Winning ugly not acceptable at Barcelona
Background photo: 1997, CC BY-SA 3.0
When you hold to the highest standard, it's difficult to enjoy your football. Anything less than comprehensive excellence feels like a major crisis. Barcelona occupy first place both in La Liga and their Champions League group but uninspired performances like the defeat to Levante and the goalless draw with Sparta Praha this past week concern fans and pundits deeply. What is the problem? How can Barca fix it before they really are in crisis?
The players struggle to connect on the pitch. Watching requires patience and endurance. The harmonic, free-flowing, attractive style that lifted the Blaugrana to the pinnacle of Europe under Pep Guardiola erodes at an alarming rate. It's global warming, football style.
Under Ernesto Valverde, Barca adopted a pragmatic approach lacking identity and direction. To his embarrassment, the Spaniard fails to draw the best from his squad despite the number of world-class players at his disposal and money spent in the past three summers to back him.
From starting XIs to tactics to substitutions, Valverde rarely gets it right this season. Judging by their performances, the squad has little faith in their coach. Performance falls far below expectations.
The attack doesn't deliver. Save for one match, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez appear reluctant to connect with newcomer Antoine Griezmann. Ousmane Dembele continues to alternate between injuries and poor displays.
Nor should you write home about the defence. The backline is shaky and uninspiring, letting in 14 goals from 11 La Liga games. At that pace, Barca will concede 48 over the full season. In the past five campaigns, the Blaugrana shipped 152 goals or roughly 30 per season. Their worst total came in Luis Enrique's final campaign when the side surrendered 37 goals and the title to Real Madrid.
Valverde made his name with a staunch defence at the San Mames while Athletic Bilbao manager. In his first season at the Nou Camp, he firmed up the rearguard inherited from Enrique, finishing the session with just 29 conceded. That firmness didn't last. The side shipped 36 goals in 2018/19 and now defends like a mid-table side, another signal the team doesn't play for him.
Away form concerns. Barca's 3-1 defeat to Levante was the third in eight trips away from the Nou Camp this season.
Barcelona won't meet their objectives playing like this. Everyone knows the Champions League is the top priority. It will remain beyond them if their form doesn't improve drastically
It all begins with the manager. Valverde must turn the situation around quickly. Barca enjoyed their brightest stint under the Spaniard in his first season while playing a 4-4-2. Signing Griezmann burned that bridge. The boss can't justify sitting any of his attacking trident even though sacrificing flair for efficiency could tighten things up.
What about a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong as the double pivot [with Arthur Melo rotating in], Antoine Griezmann behind Luis Suarez, Messi in his favoured right-wing position and Ansu Fati/Ousmane Dembele occupying the space on the left flank? The fullbacks could stay home more often to shield the defence. More chances would come from the middle and Valverde could opt for a high press. Griezmann, Suarez and Messi would be closer together, allowing them to find greater chemistry.
Whatever the solution, it must be found soon. Barcelona haven't changed managers in mid-season since Radomir Antic took over for Louis van Gaal in January 2003. Valverde may break that trend.