Barcelona-stars’ much needed wake up-call

GROUNDED: Robert Lewandowski against Rayo Vallecano. FOTO: NTB

Supersøndag i La Liga på TV 2 Play og TV 2 Sport 1:
19.00 Barcelona – Real Valladolid
21.30: Espanyol – Real Madrid

Identical results from Real Madrid and Barcelona in their second league matches of the season (1-4 away wins) although that is probably where the similarity ends. A new-ish look for Real Madrid but the same old approach that frequently has teams scratching their heads and asking «how did that happen» just after they have been beaten by a team that hadn’t needed to play very well to win.

It helps of course when you have the mercurial genius of Luka Modric to score and make goals with moments of inspiration not to mention the raw brilliance of Vinicius Jnr who, frighteningly perhaps, probably still hasn’t reached his full potential.

But at Celta on Saturday night many eyes here were on Tchouameni the man brought in to fill the defensive midfield position recently vacated by Casemiro who has decided to move to Manchester United. Casemiro apparently let it be known after the Champions League that he thought he was at the end of a cycle and needed a change.

It was not, he insisted, about money although of course it always is demonstrated by the fact that his move to England will see him double his salary from €10 million a year gross to €20 million gross. Not that Real Madrid were ever going to stand in his way with United willing to fork out €70 million for a player that despite a promising start to the season was beginning to show signs of slowing down and who is already six months the wrong side of 30.

A player’s timing off the pitch can often be as important as it is on it and he is probably leaving at just the right time before any of his weaknesses are exposed. Just how he settles in at Old Trafford remains to be seen although my fear is if Erik ten Hag is to remain faithful to his high-pressure philosophy, with a high defensive line, then Casemiro’s lack of pace will be exposed. He lacks the ability to control the spaces behind him, primarily because he is quite slow on the turn.

This could prove expensive against teams such as Arsenal and Manchester City, who play a lot of inside passes and find pockets of space. Madrid’s compact set-up disguised that weakness in Casemiro’s game especially with Kroos and Modric close at hand as a passport out of trouble. With less quality around him in the Brazilian national side, he was less influential. That could be a problem with United when faced with teams that pressure high if he is expected to drive with the ball.

Back to Tchouameni who was making his second league appearance in the holding midfield role and doing considerably better than he did in his debut there the previous weekend at Almeria.

At €80 million potentially rising to €100 million it’s safe to assume he hasn’t been bought in from Monaco to make up the numbers. There are also many similarities between the two players. Tchouamerni is 22, Casemiro was 23 when he was brought back from loan at Porto by Rafa Benitez.

Both looked frail and nervous at the beginning although both were clearly ideally suited to that most rigorous and wearing defensive midfield position. Tchouameni showed enough at Celta to suggest that he has more than enough about him to be able to fill the ample shoes left by Casemiro. What he probably will do is hit the floor running a lot quicker than Casemiro did when he returned. Back then Benitez wanted to play him a lot more but president Florentino Perez wanted a midfield comprising Kroos and James Rodriguez or Isco, which lacked equilibrium and defensive awareness. Rafa was right although that was never going to prevent him from losing his job.

After two months in the wilderness under Zidane, defeat against Atletico Madrid persuaded the French coach of what Benitez could have told him all along – that Casemiro was needed to cover the club’s defensive limitations.

Eleven appearances in that season’s Champions League culminated in the final against Atletico Madrid where he played the full 120 minutes, as Real Madrid won their 11th title in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw.

But the changes occurring at Real Madrid look like mere ‘tinkering’, a minor shuffling of the pack, compared to what’s been going at Barcelona under Joan Laporta’s new regime.

In this post-Messi era the club is now hurling itself towards, success – should it come – is going to be built on the basis of an all-round performance from the whole orchestra rather than on the brilliant displays of an immensely talented soloist.

It’s difficult to put across the off the scale pressure and expectations that were put on the Barcelona ‘new-boys’ as they lined up to start their campaign against Rayo last weekend.

With everyone imagining that every game was going to be something like a 4-0 walk in the park, a 0-0 draw was probably a reality check and a wake up call for all the players including old experienced heads like Robert Lewandowski and Andreas Christensen.

Real Sociedad’s plan involved building from the back but then attacking the spaces through the centre when they were created with small intricate passes in the last third, and players running from behind into the box.

Effectively what it did, certainly for the first half, was turn the match into a box to box slogging match, which is something that Xavi hates but unfortunately what he is going to have to get used to for a while.

Barcelona won well in the end but not before a first half display that suggests while the coach might want them to play one way the instincts of players like Dembele , Ferran Torres, Araujo who sometimes played it long, or even Lewandowski, is not about control but rather more about going for the spaces.

The second half saw the game change after Xavi told them to keep the ball longer, build together as a team and defend as a unit.

Of course it always helps when you have someone like Ansu Fati that you can call on to help your side play the way you want them to.

After 10 months out over the past two seasons Barcelona are not surprisingly using his talents sparingly as he battles his way back into the limelight. Lest we forget Ansu Fati is still only 19-years-old

Less is more would certainly seems to be the way this prodigiously talented youngster sees his role currently. 15 minutes, two assists, one goal, game over.

He thrives in that 3:4:3 formation that Barcelona used for an hour far more than Ferran Torres did because he can play between the lines. Having proved his value it is probably unthinkable now that, injuries permitting, he will not be an automatic starter for both Barcelona and Spain, his adopted country.

Meanwhile Xavi is going to have to get used to the fact that, for the time being, he may not have the all the midfielders that he needs for the football he wants to put into practise, something that will become increasingly obvious in bigger games.

He will get closer to achieving what he wants if he can bring in Bernardo Silva between now and the transfer deadline. Failing that he will need to change some of the instincts of some of the players that he has and that could prove to be an enormous task.