14 games into the season and two points behind rivals, Real Madrid, Luis Enrique is still to find his best XI. Wasi Manazir elucidates Barcelona’s uncertainty in different departments and feels it is high time that the Catalans stopped relying solely on the magic moments produced by their forwards to win them matches.
We are in the middle of December but still Luis Enrique doesn’t seem to have figured his trusted back four.
At the start of the current campaign the Catalans bought much needed defensive reinforcements in the form of Valencia’s centre back Jeremy Mathieu and ex Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen. Mathieu has been a regular since his arrival but Vermaelen is still unable to recover from the injuries he has been carrying since his purchase. A recent surgery means he is highly unlikely to appear before the start of next season.
Even with Vermaelen out, Luis Enrique has four centre backs to call upon in Gerard Pique, Marc Bartra, Jeremy Mathieu and the converted defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano; a luxury that past three of his predecessors didn’t have. But so far Luis Enrique has not found a stable centre back pairing to stick with at various points in the season he has started with seemingly random pairing without any apparent reason to leave the other two out. One may take it as an attempt to rotate the players in order to keep them all fresh come the business end of the season but on the contrary, it has also meant that there is no coordination in defensive play and we are already almost halfway into the season.
The fullback positions have been equally turbulent due to experimentation as well as loss of form.
Barcelona made a surprising signing in the form of Douglas who quite simply put doesn’t belong to this level of football. Even in the Copa del Rey match against third division side Huesca, he was barely competitive. The Huesca left winger troubled him for entirety of the match.
Montoya’s banishment from the team for reasons best know to the manager means that Dani Alves is assured of starting every match no matter how poorly he plays. And on the evidence of the last two seasons, he is not the same players he once was.
Left wing has looked somewhat better with Jordi Alba at the top of his game but quite surprisingly in the first Classico of the season Mathieu started at left back and his inadequacy in that position was quite clearly exposed. In the second leg of the Champions League against Paris Saint Germain, Enrique again started the Frenchman at left back where he had a tough time fending off Lucas Moura’s pace incidentally PSG’s solitary goal came from a move initiated by the Brazilian down the left flank. Known for his pace, Jordi Alba might have been a better fit to for the clash.
Barcelona is constantly getting caught in defensive tangles, Luis Enrique needs to find the best fits in defence and stick with them.
Barcelona’s supremacy over the years has been based on their midfielders bossing the centre of the pitch and passing the opposition into submission but throughout the current season their midfield has been unable to impose any kind of control on matches.
The current midfield has also been marred by constant experimentation and it appears that Luis Enrique is still trying to figure out what his ideal three in midfield should be. During the first two months of the season, the Catalans had Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and the summer signing Ivan Rakitic in midfield with Xavi coming off the bench when needed. Since the match against Real Madrid, the Croatian has not been a guaranteed starter; Xavi started in Madrid where Barcelona were completely outplayed in midfield by the trio of Toni Kroos, Luca Modric and Isco.
Another reason for the loss of midfield control has been the deployment of Iniesta and Rakitic as cover for Jordi Alba and Dani Alves when they go up field to stretch the play. With the two midfielders covering the flanks midfield becomes a lost battle for the solitary Sergio Busquets. It also leaves the team utterly exposed to an opposition counter attack.
Pressing especially in midfield has been another hallmark of Barcelona’s play style. Without the ball the players used to press the opposition relentlessly to get the ball back and mount attacks. Unfortunately, this season pressing has been sporadic at best. One recent example of the same was the league match against Espanyol where the Catalans seemed disinterested in regaining possession at least in the first half. The second half was marginally better which marked a visible difference in performance. It yielded four goals in favor of the four time European Champions.
In another midfield experiment Javier Mascherano, Sergio Busquets, and Xavi started away against Valencia. Two defensive midfielders and one distributor meant there was no one to shoulder the creative duty; as a result the Barcelona midfield appeared completely bereft of creative play till Rakitic appeared on the hour mark.
Often times the midfield appears to be playing without any plan and there is a danger that the constant changes and lack of ideas might undermine the team’s strongest weapon. With the race for the league promising to again go down to the wire and knock out stage of the Champions League looming Barcelona need to sort out their midfield in order to compete for the two all important titles.
Relying on possibly the World’s best front three is not necessarily the worst thing for Barcelona but lack of adequate support from midfield has meant the South American trio of Neymar, Messi and Suarez have been forced to share the burden of not just scoring but also creating chances themselves. Several matches this season have been decided by the individual brilliance of one or more of the three forwards.
Whether it be Messi’s goal out of nothing at the stroke of half time against Espanyol which undid their defensive resolve, or the his brilliant cross for Neymar against Valencia in stoppage time that ultimately resulted in the deciding Busquets goal, his assist for Sandro for the match winning goal against Villarreal, or the late Neymar double against Athletic Bilbao, Barcelona have been rescued countless times by their stellar forwards.
It’s a telling stat that Neymar, Suarez, and Messi have together provided 15 assists in the league (3, 5, and 7 respectively). Whereas the entire midfield combined have pitched in with a measly 3 assists (Xavi – 2, Busquets – 1) in 14 matches of the current campaign.
Apart from these three, young forwards like Mounir El Haddadi and Sandro Ramirez have also contributed in their limited opportunities, although Mounir’s form has tapered off as the season progressed.
Barcelona needs to address this overt reliance on forwards in general and Messi in particular to bail them out of matches. At times one gets the impression that they are just one Messi injury away from another trophy less season which for a club of Barcelona’s stature is a damning indictment.
Written by Wasi Manazir
- Enrique’s indecision: Barcelona relying on moments of magic - December 14, 2014
- Dani Alves: A Bygone Threat? - November 27, 2014
- Scout Report | Muhamed Besic: Everton & Bosnia’s solid midfielder - November 20, 2014