El Clasico: How Messi and Barcelona turned their season on its head

By Sports Desk April 09, 2021

It was billed as one of the most important Clasicos in years. The outcome, it was said, could set the tone for the entire season and, by extension, the future of Lionel Messi.

The Argentinian's revelation he wanted to leave was still ringing in the ears of Barca directors two months on in October last year. While they'd managed to keep hold of him, owing to Messi's reluctance to drag his club through the courts, his form on the pitch hardly suggested he was at peace.

One goal in four LaLiga matches heading into that October 24 Clasico was his slowest start to a season since 2005-06 when he was a fresh-faced teenager still trying to establish himself.

What followed at Camp Nou on that Saturday looked set to plunge Barca further into crisis, as the Catalans lost 3-1 to Madrid despite dominating much of the match. It was a bad look for new coach Ronald Koeman – already under-fire – as well as Messi, whose failure to score took him to 515 minutes without a goal against Los Blancos in LaLiga, just seven shy of his worst ever barren run in El Clasico.

Messi's proviso for staying beyond the end of 2020-21 was that Barca had to look capable of winning titles; while supporters felt hard done by given Sergio Ramos' theatrics when winning a penalty, there was little in the Blaugrana's performance to suggest a title tilt was realistic.

But here we are, a little over five months later, and the outlook is rather different.

Koeman gets to know his squad

"Koeman explodes," read the front page of Mundo Deportivo the next day. "A Clasico robbery," declared Sport. Both publications listed their grievances with the result but largely glossed over Barca's issues.

This was more than just a one-off defeat in a Clasico, it was the second of four league losses in a run of just seven games. That run, culminating in a shock loss to promoted Cadiz in December, saw them suffer at least four defeats in the first 10 LaLiga matches of the season for only the second time since 1988.

 

Much of the blame was laid at the feet of Koeman.

His decision to implement his favoured 4-2-3-1 system wasn't necessarily surprising, but given Barca's attachment to 4-3-3, it was certainly seen as a bold move.

To say that it flatly didn't work wouldn't be entirely accurate, but Koeman's subsequent search for alternative set-ups speaks to the fact Barca weren't convincing.

Since suffering back-to-back defeats to Cadiz and Juventus at the start of December, Koeman has largely – depending on personnel and opponents – switched between 4-3-3 and 3-4-2-1.

While their form hasn't been perfect across all fronts, they've not lost a LaLiga game since. The move to a back three in particular has appeared to resonate with the Barca squad, winning six of seven league – and conceding just three goals – matches when operating with such a defensive structure.

That 85.7 per cent win ratio is a significant improvement on the 63.6 per cent recorded in games where they've deployed a back four, suggesting the three-man defence allows for greater harmony across the team.

Frenkie finds his feet

Koeman's tinkering has helped bring the best out of several areas of the team, but most notably the centre of midfield. While Sergio Busquets has received widespread praise, arguably the two main benefactors have been Frenkie de Jong and Pedri.

De Jong's first season at Barca, while by no means bad, was hardly scintillating, and Koeman's arrival initially saw him placed in a double pivot, though activity maps show he often got drawn out to the left.

But over the season as a whole, compared to 2019-20, De Jong has clearly made good strides and is enjoying greater attacking freedom.

As across the entirety of last season, the former Ajax man has made 29 league appearances in 2020-21, but his goal involvements have enjoyed a boost (two goals, two assists in 2019-20, three goals and four assists in 2020-21). Added to that, he's averaging 1.1 key passes per game, up from 0.9.

 

But it's De Jong's general influence that has increased most, with his 87.1 touches per game up considerably from 66.2, while he averages 25.3 carries per game, as opposed to 17.7 last term.

Not only have De Jong's team-mates seemingly placed greater trust in him, but he's relishing the added responsibility. The Netherlands midfielder is seeing much more of the ball and using his increased influence effectively.

No player in LaLiga has covered more distance carrying the ball upfield than De Jong (4,375.8 metres), while he also leads the league in total progressive carries (405) and is second only to Pau Torres on progressive carries of 10 yards or more (168).

Indeed, De Jong ranks towards the top of almost every metric relating to ball carries, highlighting just how important he is to Barca getting up the pitch.

The heir apparent

It quickly became clear Pedri was going to establish himself in the Barca first-team squad following his move from Las Palmas, convincing the club they would be better served keeping the teenager around than sending him out on loan.

But it's only been since Koeman altered his position that he's really come to life, essentially nailing down a place in the starting XI.

For the first few months of the season, Pedri often operated from a slightly wider position, cutting in from the left onto his right foot. Now, while he still often drifts out to the left flank, the Spain international is spending more time in the central zone outside the opposition's penalty area.

 

He is averaging 26.9 more touches per game since the first 10 matches of the season – understandable given he's operating closer to the thick of the action – and that in turn has helped him create 1.4 chances per game, up from 0.8.

But to focus solely on that would be to do Pedri a disservice. His talent as a fine passer and nimble mover make him the ideal attacking conduit, as evidenced by his 132 shot-ending open-play sequences – ranking third among LaLiga midfielders to have played 900 minutes or more this term.

In fact, of these players, Pedri is involved in the most shot-ending open-play sequences per 90 minutes (6.2).

Andres Iniesta comparisons might be considered a little over the top at this point, but there's certainly no doubt the teenager is thriving. Maybe he could be the World Cup winner's heir...

Messi's miraculous revival

The chief instigator in Barca's revival has, of course, been Messi himself. Having only scored four times, with no assists, in Barca's first 10 league games this term, he's netted 19 and laid on eight in 17 since.

It has been a remarkable resurgence and central to Barca's climb up the table, with the Blaugrana's unbeaten run undoubtedly inspired by their talisman.

Messi's improvement has been almost inexplicable because his shooting habits haven't changed massively. After all, his shots per game are only up slightly from 4.9 to 6.0, with this increase spread across his efforts from both inside the box (2.9 shots per 90, up from 2.4) and outside the area (3.4 shots per 90, up from 2.7).

Again, there's not a huge difference in his expected goals (xG) value per shot, with his efforts worth 0.11 on average until December 6 and 0.13 since, yet Messi has gone from underperforming his overall xG (four goals, 5.6 xG) to massively overperforming (19 goals, 12.9 xG).

 

One potential explanation comes from looking at his shot maps over the two periods in question. Messi does now appear to be getting into the centre of the box more often, with as many as 10 of his 18 goals (excluding penalties) coming from this part of the pitch.

But it's also worth bearing in mind that Messi, without a significant pre-season, saw his preparations for the new campaign interrupted heavily by the off-field controversy. That period of turmoil will surely have taken its toll mentally, perhaps making it inevitable that his focus should drift and his form suffer.

Whatever the reason, Koeman has got Messi back on track and his team-mates able contributing in recent months, seemingly ensuring the coach will be safe for another season.

But the job is not done yet. Messi wanted Koeman and Barca to prove that winning titles was possible. They've more or less done that and now need his brilliance to guide them through a do-or-die Clasico.

Related items

  • Chelsea 1-1 Leicester City: Alonso hits leveller as Blues and Foxes share the spoils Chelsea 1-1 Leicester City: Alonso hits leveller as Blues and Foxes share the spoils

    Chelsea all but secured a third-place Premier League finish with a 1-1 draw against Leicester City as Marcos Alonso coolly cancelled out James Maddison's excellent opener.

    Alonso volleyed home late in the first half after Maddison found the back of the net from 20 yards, but the Blues spurned several chances to find a winner.

    Although Chelsea failed to respond to Saturday's FA Cup final loss with a victory, the Blues' significant goal difference advantage over Tottenham means they all but guaranteed a third-place finish with the draw.

    Thomas Tuchel's men will also be grateful for having taken another step towards the end of a challenging season as the club hopes for a resolution to the protracted takeover saga involving the Todd Boehly-led consortium.

    The visitors needed just seven minutes to take the lead, with Maddison firing an excellent long-range strike beyond Edouard Mendy after latching onto a loose ball outside the area.

    But that proved to be the Foxes' only shot of the first half as Chelsea began to dominate possession, with Kasper Schmeichel forced to tip Trevoh Chalobah's fierce 25-yard effort over the crossbar 10 minutes in.

    Thiago Silva headed over from Reece James' corner after half an hour, but the Blues levelled just five minutes later when Alonso fired home at the near post after racing onto James' lofted pass.

    Romelu Lukaku nodded Hakim Ziyech's left-wing delivery wide as Chelsea continued to dominate, but Christian Pulisic was guilty of the Blues' worst miss with the goal gaping just after the hour.

    Chalobah then headed straight at Schmeichel as the Chelsea pressure continued, but Brendan Rodgers' men clung on to deny Chelsea a rare home win at the end of a difficult campaign.

    What does it mean? Chelsea close in on third, but home comforts still lacking

    With a three-point advantage over Tottenham and a goal difference 18 better than that of Antonio Conte's men, Chelsea are virtually assured of their first top-three Premier League finish since the 2018-19 campaign.

    However, Chelsea have won on just one of their last five outings at Stamford Bridge, limping over the line as they search for an end to the off-pitch uncertainty around the club.

    Creative James leads the way

    Although Alonso applied a fine volleyed finish to score Chelsea's equaliser, he was teed up by a sumptuous chipped ball from James, who has now recorded eight Premier League assists this season.

    That is the most a Chelsea player aged 22 or under has managed in a single league campaign since Eden Hazard in 2012-13 (11), while only Mason Mount (10) has more for the Blues this term.

    Maddison strikes from range again

    Despite Leicester enduring an underwhelming season, Maddison has enjoyed his best goalscoring campaign for the Foxes, netting his 11th league goal of the season to open the scoring.

    Since his Premier League debut in August 2018, meanwhile, the midfielder has scored 14 goals from outside the area in the competition – only James Ward-Prowse (15) has scored more in that time. 

    What's next? 

    Chelsea finish their Premier League season at home to Watford on Sunday, while Leicester host Southampton on the same day.

  • Vlahovic pledges to 'become a champion' at Juventus Vlahovic pledges to 'become a champion' at Juventus

    Dusan Vlahovic pledged to improve on his first half-season with Juventus and "become a champion" as the Bianconeri prepare to end their Serie A campaign against his former club Fiorentina.

    Vlahovic joined Massimiliano Allegri's side in a €70million move in January after scoring 17 goals in 21 Serie A appearances for Vincenzo Italiano's men this season, adding a further seven in 14 league appearances for the Old Lady since arriving in Turin.

    The striker became the joint-highest scoring Serbian player in Serie A history in Monday's 2-2 draw with Lazio (51 – level with Dejan Stankovic), while one more league goal would make him just the second player aged under 23 years old to hit 25 in a Serie A season in 60 years – the other being Ronaldo for Inter in 1997-98.

    However, Vlahovic has struggled to match his Fiorentina form during Juventus' frustrating end to the campaign, averaging a league goal every 151.86 minutes for Juve as opposed to every 109.47 minutes for his former club.

    Juventus are guaranteed to finish fourth in Serie A for a second consecutive season, having won the title in each of the nine previous campaigns, and lost the Coppa Italia final to rivals Inter this month.

    But Vlahovic remains happy with his decision to move to Turin and sees room for improvement moving forward.

    Speaking at the Turin book fair, Vlahovic was asked about former Fiorentina boss Cesare Prandelli labelling him a "true champion" recently, replying: "I would like to say, speaking of myself as a champion... I don't like it. There is a long way to go, to work. I will give my all and I hope I will become a champion.

    "I like Juve's DNA, this desire to fight and not give up, to go over the limit, until the end. 

    "I am a bit like that too. I like working, above all because when I stop playing, even if it's early, I don't want to have regrets. I want to give everything, I don't want to have regrets. 

    "This is my job, I am privileged and I don't see why it should be different. You can always do better. Even when you have done something extraordinary, you must be aware and satisfied, without exaggerating."

    Juventus can end this Serie A campaign with a maximum of 73 points, guaranteeing their worst such return since the 2010-11 campaign (58 points, under Luigi Delneri).

    The Bianconeri's hopes of a successful campaign suffered a huge blow when Italy's Euro 2020 star Federico Chiesa suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury in January.

    Vlahovic played with Chiesa at Fiorentina and cannot wait to see the winger return to full fitness next term as he looks to rekindle their on-pitch relationship.

    "He saw me grow up as a kid," he said of Chiesa. "We shared three years at Fiorentina, luckily we're together again. 

    "He got injured when I arrived, I hope he'll be back as soon as possible. We hope to find our understanding on the pitch, which has remained from Florence. 

    "I can't wait to play with him, to take the field and fight with him and win together."

  • Kohli returns to form as RCB keep playoff hopes alive with Titans win Kohli returns to form as RCB keep playoff hopes alive with Titans win

    Virat Kohli returned to form with a crucial 73 as Royal Challengers Bangalore kept their Indian Premier League playoffs hopes alive with an eight-wicket victory over Gujarat Titans.

    Titans opener Wriddhiman Saha scored a brisk 31 and David Miller added 34 in a 61-run partnership with captain Hardik Pandya, who finished unbeaten on 62 as Gujarat posted 168-5 at the Wankhede Stadium.

    That total was boosted by a late flurry from Rashid Khan, who smashed 19 off just six balls, but the target seemed below par as RCB's openers raced out of the blocks.

    Kohli and Faf du Plessis made a blistering start to the chase, the India star reaching his second half-century of the tournament off 33 deliveries with a six against Khan (2-32).

    Khan then removed Du Plessis, caught by Pandya, for 44 with the score on 115-1 in the 15th over, before beating Glenn Maxwell for pace and clipping the stumps without the bails coming off with the next ball.

    Maxwell capitalised on the reprieve by blasting the next Pandya over for 21 and, although Khan had Kohli stumped in the 17th over, the Australian's unbeaten 40 off just 18 balls saw RCB over the line with eight deliveries to spare.

    RCB's playoff hopes now rely on Delhi Capitals losing to Mumbai Indians on Saturday, while IPL debutants Gujarat are already assured top spot after winning 10 of 14 games.

    King Kohli

    Before this game, Kohli averaged just 21.45 in the IPL this term – his lowest in the tournament since 2008, when he averaged 15 – and had been dismissed for under 10 runs six times, including three golden ducks.

    The 33-year-old has acknowledged he may need a break to rejuvenate mentally and physically, but he was at his imperious best here, smashing eight fours and two sixes in his 54-ball 73.

    Hasaranga keeps it tight

    Wanindu Hasaranga, who claimed 1-25 from his four-over allocation, continues to dominate through the middle overs for RCB.

    The Sri Lanka international dismissed Miller with a wonderful caught and bowled to pick up his 24th wicket of the tournament – the joint-most with Rajasthan Royals' Yuzvendra Chahal.

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.