Why is Barcelona struggling to dominate La Liga this term?
Background photo By: Markus Unger, CC BY 2.0
La Liga's long been known as predictable and not very competitive. In the last decade, Barcelona has undoubtedly been the most dominant force domestically. Seven Liga titles in that time say it all. The Catalan Club’s latest triumph came last season, under Ernesto Valverde. Barcelona were close to repeating Arsenal’s Invincibles heroics, nearly making it through the campaign unbeaten. Their only loss came on matchday 37. This year is a different story.
In Valverde’s first year in charge, he tightened Barca’s defence and provided a new structure to cope with Neymar's departure. Fast forward a year and Barca’s La Liga journey hasn't been all roses. When you woke up this Saturday morning, Barcelona held a thin one-point cushion over Sevilla. Atletico Madrid were level having played on Friday night. For much of the season, the Sevellistas held the top spot. Barcelona has managed to win just 8 of their 14 games, shipping a mammoth 19 goals in the process. If it was not for poor showings by both Madrid powers, the Cules would be well behind.
Losing in front of their home support is a rarity. This term, Real Betis came to the Nou Camp and had their way. The Blaugrana haven't dominated a game in their usual style. So why exactly is Ernesto Valverde struggling to pull his team clear of the chasing pack?
Changing of the guard
The summer bred uncertainty. Barcelona waved goodbye to the supernatural Andres Iniesta, influential both on and off the pitch. Yerry Mina’s departure was a bitter pill. The Colombian improved all season but wanted guaranteed minutes Valverde wasn't prepared to offer. With injuries at the back, a price is being paid for selling him to Everton.
The board splashed ridiculous amount of cash again, continuing to invest in exciting prospects like Malcom and Clement Lenglet. They were successful in bringing Arturo Vidal to the Nou Camp, not a very popular player to suit Barca’s credentials, but an important addition with qualities similar to another departed star, Paulinho.
Finally, the "new Xavi" made his much anticipated €40 million move. Arthur arrived to bolster the midfield.
In all, Barcelona entertained 11 departures. Andre Gomes and Lucas Digne followed Mina Merseyside. The entire swirl of ins and outs disturbed the team equilibrium to a much greater extent than anticipated. Worse, Barca’s philosophy-led approach is fading. Lately, they're just another big club who buy top players.
The mystery of Valverde's best XI
Once the season began, Valverde found himself facing tactical and manpower issues.
Ousmane Dembele's fitness, not to mention his attitude, are proving a challenge. The Barcelona coach opted for a 4-3-3 to incorporate his burgeoning young talent.
Consequently, Lionel Messi shifted out to the right-wing. Messi has a tendency to drift inwards and play as a floating number 10. Everyone knows this. Intelligent opponents collapse towards the middle of the pitch, allowing the Maestro to collect the ball on the flank.
Nelson Semedo and Sergei Roberto don't provide enough threat to coax defenders into overloading that side of the pitch. They may provide the occasional brilliant cross but are never going to take on defenders one-v-one with any success.
The solution isn’t to send Messi on a fool's errand, though. The lack of a real box presence eliminates vigorous crossing from Barca’s arsenal. They are limited to working the middle in combinations.
The only other attacking strategy comes from exploiting Jordi Alba’s offensive potency. In either instance, the approach works best with Messi in the centre of the park. Nobody works a combination better and his diagonals to the diminutive left-back are sublime.
Playing Leo at the heart of a 4-4-2 seems the best solution. He'll enjoy freedom without causing an imbalance in the team's shape because he's always off to one side. Wide threats on both sides [Alba and Phillipe Coutinho on the left, Dembele on the right] will allow him to unlock defences with the cagey Uruguayan cat burglar, Luis Suarez.
The downside is Dembele will lose a bit of freedom but there’s no reason to believe he can’t continue to make an impact if he’s willing to shoulder more defensive duties.
Time waits for no man
The other problem is Gerard Pique. A few key goals in recent matches mask the fact the 31-year-old has struggled to keep up the pace and is far more vulnerable to opposing attacks. Samuel Umtiti's injury has made matters worse. Clement Lenglet is too inexperienced to provide cover. Pique is often caught napping when opponents are knocking at Barca’s goal.
It’s time to look for a long-term replacement. Matthijs De Ligt fits perfectly. A January move could be on the cards as Barcelona look to mend their leaky defence. Pique can serve as De Ligt's mentor as Carles Puyol did for him when Pique returned from Manchester United.
On paper, Barcelona’s squad is potent enough to compete with any team in the galaxy. In reality, it lacks athleticism, balance and, ultimately, quality.
Sergio Busquets is much slower. Semedo hasn’t worked out. Dembele loses the ball too often. It's difficult for Valverde to find any balance. Suarez doesn’t dribble as he used.
On the other hand, Messi remains otherworldly. A healthy Umtiti anchors the defence, as does Ivan Rakiticin midfield. Suarez can still score. Dembele could be harnessed better. Arthur helps.
Whatever Valverde does with Philippe Coutinho, he cannot bench him. He's too good when given a solid run and Barca paid too much for him to sit. How do you play him when Arthur lives up to his 'second coming of Xavi' billing? You want that lethal right foot in games. Playing both leaves out Dembele. It's the selection headache managers want but Valverde hasn't found the aspirin yet.
Pique, Busquets, Suarez need to play in a slower system. The youngsters want to fly. Last season, Barca's conservative, possession-based approach worked wonders in domestic competitions but was exposed in Europe. The system protected Busquets and Pique while putting Messi in scoring positions.
Valverde tried to spice things this session by reviving Luis Enrique's system, with Messi and Dembele on the wings. The squad was more dynamic. Dembele showed signs of his potential. But the defensive issues are unsustainable. Rakitic has to drift wide and away from Pique and Busquets to make room for Messi's forays inside, exposing the defence to counterattacks and explaining the 19 goals shipped in 14 matches.
Valverde keeps trying to fit a square compromise into an intransigent round hole. Instead, he must make some difficult choices. There's no better time to start than in tonight's derby match at the RCDE against Espanyol.