Why Barcelona's early season form is just a false dawn
Matchday 2 of Champions League Football is over and FC Barcelona have continued their perfect start to the season, securing a win against Sporting CP in Lisbon. Barça now have a three-point lead over Juventus, and will be confident of finishing top of their group, as they have been doing for the last decade.
They also hold a comfortable seven-point lead over Real Madrid in La Liga and seem to be flying high despite the loss of Neymar over the summer.
However, the nature of La Blaugranas’ performances, especially over the last two games, warrants some discomfort for the culés. The win against Sporting was a scrappy one, despite the fact that Barça was playing almost at full strength, with the only high-profile absentee being Ousmane Dembélé.
Barcelona’s midfield consisting of Iniesta, Rakitic, Busquets and Sergi Roberto struggled to control the game at times and seemed to be surprisingly short of ideas going forward. While I wholeheartedly agree with the experts and pundits who say that the departure of Neymar has left Barcelona a more balanced side, it is also undoubtedly true that in games like the one against Sporting, he will be sorely missed.
It is true that the club does not depend on an insane forward line to get them through every challenge anymore, and that the focus is now on playing well together as a team. However, it is also true that with the departure of one of Barça’s talismanic figures over the past three seasons, tracking and marking the other two becomes significantly easier.
In the previous game against Girona, for instance, Messi was man-marked for the entire duration of the game, effectively chaining him for the majority of the 90 minutes. While Sporting did not resort to man-marking Messi in quite the same fashion as Girona did, they did succeed in crowding him out and getting tackles in before he could dribble his way out of trouble.
Valverde’s strategy to counteract this, as we have seen since the beginning of this season, is to deploy Messi as a ‘false 9’, reverting him back to his old role of collecting the ball deep and driving the team forward, acting as both a playmaker and a forward. It has, however, become a sight more common than in the past to see the little Argentinian being out-muscled whenever the opponents get a whiff that he is off on one of his runs.
Perhaps it is old legs, or perhaps defenders are starting to understand what to expect from him, but in the past seasons, we have seen Messi opt to take the passing route more often than the dribbling one – the quick exchange of passes, or the long, curved ball to the left, where Neymar used to lie in wait.
Now that Barça play with a two-top forward line, the latter option requires either Jordi Alba or one of the midfielders to take up an advanced position, leaving a gaping hole elsewhere. True, Jordi Alba does love to go high up the pitch and has been a willing recipient of Messi’s crosses to the left, but that option has receded as an immediate outlet when under pressure.
Suárez’s current form does not inspire too much encouragement either. Ever since he played for Uruguay allegedly without having fully recovered, he has been looking out of sorts. His shooting has been woeful, and the link-up between him and Messi hasn’t picked up to the level it was in the last few seasons.
Of course, it is only a matter of time before he does regain his lost form, as well as before Dembélé, who one hopes will quickly reach the heights Neymar took the Barça front line to, returns from injury.
Till then, however, the bulk of the offensive responsibilities lie on Messi’s shoulders, and while he has done exceedingly well in firing Barça to the top of the table so far, it cannot remain a one-man show forever, especially when they start facing the stronger teams in the Spanish League and as they move into the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Barcelona have traditionally struggled against opponents who sit back and soak up the pressure and break when the chance arises. And struggle they did against Sporting, perhaps more so offensively than defensively.
Sporting had a few good chances of their own, but the addition of Nelson Semedo on the right provides a much-needed boost, while the rest of the defence has significantly upped their game, blocking passing avenues and closing off shot angles.
However, we must remember that the only real test this defence has faced is Juventus on Matchday 1, who weren’t exactly at the top of their game then. We must wait at least until Barça face Atlético Madrid two weeks from now to see how tough their defence really is.
All in all, it is a slightly nerve-wracking time to be a Barcelona fan. Contrary to all expectations, it is Barça who have done well in the season so far, and Real Madrid who have stumbled.
Messi is leading the goalscoring charts in Spain while Ronaldo is in a dry patch having had to miss Madrid’s start of the season due to suspension. In spite of all this, one cannot help but think that the situation is still precarious. With their dependence on Messi and abysmal bench-strength, is a big fall just around the corner?