Six months ago, it seemed as though Barcelona were at the brink of an implosion: Luis Suarez was forced out of the club in bizarre circumstances, Lionel Messi publicly expressed his desire to leave the club, the club’s finances were in tethers, the wound from the Munich tie was still fresh in their heads, all of this amid a power struggle in the club’s hierarchy. Such tensions within the club extended to the fans, who soon started protests decrying the club’s state.
Amidst this crisis, Setien was relieved of his duties, and the unimaginable task of stabilizing the club was handed to Ronald Koeman, who was previously the Netherlands manager.
Koeman began this season with a squad that bore signs of years of mismanagement; hence, he would always have been given a benefit-of-doubt as he led the first phase of what will undoubtedly be a complicated rebuild. The team had no recognized striker, Coutinho and Griezmann were yet to prove their worth, at least for their parent clubs, 18-year old Ansu Fati was the most on-form and settled forward in their ranks, amplifying the situation at the club, and Messi was evidently still unsettled-he experienced the biggest slump of his cumbersome career within the first few months of the season.
Consequently, most of the Catalan club’s early-season struggles, albeit comparatively due to an unstoppable Atletico Madrid, were played down, at least on the manager’s path.
Like clockwork, Barcelona have reversed their fortunes. The Catalans are currently on an 18 run unbeaten streak in the league: picking up 45 points from 54 since their unforeseen loss to, newly promoted side, Cadiz. This run, which is unmatched by any other side in Europe’s elite leagues*, has seen them close the gap on league leaders Atletico to only 4 points.
It is no surprise that this run coincided with Messi’s return to form. The Argentine maestro has been directly involved in at least one goal in all but one of the 18 games in their run: 19 goals and 8 assists.
However, their Champions League exit distracted the world from the excellent run of form they were on but may, in foresight, prove to be a massive boost as they head into the climax of their league campaign.
But what has really been happening during this unexpected season.
In a squad largely bereaved of that impetus akin to Barcelona, the youngsters have borne the burden and have helped steer the fortunes. After any poor result in the earlier parts of the season, all the senior stars would duck out of post-match press conferences, leaving the duties to the younger players(some of whom were in their first season) like Pedri, Sergino Dest, Riqui Puig. This was an indication of tensions at the club. Nevertheless, these young stars’ response gave evidence of their qualities beyond the pitch and their preparedness for the constant demand for success at a club like Barcelona.
Pedri, one of the most brilliant breakout stars across all of Europe, had in such manner registered himself amongst most hopefuls as the star over the horizon. The young midfield metronome…yes metronome… who many have likened to Iniesta, has garnered attention and ravings from fans, the manager and his teammates, and particular praise from Messi, who he has formed a…partnership with.
When asked about his partnership with Messi, Pedri remarked,
“I play as if I was in the garden with my brother”(via The Guardian)
Pedri has stood out this season for his composure on the ball, great spatial awareness, and superb link-up play in the final third. However, the facet of his game that has been most valuable is his work rate. Pedri has averaged 23.24 pressures per 90 in La Liga this season which puts him in the 95th percentile for central midfielders in Europe’s Top 5 Leagues(via FBref). Such contributions have been immense in maintaining their shape and preventing opposition penetrations.
From one youngster to another:
Mingueza as well has been an immense contributor to this resurgence. It has been a story written in the stars for the 21-year old who was considered seeking pastures outside the club before injuries forced Koeman’s hand to promote him. His versatility has afforded Koeman the chance to tinker with his line up whilst ensuring options across the entire defence(and wing-back).
Koeman risked the wrath of traditionalists, again, when he opted for a back three in the league away fixture vs Sevilla. Nonetheless, it proved to be a tactical breakthrough that saw his side beat Sevilla in consecutive matches and, most recently, demolish La Real with a five-goal-margin. This recent tactical alteration has seen some players find solace in their new and liberated roles.
Ousmane Dembele is perhaps the most notable one. The skilful Frenchman, whose spell has constantly been under scrutiny due to fitness issues, has been deployed as the centre forward in Koeman’s 3-4-2-1. In this position, his ability and desire to make runs behind the opposition’s defence has added much more dynamism and threat to Barcelona’s attacking play whilst affording Messi and Griezmann more territory. Therefore, it is no surprise that two of his four league goals this season have come in the past four league games(where he has been deployed as Center Forward).
At the opposite end, De Jong has been deployed as a Libero(a centre back with the license to go forward and make more contributions in the attacking third) in the back three and has been astute, as usual, in the team’s build-up and ball progression. Koeman has at last found his Libero Doppelganger.
Bar the Champions League slump, which on another day could have borne a starkly different result, supporters and followers of the club will have been pleased by the magnitude of the turnaround Koeman has produced.
In what had been pre-dismissed as a rebuilding season, Barcelona have geared themselves to be firm competitors for the season’s remaining prizes. Whatever the off-field issues bear, a trophy at the end of the season and the perception of a clear rebuild path driven by the youngsters will be a heartwarming relief to their fans who had feared for the worst.
Featured Image: BILBAO, SPAIN – JANUARY 06: Lionel Messi of Barcelona celebrates with Pedri Gonzalez of Barcelona after he scores his team’s second goal during the La Liga Santander match between Athletic Club and FC Barcelona at Estadio de San Mames on January 06, 2021 in Bilbao, Spain. (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)