Barcelona Opta special: Setien struggles and Messi magic in 2019-20

By Sports Desk March 22, 2020

Top of the table, sack your head coach, lose El Clasico, return to the top of the table.

It is hard to argue with where Barcelona stand as LaLIga's season pauses amid the coronavirus pandemic, although their means of staying on course for a ninth title in 12 seasons have often been unconvincing.

Here, we take a look back at the Opta numbers behind a campaign where Quique Setien has replaced Ernesto Valverde in the Camp Nou hot seat and many of the old certainties seem not to exist anymore.

Well, apart from one man's enduring brilliance.

WORST BARCA TEAM SINCE BEFORE GUARDIOLA

Barcelona's points haul of 58 from 27 games is enough for a two-point lead over Real Madrid in second but it is their worst return at this stage since 2007-08, when they had 54 points in the last knockings of Frank Rijkaard's tenure

The Blaugrana's 63 goals in 27 outings is also their lowest since that season, when they had 52 at this juncture and finished a distant third on 67 points.

Pep Guardiola took the reins for 2008-09, completed a clean sweep of trophies and Barca have never been outside the top two since.

That run is unlikely to change this time around but concerns over the longer-term direction of travel are understandable – even if making Valverde the first LaLiga boss to lose his job despite being top at the midway point since Radomir Antic made way for Leo Beenhakker at Real Madrid in 1991-92 left a sour taste.

Perhaps prophetically, Johan Cruyff's Barcelona won the title that year.

MAJESTIC MESSI

Unperturbed by these struggles and even speculation over his own future, Lionel Messi has continued on his merry way.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner is the top scorer in LaLiga this season with 19 goals and his 12 assists also lead the divisional statistics.

Borussia Dortmund and England star Jadon Sancho is the only other player in Europe's big five leagues with double figures for both, with 14 goals and 15 assists.

For now, Messi also has another marker over the man to whom he will always be compared. His 438 domestic league goals put him one ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo on 437, although Messi's have arrived in 474 appearances as opposed to 540.

The Argentina international now has 420 LaLiga starts to his name and has surpassed the previous highest by a non-Spanish player, former Atletico Madrid and Deportivo La Coruna defender Donato (415).

THE BARCELONA WAY

Setien's commitment to a short passing, high pressing style earned him the nod of the Barcelona board after Valverde's unseemly departure.

Although the high-octane thrills of his best Real Betis sides have largely been absent, he did put down an important marker in his first game.

During the 1-0 win over Granada, Barca completed 1,002 passes – only the third time they or any other team have done so in a LaLiga contest.

The 1,046 recorded by Guardiola's men against Levante in May 2011 remains the highest, with his successor Tito Villanova overseeing 1,035 versus the same opponents in 1,035.

However, hoarding possession does not provide the security it once did.

Barcelona have conceded 31 goals in LaLiga so far this term, amounting to a higher goals per game against than in any of the previous nine season (1.15).

In fact, in five of those, Gerard Pique and his defensive colleagues had let in fewer than 31 at the end of the campaign.

Easier to score against, not as prolific and yet still on course for the title usefully sums up the peculiarity of Barcelona in 2019-20 at this point.

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  • Tiger Woods' major debut became a tale of Burnt Biscuits, tough lessons and Augusta awe Tiger Woods' major debut became a tale of Burnt Biscuits, tough lessons and Augusta awe

    Nervous as hell, Tiger Woods stood over his first putt at The Masters and gave the ball a fair thunk towards the hole, near as dammit 25 feet away.

    Crowds were already swarming for Woods, the college kid making his major championship debut in a pairing with the defending champion, Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal.

    The date was April 6, 1995. A quarter of a century ago. A drizzly Thursday in Georgia.

    THE BALL THAT KEPT ROLLING

    Nineteen years old and accordingly fresh-faced, Woods was already a mighty draw, the Stanford student a prodigy around whom hype had swirled since he was barely as tall as the putter he now gripped tightly.

    His ball shuffled closer to that first hole, rolling by, just needing to hold up. No birdie then, but a par four at the hole they call Tea Olive would have been a satisfying, becalming start. This, famously, is where Ernie Els in 2016 would shamble to a quintuple-bogey nine.

    As Woods was about to discover, its green demands the utmost care and concentration.

    Woods had taken a close enough look at that first putt, studied the undulations of the green. Heck, he had played the course already that week in practice rounds alongside Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Nick Price, Raymond Floyd and Fred Couples. This time, though, the ball had shot off his putter just a touch punchier than necessary.

    Just hold up. Stop rolling. It kept rolling.

    "People on the other side of the green started moving," Woods remembered. "It's never good when you hit a putt and people start to move."

    AN ENQUIRING MIND OPENS DOORS

    By the time Woods woke on the morning on his Masters bow, he could plot out a good map of Augusta National.

    Not just the course and its colourful flora, but the corridors, nooks and crannies of its clubhouse were becoming imprinted on the mind of the teenage Woods. He was staying for the week in the Crow's Nest, the quaint, rather rustic second-floor accommodation reserved for players from the unpaid ranks, with Woods in the tournament by virtue of being the reigning U.S. Amateur champion.

    He knew where the Butler Cabin was to be found, should the need ever arise, and a little after-hours exploration had seen him try many an unlocked door to discover what lay behind.

    An enquiring mind led him to the champions' locker room.

    "There was no one in there, so I walked through," Woods said. "No ghosts that I know of."

    Woods not only dreamt of becoming Masters champion, he realised millions expected him to someday triumph. Sports Illustrated had already run a nine-page feature, conscious of his rare talent.

    Norman, who had been twice a runner-up by that stage, said on the eve of the tournament that the rookie possessed the game to carry off the Green Jacket that very Sunday.

    Woods climbed out of bed and went for a morning run before heading to the practice range with coach Butch Harmon.

    CHICKEN ON THE MENU

    Woods was the boy wonder with the world in his feet. His game had everything. Everything, that is, but the ability to have a second stab at that first Masters putt; to rein it back, grin to the crowds, and play it again.

    That stray ball duly rolled off the first green, down an embankment, and came to a muddy rest 50 feet away from the hole.

    Woods turned to caddie Tommy Bennett, the experienced Masters bag man he had hired for the week. Bennett went by the nickname 'Burnt Biscuits' - earned the day he scalded himself on the leg when illicitly snaffling freshly baked treats from his grandmother's kitchen.

    Back went the putter, out came a short iron.

    Down among the patrons, squirming amid his first Masters humiliation, Woods played a recovery shot that could have turned out better, leaving a dicey bogey putt. He later berated himself for a "chicken shot", just as he had after the timid sand wedge to the green that left the long-range putt, that led to all this palaver.

    If there was any solace to be taken from that torturous misread moments earlier, it at least prepared Woods for putt number two.

    This time, as Woods later wrote in his Masters memoir, Unprecedented: "I made it. Great start to my Augusta career. Hit the green in regulation, and then hit my first putt off the green."

    STAYING FOR THE WEEKEND, SIR?

    Not every golfer who flunks Augusta's first hole lands a mega-money book deal.

    From that inauspicious start, Woods has proceeded to win five Masters titles, most recently last year when he ended an 11-year trophy drought at the majors, sealing his comeback from back injury woes and the scandal that upended his career.

    Whether there will be a 2020 Masters remains to be seen. The tournament scheduled for this week had to be postponed because... well, we all know why. Woods might have to wait until 2021 for his latest title defence.

    In 1995, Woods shook off the dropped shot on that first hole of his Masters career, seeing his name up on the leaderboard briefly before signing for a level-par 72.

    A repeat in round two earned a stay for the weekend. As the lone amateur to make the cut - Trip Kuehne, Lee S James, Guy Yamamoto and Tim Jackson fell by the wayside - Woods was king of the Crow's Nest.

    Woods wrote himself out of contention with a 77 in round three, but a third 72 of the week came on the Sunday, securing a tie for 41st place, albeit 19 shots behind champion Ben Crenshaw.

    A CHAMPION'S INSTINCT

    Woods' stated goal of becoming "the Michael Jordan of golf" was gaining traction.

    Jordan, incidentally, had delivered his famous "I'm back" message just three weeks before the Masters, launching the second chapter of his NBA career after 18 months in retirement.

    Today, Jordan and Woods are thought to be America's two wealthiest sports stars.

    On his way to Augusta's second tee, back in 1995, Woods had pictured the response of a champion.

    "I told myself to pound it over the bunker on the right, and I did," Woods wrote in Unprecedented. "I had a cocky walk off that tee, because I'd done what I wanted to do."

    Woods made birdie. Olazabal gasped at his gargantuan drive, later half-joking he needed binoculars to pick out Woods' tee shots. This is what the galleries craved, what they have returned time after time to enjoy.

    The new kid on the block finished that week as tournament leader in average driving distance - 311.1 yards - but iron play had let him down.

    'FANTASYLAND AND DISNEY WORLD WRAPPED INTO ONE'

    Woods signed off his maiden Masters with a visit to Butler Cabin, where he spoke of an intention to "go all four" at Stanford. Yet he would spend just two years majoring in economics, bagging a couple more U.S. Amateur titles before turning professional.

    "It’s a tough world out here," Woods said on that first Masters trip. “Right now, I’m only 19 years old and I feel it’s right for me to live it up a little bit. You’re only young once and college is such a great atmosphere and I really love it there."

    He even left behind a letter of thanks to Augusta National, that began: "Please accept my sincere thanks for providing me the opportunity to experience the most wonderful week of my life. It was fantasyland and Disney World wrapped into one."

    Woods added: "It is here that I left my youth and became a man."

    LEAVING, ON THE LATE-NIGHT FLIGHT FROM GEORGIA

    On the Monday morning after the Masters, Woods had a 9am history class. He reputedly made it there, taking a Sunday evening flight from Augusta to Atlanta and another on to San Francisco.

    If he found time to read the reaction to his performance, he might have stumbled on Sports Illustrated Jaime Diaz's verdict.

    "Although Tiger's excellent adventure was satisfying on many levels," Diaz wrote, "it was most important as a reconnaissance mission to lay the groundwork for many future trips to - and almost surely some victories in - Augusta."

    The first Green Jacket arrived just two years later, victory snared by a then-record 12-shot margin.

    And you know what? Woods made bogey at his first hole then, too.

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  • Postponing the Olympics was 'a relief' – Wayde van Niekerk will be patient for his legacy Postponing the Olympics was 'a relief' – Wayde van Niekerk will be patient for his legacy

    Firstly, the most important question: how is the family?

    "We're all good," Wayde van Niekerk tells Stats Perform. "Most importantly, everyone is very healthy. Everyone is starting to invest now in exercises and more healthy decisions so that's actually nice to see and something that's a positive out of our current circumstances."

    Looking for positives in the coronavirus pandemic can be tough. Then again, Van Niekerk has never been one to shirk a challenge. The 400 metre Olympic champion, the first man in history to run a single lap of the track faster than Michael Johnson, the figure tipped by Usain Bolt himself to usurp the Jamaican great as the poster-boy of athletics, has endured a sort of self-isolation from the wider public consciousness over the past couple of years.

    Van Niekerk's victory at the 2016 Rio Olympics was done in a world-record time of 43.03, beating Johnson's 17-year best and coming agonisingly close to the magic 43-second barrier. A year later, in the seldom-run 300m, he eclipsed Johnson and Bolt's best times to set a record 30.81 in Ostrava, eight days after a personal best of 9.94 in the 100m.

    In so doing, Van Niekerk became the first sprinter in history to break the 10-second, 20-second, 31-second and 44-second barriers for the 100m, 200m, 300m and 400m, respectively. At the World Championships in London in August 2017, he took silver in the 200m and gold in the 400m, defending that title from Beijing two years earlier. Not bad for a man given 24 hours to live when he was born 11 weeks prematurely, who spent his first two weeks of life in intensive care, and who was bullied as a scrawny schoolboy.

    Then, in a charity touch rugby match in October 2017, Van Niekerk suffered medial and lateral tears of the meniscus and a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He needed surgery. The 2018 season was written off, meaning he missed the Commonwealth Games. After a winning return in Bloemfontein some 17 months later, Van Niekerk "pushed a bit too hard" and bruised a bone in his knee in training. More months off the track followed; there would be no third world title in a row.

    "Missing out on the Commonwealths, I could get over it, but a world champs was very difficult," he admits.

    "I got some time to train with the guys in Europe and I was basically prepping for the World Championships, so picking up the bone bruise and then still trying to work towards getting fitness but not quite getting there and seeing off the team and greeting everyone was quite an emotional experience. But it definitely did spark a massive hunger inside me and I think, for myself, I use that as motivation to make sure that when I get a chance again, I'm not going to take it for granted."

    That chance was supposed to be 2020, and Tokyo. "I've entered this year as a normal season, so I felt I was ready to compete, I felt I was ready to run. I was training and working as any other year. I made decisions as if I'm about to do a season as usual, so mentally and physically my mind and heart was there."

    Then came COVID-19. As sporting events around the world were pushed back or cancelled, the IOC dithered over moving the Olympics, leaving athletes to continue preparations under clouds of uncertainty. It was particularly worrying for Van Niekerk: as social distancing became the norm in countries across the globe, he was obliged to keep up his training programme despite his coach, 77-year-old Ans Botha, being at risk of serious illness if infected.

    "It was definitely scary," he says. "It was kind of difficult to communicate with her each and every day and she was right there in front of me. I did not know how to communicate with coach and how to interact with coach knowing how easily she could get affected.

    "At that moment, we saw how quickly it was spreading in China and Italy and countries in Europe and we knew it wouldn't be long before it entered our country. That kind of scared me: it's an invisible virus which travels, so I wouldn't even know I'm interacting with coach and spreading the virus to her, so I'm glad she's safe now and can stay away from harm so that, when we get back to work, she'll be ready and healthy."

    On March 24, organisers acted at last, postponing the Games until July 23 next year. For many athletes, it was a disheartening blow; for Van Nierkerk, it was "definitely a relief".

    "My coach being quite elderly makes it quite difficult for me to focus only on training, knowing that I'm around her all the time and how easily the virus can spread and how quickly it attacks the elderly. It definitely did take a bit of a weight off my shoulders in terms of that," he says.

    "Also, we weren't mentally training the way we would love to. I guess the fact the Olympics has been shifted takes a bit of stress off us, and now we can work on keeping our social distancing and staying away from spreading the virus and making sure we kill this thing so we can go back to life as we know it.

    "I don't have any issues with the decisions that were made. Working towards next season and what's left of this season, I want to make sure I'm in good shape and use it as building blocks for the Olympics next year. I see it as a healthy year for myself, where I can use it for building and strengthening that I still believe I need to work on."

    South Africa won praise for a proactive approach to containing the spread of coronavirus, with swift lockdown measures helping to keep confirmed cases below 2,000 and deaths in single figures as of April 5. Van Niekerk has been training at home – "I'm very privileged and blessed," he says, to have a large back garden and gym to use – and he supports the government's approach. "I think we've also seen a positive reaction to it – a lot of people are obedient to it, a lot of people are distancing themselves from society and from spreading the virus, so I see it as positive decisions that our country's leaders have made."

    After so much time out through injury, there is still frustration at having to wait another year for the Olympics, but Van Niekerk, clearly, is not one for negativity. Running at unofficial meets early this year over 100m and 200m, including back home in Bloemfontein, were "quite fun", he says. "Seeing that I still have the speed and still have the strength gave me quite a bit of a boost, and it just gave me a lot of hunger to keep working harder and more efficiently, so that I can be in the best shape for the Olympics. I'm basically just trying to continue off that so I can be in the best shape of my life in Tokyo."

    The immediate goal might be Olympics gold, but Van Niekerk may have more than a medal collection in his sights. He has spoken of wanting to leave a legacy and, while going sub-43 over 400m is the obvious target, his love of the shorter races points at a possible bid for sprinting's triple crown. Bolt was king of the 100m and 200m; Johnson ruled from the half-lap to the 400m. To conquer all three would set Van Niekerk apart.

    It's a remarkable dream, but Van Niekerk, inspired by Liverpool's Premier League title charge and watching friends and family win the Rugby World Cup last year, is a remarkable athlete.

    His is a sport where dozens of people put in hundreds of hours of work often just so one person has one chance of glory, be it with a jump, a throw, or a dash to the line. But he remembers the challenges life threw at him; he remembers those who were with him from those tough beginnings and all the way to August 15, 2016, where one lap of the track in Rio changed his world. And he has never forgotten them. He looks back now not just on the time on the clock or the medal around his neck, but on the people who were there to share it all.

    He recalled: "It was definitely... I was quite nervous. But I felt comfortable, I felt confident in myself. I had an amazing season before, put up some great times. But coming to a Games itself, you need to put in that hard work to make sure that you execute what you've worked for. During that process, it was just about staying calm, staying composed, controlling the controllables and executing the race as best I can.

    "Breaking the world record itself was amazing. I had my family over there and it was amazing and a great way to end my competition, knowing they were there, spending time with them and celebrating with them. Also, the team: my coach, my management team, my sponsors and so on, it was a great experience knowing I could break the world record and honour everyone associated with me for their hard work and sacrifices they put in to put me where I am today. I'll forever be grateful for it.

    "But my mind and my heart are honestly focused on the future and my legacy. It's never been a secret that I want to go sub-43 and it's also no secret how much I love the 100 and 200, so I definitely want to start investing in growth, in every single event that I do, and improve myself every year until the day I retire and whatever legacy comes from that. That's where my focus is at: just to grow and be up there with the greats in the world."

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