What’s behind Barcelona’s away struggles under Ernesto Valverde?

The away struggles for Barcelona under manager Ernesto Valverde have become a recurring problem and one that needs to be addressed soon.

Fresh off of the two-week winter break, Barcelona made the short trip to the RCDE Stadium to face last-place Espanyol in a Catalan derby.

Barcelona had every reason to be the odds-on favorite to comfortably secure three points against an Espanyol side facing the threat of relegation. Espanyol came into the fixture with zero home wins in 10 league games this season while also allowing 21 goals at home, the most in La Liga. With Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann coming off of a strong showing in December, this game was just the fixture Barca needed to keep their attacking form going into the new year.

However, the game did not go as embattled manager Ernesto Valverde hoped. Barcelona dominated possession while new Espanyol manager Abelardo Fernandez opted to play his side in a compact block in both the middle and final third.

Barca created enough goal-scoring opportunities to pull away with a win and while they wound up scoring twice, a red card and two defensive miscues allowed Espanyol to score two as well. In the end, Barcelona failed to capitalize on the opponent’s vulnerable defensive setup — a key theme of the Blaugrana’s season.

Needless to say, Barcelona’s 2-2 draw against Espanyol was not an anomaly by any means for Valverde’s side. In fact, this game was more of a microcosm on how their season has progressed up to this point.

In 10 away league games this season, Barcelona have picked up 15 points, which ranks fourth in the league. Even in their four away wins, Barcelona have looked like an uninspiring shell of themselves.

It is difficult to pinpoint why exactly Barcelona keep failing to play up to their potential in away fixtures. There has not been some one recurring issue preventing them from playing the free-flowing style fans are accustomed to watching at the Camp Nou.

The Espanyol fixture was marred by an array of missed goal-scoring opportunities and amateur defensive mistakes. In their previous away fixture against Real Sociedad, Barcelona struggled to negate La Real’s pressing setup. And in their early season away games against both Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna, Valverde’s side generated very little from possession in the final third, and looked more inclined to wait on an opportunity to open up rather than to push into the box.

Comparing Barcelona’s performances in home and away fixtures this season is like watching two completely different teams with almost no semblance in their tactical approaches.

The home and away clashes against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League group stage this season perfectly exemplified that contrast.

In the away fixture, Barcelona managed just one shot on target in a 0-0 draw; they simply could not break through Dortmund’s midfield and defensive lines. Lionel Messi and company were lethargic in pushing play into the box. In contrast, Barcelona played with more of a purpose during their 3-1 home win against Dortmund. Messi often found open space to weave into and the midfield duo of Frenkie de Jong and Ivan Rakitic toyed with Dortmund’s midfield unit by continually spraying possession into the final third.

The same stark contrast in home and away performances has translated over to their league performances.

Overall, Barcelona have scored 34 goals at home compared to 15 away. According to WhoScored, the Blaugrana are averaging 14.4 shots and 9.6 shots inside the box at home; they are averaging 10.2 shots and 6.5 shots inside the box in away fixtures.

As mentioned, there is not one issue that seems to persist in every away fixture for Barcelona. But one noticeable pattern becoming more apparent when comparing their away and home games is their inability to establish their will in the final third. The base midfielders in the 4-3-3 setup — usually De Jong and Rakitic as of late — are more hesitant to move out of their occupied area rather than positioning deeper into the final third. The overall movement with and without the ball from the team is not as fluid and free-flowing either. This all culminates in a recipe for a conservative and passive attacking game plan.

More so, it generates a lackluster attacking production in the final third. According to Understat, Barcelona have completed 139 deep completions at home (passes completed within an estimated 20 yards of goal) and 74 in away games. According to Wyscout, Barca in home matches are generating 36.67 penalty area entries per 90 and 33.8 touches in the penalty area per 90; those numbers drop in road matches to 23.3 penalty area entries per 90 and 16.9 touches in the penalty area per 90. Opposing teams are more than willing to let Barcelona dominate possession while not having to worry about any immediate threat from the Blaugrana barging into the penalty box at will.

If Barcelona want to win a third consecutive La Liga title and complete for another treble-winning season, they will have to start with improved performances in away contests. For Valverde, he knows this problem too well after the results of last season. Despite winning the league, the team suffered numerous disappointing away results, including the infamous 2-1 loss against Leganes.

And if their performances on the road in league play weren’t alarming enough, their recent Champions League showings are filled with underwhelming performances. Barcelona have won just six out of their 14 Champions League games under Valverde. Meanwhile in the Champions League knockout stage, Barca have had “Messidependencia” as the last player other than the Argentine to score an away goal in these rounds was Neymar back in 2015 with his semifinal double against Bayern Munich. Players like Luis Suarez have been the core of this dilemma as he has scored a grand total of eight goals over his last 34 Champions League appearances.

There are two sides to addressing this underlying issue: mentality and tactics.

Marc-Andre ter Stegen alluded to the mentality side when speaking about the Champions League away collapses against Roma and Liverpool.

“Those defeats can’t be put down to tactical questions,” Ter Stegen said. “You have to look deeply at the psychological issues around the losses.”

The collapse at Anfield typified much of their complications in this area of play. The expressions on the players’ faces after the game-tying third goal from Liverpool said it all. From Gerard Pique to Sergio Busquets, Barca looked defeated and overwhelmed by the moment at hand.

Compare that to when Luis Enrique led Barcelona to impressive knockout-stage wins away against Manchester City and PSG in the 2014-15 edition of the Champions League. Enrique prepared his unit very well and his side played with exuberant confidence like they were playing under the Camp Nou lights.

Tactics also come into play. With a more aggressive approach from Valverde, the tide could very well end up changing. This comes in the form of unleashing his midfielders to be more assertive with their positioning in the final third. More off-ball runs in behind the opponent’s backline can open up a multitude of space. And lastly, pitting fullbacks Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto with more on-ball attacking responsibilities near the box could cause havoc for the opponent in the penalty box. In short, Barca must go away from their recent possession-without-purpose mentality in away games and assert their will throughout the game by being the aggressor in the final third.

These changes will not transpire overnight, but if they wish to succeed in all major competitions, Barcelona must soon change the narrative on their perplexing away difficulties.

Next: La Liga: 5 things we learned from the first half of the 2019-20 season
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