By Raj Das.
Barcelona take on Napoli in the second leg of their Round of 16 clash in the UEFA Champions League, a tie that is pretty much on a knife-edge.
With both sides level on aggregate, the match looks set to be decided by the finer details and the tactical approaches of the respective managers.
Barcelona’s Quique Setien hardly inspires confidence among the Blaugrana faithful at the moment. His arrival saw Barcelona drop a two-point lead over Real Madrid and his La Liga season ended with the Catalan giants trailing five points behind their rivals from the capital.
It has to be said that Setien had been unlucky for most of the season. He did not enjoy the services of Ousmane Dembele, and 17-year-old Ansu Fati was his only wide option. Besides, injuries to Luis Suarez and Frenkie de Jong further limited his options.
If this was not enough, Arthur Melo became more of a distracting element than a help as his transfer to Juventus took some focus away from the game.
In an interview today with UEFA, Sergio Busquets ruminated about the whole matter, hoping for an amicable solution:
“It’s been a difficult situation, but the only ones who know the truth are the club and the player,” said the midfielder, who will play no part in the game due to suspension.
“What we want is that this noise is as little as possible and that the club and the player agree. It was a surprise for everyone when he stayed in Brazil since it is normal for him to return.
“For the good of the club and the dressing room, it would be best to reach an agreement — everyone would benefit.”
It was Lionel Messi who found himself caught between all this chaos. Despite scoring 25 goals and providing an astonishing 21 assists in the league, his side were runners-up, with Real Madrid president Florentino Perez even suggesting that Karim Benzema, who scored 21 goals and made eight assists, should win the Ballon d’Or for his performances. The award has since been cancelled for this year.
Setien’s Questionable Tactical Choices
Nevertheless, what becomes clear is that Setien has been unlucky, but he must also shoulder some portion of the blame for his tactical choices.
In a crucial match against Sevilla, Barcelona approached the game with a 4-4-2 diamond formation that was much appreciated by the Andalusians. This formation meant that Barcelona had a narrow attacking approach, and the Sevilla players packed the middle of the pitch.
What becomes damning is that Setien did not call upon the services of Fati in the game, who could have stretched the Sevilla defence from the left. The game finished 0-0 and proved to be the beginning of the end of Barcelona’s title defence.
Setien’s biggest failure so far has not been the slip-up in La Liga, but his inability to devise a system in which the Catalan giants can adequately harness their attacking potential. The former Real Betis manager has relied heavily on the creative output of his captain. While other players have looked sharp as well, it was only Messi who provided any real goal-threat.
Pitting Griezmann Against the Youngsters
For all their plethora of talents, it was the 20-year-old La Masia graduate Riqui Puig who looked the liveliest in Blaugrana colours this season. In 508 minutes of football, he managed to provide two assists and was unlucky not to score from a spectacular strike in the dead-rubber game against Deportivo Alaves.
If Puig has been a livewire this season, Fati has been even more special. The 17-year-old left-winger has scored seven goals in La Liga, while his only goal in the Champions League came in the form of a crucial equalizer away at San Siro. He has also provided one assist.
Therefore, in 1119 minutes of football, Fati has contributed to a goal every 124 minutes.
Shockingly, this 17-year-old player’s return is better than Antoine Griezmann’s. The French World Cup winner has scored 16 goals and made four assists across all competitions in 3090 minutes of action. That means he contributes to a goal every 154 minutes, which pales in comparison to Fati.
However, to be fair, Griezmann does put in a tremendous amount of defensive effort, zealously hunting down opposition players in trying to win the ball back. Yet, surely, Barcelona did not pay €120m for his defending capabilities. They wanted to bolster their attack.
Some of Griezmann’s performances remind us of Fabio Borini when the Italian striker played for Sunderland. Borini was not a prolific goalscorer but he was a hard-working player. In fact, once at AC Milan, his then-boss Gennaro Gattuso even deployed him as a right-back in a Europa League match against Arsenal.
Some may call this versatility, while others may call Borini a failed striker trying to keep his job as a footballer. Perhaps when strikers struggle to score goals, they turn to make other forms of contribution to stay relevant to the team. Much of the same is happening with Griezmann in Barcelona right now.
Like Borini at Sunderland, Griezmann is also deployed sometimes from the left, sometimes from the right and also as a second striker. In short, he still struggles to fit in.
Barcelona’s Preparations, Defensive Woes, & European Hopes
The UEFA Champions League has not been kind to the Blaugrana in recent years, and there are reasons to believe that this trend is set to continue.
During his preparations for the match against Napoli, Setien said that he wanted Messi to stay on the top. More recently, he was trying to find a system in which Messi would not have to take on creative responsibilities.
Reports have emerged that his staff were experimenting with a 3-5-2 system to pack the midfield. It meant only Messi and Suarez were left upfront. But using Griezmann will require a different approach.
With the second legs now removed from the equation, all teams now are three to four games away from the greatest prize in European football. Messi will certainly hope that this will finally be his year, after the heartbreaks of the last two seasons.
However, the Blaugrana faithful must keep their expectations in check. Barcelona not only have issues in attack, but their defence has also let them down. Samuel Umtiti is not the same player he was a couple of years ago, and some reports have suggested that club officials want him out.
Much of the defensive responsibility, like always, has fallen on the 33-year-old legs of Gerard Pique. Although solid throughout the season, his only big mistake cost the Catalans the title when his tired challenge on Rafinha at Celta Vigo led to the Iago Aspas free-kick equalizer.
In short, the Catalans are not in a position to win the competition. They may win it due to the unpredictable nature of knockout football, but their run in so far has been less than ideal.
This is not the kind of chaos that surrounds Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, or even Paris Saint-Germain, who will be buoyed by their recent domestic double. When it comes to tactics, personnel, and team cohesion, these clubs are in a relatively better situation.
Setien must learn from his mistakes and get his tactics spot-on. He must also learn to time his substitutions better. He must ensure that Messi sees the ball in the fall third on the pitch, and not near the half-way line. He must extract the most out of Suarez, whose confidence has been shaky since his return from injury.
If the Barcelona manager fails to deliver this time, a trophy-less season beckons for the Catalan giants.