FC Barcelona will be hoping to return to winning ways tomorrow and move one step closer to the semi-finals of the 2017 UEFA Champions League, as they travel to Turin to take on Serie A leaders, Juventus. For the Blaugrana, this represents their first match in continental competition since their sensational comeback against Paris Saint-Germain and while a repeat of that incredible result is virtually impossible, Barça can look to that victory for inspiration as they face one of the toughest tests of their season so far.
Juventus are not only the leaders of Serie A, but they are on course to claim their sixth successive league title and with such a formidable lead in domestic competition, there is a real hope in Turin that this side can be the one to go one step further than they did in 2015 and bring home the UEFA Champions League crown for the first time in over 20 years. Under the guidance of head coach, Massimiliano Allegri, Juventus are once again one of the giants of the European game and in that respect, they are more than a match for Luis Enrique’s Barcelona.
Overall, Allegri has assembled a perfectly balanced squad and while certain star players may have departed to cash in on their success at the club, Juventus as a whole are stronger than they’ve ever been. In comparison to the side that reached the final in 2015, many would argue that this Juventus is more dangerous in front of goal and while they have lost a certain je ne sais quoi that Paul Pogba brought to midfield, the spine of their team is perhaps stronger without him.
Certainly at home, Juventus are nearly unbeatable; you have to look back to August 2015 to find the last competitive match in which a visiting side (Udinese) left with the win. Considering that Barcelona have lost three of their last five away fixtures, this is the stage at which Culés may be best served by tempering their expectations and appreciating the context in which this match is presented to us.
Success in tomorrow’s match is not simply defined by whether or not Barcelona win; rather success is defined by our ability to secure an away goal, or at least whether or not we keep ourselves in the tie approaching the second leg next Wednesday at the Camp Nou. If presented with the opportunity, I would snatch at a score draw with both hands, and I’d consider taking a one-goal defeat, provided that we secure an all-important away goal.
Maybe this is me being overly pessimistic for a change, but if the PSG tie taught me anything, it’s that we cannot underestimate any opposition at this stage of the competition. If Barcelona want to secure their place in the final four, they have to go out onto the field and earn it. If they want to be successful, it’s no longer enough to simply turn up and be presented with a prize; if we want success, we have to go to every single match and take it by force.
The weekend’s defeat against Malaga served as a timely reminder of that fact; no longer can the mighty Blaugrana coast to victory. This is a team that has to bide it’s time and pick and choose the battles it wants to win. La Rosaleda clearly wasn’t on that list, but Turin? It’s time to make a statement.
In the build-up to this match, I figured it was time to forego the usual team news section and instead focus on a one of the tactical elements that I think will be pivotal in tomorrow’s match and tie as a whole. For a more detailed look at the squad news for the match, keep an eye out for Renato’s predicted line-ups.
Barcelona past vs Barcelona present
This tie will be won and lost on one side of the field; Barcelona’s left, and Juventus’ right. Of course, I’m talking about the highly-anticipated battle between Dani Alves and Neymar, or as I’ve dubbed it above, Barcelona past vs Barcelona present. In the most reductive form, this signifies the clash between an icon of Barcelona’s past against a current superstar; delve a little deeper however and this instead represents Barcelona’s evolution under Luis Enrique.
To truly grasp the magnitude of this clash, we must first look back to the Guardiola era and tiki-taka, an era defined by the magical combination of Xavi and Andres Iniesta in the Barcelona midfield. It was this partnership that served as the engine room and the brains behind Guardiola’s success at the club and as Guardiola’s tenure came to a close, his successors were left with an increasingly pervasive problem to deal with.
What happens to tiki-taka and to FC Barcelona when Xavi begins to decline and ultimately leaves the club?
Xavi Hernandez was a once-in-a-generation talent, and naturally, the club have been unable to find a true like-for-like replacement. While some managers struggled with this reality and ultimately lost their jobs as a result, Luis Enrique entered in 2014 and challenged the club to evolve and adapt. A crushing defeat to Real Madrid in his first El Clasico with Xavi in the starting line-up ultimately served as a watershed moment for Lucho as a coach.
There could be no delaying the inevitable; the club needed to move on and into the future. While it took time to transition to the new era, the introduction of Ivan Rakitic into Barcelona’s starting XI ultimately helped to shape their season and drive the Blaugrana forward to success. The Croatian midfielder couldn’t fill the role that Xavi vacated, but he was never supposed to in the first place.
Instead, Rakitic added industry, ruggedness and a certain dynamism to the Blaugrana midfield. The club didn’t need a new conductor, it simply needed the collective to figuratively pick up the slack. Rather than Xavi offering himself as the primary option to bring the ball out of defense and ultimately serve as the starting point for the majority of all Barcelona’s attacks, we had Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Ivan Rakitic all increasing their respective workload with one major supporter; Dani Alves.
As Barcelona transitioned into a new era, they did so without Xavi and the closest thing they had to a replacement for him in their tactical scheme was not another midfielder; it was the Brazilian full-back. Looking back to the 2014-15 Champions League campaign, the player averaging the most passes in the squad was Alves as the Brazilian assumed the role of point man in the Barcelona system.
In many respects, the choice was obvious; Alves probably wasn’t as quick as he once was, but tactically he remained one of the most intelligent players on the field. From a defensive standpoint, he knew exactly where to be and what to do in a multitude of situations and in an offensive scenario, Alves thrived. His partnership with Lionel Messi was the stuff of dreams, and with Xavi out of the line-up, it was Alves who served as the safe option and arguably the most integral part of the team as the link between defense and attack.
Of course, the evolution has continued as Alves was never going to be anything more than a stop-gap solution to the wider issue at hand. As his contract expired this past summer, Alves moved on to Turin, leaving a similar void in the Barcelona line-up. Sergi Roberto has performed admirably at right-back, but as the season has progressed, Luis Enrique has moved further away from the orthodox 4-3-3, knowing that in Sergi Roberto and Ivan Rakitic, as opposed to Dani Alves and Xavi Hernandez, he no longer has the personnel to operate the system as effectively.
Think back to earlier in the season, and the criticisms levied against Enrique. The most common was that his team simply didn’t have a midfield – a somewhat valid argument, even if it was presented incorrectly. The issue was never the midfield, it was that this current midfield and this current system could no longer perform the role that Barcelona’s previous midfield performed; or more succinctly, there was no-one taking on the responsibilities that Xavi assumed to serve as the bridge between defense and attack.
With Andres Iniesta sidelined by injury, the problem was accentuated; and yes, it would be valid to criticise the likes of Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez for not taking on that responsibility, but whoever said that the role had to be performed by a midfielder anyway?
Dani Alves was the pioneer, demonstrating that you could serve as the bridge between defense and attack without physically lining up in the centre of the park. Lionel Messi too has exhibited the ability to perform this role, but in doing so, he would of course rob the team of its primary attacking threat. The team was never going to get another Xavi, but it could get another Dani Alves – and while Enrique might have been wrong about Sergi Roberto filling that void, he has found an alternative: Neymar Jr.
Operating on the left-hand side of a 3-4-3, Neymar does not have a wing-back behind him. Nominally in Barcelona’s strongest line-up, Andres Iniesta operates as the widest midfield player on the left, but the job of marauding up and down the flank is reserved solely for the Brazilian and it’s a role he performs to great effect. The key to the success of Enrique’s 3-4-3 could be the emergence of Samuel Umtiti, or the rebirth of Javier Mascherano – but more blatantly it has been the coronation of Neymar as not just a player for tomorrow, but a player for right here, right now.
There was no better example than the 6-1 demolition of Paris Saint-Germain in the previous round; Neymar grabbed that game by the scruff of the neck and willed Barcelona to victory. And how did he achieve that? He didn’t just ask for the ball, he demanded it. Maybe he wasn’t playing as many passes as Xavi or Dani Alves, but Neymar touched the ball more than any other Barcelona player that night and he ran the show.
As we approach a time in which Andres Iniesta will be able to play fewer and fewer games, and as we watch Lionel Messi prepare to turn 30, the future of this club as the very highest level depends on Neymar, and whether or not he can pick up the baton and serve as this team’s conductor. Certainly he has the skills to serve as the reference point in attack, and he has the confidence to bring the ball from deep positions into the offensive third; the crucial detail is in whether Neymar can learn from and adapt to the different scenarios in which he will have to play this role.
Against PSG, he faced a side that was camped in its own defensive third, inviting pressure and he was successful. Now, against Juventus he will face his compatriot, his tactical predecessor of sorts, Dani Alves. From experience, we can be assured that much like life, death and taxes, another certainty in this world is Dani Alves tearing up and down the right-flank.
In this Juventus system, he is afforded more freedom and liberties than perhaps ever before. As a right wing-back in a 3-5-2, Alves can count on Leonardo Bonucci for support, much like Neymar can depend upon Samuel Umtiti. If he operates as a conventional right-back in a 4-2-3-1, the double-pivot of Claudio Marchisio and Sami Khedira are both capable of filling in, and know that part of their role is to do so. Likewise, Juan Cuadrado then offers support from his advanced midfield role, serving to mask some of the weaknesses that we may have seen begin to creep into Alves’ game at the end of his time with the club.
Tomorrow, a key part of Neymar’s role will be to track Alves’ runs and limit his influence on proceedings, while attacking the spaces he leaves in his wake. Juventus will plan for Neymar and what he brings to the attack, but until they step onto the field and face the unique speed and trickery that he possesses, they can’t truly know what they are up against.
The time of the old 4-3-3 appears to have passed, for the remainder of this season at least. Can this new Barcelona step forward and demonstrate that they have the potential to live up to their predecessors?
All eyes on Neymar tomorrow, and we might just find out.
Juventus 1-3 FC Barcelona – 6th June 2015 – UEFA Champions League Final
It was the night that dreams were made of in Berlin, as Barcelona stormed into an early lead courtesy of summer signing, Ivan Rakitic. An equaliser from Alvaro Morata turned the match on its head, only for the Blaugrana to move into top gear and secure the title courtesy of goals from Luis Suarez and Neymar.
Barcelona (3-4-3): ter Stegen; Mascherano, Pique, Umtiti; Roberto, Rakitic, Iniesta, Alba; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Juventus (4-2-3-1): Buffon; Alves, Bonucci, Chiellini, Sandro; Khedira, Marchisio; Cuadrado, Pjanic, Dybala; Higuain
Turin is a tough place to go; I think we escape with a 1-1 draw.