Football Features

“Old, slow and sad” – Barcelona shun pace and surrender the advantage in La Liga after Sevilla stalemate

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 0:02, 20 June 2020 | Updated: 9:58, 30 March 2021

In a tense night of football, Barcelona played out a 0-0 draw with Sevilla at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuan.

The Blaugrana dominated the game but Sevilla had the better of the chances. The result felt like the natural end state for where Barcelona have been heading all season; an utterly toothless performance where a slow, old side laboured to create even the simplest of chances.

In an era where Liverpool and Bayern Munich are dominating their divisions with attacking units built around pure speed, it’s almost comedic to watch the Blaugrana almost wholly shun the idea of athleticism as a valuable trait in football.

Obviously Barcelona have always been different to the other elite sides around the world, placing a huge premium on tactical intelligence and the ability to play in a certain system. But being different has never precluded them from using pace in the past.

From Hristo Stoichkov to Ronaldo to Marc Overmars to Samuel Eto’o to Pedro to Messi, Neymar and Suárez. Barcelona have always had pace in attack. Always. Yet this current Barcelona is just about the slowest in modern memory.

Obviously the injury to Ousmane Dembélé is a mitigating factor, but even allowing for the Frenchman there’s barely any pace in the starting XI. Nelson Semedo and Junior Firpo are quick, but are not first choice – ditto Martin Braithwaite. Jordi Alba is the only starter with pace, which is absurd because he’s the left-back.

A lot of that pace has been lost to age. Experience can be invaluable in football but you can only have so many old players in a side before the experience becomes a hindrance rather than a help. The starting XI in Seville had an average age of 31.4, which is utterly absurd, especially because 32-year-old Luis Suárez played the whole 90 minutes even though he had laboured through his two 30 minute cameos since the restart and be never, not even for a little bit, looked threatening against Sevilla.

Luis Suárez used to be a whirlwind of a footballer, like the Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil. He was a nightmare for defenders to because of his combination of athleticism and relentless attitude. Well now he’s lost that athleticism and these days resembles Elmer Fudd, haplessly chasing younger, sharper players around. His miss on 88 minutes was as farcical as anything Bugs Bunny could conjure up.

True, Suárez is recovering from injury right now but he had been past his physical prime a long time ago. The injury exacerbated it but Suárez is just old, man. His pathetic showing in the Champions League last season, trying and failing to bully Liverpool defenders at Anfield, ought to have been the unfair curtain call that age so often delivers to great sportsmen.

But no, Suárez has stuck around. He’s scored, sure, but has so often stifled Barcelona’s overall play because although his connection with his team-mates (especially Messi) is almost telepathic, and he still works hard, his literal inability to move like he used to just kills so, so many attacks that used to revolve around said movement. Remember that list of quick Barcelona players? Yeah, all forwards. A passing attack can be rendered sterile without a burst of athleticism in the final third, and Barcelona don’t have that anymore.

Messi is, even at 32, still the best player on the planet by some distance. But he needs young legs around him for his side to remain competitive. Sevilla are a good team, for sure, but they found it all to easy to crowd the Argentine out because he had so few genuine options elsewhere and the Blaugrana sure as hell weren’t doing anything without involving him.

Shunning pace and youth is so counterproductive for a side that wants to win everything you have to wonder what is going on behind the scenes at the Camp Nou. Who is running the show? Because the constant sidelining of anyone who could remotely help Barcelona get back the killer instinct they have so clearly lost makes no sense even from a purely cynical perspective, let alone the idealistic one the Blaugrana have become so famous for.

Where was Ansu Fati? Why did Riqui Puig only get five minutes? Could Junior Firpo not have played left-wing, allowing Martin Braithwaite to play up-front? Obviously Barcelona need to sign a striker and attacking midfielder in the summer, but they have players already at the club that can give the Blaugrana a degree of the edge they need.

They could have even played today against Sevilla. But they didn’t, and Barcelona had just 4 shots on target. Most of their threat came from set-pieces and they never really worked Tomas Vaclik from open play, which was criminal given he spilled a cross early on and could well have been vulnerable. But we’ll never know if he actually was because a vibrant young Sevilla side constantly rebuffed an old, slow and sad Barcelona one. The ageing Blaugrana have stumbled and handed the advantage in the title race to rivals Real Madrid, a side who may or may not be better but are unquestionably younger, fitter and quicker.