It doesn’t take much for one of La Liga’s top two sides to be “in crisis.”
Barcelona, for example, have led the Spanish top flight for much of the season, and only slipped behind main rivals Real Madrid this past weekend. They have a relatively favorable Champions League draw against Napoli on the horizon. And yet the term “crisis” is warranted in the context of the Blaugrana bubble.
Beneath the veneer of cup progress and league placement, serious problems are evident at the Camp Nou. An uninspiring style of play, coupled with three avoidable league losses, led to the dismissal of manager Ernesto Valverde in mid-January. Accordingly, the Catalans went back to the well of pure Cruyffism with the subsequent appointment of Quique Setien, but after three games, it seems his arrival has only exacerbated the club’s issues.
After a winning start against Granada, Setien’s side struggled in the Spanish Cup against lowly Ibiza before suffering a 2-0 loss to Valencia this past weekend. In many ways, the defeat served as a microcosm of their issues.
In defense, the center back pairing of Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti are not in their best form and there is a clear deficiency on the right. The midfield simply does not advance forward enough, and a culture of relying too heavily on Lionel Messi for creativity falls short when the Argentine is not in the mood. (Messi had nine shots at Valencia, many of were free kicks that settled somewhere in Row Z.)
And the attack has been nullified by the absence of Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan is likely to be missing for the rest of the season, which leaves a large hole in the front line, in addition to a key outlet for Messi.
In the long term, this Barcelona side is in need of a rebuild. However, in order to save their current season — and to make the most of Setien’s Cruyffian ideals — there is one significant move that Barca must make.
They must replace Suarez.
Barcelona’s disappointing performances this season may arguably be linked to the Uruguayan’s less-than-stellar outings. On highlight packages, Suarez may appear to be doing Suarez things, but closer analysis of the striker this season reveals a player who has committed frequent mistakes, and whose work rate off the ball is disappointing.
Even though his shortcomings have been clear, to his credit Suarez has contributed to 25 goals this season. Now, his knee injury will likely keep him off the field until this summer’s Copa America.
There is a gaping hole at the top of Barca’s attack, and Messi no longer has his best friend to link up with. At Valencia, Setien had no strikers on the bench.
And he piled on more problems with questionable tactics. Barca abandoned their traditional 4-3-3 for a 3-1-4-2 setup, with Sergi Roberto joining the back line. Jordi Alba and Ansu Fati were employed as wingbacks, despite the fact that the latter offers little in terms of defensive discipline.
Both of Valencia’s goals came as a result of a lack of width in defense. With Fati roaming high up the field, and Umtiti showing a fairly casual approach to closing down attackers, the hosts were easily able to exploit the wide positions at the back.
An away trip to strong opposition was not the time to experiment with a new formation. Clearly, the intent was to optimize the team’s attacking potential. But for that to be effective, the team actually has to, you know, do some attacking.
“Positionally, there are things we need to correct. We've made a lot of pointless passes,” Setien admitted after the game.
The performance epitomized the worst iteration of the Cruyff style of play — lots of beautiful passing, with virtually no attacking penetration. The Guardiola-era Barcelona were sometimes jokingly referred to as an “art project” that favored slick passing over goals. This performance did nothing to dispel the art project myth, nor did it assure the Blaugrana faithful over Setien’s command.
“It's possible that we haven't conveyed the concepts as clearly as possible or things need to be understood in a different way,” he said, seemingly admitting that his players didn’t understand his tactics.
So is it possible there’s a fix in the transfer market? Setien conceded as much last week.
Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martínez is being tipped among the favorites to fill the No. 9 void, thanks to his similarities to Suarez. Lautoro will likely cost in excess of $110 million — a hefty price for a player who may be a half-season stopgap solution. The cost, however, is apparently not prohibitive for a side who reportedly already tabled a $110 million bid for Everton’s Richarlison.
Barcelona’s board stands accused of making some curious decisions in recent months, and they now have another crucial decision to make.
There is a risk that they will be criticized for throwing money at the issue, and of placating fans with a small band-aid to cover a deep incision. Yet Barca have a matter of days to save their season, and it looks like they need to do so with their check book.
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