There are innumerable storylines to describe what has been, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most difficult seasons for Barcelona in at least a decade. Fresh from a damaging 2-8 thumping at the hands of current treble holders Bayern Munich, the Catalans have had to fight tooth and nail to get to where they are now. Hope has finally found its place back at the Camp Nou, and with it, expectations have begun to brew.
In this article, Barça Universal takes a deep dive into Barcelona’s La Liga season, exploring three distinct phases of the current campaign, all leading up to the final ten games of this incredible domestic season.
A volatile start to the campaign
To describe the start to the campaign as anything less than tumultuous would be an understatement, as anything and everything fathomable that could go wrong did go wrong.
First team captain and club legend Lionel Messi no longer desired to don the iconic Garnet and Blue jersey he had worn since his teenage years, owing to the club’s deplorable management and sheer lack of competitiveness in recent seasons. Indeed, after two and a half years of Ernesto Valverde’s horrendous management of the squad, coupled with former President Jose Maria Bartomeu’s abominable reign at the helm of the club, the Argentine had lost all hope in the club, and understandably so. Knowing the only route out of the club would involve a strenuous judicial process with the club he held closest to his heart, he much preferred to wait out his career, down to the last second.
His mental state reflected in his performances in both the league and the Champions League. In the Primera División, the Argentine failed to score a single open play goal until matchday seven, and this too coming against Real Betis. In Europe, it was much the same. In the four group stage games played, he scored thrice, but all from the penalty spot. Throughout these games, he seemed to have lost his flare. His dribbling often lacked meaning, his decision making was at an all-time low, and his freekicks, one of his many defining traits, seemed to have fallen completely out of his grasp, with a majority landing in the tenth row or meeting sensational stops from opposition keepers.
To some extent, his form could be attributed to his hopelessness when faced with the situation at hand, but there were bigger problems in play: tactics or a complete lack thereof. Ronald Koeman returned to the Nou Camp a legend and was more than ready to risk losing it all for his beloved Barca. With him came Henrik Larsson, another legendary figure in Barcelona’s history. The ex-Everton manager came with a set plan and formation: the 4-2-3-1. Given its success in Holland as well as with Southampton in his time there, there was little reason not to replicate the same at Barcelona.
Things started off rather well, with consecutive victories — and clean sheets — against Villarreal and Celta de Vigo, but everything derailed from there on out. The Blaugrana were completely and utterly incapable of forging a consistent run of form, or they did, and it was all poor. Subsequent to the victory at Balaídos was a four-game winless run involving a loss to the struggling Getafe and a thrashing at home at the hands of defending champions Real Madrid.
On their return from the international break, Koeman’s forces were dealt yet another blow, this in the form of a defeat at the Wanda Metropolitano to leaders Atletico de Madrid. By matchday 10, the Catalan giants had already tasted defeat four times, drawn twice with just four victories – and this too against mid-tier opposition.
It was in the bigger games when the Catalans’ tactics and mentality were put to the test that they fell flattest. Not only did they lose, but they did so deservingly. The sheer lack of synchronisation, cohesion or planning on Ronald Koeman’s side was utterly loathsome and painfully repetitive.
To add insult to injury, unlike with Ernesto Valverde, where a reprehensible collective performance could be salvaged by individual brilliance, it was personal failures that put the nail in the coffin for Koeman’s men. Easily avoidable penalties, poor positioning, a lack of communication, unexpected injuries and “schoolboy mistakes” were largely to blame for Barcelona’s almighty fall from grace.
With just about a third of the season wrapped up, Barça had next to nothing to look forward to. Spirits broken points dropped, and pressure mounting, this was anything but the start Culés expected. Reality quickly settled in, and following such a harrowing start, objectives switched from challenging for the league to merely making the top four.
The only thing worth smiling about was that Bartomeu had stepped down from his presidency, but that brief moment of euphoria was inevitably snuffed out by the team’s disgraceful form.
A work in progress
Ronald Koeman’s first sixteen games with Barça were an absolute rollercoaster. The team had somehow won more points in their six Champions League group stage games than they had in ten in the domestic league. There were several motifs prevalent every time Barcelona dropped points in either competition — more so La Liga: poor substitutions, awkward team selections, questionable tactics and the infamous 4-2-3-1. Koeman gradually got a better understanding of his forces, and with this, more command over what to do and when.
The first substantive improvement was the return of the single pivot and a formation closely resembling Barcelona’s timeless 4-3-3. Koeman ate the humble pie, subtly admitting that his one size fits all in terms of a setup approach was not the way to go. The latter is a setup most of the squad was familiar with, and subsequent to its return — either through correlation or causation — was the start of a positive run of form.
On basic statistics, they won eight in the league, drawing twice against Valencia and Eibar respectively through a familiar foe in an individual error. Expected to lose the three relatively big games against Basque opposition in the form of Real Sociedad and Athletic Club Bilbao — twice —, they passed both tests in the league against the odds and with merit too.
More than merely winning against their opponents, the Garnet and Blue were able to supplant the dreadful football they played in their opening ten league matches with a more cohesive — though not always exciting — style of play. The pressing, passing and possession gained more and more value as time went by, and with a sensible structure came less ludicrous defensive mistakes.
There was a sense of desire and teamwork that had not been seen at the club for quite some time. More and more automatisms formed, resulting in better results and more tolerable football. Be it at the back with the defensive fortitude of Ronald Araújo, centrally where the midfield returned to being a priority at the club, on the right with the re-emergence of Ousmane Dembélé, or out left with the growing bond between Jordi Alba, Pedri González and Lionel Messi, the team played in a manner that was recognizable for the first time in a while.
This being a work in progress, mistakes were bound to happen at some point. Alba’s exuberance and offensive nature made his defensive absences and lapses in concentration cancerous on the counter. Whilst from afar, one could say that the team’s mentality was on a northward trajectory, it took a steep dent following the defeat to Athletic Club in the Supercup final, where Barça’s inability to stay put in a do or die situation — even with seconds remaining — cost them their ‘easiest’ title opportunity.
What the Garnet and Blue could take away from this phase in their season is that they has indeed progressed. With the sheer number of chances created, as well as those of the opposition mitigated, the Catalans knew that they were on the right track to — if not challenge for the league title — consolidate a place among the division’s top 3 come matchday 38
Innovation and rebirth
Barcelona’s season was ained to fall apart right around this point. The Blaugrana had a 10 game window which included both semifinal legs against Paris, three matches against Sevilla and if matters weren’t difficult enough as they were, they also had an away trip to the nightmarish Anoeta. This had the writings of yet another run of abhorrent form that the Catalans would endure, perhaps even culminating in Ronald Koeman’s sacking.
Against the seemingly insurmountable odds, Barça made it through most of it, with the key to this coming following the demolition at the Nou Camp against Paris. The first leg of the Champions League last 16 was as big a mess as one could envision, but it was in this grand failure that Barça found their new essence.
In La Liga, the tie in the Ramón Sanchez Pizjuan was expected, by Culés and Nerviones alike, to be a walkover game for the hosts. Just three weeks prior to this game, the Europa League Champions had comfortably beaten their Catalan counterparts, and back in the arena of their most recent domestic defeat, they were expected to fall apart yet again.
Much to the surprise of both camps of supporters, the Blaugranas won, the bigger shock being that it was not only a victory but a tactical masterclass too. It was a vintage performance from the away side, overpowering their hosts in every conceivable way, quantifiable or not. With Koeman’s latest tactical revelation coming in a 3-5-2, every single player on the pitch put up a performance worthy of a Champions League final.
The pressing was as coordinated as it was asphyxiating; the passing as quick as it was pristine; the positioning as scrupulous as it was meticulous. The attention to the most minute of details was taken into consideration by the Dutch manager, delivering a game dubbed one of the best in years. In the reverse fixture just three days later, with a 0-2 deficit, it mattered not that Koeman’s tactics were widely known to the general public, as his forces put their best foot forward, coming from behind on aggregate to beat Sevilla 3-0 in the Camp Nou.
The turnaround against Paris, while an onerous task, was nonetheless an envisageable one regardless. The former Spanish champions failed to advance, but they left the French capital, and the competition as a whole, with something they hadn’t for the better part of 5 years: pride. Both the club and its most valiant of supporters could pride themselves in knowing that the eleven on the field gave their all. The football, even bereft of victory, was finally pleasurable.
Before the international break, Barça had one more test — the away trip to San Sebastián. Everything in history had the writings of a defeat on the horizon, but knowing they had their tactical superiority behind them, the Catalans and their fans went into the tie, for once in a long time, fearless.
In perhaps their most dominant display of football in three and a half years, Barcelona ripped La Real to shreds. La Erreala had conceded just ten goals before Barça’s visit — the league’s then best home defensive record but ended the night with a 60% increase in goals shipped in their backyard. A performance that may have secured another season for Koeman.
Symbolic to Barcelona’s equanimity throughout the game was a glorious tiki-taka — for lack of better terminology — goal. With incisive passes, and a bright smile strewn across Lionel Messi’s face come the end of the move, the victory encapsulated all of Barcelona’s progress this season. Games are finally watchable, enjoyable, and Barça, unlike under Ernesto Valverde, plays football that leaves you longing for more.
What next for Barça?
It is an unpopular opinion, but the Champions League was an unnecessary distraction. Barcelona had no possible way of winning it, and advancing a further round would have been nothing more than two extra fixtures to interrupt their La Liga campaign.
The way forward much depends on what Barça wants. On the one hand, finishing in the top 3 is an enormous achievement on its own. It has, of course, been a tough season, with injuries, form, among other unforeseeable events coming between Barcelona and their title challenge. Finishing above Real Madrid is a must, though going above Atleti, despite their rough patch, is not all that realistic. The Garnet and Blue could take this as an opportunity to play youth and prepare themselves for the next ride, but they could also look a bit further ahead.
Just four points behind Atlético and with ten games to go, winning La Liga is still very much a possibility. As Pep Guardiola said in “Pep Confidential”, leagues are won in the last eight games. Real Madrid ran away with the title with 10 games to go, and the Blaugrana are now presented with a glorious opportunity to do the same. With Sociedad and Sevilla out of the frame, Barcelona still have the trio of Madrid clubs as well as Villarreal and Valencia to worry about in their final ten games.
Will they take up the challenge that awaits them or fall apart in the home stretch? Only time will tell.