So it begins.
Barça’s Champions League campaign continues this week with an away game at the Stadio San Paolo against a buoyant Napoli side. Barcelona have a had a tough relationship with the competition over the past few years; remontadas all round. At this point in time, the Champions League seems to have become a mental hurdle. Most of the players don’t seem convinced that they can even win it. In a recent Mundo Deportivo interview, Leo Messi said that the team is not ready to win the competition just yet. A tepid response. While Barca may not be at the peak of their powers anymore, they are still one of the biggest clubs in the world and remain competitive in the Champions League as long as they are in it.
How can they do it then? How can Quique Setien correct the mistakes that Ernesto Valverde made? How can he avoid another ‘Anfield’?
Well, they can start by abandoning the protectionist facade. Attack is always the best form of defence, or in Setien’s case, possession is. Yet, Valverde’s game plan against both Roma and Liverpool, away from home, was the same. Line up in a 4-4-2 and shut up shop. Barça entered both of those ties with the idea of defending what they had rather than building on it. At Anfield, Valverde fielded a flat four midfield of Coutinho, Rakitic, Busquets and Vidal. Not exactly inspiring. What is interesting here is that a similar deep-block 4-4-2 has been Liverpool’s kryptonite this season (i.e Napoli and Atletico Madrid). A well-drilled defensive unit can use this formation and gain the numerical superiority on the wings, thereby negating the threat offered by Liverpool’s full-backs. Perhaps, then, Valverde had the right idea. What he did not have was the right personnel. This Barca team has not been taught to play that way, unlike Cholo Simeone’s Atletico. To expect them to learn a style of play which requires rigorous preparation to be successful was wishful thinking at best. By asking his team to soak up pressure and stay on the back foot, Valverde made sure that Barca were toothless in attack and, ironically, wobbly at the back.
It was much the same at Rome. Worse, in fact. Not only did Valverde start with an insipid midfield four but also started both Sergi Roberto and Nelson Semedo on the right side. Barca only managed a total of three shots on target in that game despite having more of the ball. Valverde has, along with a host of players, tried to pass off the Roma defeat as a shock result, a one off. On the other hand, the Liverpool defeat was branded as inexcusable, a mental collapse. While this is accurate to an extent, both the games had many similarities. The biggest one, of course, was Valverde’s negative game plan.
This is where Setien can make a change. Throughout his career, the Cantabrian has championed a possession-based game rooted in Cruyffist principles. However, his idea of Jogo de Posicion differs from Pep Guardiola’s (and therefore, from Barca’s recent style) in one important way. Setien’s teams often play a brand of defensive possession football; they defend by keeping the ball (his Betis side is a prime example). This defensive possession is then coupled with verticality through midfield to maintain an attacking threat. It is not a cautious approach however. Setien’s teams often play with a dangerously high line (his defensive record is a testament to this). The important thing to note, however, is that Barça have actually been trained to play with a high line, building from behind. Setien does not share Valverde’s pragmatism and would not, consequently, make a sudden change to the tactics of his team to protect a lead. Barça works best on the front foot. They cannot rest on their laurels, even if the laurels are a three-goal lead. Had Barca not retreated into their shell at Anfield, they might not have lost by a four-goal margin. Setien understands this. He understands that the game plan never changes. No lead is ever big enough.
However, to get to the deep end of the Champions League, boldness in itself is not enough. In Rome, the team looked tired, physically drained. Barça had not rotated personnel much in the league and that was taking a toll. Setien has to tackle a similar problem this season. Only now he has to deal with a strong Madrid side in the league, at the same time. Moreover, the 19/20 squad is even thinner than the one Valverde had, in his first season in charge. The addition of Martin Braithwaite helps, yes, but a four week layoff for Jordi Alba does not. Setien, then, has to manage the workload of his players almost perfectly. If he wants to avoid another collapse, that is.
Tactics. Physical preparedness. Perhaps equally as important as these two is mental preparedness. The collapse at Anfield was as much a mental collapse as it was a tactical disaster. No Barça player looked up for the game; right from kick-off, they were playing as if they were the ones with a three-goal deficit, instead of the other way around. Some members of the locker room were defeated at half-time itself (as shown in the Matchday documentary). Anfield was a culmination of everything; whatever could have gone wrong, did. However, there was a certain inevitability to that result. The ghosts of Rome had not been banished. Setien must vanquish them if he wants to taste any sort of success. Bygones must be made bygones.
The game at the San Paolo is a chance to start on the right foot. A chance to begin the second phase of the competition with confidence. Gattuso’s Napoli are on a roll; they have defeated every major team in Italy recently. An away win against them will go a long way to restoring the confidence of a seemingly depleted team.
Europe awaits, then. We can only hope that Setien’s men rise to the occasion.