Age Before Beauty: Barcelona 2019-2020

Zososoxfan

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Griezmann is officially in the fold. Who knows what's going on with Neymar. Neymar-Suarez-Messi with Griezmann behind or Neymar-Griezmann-Messi is titillating, but who knows how this will work. This tension is exacerbated by EV's conservative tactics in the biggest matches and the squad's older profile. De Jong will help a lot in this regard, but is it enough?
 

bosox4283

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Dembele is now out five weeks. The team seems really thin right now, with Dembele out for a spell (and injury-prone) and Countinho packing his bags for Munich.
 

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Coutinho loaned to Bayern for EUR 8.5M going to Barca, with an option to buy for 120M.

Rumors that Neymar is being discussed from PSG under similar terms. They'd discussed an outright purchase, but Barca went in offering 80 (plus Coutinho and Rakitic) willing to go to 100, PSG wanted 120 (plus Coutinho and Semedo), and there it sat - and moreover, Rakitic didn't want to go. So they're talking about a loan-with-option-to-buy under very similar terms to the Coutinho deal, which would make the whole thing cashflow-neutral for them. If it gets done for anything close to the Coutinho terms, it's absolute highway robbery of PSG and I'd frankly be shocked Madrid didn't go in and top it just on general principles.
 

Zososoxfan

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Barca conceded first against Betis yesterday and I got worried that we were in for more of the Bilbao match. But Barca turned it around resoundingly and finished with a 5-2 win. Griez yesterday did what Coutinho was supposed to do. Griez combined with other attacking players and made the entire XI more difficult to defend. Once Betis sat farther and farther back, Griez punished them by hitting a curler from distance. He did all of that while playing at different positions along the front and dropping deeper occasionally. In sum, he was dynamic and stirred the drink. The team was much more organized with Perez stationed wide right and Rafinha and Griez creating havoc from the central and center-left positions. Both FBs got high and Roberto turned in one of his best Barca performances ever. FDJ was solid with his passing but otherwise unspectacular. Busi was OK but did cough up a brutal turnover that led to the first goal. Alba looked much more engaged. Semedo as starting RB is clearly here to stay. He's already good and has more room to improve. Pique and Lenglet are a solid pair at the back. Lastly, 16 year old (!!!!!) Anssumane Fati got on the field for 10+ minutes and looked like he belonged. He's electric fast and didn't seem overwhelmed by the moment. Between him, Perez, Wague, and others, the youth movement may be starting in earnest in Catalunya, but let's see if this lasts beyond September.
 

Zososoxfan

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Barca got a nice result against scrambling Valencia on Saturday. The result should be taken with a grain of salt as Valencia were still clearly reeling from Marcelino's ignominious departure last week.

The headline has to be Ansu Fati's continued starts and production. the Prodigal 16-year old (!) added another goal to his tally and a nice one at that and pretty much gifted FDJ's goal minutes later. More broadly, Barca's early season tactical headline is that there is much more of a system in place with two bona fide and hardworking young wingers in Fati and Perez. They're showing enough threat to open up the middle for the genius of Griez, FDJ, Arthur, and the rest of the gang. Arthur clearly belongs in the XI every match where he's not being rested. He's the metronome of the club now (more so than Busi) and his possession and vision make everything operate smoothly. I still think Busi isn't part of the best XI for big matches--I'd rather have Rakitic, Roberto, or even Vidal in there to provide more workrate along side Arthur and FDJ. In fact, I think Barca are so lucky that they have Rakitic to play that role, even if the Board or EV doesn't want to do it. Rak finally got into the match on Saturday, his first minutes of the season IIRC and I hope he continues to get PT. Barca have a bloated schedule this month and I expect he will see a lot of time. Lastly, Luisito subbed in for a half hour of work did his patented 'look terrible but score a brace' routine. I honestly don't know how he does it.
 

bosox4283

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I don't get the Rakitic thing. Does Barca want to sell him? Does the team need to sell him? Is it that Barca wants to play with FDJ, Arthur, and the young guys so Rak is the old guy holding back the young ones?
 

Zososoxfan

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I don't get the Rakitic thing. Does Barca want to sell him? Does the team need to sell him? Is it that Barca wants to play with FDJ, Arthur, and the young guys so Rak is the old guy holding back the young ones?
I have no idea. During the summer it made some sense--Rak was a good player but at a position with other options who could still fetch a real transfer fee. That's why he was included in most of the Ney rumors--it made financial 'balancing the books' sense. But now that he's with the squad thru at least December? Play the man!
 

67YAZ

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I have no idea. During the summer it made some sense--Rak was a good player but at a position with other options who could still fetch a real transfer fee. That's why he was included in most of the Ney rumors--it made financial 'balancing the books' sense. But now that he's with the squad thru at least December? Play the man!
I recall rumors that FDJ has a playing time guarantee in his contract. That’s the best I can think of, but who knows how Valverde sees this squad?
 

Zososoxfan

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Interesting match yesterday against Sevilla. Sevilla is a strong club under the leadership of Lopetegui and have gotten off to a good start. Against this, EV decides to sit Lenglet (may have been suspension) and brings in Todibo, moving Pique over to LCB in the process. Semedo starts at LB and Roberto gets the start at RB. Busi sits, and FDJ starts at DMF. Arthur starts (predictably), but it's Vidal filling out the MF 3. Up top it's Messi, Suarez, and Dembele.

So while Messi's return will grab some headlines, Suarez has now hit some real bangers in the past few matches. I'm not Luisito's biggest fan, but when he's on form he's lethal in his finishing and hard to stop. He still makes some very bad turnovers that create breaks going the other way, but if he's finishing like he is right now, you probably have to take it. Dembele is like a worse version of this--his finishing isn't as good and he doesn't have the track record that Luis does, but he commits a lot of bad and dangerous turnovers (and apparently gets red cards now). That said, he seemed motivated to take on defenders yesterday and did create a lot of good attacks. He had a very nice finish for his goal.

I can't say enough about Arthur. His assist on the Vidal goal was sublime. This guy was born to play for Barca and he's slowly becoming more and more comfortable being the forward-most of the 3 MFs. That is ideal since Barca have numerous guys who are all good enough to play the other 2 spots.

I haven't seen FDJ's brilliance on full display yet--he's obviously skilled and has excellent movement off the ball. But I haven't focused on him enough yet. But even that notwithstanding, starting him ahead of Busi allows Barca to press effectively again. Look at Barca's third goal (Dembele):

View: https://streamja.com/o01X


Turnover in the final third with 6 (!) attackers. That is what made the best Barca squads unstoppable--not only were they insane with the ball, but they were fierce on defense and created offense out of turnovers.

A few other quick notes: Busi came on for Arthur after an hour and Rakitic came on for Vidal shortly thereafter. I still think Rakitic has a big role to play on this year's club but until he starts a few matches, it's all speculative. Grizi sat this full match and it's going to take some time for him to adjust. Writing out Arthur's part above, he may have a role as the AMF since he works hard enough on D. Having Grizi behind Messi-Suarez-Winger of your choosing may just work. I wasn't watching closely and didn't see why, but Araujo came on for Todibo in the last 5 minutes and got a red card for a last-man tackle.
 

Zososoxfan

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Barca finally look like they got in gear Saturday against Mighty Eibar. Griez-Suarez-Messi up front look cohesive, FDJ and Arthur bossed the middle, and Big Sam got a start and though he looked rusty at times was very good. Alba returned from injury. Lenglet was very solid next to Sam.

The key to this match was Barca ability to mix in an effective direct approach. The front 3 took turns dropping deep to receive passes and held possession and created offense brilliantly. Griez in particular was all over the place in the best way possible. He combined with the other two strikers, went wide and threatened the flank, and helped on defense. On the first goal, Griez showed his versatility by helping possess very wide in the MF before turning on the jets and getting behind his defender and topping it off with a cool finish:

View: https://streamja.com/1Mb2


The second goal really showed the ceiling for this squad--it had everything and everyone. Busi starts the move and passes to Messi in MF on the right to establish possession and transition to offense. FDJ gets the ball and now that he's more comfortable as one of the two attacking MFs, calmly combines with Griez who has drifted inside. Busi is playing high up the pitch because he trusts the defense and his mates to keep possession. Arthur has dropped back a bit because the other two MFs are high and he sprays the ball wide to Alba who has read the play properly. Griez again moves intelligently and gives Alba and outlet, but plays possession and gives back to Arthur. Arthur attempts an incisive pass (a big positive development from him this year along with outside shooting), but it's intercepted. Arthur immediately presses forward and disrupts the counter. The ball bounces to FDJ who is also in good position because of the pressing. FDJ creates the angle and finds Luis inside the box, and from there it's magic--Luis miscontrols the ball a bit but Griez reads it well and slyly passes to Messi for a cool 1v1 finish:

View: https://streamja.com/2mgz


On the last goal, Semedo does well to win the ball back and outlets to Busi. Messi drops deep to draw the defense higher and Messi properly returns it Arthur, who gets it quickly to Griez. Griez spots Messi's run from deep and splits the defense with a 40-yard run. Messi unselfishly gives the ball to Luis for the goal:

View: https://streamja.com/V9yw
 

Zososoxfan

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Barca kept things rolling midweek with a 5-1 win over Valladolid to move into 1st in La Liga.

EV lined up a fairly straightforward XI with 2 exceptions: Vidal in for Arthur and Fati on the LW ahead of Grizi. Lenglet got things started with a nice volley that took a deflection on its way in following a corner and scramble. Leglet has been an immense success so far and has allowed Barca to weather Big Sam's injuries. He's starting to show some consistent ability to get on the scoresheet on set pieces and he's fairly comfortable on the ball, although he defers to Pique a lot w/r/t distribution. Pique also gets underrated generally IMO as he has been the rock at the back for over a decade. Alba pushed up per usual but didn't combine all that well with Fati or anyone other than Messi. Semedo continues to be shown confidence at RB, and later shifted to LB to make room for Roberto at RB (presumably to keep him engaged and sharp).

In the middle, Busi had a fairly anonymous match and was overshadowed by FDJ's ownership of the MF and Vidal's sparkling first half. I finally saw FDJ's dominance in this match. He pitches in on defense and particularly served as an outlet to retain possession and transition to attack. He then helps establish possession in the MF and still has the ability to get forward and combine with the front 3. Vidal had an outstanding first half and his willingness to make runs forward and behind the line remind me of Paulinho's successful stint with the club. This was punctuated with a delightful volley goal assisted by Messi on a ball directly over his head. That is difficult and Vidal does have a certain amount of unique athleticism. Vidal is still a liability to make dumb fouls and clearly ran out of gas in the second half as Barca temporarily lost its grip on the match before icing it away with 2 quick goals, but he is a good option to have in rotation and can certainly provide some useful skills in key matches for 30 minutes (read: protect a lead and bring physicality). Generally speaking it seems that Vidal is going to continue to have to provide value in attack as his defensive ability and workrate continue to decline.

Up front, Fati showed aggressive dribbling, but overall had a poor match with lots of turnovers. He's clearly getting a lot of leash to find his game because what he brings is electric. Like Vidal, Fati gives Messi runners ahead of him behind the defense that provide Messi options and more space. For the past 2-3 years I've felt it was criminal that Barca didn't have more young runners ahead of Messi. Dembele was supposed to provide some of this but that's not really his strength either, as he is best with the ball at his feet on the wings and carrying forward from wide positions. Fati brings a much more well-rounded game and possibly even more quickness in the final third, although Dembele's straight line speed is unparalleled.

Luis and Messi took turns setting up centrally and on the RW. Messi had a stupid-good match, even for his standards. He assisted on Vidal's goal, scored a beaut of a FK, scored another goal in the 2nd half where he somehow dragged the ball to his left off his thigh on a half turn (!) before coolly finishing, and topping it off with an inch perfect assist to Luisito who had an embarrassingly wide margin for error. A total masterclass. Luis was pretty bad in this match, but as long as his finishing continues to be consistent he will be a fine option and starting CF.

Rakitic came on for FDJ for 30 minutes and looked engaged and aggressive, but rusty. It struck me how well Raki understands his teammates and his experience with Busi, Alba, Messi, Suarez, Pique, etc. shows with how much space he creates for himself and his mates with positioning. He looked determined to make incisive passes and that led to some unnecessary turnovers, but I chalk that up to his lack of PT. This directness paid off as he assisted Messi's second goal. Word is that Rak is headed to Inter in January and I think it's a huge mistake from Barca's perspective. Arthur and FDJ are clearly Barca's two most important MFs at this point, but Rak should be given the opportunity to spell Busi and play with the other 2. I acknowledge that Rak and FDJ are a bit duplicative and FDJ is the better of the 2 in the CMF role, but Rak is a much better defender and has a higher workrate than Busi. Having Rak and FDJ would also make planning against Barca extremely difficult as they can swap roles and change the shape of the team on the fly (4-2-1-3 <--> 4-1-2-3, not to mention 3-3-1-3 or 3-4-3 in attack). In short, I like that Vidal brings a different skillset and Roberto's versatility is also valuable, but I think Rak may still be part of Barca's best XI. Alena has to hope he can be Arthur's backup at AMF because he's not beating anyone for CMF.

Found a clip of the Messi thigh drag touch (penultimate replay):

View: https://streamja.com/nlrA
 
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Zososoxfan

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Messi netted a hattrick and the "S" and "G" of MSG each had another goal apiece in Barca's 5-2 dismantling of Mallorca over the weekend. Griez showed his world class finishing ability and Suarez scored one of the most unique goals I've ever seen. Perhaps even more importantly, Rakitic, Roberto, and FDJ led a useful press. Roberto in particular had a standout game. Against weaker opposition his workrate combined with MF-quality ball control and passing is effective. Rakitic has played himself into decent shape and his positioning is still better than most of Barca's other MF. Of course FDJ is the future and the MF should be built around him going forward. Barca are expected to throw out a heavily-rotated side against Inter today in UCL as they've already qualified, and have a fixture crunch with surging 4th place Sociedad this weekend, and a midweek Clasico looming in 8 days.

Also, the article below says that Barca are interested in Lautaro Martinez but are balking at the $100M asking price. Honestly though, for a player of his caliber, at his age, and that is not currently at a club that can afford to keep his wages at megaclub levels, I think Barca should absolutely pull the trigger on him. Barca can sell Dembele at a loss to help offset the cost. The only player I'd prefer over Lautaro over the next 5 years is Mbappe and he's destined for Madrid. I love Rashford and Gabi Jesus but I don't think either of them is going anywhere. There are other elite U23 strikers out there like Jovic and Abraham to name a couple, but they either haven't shown as much as Lautaro or are already on clubs like Real and Chelsea that won't sell them if they continue to improve.

 

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while sitting in first place in La Liga, and drawn against a weaker Napoli side in the UCL R16? What a bum, my grandmother could do better.
 

rguilmar

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Valverde out, Setien in.

I’ve been in the “move on from Valverde” camp for a while, but this is shocking to me.
 

Zososoxfan

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Ernie seems like a nice enough guy and I think he's a professional, but he was never the right man for the job and he should've been sacked last summer. The fact that he held on this long is a testament to the ineptitude of this Board. Nothing has really changed from last summer. The rumor going around is that the Supercopa loss to Atleti cost the Saudis lots of money by missing out on a Clasico and that's what sealed EV's fate. That seems farfetched to me at least in a direct connection type of way, but there's not much else to go on, so...[shrugs].

EV was loved by the players because he was a caretaker manager--he was almost good enough to get them to the UCL Finals last season over a supreme Liverpool team and got them to the precipice of the Semis the year before, while repeating as La Liga champs. I will remember him as overprioritizing the League over UCL and tailoring the aging legends around Messi for a potentially final burst of brilliance, but also for playing uninspired football.

I wonder what type of mandate Setien has for the remainder of the season. Is he another caretaker with more possession-based philosophy, or will he be permitted to challenge some of the legends. Suarez going down for the season makes his job a bit easier in this regard, as the only key players he likely needs to worry about are Pique, Busi, Messi, and Alba. I don't think Rakitic is given the same deference, and for Pique, Messi, and Alba they're clearly still good enough to be in the XI. But apparently Setien is a huge Busi fanboi so perhaps Setien will build the squad around him. A 4-2-3-1 would be a good starting point for that, but the problem with Luis going down is who will stretch defenses vertically? A false 9 could be in the cards, but that requires a lot of positional discipline from the wingers to cut in and make space on the wings for overlapping FBs and keep the 10 and 8 clean. Nevertheless, this seems like the best option at the moment. Then the question becomes how to deploy Messi and Griez since they could both be the false 9 or the 10, and Griez can still be a winger too.

It will also be interesting to see how Setien manages Fati, Perez, and Arthur. Arthur has been one of the biggest mysteries these last 2-3 months. I still think Barca's future MF revolves around him and FDJ, but they need to start playing together now, so that the club can see what complementary pieces are missing. Barca could and probably should bring in a mid-level #9 just to have the option available, even if the plan is to move forward with a false 9 approach. What's Prince up to these days? Paulinho? More seriously, is Cavani totally out of favor at PSG? Could be a pretty seamless fit IMO.
 

Zososoxfan

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Excellent writeup about Setien's tactics:


What stands out is how much MATS is going to flourish being part of the attack cerebrally. While Setien uses a back 3, one of the videos towards the bottom of the article shows how Bartra jumps between the backline and the MF depending on where the team wants to create space.

I'm highly encouraged by having a manager who understands spatial concepts and adaptability. It looks like he will have the tactical chops for the job, and now the question is can he manage some aging legends and impose his philosophy on a squad that may not be tailored for his preferred style.
 

Zososoxfan

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After one match, there's a fair amount to be said about Setien's Barca and there were some interesting takeaways. First and foremost, what was immediately obvious is that Setien is going to keep the team more vertically compact and high up the pitch. EV's Barca was conservative by keeping the backline +1 fairly far back and keeping some wide players on a leash. This forced the 3-5 attacking players to be brilliant without conceding defensive balance. However, this also exacerbated the limitations of an aging squad and led to a stale approach in attack.

With Setien Barca were a 3-3-4/3-4-3 in attack (depending on where Alba setup) and the midfield had clear orders to help the forwards press and win the ball back in high areas. The CBs, Roberto, and Busi also played higher than EV and it was clear as those 4 made many interceptions. Roberto almost played like a CB in this match to allow Alba to get involved in the attack. It makes sense to have lots of speed on either side of Pique in the back 3 to help nip attacks, and Roberto, Umtiti, and Busi all have excellent instincts reading where the first ball will go. Messi even seemed more engaged in the press. I'd like to think Setien sat down with Messi and after expressing his admiration profusely told him that he needed some help from Messi to help the team win the ball back in high areas.

The second thing that stood out is that Barca maintained a lot more possession that they typically did with EV. Most of Barca's squad is well-versed in this style but it was also clear that they were rusty. In particular the MF seemed disjointed and passing options were limited for long stretches in the first half. The Rakitic-Vidal combo likely has a lot to do with this and when FDJ, Arthur, and Puig (!) begin integrating more I think this will get better. I didn't get to watch this match as closely as I'd like, but I didn't see as much of the field switching and direct attack as I expected. Some of this is likely due to implementing a big shift in approach piecemeal, and some of it likely has to do with how Granada setup.

The third tactical change that was interesting was the forwards changing positions throughout the match. Barca started out with Griez-Messi-Fati, then switched to Fati-Messi-Griez, and even looked like Fati-Griez-Messi for a bit. I don't think this was particularly helpful--some of Granada's best attacks came after these swaps, but I think it indicates that Setien is going to throw tons of looks at the opposing defenses and wants his players comfortable interchanging to get the best matchups. This will help long-term but will cause some growing pains. These pains will somewhat surprisingly be in Barca's defensive shape, as opposed to their attacking.

Player selection also tells us a good deal about Setien. Busi played his most effective match in some time and it's because the team's attack and defense were suited for his skillset. As mentioned above, Busi's reading of the game is pretty much unparalleled and he intercepted balls and directed traffic much better than running around aimlessly like he did at times under EV. He's just not much of a runner and shrinking the field is where Busi's awareness shines. With good width to both sides, the center opened up and Busi was able to spray balls and maintain possession like the Busi of old. Once Setien identifies the best MF 3, I think Barca will really start to thrive. To that point, the future may be Puig-FDJ-Arthur, but at least Busi can now be a high quality player and FDJ is certainly versatile enough to be a MF other than the pivot. Until Arthur rounds into shape and Puig gets comfortable at this level, Busi at the pivot is a viable option.

I honestly don't know what to make of the selection of Vidal and Rakitic for the other MF spots. Perhaps it was a nod to the veterans to give them a shot to shine. I've been a Rakitic fanboy ever since he joined the squad and I still don't think he gets the credit he deserves, but he wasn't very good in this match. Vidal brings a higher workrate and creativity that Rakitic doesn't have anymore. Vidal makes runs into the attacking box and had a huge part in the goal, and still has the legs to get all the way back and protect the backline. He nipped one late dangerous attack very well once Busi, Pique, and at least one other defender were beat. While I think both can be capable rotation options, I don't think either has the technical ability or spatial awareness to reach the ceilings of FDJ, Arthur, or potentially Puig. Getting the MF rotation down from 6-7 to mostly 4 and some spot starts for the 5th will do Barca much good.

At RB, Roberto once again got the nod over Semedo. I think Semedo is a much more dynamic attacker but Setien seems to value defense at this spot, at least while Alba is at LB. Alba is still a creative and smart player on the wing but for the first time I finally saw the step he's lost and it takes away a huge part of his game. I wonder if Setien will consider using Semedo is as the attacking FB and try Firpo as the stay at home FB. With Roberto, Wague, Alba, and Firpo, Setien has some options and I think he'll lock this in quickly but continue to rotate to get the best out of Alba.

At CB it was interesting to see Tanktiti get the nod over Lenglet. Lenglet has had a wonderful start to his career and his ability to come in and fit right in is impressive. But when Umtiti burst onto the scene he was one of the best CBs in the world for 18 months and culminated with the WC victory. If he can recapture that form, it's a no-brainer to pick him over Lenglet. But to be honest, I'm not quite sure where their skills are most different. I'd say that Umtiti is a better passer and more comfortable on the ball, but otherwise they are both big strong and fairly fast CBs. It would be cool to see Umtiti get some games at RCB in what essentially is a back 3 to get Pique some rest. Very sad that Todibo went out on loan before the Setien change occurred.

Lastly among the starters, the selection of Fati has to excite fans. The kid is absolutely electric and direct, even though he's slowed down quite a bit after his scintillating start to the season. The book must've gotten out on him because defenders are much more prepared for him now. Nevertheless, Fati must be keeping the seat warm while Dembele gets back. I have to think this will be Dembele's last chance to make this work.

For the subs, it was awesome to see Puig get some real minutes. The kid is tiny and young looking, but he had a major part in creating the turnover that led to the goal. He is a dynamic player and seems to have an understanding with Messi. If he can be the Iniesta to Arthur's Xavi, Barca may be able to recreate the Tiki Taka days for just awhile longer. It was also nice to see Perez make it onto the field, even if just for a brief cameo. I think the kid will be a very good system player and see a lot of Pedro in him. Lastly, it's important that Arthur get activated because if Barca intend to play possession-based football there's probably no one better or more important to that than Arthur.
 
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Zososoxfan

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I just don't care about domestic cups that much. Winning the league-UCL double is 95% of what I care about--if you're a completist then fine, getting the shiny treble counts for something. It's good for Spanish football that someone other than Barca-Madrid is gonna win this year.

Now, if you're a fan of a club that has to fight for UCL spots or doesn't win hardware often (COUGH*SPURS*COUGH*), then I watch the domestic cup with more interest.

I didn't see the match yesterday (baffling to me how RFEF thinks someone like me who has YTTV and Sling Int'l subscriptions shouldn't get these matches), but if Roberto was actually playing wing in a 4-3-3, I think that's dumb. If Roberto was more of a RMF, then it's fine. All of this is to point out just how fucked this Board is for letting Barca head into the final 1/3 of the season with 16 senior team players [insert clappy emoji].
 

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Big win for Barca last night over a feisty Betis team in Sevilla. The game was super fun to watch, as the score was 2-2 at half and ended up including a pair of red cards. Barca's first goal was an absolute GOLAZO with Messi chipping the defense to charging FDJ who chested down and fired in one motion. Busi cleaned up for the second, and the shiny new Messi-Lenglet connection blossomed once again on a set piece. It wasn't the prettiest win, but Barca are in a real fight for La Liga so points away are certainly important no matter how they come. With Lenglet suspended for the next match, this squad is already getting pulled thin and it's not even March.
 

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Messi should have drawn a penalty in the later stages of the match, too. Absolute farce that he didn't, if there were VAR it'd have been called on review 9 times out of 10.
 

Zososoxfan

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Barca thrashed Tiny (but Mighty) Eibar over the weekend 5-0 on the back of 4 (!) Lio Messi goals and actually looked very fluid and good doing so. It was an interesting lineup from Setien--FDJ started on the bench and Vidal was the nominal LW while Fati sat. Overall, the players look like they're starting to understand Setien's overall philosophy in that they are constantly looking forward for incisive passes without sacrificing possession. Messi also seems like he's starting to get more comfortable being a #10 in addition to front line finisher, which is not an easy role for any player even if they're not playing much defense.

The first goal featured a vintage Busi-Messi connection that split 4 defenders, and then Messi also went vintage and split another 2-3 defenders before finishing. Truly a magnificent goal.


Messi's second also featured him beating 3 defenders by himself, but the finish was the highlight for me--from an incredibly narrow angle, he picked out the lower corner on the far post leaving the keeper perplexed.


Good guy Messi tried to get Antoine the goal on his third, but Griez duffed it before Messi cleaned up the scraps. The key thing to note for that goal was that the team was in a high press just before half time and created a defensive turnover in the attacking third.


The fourth goal was a Messi-ized tap in where he went around a defender and the keeper mostly just to increase the degree of difficulty. The highlight here though was newcomer's Martin Braithwaite's workrate that created the assist.


The fifth goal was Arthur's but it was Martin's run and sublime first touch that created the chance. Martin fired low at the keeper and Arthur did well to finish the move.


FDJ came on for Busi after an hour and Umtiti relieved Pique after that to keep everyone fresh for the huge week ahead with Napoli and Tuesday and the Clasico over the weekend.

In bad news, Roberto has been ruled out for a month with a leg muscle injury, so your FBs for the next month are Semedo and Firpo without a question. I like both players very much but their health and card accumulations now become of paramount importance. It also limits Setien's ability to match opponents since Alba and Roberto clearly have different skillsets. Another example of why letting a player like Wague go in January was an error.

Napoli come into the UCL tie winning 4 of their last 5, including a Coppa win over Inter. Most of the wins have been a 1-goal margin except for the Sampdoria match at the beginning of the month. They have good scoring balance between Milik, Mertens, and Insigne. Bizarro Pique (Llorente) is a goof but also a very useful late sub as his late season run with Spurs last season showed. Insigne in particular is a dynamic player and he's helped a lot by Callejon in getting the ball to the forwards. Zielinski (the auto parts King) is also one to watch, and Lorenzo can be effective out of the backline. Fabian Ruiz is also a rising star at just 23. Allan is or at least was a talented player, but I haven't seen much of him recently. Led by hilarious perpetual redass Gattuso, I think this tie should be lots of fun.
 

Zososoxfan

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Bump for the return Clasico in Madrid on Sunday at 3pm EST. Barca have a 2 point lead going into the fixture, and despite all of the valid hand-wringing about their form this season they are a mile ahead of the rest of the league in goals scored with 62. Madrid are second with 46, but Sociedad has 42 and Villareal have 43. Madrid are once again an elite defensive unit though, as they are one of only 2 Spanish clubs who have conceded less than 20. Barca have conceded 29 which puts them 6th. A Barca win likely puts the league out of reach for Madrid barring a complete collapse. A draw would be a terrific result for Barca as they will control their destiny. And a Madrid win probably gets the odds slightly in their favor.

Both teams are teetering a bit at the moment but for drastically different reasons. Barca's Board has mismanaged the squad so badly that only 12 senior players are expected to be available for the UCL return leg against Napoli in 2 weeks. While Busi, Vidal, and Braithwaite are available for Sunday, Barca just don't have many players they can reasonably expect to play in a hugely important league match. Madrid meanwhile were rolling along this season until the last 5 matches. They are 1-3-1 (W-L-D) in that stretch and have let Barca back into La Liga title race as a result. Hazard is done for the season, Asensio is out, and I read Rodrygo is suspended but I didn't see that to be the case when I double checked. Nevertheless, Madrid have a much deeper squad than Barca and have the luxury of bringing on huge difference makers off the bench (see: Bale, Gareth).

Madrid have the superior defense and MF in this matchup with Barca having the better attacking group. Varane and Ramos are an elite CB pair, Mendy is filling in commendably for Marcelo, and despite my hatred for him Carvajal is certainly an above average RB. Casemiro and Valverde are the true strength of this team though, and they both protect the defense as the FBs get forward and are also capable of initiating the offense. Kroos and Modric usually fill the more attacking role in front of them. Up front Madrid have lots of options with Benz, Isco, Vinicius, Bale, Vazquez, and Jovic all available. Courtois is probably a second or third tier keeper at worst.

Barca can either pair a gimpy Pique or a gimpy Umtiti with Lenglet at CB. Both Umtiti and Lenglet are left footed and prefer LCB, but I believe they may have played together recently. Injuries to Alba and Roberto means Firpo and Semedo are the FBs. Firpo has been extremely tentative in the last couple of matches and he was unlucky to start the break that led to the Napoli goal in UCL. Semedo remains a perfect Barca FB on paper, but he can't capture the consistency to instill confidence. MF is interesting this year as Busi, FDJ, Arthur, Vidal, and Rakitic have all featured as starters. Vidal played as LW in UCL and he has shown that he's one of Barca's only players willing and able to run in behind defenses. Even just having that threat provides a lot of value and space to Messi. Arthur hasn't been great this season despite all the promise and skills in the world. He seems to be the player most energized by Valverde's departure. FDJ's workrate has been outstanding this year as he beds in to the squad. Busi has also had a noticeable resurgence since Setien took the reigns. Setien still pushes Busi too high up in the press for my tastes, but other managers have done that as well. Up front we know Messi and Griezmann will start. The question is whether Ansu Fati will continue his storybook start to his Barca career or whether new acquisition Braithwaite will get the start. In net, I believe MATS is the world's best keeper, and no worse than sharing the first tier label with Oblak and Allison.

While I like what Setien has done so far tactically, I think Madrid have too many good players and Zidane is astute enough to get Madrid by on Sunday. While some Clasicos recently have gone against the grain or gotten out of hand when one team is far better than the other, this match will likely come down to which club takes their chances. While it may seem like a good idea for Barca to sit back and absorb pressure and try to hit on the break, these players aren't built for that. For that reason, I think we will see a very open game with Madrid dominating the MF. Barca are going to have to try and thread the needle of getting the ball to Messi or Griezmann and build attacks quickly before the double pivots shut them down. Madrid should have the ability to choose whether to hold possession or be aggressive and direct. While I can see the reasoning behind both strategies, I think Barca is worse defending direct attacks with speed and power (see: Liverpool).

Should be a fun one, Visca Barca!!
 
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Zososoxfan

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Barca can't finish their chances in the first half, run out of gas and options in the second half, and choke the league lead away. Messi was off his game, Griezmann missed Barca's best chance of the game, Umtiti looked gimpy, the midfield was toothless, and Madrid's goal came when Barca's emergency striker replacement was playing RMF in a low block and got caught napping. Fun times at Barca ATM.

#BartoOut!!
 

Zososoxfan

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Well, look at that! Hay Liga!! A tough match against Sociedad gets gifted to Barca on a VAR pen call (that almost certainly cost Barto a maletine) and Real yaks away a match to Betis to give Barca the league lead back with 11 to play. With how uneven both clubs are right now, the league is far from over. Just happy that Barca are back in the driver's seat!
 

Zososoxfan

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Provocative article by Graham Hunter on espn.com/soccer (https://www.espn.com/soccer/spanish-primera-division/story/4071100/barcelona-and-real-madrids-la-liga-title-race-rooted-in-decline-not-dominance) today:

One thing which unites Spain's top two teams is that they look mentally and physically drained. On and off the ball thoughts are processed more slowly, creative movement is delayed, the amount of high-intensity kilometres covered is lower and more passes are misplaced. The entertainment value as a whole is down and the ball is circulated with less and less wit and less and less risk.
Perhaps I'm just too cynical, but while this does describe Barca accurately, that's not the impression I've gotten from watching El Clasico or Real-MANC recently.

I've consistently scorned those who boasted that a point of strength in England's Premier League was that the lowest of the low in that division "could always beat the top dogs". Their argument was that this indicated robust Premier League health.

That argument doesn't stand up -- as it was more a marker of weakness in the leading sides. An occasional shock? The need to be ultra focussed and intense whoever you're playing? Fine, in both cases. But to boast that the weakest, least impressive, most likely to be relegated sides were "always" likely to defeat England's leading two or three clubs in any given season wasn't a proud boast -- not in my view, anyways.

...

Some moan about the hegemony which Barcelona and Real Madrid, with the notable exception of Atletico, have imposed on la Liga since the days when Valencia and Deportivo La Coruna were title winners. But that happened because, across those years, the three biggest sides were playing phenomenal football -- consistently.

It wasn't, by any stretch of the imagination, because the rest of Spanish football was weak. Their dominance came at a time when Valencia and Sevilla won European trophies. When Atleti consistently showed that they were a match for any Premier League team. When Espanyol and Athletic Bilbao reached finals and when clubs from small communities like Villarreal and Osasuna were UEFA competition semifinalists for heaven's sake.
I think this line of argument is valid, but contextual. In other words, the EPL IS currently super deep, and Liverpool's dominance is very impressive. I'd also argue that the EPL wasn't this strong or deep going back 5 years or so. Same goes for Spain. The top 6 have been very strong for the last 5 years, but the revenue distribution is finally taking effect and the table is much stronger throughout.

Sadly, over the coming week and a half there's more threat that evidence of decline may be produced.

Perhaps Atleti hold on to their slender lead at Anfield? Perhaps Barcelona edge past Napoli with the benefit of Griezmann's away goal? Maybe the perpetually surprising Real Madrid somehow carve success from the jaws of failure at Manchester City?

But with Valencia already 4-1 down to Atalanta there's a scenario where, if they suffer a bad few days, all of Spain's Champions League representatives could be bounced before the quarterfinals for the first time since 2004-05.

Fine, it might not happen. But are you absolutely rock-solid certain that it won't?
Fair point here, but if one or two of these sides sneak through to the QF, and progress to the Semis (not a stretch at all considering these are all still talented sides), does this argument still hold water? I'm playing devil's advocate here because I agree that BARCA are in decline, but I don't see the same systemic problems at Real or Atleti. Both of those sides have invested in exciting young players (Valverde, Vinicius, Rodrygo, Jovic, Mendy, and Militao for Real, and Felix, Saul, Gimenez and others for Atleti). Do I think both Barca and Real need to drastically overturn their rosters in order to compete with the elites going forward--you bet. But as I think about the "elites" of next season and beyond, it's not clear to me who that is.

While I expect some combination of MANC, Liverpool, Chelsea, Bayern, and Juve to be there, it does seem like we're getting close to the end of an era or the end of a transition anyway. In other words, while Mbappe, Lautaro, and other players expected to move will have a huge impact on the global order, there are a number of other players that will dictate these fortunes that we're just starting to see scratch the surface. Some will make the leap and others won't. Guys like Havertz, Gnarby, Odegaard, Haaland, Maddison, Fernandes, Pulisic (?!??), etc. The impact at MANC also plays a huge role in this, as they have an embarrassment of riches with Bernando, Sterling, Sane, Jesus, etc.
 

Zososoxfan

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Cross-posting from Odds & Ends:

The plan is to sell whoever they can that isn't important to the 20-21 season with the intention of bringing in Lautaro (likely at a cost of $90M).

Rakitic is 100% gone pretty much no matter the transfer fee (but guessing $10-15M). Dembele is almost certainly gone, but I don't think they're willing to accept less than ~$40M.

Umtiti and Vidal will likely be offloaded. Umtiti for $15-25M and Vidal for >$10M.

After that is where it gets interesting though. I've heard rumors that Arthur is on the block and so might Griezmann and Alba. Not saying I'd get rid of any of them (Arthur especially is a keep no matter what guy for me), but those 3 have real value left.
 

67YAZ

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Arthur might be on the block? Not many 23 year old so everything with word class potential midfielders reach the market. Even if Barca is motivated, it might be hard for many clubs to muster a bid that meets their valuation right now.
 

Zososoxfan

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Arthur might be on the block? Not many 23 year old so everything with word class potential midfielders reach the market. Even if Barca is motivated, it might be hard for many clubs to muster a bid that meets their valuation right now.
He's had a very uneven season when he had the opportunity to lock it down. This may be unfair of course considering the entire team and club generally have been imbalanced this year. Nevertheless, Arthur's performances have not been world class even though his skills are. He's been rumored to be not taking training seriously enough, and he's had a couple of injuries (including VD!).

More importantly though, he would obviously bring back real cash. So if Barca determine that there's no other way to raise the funds and Lautaro's more important to the future, then I guess it's possible. Again--not advocating for the move, just fleshing out the aforementioned rumor.
 

Zososoxfan

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With the La Liga restart around the corner, a look at the squad is merited.

The headline here is that Messi's quad/hip injury from earlier this season kept him out of training last week. While Messi participated yesterday it's scary and sad that 3 months off didn't heal this completely. Barca have 3 matches in the first week (!) of the La Liga sprint to finish the season, so managing his minutes is a must. Fortunately Barca start against @Mallorca, then Leganes, before @Sevilla. Messi will likely be needed for the full 90 against Sevilla, so I don't expect him to go 90 against Leganes. I wouldn't want him going 90 against Mallorca either, but I don't see how he doesn't demand full participation against Mallorca due to it being the first match of the return. Messi has been adamant that he doesn't like being subbed off because defenders tire at the end of matches, but with the change in substitution rules I wonder if he will soften on that.

On the flip side, Suarez has had a chance to recover from what was presumed to be a season-ending injury. With the frontline depth depleted due to horribad squad management, even a hobbled or rusty Suarez is a huge addition. After Messi, Suarez, Griezmann, Braithwaite, and Fati, there's really no one else. Dembele is presumed out until next season. Roberto and Umtiti are also said to be healthy, although with Big Sam I'll believe it when I see it. I love me some Sam and hope he didn't wreck his career in WC 2018.

Barca still have a thin squad looking at the MF and D--who knows what the MF is going to look like now that Setien has had some time to see his guys in action, train, and prepare more. Personally, I'd start by naming FDJ and Arthur starters for any key match and build from there. Busi, Rak, Vidal, Roberto, and Puig are all nice complementary pieces and Alba can be pushed into MF in a pinch. At the back, it's pretty straightforward as Alba-Firpo are the options at LB, Semedo and Roberto are at RB, and Pique, Lenglet, and Sam are the options in the middle.

At Barca B, the only players mentioned as potentially getting a chance under these unusual circumstances are Collado (RW), Araujo (CB), and Cuenca (CB).

While it probably doesn't make much sense to look more than a week ahead during this craziness, Barca then have matches against midtable Bilbao, then @Vigo who are pretty bad this season, before 2 insane clashes against Atleti and @Villareal. Messi will need to be energized for those encounters, although Setien will have to judge whether he trusts the team to get points off weaker opponents without Messi. Barca finish with 4 opponents currently in the bottom half of the table, 1 of which is Catalan nemesis Espanyol who are currently last. They will obviously be motivated to keep Barca from winning the title if they're in such a position. While under normal circumstances I'd say 85 points will be needed to win the league, I expect the winner to finish closer to 80 and maybe lower.

@Mallorca (13/06)
Leganes (16/06)
@Sevilla (21/06)

Bilbao (24/06)
@Vigo (28/06)
Atelti (01/07)
@Villareal (05/07)

Espanyol (08/07)
@Valladolid (12/07)
Osasuna (15/07)
@Alaves (19/07)
 
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Kliq

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With the La Liga restart around the corner, a look at the squad is merited.

The headline here is that Messi's quad/hip injury from earlier this season kept him out of training last week. While Messi participated yesterday it's scary and sad that 3 months off didn't heal this completely. Barca have 3 matches in the first week (!) of the La Liga sprint to finish the season, so managing his minutes is a must. Fortunately Barca start against @Mallorca, then Leganes, before @Sevilla. Messi will likely be needed for the full 90 against Sevilla, so I don't expect him to go 90 against Leganes. I wouldn't want him going 90 against Mallorca either, but I don't see how he doesn't demand full participation against Mallorca due to it being the first match of the return. Messi has been adamant that he doesn't like being subbed off because defenders tire at the end of matches, but with the change in substitution rules I wonder if he will soften on that.

On the flip side, Suarez has had a chance to recover from what was presumed to be a season-ending injury. With the frontline depth depleted due to horribad squad management, even a hobbled or rusty Suarez is a huge addition. After Messi, Suarez, Griezmann, Braithwaite, and Fati, there's really no one else. Dembele is presumed out until next season. Roberto and Umtiti are also said to be healthy, although with Big Sam I'll believe it when I see it. I love me some Sam and hope he didn't wreck his career in WC 2018.

Barca still have a thin squad looking at the MF and D--who knows what the MF is going to look like now that Setien has had some time to see his guys in action, train, and prepare more. Personally, I'd start by naming FDJ and Arthur starters for any key match and build from there. Busi, Rak, Vidal, Roberto, and Puig are all nice complementary pieces and Alba can be pushed into MF in a pinch. At the back, it's pretty straightforward as Alba-Firpo are the options at LB, Semedo and Roberto are at RB, and Pique, Lenglet, and Sam are the options in the middle.

At Barca B, the only players mentioned as potentially getting a chance under these unusual circumstances are Collado (RW), Araujo (CB), and Cuenca (CB).

While it probably doesn't make much sense to look more than a week ahead during this craziness, Barca then have matches against midtable Bilbao, then @Vigo who are pretty bad this season, before 2 insane clashes against Atleti and @Villareal. Messi will need to be energized for those encounters, although Setien will have to judge whether he trusts the team to get points off weaker opponents without Messi. Barca finish with 4 opponents currently in the bottom half of the table, 1 of which is Catalan nemesis Espanyol who are currently last. They will obviously be motivated to keep Barca from winning the title if they're in such a position. While under normal circumstances I'd say 85 points will be needed to win the league, I expect the winner to finish closer to 80 and maybe lower.
Only those guys? How are they even going to score??
 

Zososoxfan

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Only those guys? How are they even going to score??
I see your tongue firmly planted in your cheek, but Suarez hasn't played since January, Messi's fighting a series of injuries, and Griezmann's been playing mostly out of position all season. Fati is a promising kid but 17 years old and while Braithwaite has looked good, he's still Martin Braithwaite. If the starting XI featured Fati-Martin-Griez I don't think the opponent is going to be too scared.
 

Zososoxfan

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Barca returned to action on Saturday and looked very good in a 4-0 win away at Mallorca. The lineup featured Araujo paired with Pique at CB, Roberto back from injury starting at RB, Busi-FDJ-Vidal in the MF, and Griez-Messi-Martin up top. Rak came on for Vidal at HT, Luisito came on for Griez about an hour in, Arthur relieved Busi and Semedo relieved Roberto for the final 30, and Firpo got some work in coming in for FDJ in the last 10 or so.

Alba had an outstanding match and created the first 2 goals. The first a gorgeous assist for a Vidal header goal and the second a deflected cross that FDJ headed to Messi, who then headed on for Martin, who finished a half-volley with authority. This superlative first half got ratcheted up further when Alba made a very intelligent bend in his run to get on the end of a Messi thru ball to score the 3rd. Messi blasted in a right-footed shot late in the match for the 4th goal--off a pass coming across the middle from the left (where Alba had helped build up play).

Alba's play and use throughout the match was one of the biggest headlines. Most notably, when Firpo came on towards the end, Firpo slotted in at LB and Alba was used more like a LMF. Alba has always been a willing and capable runner for Messi to look for and as Messi settles in as the creative force (#10) for the team under Setien the issue of having runners ahead of him continues to be the key question. For the same reason, Vidal's reprisal of the Tankinho (Paulinho) MF role continues to be welcome and why he gets the start ahead of someone like Arthur. Martin's speed and comfort running behind defenses also opened things up in the middle. As Phil-Ray noted, it wasn't an accident that Griez came off while Messi-Martin stayed on. They also shared a really cool insight about how Martin has been saying this was the plan for his career since leaving Middlesborough--i.e. he was going to come to a low-midtable Spanish side to show what he could do with the hope of scouts seeing the potential for him playing alongside the best players in the premier sides.

I don't want to overstate things because winning 1v1 battles all over the field against an overmatched opponent will always make a team look good. But Barca looked very good (in attack at least) with a clear plan and players being used in roles suited for their skills. The defense was fine although Mallorca did find some success getting in behind Alba and got a handful of good chances throughout the match. Messi started out wide right but eventually settled into a position as the AMF. Martin and Griezmann were very wide and cut inside frequently much like the early Pep teams. Griezmann would tuck inside and track back for Alba when he got way forward, but it still feels like Griez doesn't have an ideal position in this side yet. I trust Setien will be forced to use him more as a focal point with the glut of fixtures. The Alba at LMF with Firpo behind him has real potential IMO. That allows for a 4-4-2/4-3-3 formation with Messi as the tip of the diamond. Vidal (nominally as the RMF) bombs forward to occupy defenders isolating Martin on the wing or allowing him to cut inside with space. The only other MF with this ability is Puig, so if Setien wants to use this style going forward I hope Puig gets a real look.

The team setup very differently once Rak came on for Vidal. FDJ was tasked with getting farther forward. Once Arthur came on for Busi, Setien was clearly setting up the team to attack even more from the wings and have the central MF play deeper. Note that Semedo also came on for Roberto at the same time, although that was also in part to keep Roberto healthy after returning from injury. This worked out fine because Suarez is such a force in the middle and takes up attention (even if he was super rusty and should've had a couple of goals).

So while Setien needs to keep tinkering to figure out his best XI, he also needs to figure out multiple systems to use the talented players that may not fit into the XI for his preferred XI (looking primarily at Arthur and perhaps Griezmann).
 

Zososoxfan

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Barca is back at it today at 4pm EDT against relegation-threatened Leganes. Alba is suspended, so we'll likely see Firpo start at LB. I'd also expect Pique to get the day off and to get Lenglet ready for Friday's showdown with Sevilla. Although Big Sam is ostensibly healthy, he's almost certainly not--likely a Lenglet-Araujo CB pairing tonight. I imagine we'll see both Roberto and Semedo get minutes at RB to keep them both fresh, Semedo to start.

Arthur should also get the start and Busi will be rested so he's available to Setien on Friday if desired. Vidal-Rak will likely split time, and FDJ will probably start and get relieved early. Really hoping we get to see Puig tonight. I'd be interested to see a Rak-FDJ double pivot that lets Rak serve as the deeper DMF (probably his best position at this point) and allows for FDJ to slot into his best position from his Ajax days.

We'll likely see Ansu get a start and Braithwaite continue to get serious minutes. While this is a perfect match to sit Messi at the start and let him play a few minutes at the end if needed, I doubt he'll allow for that. Suarez will see some minutes to get him back into shape, and Griez will also likely get minutes to get better integrated. Perhaps a Collado cameo at the end.

Desired XI:

MATS
Semedo-Araujo-Lenglet-Firpo
Rak-FDJ
Fati-Arthur-Griez
Martin
 

Zososoxfan

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Barca got a 2-0 win at home against Leganes with goals from Fati and Messi (PK). The PK was somewhat soft, but Messi was hit multiple times on the run and did get hit by 2 different defenders once he was inside the box. With the loss and Espanyol stealing a point against Getafe, Leganes now sits last in the table.

Setien emptied the bench and used the maximum allowed 16 players. Neto, Pena, Araujo, FDJ, Monchu, Collado, and Martin didn't get in, but everyone else in the squad did. I didn't realize it before my last post, but I'd wager good money that there was a gentlemen's agreement that Barca not play Martin this match. Barca started off with this:

MATS
Roberto-Pique-Lenglet-Firpo
Rak-Busi-Arthur
Messi-Griez-Fati

I'll start off by saying that Leganes sat very deep in a 5-3-2/5-4-1 block with the strikers sitting 10-15 yards behind the MF line and the defenders mostly hovering just above the box. Most clubs will have some level of trouble breaking that down. That being said, man that was a static MF for the first 30 minutes. None of the MF 3 ventured forward, Messi couldn't get the ball in good spots, Griez was more discombobulated than usual (although I give him credit for making a bunch of runs and almost getting onto a Rak cross/lofted thru ball), and Barca looked vulnerable on the break. Firpo in particular had 2 guys get behind him and almost score. Lenglet bailed the team out of one and the other was a tight angle shot that glanced the post. I'd venture to say we won't see that front 6 ever again. Barca really didn't do shite and the first goal came from Firpo getting forward aggressively and Fati hitting a textbook quick low hard shot from the top of the box from an angle to loosen up Leganes and Barca as well. Once Fati broke the ice, he was more willing to take on players and Barca started moving a bit more. After the first half cooling break, players seemed to follow their passes more and forced the defense to work tracking runners and communicate.

After HT, Setien made some interesting adjustments. He moved Fati to the middle but let him roam all across the front line. This allowed Griez to push wider to the left and he was much better from this position. However, Setien almost immediately took off Roberto for Semedo and Fati for Suarez. I thought Semedo had an excellent match and at a bare minimum he showed how dangerous his speed is and Messi found him down the line several times, one of which led to a Griez goal but was called offside with VAR. Semedo also tracked back a couple of times on 30+ yard sprints where he beat everyone by a mile. While Roberto is much better playing thru the middle and letting Messi roam more freely, Semedo gets forward and offers a more direct approach. Another quick shout for Griez and his defensive workrate. All the way to the end of the match he was tracking back all the way to the defensive box and the formation played much more like a 4-4-2. He and Firpo had some nice combos working the ball up the left, but were also clunky for large stretches.

Suarez was totally anonymous and is clearly playing himself back into shape. Considering he suffered his injury in January, I'll cut him some slack but I have to think Martin is pushing him quite a bit in practice.

Not long after the double switch, Vidal came on for Busi and Rak dropped into the DMF spot. Vidal really is a dynamic player and he instantly made a bombing run right up the middle that opened up space for Suarez and Messi. He drifted wide and combined with Messi and Semedo and generally just offered much more energy. Again, I really like Busi, Rak, and Arthur individually but they should not be played together. Although the ideal MF 3 will depend on the FBs and the Forwards, FDJ and Vidal are currently in the best form.

10 minutes after that sub, Puig (!) came on for Arthur. Puig was another total jolt of energy and he had a very spirited 20-25 minutes of play. He made a run in behind the defense on the break but couldn't finish. He beat a tired defender with speed around the corner, drawing a foul near the edge of the box in a dangerous position, energized the press (even Messi was helping to win the ball back), and hit a ripper of a shot to the near post although it wasn't very difficult for the keeper. I have to think he has a role down the stretch that will only be limited because he's still so slight (he needs to go to the Messi school of neverending leg days) and perhaps if Setien tries to manage egos.

Nevertheless, a MF corps of Busi, FDJ, Vidal, Rak, Arthur, and Puig isn't terrible and now it's more about figuring out the right combos. Personally, I think of it as 2 groups--Busi, Rak, and Arthur as one and Vidal, FDJ, and Puig the second. Energy and dynamism is what separates them. I think it's fairly critical to always keep at least one and honestly probably two of the second group on the field at all times. With FDJ easily the best MF at the club and young enough to handle lots of match time, this shouldn't be an issue. But to truly get everyone in their best spots, Busi and Rak should be considered DMFs, Arthur and FDJ CMFs, and Vidal and Puig as the AMFs. While Vidal could also be in the CMF rotation, his dynamism is too valuable to be used in that role since Arthur and FDJ can handle it. I also think Rak is the second best DMF behind Busi and with a little more PT could pull even with him (not by offering the same skillset of course, but by being incredibly smart positionally, tidy in possession, and much more mobile).

TL;DR - the current best MF is probably FDJ-Busi-Vidal with Rak subbing for Busi or Vidal when Setien wants more defensive balance or prefers to push the FBs high, and Puig can play the sparkplug role in bits in pieces. While I love Arthur's skillset more than anyone else's, he needs to perform on the field starting yesterday.

Lastly, Umtiti came on for Pique around the same time as the Puig sub because Pique got studded. Big Sam is one of my favorite players but he looked rusty. He and Lenglet did not have great chemistry and Leganes had a couple of breaks that made me nervy considering it was only a 2 goal lead. I'm still glad he got time in this match, but I'm not sure if he's ahead of Araujo in the pecking order, and it's clear that Pique and Lenglet are the best pair by a lot. Umtiti is suspended for Friday, but I'm fairly certain Pique will play and Araujo is hopefully ready to be a backup for some bona fide football. I'd like to see Araujo-Lenglet get some time together so they can get comfortable if that combo is needed.
 
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Zososoxfan

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I didn't get to see the Barca-Sevilla match because Fanatiz's VOD feature totally crapped itself. Due to the importance of the match, I'm calling strike 2 on Fanatiz and the next time I have an issue like this I'm switching back to Sling for the M2M subscription. I'll give Fubo's international package a close look for the new season when I can justify a 3-month commitment.

More importantly, Barca drew 0-0 at Sevilla and Real beat Sociedad under suspicious reffing decisions, so the 2 megaclubs are now tied on points with Real holding the H2H tiebreaker. IOW, if Real win out, the title is theirs. That sucks and Barca only have themselves to blame. FDJ is out what's being reported as at least a week and up to a month with a calf injury. That's just dandy since he's anywhere from the 2nd to 4th most important player on the squad (Messi (duh), Pique, and MATS being the others). Without him, old Busi, tired Rakitic, limited Vidal, underperforming Arthur, and young Puig are going to have to make this work. On the Barca Talk podcast, the hosts were talking about moving a CB like Araujo to DMF to give Busi breaks, but I think Rak has to be the backup there. This may be yet another opportunity for Roberto to get a shot in MF. I'd really like to see him get a shot at either the DMF or CMF spot and give the keys at RB to Semedo.

In any event, Barca started with a Busi-Rak-Vidal MF, and Messi-Suarez-Martin up top (i.e. Griez on bench). Arthur came on for Martin after an hour, Griez came on for Vidal with 15 minutes left, and Puig got a cameo at the very end. Barca started with Alba-Lenglet-Pique-Semedo in the back. MATS had some spectacular saves and both teams had a chance to snatch a goal at the end, with Suarez getting free on a low hard bouncing cross to his left foot that he put just over the bar. I can't say much more since I didn't get to see the match.

Barca take on Bilbao today at Camp Nou and we'll have to see if they can keep pace with and pressure on Madrid.
 

Zososoxfan

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When Griez plays centrally, he's making intelligent moves and combining decently well. When he gets isolated on the wing, he becomes predictable and one-dimensional. He did this a lot of France in the WC too, the difference being there that there was real value in providing an outlet and he can hold up the ball very well. At Barca that's not as much of a challenge and it doesn't offer the same value.
 

Zososoxfan

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Barca definitely playing with urgency that half, but still can't break thru. Players are making runs and working hard, but it's just so disjointed. Alba and Griez have no chemistry on the LW, Arthur is pushing higher than he's used to and running into Messi, etc.
 

Zososoxfan

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Rak finally breaks thru for Barca on a scramble after a spell of good pressure team-wide. Puig has been a huge energy lift. Alba is gassed.