Sean is a financial journalist by trade and is Finance Editor of “SmartBlog on Finance.”
We’re half-way through this year’s quartet of El Clasicos between Barcelona and Real Madrid and it may be time to start asking some serious questions of the Catalans’ offensive capabilities.
They obviously have what it takes to thrash the average La Liga side, but over the course of the past two seasons they’ve revealed an acute inability to thwart stout defensive tactics when they are employed by equally talented clubs.
They control the ball around the field with their tika-taka, but seem to sputter when they get 20-25 meters from the goal. What’s wrong? What’s missing?
Two words: Samuel Eto’o. Or perhaps four words would be more accurate: Samuel “Big Goal” Eto’o.
Barcelona’s lack of goals in big games since the departure of Eto’o is downright shocking; especially considering this is a club many are touting as one of the best of all time.
In 210-plus minutes of recent play against Real Madrid, they have failed to produce a goal during the run of play. In 180 minutes against Inter Milan in last year’s Champions League semi-finals, Barcelona’s attacking players managed one lonely goal between them (their only other goal came from center-back Gerard Pique when he roamed forward out of desperation as the return-leg came to a close).
Compare that output with the two biggest matches Eto’o ever played for the Blaugrana. Who opened the scoring against Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League Final? Eto’o.
And after Barcelona went down a goal to 10-man Arsenal in the 2006 Champions League Final, it was Eto’o who equalized for the Catalans before Juliano Belletti netted the winner in Paris. Two big games. Two big goals.
Eto’o comes to mind because the Madridistas have exposed a weakness Barca usually manages to overcome when they face inferior opponents: Their lack of a striker who can play effectively with his back to the goal.
Barcelona’s stupendous attack is unstoppable when it includes a striker who is equal parts distributor and finisher. Eto’o was lethal for years at the Camp Nou because upon receiving surgical passes from the like of Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Ronaldinho, he could decide in an instant whether to turn and finish the attack on his own or slot a pass through to marauding teammates as they ran through the defense.
David Villa has proven either unable or unwilling to provide a similar threat. Watching the past two El Clasicos (and can we please start calling them Los Clasicos?), it is as if there is a 10-meter arc extending along the top of Real Madrid’s box.
The ball rarely goes there. When it does, it is lost off the feet of Villa as he crumbles under tight marking, or plucked from Messi as he tries to challenges four or five defenders.
Much has been made of Jose Mourinho’s tactic of moving Pepe into almost a defensive midfielder role to break up Barcelona’s attack. It is a sound tactic, but it works because Villa only requires single coverage.
He is simply not the kind of striker that requires a double-team. Sometimes it was just the threat of Eto’o that created goal-scoring opportunities for his Barcelona teammates in important games.
Watch this clip of Ronaldinho’s goal against Mourinho’s Chelsea in the return leg of their 2006 Champions League Round of 16 fixture.
Note how it is Eto’o who, after delivering the final casual pass to Ronaldinho, makes a run that takes not one, but two Chelsea defenders away from the Ronaldinho.
A couple other Chelsea players try to close down Ronaldinho, but ultimately it is the run by Eto’o that leaves John Terry one-on-one against the crafty Brazilian.
Sid Lowe penned an excellent piece recently regarding Barcelona’s mixed results in the transfer market since Pep Guardiola took the helm. But the Eto’o-Zlatan Ibrahimovic swap deserves its own column.
Barca sent Eto’o packing for personal reasons. Rumors had it he was difficult in the clubhouse. And maybe he wanted to leave.
Either way, his goal production was never questioned. For those who suggested Eto’o was un-coachable and not the best teammate, his performance with Inter Milan indicates otherwise.
Under Mourinho, he helped power Inter to the treble last year while scoring and creating goals for his strike partners with gusto. Even this year, only Messi has more goals (9) in the Champions League than Eto’o (8).
Meanwhile, Villa has mustered just three and only one of those has come amid the pressure of the knockout stage.
It would have been one thing to do a straight swap of Eto’o for Ibrahimovic. At the time, reasonable minds could have disagreed about which striker was best. But people forget that Barca also sent Inter 48 million euros along with Eto’o.
And when Ibrahimovic proved not a good fit for Barcelona’s attack, they shipped him back to Italy and spent another 40 million euros on Villa.
Barcelona has parted with Eto’o AND 88 million euros and now finds itself lacking a big game striker – the kind of striker it might need to vanquish its most bitter rival over the course of the next two weeks.
How Guardiola has thus-far escaped harsh criticism for the Eto’o-Ibrahimovic-Villa transfer fiasco is mind-boggling, especially considering the Catalans’ financial status.
But that may change after the next two El Clasicos.
Should Villa remain goalless and ineffective, a simple question might become unavoidable: Would Samuel “Big Goal” Eto’o have drawn a blank in the same four matches? No way Jose.
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