FC Barcelona new manager Ernesto Valverde, happens to be the highest profile candidate, the Catalan giants have appointed in almost the last decade and a half! Ever since Louis Van Gaal was sacked in 2003 following a disastrous campaign (Barca were 12th in table, three points above relegation zone); the club hierarchy have only gone for non glamorous managers who believe in the Barcelona style of play, its commitment to wholesome entertainment, to fans and to the game. Ernesto Valverde’s CV, with extensive experience in La Liga top half clubs, comes across, as Pep Guardiola mentioned “a strong choice”.
Valverde though has his hands full. While the commerce driven media and its rumour mill are non stop chattering about transfers (oh ah, Marco Verratti has handed a transfer request!), there are several areas on the pitch, and off it, where the new boss needs to work upon. Here are the biggest challenges facing the current FC Barcelona squad.
- Poor finishing
A star-studded MSN, led by one in a generation, Lionel Messi, who has scored once every 74 minutes this season, always seems to escape criticism. But in all key points of the season, the S & N have let Barcelona down big time. Barcelona’s shot accuracy, as of Jan 2017, was 40th in Europe, and their shots to goals conversion, a not so impressive 15%. AS Monaco had 23% then! Neymar, despite a late surge of form, with just 20 goals for the season is well below par. If I tell you Barcelona scored 171 goals, your assumption will be Neymar scored at least 30+. The shot accuracy and conversion needs improvement.
- Goal scoring options
Despite their 171 goals tally, their goal scoring sources stay very skewed. Only four players (Arda Turan being the fourth, outside MSN) have tallied goals in double digits for the blue and maroons. Compared to that, Real Madrid have seven players who scored doubt digit number of goals. And very few of Barcelona’s goals come from the defense or central defensive midfielders. Just 11 goals came from Mathieu, Roberto, Digne, Alba, Mascherano, Vidal and Pique combined. Compare that to the numbers Real Madrid present – Ramos (10), Casimero (6), Varane (4), Nacho (3), Marcelo (3). So if the opposition can tame MSN, the goals just dry up.
- Aerial power
Barcelona’s below par conversion ratio means they take more shots to score a goal, but at the same time, they concede very easily. Barcelona wins roughly 9.1 aerial duels per game, that’s ranked 98th amongst the 98 teams of Europe’s top five leagues! This stat needs to be seen in perspective as Barcelona have second highest possession stats (after Bayern Munich) and hence the opportunities for opposition to send aerial balls is lower (as they hardly get the ball to play). But compare it with the other four Champions league semifinalists, then Juventus (12), Real Madrid (13), Atletico Madrid (16) and Monaco (15) are significantly stronger in air.
This lack of aerial strength has made the fans compromise with the fact that Barcelona are unlikely to score goals off corner kicks or indirect free kicks. The same weakness has also resulted in some key gift goals to opposition too; some of which were season deciders. While leading 1-0 versus Real Madrid at Nou Camp last December, Barcelona missed chances aplenty to clinch the game. In points table the gap between both teams, at that instance, was cut to three points. Then, in the 93rd minute, the Blaugrana couldn’t handle an aerial ball, unmarked Sergio Ramos scored, and kept Real’s lead at the top to six points. That was three points spilled by the home team. They finished the season losing the league title by – you guessed it – three points.
- Passing percentage
While Barcelona have had 60% ball possession this season, your natural belief will be that a lot of individual players will be up in successful passes stats. Not so. Only Sergio Busquets ranks in the top 50 players with most successful passes. Contrastingly, Bayern Munich have three players in that table. Even Paris St Germain have two players in it – Verratti (11th) and Marquinhos (35th) – both personnel whom the Nou Camp direly need. To improve their passing, as well as aerial abilities. Jean Micheal Seri, ranks 3rd in that list and that explains his linking to the club.
- Adding to the Nucleus
Without being too critical of Luis Enrique’s tenure, it would be safe to say, Lucho hasn’t added much to the starting XI for the amount that has been spent. From the team that Lucho got in 2014 and to the one, he left behind, three years later, there are just five changes. Luis Suarez, Sergi Roberto, Marc Andre Ter Stegen, Ivan Rakitic and Samuel Umtiti. Samuel Umtiti featured in 32 games this season and has been a complete Lucho acquisition and nurture to a top class defender into this formidable team.
The credits end there.
Luis Enrique cannot be wholeheartedly credited for his namesake Suarez gelling into the team. ‘El Pistolero’ would walk into planet Mars XI anytime. That leaves us with Ivan Rakitic – one who is more often than not substituted around the two third game mark, Sergi Roberto who has been a makeshift right back for multiple reasons and not used effectively and then Ter Stegen who still makes crucial game changing errors. Most noticeably the second goal at Turin, allowed to creep in the near post, when he was at near post. A goal which probably sealed the European run.
- Squad management
I had written last year, around same time, Luis Enrique virtually ran the 2015-16 season with a core group of 13 players. That is never enough to last a season where the club plays somewhere between 57 to 59 games. By the time Barcelona were dumped out of Champions League by their nemesis Atletico Madrid in April 2016, the key players had tired and overworked legs to manage with. The Liga race, where the Catalans were double-digit points ahead of Real Madrid, at end of March 2016, two months later, ended up with a heaving, gasping, one point escape winner!
This is where the squad management comes into play. While Enrique improved in spreading game time across the squad in 2016-17, he made other blunders in man management.
All the big money signings – Turan, Gomes, Vidal, Denis Suarez, Matheiu, Cillesen, Alacacer, Digne – have mostly gone under used or under performed, over the last two seasons. To add to that he sold off Dani Alves and Marc Bartra in areas where Barcelona lacked personnel this season! Barcelona’s bench strength, towards latter half of 2015-16 season and 2016-17 season, was down to zero firepower and even lesser variety.
Compare that to Real Madrid’s bench on the Champions League final night earlier this month – Bale, Morata, Asensio, Nacho, Danilo. And James Rodriguez at home! Zinedine Zidane’s ability to manage a quality, star powered squad; keep all of them happy and perform decisively when called upon; is what separates Madrid from Barcelona this season. On paper, both squads are equally impressive. But if Zidane were to resign today (pray yes!!! as a Barcelona fan), he has developed far more talents in 1.5 years than Lucho did in double that time.
In short, the challenge for new incumbent Valverde is spelt out. He does have a talented squad at his disposal (Enrique did make smart purchases) but can he ensure Barcelona have a bench as talented and raring as Real Madrid’s? That will decide his success.