It may not be the most popular thing in the world to criticise a team when they’re fighting for a league title, but the simple fact is there is no such thing as the perfect side.
Barcelona are a case in point, and for that matter so are Liverpool.
Barcelona are a side that have a lot of possession but with nothing structured around it. So it’s a case of keeping the ball and hoping that Pedro, Neymar and especially Messi will have an inspired moment that will change everything. Iniesta is also helping with his accurate passes. But the team cannot pressure high, and they sometimes lose control of the game and concede too many chances. They lack balance but display such talent.
The die is cast for the rest of the season. There’s not going to be any change in the strategy of the team, which has taken them where they are. Will it be enough come the end of the season? We’ll see.
Liverpool are a similar case. I mentioned recently on Twitter that here was a side with a dynamism, pace and lots of hard work without the ball, one that was as effective as it was engaging, especially with the likes of Luis Suarez in their ranks and a young, fresh, in-your-face approach to the game that can only be admired, enjoyed.
They are taking advantage of the pace of the three men up front, the SSS (Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Suarez). A simple pass, a ball stolen, and it becomes a dangerous counter.
But as a collective they still need to develop more strategies, more concepts, more levels of understanding to be a properly consolidated team. Their actual midfield lacks balance and is not strong enough both defensively and offensively.
The team concedes too many goals and chances as they are not solid enough. They feel much more comfortable defending deeper than up front with space in the back of the midfielders or defenders. They need to improve collectively for the impact to be long-term.
But for the time being it’s working because they are so fast and effective up front. The record at Anfield and in first halves is brilliant and has allowed fans to dream of the title. And rightly so.
Above all, what the players sense for the first time in years is the fact that they are so close to glory that they can almost smell it. That is giving them an extra push in a year when they are not competing in Europe, something that clearly is benefiting them. But would you say that this is a side that can compete in Europe as it stands? I don’t really think so.
Which means of course that they have to improve. They can do that by being more solid, conceding less and controlling games better, as well as spending money cleverly in the transfer market. Coaching work and managerial work. But make no mistake, with what they have at their disposal and having reached this stage of the season, this will be without question their best chance. Let’s see what happens next year when they have to battle on more fronts.
Their excellent season puts in perspective Arsenal’s, but that is another subject.
When I mentioned one of the Liverpool imperfections on Twitter everyone became very defensive, which they shouldn’t. The fact is that every team can improve—view it as constructive criticism. If you want or can.
Of the top three teams in La Liga, only Atletico Madrid are maximising their potential—credit fully to Diego Simeone. The team is now clearly led by Diego Costa, who has scored 30 goals this season, evolving from the role of histrionic player that he used to play on occasions to one of the most feared strikers in the world. He is also someone who sets the standards in terms of work rate and attitude. The team recognises his leadership and clearly follows his way.
Athletic Bilbao's Aymeric Laporte and Mikel San Jose will still be having nightmares following the game this weekend, when Costa ran them ragged and Koke was on hand to lay on his 14th assist of the season for the new Spain striker.
And that is exactly how—much as Espanyol did at the weekend—Atletico will approach their Champions League match against Barcelona. They will try first and foremost to take Barcelona out of their midfield comfort zone, by staying on top of them, fouling where necessary and breaking up play.
It probably won’t be pretty, it won’t flow, and it will not be a game for the purists, but the truth is when sides play like that against Barcelona, the Catalans invariably struggle.
There’s no question that Barcelona have the individual quality to beat any defensive structure in the world, but they are still a side that I consider too dependent on individual quality.
If Atletico can keep them quiet at the Camp Nou—much as Espanyol did at the Cornella-El Prat Stadium—then I can see them qualifying over the two legs, because with Diego Costa in your line-up, you always sense that anything can happen.