Barcelona is still a clear favorite for a domestic double, but the poor performance and Champions League elimination at Vicente Calderón was greeted with understandable disappointment. The team is suffering from a considerable dip in form at the most inconvenient time of the season. While there’s no real shame in losing to a side as strong as Atlético, and while a second consecutive treble was always more of a fantasy than a realistic scenario, it is clear that in Barcelona there are issues beyond the surface that need fixing.
The first thing that has to be said about Wednesday night’s game is that Atlético were wonderful. They knew exactly what they wanted from the match, they knew exactly what they needed to do to get it, and they executed those ideas to perfection. It’s a team that can go all the way in this competition and lift the cup they should have lifted in 2014. You can never take these matches away from their context, and the context here was that Atlético was very good. But of course, they have been very good against Barcelona before, and Barcelona have still prevailed. What was different this time?
A week ago Barcelona came back and won in a very similar situation. The second half of the first leg was great football: Barcelona’s passing – although not always precise – was very quick at times and spaces opened up. The Camp Nou was behind the team and a goal seemed like an inevitability. When Barcelona came back from 1-0 down at the Calderón in the beginning of the season, Neymar’s quick bursts on the counter and confident dribbling created spaces, and a fresh Messi came off the bench to decide the game. When Barcelona came back at the Camp Nou in January after going 0-1 down, one of the goals came after a brilliant spell of dangerous possession that ended in a precise pass into the box, and the second one came from a long ball over the top to Suárez, who battled his way through to score the goal. In all of these games Atlético have been very good, and Barcelona have still managed to break them down. It has taken a lot, but it has happened.
This time the team didn’t have the support of the home crowd or the freshness of other times to force the goal. Atlético reduced Barcelona to a few 50-50 balls into the box and a few shots from distance. These are not the ways in which Barcelona wants to score, nor the ways in which they usually score. In some of the games against Simeone’s men, the sheer quality of the players up front has meant that the team has also created danger in these ways. Wednesday night wasn’t that kind of a night because Atlético had a psychological stranglehold of their visitors, and because the players up front didn’t have the energy to win their battles.
Whether we like to admit it or not, Barcelona’s space creation depends a lot on what Neymar and Messi can do via dribbles. They tear teams apart, force them out of position and find the free man. It’s not to say that the team depends on individual brilliance, it is to say that the system is made to accommodate these players and simultaneously, to give them a lot of responsibility. Against Atlético, creating this way is always going to be more difficult for several reasons. Firstly, Atlético’s defenders are individually brilliant. When the likes of Messi and Neymar are not at the absolute peak of their powers (which they evidently are not right now, but more about that later), Juanfran, Filipe Luis and company can hold their ground in one-on-one situations against them. Secondly, even when Messi or Neymar get past their man, there’s always a second and third Atlético man to beat. They’re always close to each other, they close spaces down quickly and know which passing lanes to close down. As a result, Messi completed 3 of his 8 dribbles and Neymar 4 of his 10 (via FourFourTwo). This is why Barcelona have been more comfortable attacking Atlético on the counter: there has been more space to dribble into. Barcelona’s early conservative possession on Wednesday suggested that Luis Enrique opted for this exact strategy, trying to hit quickly on the counter and not having to go behind. But Atlético’s compact lines, intelligent pressing and intelligent reading of the game didn’t allow this: Atlético dropped deep when they had to, and Barcelona looked stunned. When Atlético pressed high, Barcelona struggled to play the ball out and all long balls to Suárez were hopeful attempts dealt with by the Atlético center backs.
On a different night with less kilometers in their legs, Messi and Neymar would probably have been able to carve something out of nothing. But not only did Atlético defend well against them as individuals, they also managed to isolate them from each other. To give you an idea, Mascherano gave the ball to Ter Stegen more often than Messi gave it to Neymar or Suárez (via FourFourTwo). The three played so far away from each other that they simply couldn’t find each other. Messi barely ever got to receive the ball anywhere near Suárez or Neymar, which is partly due to Atlético’s brilliance and partly due to Barcelona being seemingly out of ideas. When the holy trinity can’t create space by winning their individual battles and can’t connect with each other, Barcelona are in trouble.
The only other source of creativity was, then, Iniesta. He was arguably the best Barcelona player on the pitch. He got to receive in space in front of the defense, he looked for a few long shots, he looked for the lob into the box, he looked for the overlap with Alba and should have won a penalty late on. In fairness, he might easily have been sent off as well, but if any Barcelona player was involved in everything, it was him. He was one of the few Barcelona players that looked dangerous with the ball. Alba found space out wide, but his final ball let him down. Alves found some space on the right, but was quickly closed down and didn’t have his crossing boots on. Sergi Roberto did well after coming on for the Brazilian, but every ball Barcelona sent into the box was won by an Atlético defender. The only time Suárez won a header against Godín was when he blinded him by shoving his elbow into the Atlético icon’s eye. Losing headers to arguably the greatest defender in the game is not the problem, but the fact that Barcelona seemed to find no other ways to even get into the box was a big problem.
While Barcelona need certain players to activate the system, Atlético’s system activates the players and takes their game to a different level. This is fair, because Barcelona have the best players in the game, but when they’re not physically well, it shows. The question then becomes: Why are they not well?
The tactical side of things is one issue, the physical side of things is the other, and perhaps most prevalent problem in the Barcelona of the last few weeks. There have been rumors about Messi playing through injury, but whether this is true or not, it would be wrong to say that it’s just Messi that is suffering. The key players that make the team tick look fatigued.
Jordi Alba has had a few knocks along the way but because of the fact that he has no real competition, he has played just about every game that mattered. He has even played the vast majority of the “easier” games, because Barcelona’s left-back situation is so bad that the only backup to Alba (Adriano) is too big of a liability to even play against Getafe. It sounds harsh, but it’s the way that it is. Not to mention, Alba’s level of play recently has dropped remarkably, whether it’s due to fatigue or lack of competition.
In the midfield, Busquets plays twice just about every week, and Rakitic is the most used player under Luis Enrique. Iniesta has been conserved more (which is probably one of the reasons why he looked so much sharper than his teammates on Wednesday), but it is clear that the tough first half of the season is showing. With Rafinha injured and Arda unavailable, Barcelona more or less rotated 4 players in the 3 midfield spots for months.
The other issue in midfield in terms of squad depth is that Barcelona have an overload of players of more or less the same exact profile. Iniesta, Arda Turan and Rafinha are all players who need the ball and who live on the ball. If Denis Suárez comes back, he’s another player for the same category. Add to this the fact that the team already has Messi and Neymar who want the ball played to their feet as well, it’s difficult to find balance, and it’s difficult to make an impact with substitutions. Take last night for an example: Rakitic was having a horrendous game, so both he and Alves were taken off. Sergi Roberto, who would be the natural replacement for Rakitic, was needed at right-back, so when Luis Enrique wanted to take off the Croat, he had no other option but to put Arda onto the field in a position and role that is not his. The game slowed down as Arda took too many touches and didn’t move the ball quickly enough. Profile-wise, Arda is a poor man’s Iniesta, and Barcelona already have The Iniesta.
These are serious holes in the team depth, and we haven’t even touched on the front three yet.
Messi, Neymar and Suárez present a complex issue too. They want to play every week, and for the sake of spectacle, people want to see them play every week. Luis Enrique wants to play them every week, because it means that even on days when the team isn’t at its best, the three upfront can bail them out. We’ve already seen this happen this season, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Of course you should lean on players like these three. It becomes a problem when you don’t have a player like Pedro who can jump in from the bench and fill in after 60 or 70 minutes. This season, Luis Enrique has only trusted Munir when he’s had to. This means that the front three plays 90 minutes every time, even when it’s not necessary. Compare this to last season. Pedro came on for Neymar or Suárez quite frequently, and even though he’s not a player of their caliber, he always injected energy into the team, he always matched or upped the work rate of the player he substituted and he even had a hand in some important goals, like Messi’s La Liga winner at the Calderón.
That Pedro wanted to leave for regular football was not a big surprise, but the fact that Barcelona didn’t put any money on a 4th attacker was quite strange. Compared to Europe’s other big teams, Barcelona’s squad in this sense is suicidal. If Real Madrid want to rest Bale or Benzema, they can throw in Jesé, Lucas Vázquez or James Rodriguez. For their forward positions, Bayern Munich can choose between Ribery, Robben, Douglas Costa, Muller, Lewandowski and Coman. The only forward Barcelona had on the bench on Wednesday was Munir. It’s not like you would replace one of the front three in a game like the one at Calderón, but if you can never replace them, they won’t be at their best when you need them most.
All of this has led to a clear dip in physical form. It’s been evident for a while, but last night was the first time the coach or the team admitted it. “It’s clear we’re not in our best moment”, said Luis Enrique. “We’re in a bit of a slump”, said Piqué. “We’ve lacked freshness”, admitted Mascherano.
The squad was already thin last season, but last season Xavi, Pedro and Rafinha were there from the start and Barcelona didn’t play any Supercups in the beginning of the season, nor did they travel halfway across the world for a Club World Cup. The fact that new incorporations couldn’t join for the first half of the season looks like even more of a pity now than it did then, because the fatigue accumulated early on hasn’t been overcome.
Being eliminated by a team like Atlético Madrid is not a disaster, far from it, and Barcelona still have a strong grip on a domestic double, which is rarer than people like to think in the wake of European disappointment. But these underlying issues in the squad need to be tackled for next season. It’s difficult to win in Europe if you’re not at your best physically. Real Madrid found this out last season, as did Bayern Munich when a superior Barcelona eliminated them. While winning the Champions League every year is not a realistic goal, a club like Barcelona has to build a team with European glory in mind. This team, despite all of the quality and brilliance of its Gala XI, was more or less doomed in this sense. You need more than eleven players to win a Champions League.