% chance of winning La Liga.
Not bad for a down year that’s seen Messi’s scoring dropped, one manager change and a slew of big injuries, eh?