Barcelona had not lost to Benfica since 1961. They did not start a European season with consecutive defeats from 1972-73. They had lost their last consecutive Champions League group stage matches 21 years ago.
Still, the most damning thing about Wednesday’s 3-0 defeat in Lisbon was that it wasn’t a big surprise.
According to the most reasonable football definitions, Barça is in crisis. They only won three of eight games in all competitions in 2021-22. Spiraling debts of over € 1.2 billion meant they couldn’t give Lionel Messi a new contract or conduct any meaningful recruiting, even as club captains cut salaries.
These dire financial figures also mean they have a spending limit of barely an eighth the size of Real Madrid for this season, so January is unlikely to offer much of a chance to turn things around. And, in Ronald Koeman, they have a coach who appears more and more out of his mind, unable to inspire his players or maintain a lot of friendliness with the clothes on top of him.
It is speculated that Barça’s next game could be his last in office … and it just happens to be against the champions. How did this come about?
It must be repeated that many of Barça’s problems are not Koeman’s. He was named by Josep Maria Bartomeu after the historic ignominy of that 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich, when years of team mismanagement ended home in a horrific performance. With no money to keep Messi or greatly improve the team, Koeman has been hampered in his efforts to build a team that can compete for pride, not to mention titles.
It is also true that Koeman’s system is a disaster.
There is a semblance of playing “alla Barca”. For one thing, they love to have the ball: Catalans have the highest ball possession average in La Liga this season (68.4%), while their average of 4.54 passes per sequence is the highest in the division, and only leaders Real Madrid (112) have put together more sequences of 10 passes or more than Barca (106). In addition, they press high, limiting opposing teams on average to just eight passes per defensive play, the best figure in the league.
Trouble is, they don’t seem to make the most of these positives.
Despite seemingly pressing with intent, their return of 53 turnovers is only seventh in LaLiga. Despite controlling the ball for most games, they created only 55 open play chances – eight teams created more – and attempted 72 shots, the 13th highest score in the competition. Crosses are also scarce: five teams can improve the figure of 211 pitches in the area.
For context, Sunday’s opponents Atletico Madrid have attempted 96 shots this season, the third most in the league, created 10 more scoring chances than Barça and played 44 more passes in the penalty area – and all while tackling 45 low shots in the league on his own goal, 14 fewer than Koeman’s men. Even taking into account the Barça game in hand, these are notable differences.
A divorce at Messi
Barça knew they would miss Messi. Koeman knew he would miss Messi. Anyone who has ever kicked a ball knew he would miss Messi.
But, boy, does he really miss it.
Barça finished La Liga last season with 85 goals, 18 more than any other team, 30 of which were scored by Messi. They surpassed the target figure by 11.04, with only the Atletico champions doing it by a larger margin (13.95). Messi himself surpassed his xG of 6.21.
Excluding penalties and own goals, Barça surpassed their xG of 74 in 2020-21. Their 583 shots, the highest number among LaLiga teams, each have an average value of 0.13xG.
This season, Barca have scored 11 goals, which corresponds almost exactly to their xG, despite the fact that the average xG value of their shots has slightly increased to 0.15. Without Messi’s abnormal abilities, they are returning to normal.
It’s amazing how better things are when there is someone who puts the ball in the net.
Which brings us to Memphis Depay, the big positive of Koeman’s time in office.
Trying to take Messi’s shoes might be beyond mere mortals, but the way Depay settled into his role as Barça’s offensive pivot was hugely impressive. The Dutch forward has met the requirements of his former national team coach, leading the line with ease even when the team around him is in trouble.
Depay has scored three goals and one assist in all competitions, more than any other Barça player. With 2.49 assists expected, he can be considered unfortunate not to have even a greater number of goals involved.
To date, Depay has attempted 22 shots, more than three times more than any other teammate, and has created 18 chances, six more than the second-best figure posted by Frenkie de Jong.
Among LaLiga players in all competitions, only Karim Benzema (16) and Vinicius Junior (14) have shot more than Depay (13), while only three players from the Spanish top flight have completed more dribbles than former Lyon and Manchester United man (21). He has embraced the pressure of leading the Barcelona line in one of the most difficult times in their recent history. He can’t do it alone.
If Koeman’s reign is to survive this weekend, he’ll have to hope Depay can produce some magic against Atletico, even if that may not be enough.