Barcelona’s 1-0 victory over Celta Vigo in deepest, darkest Galicia came despite a mixed performance that polarised fans. It’s true that Barça were disjointed in attack, sluggish in midfield and caught out a couple of times in defence, but as Kevin Williams correctly pointed out in his post-match write-up, this is a Barça away game post-international break: such lethargy and stodginess should have been expected – the fact that they managed to get a result and a clean sheet despite playing poorly should be celebrated.
This was a Barça performance that showed simply getting the result was the priority. There were flashes of the brilliance we know they can produce, but by and large they looked content to grind out a single-goal victory. There were familiar problems on display – on plenty of occasions they looked like a broken team, Messi’s roaming led to a structural collapse and the forwards missed easy chances – but there were also plenty of positives to take from the game too, and these have been overlooked somewhat, so let’s look at them before going any further.
Firstly, this was a Barça that showed a willingness to fight and scrap against an aggressive opponent that had a gameplan based on the idea that they could be bullied out of the game. Compared to the meek defeat against these opponents at the Camp Nou, as well as the epochal loss to Real Sociedad in the first game of 2015, this was a big leap forward. Barça didn’t just stand up to their opponents – they beat them down. The bullied actually became the bullies. That fight is something we don’t usually associate with Barça, but it represents a welcome change.
Secondly, it wasn’t like the attacking breakdown stopped Barça making good opportunities to score. As well as Jérémy Mathieu’s goal, Lionel Messi had a chance in each half that we’d normally expect him to bury and Neymar should also have scored when following up the first of those Messi chances. On another day the winning margin could have been two or three goals, and we’d be talking more about the character of the team than its tactical flaws.
Thirdly, Barça are scoring from set pieces with regularity. After years of teams setting up to lull Barça into Sterile Domination Mode in open play, safe in the knowledge that the concession of every corner and free-kick hurts Barça more than it helps, the tide has turned. Mathieu’s header was his second goal from a free-kick in a few weeks, while fellow centre-back Gerard Piqué has six goals for the season and Sergio Busquets scored one of Barça’s most important goals of the season from a corner away to Valencia. Long may this continue.
There are plenty of reasons to be cheerful if you’re a Barça fan. That’s not to say it’s all sunshine and rainbows at the moment, but much of what’s been said about this game would lead one to believe that Barça had been defeated, and that’s just fundamentally wrong.
However, some of the criticism is relevant and Barça’s flaws – minor though most of them are – must be addressed below. So, to the game itself.
Luis Enrique picked a mostly familiar Barça team that, as ever, contained one slightly bizarre selection. The omission of both Xavi and Ivan Rakitić was puzzling and Rafinha didn’t really look at home on the right side of the midfield triangle, where either of Xavi or Rakitić usually plays and controls the game. Rafinha’s relationship with Andrés Iniesta isn’t as developed as it could be, and Barça’s midfield never really seemed to cope with Celta’s aggression. Less surprisingly, Adriano came in for the injured Jordi Alba.
Eduardo Berizzo’s Celta Vigo played their most familiar starting eleven with the exception of young Serb Nemanja Radoja, whose place was taken by the Chilean Pedro Pablo Hernández. They modified their usual strategy, however, letting Barça have the majority of possession but aggressively hounding them into rushing their passes and consequently killing their forward moves.
At times, particularly when Claudio Bravo had the ball, Celta man-marked Barça and cut off all of their options for the first pass out. This threw Barça more than it should have, and for the first five or ten minutes Piqué resorted to long balls over the top for Luis Suárez, who couldn’t really do anything with them. Eventually, Celta dropped off, man-marking only in their own half, where it had the desired effect of stopping Barça getting anywhere fast.
Within the first ten minutes of the game it became apparent that Barça weren’t playing as a unit in the same way that Celta were. Barça’s back four was in perfect sync, the midfield was aware of its defensive duties and diligently dropped back to help out when needed, but the front three of Messi, Suárez and Neymar showed next to no interest in finding the same wavelength as their teammates.
The accusation that this is a team of eight plus three individuals has been made repeatedly this season, but few games have lent such weight to the idea as this one. Throughout the first half, they stood around up front, miles away from where the play was taking place, waiting for the ball to make its way up to them. Their detachment from the rest of the team was the biggest reason for the scrappiness of Barça’s attacking play.
Messi’s superhuman talent makes it less critically damaging when he has a bad game, as illustrated by the fact that he could have finished this game with two goals to his name, but his decision to drift around wherever he liked, particularly in the first half, did more harm than good. Busquets often had to move forward into the number ten spot to let Messi come deep, and when Messi took the ball 50 yards from goal all he could do was play a simple, straightforward square pass. It was all extremely pointless.
Messi perhaps thought he was linking the midfield with the attack, but in reality he was taking himself away from the areas in which he could do damage and making his colleagues’ jobs harder. In a system as finely tuned as Barça’s, a player deciding to ignore his role and improvise rarely leads to anything other than confusion. Busquets should be commended for his intelligence when it came to recognising Messi’s desire to be involved and facilitating his participation, but ultimately it was for nought.
To their credit, Celta were just as organised with the ball as they were without it. They generally used quick short-passing combinations and co-ordinated bursts to get forward down the wings and put crosses into the box, but that wasn’t by any means their only idea. They were happy to put a lot of pressure on the Barça defence in any way they could.
When the conditions were right – i.e. when Barça’s line was high and the man in possession had time to lift his head – they hit long balls over the top for lone-striker Joaquín Larrivey to chase and hold up. While this strategy may not have bore much fruit, it did at least work Alves, Piqué, Mathieu and Adriano repeatedly, and also drawing attention to the fact that Barça’s front three did almost no dropping back whatsoever.
While Celta’s strategy and the front three’s lack of participation in the defensive phase meant that Barça did a lot more defending than they would have liked, the fact is that, bar for a couple of lapses, the back four and midfield three defended absolutely brilliantly. Piqué was absolutely titanic, while Mathieu looked only slightly less assured. Dani Alves, so maligned for his lack of attacking contribution, had a brilliant game against the in-form Nolito, and Adriano coped admirably with Fabián Orellana, who would eventually see red.
All good teams seem to find a way to turn their opponents’ biggest strength into a fatal weakness, and Barça did just that in the second half, suckering Celta into repeatedly fouling them. Their man-marking system meant that every player always had an opponent breathing down his neck, and it was easy to draw fouls time and time again. Celta’s aggression, so useful in the first 45 minutes, became their undoing in the second.
Not only did Barça score from a set-piece, but Celta found it almost impossible to get into the game due to the constant stoppages in play and Orellana’s dismissal, earned for throwing a piece of turf at Busquets’ face, came as a direct result of his frustration with the fact that the whistle was going for a foul every three seconds.
Luis Enrique deserves credit for his substitutions. The introduction of Xavi helped a lot when it came to establishing control and suckering Celta into making fouls, while Pedro replacing Iniesta allowed Messi into midfield, where he was playing anyway, and gave Barça a more definable structure. (Love him or hate him, Pedro always gives his teams structure, and that’s often invaluable.) The final switch, which saw Rakitić come on for Suárez, further cemented Barça’s control and shut the game down.
It wasn’t a performance that will go down in history as one of Barça’s best, but they returned home with three points in the bag and they remain top of the table. Perhaps we can look at the openness of their shape and wonder if they will be able to get away with that against top teams, but performances and results in big games since January suggest that they know they can’t play like this against the very best opponents.
All in all, it’s hard to see why there was such negativity during and after the game. The only answer is that many fans expect too much and aren’t satisfied with a performance that qualifies as merely ‘good’. It’s a shame those fans are so numerous and loud. It doesn’t matter a jot to Luis Enrique, of course – he will be happier than anyone with the way this game went and where his team sits heading into the final furlongs.