Barça 0-1 Celta: Bad luck, bad system, or lack of system?

Scrolling through Twitter right after Barcelona lost a match could perhaps be considered a mild form of masochism, and the spirit is rarely uplifting. But on Saturday night, right after Barcelona had lost 0-1 to Celta Vigo at home, it was interesting to note that there were two completely separate camps. One one side of the spectrum, people were saying that Barcelona created a ton of chances and were simply unlucky not to get on the scoresheet. On the other end, people were declaring apocalypse and preparing their farewell speeches to Luis Enrique. The truth, most likely, lies somewhere between these two polar opposites.

In his post-match press conference, Luis Enrique had clearly done his math homework. “We had 19 shots, 9 on target, 4 off woodwork”, he said, just to highlight that with some better touches in front of goal, the end result could have been very different. Only a fool would argue against this fact presented by the Barcelona boss. Neymar hit the bar, Messi hit the bar, Celta goalkeeper Sergio Alvarez played the match of his life.

So does this statistical superiority justify the cries for patience and optimism? Should the loss simply be shrugged upon, should the Camp Nou faithful merely give Luis Enrique a emphatic pat on the shoulder and wish him better luck next time?

Perhaps that could be the case if the issues exploited by Celta weren’t as obvious. It’s easy to talk about the defensive side of things when Barcelona concede – and surely the defense line didn’t play their best match either – but perhaps the most worrying part is how Barcelona have completely lost control of the midfield. I wrote about the issues in the middle of the pitch in the aftermath of the Clásico, and the same issues were present against Celta.

Ivan Rakitic, at times, played wider than Dani Alves, and the result of that equation is easy to sum up: there’s simply no one in the heart of the field in the build-up phase. This meant that there was no danger from the central areas until Messi dropped deep enough to collect the ball from the feet of the defenders and took running at the opposition. And while we all enjoy the sight of Messi running with the ball, it isn’t always effective when he does it against two defensive lines of four.

Perhaps even more concerning were Luis Enrique’s comments after the game. “Rafinha and Rakitic haven’t been very present in the build-up”, he said, basically stating that he’s fine with that because “they occupied markers”. I must admit that this comment left me slightly confused. If the midfielders are not building up the game, who is? In this case, the responsibility was often shifted to the center backs, who played the ball directly to the forwards or to the fullbacks. As though Barcelona was trying to speed through the midfield to make us forget the gaping holes that were there.

See picture below. Mathieu (red) has the ball. Messi (black) has dropped deep, which means that Neymar and Suárez are occupying the center backs up front. Mathieu tries to play the ball all the way to Jordi Alba, who is the furthest forward on the left flank. In the middle, there’s no one – everyone is vacating that space and rushing the ball to the flanks, or alternatively, straight to the forwards.

Barca-Celta 1

This also resulted in a series of long balls to no one, which resulted in easy losses of possession.

At the same time, Enrique said that he would have “preferred to have more control of the match”. He doesn’t bother about his two midfielders being involved, but wants to control the match? The absurdity of these two comments – when you read them back to back – is there for everyone to see. (And just so you know, I’m not a ‘hater’ and I don’t ‘hate’ Luis Enrique, but this is somewhat confusing talk from the person that is supposed to know how this team has to play)

So much for curing the “Messidependence”, this is only a way of adding it. Messi is now the player with the most creative burden in the team, and at the same time, people slash him for not scoring for fun in every match. Surely, he hasn’t been at his sharpest form in the last two matches, but he does have quite an impossible task to do, too.

And not to mention, there was a lot of individualism and lack of clarity when it came down to the forwards. Below is an example.

Here's how it starts. Rafinha brings the ball up, and plays it to Suárez who has come to the wing.
Here’s how it starts. Rafinha brings the ball up, and plays it to Suárez who has come to the wing.
Suárez gets the ball out wide, Messi is still in a deep position although Suárez has left the central areas vacant, and Neymar isn't occupying those areas either.
Suárez gets the ball out wide, Messi is still in a deep position although Suárez has left the central areas vacant, and Neymar isn’t occupying those areas either. Suárez ends up playing the ball to Busquets, who plays it to Messi.
Messi gets the ball in the middle and has no one to link up with - Neymar and Suárez are wide, the midfielders are not available and the only way forward is a dribble.
Messi gets the ball in the middle and has no one to link up with – Neymar and Suárez are wide, the midfielders are not available and the only way forward is a dribble.

This play ended in a cross: Messi dribbled a bit, played the ball wide to Suárez, who tried to find Messi at the edge of the box. But the forwards’ movement is still somewhat inconsistent: when Suárez is on the right, Messi could attack the space in the center. When Suárez is in the center, Messi could drop deep and play off Suárez. In this play, Suárez was out wide and Messi dropped deep, had no one to connect with and relatively little space to attack. Of course, time should be our friend in this aspect, as the three forwards learn to know each other’s movements.

The problem seems to be that there is no real game plan. What is supposed to happen when Suárez receives the ball out wide? No one knows, because nothing happens. Messi stands there and waits for the ball. The ball is played to Messi, and then we all cross our fingers and hope he creates something. This pattern was repeated countless of times. There’s not a system that creates chances, not a clear core, and the burden falls on the three superstars up front. The system with no midfield-creators counts on the front 3’s individual brilliance.

That is the fundamental issue and shouldn’t be ignored no matter how many times Barcelona hit the woodwork. Barcelona have lost three times this season, and in each of those matches, the opposition has had complete control of the midfield. (And possession ≠ control).

Hitting the post four times in a match is bad luck. Losing control of the match isn’t about luck. Not when it happens on three separate occasions, anyway. And it even appears that it’s a choice made by Luis Enrique – a choice with which he looks to accommodate his front three. The problem is though, that the way Barcelona are doing things now is way too extreme. The ball is played straight to the forwards, or alternatively, to the flanks, and the midfielders’ work in attacking end is constantly hindered by the fact that at the back of their minds, they have to be aware of their defensive duties. Their positioning is somewhat conservative, neither one of them makes late runs into the box, neither one of them feeds the forwards.

Against Celta, Barcelona managed to create plenty of chances thanks to Messi and Neymar and Suárez. Against Real Madrid, they barely created a single good scoring chance after the first 30 minutes or so. When the opposition has a strong enough stranglehold of the midfield, the forwards alone can’t work miracles.

(Although it has to be pointed out that against R.Madrid the control was lost for different reasons: Luis Enrique placed Xavi in the midfield, supposedly assuming that he could set the tempo of the game, but the Maestro was overrun by Modric and Kroos.)

All of this being said, I might give the impression that I’ve already flushed this season down the toilet, but that is most certainly not the case. Luis Enrique’s approach is different to what we’ve seen in the past and instead of emphasizing midfield control (like, for example, Tata Martino did towards the end of his season), he’s trying to make Barcelona more direct. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, we’ll just have to wait and see where it takes us. I’m not saying all of this to trash Enrique’s ideas or to say that we can’t play this way. What we’re seeing currently, however, is too extreme. The midfield can’t just be ignored.

But just as much as throwing in the towel isn’t good, the issues shouldn’t be shrugged upon, either. We shouldn’t live in some happy cloud of ignorance and say that all is good. All is not bad, but all is not good either. Barcelona should have beaten Celta with all of the chances they had, but that’s not the point. The problems would still be there.

And as all is not good, the situation is worrying, to say the least. Luis Enrique is trying to implement a new style, but the core of his team is from a time when Barcelona played very differently. Xavi and Iniesta are players who live from control – not quick transitions – and the defensive base of the team used to rely on the control of the game. Without that control, the defensive base is lost, too. And to make matters worse, Xavi and Iniesta and Busquets can’t dominate a midfield anymore. That’s a fact. Rakitic isn’t a controller-profile either. That’s a fact too. Real Madrid have two great midfielders of this profile: Kroos and Modric. There’s another fact and that pisses me off. What comes of Rafinha & Samper is a question only time will answer.

Barcelona can’t play the control-based game, because they don’t have those players anymore. They can’t play extremely directly either, because the defensive base is not good enough without the control of the game. For this style to work, ideally the defensive base should be adjusted. Ideally, Barcelona would need a dynamic RWB who could beat his man 1-on-1 on the flank. Ideally, Barcelona would need a defensive midfielder who covers a lot of space in the middle. Mascherano is that player, but if you remove him from the center-back position, you have Piqué there, who doesn’t have the pace or mobility to cover the right side of the defense the way Mascherano does, and who isn’t as quick off the line. Long story short: Barcelona don’t have the players that this style of play ideally needs.

Basically, Luis Enrique is forced to try to implement his ideas into a club that doesn’t really have the profiles for it, and that can’t sign anyone in the next two transfer windows. That isn’t his fault, but it sure as hell makes his job that much harder. And being a Barcelona coach isn’t really a job that needs any extra difficulty.

But, either way, the season will be assessed when it’s at its end, not now. We’re in November and the ideas are still new to the players, too. With that being said, I hope Luis Enrique sticks to his ideas all season long – whilst of course polishing and developing them as we go on – and doesn’t try to turn back time and assume that Xavi can still control a match in the midfield. That was, after all, the somewhat naive assumption ahead of El Clásico. Trying to return to whatever worked in 2010 isn’t fruitful, because the core of that team is not the same. Doing that would only take us back to square one. Now is the time when Luis Enrique’s faith in his own ideas is really tested, and I hope he delivers. At the same time, he must bring balance into the team, make it play with a clear purpose instead of just passing the ball to the superstars. And at the end of the season we’ll see where it took us.