We’re halfway home, which makes this as good a time as any to take stock of what we know, what we still don’t know, and how our expectations were met (or not). Our season preview can be re-visited here so that you can find a baseline for how we approached things. The TL;DR version is that I went out on that thinnest of limbs and predicted Ousmane Dembele would be a good player. I also predicted Paco Alcacer’s ouster, sort of. We all thought Munir would be better than he was.
This mid-season review welcomes Eric Coffin-Gould, who returns with his typical insight, and Emma Gabriel-Garcia, sharp observer and Barcelona-based voice making her BFB debut. Levon also lends his knowledge here.
So far, so good. Jeison Murillo and Kevin Prince Boateng could be shrewd loan signings and the early capture of Frenkie de Jong for next season is a palpably exciting prospect. But there are obvious areas of concern. What to do about Philippe Coutinho? €120 million+ is a lot of pressure to deal with. Certain expectations rest upon his shoulders. Can he handle it? Playing for FC Barcelona is a daunting task and as soon as form and touch deserts, the Camp Nou voices are raised — it can be a lonely place.
His adaptation to the squad and style has been problematic, even as he has shown tremendous flashes, but only flashes. Hopefully something will click for the Brazilian, and his confidence will rebound.
The emergence of Arthur and the tenacity of Vidal have been welcome additions. Ousmane Dembélé’s difficult start has been shoved aside by his breakout, featuring stellar performances right up to his unfortunate injury layoff.
One thing I would like to see is trust being placed in Nelson Semedo to make the RB position his own. After an impressive performance culminating in his first goal in the match against Girona, he deserves that starting spot.
Ernesto Valverde has utilised something his biggest critics railed against him for last season: squad rotation. Though mostly confined to the Copa del Rey, this has still been a welcome and refreshing development. Aleñá, Chumi, Miranda and Cillessen have seen game time in the cup competition, providing much needed rest for the Gala XI. The rotation has been implemented thoughtfully, judiciously and with trademark Valverde caution. If FC Barcelona is to challenge on all three trophy fronts, this trend needs to continue.
Overall the squad gets a passing grade. There is strength and depth enough to go deep into the three competitions the team is chasing. But in the summer, backups and potential replacements for Luis Suarez, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba are a must. With Frenkie de Jong already secured, along with Arthur, Aleña, Puig and Dembélé, the future is young, bright, optimistic and very talented.
The First Half In Numbers
Barça has played 31 competitive matches [the 0-2 win at Girona has not been included in these calculations -ed]. 20 in La Liga, 6 in the Champions League and 5 in the Copa del Rey. The team has lost just 4 of those, and scored 78 goals. The attacking numbers are fairly good: 56 goals in league, compared with 48 goals scored after the same number of matches last year.
In the Champions League, the numbers are 14 scored this season compared to 9 last year.
In Copa del Rey, the squad has managed 9 goals in 5 matches compared to 14 of its last campaign. At this stage in the CDR (between the 1st and 2nd legs of the quarterfinals), Barça was looking somewhat suspect, having lost the first leg away both times (2-0 against Sevilla this season and 1-0 at Espanyol last season). The defense, previously solid, has leaked quite a few goals this year.
The squad has allowed 21 goals this year , compared to 7 during the same period last season. That’s right. 7. They are allowing more than a goal per match this season and were allowing about a goal every 3 matches last season. It’s no surprise that last year after 20 matches the team had yet to lose, drawing 3 and winning 17 for a total of 51 points. This season the team has earned 46 points. Only 1 team (Celta) had scored more than a single goal against Barça through this point last season (2). This season, 5 teams have done so. Last season saw 12 shutouts in the first 20 league matches, compared to only 7 in the current run.
The same is true for the Champions League: 5 goals allowed in 6 matches this year, and just 1 in the Champions League group stage last year. In both years the team notched 14 points.
In the Copa del Rey, the team has allowed 5 goals in 5 matches, compared to 2 in 5 last year.
These statistics are perhaps indicative of a change in tactics or something that has happened in greater numbers this year: defensive injuries. Last season, Samuel Umtiti appeared in 41 matches, 25 in league, 9 in Champions League, or 69.5% of the matches (including the two-legged Supercopa). This season he has played in just 8, 25% of the team’s matches (including the single-leg Supercopa which he missed after winning the World Cup). Thomas Vermaelen has appeared in 21.9% of the matches, down from 33% last year. With Pique appearing in almost the exact same percentage of matches this year versus last year (84.3% vs 84.7%), the weight has fallen on Clement Lenglet to pick up where a World Cup winner left off and that has probably taken its toll.
Last season, 30 players made appearances for the first team in all competitions. This year, 26 have managed it and we’re only halfway through. Last season 16 players played greater than the median number of matches; this year it’s down to 12, though with a batch of games left to play. This suggests potentially fresher legs moving forward, but injuries are mounting, which could also challenge these notions and put Valverde in a tough spot.
Last year there were 32 injuries recorded in total while this year there have already been 18. The injuries this season have also been more severe, even as the average recovery time between the two seasons is the same (28 days). But the median down time has risen from 15 to 21 days, even without considering the injuries to Rafinha, Umtiti, and Dembele.
But all of this bring us to the central question: can the defense be fixed in time? Does it need to be fixed? What’s going on with the team?
While the squad is far better this season than in recent years, Valverde still has a number of imbalances to cope with, and has been continually tinkering with tactics accordingly. The first step was the choice to abandon last year’s 4-4-2 in favor of the classic 4-3-3, choosing fluidity over defensive fortitude.
With Messi shifting back to a nominal right wing role, Dembélé got to play as an out-and-out winger on the left, with Coutinho in midfield to start the season. This was a potent combination — both Barça’s mega-signings contributed several excellent goals to start the season — but lopsided. There was always the sense that this team was a little uneven and fragile, which was proved accurate at the end of September when the team dropped points in 4 out of 5 matches.
Messi drifting inside from the right stranded Sergi Roberto on an island, which became a target for opposing attackers. On the other side, Dembélé, Coutinho and Alba got in each other’s way, overcrowding the left flank and struggling to combine with each other. These problems were mitigated by the introduction of Arthur, whose deep-lying orchestration and constant movement earned him a starting spot, and by the injury to Messi, which freed up a spot on the right flank for Dembélé (and Rafinha) to thrive.
While much of the tactical focus has been on improving the attackers’ interplay, just as interesting has been a change in pressing from the midfielders. Where last season Barça sat deep in banks of four for the first time since dinosaurs walked La Rambla, this season they press high again, with Busquets frequently charging forward to close down his opposite number. He is helped by Arturo Vidal, who brings plenty of energy and more than a bit of chaos to the team. As @CaptnGuardiola has pointed out, this change in defensive strategy was not well coordinated across the team, frequently leading to massive gaps between midfield and defensive lines, leading to conceded goals.
One of the wrinkles that Valverde has begun to experiment with more has been a 4-2-3-1, with Messi as a true #10 behind Suárez. This isn’t quite the false 9 formation we clamored for to start the season, but it’s more attacking than the 4-4-2 and allows Barça to use two of Dembélé / Coutinho / Vidal / Malcom out wide and maintain a more balanced, symmetrical shape. This approach will likely be used sparingly, since it requires dropping one of Arthur, Rakitic or Busquets, which Valverde is loath to do.
Further tweaks will be made, especially around Dembélé, who is a Ferrari that Valverde still hasn’t quite figured out how to drive yet. In some matches, the front three have played very narrowly in a 3-4-3, with the Frenchman and Messi both dropping into midfield as the fullbacks provide width. Not my favorite. More promising is a look that appeared briefly against Eibar: with Dembélé being given the right flank, Suárez drifting out left a la David Villa, Alba keeping the width and Messi in a free role. If Valverde wants to try to find better balance around Messi without sacrificing his gala XI, that may be his best bet.
You want me to explain how I feel about Valverde holistically? Where do I even start?
Once upon a time not long ago, the forces of evil had the world convinced Real M*drid had assembled a squad to rival the GOAT teams in the years to come. Neymar Junior snaked his way to Paris Saint Baguette and the board were making fools of themselves by bidding for Angel Di Ratface Maria. Valverde came, saw the mess, said “chill son” and conquered our hearts and minds. He made Busquets and Iniesta important again, turned matches around with smart substitutions and essentially won the Liga by December.
But the heart is a fickle thing. So when we had the Liga locked up but Valverde inexplicably insisted on not rotating and even going as far as to play our aging heavyweights in matches versus the likes of Eibar and Leganés mere days prior to crucial CL encounters and the mind said hold on, this guy is stupid. Rome was just around the corner, and that was a heartbreak not even a double could fix.
Lack of rotation, lack of development, poor man management, conservative playing style… After Rome, which was the single worst coaching performance by a Barça manager in more than a decade, Valverde became a man judged by his flaws and not by his virtues. But no board will fire a coach who has just won a Liga – Copa combo. The question was would he learn from his mistakes?
Five months into the season, he is rotating the squad. He is managing Dembélé very well. Arthur is integrated and important. Aleñá is getting starts. The team is generally playing more attractive football with three midfielders and three forwards. If I am honest, I must say he is fulfilling most of my wish list of what I wanted him to do this season. A coach who used to make me despair whenever I saw the lineup has had me nodding my head at his selection for a while now.
His biggest strength is recognizing how to get the best out of eleven players on a pitch as regards teamwork and cohesion. My biggest doubt is whether he really improves young players individually, which, having so many talented young players at our disposal, makes me unconvinced he should continue next summer, regardless of the silverware obtained. But provided we win the league and do well in Europe, I will no longer despair if he stays on.
Holistically, for now, I am good with it.
Your best preseason prediction?
Lev: A toss-up between how Arthur would prove to be an amazing signing and the fact that our strongest lineup would not consist of our 11 best players. Yeah, I’m pretty good with the obvious stuff.
Emma: Dembélé coming into his own. After a few rocky moments I’m feeling justifiably proud.
Eric: That Aleña would play a real role in this team. He grows more impressive every week.
Isaiah: Like Emma, I went with Dembele’s rise. I said he’d come good, he came good. Bow before my predictive powers.
Your worst preseason prediction?
Lev: Those 2,397 tweets I sent out into the big wide world about our need to sell Luis Suárez only for him to play at his best level since 2015-16? Sometimes I’m glad to be wrong.
Emma: I might have tweeted something about Riqui Puig having a breakout season for the first team. Maybe next year…
Eric: Rafinha 🙁
Isaiah: That Lopetegui would be a worthy opponent…bow before my predictive powers?
Breakout/Most Surprising Player?
Isaiah: Lenglet for me. He’s been solid, although there have been defensive problems throughout the year, he has looked capable of filling in for Umtiti. He was unlucky to get that red card early, but has bounced back nicely. Breakout? I guess Dembele, but this is me brushing off my shoulder cause you could tell he was special from the beginning. I never doubted him (okay maybe there were moments).
Eric: Arthur. Did he really arrive this summer? Feels like it’s been years. To go from Brazil straight to Europe is one thing — to cement a starting spot at FC Barcelona in your first six months is another.
Lev: Ousmane AKA Dembouzzle AKA Dembelinho. I spent the better part of the season swimming upstream to try and convince culés and socis that Dembélé is our future, only for him to step up his game and demand their admiration right now, only for him to then step up his game even with a 67-minute performance against Leganés that made me feel “oh, snap, when Messi retires he will inherit the #10.”
Emma: Lenglet probably most surprising. Every time I’ve left Camp Nou this season I’ve thought to myself how solid and dependable Lenglet has been. As for breakout, Arthur and Dembélé have to take that, the future is bright.
The Hleb Award for Biggest Disappointment?
Isaiah: Coutinho. It’s like he’s regressed into a player we wouldn’t have purchased for 20m much less 120m+.
Eric: Malcom. He was supposed to bring back that Pedro-esque speed in behind and clinical finishing. Instead, he’s scored 2 goals, same as Denis Suárez and 3 less than Piqué. Oh, and Rafinha getting injured. That’s a bummer.
Lev: I don’t see any player Hlebbing it this season, but my biggest disappointment is Coutinho not playing in midfield, because this means that even if he turns it around we will have a 160m player competing for a spot with a 145m player.
Emma: It’s got to be Coutinho I’m afraid. I cannot count the amount of times I’ve wanted to see him stamp his authority on a match and been left wanting.
Isaiah: Gotta be el clásico. 5-1! Doesn’t really matter if we weren’t playing our best, we beat those guys 5-1! Exclamation point!
Eric: While the clásico was the most fun, Spurs 2-4 Barcelona was our most complete performance. Wembley, Arthur’s coming out party, some absolutely gorgeous goals, and great coaching.
Lev: You know how much I hate M*drid, right?
Emma: Clásico for the domination. Levante for the revenge. Spurs for the style.
Isaiah: That time when Sergio Ramos tested positive for doping. I don’t even care if it’s not from this year or from Barça. I’m still laughing about it.
Eric: Less funny ha-ha, more funny terrible: remember that awful pitch at Valladolid? Never seen anything like that.
Lev: I think Manchester United winning every game since Mou got sacked is pretty hilarious.
Emma: The reign of Julen Lopetegui. Special mention for Espanyol’s sudden plummet from a decent start to relegation form too.
Excitement about Frenkie De Jong rated 1 to 10?
Lev: E-le-ven. Between Busi, Arthur, Messi and FDJ the only player who can take the ball away from us is Arturo Vidal, so let’s keep the mohawk on our team!
Emma: Maybe like 9. I’m a Catalan, nothing is perfect.
Isaiah: 7? I mean, everyone else is freaking out about it (see Lev above), so my natural cynicism is here to say it’ll take a couple of years for him to really be the dominating force that is expected to arrive, which means Busi will be on the downswing by the and that will change the complexion of our midfield to a degree heretofore unseen. Or maybe I got burned by my excitement over Ibra all those years ago and now I’ll never be caught out again.
Eric: Cautiously optimistic. People are more excited about De Jong than they were about Neymar in 2014, which says a lot about the type of play fans are yearning for. De Jong is much less of a sure thing than Neymar was, and will need the right coach to thrive.