A Review of Barcelona’s 2020/2021 Dead End Season: How did Barcelona walk past a dead end Season?
Sailing between two seas, Barcelona have been left in limbo in the 2020/21 season.
A transition year would have been, after all, a lesser evil for Barcelona coming from one of their lowest lows in their modern history. The downward spiral of Josep Maria Bartomeu’s tenure required a radical shift after the summer of 2020, some healing after so much bleeding.
The problem for the Catalans is that a transition, no matter how many bumps in the road there are in between, needs by definition a starting point and a destination. The starting point was clear: Rome, Liverpool, Lisbon – painful reminders that they had to escape from there as soon as possible
The destination, though, was very vague. It was already vague with Bartomeu, whose policy was driven by improvisation and by papering over the cracks, and it was going to be non-existent with the president resigning, a caretaker board stepping in, and the elections taking place in March. Institutional transition; sporting wise, it was limbo.
A tragic origin and a train travelling to nowhere. In between, Ronald Koeman. Koeman has been as much a victim as a cause of the instability on the pitch.
He had to make unpopular decisions with the exits of veterans, his transfer requests weren’t satisfied, the incoming youngsters always demanded a margin for making mistakes and maturing, and he also had to act as the club’s spokesman. Too much noise to take the process slowly.
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On the other hand, the coach himself has not contributed to the creation of favourable conditions to lay solid foundations. Koeman could argue that his previous squads were too varied to be fundamentalist, but in none of his past experiences, whether Southampton, Everton or the Dutch national team, had he shown a firm belief in a game model. Conviction does not imply rigidity or preclude flexibility; it simply, above everything, gives a direction to follow.
This absence of direction has been translated to the Camp Nou. Changing formations can be a sign of cluelessness, or a sign of the underlying principles being so deep-rooted that the shape becomes secondary. In Koeman’s case, a period of trial and error was acceptable as he got to know his group, but no such principles were put in place to ensure that manoeuvrability didn’t compromise progress.
The paradox is that switching between systems so much – even when chasing games and needing solutions from the manager – caused confusion as the interactions had to be altered, but that when a set-up was maintained for long that led to predictability. For the final weeks, when the 3–5–2 appeared to be the magic formula, Barcelona became trapped in a match that repeated itself again and again.
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In other words, the shape was not the issue but the most revealing proof that Koeman intended to build a house through the façade but without foundations. What had to be a season of rebuilding turned out to be one of anti-construction due to the presence of shifting sands.
This doesn’t mean there weren’t positives collected, but that these will have to be put into question as many will be worth very little once the new project begins, presumably from scratch – new president, new footballers and, almost certainly, new coach.
The youngsters made their first steps in the elite. They were asked to compete, had to take on responsibilities and got to play in their first finals – losing in the Super Cup before winning in the Copa del Rey. Pedri made 50 appearances. But were they guided, taught and developed in the training ground? Did they take in new information and become more complete? Or were they played out of necessity or for their obvious talent?
Their journey has already begun, and that must be applauded. Yet, for their proper evolution from exciting teenagers into multidimensional, functional players, they would benefit from a palpable route too.
Something similar applies from a collective point of view. It would be harsh to deny the existence of tactical patterns, but these might be thrown away as the new future is shaped. Pedri and Lionel Messi established an inspiring connection, and a new productive version of Frenkie de Jong came to the fore. Other than that, however, the next manager might implement a different style and formation, so all automatisms and chemistries will have to be reset.
Has 2020/21 got Barcelona on track to obtaining better results in 2021/22? Perhaps not. With the club’s needs on all fronts, the economical arguably being the most pressing ones, a summer of big changes and decisions awaits for Joan Laporta.
With so many projects having started and ended in quick succession in recent years – which hints at the lack of an overarching project – it is indispensable that the one that is initiated in the coming months is addressed with the utmost conviction that it is the right one.
Culés(Barcelona fans) shouldn’t call for immediacy as another transition kicks off, but the higher-ups should have an unflappable belief that the new seeds planted will, sooner or later, bear fruit. Results should be a consequence of the pathway chosen, but there should be a well-defined pathway in the first place
Wrong choices will inevitably come along the way, but the big picture should take preference. For this, Laporta will have to define how he would want this picture to look like. What should the colour palette be? The brushes? The style? And, obviously, the painter?
It might well be that newspapers are just blind guessing, but the managerial candidates should be reasonable and aligned with the model desired. Xavi Hernández is not the same as Hans-Dieter Flick. Does the president pursue a more orthodox positional play, innovative but where the passing game and triangles are still visible? Or does he aim at a more profound transformation with a more hybrid and direct football through Pep Guardiola-influenced German tacticians?
To know what to target you must first know what you want to be. Structurally, what Barcelona are missing is, more than talent, profiles: proactive defenders, versatile full-backs, wide wingers etc. Nevertheless, leaving the needs in specific positions aside, as a whole the team is short of some traits.
The squad is bereft of positional and technical quality. The most basic attributes, such as knowing which distances to keep or how to control the ball to gain extra milliseconds of advantage, are sometimes the most rare ones, and Barcelona are deficient in them.
If the blaugranas wish to become more rich and unpredictable tactically – which hasn’t seemed to happen with Koeman, there might be too many players that are a bit one-dimensional(Alba) and feel comfortable in a single habitat: some prefer to defend more passively inside their own box(Busquets), others thrives with metres to run into(De Jong), others need a low tempo(Piqué)…One of the first goals should be universality and more coherence between the individuals.
The pieces shouldn’t all be the same, but they should be capable of fitting into each other. The puzzle shouldn’t be a headache. The end of the season marks the unofficial beginning of the race to configure and prepare for 2021/22, something that had been going on behind the scenes already but that was on a second level behind competition.
Now there are no more fixtures, no more press conferences and, in some way, no more distractions to make decisions that might not please everyone.
The next time fans watch Barcelona, they might find a refreshingly new one. It’s time for Laporta to do the unthinkable? Let’s wait and see.
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