Javi Calleja, in recent weeks, has found a tactical mix that works and he has finally stuck with it to a fault. That’s fine, I’m not going to stay mad about losing to FC Barcelona, especially not in a game where Messi and Suarez looked like they were the 2015 versions of themselves. Class is permanent, and sometimes incredibly talented players just have it going.
Playing Chukwueze over top of Mario on the right hand side is something we can get away with against teams that we have most of the ball against, but against Barca (who targeted that flank), Mario was left completely isolated, and was basically in a position where he was never going to have a great game. Similarly, Messi chewed us up in the space between the midfield four and the back line and Iborra wasn’t fast enough to do anything about it while Zambo was left with very little to do. He can’t make those devastating runs we’ve seen the last couple of weeks when we rarely have the ball.
When Paco got hurt in the first half, Calleja had a chance to make a formation adjustment early in the game and he didn’t do it. Now, going forward, Alcacer is an injury doubt and Bacca, his logical replacement, is done for the year.
I don’t see Calleja leaning on Fer Nino at this crucial stage in the campaign, which means that if Paco can’t start against Getafe we are either going to be running a front two of Chukwueze and Gerard or else we are simply going to have to abandon the 442 that has helped us claw our way back into European places.
I don’t have good xG numbers for the Barca match yet (I’ll drop them in the comments when fbref updates their site) but understat’s location based algorithm has us getting outdone 0.96-2.75. Considering the quality of the Suarez and Griezmann finishes in particular I expect that to be reasonably accurate. That stands in stark contrast to the improvement we’ve shown in four of the other six matches since the break:
Our great run of form was unceremoniously snapped. So the question is, what do we do now? The run in doesn’t get any easier. The Getafe match on Wednesday is crucial and then Real Sociedad and Real Madrid are on the docket. What is this team made of? Do injuries and a bad result incite Calleja to abandon this system? Do the players lose the confidence that they played with for the last several matches (and frankly the first half hour or so of the Barca one)?
At this juncture, we’ve done an excellent job of putting ourselves in position to succeed. If we fail to reach Europe, it will likely be because we failed to show the necessary backbone in this crucial moment. We have a lot of veteran players in the side, now’s the time for the to lead. A result and a good performance would go a long way toward proving this side’s mettle against Getafe, let’s see if they can step up and get it done.