No silverware this season could be a blessing for Barcelona

At the start of the current campaign, just as he had a year previously, Lionel Messi addressed the Camp Nou.

The message was much the same. The team were disappointed by their Champions League exit, and subsequent Copa del Rey final defeat, but a new season represented new opportunities.

The first team would do everything they could to bring home some silverware, preferably of the European variety. Continue reading

Martin Odegaard/Fede Valverde midfield is in Real Madrid’s future

As if it was in any doubt that Martin Odegaard has been one of La Liga’s most consistent stars this season, the Norwegian served us all with a reminder of his quality against Barcelona on Saturday. The Catalans couldn’t cope with the on-loan Real Madrid midfielder as he contributed to a 2-2 draw for Real Sociedad.

The sight of Odegaard running at Sergio Busquets was almost unfair. The Barca midfielder had no way to keep up the Norwegian, frequently leaving his back four exposed as Odegaard drove towards them. Busquets certainly isn’t the only midfielder to have struggled against the 20-year-old this season, though.

Odegaard has sparkled to such an extent that some have speculated that Real Madrid could recall him early from his two-year loan deal at the Anoeta. Indeed, the Norwegian would give Zinedine Zidane another option through the centre of the pitch at a time when he is trying to revitalise his squad at the Santiago Bernabeu.

The introduction of Fede Valverde has already done this to a certain extent. The Uruguayan has become a key figure for Real Madrid over the past few months, both protecting their defence and also giving them another supply line to the attacking line. Valverde will be one of the first names on the team sheet when Real Madrid face Barcelona in the first Clasico of the season next week. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric will have to fit around him.

In theory, Odegaard should make for a good midfield partner. The Norwegian operates between the lines of transition, particularly between the midfield and the attack, and it’s Valverde’s job to deliver the ball into this area. They could be the basis upon which Real Madrid build their future on.

Zidane must be careful not to recall Odegaard too early, though. The Norwegian is clearly thriving playing first team football on a weekly basis. While Odegaard would surely receive significant game time back in the Spanish capital he would face more of a fight for his place. His development could feasibly be stunted if he returns at the wrong time.

But a midfield unit of Odegaard and Valverde is almost certainly in Real Madrid’s future. Both players are already showing themselves to be among La Liga’s best this season. One can only imagine how effective they might be as a duo.

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Fede Valverde is proving himself as a midfield solution for Real Madrid

Zinedine Zidane knows what it takes to be a successful midfielder at a club like Real Madrid, but that didn’t stop Fede Valverde going to the Frenchman earlier on this season to demand that he be given more game time. The young Uruguayan clearly has a high opinion of himself and that is to be applauded.

He might have also had a point. Real Madrid’s midfield has become something of a paradox in recent times. In Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric they boast three of the most accomplished central operators in recent times, but they are fading. Modric in particular seems to be in the twilight of his career even if he is more than capable of pulling off the odd Man of the Match performance.

Valverde is one of the few players Zidane can turn to to freshen things up through the middle and that’s exactly what he has done in recent performances. In fact, the Uruguayan could be considered a first team figure at this point after a number of impressive displays. Zidane maybe should have listened to him a little sooner.

“I think anywhere in the centre of the field,” he replied when asked where he sees his best position. “Zidane puts me at 5 or 8. There I feel comfortable, safe when playing and with the desire to attack the opponent’s area. He asks me to give my best, what I am doing in training.

“When a coach gives you that confidence, it helps you a lot. Wearing the Madrid shirt is a dream for any player in the world, and serves as motivation to continue improving, strengthening the head and learning.”

Against Real Mallorca on Saturday, Real Madrid struggled badly for structure in the centre of the pitch. Zidane’s selection of James Rodriguez and Isco in the same lineup made them top heavy and they were made to pay for that, losing 1-0 on the Balearic island. Valverde was introduced in the second half, but the damage had already been done by that point.

Valverde gives Real Madrid the structure they so desperately lacked against Real Mallorca. Casemiro used to do that, but more recently the Brazilian has become something of a liability. With Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard the first choice front three right now, Zidane needs an anchor in the middle and Valverde is proving himself as that player.

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Ernesto Valverde is on borrowed time at Barcelona

The rot appears to have already set in at Barcelona.

In four away matches this season in all competitions, the Catalans have failed to win any.

Two of those have come against teams that were promoted from the Segunda Division last season, Osasuna and Granada, and against the Andalusians last weekend, they were well beaten.

Continue reading

What next for Barcelona?

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With the debacle at Anfield still fresh in the memory of everyone connected with FC Barcelona, a win against Valencia in the Copa del Rey final was a chance for the Catalans to exorcise those demons.

Against a team who’d beaten them only three times in 11 years, and a coach who’d never triumphed over them in 20 years of trying, Barca realistically only had to turn up to add another trophy to their cabinet.

And yet, turning up is the one thing they failed to do. Continue reading

Valverde is still the best choice for Barcelona

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Although it came out of the blue, Ernesto Valverde’s renewal for another year at FC Barcelona is the correct decision.

The club needs continuity and stability and Valverde provides just that.

Well respected by the players, particularly the more senior ones in the side, he’s done precisely the job asked of him by the board since his appointment.

A poor night in Rome notwithstanding, there’s little that Valverde can be reproached for. Continue reading

Barcelona are wrong to put the squeeze on Valverde

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It’s not even the new year but Barcelona have already placed their demands on first team coach, Ernesto Valverde, reiterating their stance that he must make his mind up about his future contractual intentions by February at the latest.

Though they can’t be kept waiting indefinitely, one has to question the wisdom of asking for a decision during the part of the season which will be amongst Barca’s busiest.

The Champions League will have just begun again and, depending on league results in the next few weeks, the majority of the first team’s focus will have to be on domestic matters. Continue reading

Has Dembele blown it at Barcelona?

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After a disappointing opening campaign at Barcelona, which was mainly as a result of an untimely injury not long after joining, Ousmane Dembele was expected to hit the ground running at the start of 2018/19.

Though there were some suggestions that the Catalans should cash in, with Liverpool allegedly interested in his services, Ernesto Valverde was clear that the young Frenchman was absolutely part of his plans. Continue reading

Why Philippe Coutinho Must Start On The Left Or Not Start At All

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Three days after being hauled off at halftime after a nonexistence performance against Real Madrid, Philippe Coutinho gave a glimpse of why Barcelona decided to pay £142million for his services in January.

The Brazilian opened the scoring and put in one of his best performances of the season against Villarreal, en route to a 5-1 win. It’s easy to point to the difference in quality between the opposition, but Villarreal are in 6th place and have won their only matchup with Real Madrid this season. Moreover, on Wednesday’s encounter, Coutinho faced off against one of the best right backs in Europe, Mario Gaspar, and still managed to impress.

Perhaps the main difference between the two performances was not in the quality of the opposition or the weight of the occasion: Coutinho has delivered time and time again in heavyweight Premier League clashes that boast the same vigor and importance of El Clásico. Perhaps the difference is in his position: while he started on the right wing against Real Madrid, he operated as a left winger against Villarreal.

Coutinho’s best position has always been a puzzle that nobody has quite yet solved. The Rio De Janeiro native rose to fame under Brendan Rodgers’ title-chasing diamond 4-4-2 as a left-sided interior. Under Jürgen Klopp, he operated as a left winger, cutting in from the wing and dazzling the Kop with pinpoint long shots. This season, he often found himself as a left-sided central midfielder, supplying the high-flying triumvirate of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané. Since arriving at Barcelona in January, Ernesto Valverde has fielded him in a variety of positions, including on the right. Taking note of Tite’s success in playing him on the right wing next to Gabriel Jesus and Neymar Jr., Valverde has started Coutinho on the right in several high-stakes matches, from El Clásico to the Copa Del Rey Final. While the Brazilian has impressed on the right, keeping him on the right instead of his more natural, left-sided position would not only be a waste of his abilities, but a waste of the £142million shelled out for him as well.

Against Madrid, Coutinho was isolated and hesitant to use his preferred left foot. Against Villarreal, Coutinho proved just why he is viewed as both the long-term and short-term replacement to Andrés Iniesta, who, like him, experimented at left wing, despite playing the majority of his prime as a left-sided midfielder.

It was clear from the start how comfortable he was on the other side of the pitch. Midway through the seventh minute, he attempts to run through the channel between Álvaro and Gaspar, but seeing as though Samu Castillejo blocked Lucas Digne’s passing lane, he retreats for the short pass option. At first, it seems he’s about to play a one-two with Digne, but instead, he swivels past two Submarino Amarillo players, just another glimpse of the Brazilian’s nonchalant press-resistance.

At the tenth minute, just as Ousmane Dembélé is blazing past several naive yellow shirts, Coutinho realizes there’s the opportunity for a through ball or a shot. He changes tempo at the edge of the 18-yard-box, turning his light jog into a full-fledged sprint, and hammers home the rebound for Ousmane’s deflected shot.

At the sixteenth minute, he notices Rodri Hernandez shuttling over to press him just as he is about to receive the ball. The Brazilian quickly side-steps him and squares it to Iniesta, who threads the needle for Digne, who squares it for Paulinho, who scores the second.

Between his performance on Sunday and his performance on Wednesday, it was night and day. While it may be tempting to experiment, between Ousmane Dembélé and a lesser known Argentine bloke, Barcelona aren’t exactly desperate for options on the right-hand side. Instead, they must focus on shoe-horning Coutinho in Iniesta’s role–the left-sided playmaker. It will take patience, it will take time, and it will take an outright position change, but as the Catalans prepare for a summer move for Antoine Griezmann and a summer exit of Andrés Iniesta, there is nobody better to link midfield and attack, and usher in the new era at Barça, than Philippe Coutinho.

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Barcelona Champions League exit had been years in the making

In the space of 90 minutes, Barcelona’s entire Champions League campaign unravelled. Before Tuesday’s quarter final second leg against Roma, the Catalans had been considered among the favourites to win the competition this season. They were 4-1 up and presumed to be semi-finalists. Then the “disgrace,” the “humiliation,” the “disaster,” depending on which Spanish newspaper you picked up on Wednesday morning, happened.

Sergio Busquets described it as the worst defeat he’d ever experienced as a professional. Others called for Ernesto Valverde to pay for the shocking 3-0 loss at the Stadio Olimpico with his job. Barcelona, as their fans see it, should be above this sort of indignity. But this defeat was years in the making. It shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise.

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For weeks, Barcelona have looked tired and weary. They have become too dependant on the brilliance of Lionel Messi. Two weeks ago, they needed the Argentine to come off the bench when he was carrying an injury to salvage a point, and preserve Barca’s unbeaten league record, against Sevilla at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

This has been the pattern of things for Barcelona since the turn of the year. Time and time again, Messi has dug them out of a hole. Against Roma, though, it was too much to ask of just one player. For once, Messi couldn’t get his team out of the hole they dug for themselves and in that Barca’s weakness was exposed.

Part of the problem comes from the size of Barcelona’s first team squad. Valverde’s preferred lineup is among the strongest in the European game right now, but he doesn’t have much in the way of depth. He has more options than his predecessor Luis Enrique did, but still not enough to rotate his squad in the way Zinedine Zidane does.

This could explain why Real Madrid have won the last two Champions League titles and are on course for a third straight title. Zidane’s side tend to peak towards the end of the season. Their best players are kept fresh for the most important games. Look at how Cristiano Ronaldo was withdrawn with 25 minutes left of the Madrid derby left to play on Sunday. Or how Zidane can pick between Marco Asensio, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Isco, Ronaldo and Lucas Vazquez in the final third. Barcelona don’t have this sort of depth.

“I am responsible absolutely, I am the visible head of the team and it was down to me,” Valverde explained after the catastrophic defeat at Roma. “With their pressure it forced us to knock balls long, we became disjointed and we were not able to win the second ball. Everyone is now affected by this but we need to bounce back because we have two competitions that we want to win.”

In part, this is true. Valverde was cowardly in his approach at the Stadio Olimpico. He waited too long to make changes to his team when the game was quite clearly slipping away from Barcelona. But it’s not entirely his fault that his team run out of team. This has been happening for years.

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