La Liga opinion: Atletico Madrid draw proves Ronald Koeman's Barcelona have a big game problem
Barcelona failed to take the chance to go top of La Liga as they were held to a 0-0 draw by Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou. This came just two weeks after they spurned the opportunity to go top, losing at home to Granada. Ronald Koeman's side have made progress this season, but they don't know how to win the biggest games and that's an issue.
Atletico Madrid's Spanish midfielder Saul Niguez (L) challenges Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi during the Spanish league football match FC Barcelona against Club Atletico de Madrid at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on May 8, 2021.
Twice in the past two weeks, Barcelona have had the opportunity to move to the top of La Liga and twice they have spurned that chance. Saturday’s goalless draw against Atletico Madrid wasn’t anywhere near as calamitous as the home defeat to Granada on April 29, but both results, and performances, revealed a lot about Ronald Koeman and his players.
Barca have made significant progress under the Dutchman, winning 16 of their last 20 league fixtures to join the Spanish title race, but the Catalans have developed a big game problem. When it mattered most, like against Atleti when a win would have put them top or in El Clasico, or against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, Koeman’s side faltered.
The performance against Diego Simeone’s La Liga leaders was desperately flat. Lionel Messi tried his best to conjure up something out of nothing, coming close once or twice, but Antoine Griezmann, Pedri and Frenkie de Jong all played within themselves as Barcelona struggled for attacking traction.
Atletico Madrid didn’t offer much either, but the onus was on Barca to take the game to the visitors. Simeone’s team left the Camp Nou with their lead at the top of La Liga still intact. Barcelona, on the other hand, now need favourable results from all three title race rivals if they are to finish top of the pile. It is well and truly out of their hands.
This was always meant to be a transitional season for Barca. Time and time again, Koeman tried to lower expectations as his team failed to find consistency over the first half of the season. However, an upturn in form raised ambition at the club. It’s not in Barcelona’s nature to settle for being uncompetitive for long.
Pedri és a tőle 25 nappal idősebb Ansu Fati hosszú időre megoldhatják a Barça gondjait |
Image credit: Eurosport
Despite this, the tender age of many of Barcelona’s squad should be taken into account when assessing why they have struggled in big games. Koeman has succeeded in fast-tracking a number of youngsters, with Ronald Araujo, Oscar Mingueza, Pedri and Ilaix Moriba all first team figures, but that inexperience has been exposed at times.
Mingueza was given a torrid time by Yannick Carrasco in the first half of Saturday’s clash at the Camp Nou. It was therefore no surprise that the decision was taken to hook the 21-year-old at the interval, but the player who replaced him - Araujo - was another inexperienced youngster.
The first half withdrawal of Sergio Busquets following a head knock saw 18-year-old Ilaix Moriba introduced in his place, robbing Barcelona of know-how when it was already thin on the ground. Ilaix is an exceptional talent who has a bright future ahead of him, but he doesn’t know how to control a game, and an occasion, like Busquets. Not yet, anyway.
Barcelona boss Ronald Koeman
Image credit: Getty Images
Koeman’s 5-3-2 formation might be another reason for Barcelona’s less-than-convincing record in big games, with the Dutchman’s system sometimes leaving his side short of options ahead of the ball. When faced with a low defensive block, Barca have toiled to find a way through, often resorting to crosses from wide when they lack someone in the middle to attack them.
Substitutions have also been an issue for Koeman. When chasing a late goal, the Barcelona boss has been guilty of throwing on every attacker he has without giving them a structure to operate in. The margins in the big games are narrow and this is an area where Koeman could afford to improve. He must learn how to affect matches from the bench.
Barcelona will surely feel regret if they come up short in this season’s La Liga title race, as now looks likely. After coming from so far behind, they could have entered the final three fixtures of the season as favourites to cross the line first. But a winning team must win the biggest games. Barca haven’t done this.