Has Lucho really fixed last season’s problems?

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


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  • Catalan784

    Well pinning the blame on Rakitic for the inability to get past Athletico is not fair. Yes he is not Xavi, Iniesta or Messi in term of close ball control but we all know that for a while. Don’t we !!!
    the entire team is built on quick transition from defense to attack and feeding the trident while midfield is utilized as a water carrier. During that fateful April our South American players were totally knackered due to playing every minute and traveling for the international games.
    Although it is still early but I reckon that Umtiti, Gomes, Digne and Turan have shown enough promise to ensure that Lucho can rotate the squad without compromising the results and this will result in a much fresher squad in the last 2 months of the season which was the main difference between the 1st and 2nd season of Lucho’s tenure !!!

    • Catalan784

      Sorry forgot to add Denis Suarez to that list.

  • Kneowell Anyanwu

    One of those very funny articles again, after beating atletico home and away in the league and also winning them in the first leg of the UCL against all odds, it’s still not safe to assume we lost on fatigue? May I remind you that rakitic played more minutes than anyother player in our team (as has been the case for 2 seasons now) and is even more susceptible to fatigue than everyone else? If I remember that game correctly we spent 75% of the game in atletico’s half, but this article makes it look like it’s the other way round. On a good day with a fresher rakitic with the freshness to take more risks, that wouldn’t be the case, yes he’s no xavi, but let’s not forget how pivotal he’s been in all our games against atletico over 2 seasons. No one broke atletico’s attack more in all of those games like rakitic, even busquet comes second on that. His abilities more than compensates for his deficiencies which aren’t even that obvious. That Messi drops to midfield is no tale, we see that all the time in most games, no one dictates for him, he can play from the center circle and make all the impact in the world, we saw that against sevila in the copa finals, and against sevila again a couple of days ago, all with rakitic on the pitch. The real weakness atletico exploited is dat of our fatigue, nothing else. They pushed us to the extreme when our gas tank was almost empty. You can tell this from our low intensity of play and poorer quality of passes with poor completion rate.

    • Phil

      Well said

  • Bastion

    “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.”

    Glad someone else has noticed this. It has been a constant, sequential thing since Lucho’s reign began. Messi, now more than ever, has to continuously drop deeper to make things happen for us because all Rakitic does it provide an extra body on that right side in the case of counters (which is nice but then again you can argue if you had a player with finer technique (i.e someone better under pressure and able to dictate the pace of a game) there would be LESS instances of that. I have been saying for a long time that we haven’t fully replaced Xavi and Lucho has made no inclinations that he intends to do that. Just look at his signings — Arda, Rakitic, and Andre Gomes. All attacking players by nature. This does NOT mean that Rakitic should be sold but it those reiterate what we have known for a long time — This is Lucho’s Barca and not Guardiola and they are playing his way, even if I am not particularly fond of a less dominant midfield.

    • Pius Kamau

      You have a point but I think with time we might get a midfield anchor who can dictate and dominate the midfield proceedings, you know a Modric/Ozil type of player. I wonder whether we have such a player in La Masia…..I cannot fault Lucho though because he’s done a good job so far with the team management and maybe Lucho just hasn’t been able to find such a player yet.

      • Bastion

        Ozil isnt a dictator, by any means. Modric more so but less than a Kross or Verratti. Anyway, Lucho has been here for almost 3 years; this club has tremendous resources and we’ve spent a lot but I haven’t see a genuine effort to bring in a true replacement for Xavi in that time that he’s been here (and of course he’s been successful so far). That tells me Lucho is comfortable with the way things are, which is totally rational. The guy who wrote this article, he talked about how winning wasn’t enough; well, he’s kinda right. For me I want to want playing in style, otherwise whats the point. We’re not always going to be vintage or the best but our identity need not suffer when we have the resources we have at our disposal.

        • Pius Kamau

          I’m also worried about that aspect of our game. Some of the midfielders we acquired are good but they don’t really fit that profile of an artistic, creative and intelligent midfielder, we need someone with good awareness of space, someone who brings calm and composure in midfield, the only one who does that is Iniesta and he’s getting old, Messi can do that but for now he still needs to play in an advanced position further up. Veratti is good, Modric to me is one of the best in that. Iniesta when fit is one of the best midfield maestros in football history but he’s past his best. A player like Andre Gomes just looks like the usual good attacking (or box to box midfielder) we need intelligence and artistry in our midfield and such type of players seem to be fading fast in this football world which is now dominated by speed monsters and adrenaline junkies everywhere, very little ingenuity and artistic craftsmanship.

        • Kneowell Anyanwu

          Are there still people looking for a xavi incarnate? You’ll will spend a lifetime looking for one and the bad news is that you may not find. Lucho knows this, he realised that the artistry in the midfield has moved upfront with the huge talent he has there, so what he’s done is to device a mechanism that creates space upfront and then direct the ball to the trio in the shortest time possible to the genuises upfront and boy what artistry those trio weave! The ultimate goal in football is the goals and MSN does just that with all the style in the world. I believe Denis suarez will pull through though, we lost a lot of tempo when he was subbed against betis and it was obvious. Denis,gomez,samper, roberto are all under 24, give them a few more years and they will also evolve the way xavi, iniesta and busquet evolved.