Barcelona won LaLiga last season to end its relative drought in league titles. After three years without winning the domestic top flight, Barcelona bested Real Madrid by 10 points. The Catalan club was not perfect in Xavi’s first full season at the helm. It fell in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League again, and Real Madrid knocked out Barcelona in the Copa del Rey semifinals. Worse off, that came with a 4-0 loss at home.
Regardless of those two tournaments, Barcelona looked like it was ready to make a turn toward further success. It had a young core in the midfield of Pedri, Gavi and Frenkie de Jong to go along with Ronald Araujo in a breakout season. Robert Lewandowski, who won the Pichichi Award as the leading goal-scorer in LaLiga, would be back for a second season.
Despite all those positive signs, the first three months of the season have not been as smooth as fans would hope. Despite sitting third in the LaLiga table, Barcelona’s goal differential is the worst among the teams in the top four.
In Barcelona’s last five games in all competitions, it has three wins and two losses. The three wins came by one goal against inferior opposition in Shakhtar Donetsk, Real Sociedad and Alaves. Barcelona sweat out the win over Shakhtar and needed second-half heroics in the two league wins. The two losses were against Real Madrid in the league and Shakhtar Donetsk by one goal in Champions League play. Here is what has gone wrong with Barcelona.
The ongoing issues still plaguing the Catalans
It would be hard to blame the immediate struggles on the financial problems at Barcelona. Still, they play a role. Barcelona could only sign players at discount prices in the summer or on loan. Joao Felix and Joao Cancelo have been mainstays in the lineup, as have Ilkay Gundogan and Iñigo Martinez. Each provided depth, which has proven necessary.
The financial struggles of the last five years put more of an emphasis on La Masia for Barcelona. Young players developed an increased presence in the Barcelona fold. For example, Pedri and Gavi have become integral parts of the squad. This comes at a major cost to Barcelona.
Injuries have plagued this side, and part of that is a tribute to the lack of depth in key areas. As a teenager during Messi’s last season with Barcelona, Pedri played in all but one league game. Since then, he has missed extended periods of time with injury. He, along with someone like Ansu Fati, never got to bring their talent to the table because they spent so much time on the sideline with injury. This season, Pedri has only featured in five out of a possible 17 games.
Couple Pedri’s absence with knocks to Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha, Frenkie de Jong, Sergi Roberto, and Jules Koundé. Xavi has had limited options for his team sheet across the pitch. Still, injuries are not exclusive to Barcelona. Real Madrid has battled injuries to key players this season, and those will last through the end of the season. For example, Eder Militao and Thibaut Courtois are out until the closing stages of the current campaign at the earliest.
Inconsistent defense and nonclinical offense are key to Barcelona struggles
Real Madrid may have more talent than Barcelona, it is also older on average and more experienced. Barcelona cannot do anything about that. However, the club has to do better when it comes to cleaning up simple mistakes.
Make of the ‘expected goals’ argument what you will. Some people love the analytics, others despise them. In the case of expected goals, Barcelona is the only team in the top four that has more expected goals than goals scored. In other words, Barcelona should be scoring more goals than it currently is. Based on the analytics, Barcelona’s expected goal differential in LaLiga this season is +13.3. That is the highest in the league. However, three clubs have a better actual goal differential. That means they are cashing in on their scoring chances more regularly than Barcelona is.
Defensively, Andreas Christensen and Jules Koundé have not been as strong as intended. Koundé is rounding into form as he recovers from injury, so Barcelona likely expected his struggles. Christensen, however, was one of the best free-agent signings in LaLiga a season ago. Now, he looks out of place with Ronald Araujo and Iñigo Martinez starting in the middle of a four-man defense. With one weak link, teams are taking advantage of their chances in the Barcelona box.
Offensively, Robert Lewandowski is starting to show his age. Despite scoring seven and assisting three in LaLiga play this season, Lewandowski has not excelled in hold-up play for a possession-heavy Barcelona offense. The Polish international still has a phenomenal shot and aerial ability that he displayed against Alaves this past weekend. Barcelona will need Lewandowski to tap into his best of years past to score regularly if the Catalans want to compete in both LaLiga and the UEFA Champions League.
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