A lot has been said about the 2015/2016 season. And even though it proved to be a success (Yes, a double is a success folks), there was a bitter taste left in the mouths of all cules. Seeing our arch-rivals in Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid competing for top honours in the UEFA Champions League Final seemed a strange ending to a season that had started with so much promise. Celebrating the Copa Del Rey triumph proved an even stranger feeling. I personally can attest to feeling like I was jumping for joy for a 2nd place finish.
And why? Why did Barcelona fans the world over see last season as a failure? By failure, I don’t mean in the tragic, heart-wrenching fashion. I simply mean that we were left with the feeling that we hadn’t performed to our highest level. That to some degree, it was a disappointment.
This is the steep price we pay for over-achieving. There are few clubs in the world that could consider winning the League and Cup a failure. In fact, there is only 1 other club which comes to mind- Bayern Munich. We could include Real Madrid in this bracket, but over in Madrid, it seems a European Cup will suffice for every other possible and conceivable failure. Barcelona and Bayern Munich have risen the bar so high that only a treble of trophies is considered a success. So with this standard set, we are left to ponder on our only failure last season- Losing to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League.
Diego Simeone did it again. By again, I don’t mean beating us. I mean Diego Simeone proved yet again, when the world’s eyes were on him, that he is capable of stopping any attack. Including our very own MSN.
Much of what was said after this game (2nd leg) had to do with fatigue. While it did play a role, it would be unjust to make it the only reason why we lost. Atletico does deserve credit for stopping our attack. And by attack, I don’t only mean the ‘MSN’. I mean the entire team. Diego Simeone stopped us not only by pressing our forward line- he ensured every player who was not Messi, Neymar or Suarez received more attention than Messi, Neymar or Suarez. This meant that every player, including Ter Stegen, was pressed relentlessly. This led to a complete inability to get the ball out of our own half, and this could especially be seen in the first half. Something that hasn’t been discussed was how Simeone turned Rakitic into our biggest liability. Criticising Rakitic is difficult to do, because he has been a huge success. But there are drawbacks to his game. One could argue that having Rakitic in the starting line-up is necessary against such a physical side in Atletico. But let me give some evidence as to why Rakitic can also be a liability in such games.
In games where Barcelona is pressed hard, the commodity of having exceptional technique, especially with the first touch on the ball, becomes ever-more valuable. The same goes for being an exceptional passer of the ball. Ivan Rakitic has many strengths to his game, but of these two facets of the game, he has only mastered one. And that is the fact that Rakitic has a great pass in him. This means that Rakitic does not have exceptional technique on the ball- he is not great when he is being pressed or has little space. Atletico ruthlessly exposed this weakness. We are all familiar with the following sequence of play:
Pique looks for a player open and passes the ball to Rakitic. Rakitic, who is being pressed hard by his marker, takes a heavy first touch, and passes the ball back to Pique. Pique to Mascherano. Mascherano back to Pique. Pique back to Rakitic- and the cycle repeats. Until it is the 65th minute and we are 0-1 down.
What this does, is it creates added pressure on Messi, who must then drop deeper into midfield to receive the ball and help. The real problem it creates, though, is that it is as though we are playing with a player less on the field- such are Rakitic’s deficiencies when being pressed. This is not ideal as in such a situation, numbers in midfield are needed. More importantly, the real problem is the fact that last season we didn’t have a player like Xavi to bring in a game and offer a different dynamic- one of a midfield general, who will orchestrate play and ensure control in situations where we really need a conductor and there is chaos- it seems we still have not replaced this general.
This does not mean Rakitic should be sold. All it means is that there should be second options to how we approach games.
One of our problems last season was a lack of rotation. Here, we can sympathise with Enrique as this was mostly down to the fact that we were plagued with injuries early in the season, and this resulted in players being forced to play without rest due to the fact that there were no replacements. It seems that Enrique has tended to this need aggressively by bringing in a host of new midfield names. But of all of them, is there one who can come in and solve the problem our opposition can create through physical play and ensuring the midfield is chaotic? Denis Suarez, Andre Gomes, these are the two midfield signings we have made. Both clearly talented players, but do they solve the above-mentioned problem of being a general?
We are deep into the Enrique-era at Barca now. Enrique has ticked one box from his off-season checklist, in bringing in players for rotation. But has he learned from where we went wrong last season? There have been no critical signs of Enrique making any formation changes, or at least using alternatives, and this would suggest Enrique believes the dynamics of his team are fine. This is worrying. It would be dangerous to simply assume that we lost to Atletico purely due to fatigue. Humility of admitting one’s own inability to win is of paramount importance. Then again, maybe there are a few aces Enrique is hiding up his sleeve, such as the promotion of Samper and what it means for him if he does not go out on loan. Could this be Enrique attempting to mould Samper the same way Xavi was moulded from playing the pivot role, to that of midfield general? Did our season really come down to fatigue when it really mattered? This is a critical juncture Luis Enrique is entering in his Barcelona career, and it is now time to see if he has the know-how to keep this team competitive and competing for the only success it knows- that is, of course, another treble.
by Max Mthiyane