Much has been said about Barcelona in the first five months of the 2020/21 campaign. The team has suffered repeated bouts of inconsistency, where overall poor performances like the recent 2-0 loss to Sevilla in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final have followed some very impressive victories. While the team faces an uphill task if they want to make it to the final of the Cup, La Liga already seems to be rapidly slipping away with Atletico Madrid throwing it back to the defensive solidity and fluid transitions that saw them win the league in 2013/14. The Champions League poses a completely different challenge with Paris Saint-Germain waiting to pounce. But in the thick of the high-octane footballing action, with seemingly no substantial break for the players due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to realize exactly where Barca stand as a club and a team at the present.
At the organizational level, the club is an absolute shambles. No recruitment in January, despite multiple injuries to key players, due to the lack of an elected board of directors means the squad seems to be wearing thinner and thinner. Ronald Koeman has had to experiment with his squad repeatedly citing ‘workload management’, but that very concept seems to be eroding with every passing matchday. Regardless, it is important to note that the Dutchman has kept Barca in the thick of things at least on paper: only the Catalans and Sevilla have a (un)realistic shot at the coveted ‘treble’ after both Atletico and Real Madrid were knocked out prematurely in the Copa. With elections due to take place next month, there is optimism that Koeman can improve on the ideas he has brought to the fore, but much will again depend on how soon Barca can pay off their massive debts.
There are reasons to be positive, however, on the team front. Barca are unbeaten in 11 league games and a large reason for this has been the tenacity in attack. The team have attempted 16 overall shots and 5.5 shots from outside the box per league match this season, an improvement on the 13 and 4.6 respectively from 2019/20. Ousmane Dembele has constantly offered an extra option on both wings and his ability to take on and beat defenders has added a much-needed third dimension to the attack, while Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest have also helped increase the output from wider areas. 68% of Barca’s forays forward this season have come from the two wings, with 37% from the left and 31% from the right. A further 32% has come from the centre, which is down to two big-money signings the club made in 2019.
Antoine Griezmann, who has played across the front-line as well as a central attacking mdfielder this term, has improved the most under Koeman. Having scored nine goals and assisted four in 31 league games last season, the Frenchman has already scored six and assisted four in 18 games in 2020/21. A massive reason for this has been the decreased dependence on him to track back and cover for the players moving forward. As a result, Griezmann has found himself more in attacking areas; he has averaged 2.3 shots per game in the league in 2020/21 compared to a much lower 1.6 last season. However, the forward has also continued to contribute defensively, averaging 1 tackle and 0.5 interceptions per league match, compared to 0.9 and 0.3 respectively in 2019/20.
The other individual is Frenkie de Jong, who did not enjoy the ground-breaking first season everybody expected him to have at Barcelona. Under his old national team manager, however, the midfielder has added another facet to his game apart from also working hard defensively. Koeman’s shift to a 4-3-3 after his preferred 4-2-3-1 did not bring in consistent results has meant De Jong has been utilized largely as a right central midfielder. He has chipped in with three goals and assists apiece in 19 league matches this term, a significant improvement on the two apiece he managed in the entirety of 2019/20. Additionally, the Dutchman has also improved his shots per game (from 0.1 to 0.4), key passes (0.9 to 1.1) and long balls per game (2.1 to 2.6). All of this has meant he has blossomed into a different version of the player Barca purchased from Ajax; rather than being the fulcrum of play at the base of midfield, De Jong has made his presence felt in the final third and the box to give the team an extra body in attack.
At this point in the season, it is important to acknowledge that individual improvement does not necessarily point towards a collective positive change. Barca still seem suspect at the back and remain vulnerable against counter-attacks and balls over the top due to the high defensive line Koeman asks his players to maintain. The stats too offer a mixed picture; while the club have averaged 9.5 interceptions per league match (an improvement on 9 from 2019/20), they have made only 13.3 tackles per game, a drop from the 14.1 last season. Koeman’s system is not flawless and quite often, the high press has cost the team. The presence of youth, in the form of Pedri, Ronald Araujo and others, has added legs to a tiring team, but also brought with it the glaring problem of inexperience.
The numbers and the general style of play reflect that Barca are still at the middle of the road, which is easy to forget given the frequency with which matches have taken place this season. Regardless, the Koeman reign has displayed the presence of tactical acumen, the ability of the team to stick together and at times, scintillatingly beautiful football. The absence of a trophy will do little to change that, and few teams would add to its honour board if they found themselves in the organizational mess that Barca is plunged in. The steps forward are largely dependent on the inner functioning of the club, which has been shrouded in complications for some time now. But, there does seem to be light at the end of the tunnel – even if Barca don’t have a trophy to celebrate in the summer of 2021.