As Barcelona remain unable to sign new players – due to the transfer ban imposed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport – their ranks keep getting thinner. And that is finally starting to take its toll.
On Friday, while fielding an alternate team, the La Liga Champions suffered an embarrassing 4-0 loss in the Spanish Super Cup’s first leg match against Athletic Bilbao.
At San Mamés, Barcelona looked sluggish and unable to effectively formulate their traditional positional play. They were sloppy on the ball throughout the length of the pitch, and committed a ridiculous amount of defensive errors, which cost them dearly.
And that was in no small part due to the stark lineup changes they were forced to employ due to their congested match-fixture. Or, more specifically, to the lack of quality provided by the players coming in for team rotation.
“I had to make many changes because we had only three days to recover. I take responsibility for the loss,” Barcelona head coach Luis Enrique told reporters after the match.
“The schedule hurt us, as we had just come back from a trip to Georgia, but this is not the time to look for excuses. The calendar is what it is,” he added.
Just three days ago, the Spanish team had put in a spectacular performance in their European Super Cup game against Sevilla: a nine-goal fire cracker, which ended in a 5-4 victory in favor of the Catalans.
However, as Enrique made changes to the lineup in order to help maintain the fitness of his players, the team completely collapsed. Even with various first-team starters thrown into the mix to help them out – including the almighty Lionel Messi – the Barcelona rotation options that came in against Athletic just didn’t seem up to the task.
With four goals conceded, of course, Barcelona’s defense has been one of the focal points of criticism. And rightly so. Despite a great performance from Gerard Pique, Barcelona’s backline looked weak overall, with Dani Alves and Adriano looking particularly error-prone, and a nervous Marc Bartra that was unable to cope with the physical power of Athletic’s Aritz Aduriz.
It is also worth adding that, despite his undeniable talent, goalkeeper Marc Andre Ter-Stegen, keeps accumulating errors, and it was his irresponsible clearance which led to the first goal.
However, as with all things Barcelona, the biggest problem for the team that faced Atheltic probably lied in the midfield. In spite of being backed by Javier Mascherano’s defensive machinery, youngsters Sergi Roberto and Rafinha were absolutely unable to manage, or even adequately keep, the team’s possession. And for Barcelona, such a thing will always spell trouble.
In order to afford the luxuries they take going forward and playing out the ball, Los Blaugranas rely strongly on the quantity and quality of their possession – and when that isn’t present, their weaknesses are exposed. Against Atheltic’s effective pressing and finishing, Barcelona were, as a result, unable to cope. They were naked.
Roberto and Rafinha also made several wrong passes in their side of the pitch that were unfixable without the presence of Sergi Busquets (also rested by the head coach), and which directly led to the concession of goals. Enrique eventually subbed both of them out for Andrés Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic, but the damage was already done.
The truth is that, despite the fame of Barcelona’s youth ranks, the current crop of players is simply unable to make a decent contribution to the first team at the moment. And with the departure of Xavi Hernández – who remained an important alternative for Enrique last season – the team is in desperate need of fresh blood.
Despite the transfer ban, Barcelona have already signed midfielders Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal from Atlético Madrid and Sevilla respectively, but they cannot be registered for any competitions until the punishment is lifted in January 2016. Both players are extremely versatile, and though their role in the team is not yet clear, it is safe to say that their impact in terms of squad-depth will be enormous.
In the mean time, all eyes have currently shifted to Pedro’s transfer situation. The Spaniard has been strongly linked for the past weeks with a move to the Premier League, but after Friday’s result, Barcelona might be reconsidering whether or not it is a good idea to let him go.