In a pulsating night of football, Barcelona just about beat Slavia Prague 1-2 in the Czech capital.
The Blaugrana picked up a massive win, moving them three points clear of Inter and Borussia Dortmund at the top of Group F. With two home games left in the group and the competition’s best home field advantage, this gives them a huge chance of finishing top of the group.
Ultimately, though, the match was a perfect microcosm of why Barcelona have failed so egregiously in the Champions League under Ernesto Valverde despite having a squad more than capable of winning the damn thing both years the Spaniard has been in charge.
At the Camp Nou they are nearly always flawless (no one has beaten them there in Europe since May 2013) but away from home is a different story. There have been so many games that looked just like tonight. It was quite something, really. A compendium of failure for the Blaugrana that bodes ill of their chances later in the competition against more dangerous opponents that will punish you for the kind of slips that Barcelona showed in Prague.
First, there was the fact that they just didn’t look very creative. They managed 13 shots but only three of those were on target. That in itself wouldn’t be a disaster given they scored early and were trying to manage the game after that, but they allowed Slavia Prague to assault them with 24 shots, 9 of which found their target. They weren’t managing the game, they were being overrun.
Failing to create chances is a big problem for Barcelona because their entire team is built on the premise that they will dominate possession, they simply aren’t structured to soak up pressure from constant attacks. And what happens when opponents realise Barcelona aren’t going to hurt them in behind all that much is that they push up and press relentlessly.
Slavia did this to perfection all day long, just as Liverpool did at Anfield or Roma did in the Olimpico. This pressing is always difficult to negotiate, and Barcelona can manage it better than pretty much every other team when they have options in attack. When players are moving into space off the ball for Barça to play through-balls to.
Unfortunately what happens is that Ernesto Valverde selects a team with almost no pace in attack, and so the passing options in attack are basically not there. Luis Suárez has superb off the ball movement, but as a 32-year-old big body striker he has the breakaway pace of a lump of coal with little paper legs stuck on.
Time and again in Prague, Suárez would make a good run and receive a pass only to be beaten in a sprint by a defender or even in one instance the goalkeeper. Suárez can still play well if he receives plenty of rest (his performance at the weekend was so bright after two weeks rest over the international break) but playing every three days is beyond him now.
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But Valverde relies on Suárez so much, which means cramming Antoine Griezmann into the side at left-wing. Now, that can work if Barcelona’s midfield dominate the ball and Jordi Alba floods forward to overlap the left – but Slavia Prague’s six-man defence stifled Jordi Alba’s presence which completely neutered Griezmann as an attacking threat.
Griezmann defended diligently, but offered nothing in attack beyond a great bit of pressing to instigate the move for Barcelona’s opening goal. Then when he was replaced by Ousmane Dembélé, the Frenchman didn’t make enough runs off the ball. If Dembélé has one weakness (beyond his propensity to get injured) it’s the fact that he doesn’t run enough off the ball. Whether that’s his own issue or a lack of coaching, it’s a huge problem. Part of why Ansu Fati was such a revelation earlier in the season is because he was so happy and able to move off the ball – but Valverde has been reluctant to use him recently, and left him on the bench in Prague.
So Suárez played the entire match. And even though he created the winning own goal, he was a massive problem. He is always a massive problem. His lack of mobility in attack destroys Barcelona’s ability to hit big sides on the counter and break down their press and the fact that he hasn’t scored away from home in the Champions League since September 2015 is utterly absurd. Barcelona’s second-top goalscorer in the Champions League in the Valverde era is OWN GOALS. That is disastrous.
7 – Máximos goleadores del Barcelona en la Champions League desde la 17/18:
19 – Lionel Messi
7 – GOLES EN PROPIA META
4 – Luis Suárez
4 – Ousmane Dembélé
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) October 23, 2019
There’s no creativity, and there’s no pace, so Barcelona have no control. The Blaugrana system is built to control games through passing but they only create the space for passing with great movement, which collapses in on itself when there’s no pace in attack. And a Barcelona side without control is not one which can thrive. They never looked close to being able to shut the game down when Slavia began rushing them, they simply couldn’t sit the game out to get the result they wanted (as happened in Rome and Anfield).
Previously they have also struggled in midfield for a lack of press-resistant players; but today they fielded a midfield three which should have been fully press-resistant. So how did Slavia press them so well? Again, it comes down to what surrounds the midfield. They were receiving poor passes out of defence and then being swarmed by a Slavia side that was fully aware that even though Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong and Arthur could kill them with a through-ball, there would be no one on the end of it. So they pressed, they pushed, making life almost impossible for the Barça midfield trio.
Slavia massacred Barcelona, and the Blaugrana only escaped because of the vast quality difference between the two sides. In the knockout rounds when that difference is smaller or non-existent, Barcelona will have to improve tremendously or risk utter annihilation away from home for the third straight season. The solutions are obvious, the players to execute a tremendous gameplan are already at the club, the coaching staff just has to be willing to make bold decisions to move Barcelona forward instead of holding them back.