On a good run, the international break once again has sunk Barcelona in an identity crisis. Where the situation feels familiar – Ronald Koeman had elevated the team following a good run but fell through following the spring international break – Xavi Hernandez is now at the helm, but with a similar issue. The team seems broken, though for different reasons.
Not much has changed since the international break, but the Catalans have first lost to Eintracht Frankfurt amid ticketing controversy leading some of the first lines of fans to boycott the last game against Cádiz in La Liga, a game that ended up in a 0-1 win for the newly promoted Andalusians.
Barcelona’s honeymoon with Xavi had already taken a U-turn since the last international break. Once known to stamp 4-0 wherever they went, Barcelona have since then struggled to score, edging against Sevilla (1-0), just making it out of perish against Frankfurt in Germany (1-1), winning in extremis against relegation-threatened Levante (3-2), losing against Eintracht at the Camp Nou (2-3) and finally losing against Cádiz (0-1).
A greater contrast of form could not be found where Barcelona had just traveled to Madrid for the Clasico, scoring four against current La Liga leaders.
Barcelona had not been perfect in its “peak form” in 2022, but it often got out of trouble. It had drawn against Espanyol (2-2), failed to break the deadlock against Napoli and Galatsaray away from home (1-1 and 0-0, respectively) and barely edged it against uninspiring Elche (2-1). But it could often get away with it: For all the missed chances, for all inaccuracies, Barcelona scored a few chances, enough to secure the three points.
But that certainly could not keep going: For many, the international break became synonymous with Schadenfreude, a return to reality from heaven. In a similar fashion to Koeman’s January-May period, it all seemed lost following return from international football. And that, despite much of the starters having changed (If the midfield remains similar, Aubameyang, Ferran Torres, Dani Alves have all been added to regular XI’s).
A reasonable argument could be built around mental fatigue. Though Xavi, unlike Koeman, has tried to include more players (Note: Has a larger roster, too), mental fatigue is noticeable in either team. Many players have played a lot of minutes: Consequently, they remain worn out from a lack of rest, despite playing twice a week in European weeks. Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Pedri González, Gavi, Ferran Torres, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: They’ve all had their highs and lows, but what’s certain is that all of them have played a reasonable amount of minutes: Some of them, like Pedri, are now even injured.
What many described Barcelona to have been in its last matches is a team that has lost its usual mechanism, one without innovation that couldn’t think outside of the box: This version of Barcelona is dull, for a couple of reasons. Both encounters against Frankfurt and Cádiz had the Catalans playing against a flexible deep block able to counter-attack from dispossession from wingers against Barcelona’s weak defensive transitions; It is no coincidence that either match did not finish in Xavi’s favor.
On the other hand, without noticing, Barcelona has started depending on two individuals, these being Pedri González and Ousmane Dembélé. In a team with more off the ball runners than ever (Aubameyang, Ferran Torres, L. De Jong), Barcelona’s main source of creativity comes from the French winger (regularly involved in high Shot-Creating Action as well as high xA figures), whilst the Canarian midfielder helps Barcelona progress down the left, the team’s main source of threat creation along Jordi Alba.
Other issues around the topic involved Dest’s absence due to injuries, translating into Mingueza and Dani Alves playing against transition-heavy sides that used either weaknesses to their strengths. Much of Frankfurt’s attacks came down Mingueza’s flank following his winger’s dispossessions: Indefensible for sure, but only rendered worse by the Spaniard and Brazilian’s weaknesses tracking back in a 2v2/3v2 scenario.
High positioning from midfielders (Pedri + F.de Jong/Gavi) also allowed both Cádiz and Eintracht to isolate Busquets, cutting down passing lanes and therefore leaving Barcelona against an unbreakable wall. Isolating Busquets was a regular feat in recent years, but with Xavi playing both of his interiors high, the isolation has become natural: Give Barcelona therefore the ball, and they’ll give you the ball back at your advantage. Such was the summary of either match where Barcelona struggled to think outside of the box; without Pedri, Barcelona’s innovation has fallen out of love.
When the context isn’t positive anymore, some players fall out of inspiration: This has been the noticeable with the cases of Jordi Alba, Frenkie De Jong and even Ronald Araújo to a certain extent: The latter’s downfall may not seem as brutal, but his (lack of) distribution against Frankfurt showed serious weaknesses that need urgent fix should Barcelona still aim for the top four: Second with one game in hand, nonetheless only three points difference: Slipping seems easy given Barcelona still have to battle against Real Betis, Real Sociedad as well as Villarreal in the final run.
There is no chance for Barcelona to breathe, where Xavi needs to motivate his team whilst continuing to adjust his team, continuing to teach how to break a low-block and limit possible transitions at own cost: More importantly, Barcelona need a motivation to win, a feeling the team seems to have lost in the last game following low-attendance fiasco, as Barcelona fans were barely equalling Frankfurt fans, and as a consequence a few boycotted the team’s game at the Camp Nou last Monday against Cádiz.