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It’s time for Barcelona to stop obsessing over ‘The Guardiola Way’

https://theathletic.com/2090549/2020/09/25/the-barcelona-way-guardiola-koeman-messi-philosophy/

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This weekend, Ronald Koeman will take charge of his first competitive match as coach of Barcelona.

We’ve all had several weeks to process the idea of Koeman in the dugout at the Nou Camp, and amid the drama about Lionel Messi’s allegedly imminent departure, followed by his dramatic U-turn, the identity of Barcelona’s manager has felt like a side story.

But it nevertheless remains a remarkable situation: Barcelona appointing somebody whose last club job ended so disastrously that his employers felt compelled to replace him with Sam Allardyce.

Koeman has since rehabilitated himself, performing impressively as manager of the Dutch national side. But the reason he received the call from Barcelona is, of course, the same reason Frank Lampard did from Chelsea, Mikel Arteta did from Arsenal, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did from Manchester United and, perhaps most strikingly, Andrea Pirlo did from Juventus. Koeman was outstanding for Barcelona in his playing days, and therefore there’s a perception that he “knows the club”; he “understands the Barca way”.

But it’s now fully 25 years since Koeman departed as a player, and 20 years since he left as assistant to Louis van Gaal. Since then, he’s been in charge of Vitesse Arnhem, Ajax, Benfica, PSV Eindhoven, Valencia, AZ Alkmaar, Feyenoord, Southampton, Everton and Holland and, while there have been sporadic successes — three Eredivisie titles — this isn’t a manager who has appeared to be one of Europe’s best, nor who has remained committed to a definitive philosophy as much as several other young coaches.

The reality, of course, is that Barcelona still have a complex about Pep Guardiola, and almost everything that has taken place at the Nou Camp since he departed in 2012 relates back to him. That was a truly legendary four-year period; people were already asking whether Guardiola’s Barcelona were the greatest side of modern times after a single season, and he subsequently created an even better side two years later.

It’s not unreasonable to ask whether we’ll ever witness a more celebrated club team.

The inequalities in European football have grown so much over the past decade that such overwhelmingly successful sides now feel somewhat routine. Bayern Munich have just won the treble, winning 18 of their last 19 league games, all six DVB-Pokal games and all 11 Champions League games — including beating Barcelona 8-2 in the quarter-finals — and yet it still feels a stretch to put them up there alongside Guardiola’s Barcelona. And if they can’t compare, who else ever can?

Comparing every modern team with Guardiola’s Barcelona is, of course, a particular issue for Barcelona themselves. Guardiola’s overwhelming success at the club was based on a combination of three things.

First, a genuine philosophy of possession football that ran through the club.

Second, an outstanding group of homegrown players, led by Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Messi, probably unlike anything any club has ever produced before.

Third, a revolutionary manager who rebooted old ideas for the modern era and delivered at a level beyond anyone’s dreams.

These three facets became established as the club’s core identity; the problem is that they align very, very rarely.


The philosophy

The philosophical problem with Barcelona is three-fold.

First, their actual philosophy has always been slightly more flexible than is now perceived. Yes, there’s a lineage of possession football, a high defensive line and 4-3-3 that goes back to Rinus Michels, but various managers have tinkered with it. There have been eras where Barcelona have been based around individuals, and eras where they were based around the system. There have been times when they retained the ball endlessly and times when they’ve been more direct. Their approach hasn’t been as consistent as is now often portrayed. Terry Venables took the club to a European Cup final in the 1980s with a 4-4-2, a solid defence and a hard-working midfield, and he wasn’t summarily banned from Catalonia.

The second issue is that Barcelona have been huge victims of their own success. Almost every single top club in Europe now plays, broadly speaking, attack-minded, possession football. This would have been almost unthinkable 15 years ago, when Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez were the most dominant managers in Europe, successfully boring their way to European trophies with deep defensive blocks and sporadic attacking transitions. That was universally acknowledged as the default, most profitable way to play in continental competition. Barcelona’s approach was considered a utopian alternative, an admirable and fairly unique commitment to entertainment.

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Now, every club wants to play that way. Clubs whose previous approach was about the primacy of winning, Chelsea and Juventus, have both appointed Maurizio Sarri on the basis that he created a beautifully free-flowing but ultimately trophyless side at Napoli, which marks a dramatic attempt to redefine themselves, a process which can be traced back to Guardiola’s success with Barcelona. Therefore, not only is Barcelona’s philosophy less unique, it also means that others are competing for the talent they might desire. In yesteryear, a coach in Sarri’s position — after three years at Napoli — would have seemed an ideal fit for Barcelona. They would never have been competing with the likes of Chelsea and Juventus.

The third and most pressing issue is that Europe has moved on from pure tiki-taka. There was a period when Barcelona alone played that way, a period afterwards where everyone in Europe played that way, and now a period where everyone in Europe has incorporated those methods into their possession game while also offering more.

Hansi Flick’s Bayern are a good example, as are Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

Klopp’s side aren’t truly about possession and build-up play in the manner of Guardiola’s Barcelona, but they play 4-3-3, they press aggressively, they play a false nine and two goal-scoring wide forwards. It should be enough. But Barcelona have convinced themselves that they’re supposed to be purer than anyone else, and therefore despite Klopp’s approach embodying many elements of the Barcelona way, they probably feel they have to be “more Barca” than that. Which is quite difficult, and probably leads them down a path where success is considerably more difficult to achieve.

Perhaps most striking is the fact that Guardiola himself has created two sides, at Bayern and Manchester City, that demonstrate how he’s evolved his approach from those Barcelona days.

Barcelona are more concerned with playing “The Guardiola Way” than Guardiola himself. They’re so desperate for someone who shares Guardiola’s beliefs that they’ve ended up appointing his old “defensive partner”, (as Johan Cruyff used to term them, given Guardiola would drop back and cover for Koeman’s forward charges) as their manager.


The homegrown talent

In 2012, just after Guardiola’s departure, Barcelona briefly fielded an team comprised entirely of graduates from their academy. The XI was Victor Valdes, Martin Montoya, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Pedro Rodriguez, Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas.

There are a few caveats here — Pique, Alba and Fabregas all left the club and then rejoined. And while Fabregas moved to Arsenal before he was 17, Puyol and Pedro joined after they turned 17. So the criteria is a little flimsy — but the point remains. This was a wonderful era where Barcelona produced genuinely world-class footballers at an alarming rate.

Again, this was an exaggerated example of Barcelona’s focus upon youth. Yes, there has always been some commitment there to developing young talent, but there was never anything comparable to this crop.

Their 1992 European Cup winners, for example, featured just Guardiola himself and reliable right-back Albert Ferrer from the youth system — and this was a time when the three-foreigner rule meant teams were more likely to field homegrown players. That was often as good as it got.

Also in the 1990s, there were the likes of speedy left-back Sergi, plus the hard-working midfielder Amor. But in terms of genuine attacking talent, the likes of Ivan de la Pena and Jordi Cruyff were realistically not a suitable level for making Barcelona the best side in Europe. Barcelona tended to mix homegrown, hard-working players with genuine superstars. Later, they would feature the likes of Puyol and Oleguer Presas at the back, and the likes of Ronaldinho and Patrick Kluivert going forward. The youth products formed a solid backbone. They didn’t really lead the charge.

Today, there seems to be an expectation that Barcelona will continue to produce world-class talent after world-class talent from the academy. The expectations are enormous — young midfielder Carles Alena was briefly heralded as The New Xavi or The New Iniesta, and may yet become a Barcelona regular. Equally, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Alena “only” turned out to be good enough for Villarreal or Real Sociedad. Producing genuinely top-class players is incredibly hard.

This season, focus has turned to youth product Ansu Fati and Pedri, signed in the summer from Las Palmas after a good Segunda campaign. They might be the future of Barcelona — but both are 17. While Messi was good enough at 17, others take time to develop. At 17, Pedro had only just joined Barcelona’s academy and was five years away from becoming a regular.

Too much expectation upon a pair of 17-year-olds doesn’t merely risk an underwhelming season, it also risks harming their long-term footballing development, and Barcelona can’t pretend that every talented teenager will automatically grow into another world-beater.


The manager

The choice of Barcelona’s new manager was so inextricably linked to Guardiola’s legacy that it essentially came down to two men — Guardiola’s old defensive partner Koeman, and Guardiola’s first colleague and then successor in midfield, Xavi.

Koeman got the job, but really only because Xavi doesn’t want it yet. It would have been a foolish decision for Xavi to take the job now, while the hapless Josep Bartomeu remains club president. Between November and March, depending upon how a vote of confidence in Bartomeu goes, there will be presidential elections at Barcelona, and the frontrunner, Victor Font, will almost certainly appoint Xavi next summer.

So Koeman is probably only going to be in place for a year. The mood at the club is evidently gloomy — Messi was desperate to depart, and highly successful players such as Luis Suarez and Arturo Vidal have been almost paid to leave. If there is value in Koeman knowing the club, it’s probably about his understanding of the political side of things, and his history of understanding how big personalities operate at big clubs, rather than the tactical philosophy.

Nevertheless, the tactical side of things should be interesting. In a 1-0 friendly win over Elche this week, Koeman used something that could be considered a 4-2-4, a 4-2-3-1 or (considerably more loosely than usual) a 4-3-3. Messi played in his Guardiola-era position as a false nine, with Coutinho in an advanced version of Iniesta’s role in the inside-left position. Fati attacked from wide left, Antoine Griezmann from wide right, while Frenkie de Jong was fielded deep alongside Busquets. When Messi drifted right, Griezmann moved up front.

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And if there’s to be a serious legacy from Koeman’s spell in charge, it seems highly likely to involve De Jong, surely the most fascinating player to emerge in European football in recent years, someone who felt like he was revolutionising the game at Ajax: starting in midfield, dropping into defence and then driving forward directly. A holding midfielder who is a press-resistant dribbler is Barcelona’s best chance of being at the forefront of tactical innovation once again, and Koeman knows his talents well, having coached him for Holland.

“The plan is to start playing Frenkie de Jong in the position that he plays with the national team,” Koeman confirmed shortly after taking charge.

“I remember attending a Barcelona game and I saw him play a position where I wouldn’t play him as a coach,” he continued, almost certainly talking about De Jong’s peculiar role almost on the left of a diamond. “You’ve spent a lot of money on a young player. You should then play him in his own position, where he can perform in a way you’d expect from him. He’s shown at Ajax and with the Dutch national team which position suits him best and that’s where he will be playing at Barcelona as well.”

Just as Guardiola built his Barcelona side around his equivalents — Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta — Koeman will do so with the closest thing to himself. And that might just work.

De Jong feels very Barcelona, but he doesn’t feel very Guardiola-era Barcelona, and that will help Koeman achieve his almost impossible task: staying faithful to the club’s classic approach, while creating something new.

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I guess Spanish football just isn't for me. Everyone on twitter praising how amazing a match that was. There's just so much diving, flailing, bitching, and moaning for me to enjoy it. It's so bad in t

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No hiding or sulking from Messi – but Fati is starting to steal spotlight

https://theathletic.com/2090501/2020/09/28/lionel-messi-barcelona-villarreal-4-0/

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All eyes were on Lionel Messi for his first game for Barcelona after trying and failing to force his way out of the Nou Camp this summer, but although the Argentinian scored one and made another he was relegated to a supporting role as teenager Ansu Fati was the decisive figure in Sunday evening’s 4-0 La Liga stroll past a really poor Villarreal team.

Messi had scored the first competitive goal in the reigns of the three previous Barcelona coaches — Luis Enrique, Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setien. Here, it was 17-year-old Fati who continued his rapid emergence as the team’s next superstar in Ronald Koeman’s official debut as boss.

The 33-year-old was in the vicinity but not involved as Fati opened the scoring on 15 minutes with a clinically beautiful strike, then totally out of the picture as the kid finished off a lightning counter to make it 2-0, by which stage the stuffing was completely knocked out of Unai Emery’s strangely passive visitors.

Messi, who remains club captain, lined up in a roving false nine role, with Fati, Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann swapping positions in the line of three behind him. He was still feeling his way into the game — completing just three passes in the first 22 minutes — when Fati made the decisive contribution.

There was a sign of their respective sharpness in the first goal (maybe to be expected, given Messi removed himself from the first few weeks of pre-season training, although Fati also had his preparation curtailed by a niggling injury issue). Jordi Alba’s pull-back in the 15th minute might well have been directed towards Messi, as so many of the left-back’s crosses have been over the past decade. But Fati flashed forward to get to the ball first, and his perfectly clean first-time strike wrongfooted everyone, including Sergio Asenjo in the Villarreal goal. Messi was in the picture, giving a little jump himself as the ball hit the net — either from frustration at the pass not coming to him, or celebration of the goal, or maybe a mixture of both.

For the second goal, Messi was again not involved at all, having run into space down the right wing as all four Barcelona attackers countered together. Coutinho, however, brought the play to the other side, a correct decision, and played in Fati. Maybe previously the ball would have been drawn towards Messi, almost by magnetism, as his colleagues looked to him to guide all the team’s attacks. It could even have been deliberately drawing defenders away, but Messi staying wide removed himself completely from the danger area, so he was nowhere near the penalty box as the ball hit the net.

It was quite strange as we are all so used to Messi being central to everything Barcelona do, more and more each season. Even as his total goals tally has dipped slightly in recent years, his number of assists rose to a career-high 26 in all competitions in 2019-20 — when he was also often involved deep in midfield play, setting up moves in the style of former team-mates Xavi or Andres Iniesta. Koeman has clearly handed playmaking reins to fellow Dutchman Frenkie de Jong, leaving Messi, in theory, with much less importance in the team’s build-up play. The one counter-attack he was involved in when the game was still in the balance he slowed down completely, before being easily dispossessed by ex-Valencia midfielder Dani Parejo.

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At 2-0 up, there were even more spaces for Barcelona. Messi was now dropping a lot deeper and was involved in starting the move which led to the third goal. Fati again sprinted past right-back Mario Gaspar, who could not help tripping the youngster. Messi looked very serious as he stepped up and his penalty was not brilliantly struck — Asenjo got a hand to the ball but could not keep it out. There was a smile as he punched the air in celebration, and a hug from old mate Sergio Busquets. Koeman also clenched fists in his celebration on the sideline.

Even at 3-0 up, Messi was working harder off the ball, and even got back to stop a dangerous-looking Villarreal break with a tackle in his own half. The pace of the game was not high — and just before half-time there was zero pressure on the Argentine as he had all the time in the world to measure a cross towards Busquets, only for Villarreal centre-back Pau Torres to divert the cross into his own net for number four. By half-time Messi’s touches were almost as many as Coutinho and Fati, while it was Griezmann who had drifted completely to the periphery of the game.

The Frenchman still appears uncertain in the six-time Ballon d’Or winner’s presence, but there were clear signs Fati is on the same wavelength and they can link together intuitively. The second half began with the pair exchanging passes around the edge of the box, although Messi’s shot was straight at Asenjo. There was more frustration as he tried to take on Gaspar — who Fati had tormented at will — but his touch was not great and the ball ricocheted out for a goal kick.

As the game rambled to a conclusion, Messi kept getting chances but could not take them — including one badly-directed header when Alba’s cross picked him out unmarked with the goal gaping. He kept getting on the ball in dangerous areas — taking on opponents and looking to get his shots off. By full-time, the number of his shots had risen to seven, with four on target, but the only one to count was the penalty Fati’s direct running had made.

There was no sign of any hiding or sulking, however. He might still be super-angry with club president Josep Maria Bartomeu, and may not yet be sure what he thinks of his new coach, but the first game of the season showed his competitive instinct remains. The social media posts about his friend Luis Suarez’s exit were a distraction during the build-up to the game, but during the 90 minutes he looked fully focused on the job at hand. Koeman made the wise political move to leave him on for the full game, even as all his other attackers got a rest with presumably stiffer tests to come at Celta Vigo on Thursday and at home to Sevilla next Sunday.

That there were no fans at the Nou Camp for the first official game of the season was definitely a bonus for Bartomeu, as it meant no “white hankie” protest from the substantial number of the club’s members who want him to resign. It also denied the chance for a popular referendum on Messi’s behaviour this summer, when the hurt caused by the 8-2 humiliation against Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals was then worsened for many when their hero tried to force his way to join another exiled club legend Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.

Emery’s Villarreal did not provide a proper test at all for Koeman’s new Barcelona side, and Fati’s decisive intervention during the first quarter of the match ended any drama the night might have held. The symbolism of La Masia’s latest sensation stealing the spotlight on the disgruntled veteran’s return to action was lost on nobody either at the stadium or watching from home.

In many ways, it might also suit Messi for the team to be less dependent on him to be central to everything they do. How he deals with that new reality — and the continuing development of a new superstar sidekick in Fati — will be fascinating to watch over the coming weeks and months.

 

Barcelona vs Villarreal – Highlights

https://yfl.viditnow.com/player/html/TiaFwiFmaGH4B?popup=yes&autoplay=1

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13 trophies and 198 goals – but was Luis Suarez underappreciated at Barcelona?

https://theathletic.com/2081659/2020/09/24/luis-suarez-barcelona-transfer-atletico-la-liga/

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“This is a very difficult day for me,” said Luis Suarez as he choked back tears at his farewell event as a Barcelona player.

“Playing at Barca — the best team in the world — was a dream. I must be very proud of all that I have done here, living such spectacular moments, winning so many trophies, playing alongside such marvellous players, including the best footballer ever. I will always appreciate the warmth and support from the fans from the first day till the last. Everyone here at the club must know that they will always have another ‘culé’ forever in me, wherever I am.”

Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu was also gushing in his praise of the Uruguayan.

“This is a special day; a legend of our club is leaving, having won 13 trophies and becoming our third-highest goalscorer ever. We appreciate that enormously. I thank you, in the name of Barca fans all over the world, and hope you are happy in the future on and off the pitch.”

Despite the warm words, there was still a forced feel to the proceedings, and a sense Suarez and Bartomeu were keeping their real opinions to themselves.

During a Zoom chat with reporters, Suarez agreed it has been a “crazy month” and admitted he had things “to keep to myself” about the transfer saga.

Both Suarez and Bartomeu are winners, in a way.

Suarez secured his aim of getting a sizable pay-off to leave (€9 million) and has joined a club in Atletico Madrid who have ambitions to challenge for all possible trophies this season. His signing has caused huge excitement at Atletico. Bartomeu, meanwhile, has pushed through his very public aim of moving on one of the club’s highest earners.

Following August’s embarrassing 8-2 Champions League quarter-finals loss to Bayern Munich, Bartomeu made clear Suarez was one of the players he wanted rid of as he looked to rebuild the team.

However, Bartomeu must still fear Suarez coming back to haunt his former side over the coming months.

Suarez was told he was not wanted at Barcelona by their new manager, Ronald Koeman, on August 24. Three days earlier, he had said he would be happy to stay at the club even in the reserves, all the while trying to negotiate an exit on the best terms possible. The 33-year-old suffered the embarrassment of a trip to Perugia for an Italian language exam which has led to a police investigation into the validity of the certification he was given, when it appeared Juventus was his most likely destination. The University of Perugia has denied wrongdoing and there is no investigation into Suarez.

Both Atletico and Barcelona thought they had reached an agreement on Monday for Suarez to leave, only for Bartomeu to block the move when it emerged he was heading to Diego Simeone’s team for free. Frantic talks took place on Tuesday evening with Bartomeu meeting Suarez’s lawyers at the Nou Camp, while fans protested outside calling on Bartomeu to resign.

A deal was eventually struck and Barcelona issued the statement confirming his departure five minutes before midnight on Wednesday. Barcelona wanted it out there they were receiving €6 million from Atletico, not just letting him go for nothing.

Atletico, however, believe no money is changing hands now and they will only be out of pocket should they reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League with Suarez in their team over the next two seasons (the striker has signed a two-year contract).

Behind the smiles at Thursday lunchtime’s press conference, there was a feeling Suarez and Bartomeu will be happy to see the back of each other. It was not always like that.

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“When Pere (Guardiola, his agent) called me to say I had signed for Barca, I could not believe it; I started to cry,” Suarez said, soon after joining in 2014. “I thought that it had all been broken after the Chiellini stuff. The club made a big effort for me which I will value all my life.”

Suarez was especially grateful then to Bartomeu, who pushed hard for his signing from Liverpool for €80 million, even while he was serving a four-month ban by FIFA for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini playing for Uruguay at that summer’s World Cup. That incident was the latest in a controversial career which also featured a ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra when he was at Liverpool.

There were also doubts from the likes of Johan Cruyff over how the “individualist” Suarez would fit in a side whose recent successes had been based on midfield control and teamwork. However, after having to wait until the October to make his debut in a Clasico against Real Madrid, which Barcelona lost, Suarez quickly settled into the team. Hitting it off with Lionel Messi was a huge help. Soon after becoming neighbours in the suburb of Castelldefels, the Suarez family were being invited to barbecues in the Messi’s garden, and the two South Americans started driving to training together. Their partners, Antonella Roccuzzo and Sofia Balbi, also became friends and started a fashion business together.

On the pitch, Suarez and Messi were proving a perfect match. The Uruguayan’s ability to click with the introspective but judgmental Argentinian contrasted with the experience of other top forwards at Barcelona over the last decade, including Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa, Alexis Sanchez, Philipe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and most recently Antoine Griezmann. Neymar was also inhibited during his first season but, after a few teething problems, the MSN (Messi-Suarez-Neymar) forward line clicked. Suarez scored the winner in the return Clasico to all but secure that season’s La Liga title, then helped clinch the treble by scoring in the Champions League final against Juventus.

In his second season, Suarez outscored both Messi and Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, to become the only other player besides those two to win the Pichichi award for La Liga’s top scorer in the last 11 years.

His 198 goals for Barcelona included every type of finish, and he scored prolifically in every competition, especially in finals — Club World Cup, Copa del Rey, UEFA Super Cup, Spanish Super Cup and Champions League.

Suarez goals in Clasicos more or less ended the reigns of both Rafa Benitez and Julen Lopetegui at the Bernabeu. He was just as motivated and hungry to make an impact in La Liga games against less glamorous opponents. He also racked up 97 assists.

“Maybe he is a bit different than the typical player with Barca DNA but he always fit very well, especially for his finishing and the balance he brought with Messi and Neymar,” a source heavily involved in bringing Suarez to the Nou Camp told The Athletic. “Maybe when you play alongside the best (Messi) everything is reduced a little bit, because all the praise tends to go to him, but Suarez is at the level of the greatest ever Barca players.”

Meanwhile, he managed to keep his dark side under control.

In typical Suarez fashion, there have been a few scrapes with opponents but he generally stayed on the right side of the law, with just one red card in his 283 appearances.


So, why were Barcelona so keen to move Suarez on now?

The first reason is money. Bartomeu desperately needs to cut the wage bill, and Suarez was the second-highest earner at the club on €18 million (including tax) a year. He had just one season left on his contract, and had he played more than 60 per cent of the games during the 2020-2021 season a clause would have kicked in extending that for another 12 months.

Given Barcelona’s huge financial problems — even before the COVID-19 crisis — it became imperative to shift Suarez, along with Arturo Vidal, Ivan Rakitic and others whose hefty salaries no longer matched their contributions. That was even more the case when Messi decided to stay for at least another year. Koeman is keen to bring in his Dutch countryman Memphis Depay from Lyon and space had to be cleared both in the team and on the wage bill before that can happen.

The second factor is Suarez’s injuries. He has had two serious knee operations over the last 18 months and his movement has been significantly diminished. He can still get himself into scoring positions inside the box but his work rate off the ball has dropped a lot, which is especially a problem when Messi is also in the team. That has contributed to Barcelona’s pressing of opponents becoming woeful in recent seasons.

Suarez has also been sold to a rival to appease angry Barcelona fans who have grown increasingly frustrated with their No 9’s performances. Although he scored 21 goals and contributed 12 assists in 36 games last season, there were grumbles around the Nou Camp about him missing too many chances.

“Of course his exit is linked to reducing the salaries of the first team,” says a source involved in the motion of censure against Bartomeu. “It’s true that he has scored 15 or 20 goals a season, but his general performance over the last two years has not been that of the decisive No 9 the team needs.”

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There are also those inside the dressing room who felt Suarez was no longer a positive influence. A source says some senior players grew “tired of his behaviour” and a clique of Suarez, Messi and Vidal were able to put too much pressure on coaches and directors even to the point of “taking decisions themselves” around tactics and training.

The president did not want Suarez. Neither did his coach, a large number of the supporters, nor even some of his most influential team-mates.

So his time was up.


Which begs the question: why was Atletico coach Simeone so keen to sign him?

Atletico need a regular goalscorer. And badly. In recent years, Simeone has signed Mario Mandzukic, Jackson Martinez, Kevin Gameiro, re-signed Diego Costa and last summer spent €55 million on Alvaro Morata.

None of them have been able to score regularly enough for Atletico to even challenge for trophies.

After Griezmann left them for Barcelona last summer, Simeone’s team scored just 51 goals in their 38 league games and never challenged in a title race which Real Madrid won without really impressing. However, the coach known as El Cholo believes he has the core of a new, strong Atletico team — from Jan Oblak in goal, through Jose Gimenez and Renan Lodi in defence, and Koke and Saul in midfield. Joao Felix should be able to replace Griezmann’s creativity, but the team needs a pure finisher. A fit and firing Suarez would bring that.

His aggression, intensity and will to win are also qualities Atletico lack at present.

The hope around the Wanda Metropolitano stadium is that Suarez will have a similar — or even bigger — impact as David Villa, who Atletico signed from Barcelona in the summer of 2013.

In his only season with them, Villa helped Atletico win their sole La Liga title of Simeone’s nine years in charge.

Simeone clearly feels Suarez, who he has called “a hugely important player — tremendous, marvellous, extraordinary, strong, aggressive, intense” will have a similar impact on his team as Villa. Or at least that he will be a lot more decisive than Morata, whose diffident personality is so different from Suarez’s (and Simeone’s).

It is also relevant that Suarez was so often decisive against Atletico — providing eight goals and five assists in 18 meetings, including a superbly struck goal at the Nou Camp which more or less decided the 2018-19 title race between the two teams.

The idea that Suarez is leaving Barcelona with something to prove is also surely attractive to Atletico, and something that Simeone will be keen to fuel over the coming months. At his Thursday farewell, Suarez could not help showing regular flashes of pride and gave the feeling he does not at all feel finished as a player.

“When Barca put me on the market, there were many calls, obviously, from many clubs,” he said. “But I am going to a team which can compete as equals with anyone, including Barcelona and Real Madrid, with a lot of excitement and motivation for a new challenge.”

Suarez could come up against Barcelona as soon as October 22, when Atletico will host Koeman’s team.

The return in the Catalan capital is next May, when the title race should be coming to a climax.

Suarez will be hoping to show his previous employers just how dangerous a player he can still be.

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https://www.eurosport.com/football/liga/2020-2021/spanish-federation-axes-signings-outside-transfer-windows_sto7914221/story.shtml

SPANISH FEDERATION AXES SIGNINGS OUTSIDE TRANSFER WINDOWS

The much-maligned rule which allowed Barcelona to sign Martin Braithwaite outside of a transfer window last February has been removed.

The rule, article 124.3 in the federation's regulations, allowed clubs to sign a player from another team after the window had shut if a player in their squad in the same position had been declared injured for a minimum of five months.

But the rule was removed from the new set of statutes published by the federation on Tuesday, and now only players who are out of contract or unemployed may join clubs outside of a transfer window.

The rule, which only existed in Spain, came under global scrutiny when Barcelona signed Denmark striker Braithwaite from fellow La Liga side Leganes in February, after Ousmane Dembele was ruled out for six months due to rupturing his hamstring.

Leganes, who vented their anger at the continued existence of the rule, were helpless to prevent the transfer after Barca triggered Braithwaite's release clause of 18 million euros and were unable to sign a replacement forward.

The Madrid side were eventually relegated from La Liga on the final day of the season.

Braithwaite's signing led to condemnation from FIFA while federation president Luis Rubiales conceded at the time that the rule was unfair and pledged to end it.

 

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Crunching the numbers: what’s going wrong for Zidane at Real Madrid

https://theathletic.com/2231678/2020/12/04/zidane-real-madrid/

GettyImages-1280779093-e1607113037492-1024x683.jpg

Real Madrid’s performance in Tuesday’s 2-0 Champions League group defeat at Shakhtar Donetsk was so bad it had to be seen to be believed. But the limp defeat in Ukraine was also strangely predictable due to the trajectory the team has been on for quite some time now.

Third in the group going into Wednesday’s final game at home to Borussia Monchengladbach, Madrid have to beat the Germans to ensure progress in the competition. A draw could see them drop to the Europa League for the first time ever, while a defeat would see them eliminated from a UEFA competition before Christmas for the first time since 1994-95.

Meanwhile, Madrid’s domestic form is so poor there are serious concerns as to whether Zinedine Zidane’s side will make the top four to qualify for next season’s Champions League. They have taken just one point from their last three games against Valencia, Villarreal and Alaves.

All this leaves Zidane under huge pressure, with some well-connected sources around the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu claiming club president Florentino Perez has been troubled and embarrassed by recent performances. Should the team fail to progress to the Champions League last 16 and suffer more upsets in La Liga games against Sevilla today and Atletico Madrid next weekend, then even Zidane’s past glories as a player and coach might not save him from the sack.

Autumn or winter crises are not exactly a novelty at Madrid.

Zidane became their coach the first time around in January 2016 when Rafael Benitez’s six months in the job had gone badly, while just over 12 months ago there was widespread speculation the Frenchman was about to be replaced following a poor start to the season culminating in a disappointing 0-1 La Liga defeat at Real Mallorca.

Bouncing back from such early-season setbacks to finish the campaign with a big trophy is important to Real’s self-image. Zidane won the first of three Champions League trophies just five months after replacing Benitez, while last summer his team came on strong post the COVID-19 enforced lockdown to win the 2019-20 La Liga title.

This current crisis does seem different though and now there are new issues and challenges which Zidane has to face.


The back-to-back losses against Shakhtar in the week and Alaves last weekend probably add up to the worst week of either Zidane’s stints as coach.

Things could get bleaker still if he fails to get a positive result against former Madrid head coach Julen Lopetegui and his Sevilla side on Saturday afternoon. A win would, at least temporarily, reduce the current seven-point gap to leaders Real Sociedad. A defeat could see them drop to as low as eighth in the table.

Lopetegui’s side have had a tough week themselves, losing 4-0 to Chelsea at home on Wednesday night. That game represented Sevilla’s worst result of the season, however they finished November with a 100 per cent record and, all things considered, are having a strong season. Real though are on the slide.

The chart below shows the xG (expected goals) and goal difference over time for Real since the start of 2017-18. The yellow line represents the underlying quality of the team, considering their expected goals over time. The red line shows their goal difference over the same period. The thinking is that where expected goals go, goals will follow (so the higher the yellow line, the better).

Focusing on the very end of the chart shows Zidane’s side this season are on a slide. Results have been poor, and so have performances. This current spell is the worst that Real have been in for some time, nearly on par with the end of 2018-19, where they lost three of their last four matches of the season (albeit when they had little to play for and many players knew their time at the club was almost over).

real_madrid_team_rolling_xgd.png

Lopetegui’s spell at the club coincides with a time where, over a short period of time, performance levels were relatively stable, albeit slowly on the decline.

So what are the issues this season that are leading to that downfall in performance?

Attack-wise, Real are in fact creating slightly fewer but far better chances per game compared to last season. Their non-penalty xG per game of 1.66 is the second-highest in the league behind Barcelona. That’s ahead of last season’s 1.45. Over the course of a whole season, that’s an additional eight goals, enough to turn losses into draws and draws into wins.

It’s also the same personnel providing those chances. Real’s top performers in terms of non-penalty xG last season were Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos, Vinicius Junior and Casemiro. This season, it’s the exact same four.

The issues, therefore, are at the other end of the pitch. Real last season were the best side defensively in the league, conceding just 0.71 non-penalty xG per game. This season, they are just the eighth-best side statistically, conceding 0.99 non-penalty xG per game. It also doesn’t help that Real have conceded five penalties already this season (compared to just two all of last season).

An increase in both volume and quality of shots conceded doesn’t just happen for no reason. From the eye test at least, it seems to be down to a fairly unstructured pressing scheme. Real dominate possession as much as they usually do, up slightly from 58 per cent last season to 61 per cent this, but where they struggle is to control the game when in transition.

Real are something of a pressing team, not to the extent of Getafe or Athletic, but more so than a large number of sides in La Liga this season. Real’s PPDA (or opponent passes allowed per defensive action) is one of the lowest in the league.

Unlike those sides, though, opponents find it easier to beat that press and progress through Real. This season, only Cadiz allow opponents to move the ball upfield more in an average possession than Real do.

image-2.png

This idea that Madrid want to press, but are not doing it particularly well, is especially interesting as Zidane refers to pressing more often than any other tactical element when speaking to the media. He even suggests it as the key thing he wants his team to do.

“Football has changed from a physical point of view and the intensity is very high nowadays,” the Frenchman said before the first meeting with Shakhtar last month. “I’m all in favour of that, pressing high up and taking the game to the opposition. We could play deeper too and wait, but that’s not for me.”

The problems with Madrid’s midfielders rushing forward to press haphazardly, and opponents taking advantage to counter effectively, were shown up the following day when Shakhtar repeatedly ripped their defence apart in a 3-2 win at the Alfredo Di Stefano.

The same pattern was also evident in the 4-1 La Liga defeat at Valencia in early November, after which goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois appeared to suggest Zidane’s tactics were taking covering players out of their positions and leaving him less protected.

“We are being more attacking, including by pressing high up the pitch now, and opponents can break easier,” Courtois said that day.

So while pressing high up the pitch and forcing the opposition into mistakes could be helping Madrid to maintain a good number of chances created per game, it has a serious knock-on effect on their defensive numbers.

The same pattern was also clear when Cadiz could have been 4-0 up by half-time in their 1-0 La Liga victory at Madrid in early October, despite the Andalusians scoring just eight goals in their other 10 La Liga games so far. Just last weekend, Alaves also had plenty of other chances to win by more than their ultimate 2-1 scoreline.


Madrid’s players themselves seem to feel they are not really playing that badly, instead citing a lack of confidence.

“It is difficult to explain, above all after the first half we played, when we were really good, making lots of chances, but we did not score,” said Luka Modric on Spanish TV after the Shakhtar loss. “The second half, after their goal, everything changed and from there it was a different game. We began to be very nervous and we did not repeat what we had done in the first half. We lost a bit of confidence. We have to change that.”

Another midfielder Toni Kroos echoed the idea the team’s struggles was down to a loss of confidence caused by conceding poor goals.

“We didn’t start the game badly, but it is a bit like what is happening to us all season, in the games when we do score first we have more confidence and it is a different game,” Kroos said. “If the opponent scores first it is more difficult for us. It’s annoying when they score, and we’ve helped them to do it.”

zidane-real-madrid

It does seem strange that a team full of serial winners like Modric, Kroos, Karim Benzema and Raphael Varane can be so low on confidence that they do not react well to falling behind in games. Newer and younger players including Marcos Asensio, Ferland Mendy and Martin Odegaard do not have the experience or personality to step up at present.

It was striking to see both Varane and Mendy blaming each other after Shakhtar’s opening goal on Tuesday — and it was not difficult to find the individuals who were at fault.

Both French defenders could have cleared the ball, while lots of teammates had also come rushing back into the picture after Shakhtar’s initial counter appeared to have broken down. However nobody then actually dealt with the situation and instead, Dentinho gleefully ran through to score. The second goal was quite similar, in that no Madrid player dealt with the breaking Manor Solomon and he slammed home from the edge of the box.

That led to a look at the players who were not there due to injury, especially Fede Valverde, Dani Carvajal and most notably club captain Sergio Ramos. Eden Hazard being out means he has not been able to help their attacking input, but the losses of Valverde’s energy and athleticism in midfield, and the aggression and leadership of Ramos at the back seem huge.

Spanish statisticians have been quick to note the effect that Ramos’ absence tends to make a massive difference. With him in the team in 2020-21, they have played 10 games, won 6, drawn two and lost two, scoring 19 times and conceding 10. Without their skipper they have played five, won one, drawn one and lost three, scoring five times and conceding eight. Others pointed out that Madrid have lost seven of their last nine Champions League games without Ramos at the back.

While some observers, particularly outside Spain, might point to Ramos occasional haphazard defending as one of the team’s biggest problems, those closer to the team say the Andalusian’s mere presence makes a massive difference.

“Although we talk sometimes about Ramos’ tactical mistakes or lapses in concentration, or that he runs up into attack like crazy, the presence he has is immense,” says a source close to the dressing room. “He makes those around him much better. Just by being there, the team’s intensity levels rise. The difference is obvious, when he’s not there, he remains one of the best in the world, if not the best.”

That the loss of one player — even an inspirational leader like Ramos — has such a seismic effect on the team’s mentality is not a good sign.

And this perhaps does not speak highly of Zidane’s leadership of the team — although he might argue that allowing the dressing room to take charge of situations has been key to his successes in the past.


Zidane never blames any underperforming individuals for the team’s poor results, nor does he tend to offer excuses like players missing injured or refereeing calls (unlike some predecessors in the job). Instead he accepts he holds ultimate responsibility for the team’s performances. He also points out regularly that he has often been questioned over his two spells in charge, and he knows from his time as a player the pressures that come with the job of Real Madrid coach.

When the Frenchmen does get a little tetchy in media appearances is when it is suggested that his tactics are to blame, or the team lacks a coherent plan.

After quashing any ideas about resigning when replying to aggressive reporters following Tuesday’s game in Kiev, he suggested that more hard work and belief would help them come through this current blip.

“Many things have come together, but today we did not play badly,” he claimed. “We have pressed very high up, recovered many balls. (The problem) is not our style of play, the players did good things on the pitch today. If we had scored first, it would have been much easier. We must be able to handle these moments, but we will keep working hard and believe in what we are doing.”

A source close to the dressing room admits that tactical excellence has never been Zidane’s strong point, but previously the team had players up front who could live off fewer chances and rescue the team from tough moments in games.

“Zidane’s strength is in managing emotions and egos and hierarchies in the dressing room, everybody can see that,” the source says. “But previously with Cristiano Ronaldo, and Gareth Bale to a lesser extent, you could boot the ball up the pitch, and they would get on the end of it and score. That way they fixed a lot of games which were going against them, in Champions and in La Liga. This hid a lot of other things.”

The same source says Madrid’s players are not expecting Zidane to come up with a big new tactical plan to fix things, and that the senior figures in the dressing room expect to be able to sort out problems themselves.

“In difficult moments the players have lots of meetings to see where the problem is and sort it out,” the source says. “The players are always going to have confidence in Zidane, for the trophies he has won, as a player, and then as a coach. But aside from that, the players know that it is on them, the weight falls on the dressing room.”

Getting the team physically, mentally and emotionally right post lockdown to grind their way to the title was one of Zidane’s biggest achievements as Madrid coach. The team could not call on Ronaldo (and did not use Bale), but they found a way to win a series of very tight games and it was enough to clinch the title in these most unusual of circumstances.

The source close to the dressing room agrees that Zidane has made some tactical tweaks during his second term in charge, namely the team are still focusing on pressing high as they did with such success post lockdown and there is also a new emphasis on playing the ball out from the back (to a much bigger extent than in previous years).

This has caused them some problems in games, but more than anything the source claims Madrid’s ageing squad are just exhausted, having put in a huge effort to win last year’s title. Now they are being faced with very little recovery time between games, and a mounting injury list.

“Confidence is an issue within the group,” the source says. “It slips when things do not go well from the start, and especially when teams go for them and take them on. But the biggest issue is physical. Madrid is one of the teams all over the world who has suffered most from the accumulation of games, and the new calendars. If you see the goal they conceded (against Shakhtar), teams are coming at them in waves, and it is happening a lot. It’s true they won La Liga but they are paying for that now, paying dearly.”


“I am responsible for this, I’m the coach,” a hurting but determined-looking Zinedine Zidane told the media. “So I must find solutions. I will keep fighting always, keep working, try and look for things to make the team better.”

That was Zidane speaking after a very disorganised, almost rabble-like Real Madrid team were knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Leganes in January 2018.

Five months later, of course, Zidane was back on top after his Madrid beat Liverpool in Kiev to win a third straight Champions League title. He then resigned from the job, claiming fresh ideas and impetus were required, before returning just nine months later to fix things after Lopetegui and Solari’s short unsuccessful attempts at the job.

On his return Zidane talked a lot about making big changes to the squad, but that has not really proved possible. The one new galactico in Hazard has barely played since his €100 million arrival from Chelsea, and there has been little return for over €200 million spent on other players like Eder Militao, Mendy and Luka Jovic. As the numbers provided earlier show, the team’s leaders and most important players remain those who have been longest at the club — Ramos, Benzema and co. Zidane has kept faith with these, and even some who should really have been jettisoned long ago.

“Remember that two years ago, Solari decided that there were two players who could not play — Marcelo and Isco,” says another source close to the club. “He was heavily criticised, and he paid for it. But two years later people are realising that Solari was right. Zidane has trusted in players who should have been changed before, and the financial circumstances of the club have also had their impact in that lack of generational change.”

The problems in Madrid’s squad and tactics have therefore been clear for some years, but have never been fixed. It is also true that coaches who have tried to change things up tactically, such as Benitez and Lopetegui, have not lasted very long. Hiring a new coach now with different ideas – such as the willing and available Mauricio Pochettino – would likely only cause even more problems given the limitations of the current squad.

A team of winners that have grown old together can lift themselves for one-off games like the 3-1 Clasico win at Barcelona a few weeks ago, or even the 11 game title run-in, as they did in the summer. The experienced heads will likely do enough to beat Monchengladbach next week and regain enough form in La Liga to keep Florentino from wielding the axe.

Anyone hoping that Zidane will outline a new tactical plan to overcome the shortcomings in the squad, and the unique difficulties of this season, will surely be disappointed however.

His one tweak to get them to press more has left them more exhausted, lower on confidence, and defensively weak. So bouncing back from autumn and winter issues yet again to finish the season with a bang appears very unlikely.

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Police arrest Josep Maria Bartomeu after raid on Barcelona's Camp Nou

https://www.theguardian.com/football/2021/mar/01/police-raid-barcelonas-camp-nou-in-search-and-seize-operation

Police entered Barcelona’s stadium on Monday in a search and seize operation, with reports that former president Josep Maria Bartomeu is among those who have been arrested.

The club confirmed local authorities from Mossos d’Esquadra’s Economic Offences Unit were at the team’s headquarters on Monday morning and said they were collaborating with the police into the investigation into the club contracting monitoring services on social networks.

“FC Barcelona expresses its utmost respect for the judicial process in place and for the principle of presumed innocence for the people affected within the remit of this investigation” added the statement.

Spanish media said the operation was related to last year’s “Barça-gate,” in which club officials were accused of launching a smear campaign against current and former players who were critical of the club and then-president Bartomeu by allegedly hiring a social media company to publicly discredit them. He, current chief executive Òscar Grau, and Barcelona’s head of legal services, Román Gómez Pontí were arrested on suspicion of “unfair administration, corruption between individuals and money laundering,” according to Cadena SER radio station.

Catalan police later confirmed they had made several arrests, without confirming the number made or the identities of those detained.

Bartomeu and his board of directors resigned last year amid fallout from the controversy surrounding Lionel Messi. The club has been mired in political turmoil and debt prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

 

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5 hours ago, ZAPHOD2319 said:

Nice match this Sunday Atetico Madrid vs Real Madrid. It will could be a snooze fest draw, but no doubt both want it bad.

Hope Atletico win.

Be cool to see them win La Liga again, Simeone is an unbelievable manager and another La Liga on top of the other trophies hes won there would be another fantastic achievement.

A win v Real puts them 8 points ahead of Real and Barca still with a game in hand I think. 

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  • 3 weeks later...

If Barcelona win their game in hand tomorrow, they will be only 1 point behind Atletico and 2 ahead of Real.

And El Classico is taking place next weekend...

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3 minutes ago, Jason said:

If Barcelona win their game in hand tomorrow, they will be only 1 point behind Atletico and 2 ahead of Real.

And El Classico is taking place next weekend...

Atleti choking hard down the stretch

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Atletico had a game in hand and were 10 points clear of Barcelona and Real Madrid on Feb 1.

10 games later, they could be only 1 and 3 points ahead of both respectively...

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Just now, Vesper said:

Atleti choking hard down the stretch

14 points dropped in the last 10 league games.

Just now, Jason said:

Atletico had a game in hand and were 10 points clear of Barcelona and Real Madrid on Feb 1.

10 games later, they could be only 1 and 3 points ahead of both respectively...

 

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2 minutes ago, Jason said:

14 points dropped in the last 10 league games.

 

damn, I would be going BONKERS if we blew a lead like that and in so few games

especially in shitbox La Liga

where the bottom 2/3rds of the table are pure dregs

Edited by Vesper
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El Clasico is next weekend and Atletico still gotta go to Barcelona next month.

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2 minutes ago, Vesper said:

damn, I would be going BONKERS if we blew a lead like that and in so few games

especially in shitbox La Liga

where the bottom 2/3rds of the table are pure dregs

If that happens with us, TC would crash for days!

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