There have been quite a few variations of Barcelona this past decade. Their 2011 side presented the apex of their preferred style of play. In 2015 they found a hybrid between possession football and a counterattacking approach, boasting 3 of the 4 best forwards in football.
The last couple seasons have seen the worst iteration of the team since Guardiola took over in the summer of 2008. The fact that they still won the league, and were only 3 games away from winning the treble last season, is more illustrative of their opponents’ decline. Madrid and Atleti were simply worse. Manchester United was hardly worthy Champions League competition. The fact that Barcelona pulled it all off without looking too comfortable with any style of play illustrates one of many contradictions within their team. This was a team of strange dualities.
Through this piece I’m going to examine:
- Barcelona’s decline in terms of process v. results.
- The floor-raising capabilities of Messi and ter Stegen.
- Why Valverde had to build the team this way.
- The necessary trade-offs of building around a free-roaming Messi.
- Projecting the roles of De Jong and Griezmann.
Understanding the extent of Barcelona’s decline requires looking beyond the results. From 2014/15 on, they finished with 94, 91, 90, 93 and 87 points respectively in the league. Last season shows a slight dip but their overall level seems stable.
Expected points, which simulates their season based on the chances they created and conceded, paints a different picture. Per understat, they finished with 94 xPts in 2015 and 2016, 88 in 2017, 79 in 2018 (incidentally tied with Real Madrid) and just 74 in 2019. Their underlying performances have fallen off a cliff.
xPts is hardly the only way to measure team performance, but it is fairly reflective of the eye-test. Particularly in this case, it is reflective of Barcelona’s weakening defense and an attack that is historically reliant on one player. The team struggled to impose itself on games, something both Roma and Liverpool picked up on ahead of their second leg comebacks in the Champions League.
The fact that Barcelona’s results, especially in the league, have not fallen off like their performances says a lot about certain players in their squad.
Messi, Ter Stegen, and Historical Floor-Raising
Neymar’s departure in 2017 meant that Barcelona would inevitably dip. The team’s tactical issues the previous season were down to the lack of a Dani Alves replacement, weaknesses evading a high press, and struggles in defensive transition. The Brazilian was too valuable an attacker, replacing him with most players would yield a worse return.
Ernesto Valverde opted for more stability. The press was dialed back. Paulinho found a spot on the team. The Brazilian helped Busquets defensively, and his runs into the box complemented Messi offensively. Of course, he was hardly at the level one would expect of a Barcelona midfielder on the ball. Antonio Conte’s Chelsea exposed this deficiency in a Champions League tie.
Paulinho was emblematic of Valverde’s first two seasons at Barcelona. With Neymar gone, he instead tried to keep the defense afloat with industrious players who weren’t the best on the ball. In attack, he built everything around Messi. The team was designed to scrape by on one end of the pitch, then also scrape by on the other by catering to one of the best ever.
Lionel Messi obliged.
For years I wondered how Messi would maintain his output while aging and (potentially) playing in deeper areas. The loss of Neymar only heightened these concerns. Defenses were freed up to mark Messi more tightly. The Argentine forward would have less space and a much greater creative burden.
During the last two seasons we’ve seen the answer. Messi compensated by evolving his game. With more responsibility to progress the ball, he still played further away from goal as a roaming ’10’ type.
To maintain his goalscoring, he stepped up his free kick taking:
Messi’s stunning shot past Allison at the Camp Nou symbolized the limits of an individual looking to carry an attack. A dead ball situation is one of those rare moments where one player can circumvent the opposition’s best efforts to stop him.
His playmaking in the final third also improved. Messi’s chance creation hasn’t really changed over the past 5 seasons, averaging 0.48 expected assists per 90 minutes in that period. Once again, however, his ability to keep up these figures while playing in a deeper role, as he loses his burst, while yielding more defensive attention is most impressive.
Messi’s vision and ability to hold onto the ball under pressure is better than ever. He regularly plays defense-splitting passes while commanding the entire defense’s attention. This is a new development. He certainly wasn’t at this level a few years ago.
In basketball, a common strategy against LeBron James is to let him beat you individually without sending too much help. The idea is that making him do the work is better than getting ripped to shreds by his passing. In the long run, you’re more likely to tire him out.
Messi’s dribbling and playmaking have reached a similar ideal in football.
Liverpool had more success defending Barcelona when they limited the number of players they sent at Messi. During the first leg of their Champions League tie, they regularly sent quadruple-teams his way and got ripped apart on the break. During the second leg, they seemed to consciously contain him with 2-3 markers. At no point did they over-commit as so many sides do. Messi still created, but was ineffective when his team needed him.
The result of all these improvements is the remarkable floor-raising of a declining offense. As long as Messi is on the pitch, Barcelona can create and score from a variety of situations. The attack isn’t as lethal as it was a few years ago, and isn’t particularly cohesive, but is still ridiculously hard to defend.
During their first season without Neymar, Barcelona’s attack only created about 3 fewer expected goals in the league. Last season, that number became 10. The side still got crucial goals whenever it needed because of Messi.
On the other end of the pitch, Barcelona’s defense declined. Sergio Busquets’ mobility has always been among the worst in top-flight football, but only got worse. Ivan Rakitic, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez’s defensive effort also waned, leaving Barcelona with one of its most disjointed defenses in years.
From 2014/15 on, Barcelona have conceded 28, 34, 31, 42 and 45 expected goals worth of chances in the league respectively.
Luckily for them, Marc-André ter Stegen (“MATS”) has broken out as one of the world’s best goalkeepers. His rise has masked a great deal of the blaugrana’s defensive decline.
The German international wasn’t always this good. During 2016/17, his first as a full-time starter, Barcelona actually conceded over 5 goals above expectation. Over the past two seasons, however, they conceded 12 and 9 goals below expectation respectively. This is only a rudimentary measure, but I would argue the eye test reflects the hypothesis. Watch the games and “MATS” bails out his team more than your average keeper.
When Barcelona’s defense was repeatedly steamrolled by Vinicius and Benzema during the Copa Del Rey second leg, ter Stegen single-handedly kept them from conceding.
Despite their auxiliary talent declining or proving a poor fit, Messi and ter Stegen alone – quite literally – have prevented Barcelona from falling to the lows of their rivals in Madrid.
Valverde’s Necessary Pragmatism
While the results have held up, Barcelona’s play style has undoubtedly become more laborious. The team often seems to play worse than the sum of its parts. Everything flows through Messi. Nothing seems to work without him.
A lot of the blame falls on Valverde. Given that the team has gotten significantly worse each season he’s been in charge, he is partly at fault. There are certainly better coaches around, but arguably none on the market. Still, I suspect that the issue runs deeper than him.
Valverde has tried changing up Barcelona’s style. For the bulk of his time at the club, they have dialed back the press. The one time they didn’t was to open 2018/19. Here’s how that fared:
Midway through 2018/19, Valverde had to cancel the pressing experiment. Opponents penetrated their high line for a variety of reasons. Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique (who still had a great season) have lost a lot of mobility. Rakitic can’t recover the way he used to. Suarez is older as well.
The team also doesn’t attack with positional principles the way it once did, instead basing forward runs off Messi’s free role. Coaching a counterpress in this context is difficult.
In attack, the players surrounding Messi and Suarez have been underwhelming. Phillipe Coutinho has struggled to play in the slower game that Barcelona’s older players favor, and has understandably struggled to find a role next to the roaming Messi. Dembele’s best period also came when Barcelona were playing a faster game.
I don’t think Valverde can be blamed for the way he’s managed this transition. Dembele’s injuries have seen him miss half the team’s games. Reports suggest Arthur was overweight after his injuries. Valverde had no choice but to resort to a slow, conservative game catering to the old guard. Given Dembele and Arthur’s lack of match sharpness, he had to double down on this approach against a better Liverpool team.
One of Valverde’s bigger failings was Nelson Semedo. The young Portuguese right back should have become Barcelona’s Dani Alves replacement, but Sergi Roberto’s composure on the ball often saw him get the nod.
Messi’s free role impacted things as well. The loss of Neymar understandably meant Valverde had to empower his best player. The price of catering the team to him was downright over-reliance whenever he played. The side functioned only when Messi functioned, with other players struggling to impose themselves unless it was in tandem with their best player.
Consider Barcelona’s impressive run of form when Messi was injured. They put up impressive performances against both Inter Milan and Real Madrid in their talisman’s absence. Play looked more fluid, and everyone stepped up.
I do think Ewing theory was at play here. Barcelona weren’t going to be better without Messi for an entire season, but the supporting cast was truly better off for a temporary period without him. Overall, I think this is evidence for Messi’s all-action role greatly raising the floor of his team as opposed to it’s ceiling. The Argentine’s boundless style was a necessary departure from the more structured past for the sake of results.
The Two Sides of Building Around Messi
The nature of Barcelona’s attack, and the reason building around Messi entails limiting other players’ roles, can be traced back to Dani Alves and Neymar’s departures in consecutive summers.
Neymar’s departure made it necessary for the team to build around Messi. But it was Dani Alves’ departure that set the wheels in motion.
Back in 2015/16, Sergi Roberto initially began to displace Alves from the starting lineup. The Brazilian was aging, and Roberto was a La Masia product who also started in Barca’s 4-0 demolition at the Bernabeu. The fit seemed perfect, but once Alves left it unraveled. Roberto’s overlapping capabilities and athleticism were ill-suited for the right back role. Most importantly, Lionel Messi no longer had his partner in crime on the right wing.
It’s worth noting that Messi has been reluctant to play on the wing before. He once despised the role, as his preference for the middle forced Zlatan Ibrahimovic out of the team. For almost a month of 2014/15, he played as a false 9 while Suarez cut inside from the right. Eventually Messi adapted and moved to the right.
The heart of the issue is likely Messi’s preference to play on the ball. He is more easily isolated on the wing, whereas he could roam and find touches as a false 9. Dani Alves confirmed as much when he said “Messi disconnects if he goes two minutes without the ball.”
In fact, it was Alves who enabled Messi to play on the wing with his own domineering presence. The right back’s incredible dribbling and overlapping ability allowed Messi to get on the ball more often.
As soon as Alves was gone, Messi stopped providing width.
Messi’s touches have always been concentrated around the right half space, but his play near the right touchline reduced significantly after 2015/16. He went from cutting inside to simply playing inside.
Of course, once Neymar departed he had to play as the de-facto ’10’ favoring the right half space. But during 2016/17, the absence of an elite overlapping right back forced him inside and forced Barcelona to favor the left when attacking.
Their touch distribution reflects this one-sidedness. Notice the lack of touches by the right touchline after Alves’ departure.
Or look at their most common pass clusters during those seasons:
Crucially, this shift to left-sided attacking congested the spaces that Neymar operated in.
The Brazilian attacker was incredible during both the 2014/15 and 2015/16 seasons. In the former, he scored 39 goals and was dominant during their Champions League campaign. In the latter, he managed to match and replace Messi’s output (both as a ball progressor and in front of goal) when he was injured for about 2 months. Neymar was unprecedentedly good, and quite clearly Messi’s heir.
Then his form dipped during 2016/17.
During his last season at Barcelona, Neymar was a better player than in previous seasons, but Barcelona’s one-sided attack saw his shooting and passing actually regress. He shot and created less than he had the previous two seasons.
Neymar had to combine with Iniesta and Alba in shrinking spaces. He went from operating in the left half-space as an inverted winger to hugging the touchline a lot more.
He even had to put in defensive work when Alba was caught too far forward. For a top 3 player in the world – who was also just 25 years old – these were pathetic circumstances. Few concessions were made to optimize the setup for him. This spacing likely contributed to him leaving Barcelona, among other things.
With Neymar gone, Barcelona had no choice but to build around a free-roaming Messi. Without the width to keep him on the right, he acted as the team’s chief playmaker and scorer in a way few players ever have and will. He dropped back to the halfway line, unlocked defenses in midfield, and sought to finish moves. Other players had to tailor their movements to him.
Messi’s past two seasons were undoubtedly among the greatest floor-raising seasons in football history. That level of ball dominance on display, however, is hardly scalable around better players, given how it even affected existing talent.
Perhaps a better coach constructs a better system. A system where Coutinho shines as a secondary playmaker, and Nelson Semedo overlaps successfuly.
Expecting something drastically different does undershoot the decline of Barcelona’s personnel. Their team context just prohibited an expansive style. Half of the team, including key dressing room figures who stayed healthy like Busquets, Pique, Messi, Rakitic and Suarez favored a slower game. Coutinho hardly offers enough as a midfielder to warrant changing the system for him alone.
After wavering on this for quite a while, I doubt that Valverde could have done a much better job.
The Way Forward
Barcelona’s main summer signings were Antoine Griezmann, Frenkie De Jong and Junior Firpo.
De Jong is the home run here. Personally, he reminds me of a certain Luka Modric. He combines dribbling, passing and the incredible ability to get a team flowing with tremendous defensive ability.
Players like De Jong don’t come around too often. Talent wise, he has virtually no weaknesses for a midfielder.
His ability to evade a press should finally allow Barcelona to move on from Sergio Busquets. De Jong’s mobility will be a breath of fresh air in attack. Busquets has largely anchored himself to the holding midfield spot in recent seasons:
De Jong is comparatively involved in more areas:
I suspect Frenkie is equally comfortable playing towards the right. Ideally, De Jong’s movement will allow him to combine well with Arthur Melo, giving Barcelona its most press resistant midfield in years.
De Jong’s mobility may also allow Barcelona to hold a high line once again. In recent seasons, Valverde has used Paulinho and Vidal as destroyers to shore up the midfield. De Jong will have the opposite effect, enabling Barcelona to play more attackers with his brilliant defensive coverage, much like Luka Modric did for Real Madrid throughout his prime.
There is a scenario where Valverde keeps Busquets and De Jong in midfield together, playing the Dutchman higher up. Busquets has been a mainstay in the Barcelona team for over a decade. He’s hard to drop. I imagine such a setup wouldn’t last too long, as Ivan Rakitic makes much more sense given his comparative lack of weaknesses.
There is also a scenario where Valverde insists on Arturo Vidal in midfield. The Chilean was a terrible ball progressor last season, with the bulk of his passes going sideways or backwards. The return of such conservatism wouldn’t bode well. In this sense, the jury is still out on Valverde.
The Griezmann signing is a bit dualistic. He’s a player who makes sense as a Messi replacement in the longer term, but is tougher to fit next to him. Playing Griezmann next to Messi and Suarez would congest central areas. Playing Griezmann as a Suarez replacment would require him to play a completely different role.
Suarez remains one of the best attacking complements to Messi in his entire career. He has declined in recent years, but mostly with his play away from goal as opposed to in front of it.
The Uruguayan still occupies complementary spaces and makes the lateral runs Messi requires of him. Post-Neymar, he has shifted heavily to the left half-space to account for Messi’s role.
Griezmann is too talented to fail. I expect him to fit in next to Messi at some point over the season. He is one of those rare superstar forwards who also commits defensively.
The spacing in attack won’t be easy to find though. I expect growing pains at first. Luis Suarez will not be easily benched, and his role in particular won’t be easily replicated. Can Griezmann exclusively make runs in behind defenders from the left half space?
Perhaps more importantly, Griezmann has been brilliant without Messi in preseason, and should allow the Argentine to rest more this season. Messi is coming off consecutive summers with international tournaments. There’s another Copa America next summer. He also just turned 32. Part of this move was replacing what Messi does on the pitch to ease his decline. With Messi missing almost the entirety of his side’s preseason, Griezmann’s purchase should pay heavy dividends to start the season.
A Neymar signing would throw all of this up into the air. The Brazilian is an incredible player, but would only complicate the tactical fit. He doesn’t add natural width, nor does he want to. Defensively, the team could be overwhelmed with two players who enjoy roaming and staying further forward. De Jong can only mitigate so much on his own.
Still, talent finds a way with talent. I’m hard pressed to believe otherwise. But there are still more wrinkles.
I doubt the deal goes through without Ousmane Dembele going the other way. Barcelona’s finances are already in a bad place, and Coutinho and Rakitic don’t carry enough value alone. In the event it goes through, discarding Dembele for older options in their prime strikes me as a poor move, even accounting for off-field baggage.
If Neymar signs while Dembele stays, Barcelona still have the width issue with a Messi-Neymar-Griezmann front 3. Playing all 4 together would be a defensive disaster.
There is still a worry that Barcelona’s business is just throwing money at problems while illegitimately making the figures work. The Paulinho deal was strange. The Kevin Prince Boateng loan was stranger. The Coutinho deal will go down as one of the worst ever. They haven’t been the same since they fired Andoni Zubizaretta in January 2015, after his summer overhaul seemed to have failed.
Firpo will provide much needed competition at left back. Jordi Alba’s play style primarily relies on speed to both overlap and return to cover defensively. In the long term, Barcelona will be hoping Firpo can eclipse Alba as a dribbler.
The club still hasn’t addressed the right back spot. Semedo and youth team prospect Wague are being relied on, along with a general change in the team’s style. Alba needed rest, but on current evidence they lack a Champions-League caliber right back.
Overall, Barcelona will need Messi’s game to adapt once again as he ages. Raising a team’s floor in the way he did was challenging. Raising a team’s ceiling will require something a little different. He can’t cover as much ground as he used to, and playing in a more contained role is necessary. His game will have to be more scalable for the team to have an elite offense. After all, Barcelona’s best offenses were unpredictable and spontaneous, featuring Messi in a more limited role. Griezmann will require a suitable role in the side.
A Neymar arrival will demand adaptation from all involved, and perhaps demand too much of Valverde. In the long term, the team will look to homegrown talents Puig and Alena in midfield. Ten Hag of Ajax is much better suited to coaching a modern team than Valverde. As much as Barcelona were pragmatic the last two seasons, their deep defending, combative tendencies resembled their manager’s Athletic Bilbao sides. The template for Champions League success and contention typically involves more expansive, dominant play.
Overall, with the current state of turmoil at the Bernabeu, I think Barcelona win their third straight league title. This season will present a transition between eras as Messi starts fading. They should end up around their 2017/18 levels in the league, if not a bit better. The performances may still look underwhelming, but the re-implementation of a pressing, positional game should be the priority. Champions League contention is possible, but not a guarantee.
Barcelona is desperately need of direction at boardroom level. The majority of their success over the past decade, such as their youth development, can be attributed to Pep Guardiola. The next coach, Valverde or otherwise, will have to provide such inspiration or the club does risk being eclipsed by their rivals from the capital in the coming seasons.
The short term looks good, but the club has work to do in the long run.
All expected goals figures are courtesy Understat.