On the surface, it certainly appears that Barcelona are indeed trash. After a summer of looking like the most paint-huffing doofuses in the world, the club might have hoped that a still supremely-talented team’s return to the field would magically make that shit-cloud disappear over the horizon.
It has not. On Saturday, Barcelona lost 2-1 to Cadiz who, to be fair, are one of the surprise teams in La Liga, currently residing in fifth. It looked a lot like a lot of Barcelona’s rare losses over the years, where they dominate possession (82 percent on Saturday), take an unholy amount of shots (21) and just can’t find a way through and get caught on the counter a couple of times. That is what happened, except despite the sheer amount of shots, it’s not like Barca created a whole lot of danger, managing to only get eight of those on target. Meanwhile, Cadiz was far more economical, creating a better xG (2.3-2.0) than Barca and burying two of their eight shots. Barcelona didn’t even score on their own, as their lone tally was an own goal.
It was Barcelona’s fourth loss in just 10 league games. They only lost six games in the league last year, a year that was considered an utter disaster and had Lionel Messi writing love letters to the exit door, though the hierarchy wouldn’t let that love be requited (at least yet). The previous three seasons, Barcelona had lost four games or less all season. The last time they lost more than six games in a season was 12 years ago.
So yeah, it looks pretty trash, sitting in ninth-place in La Liga with more than a quarter of the season gone.
But it’s not quite as trash as it might look. It’s still kinda trash, maybe even pretty trash. It’s just not total trash, for all you Sonic Youth fans.
It would appear that one of Barca’s problems is it’s come down with a case of “can’t hit a bull in the ass with a snow shovel.” They’re 2.06 expected-goals per game is tops in the league, and by some distance. The team with the second-most expected goals per game is Real Madrid at 1.78. They lead in shots per 90, and shots on target per 90. Yet they’re sixth in shooting-percentage and a simply woeful 14th in goals-per-shots-on-target. Barca’s getting the chances, they just can’t finish them.
Go down the roster and everyone is finishing at a lower rate than their expected numbers suggest they should, including Lord Messi. Throughout his career, Messi has outshot his expected numbers, because he’s Lionel Damn Messi and he’s just going to finish more chances than anyone else no matter where they’re from. That started to decline last season, and has gone back through David Lynch’s black box this year. Which tends to happen to players entering their mid-30s. Even Messi can’t escape time.
But he’s not alone. Antoine Griezmann is getting more time under new manager Ronald Koeman, but his finishing is below what he should be scoring. Phillipe Coutinho continues to be a Beckett play on the field. There isn’t really another forward around. The only player shooting out the lights was Ansu Fati, and he’s conveniently out for the next four months with a knee injury.
What certainly isn’t making anyone in Catalonia feel better is that Luis Suarez, the player Koeman couldn’t wait to kick to the curb eight minutes after taking the job, has poured in five goals in just seven matches with Atletico Madrid, embarking on the fuck-you world tour that Koeman inspired. That kind of finishing would have Barca much farther up the table. Whoopsie!
Of course, the problems aren’t just finishing, it’s keeping other teams from finishing. Barca’s expected goals against per game has jumped from 0.95 last year to 1.19 this year, or a 25 percent jump. Their goals-against per game is slightly higher, and they’re giving up more shots on target per game. It’s only exacerbated by the lack of finishing up top that’s giving them no margin for error. Still, this is a defense that counts heavily on Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba, who are both on the wrong side of 30, and Sergi Roberto is getting there. And now Pique is also out for months, which has seen 21-year-old Oscar Mingueza slot in next to Clement Lenglet in central defense. It’s not the deepest defense either, and with the packed schedule, they really can’t afford either Lenglet or Mingueza to get hurt or exhausted.
Which means it’s likely that Barca are going to have to outscore their problems, but it’s hard to see where that turnaround is going to come from. Again, Messi is 33, which would be a challenge even for him even if he was feeling joyous and singing pop songs all the time, instead of the jaded, Joy Division fan he’s been in the current situation. Griezmann will turn 30 this year and has looked past his sell-by date even in his last year with Atletico. Fati isn’t walking back through that door soon.
It’s not all doom. Barcelona have blitzed their Champions League group, have already qualified for the round of 16, and need to only avoid losing by more than two goals in their last game against Juventus (who haven’t been vintage either) to win the group. Progression to the deeper reaches of that competition might paper over the cracks, but enough?
Barca have a ton riding on this season, most of all Messi’s mood. He still seems pretty set on high-tailing it at the end of the year, and finishing up the track in the league and merely being representative in the Champions League isn’t going to convince him that things are turning around. Then again, he might think a trophy in either or both would be the perfect send-off, and is just that set on doing something new.
Along with that, whether Messi leaves or not, Barca have to start bringing through the team after him, and that’s been a dodgy process so far. But patience is not something you find at the Nou Camp, and whoever is going to pick up the torch from Messi whenever and however he chucks it over his shoulder better to be ready to raise it high tout suite.
In the meantime, getting it between the posts more often would do everyone a world of good.