Barcelona: Winning La Liga but losing its identity?
If a 5-1 demolition at the hands of Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup was supposed to set the tone for the rest of the season, it is fair to say that Barcelona flipped the script and then flipped off everyone who claimed they were finished.
It is now mid-April and, with five games to go, the Blaugrana are still undefeated in La Liga. A 2-2 draw in their 33rd match of the season saw them set a new La Liga record for the longest unbeaten run from the start of the season, breaking a 38-year-old record set by Real Sociedad.
A 12-point lead in La Liga (Atletico Madrid have a game in hand). A 15-point lead over Real who have long since given up on defending their league crown. And a Copa del Rey final against Sevilla to give them a chance of sealing a domestic double.
By all accounts, it has been a successful season for Ernesto Valverde - at least on a personal level. The 54-year-old manager has only ever won a Super Cup (with Athletic Bilbao) in Spain.
However, blowing a 3-goal lead and getting dumped out by AS Roma in the Champions League has stung with repercussions that will take a long time to fade. Losing to a team that had never reached a semi-final in the Champions League era was a hard pill to swallow.
"It's a painful defeat, no question. We all had the desire to win this... We've been left behind on the road but there's no other remedy than to continue through what will be a couple of tough days." - Ernesto Valverde
How is it that a superior team dominating what is arguably the most technical league in Europe struggled to simply hold on to a lead? Why couldn't they score a single goal against a team that had no choice but to attack?
Three consecutive quarter-final exits pose many difficult questions with answers also equally difficult to come by.
The Valverde Way vs Cruyff's Philosophy
"Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore and improve it." - Pep Guardiola
At Barcelona, there was an idea that blossomed into a way of life for footballers who wore the hallowed Blaugrana shirt. The idea was to keep the ball and protect it. It gave birth to the possession-based game that came to define not only the club but also the Spanish national team that - at their peak - had half the Barcelona squad.
With an orchestrator in Xavi, a quick-thinker in Sergio Busquets, an illusionista in Andres Iniesta, and the talisman Lionel Messi, Barcelona were virtually unstoppable. Trophies were won and lost but the domination of the team over the years was never in doubt. 24 trophies in the past decade are a testament to that.
At their peak, Barcelona were all about controlling the ball first and then finding space. It was all about finding the free man to advance the ball, those countless rounds of rondos in training paying off on the pitch.
But as the years passed and coaches changed, that philosophy seemed to lose its relevance. Each coach had his own ideas and even the board was unable to identify the right coach who could marry his philosophy with that of the club to create a team that would not only win but also entertain the culés who demanded the perfection of the Guardiola era.
Luis Enrique's methods saw them win a treble in his first season but there has been a constant deviation since then and, eventually, Neymar's unplanned departure saw that famous 4-3-3 formation abandoned for good.
That was the situation that stared Valverde in the face when he came in; how to plug that gaping hole out on the left following the Brazilian's record move to PSG? The Gerard Deulofeu experiment failed and he was quickly disposed of. Ousmane Dembele arrived but his injury threw a spanner in the works.
Valverde then opted to go with a 4-4-2 with Luis Suarez and Messi leading the line. His trump card was Paulinho - a signing that had been ridiculed (including by yours truly) at the time. How he fit into Barcelona's philosophy was questioned time and again.
But that's just it - he wasn't signed to play the Barcelona way. The 4-4-2 gave him a role where he could make midfield runs and arrive in the box at the right time to score. He's Barcelona's third-highest goal scorer after Messi and Suarez.
This formation that was supposed to be a stop-gap solution quietly became the norm. Philippe Coutinho's arrival saw a return to the 4-3-3 but that was more to do with the absence of either Suarez or Messi in the starting lineup.
And that was another problem. Barcelona have looked very pedestrian without Messi in the lineup and they needed him to come to their rescue to claim a point at Sevilla in the dying minutes and keep that unbeaten run intact.
Where Valverde went wrong this season
Under Valverde, Barcelona's game did not revolve around possession. Yes, they were still the no.1 team in the league when it came to possession but that must be attributed to the players they still have from the start of their successful era rather than Valverde's tactics.
His tactics revolved around transitions. With two banks of four - which included central midfielders in wide roles drifting in - there was no width per se unless the full-backs attacked. This was vastly different to when Messi and Neymar were available to collect the ball out wide and cut in.
At first, it worked. The results also saw players buy into this formation. A 3-0 win in El Clasico at the Bernabeu was the tipping point - even though that was a direct result of Zinedine Zidane not reading Valverde's plans. It reinforced the belief that Valverde was on the right path and he stuck to his guns.
However, Barcelona's starting XI was not only their greatest strength but also their biggest weakness. Although they had a superb starting lineup, they lacked any sort of squad depth. There was just no Plan B.
Valverde had a very talented team at his disposal but not an entire squad capable of fighting on all fronts. Most of the key players were on the wrong side of 30 and the impact of important players such as Iniesta was quickly diminishing (he has played the full 90 minutes just four times this season).
The manager's priority was clearly La Liga. There was hardly any rotation in the squad and, as a result, by the time the Champions League knockout fixtures came around, Barcelona were clearly not at a 100%.
Their pressing game has been weaker in recent years. Winning the ball back is not the same as it once was. When up against an opponent who had a clear gameplan to expose Barcelona's frailties, they fell. Roma looked far more athletic and worked much harder.
Barca simply rolled over - literally in the case of Gerard Pique who just couldn't handle Edin Dzeko and conceded a stonewall penalty that eventually allowed Roma to mount a comeback.
No player coming through La Masia to improve Barcelona squad
One other reason why Cruyff's philosophy is no longer in practice as much as he would have liked is the fact that Barcelona's La Masia no longer produces players who can make the step up to the first team.
This is also a result of the Barcelona board's squad planning that has evolved in the face of harsh realities. With Real Madrid winning three European titles in four years, Barcelona have tried to go down their route by buying readymade big-money players.
The players of the Pep Guardiola era set the bar so high that it has been almost impossible to produce similar types of players. And even if they have been drilled in the Barca way, the first team does not play the Barca way anymore. So what happens to them?
Unfortunately, the club has also tried to buy success at the youth level too. Sergio Gómez, who recently made the move to Borussia Dortmund after they triggered his release clause, shines a light on what is wrong at the Catalan club.
"Barça has to win as many trophies as possible. This is why they are signing many players and homegrown youngsters are leaving. In the last few years, a lot of signings have been made for Barça B too.
"I think this is the reason why there aren't many La Masia youngsters who get an opportunity to play." - Sergio Gomez
The Barcelona board has seen some tumultuous times in recent years. Presidents have stepped down, been arrested, and board members have resigned over decisions to play during the Catalan referendum. Greed has often trumped the Barcelona ethos of building a team, nay, building a squad capable of fighting on all fronts.
Despite the lack of quality youngsters and an ill-advised recruitment process born out of a sense of panic, Valverde deserves credit for taking Barcelona as far as he has this season. However, the underlying question remains: is that glorious era of Barcelona coming to an end?
Whether Valverde remains at the helm next season remains to be seen. It would seem daft to sack a coach who could finish with two trophies. But Barcelona are a club that always aspire for something more.
The chapel of Barcelona definitely needs restoring if they are to conquer Europe again. It remains to be seen whether a reactive coach like Valverde is the Michelangelo they need.