The Frenchman looks isolated, lost, and unsure of how to play in this team that needs Lionel Messi to even function
One day, Lionel Messi will be gone.
But Barcelona are as ill-prepared for that moment as they have ever been. Since Neymar’s transfer left €225m in the coffers, their ham-fisted attempts at long-term strategy have unwittingly sacrificed players at the altar of the Argentine, with none of them having any real chance of success.
Paco Alcacer, Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Malcom represent a €400m, ill-advised succession plan and at the moment if Messi isn’t contributing a dynamic impact, this team looks on the verge of falling apart.
Messi, and Camp Nou in particular, often provide an invisibility cloak, the magician himself proving the master of misdirection to present the image of unity. There remains a Coliseum-style ambience there (before lockdown at least) where the locals arrive to watch their gladiators demolish yet another feeble opponent. An expectancy and an invulnerability. Real Betis won 4-3 there a year ago, and before that Real Madrid triumphed in the Supercopa, 3-1 in August 2017.
That’s the only two home losses they’ve suffered in nearly three years. But away from home, it’s a totally different story. It has been suggested in some quarters that Barca get bullied outside of Catalunya, taken out of their comfort zone and roughed up on the road. But the numbers don’t really back that up – the number of duels, tackles and interceptions are largely comparable home and away, as is the number of passes made, as well as the direction of play.
A DIFFERENT ATTACK AWAY
Where Barca fall down is unilaterally in the final third. The defence is an issue but the underlying attacking numbers away from Camp Nou drop off a cliff. Their Goals Per Game (GPG) at home in 18/19 was 2.8 versus 1.79 away, with Expected Goal (xG) totals of 2.24 and 1.42 respectively. That’s a significant drop – Barca drew eight times and lost five on their travels. And even from that position of noticeable reduction, 19/20 is even worse.
If we make a direct comparison between away statistics in 18/19 to 19/20 we see Barca’s attacking impetus regressing further. Their GPG away from home drops from 1.79 to 1.47 and their xG is roughly identical (1.43 to 1.43). 22 goals away from home is only three more than Granada.
Shots have fallen from 12.5 to 11.5 this season, and on target from 5.2 to 4.5. Their form isn’t unfortunate; earlier in the season under Ernesto Valverde they weren’t dominating the likes of Osasuna, Granada, Levante or Slavia Prague, and in 2020 they aren’t dominating Espanyol, Valencia or Athletic either.
And it may seem like the most obvious thing to say in the world – that Barcelona are a worse team without Messi – but it’s the starkness of the contrast which should be horrifying for Barca fans. Messi had a false start to the season through injury and took time to accelerate through the gears, but no-one even came close to filling the void. Continue reading