After an embarrassing defeat in last weekend’s El Clásico, Barcelona returns home with a broken heart. Facing Villarreal won’t be an easy task for Xavi’s men, but the Catalans are heading into the match with the hope of redemption, looking to correct their previous mistakes and get the most out of this remaining period until the World Cup kicks off in November.
Barca News Network brings you 4 talking points ahead of the 10th matchday of the season.
1. Ground zero
It’s safe to say that, after a promising start, the Blaugrana touched bottom in possibly the hardest period of the campaign. In October, 2 wins, 1 draw, and 2 defeats are the not-too-praiseworthy balance of the Catalan team, with an awful -1 goal difference. Meanwhile, before the international break at the end of September, we had 19 points collected from a total of 24 possible, with 19 goal difference in our favor. Pretty huge difference, right?
So, one would ask what went wrong in that ominous break, but the truth is that nobody can really tell what’s going on inside the team. Indeed, there are some smaller, visible factors affecting the team’s performances, which, if added together, results in a really complex problem, with multiple variables making it difficult to come over.
Among a multitude of other components of the problem which are usually more visible to the eye of a fan, there is the human side of things. After losing not just once but twice in arguably the most important games, doubts and second thoughts will arise from the players, and they will get inevitably worse under the pressure of the fear generated by human imperfection.
It sounds like a cliché, but confidence really means much. When a player is afraid of taking the least risk, that will gradually retract the potential of the team, and if it’s a common phenomenon among players, that will make the team’s play sterile and unfruitful, unable to pose any kind of threat to the opposition.
Under such pressure from the outside as well as from inside of the player itself, the legs can indeed shake, and with time, it can dismantle one’s self-confidence and strengthen the belief in the inescapability of failure and insufficiency, pushing the man deeper and deeper in that negative spiral. This is something every manager wants to evade, and Xavi has the arduous task to deal with it, and hopefully, he will.
2. Shambolic defense
Another evidently visible thing that could be the initiator of these disastrous performances is the absence of key players due to injury, especially in the defensive section. Subsequently, due to this sudden injury crisis, we lost our two best players in Koundé and Araújo during the international break, and Christensen has been also injured shortly after, in the first leg against Inter.
In their absence, the duo of Gerard Piqué and Eric García was tasked to deal with the central defensive duties, but both showed their insufficiency to replace the above-mentioned defenders properly, and it’s safe to say that they failed to live up to the challenge and take a step above in the pecking order.
But let’s not just blame these individuals for the collective failure, even though their mistakes and deficits actively assisted the fall of the structure as a whole. Particularly against Real Madrid, our woeful disorganization in defensive transitions was blatant (visible in all three goals), and Los Blancos did not hesitate to exploit the opportunities given.
Again, this problem cannot be separated from the underperformance of certain individuals, but it is a collective responsibility and the coach should address these eventual mistakes. Of course, the coach cannot play instead of his players on the field, but as time goes on, the responsibility is even bigger on Xavi, demanding more learning from the past and improvement in proceedings.
3. Profilic diversity
Speaking about the learning process and improvement, Xavi still needs time to catch up to the top. Nearing his first year as a Barcelona manager, the former midfield maestro enjoys not only his first top club job but also his first top league experience, having just 2 years of managerial experience in his pocket previously, in Qatar.
Moreover, this one will be just his first full year as a Blaugrana coach, which justifies the experimentation and asks for patience. The massive additions in the summer, while they are indubitably more than useful additions to the squad, are a double-edged sword. The new players do possess amazing qualities which obviously help the team a lot, but the high number of arrivals changes the dynamics of the team, and the manager needs time to get to know them and implement their characters into his philosophy.
Thus, studying his squad’s skills and abilities, both on individual and collective levels, requires time. Yet, the clock is ticking for Xavi, and he should find the perfect balanced setup adjusted to his ideas and the squad, keeping in mind its strengths and weaknesses, as soon as possible.
Accordingly, this problem appears in every area of the pitch, but it is the most spectacular in the attacking segment. Without a doubt, Xavi’s Barcelona can reach the final third with ease, but then, as seen in these ominous games, the knowledge stops there. From advanced positions, we are unable to create significant danger, which explains the useless possessional dominance and multitude of low-quality shots.
And while the individuals, indeed, were far from their best on these occasions, it isn’t an excuse for the below-standard creativity in the final third. Our attacking play shouldn’t be that overreliant on the brilliance of these difference-makers, but this brings forth systemical problems, and a lack of tactical help to the players to bring the best out of themselves.
What was a visible tendency that we played with two similar profiles on the wings, namely Dembélé and Raphinha, who are both great in their roles as creative wide wingers, but using both at the same time is unnecessary and unuseful. With two wide players, Lewandowski often finds himself isolated in the center, which massively decreases the effectiveness in front of the goal.
Instead, Xavi should deploy a mixed pair of wingers, with different profiles and different skillset as it could elevate the productivity of the system. Concretely, it would be better to start just one of Raphinha and Dembélé, preferably on the right wing, and either one of Ansu Fati and Ferrán Torres on the left.
As the latter duo is better in attacking the space, it would support Lewandowski in the middle and relieve some of the attention from him, which would benefit everyone: the wide creator has more options to find in front of the goal, while the striker and the inside forward can prosper inside the box.
Therefore, it will be important that Xavi recognize this tweak, finding the perfect balance between creativity, control, and directness. As for the wingers, it would be ideal to mix up the profiles and deploy diverse pairs of one runner and one creator at the same time.
4. A sinking submarine
For Xavi, it would be crucial to reinstate the attacking play as we face Villarreal, a team that can make everyone suffer to break their defense. Currently, they conceded the least amount of goals in La Liga with 3 – coincidentally, taking it over from us after a triple conceded against Real Madrid.
This achievement also stands thanks to Gerónimo Rulli, who has been guarding the post of the Yellow Submarine exceptionally, preventing them from conceding 3.1 goals based on the post-shot expected goals minus the actual goals conceded. This is a truly elite showing from the Argentinian keeper for sure, which is something that can make our job much harder. However, we all know how prone he is to make some bloopers, which makes him a very inconsistent, fluctuating performer, with great ups but terrible downs too. Let’s see which one will step on the pitch tomorrow.
Looking at the other parts of the team, we can hardly spot any positives, maybe aside from the 21-year-old Nicolas Jackson’s quick rise into the first team. Unai Emery’s team, continuing their great late form last season, started the new campaign well, but for now, they’ve become a saddeningly regressing team, which has retreated into mid-class.
Out of their last 5 league games, they lost twice, drew twice, and won just once, which is far from a great record – similar to Barça’s. Moreover, just like us, they will likely miss some key players of theirs, namely Juan Foyth, Gerard Moreno, and Francis Coquelin. Not the best foreshadows.
All in all, although Villarreal is not in great shape, they are a capable opponent to pose threat to any big team, knowing the approach of Emery to such games. It will be, indeed, an important game to pursue Real Madrid on top of the table, while it augurs to be harder than one can expect at first glance.