La Liga power : A story of 15 days 30 minutes
945pm 02 April 2016, when Gerard Pique headed FC Barcelona to a 1-0 lead in the El Clasico derby, the Catalans went 13 points ahead of Real Madrid and 9 points ahead of Atletico Madrid. I was there chanting ‘Pique Pique’ from the stands! The world seemed so beautiful.
15 days and 30 minutes later, ie 10.15 pm, 17 April 2016, Gerard Pique missed an open goal (ironically the same end goal post) as the domestic league race now has been almost reset to that state as at start of the season. Even after this mid week set of games, where Barcelona won at Riazor stadium, only one point and head-to-head results separate the top three teams of Spain – did anyone say boring League?
La Liga now has four teams in line for doing the double – a richness unparalleled to any league for a long time. Sevilla are in line for the Copa del Rey and Europa League, the Madrid twins are in for Champions League and domestic race while Barcelona sit and wonder.
What looked an easy double, and a possible consecutive treble for them; is now washed away. The 39 matches unbeaten streak saga is on the verge of becoming just a footnote now, more so if they don’t finish with the league title.
Barcelona have all to lose from here
This means the double is now obligatory. Anything less will be considered a failure by the Blaugrana’s seeming potential a month ago. All debates around superiority of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona of 2011 vs Luis Enrique’s team of 2015 will subside, for now.
In between, as it happens when results go awry, whispers of a Messi thigh injury, Neymar throwing a bottle, and Alves hairdo acts were doing the rounds. And the belief, that it could have been worse.
Luis Suarez should have been sent off in both Champions League encounters vs Atletico; Iniesta too in one of them; Neymar as well in the game vs Valencia.
In November, I had echoed Luis Enrique’s lines “Barcelona’s best is yet to come”. Why has it not come? What brought on this unexplained catastrophe? Only English club, Jose Mourinho’s defending champions, Chelsea, in season 2015-16, have come close to similar unexplained collapse.
And there seems to be no solution at sight. Nor the time to get. This weekend they play Sporting Gijon – their seventh game in 21 days, post the tiring international breakup.
Midweek they trounced 14th placed Deportivo La Coruna 8-0 to provide some relief to fans. Some relief only. Cause Deportivo should have been 2-1 ahead by 22nd minute in the game, if not for missing clear cut open chances from point blank range. Anything could have happened after that. Irrespective, the tight league race to the finish is on. There is no scope for dropping points now. Who blinks first, loses.
The blips unseen
Deportivo are the same team who, earlier this season, managed to get points at Nou Camp despite being 0-2 down with less than thirty minutes to go. Actually the 39th unbeaten game in Barcelona’s repertoire also had similar pattern. Barcelona were 2-0 up with just over thirty minutes to go, but had to share points at Estadio El Madrigal vs Villarreal.
These two games would mean four easy points blown up. Champion teams never let go of 2-0 leads. Normally when a Bayern Munich, Paris St German, Real or Atletico Madrid go 2-0 up vs an unfancied opponent, the odds of an upset would drop rapidly.
Great teams win even when playing bad. Barcelona may not be having that quality – the tenacity of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United or solidity of Arigo Sacchi’s AC Milan sides when things aren’t going well is something they can only aspire to. It wasn’t there under Pep nor under Lucho this season.
Barcelona have always given the impression that any decent team can hit back two goals within 30 minutes time. They experienced that on 02 April and again on 17 April!
Barcelona essentially need to create double digit chances to win an average game, assuming their backline will concede one. Against Valencia, even after creating 22 chances, they couldn’t get any points. When you are in a rut and can’t win ugly, winning beautifully becomes tough too.
Invisible bench strength
The Villarreal game turnaround (from 2-0 to 2-2) was courtesy Jeremy Mathieu (directly responsible for both goals) who came in as a substitute to give Gerard Pique some rest.
Meachwhile, Luis Enrique didn’t use any substitute in the Valencia game. And to add, the Valencia bench with Negredo, Alcacer and Cancelo was looking more menacing that their illustrious counterpart’s bench – Munir, Ter Stegen, and five defenders!
Barcelona, as I write have played 57 competitive games this season – 12 more than Real Madrid, 11 more than Bayern Munich, 7 more than Atletico Madrid. But strangely after so many games, Barcelona didn’t have a bench which the fans or the manager could seemingly have faith upon.
Low on rotation
57 games mean, assuming each game runs for 90 minutes plus an average of 4 minutes injury time, a total of 5358 minutes. To negotiate to this point, within 244 days (La Liga started on 22 Aug), the team would need a squad of 20+ players to share the load.
Point to note is the South American contingent of Barcelona squad have also played Copa America in June 2015, after finishing their last season’s club treble. It was all the more pertinent that the Cules use at least a 20-21 man pool of players this season.
That too, assuming that 1-2 will always stay injured or suspended. Even a football World Cup calls for squads of 23 players each for the month long quadrennial event.
A squad of 21 and hypothetically assuming 13 of the top players take 70% of the season load and balance 8 players take 30% would mean that the first 13 should have played 3200 minutes each and the next 8 to have played 2200 minutes each by now, approximately.
This is where the imbalance lay. Suarez (4052 mins), Neymar (3957 mins), Busquets (3742 mins), Messi (3631 mins), Mascherano (3627 mins) and Rakitic (3492 mins) all seem to have stretched themselves too far too soon. Quiz time. Which players have looked the most ineffective in April 2016? Five of the six names above! Mascherano, being the only exception.
Ineffective use of squad
On the other side of the table are fringe players who should have clocked 2200 minutes by now but have only played small percent of it. Mathieu (1678 mins), Munir (1612 mins), Vermaelen (1181mins), Turan (1127 mins) still have respectable game time. Adriano, Vidal, Ramírez, Rafinha and Samper have all clocked below 1000 mins. Considering many of them play Copa del Rey and Champions League last group fixture game by default, it’s a clear indication that these players had minimal involvement in Champions League, La Liga and Club World cup. Marc Bartra, largely ignored entire season and who made his frustations well known, played this midweek’s game vs Deportivo for full 90 minutes as replacement for suspended Pique. Bartra got a clean sheet and a wonderful solo goal. Why was he not utilized better so far?
|No.||Name||La Liga mins||Champions League mins||Copa del Rey mins||Club World Cup mins||Total mins|
|13||Munir El Haddadi||825||257||440||90||1612|
Table: Minutes played by FC Barcelona players in 2015-16 as on 21 April 2016.
Criteria: Minimum 400 minutes spent on pitch entire season.
Exclusions : The goal keepers, who were effectively rotated.
Sorting Criteria: By highest total minutes to lowest.
So, aside Ter Stegen and Bravo, Luis Enrique basically managed the season with a squad of just 11 players – the top 11 in table above. Turan added to it in 2016, Mathieu and Vermaelen used off and on. Not giving adequate confidence or game time to the last six names, not only ensured a weak bench, it also will test squad depth and experience next season, should a couple of key players leave. Pep Guardiola is all set to dangle an English carrot to some of them.
When Barcelona smashed Arsenal 5-1 over two Champions League games, MSN played for entire 180 minutes each. What was the need? Isn’t Enrique aware of rest and rotation? Or just substituting to eat up game time? Especially when leading 2-0 at the Emirates? On that day, yet again, Lucho didn’t use a single substitute.
There are many such instances when the urge of top stars – to always play – was meted out. Madrid’s Ronaldo always wants to play – but he played just 44 games this season. He can afford that luxury. Not a MSN who were involved in 62 games last season, Copa America in between and 57 games till now!
Why the first XI wasn’t rested vs Real Sociedad?
Since game time and tiredness is possibly a major factor to explain the slump, especially after the tiring international break – where Barcelona’s players were more affected, many of them flying across continents, than their rivals – rotation was key in April. I didn’t understand (and pre-match) didn’t want Lucho to field any of their first XI players vs Real Sociedad on April 9 (in the game crunched between the two Champions League quarter final encounters).
The visit to Anoeta was their last tough away league game this season. They haven’t won there since 2007 and resting the first XI for the upcoming Atletico game, with a slender lead, was more important. Lucho should have started with his second XI for a 1-0 win type game at Anoeta.
Had the second XI team lost, there was not much overall loss compared to what followed later – the first XI played, lost, more tiredness crept in, more yellow cards received and louder talk that Barcelona looking vulnerable started.
Lucho may argue that Paris St Germain did mass resting over the same weekend and yet lost to Manchester City in Champions League. But hell, PSG are a decade away from being compared to FCB and when tiredness is an issue this was a great option blown away.
Sometimes coaches need to see beyond ego. Had the second XI being shown confidence and churned out a narrow win, Lucho’s faith on his overall squad depth would have increased exponentially. It would have given the fringe players a big stage to earn the manager’s confidence.
Bad luck of the draw
That aside, luck of the draw didn’t help. No team, barring Bayern Munich in 2012-13 and Barcelona of 2014-15 have won the Champions League beating four big opponents consecutively in knockouts. Last season, they played Manchester City, Paris St Germain, Bayern Munich and Juventus enroute to lifting the trophy. This season they faced Arsenal and Atletico Madrid – the latter, clearly the fourth best team in the world now.
Compared to Barcelona’s opponents, Real Madrid seem to be beating only Europa cup level opponents in Champions League knockouts – Roma and Wolfsburg this season, Schalke FC last season!
In between all Barcelona loss shock and celebrations (depending on which jersey you adore), people have forgotten to get awed by Diego Simeone’s team – who sell big players year after year, but don’t sell their big dreams. Atletico have now made it to Quarter Finals of Champions League for the third time in last four years – that’s more that total number of English Premier League teams who reached there, during last four years – only Chelsea in 2013-14 and Manchester City in 2015-16 were there.
Little rotation and little Plan B
Barcelona’s obvious reluctance to rotate also means they lack an alternate plan. All their plans have to be within that select pool of eleven players (aside the goalkeeper). Hence all you saw in the Atletico game second leg and in the Valencia game was Pique joining the attack. Not good enough, not flexible enough, not versatile enough.
The team is in trouble and i suspect the same pool of eleven will need to depend on defensive luck, huff and puff their way vs Sporting Gijon. The decision to not rest anyone for the Anoeta game, will keep biting till this Sunday. Unless the opposition keep capitulating (as did Deportivo), that series of wins and return of swagger won’t happen – which is also a problem. This is looking so much like Tata Martino’s 2012-13 season now. Fortunately they don’t have any big team to play now, so hopefully business as usual will return soon.
Till such time i live in guilt. I hold myself as a jinx to have visited Nou camp, as part of my dream football pilgrimage, to cheer for the Catalans vs Real Madrid and the Atletico Madrid games, right when the rut started.