It’s puzzling why the line-up surprised anyone. Quique Setién came in wanting to play a certain way, and the line-up he chose supports those decisions. Clement Lenglet might be the defender at the moment and healthier, but Samuel Umtiti plays a better pass and is a step quicker. Sergi Roberto is a better passer than Nelson Semedo. Arthur is a better passer than Arturo Vidal. Seeing a pattern?
Without the Marc-André ter Stegen, the scoreline could have been a much more frightening sight. 2-0 would have been 5-0. The German goalkeeper may still be dealing with a knee injury, but it didn’t show in the loss. For all the saving that Lionel Messi does, ter Stegen deserves almost as much claim to the La Liga titles as the forward.
Passing wasn’t the issue against Valencia at the Mestalla. It seemed like everything else was, however. First touches weren’t crisp. Runs weren’t coming to fruition. The defense caught in transition. Finishing wasn’t precise. The final two substitutes arguably inserted too late.
Regardless of the manager, if Messi hasn’t had his best on any day for the last thirteen years, Barça were in trouble. Unlike against Granada, Messi dropped deeper against Valencia in the hopes of creating more space over the top and on the wings. Yet, even when the ball kept moving in that direction, the final ball never came. On the three occasions he had a look at goal, the angles broke down quickly and his window vanished.
As for Antoine Griezmann and Ansu Fati, they struggled to run at Valencia defenders and Valencia were able to neutralize the attacks on wings to some degree. It wasn’t for a lacking of trying though; they began switching positions more frequently in the 30th minute and Fati operated centrally in more build-ups.
The midfield trio of Arthur, Frenkie de Jong, and Sergio Busquets is the one that Culés have been clamoring for. Busquets is treating fans to his best in some time, but de Jong’s lack of influence is telling. Arthur may be able to pass and keep possession at a supreme level, but it hasn’t led to much. Vidal’s inclusion changed the dynamic, but it also unsettled the team’s ability to defend as the Chilean pushed farther up the field. When it comes to the midfield, patience is key. There are worries about age and personnel elsewhere on the field, but there should still be confidence that time will equal improvement.
The defense is where the immediate changes will need to be made. Again, not necessarily personnel, but tactics. Too often Sergi Roberto was made to deal with two attackers, including the second goal. With Fati pushed so far up field on the right, and occasionally stranded all the way in the middle of the field, the space is infinite. Not to mention that centre-back is not Sergi Roberto best position – or his second best – or his third best.
Barcelona are clearly missing a force in the middle. Until Vidal came on in the second half for Arthur, there was no consistent threat to combine with Messi in the penalty box. Griezmann and Fati were recycling in and out and had the occasional touch, but Vidal set up shop. Barça looks like a team in need of a number nine but also need of wide play. With Chimy Avilá now out for the rest of the season and less than a week left in the January transfer window, Barcelona’s search for a temporary striker might get desperate.
It will be easy to make sweeping claims about the loss. Setién has failed his first test and the team looks more disjointed then they did under Ernesto Valverde. Yet, the nature of the challenge must be taken into consideration. This Barcelona team has been putrid away from home, and a new manager wasn’t going to change that right away. As should continue to be discussed, two of the squad’s most important attackers are injured. A system takes time to implement, especially one as risky as this one. Setién has already delivered on one of his promises. He will play the youth – Riqui Puig last week (sick this week) and Álex Collado against Valencia. He will need the entire squad to fight and believe and with the experience in that locker room, some accountability for the players is also required. The worrying signs are there, but calma is required.