At Futbol Club Barcelona, you are expected to win every single trophy you compete for while winning every single game you play with attacking flair and sheer brilliance. It is unreasonable to think, let alone expect, any team can do this year after year. With unmatched success comes unmet expectations. When you win the most Champions League trophies in the modern era, win two trebles, engineer the greatest comeback in Champions League history, engineer the biggest thrashings of your eternal rival, the fans stop asking “What can this team do?” and start asking “What can’t this team do?”. While the expectations of the fan base may be unreasonable at times, what isn’t unreasonable is to ask for consistency. Knowing what this team is capable of, then seeing how they play at times this season makes them borderline unwatchable and the manager is partly to blame.
If your goal is to compete for and ultimately win all available trophies or any trophies for that matter, you have to be able to get results without your first choice starting XI. Unfortunately, this season, Barcelona haven’t shown that. Matters are made worse by the fact that Luis Enrique tends to be a bit stubborn when it comes to picking his players and choosing his tactics. No game explains this better than the loss to Málaga at La Rosaleda. After seeing That Team in Madrid drop points at home to That Other Team in Madrid, Barça were in prime position to take control of their league destiny. A win would put them in first, albeit with one more game played than That Team in Madrid. Win out, El Clásico included, and the league trophy is yours.
Instead, they gave one of the worst league performances of the year in losing 2–0, with the first goal coming from who else, but former Barcelona striker Sandro. The game was a mess from start to finish. The lineup starting the game couldn’t do anything in midfield, the defense was overran and the forwards fluffed their chances. The substitutions just gave more of the same with more control over the game and more possession, letting in a goal in the final minutes. Knowing that their Champions League tie against Juventus is coming up on Tuesday, it’s understandable that you’d want to keep your best players fit for that game. What isn’t understandable, is why you’d start players who haven’t shown the metal to start games like this.
André Gomes and Denis Suárez are quality players, there’s no doubt in my mind. I’ve seen it for their former teams Valencia and Villarreal, respectively. This year, their first years with the Barcelona first team, can be chalked up to being a learning year. They were brought in at Lucho’s request to add quality depth after last seasons problems, but they haven’t taken to the team as quickly as everyone had hoped. The same can also be said for Lucas Digne and Paco Alcácer, the latter who came on as a substitute and the former who didn’t see any playing time Saturday. In a perfect world, all four of these men could have slotted in for Andres Iniesta, Neymar, Jordi Alba, and Luis Suárez respectively and earned a win against Malaga. They have the capabilities to do so, but I feel some of the blame has to go to the manager.
The game against Málaga saw Barcelona lineup in a 4–3–3. Ter-Stegen; Mascherano, Umtiti, Mathieu, Alba; Busquets, Denis, Gomes; Messi, Suárez, Neymar. Normally, that would be our preferred formation. With the injury to Aleix Vidal, Sergi Roberto not being a true full back and the aforementioned situation with Digne, it leaves us with only one true full back in Alba. The rest of our back line was made up of center backs, two of them being over thirty. A team like Málaga loves to press, especially at home in front of their raucous crowd. After seeing the success the 3–4–3 brought us, the best option in my opinion, would to have been starting ter-Stegen; Mascherano, Umtiti, Mathieu; Busquets, Roberto, Alba; Messi; Neymar, Suárez, Denis. Many Barcelona fans would disagree with this defensive setup. If you lack the attacking firepower thru suspensions and injuries, while needing to rest players for Tuesday, then this setup allows for control in the midfield, protection for the two older outside center backs, dynamic wingers to go at Málaga’s full backs and a Messi & Suárez tandem to bully their center backs. This formation would also allow for us to switch out Mathieu for Pique on Tuesday, Alba + Roberto for Iniesta + Rakitić, and Denis for Paco. Making it easier in attack for a rigid defensive team like Juventus.
This also avoids the problem of André and Denis completely absolving themselves of their midfield responsibilities and hoping that Messi, Suárez and Neymar will just create magic if the ball is at their feet or if they try to get the ball to them as soon as possible. André’s game isn’t yet up to par to be playing a game like last Saturday’s and some of Denis’ best playing came as left mid/left winger hybrid for Villarreal. Who knows if Neymar still gets sent off for expressing growing frustrations at how the game is going, but I do know that Alba and Roberto being able to keep the ball at their feet and pass well helps open up opportunities for runs from them as well as Denis and Neymar, opening up the field and spreading the Málaga defensive set up. With Sergi Roberto’s defensive help on the right, Mascherano doesn’t have to drift out of position, leaving Umtiti to provide help to Mathieu who can receive assistance from Alba too, if needed. Jérémy can fully concentrate on trying to contain Sandro’s runs while he’s alone up field.
I want to believe that this possibility ran through Lucho’s mind. If I, a fan of the game can consider these tactics, I’m sure a treble winning coach can. For some reason he decided to forego this and force a center back into a full back position because it may have worked once or twice before, then throw two men with no midfield personalities into a midfield already shaky as is. Not to mention another full 90 for Messi and Suárez before the trip to Turin (I would include Neymar but he decided to go full Brazilian and get himself sent off with 30+ minutes left). Had we not been chasing the game and put them away early as we did Sevilla on Wednesday, Àlex Carbonell, Carles Aleñá & Paco Alcácer could have substituted for the MSN, gotten meaningful minutes and maybe a confidence boost while keeping the MSN fresh, rested, out of referee trouble and un-frustrated. Tragically, none of this happened and now we could be in for a sleep walking Barça in the first leg of a Champions League tie against a coach who has faced them before and knows how to exploit our weaknesses. Not to mention the best defense in the Champions League this year, making Tuesday a day we need a good result. Add to that Neymar’s possible suspension for sarcastically clapping at the linesman after being sent off, could end up having him miss El Clásico. Also a must win game before we even think about Madrid dropping points or the result of their game in hand. It’s all been a “Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad, Day”.
This is why the search for someone to replace Luis Enrique as manager of FC Barcelona will be so tough. You need someone that knows the club inside and out. Someone who can play politics with the board members, gain the respect of the players, be cordial with the media and be the burden of criticism from the outside. As well as addressing our needs defensively and in midfield that adhere to our style of play, and not take away from the geniuses we have upfront. If there’s one thing you can say about Lucho’s tenure as Barça manager, is that he was never good with the media. Which comes back to haunt him when he has one of his classic stubborn games, like this one was. Not only will the press be relentless in covering the aftermath of this game and it’s far reaching consequences, but now they’ll credit themselves or the players if he decides to change up the team or finds success somewhere. Damned if he do, damned if he don’t.
It doesn’t all rest on the manager and rotation players though, even if my biggest gripes are with them. Neymar has a lot to shoulder. Knowing that this year the Barcelona attack runs through your side and runs through you, why do you get sent off? At your big age, after the performance put in recently against PSG and Sevilla, you go out and do foolishness? The first card may have been harsh, but that’s when you breathe in and say to yourself “The ref is making a mess of himself, I'm gonna keep myself out of it.” No, you let a loanee from That Team in Madrid get you sent off and then you keep the antics up on your way off of the pitch, risking your availability for the next two crucial games.
Then, there’s Suárez. As inconsistent as he has been this season, it seemed he was turning the corner and ready to start banging in beautiful goals at the best time. Nope. Fluffed chance after chance provided to him either by overthinking or looking for calls that wouldn’t come or a combination of the two. Especially early on with André and Denis in the game, knowing these two wouldn’t finish their dinner he’s letting them get into chances to get bullied off of the ball. It was just a maddening performance from a team that has shown it has the mental fortitude and killer instinct it takes to win La Liga.
When winning time came, it seemed like Iniesta, Messi, Roberto, ter-Stegen, and Umtiti were the only ones trying to salvage what we could from the game. Refereeing aside, Málaga still should have won because no one else wanted to grab the game by the scruff of its neck and make it run its pockets. “Enquanto houver 1% de chance, teremos 99% fé” Neymar says, ‘ as longs as there is a 1% chance, we will have 99% faith’, it had looked stupid after the first PSG game, but it made sense after the second PSG game. It’s looking as if we might have to listen once again. “O impossívelé só questão de opinião. Entendeu?” Neymar also says, ‘The impossible is just a matter of opinion. Understand?’ As much as I slate the team and as much as I feel the league is done, I just know I can’t give up. I didn’t after Valentine’s Day and I won’t now. If there’s any team that can turn it around when they want to, it’s them, but I just want to see consistency.
I preferred it when our season was done and dusted. When all I had to worry about was winning the Copa del Rey. It was less stressful. Now that we’ve rebounded, it just makes the idea of getting to the end of the season emotionally, mentally, physically and psychologically exhausting. This is me, as a fan. It’s 100x worse as a player and 100,000x worse as manager. Very easy to see why Lucho didn’t want to take the one year extension. He has no one to blame but himself for the teams’ current predicament. Throughout the season and some of last when these issues were visible he did the same thing and this is where we are now. So it’s up to him to make sure these missed opportunities don’t come around to bite us in the end.