As La Liga gears up for a return to normalcy, we equip you with an in-depth view of everything about FC Barcelona and their season so far.
Based in of the most politically active cities of Europe, FC Barcelona does not need an introduction. Chances are, even if you are not a fan of the sport, you have heard of the team or some of their players. After all, they do boast of one of the biggest fanbases in the world.
Barcelona have been on the peak of their history since the turn of the century, especially during the first a decade and a half. During this time, Barca produced some of the most feared players on the planet including the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Victor Valdes, Sergio Busquets and of course Lionel Messi.
These players among others made up a majority of Barcelona’s team from 2006 to 2015, a stint that saw them win four Champions Leagues, six La Liga titles, and three Copa del Rey trophies. During the same period, the club also won two trebles – once in 2008/09 and then again in 2014/15, making them the only team in the history of European football to do so.
The treble of 2008/09 was part of six trophies Pep Guardiola won that year as the manager of Barcelona, which too, is a record. The same man was the architect of the 2010/11 team, widely regarded as the best team in the history of club football.
Barca have always been at the centre of controversy, for years running now. This stretches from benefitting from refereeing mistakes (Chelsea, 2009), to immoral signings of players (Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho, Cesc Fabregas). The most recent one of these sketchy behaviours coming in the form of Martin Braithwaite, the Danish winger the club signed after the transfer window had ended after seeking permission for the Spanish FA.
The Blaugrana have also defined themselves with a certain style of football, the foundations of which were laid down by the late Johan Cruyff, who believed in total control of the ball through possession, quick movement, and patience. His ideologies were adopted and taken a step further by the aforementioned Guardiola, who played under him as part of the 1992 Barcelona dream team.
However, things changed for Cules since the appointment of Ernesto Valverde, whose Barcelona were tipped to win the UCL not once, but twice, but failing rather embarrassingly on both occasions. They bottled a 3 goal lead to AS Roma in 2018 and then outdid themselves by bottling the same margin again next year against Liverpool in the semi-finals of the competition.
This was just fuel to the fire which was Real Madrid winning the same competitions three times in a row(!) under the management of Zinedine Zidane from 2015/16 to 2017/18.
They did, however, win the league quite comfortably both seasons under Valverde’s reign, and are in contention to win it again for a third time on the bounce, but face a competition from a Real Madrid side that is looking to pounce on a vulnerable Barcelona.
The story so far…
Before the season even began, Barcelona re-announced themselves to the football world when they completed the signing of Antoine Griezmann from Atletico Madrid for €120 million making him one of their most expensive signings, second only to Philippe Coutinho.
The opening weekend of the 2019/20 season was far from an ideal start for Barcelona who fell at the hands of Athletic Bilbao at the San Mames. Not only did they concede an overhead kick from Aritz Aduriz in the dying minutes, but they also had to see Luis Suarez be subbed off after suffering a calf injury before half time.
They were already without the services of club captain Lionel Messi, and Suarez’s injury was just insult to injury. In near about February, the club also had to announce that Ousmane Dembele’s hamstring injury had gotten worse, and he would have to wait for six months at least before making a comeback.
However, there was no way but up for them as they put five past Real Betis at the Camp Nou, and were given an early lifeline as Real Madrid had to settle for a draw against Real Valladolid at home. This was not enough, though, as they dropped points yet again in the subsequent gameweek in a 2-2 draw against Osasuna. The most shocking of the results came on Matchday 5 when newcomers Granada hosted Barcelona and stunned them with a 2-0 win. This was Messi’s first game back as he came on to replace Carles Perez at half time.
League standings truly changed hands for the first time in the season when Zidane’s men fell to an early goal against RCD Mallorca and Barcelona struck three unanswered goals past Eibar. It was also the first time all three of Antoine Griezmann, Luis Suarez and Messi scored in the same game. Since then, the Clasico rivals have been in a constant trade-off for the top spot. At the moment though, Barcelona lead the race by the skin of their teeth.
After a series of unimpressive performances and barely any backing from the fanbase, the last straw for Ernesto Valverde was its defeat at the hands of Atletico Madrid in the new format Spanish Super Cup, which knocked them out of the competition and paved the way for Los Blancos to clinch it. Valverde was replaced by his compatriot Quique Setien.
Setien’s appointment made a majority of the fanbase extremely happy since his style of football is known to be fluid, attacking, and high-risk as opposed to the conservative style of Valverde. His first game in charge was against Granada where Barcelona were able to scrape off a 1-0 win after a dominant performance.
The ex-Betis manager has been at the sidelines for 12 games now, out of which he has won eight and lost three. The losses are quite heavy, though. One of them was nearly a carbon-copy of gameweek one against Bilbao, only this time Barcelona’s undoing was a 93rd minute Sergio Busquets’ own goal, which knocked them out of the Copa del Rey. The other loss we are talking about was the 2-0 defeat at Santiago Bernabeu in the first El Clasico of the season.
The Manager: Quique Setien
Setien has needed some time to meld with the team after being appointed half-way through the campaign, but the 2-month football hiatus may have proved to be difficult for the Spaniard. Despite that, he has a fully fit squad at his disposal now, with Ousmane Dembele being the only exception.
His rise to fame came when he forged his reputation with Las Palmas, where he drew plaudits for the exciting, attractive brand of football his teams played. He took this further with Real Betis, taking them from relegation battlers to a sixth-place finish and European football.
During his first year in charge of Betis, Setien became the first manager to win away at the Camp Nou and Santiago Bernabeu in a single season since Gregorio Manzano in 2002/03. He then improved on this feat when he defeated Real Madrid away from home yet again in 2018/19, but was sacked ONE HOUR after the game owing to their 10th placed finish last season.
1- Real Betis boss Quique Setien is the first away manager to win at Santiago Bernabeu and Camp Nou in a single LaLiga season since Gregorio Manzano for Mallorca in 2002/03. Intensity. pic.twitter.com/fiqh1z9Gi7
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) May 19, 2019
Setien was tipped for the Barcelona and Spain job after his shocking termination from Betis’ sideline. Half a season too late, but his dream job came calling after Xavi turned down the chance to replace Valverde midway through the campaign.
On his unveiling, the 61-year-old revealed how quickly his life changed in the last 24 hours by saying, “Yesterday I was walking past cows in my home town; today I was at Barcelona’s training ground coaching the best players in the world, an enormous club.”
Tactics & Style of Play
Setien is known for fielding a centre-heavy lineup with the emphasis on midfield more than anything, and he makes sure his ideology is quite visible on the pitch. He likes to play each game with the same core style with the minute nuances differing according to the opponent. He is a stubborn coach who prefers his philosophy over pragmatism.
Real Betis are proof that the 61-year-old likes to set his teams up to play attacking, fluid football. This set of principals made Los Verdiblancos one of the most exhilarating teams in Spain and beyond.
The Spanish manager likes to set up his team in a 4-3-3, quite similarly as his time at Betis. He prefers all his defenders, including the goalkeeper to be comfortable on the ball. As his luck would have it, Barcelona features a plethora of some of the best passers in the continent, including goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
The German shot-stopper was the only keeper during the 2018/19 season to have better passing accuracy than Pau Lopez at Betis. Moreover, according to the graph below, Pau played shorter passes more often, which might be indicative of his involvement in the buildup.
The idea is to always build from the back, regardless of how high or aggressively the opponents are pressing. The attack starts from the goalkeeper who is heavily involved in the buildup and moves through a series of passes in triangles as the ball progresses up the pitch. The inability to adapt according to the opposition press is one of Setien’s undoing.
Last season, Real Betis conceded more shots generated by a high press than any other side, barring Levante. This is the opposite end of the spectrum of Setien’s slow, patient buildup.
Despite this, another reason that Setien is suitable for the Barcelona job is his placement of centre-halves, which is quite high, leaving them exposed at the back. Barca had known to play a very high line of pressure, but that idea succumbed after Valverde took over the sidelines.
In attack, Setien’s team features two very hardworking wingers who take up wide starting positions, but often drop deep or drift in centrally to attack. This, however, is not possible with Lionel Messi in the side and hence, Setien has used the Argentine as false-9, a role he took up under Pep Guardiola in 2010.
Arthur Melo, who was rather out of favour by Valverde, may be given more chances under new management, because of his ability to play precise passes while carrying the ball vertically. This allows the forwards to rove into the space occupied by Arthur’s marker and exploit it accordingly.
Due to the absence of Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele, though, Setien prefers to play Arturo Vidal in an advanced role, often behind Messi and Antoine Griezmann. Vidal keeps drifting out wide to act as some sort of false-winger, but drops back centrally when the team is out of possession. Braithwaite has only received one start so far for Barcelona, but this may soon change if Setien reverts to his famous 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 system he used at Betis.
These wingers take up positions in the half-spaces as the fullbacks are the only players providing width on the pitch. This helps them outnumber the defence while taking up dangerous positions during counter-attacks. The centre-forward, in this case, Messi, will initially drop deep to link up with the midfielders before spraying a diagonal ball to one of Nelson Semedo or Jordi Alba and then go back in the box to receive a cutback or a grounded cross.
At the moment, Setien has managed just a dozen games with an injury-riddled squad, and it will be unfair to label him unpragmatic before he gets the time to put the ideas he holds so sacred into action.
An introduction to the squad
Barcelona boast of a rather balanced squad, with 11 players over the age of 28, and eight players who are 26 or younger. This gives them just the right blend of exciting talent and experienced veterans, both of whom can impact the outcomes of games differently.
However, this is also one of their most pressing concerns. Last of Barcelona’s golden generation – Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique, and Sergio Busquets – are all over the age of 31 now, and have entered the last junctures of their career. Captain Messi is now days away from his 33rd birthday.
Luis Suarez and Ansu Fati feature on the opposite ends of the spectrum for the Blaugrana, as the oldest and youngest players respectively. The latter became the youngest goalscorer in the history of the Champions League as he netted the winner against Inter Milan which saw them sink to the Europa League.
A player who is rather different from a typical Barca player is recent recruit Martin Braithwaite, who was acquired by the club in the joker window, in February 2020 after Ousmane Dembele was sent to the sidelines for 6 months. The 28-year-old brings an unmatched pace and directness to the table which has diversified the team.
The club signed Frenkie de Jong from Ajax for €75 million in the summer, even though the move was announced well in the winter of 2018/19. The Dutchman started the season incredibly and did not set a foot wrong, but his inconsistent performances since the turn of the year have the fans incorrectly believing that his transfer has been a flop. It has been far from it.
Arthur’s injuries throughout the season mean that Arturo Vidal has essentially carved a spot for himself in the midfield alongside Sergio Busquets and the aforementioned de Jong. The Chilean adds an air of unpredictability because of his sudden runs from deep and his ability to attack crosses and loose balls, something no other midfielder in the squad offers.
Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet continue to hold the fort as centre-halves for Barcelona, but Setien seems to have taken a liking to French centre back Samuel Umtiti who has featured 7 out of 12 times since the turn of management. With a transfer looming large, it seems unlikely that Umtiti’s recent performances help him stay at the club.
As Jordi Alba experiences one of his worst seasons in the Garnet and Blue, new signing Junior Firpo hasn’t been of much help either, and will likely be sold in the summer window. Barcelona continue to stay in a dilemma between Nelson Semedo and Sergi Roberto for the right-back spot. Both the players have now registered 20+ appearances this season, even though Semedo seems to be the perfect short term left-back amidst that crisis.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen continues to astonish fans with his match-winning performances in the toughest of games. As far as goalkeepers go, the last three seasons have proved that the German is the best in the world in his position, with his tremendous distribution giving him an edge over the likes of Thibaut Courtois, Alisson Becker or Jan Oblak.
Marquee Player: Lionel Messi
There is not much to talk about here, except that, despite giving his league-mates a 5 game headstart at the start of the season, Messi is currently the top scorer AND top assist provider in the league with 19 and 12 respectively. This includes one hat-trick and super hat-trick of goals, and one hat-trick of assists.
La Pulga has built on his free-kick antics from last season and has already scored four in the league as compared to six last season. To top off his scoring antics, Messi has been creating at an insane rate as well, with 2.5 key passes per game.
Even at 32, Messi continues to do things that amaze us, like completing 5.1 dribbles per game, the fifth-highest this season. Moreover, the Argentine has worked on his defensive numbers and the improvement from last season is proof of the same. He now makes 0.7 tackles per game as opposed to 0.4 last season and has won possession in the final third more often this season (1) as compared to last (0.7).
Messi may not be the highest scorer in the continent this season, but he continues to be the best player the world has ever witnessed, and if he single-handedly drags an underperforming Barca to one trophy or more, will that really surprise us?
One for the future: Riqui Puig
Riqui Puig is one of the most talented players to emerge from Barcelona’s youth ranks over the last decade, and a lot will have to go wrong for him to not get the time he deserves to prove himself for the first-team. He is the club’s best attempt right now at trying to regain the confidence Camp Nou devotees once had in the youth system laid down by the great Johan Cruyff.
The Spaniard is more than capable of acting as a second-fiddle for the likes of Arthur or Frenkie de Jong and boasts the ability to carry and pass the ball over long distances. Puig is also a hardworking midfielder who is constantly on the hunt for loose balls, pressing passing lanes and players – case in point Barcelona’s first goal under Setien. He is also capable of playing as a regista, operating in a deeper role, as he has so often for the reserves.
We might finally get to see more of the midfielder under Setien, who seems to have taken a liking towards him after he played the youngster in his very first game in charge.
As La Liga gears up for its return post a 2-month hiatus, the world will be witness to arguably the best title race Spain has hosted since the 2013/14 season. Barcelona and Real Madrid go into the final phase of the season with two points separating them with the former on top through what can only be described as a miracle.
That said, it will be interesting to see if the re-inclusion of Luis Suarez and a fully fit Arthur may be enough to drag them to the shores of victory.
Both teams have just two fixtures remaining against the top 6 opponents, however, the pressure is on Madrid who are yet to play Athletic Bilbao away from home and Valencia at home. Moreover, Zidane has spent a fortune over an ongoing overhaul and failing to deliver silverware this season might mean trouble for him.