Two defeats in a row have piled the pressure onto Barcelona manager Luis Enrique. Losing a Clásico is never going to do a coach any good, but Barça were quite unlucky and it seemed like there were positives to be taken from that game. This loss, however, has the alarm bells ringing loud and clear.
It was supposed to be a glorious occasion, the first time that the much-vaunted front three of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez started at home for Barça and Celta Vigo, flying high even before this game, weren’t expected to present too many problems. Obviously this wasn’t communicated clearly enough to Celta manager Eduardo Berizzo, and his players tore up the script in spectacular fashion.
Many will point out that Barça hit the woodwork four times during this match and that Celta goalkeeper Sergio Álvarez made a string of excellent saves, but any other result would genuinely have flattered the home side. They were poor from start to finish and their chances to score largely came as the result of individual excellence rather than any kind of collective success or tactical brilliance. Indeed, it was the visitors who supplied the tactical brilliance in this game.
Luis Enrique stuck with the usual 4-3-3/4-3-1-2 system and chose an unsurprising starting eleven. Javier Mascherano and Jérémy Mathieu were used together in central defence for the sixth time this season, Dani Alves and Jordi Alba came in to attack an opponent that many assumed would simply cave in and Ivan Rakitić and Rafinha came in to add the dynamism that Xavi and Andrés Iniesta have lacked of late.
Celta were notionally in a 4-4-2 without the ball but played a very aggressive and diligent marking game, always hassling the man in possession and giving him no time to find a forward pass. Sensibly, they crowded the centre, keeping a small distance between the first two bands, to prevent Messi having space to receive the ball there. Not for the first time this season, such a simple ploy forced him into less threatening areas. He only received two passes in the Celta penalty area in the entire match.
Crucially, Barça didn’t react to Celta’s aggression as a team. While the defence recognised the threat and dropped deeper to find more space, the midfield and attack stayed high up the pitch, meaning there was no easy way to play the ball out from the back with short, simple passes. This stretched shape resulted in a loss of control and turnovers that led to dangerous attacks. Better teams than Celta would probably have scored more than one goal here.
It was a match of increasingly familiar problems for Barça. The biggest issue right now is the positioning of the central midfielders, which is leading to a total breakdown of the team’s attacking strategy. Now that they play primarily defensive roles and pull wide to cover the wing-backs’ advances, there is little connecting defence to attack and establishing control of the match. From the first whistle to the last, Barça looked like a broken team.
It is easy to overstate the importance of tactics in the modern game. A team of good players will more often than not defeat a team of bad ones regardless of team strategies. They only really come into play significantly if the good players have flawed ideas, share no collective understanding and complicate everything, while the bad ones do the opposite – and this is exactly what happened on Saturday.
Barça’s attacking moves generally progressed awkwardly and broke down fast, often as soon as they’d begun. With Sergio Busquets coming very deep, Rakitić and Rafinha pulling wide and Messi staying relatively high up the pitch, the defenders were left only with risky long passes on, while the strikers were marooned and expected to work miracles in the final third with individual skill.
Instead of helping the strikers construct and finish chances, Barça’s system meant that they spent far too much time static in central positions and facing away from goal, making it very hard for Barça to sustain forward momentum. Neymar seemed to receive the ball almost exclusively with his back to goal and a defender aggressively marking him behind. All he could do was take the ball and feed it back into the midfield. This is becoming an increasingly familiar sight and for Barça it’s a waste of a huge attacking weapon.
Barça’s attacking struggles wouldn’t have mattered so much if they had looked defensively secure, but they looked anything but. Incredibly, they seemed to alternate between having too few men ahead of the ball in attacking phases and too many ahead of it in defence. A few turnovers, particularly when Messi impatiently tried to force passes through Celta’s midfield, led to the away side charging forward with only Mascherano, Mathieu and Busquets back.
Despite all of Lucho’s work to strengthen Barça at transitions, they looked very vulnerable. Whereas their opponents always do lots of work to protect their back four, Barça still don’t do anywhere near enough to secure theirs. With the forwards doing next to no defensive work – they only made two tackles and three interceptions between them – and Rakitić and Rafinha pressing for them, Busquets was routinely left alone with an impossible amount of space to cover, just as he was in the second half of the clásico.
Barça’s openness at opposition goal kicks was scarcely believable and led to many of their worst moments in the match. The decisive goal, scored by Joaquín Larrivey and set up by a sensational backheel by Nolito, was the result of a long punt downfield from Álvarez, a missed header by Mascherano and one incisive pass. A lot has been made of Barça’s defensive record at the start of this season and it’s admittedly been very good, but there have been a few chances like this before - Villarreal, Málaga and Levante all created them - and Barça simply got lucky when they were missed or saved.
The positioning at goal kicks is probably the result of a calculated gamble by Luis Enrique that any ricochet falling for Messi, Neymar or Suárez on the halfway line will leave them with a clear run on goal, which for them is as good as a goal, but in this match it repeatedly left the defence exposed and directly contributed to their downfall. It just cannot be that easy to score against a team with aspirations to win La Liga and the Champions League.
As badly as they were playing, the match wasn’t beyond Barça. A couple of smart substitutions from Luis Enrique could have turned it around, but the changes he ended up making did nothing to improve the side. The priority should have been to take more control of the centre of the pitch and then work short passing combinations to open space, turning Celta’s aggressive press into a weakness rather than a strength.
When Xavi and Pedro replaced Rafinha and Busquets, the tempo quickened but the angles of attack didn’t change. Messi came deeper and deeper, Xavi was too often bypassed and Pedro threw crosses into the box. One led to a glorious chance for Suárez, but the rest were easily defended. Worse still, Barça were even more vulnerable to simple attacks than before the changes. Without a midfielder protecting the makeshift back three of Mascherano, Mathieu and Alba, Celta created two great chances late on with simple balls into the box, played under no pressure at all.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not easy being Barcelona manager. It was a common refrain during the Guardiola era that anyone could manage a club with players that good, a budget that huge and opposition apparently that weak. The next time someone says that, show them this game and point out how easy it is to totally mess everything up. Luis Enrique needs a big result against Ajax to get this season back on track.