And so 2017 has begun. What was meant to be a promising start to the season has now become a rather interesting start to the season. Let us make one thing very clear: this match is not, and was not, doomsday. The truth is, there is still a second leg to be played at Camp Nou, where an MSN explosion is likely. However, this match exposed weaknesses and chinks in Luis Enrique’s armour that have existed since last season’s UEFA Champions League Quarter Final.
Once again a great defensive outfit has managed to lock Lucho’s men in their own half. Once again, Sergio Busquets has looked drowned under pressure, albeit, after a very solid stretch of performances. Those of us who thought this was all coincidence, now is the time to take note:
There is a system that has been created and almost perfected, to stop the MSN, in other words, our team. This is a very simple system:
Suffocate them to death
This system entails pressing every member of our side, goalkeeper included, ensuring the ball rarely leaves our own half. This does not mean we will never leave our half, just that when we do, it is with almost no momentum and makes our attacks less potent.
Granted, Lucho’s men most probably should have been 2-0 up by the 19th minute. Were this the case, the entire game most probably would have followed a different path. However, this was not the case, and a cat and mouse game of “what if’s”, “should have’s” and “could have’s” is a losers mentality.
The goals conceded were of the most disturbing variety. Where does one even begin to explain them? Nevertheless, this writer will try.
The first goal conceded was symbolic of longstanding issues Luis Enrique has still not figured out. Though one has to give respect where it is due, one must also critique worrying tactical performance. Andrés Iniesta should not be subject to having to play such risky passes to begin with, as his skill-set does not lie in bringing the ball out of defence. This is Busquets’ role; one which it seems Luis Enrique has left him to drown in. Ivan Rakitić has come under some fire lately, for some not-so-Ivan Rakitić performances. Most of the criticism has been unjust and disrespectful to a man who has given this club a treble of trophies, and some change. Not to mention, he had the boots of a mystical figure to fill, and for the most part, he has done so superbly. This writer’s initial inkling was to criticize Rakitić’s inability to provide Busquets with the needed support to successfully navigate situations of high pressure. However, the situation has now gone beyond being just Rakitić’s problem – this skillset was never possessed by Ivan, to begin with. This is now a bigger issue that has not been addressed by Luis Enrique. Lucho has provided great cover for his men in midfield to allow for rotation, however, Lucho has also not addressed critical issues that arose in last season’s UEFA Champions League Quarter Final tie against Atletico Madrid, our only failure of last season. Lucho’s men simply do not have a solution for relentless high pressing that is executed to perfection.
Ernesto Valverde and Diego Simeone are not scared of a single player in our side who is not Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez or Neymar. Their way of dealing with them is indirect. Relentlessly press every single player and completely suffocate the ball to be kept in Barça’s half of the pitch- this will ensure that when the ball does leave Barça’s half, it will be with little momentum. Do this especially in the first 40 minutes of the game, and a goal, coming from a mistake from the Barça midfield is surely inevitable. Valverde and Simeone have not reinvented the wheel. This tactic has been used for years against Barça sides, however, it has become increasingly effective as there is no Xavi Hernández to find his way around it. Xavi offered the perfect support to Sergi Busquets to navigate these situations. Our playmaker at the time, Iniesta, was never tasked to take this role. And as he now has been tasked with this role, each and every time he has been up against great defensive sides, he has understandably struggled to evade their pressure. How fitting that it was his loose pass which led to the first goal.
The second goal was even more of a blunder, and fits the narrative manager’s such as Valverde and Simeone surely discuss with their men in the pre-match changeroom speech. Something that most probably sounds a lot like this:
“Boys, today is our chance. We’re playing in front of our home crowd, and we know how much Barça struggles against hostile crowds. The objective today is simple: PRESS PRESS PRESS every player on the pitch, especially the midfielders and defenders, but also don’t forget Ter Stegen! If we do this perfectly, eventually they will make a mistake or a loose pass, and when that happens, you know what to do boys! Exactly like how we practiced all week- get the ball wide, put in a cross, and Aduriz will finish it off. Boys, I can promise you that if we can get a goal in the first 20 minutes, this game is ours. Let’s go!”
It is important to remember that it is still early January. We did manage to get a goal back in the second half, and this sets us up for a cracker second leg at Camp Nou. It is likely that this game will not prove pivotal, however, what is worrying is that a precedent of how to beat Lucho’s men has been set. These type of performances will not be reproduced weekly by our opposition, as they require much nuance and attention to detail. However, what surely is inevitable, is that this Barça side will run into similar opposition in March, April and May in European competition, and if no solutions have been found by then, Lucho may be in serious trouble come June.