In a stifling night of football, Slavia Prague sensationally held Barcelona to a 0-0 draw at the Camp Nou.
This was the second time Barcelona had been held scoreless this Champions League campaign. And given they’ve only played four games that’s a troubling statistic. But it just illustrates the key deficiency of this Barcelona side, a problem that has been brewing for a long time but is now finally hitting home: they’re not creative enough.
Watching tonight’s game and it was just painful how absurdly uncreative Barcelona were. The lack of imagination, the dullness of the passing and movement. Only when Leo Messi, Frenkie de Jong and Ansu Fati got on the ball did things come to life and only Nelson Semedo made the kind of killer runs that could hurt Slavia Prague.
Gerard Piqué said, after the game: “today the ball didn’t want to go in the goal” which is usually something you say after you’ve been laying siege to your opponents goal after the game and seen chance after chance repelled. That’s not what happened tonight.
Yes, Barcelona had more shots than Slavia Prague. That is to be expected the game was at the Camp Nou where the Blaugrana are absurdly dominant. The fact that they only managed 14 shots is illustrative of just how much they genuinely struggled against the Czech side.
Slavia Prague are the first team to keep a clean sheet against Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the #UCL group stages since Benfica in December 2012.
A shock result. 😳 pic.twitter.com/SrJqL1Gd5m
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 5, 2019
Two weeks ago in Prague, Slavia belted 24 shots at Marc-André Ter Stegen, hitting the target nine times. Barcelona’s 14 shots was well below that and they only hit the target six times as well. Now, alright, three of those shots were golden chances that needed Slavia goalkeeper Ondrej Kolar to produce great saves, denying Leo Messi, Nelson Semedo and Sergi Roberto (although Roberto really should have scored his effort) but still, just six shots on target for a game that was dominated is pitiful.
And yes, Leo Messi struck a wonderful effort off the corner of post and bar. And yes, he also squared for Arturo Vidal to tap home a goal that was questionably ruled out for offside after Frenkie de Jong had played him through. But that’s just it, unless Messi or Frenkie de Jong were doing something phenomenal, or Ansu Fati was playing killer passes – there was nothing.
Alright in the early going Gerard Piqué played a couple of lovely passes behind Slavia’s high-line for the onrushing Semedo, but this was Barcelona’s only real idea all game. And if it didn’t come off, the rest of their creativity was non-existent. They were constantly free-wheeling it, trying to pull magic out of nowhere with predictably useless results.
Barcelona’s first two disappointing results in the Champions League were an obvious result of Leo Messi not being fully fit, but these two games against Slavia have had Messi at full speed and yet Barcelona have still struggled to work their way around the press to create chances.
Valverde admits Barcelona are struggling with expectations
So much of that is the way Valverde aligns his side in attack. In Prague he had Luis Suárez central and the Uruguayan destroyed Barça attacks with comedic regularity. Suárez was absent tonight yet Valverde lined his attack up in various different combinations, none of which was the obviously sensible Messi on the right, Dembélé or Ansu on the left and Griezmann up-top.
Not once did Valverde use this combination, or any combination that put Messi and Griezmann next to each other in the hope that the two world-class forwards could produce some hocus pocus between them. It’s almost as though the Basque coach is setting Griezmann up to fail, playing him on the left-wing or the right, but always wide away from the heart of the action where his skill-set is best suited. He’s not, obviously, but it seems that way because what else could explain such baffling decisions?
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Ousmane Dembélé was used on the right, where he can overplay, rather than on the left where he is sharper and quicker. Arturo Vidal ran and ran but did absolutely nothing of substance with the ball and seemed to disrupt Barcelona’s performance more than he did Slavia’s who had a great time passing the ball around the rampaging Chilean for fun.
Yet Vidal played the 90 minutes. And when Ansu Fati did come on, it was Dembélé who came off so the club stayed with just one quick wide man on the pitch; even though it was shown that pace could hurt Slavia – both in this game and in the fact that Borussia Dortmund only beat them thanks to the press-smashing speed of Achraf Hakimi.
Oh, and when the clearly unfit Jordi Alba went off at half-time his obvious replacement, Junior Firpo, wasn’t even on the bench so Nelson Semedo had to play left-back again which went about as well as you could expect. All in Barcelona weren’t set-up to play possession football, but neither were they set-up to truly play in transition or expose Slavia’s criminally high line in the first-half. They had pace out wide, albeit just one man, but because Vidal was their no. 10 (and kept evacuating the position to play as a no. 9) the midfield was rarely in position to beat the Slavia press with a dangerous pass because the attackers, the man they’d want to pass to, were rarely where they should be.
Lionel Messi vs. Slavia Prague:
• Most shots (8)
• Most take-ons completed (5)
• Most shots on target (3)
More shots than the rest of his teammates combined (6). 😳 pic.twitter.com/36PszTAlvA
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 5, 2019
So yes, a handful of chances came and went. And Ondrej Kolar was impeccable (not just in terms of saves, but his sweeping off his line was supreme and killed two or three attacks stone dead). Barcelona dominated the game but not really. This wasn’t true Camp Nou domination. A ground where Barcelona had won 30 of their previous 33 games, drawing the other three.
That is now 30 wins from 34, and Slavia join Atlético Madrid (1-1 in 2014) and Juventus (0-0 in 2016) as the only side to draw a competitive European game at the Camp Nou since 2013 (Spurs’ 1-1 draw last season was commendable but a dead rubber for Barça).
Unlike in those games, however, where Barcelona laid siege to their opponent’s box and the ball truly “didn’t want to go in the goal” – tonight was a pathetic dribble of a performance that seemed to be symptomatic of the state of Ernesto Valverde’s reign in Catalunya. A side set-up carelessly displayed a staggering lack of creativity and crushingly failing to win.
Barcelona have a problem. And it’s not clear what the solution is as long as Ernesto Valverde’s pragmatic way of thinking remains Barça’s guiding philosophy. The Blaugrana look like a side in desperate need of change, or they may not make it out of this group at all nevermind fulfilling their dream of actually winning the Champions League.