Assume you’re Ronald Koeman. You’ve lost your best player the very last day of the transfer window, and he wasn’t just a great player. Messi is arguably the most influential playmaker in decades, which is important because the rest of the team had grown accustomed to playing FOR him, to following his flow. It’s not like losing a fantastic centre-forward or an insistent full back. Barcelona’s approach to playing football during the last decade was Messi, what he wanted to do or could do, much more than it was Guardiola, Cruyff or positional play.
Like Nagelsmann said before Bayern faced Barcelona, you expect / hope other players to step up. You weigh the more veteran options vs the more-than- promising vintage of youngsters. You’re told that there’s no money for signings and can’t believe your own eyes when the club has difficulties registering your most important new player and the president hesitates to back you publicly.
So the season starts and you make do by introducing a decent amount of youngsters in the line-ups together with what remains of the old axis whenever it’s physically available (Ter Stegen / Piqué / Busy). No, you’re no fan of Riqui Puig and that sounds like anathema to Barcelona die-hards, but you’re not shy when it comes to bringing in new talent, even if it’s just because the old talent looks… well, REALLY OLD without Messi around.
Demir, Gavi, Mingueza, Dest… It’s evident that they’re not ready to play 90 minutes every match, but hey, the alternatives aren’t much better. You’ve even signed a tall centre-forward for emergency situations, but it now looks like every match is going to feel like a continuous emergency, so you start him and everyone thinks you’re a fool.
Matches come and go and the absence of Messi becomes more and more conspicuous. His last LaLiga season was his poorest in terms of goals + assists and even then he scored 30 times and gave 9 assists. Ah, and you’ve also lost Griezmann, who was on 13+7 last season, but he’s not Messi so he doesn’t count for Barcelona fans. For neutral football aficionados the fact is that you’ve lost 43+16 without those two players, and that the team simply no longer knows how to attack.
The media blame you because there’s no positional play, coached moves, intimate relations between players who know each other’s moves without even looking. The fact is HOW ON EARTH are you supposed to make this squad play like a real team when Messi left just six weeks ago?
Is Koeman a fantastic coach? No, I don’t think so. Could he have done more with what he has available so far? Honestly, I struggle to believe so. Hell, he’s taking unprecedented amounts of shite from fans and media even when he’s been as courageous as one could imagine with his line-ups. Other coaches would have played safe and started with what remains of the old guard until they fell dead on the pitch, but he’s getting those kids very important minutes every match. Important for their future, of course, but not for this season, and surely not for Koeman’s tenure.
One funny twist in all this situation: Barcelona have no money to fire him (or to do anything else). Well, I would not be surprised if this prompts a reaction from the players. They have nowhere to run to, so they might as well start playing football, because that’s one conversation I haven’t heard so far among all the noise about Koeman: who in this squad has stepped up his game to cover for Messi’s gap? That, to me, is the most disappointing element of this Barcelona so far, much more than what Koeman has or hasn’t been able to accomplish with a terribly flawed squad.
- Alavés (20th) vs Atlético de Madrid (2nd): 2. (25/09, 14:00)
Seems funny that Atletico’s offensive struggles are only happening at the Wanda. Whereas their last home matches have been well below par, in three away matches so far they’ve won all nine points, scoring six times. It’s yet another example that during his 10+ years at the helm of the Atleticos, Simeone has never looked too comfortable when his team must control matches, especially against skilled opponents. Obviously, his arsenal will be more than enough against bottom of the table Alaves, especially after with the morale boost of watching Luis Suarez defeat Getafe in the last 10 minutes of the midweek match.
Coach Calleja has tinkered with his line-ups every match, but the sad truth is that there’s not much to play with. His merry, offensive style wasn’t probably the right profile for this Alaves squad. Five matches, one goal scored, 11 conceded…
2. Valencia (5th) vs Athletic (9th): 1. (25/09, 16:15)
For the neutrals, this is probably THE match to watch this weekend. The invigorated Valencia and their ambitious coach Bordalás host former Ché coach Marcelino, also a master of getting the most out of his squads. Together with Luis Enrique and obviously Guardiola, this coaching duo are probably the most interesting Spanish managers right now, as they’ve proven their worth consistently over the last five – ten years, always with tight budgets. On top of that, two almost opposite styles: Bordalás always with his tough, almost dirty approach to managing the match, while Marcelino adds some flair and wing play to his always combative teams. They both have a history of not getting along, but hopefully that is something in their respective pasts.
“It’ll be tough, it’s my first time back in Mestalla”, said Marcelino on Thursday. In two seasons in Valencia he won a Copa del Rey title and made the Champions League spots in both, so the usually fickle locals have a quite a fond memory of him.
Both sides come off tough midweek defeats. Valencia’s was especially disappointing, as their own mistakes in the first 20 min led them to the loss vs Sevilla, whereas Athletic lost in the 95th minute to Rayo… It’ll be a very close match, but I tend to favour the home side as their squad is deeper and this match comes after quite a few hectic weeks, although things are always worse for you if your name is Gerard Pique.
3. Sevilla (4th) vs Espanyol (15th): 1. (25/09, 18:30)
I’ve said a few times that Sevilla can win this title, although when I remember their performance vs Red Bull I am tempted to delete all those tweets. The fact is that they have one of the deepest squads in Spain, and that always pays off at the end of the season. The Argentinean connection between Lamela and Papu has already started to pay off, and Rafa Mir is also showing he can lead the line as well as En-Nesyri. The visitors have a Segunda Divisón squad, sadly enough. They’re going to get thrashed on Saturday.
4. Real Madrid (1st) vs Villarreal (13th): 1. (25/09, 21:00)
Could this Real Madrid be the more entertaining in years with just two offseason signings? Am I getting too carried away too early? Yes, it’s very likely. However, Alaba’s passing range from the back has made many Madridistas forget Ramos quickly (yes, I wrote that), while Camavinga’s incredible energy and poise add yet another impressive human dynamo on the pitch. The Mallorca match was an excellent example of what this Real Madrid can look like in the future: no Kroos, no Modric, no Case, but an overwhelming pace to their game, in such a level that I simply can’t remember them playing so fast. Valverde and Camavinga in midfield plus Vini and Rodrygo on the wings offer such a combination of speed and strength that suddenly their teammates have started to find gaps everywhere. And they track back EVERY play. In that context, players such as Benzema or Asensio enjoy the perfect conditions to thrive.
Of course, there’s still the issue of scoring (beyond Benzema, that is, who right now looks like the most in-shape player on the planet), but if Carlo keeps this high energy approach it seems like chances will end up appearing in every match.
Yes, the back four is still a bit iffy, but if I imagine this set up with a healthy Carvajal and Mendy, I would HATE to play against Real Madrid.
Villarreal finally won a match after four draws in their first four matches. Their line-up, led in midfield by the always impressive Trigueros, can compete with anyone, but they have started poorly and the hosts convey a quite intimidating feeling. Warning: without scoring, Paco Alcacer has become an extremely important player in the squad. Easy home win.
5. Mallorca (8th) vs Osasuna (10th): 1. (26/09, 14:00)
After their thrashing at the Bernabeu, the soft Mallorca will indeed want to forget a very poor outing by making a statement against Osasuna. Their intriguing playmaker Take Kubo will be out for a few weeks, but the hosts have other offensive options to draw from. They will need to take care of Osasuna’s Kike Garcia, growing as a player every week.
6. Barcelona (7th) vs Levante (16th): 1. (26/09, 16:15)
After that Koeman intro, we need to remember that Barcelona have not lost yet and that they do have a game in hand vs Sevilla. So yes, they look terrible, but a couple of wins in a row will get them back in the top part of the table. Not that the tricky Levante are an easy target to get morale up, but if the hosts with Depay and Co can’t win this match they deserve all the wrath of the Camp Nou. The visitors lost to Celta in midweek, saving their coach’s job in the process, and have only performed well against Real Madrid so far. Can Levante’s Morales kill Barcelona at the counter? Indeed. Am I tempted to go for a visitors’ win? Yes. But come on, even if Pique is dead after three matches in 10 days, Barcelona HAVE to win this one.
7. Rayo Vallecano (6th) vs Cádiz (16th): 1. (26/09, 18:30)
The steal of the midweek matches was Falcao’s winner in Bilbao. In other video you can see him explain Bebe where to cross the ball right after he was fouled. It’s magnificent to see him focused like this, and it’s incredible that he’s scored twice having played so little. Of course, I don’t think that they can keep this up for much longer, but they can take advantage of this positive dynamic and win their third in a row and their fourth in five matches.
Cadiz did well to hold Barcelona in midweek, but the result was much better than their performance, especially after De Jong’s sending off. It’s hard to see them dominating this match, let alone winning it.
8. Real Sociedad (3rd) vs Elche (10th): 1. (26/09, 18:30)
Phil is probably drinking one Rioja after another, as his beloved Real Sociedad keep competing match after match. They’ve only lost their opening match of the season vs Barcelona – the Braithwaite match –, and after that their performances have always been more than solid. Coach Imanol seems to be learning how prepare his team to play big matches, something he’s struggled with in the past. Phil could learn the lesson from Imanol and add other Denominaciones de Origen Calificadas to his arsenal. [Phil says: ‘Working on it’]
Elche have done better than many expected so far, and have a couple of interesting young players on top of the Football Manager-like hirings. Keep an eye on Mojica, who scored a cracked in midweek, but also played an amazing all-around match.
9. Betis (8th) vs Getafe (19th): 1. (26/09, 21:00)
Hats off to coach Pellegrini, who’s brought an impressive level of consistency to Betis since he arrived. In fact, his signing in hindsight makes a lot of sense, especially because of the profile of the squad he inherited. If the signing of William José pays off – and he’s started on fire when everyone thought he would have to work his butt back into the team. In midweek, Getafe competed well vs Atleti, but showed the bad trait of tiring teams giving up well before the final whistle. This is an easy home win.
10. Celta (17th) vs Granada (18th): 1. (27/09, 21:00)
In this duel between early strugglers on Monday night, it’s hard to picture the visitors prevailing. Celta recovered some of their swagger winning in Levante with both Aspas and Mendez in the scoresheet, a huge relief for their fans, while Granada’s body language has never been good so far this season, bar that draw at the Camp Nou. The coach change for Granada has been so traumatic that if you google “Granada coach” you will still see Diego Martinez pic showing up, as though Google were run by a Granada fan in complete denial.
- Alavés (20th) vs Atlético de Madrid (2nd):
- Valencia (5th) vs Athletic (9th):
- Sevilla (4th) vs Espanyol (15th):
- Real Madrid (1st) vs Villarreal (13th):
- Mallorca (8th) vs Osasuna (10th):
- Barcelona (7th) vs Levante (16th):
- Rayo Vallecano (6th) vs Cádiz (16th):
- Real Sociedad (3rd) vs Elche (10th):
- Betis (8th) vs Getafe (19th):
- Celta (17th) vs Granada (18th):