There was a growing sense last season that Barcelona’s playing style had markedly and definitively shifted away from the possession-based tiki-taka trumpeted by Pep Guardiola and towards a steely resilience triumphed by Ernesto Valverde.
In their first 18 league outings last season, the Catalan giants had yielded just seven goals while by the time they had the league title wrapped up, they had conceded just 21. Barca were a well-organised unit with the supreme Marc-Andre Ter Stegen as goalkeeper with Samuel Umtiti and Gerard Pique forming a rock-solid defensive base.
With Neymar departed to Paris Saint-Germain, new signing Ousmane Dembele struggling with fitness issues and Phillipe Coutinho not signing until January, it was Lionel Messi again who carried the attacking threat for the Blaugrana. The magisterial Argentine netted 45 goals – a remarkable tally for any player in the world other than he and Cristiano Ronaldo, for whom such impressive returns were routine.
This season, Messi already has 11 goals in 11 appearances. Predictably it was him to the rescue as Barca broke down a stubborn Alaves on the opening day before hitting a hat-trick against PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League and bagging two in a supreme display at Tottenham. On Sunday, the 31-year-old produced a typical stunning piece of moment and finish to secure a 1-1 draw for Barca at Valencia.
Yet this season, the defence is not holding firm. Barca have already conceded nine goals in just eight league outings – as many as in their first 19 games last time out. Huesca, Leganes, Girona and Tottenham have all netted two goals against them. Umtiti is injured and Pique is out-of-form. New signing Clement Lenglet has yet to settle – and was sent-off against Girona – while Thomas Vermaelen is now 32 and has endured long battles with injuries.
Last season’s Barcelona team were not loved but they were deeply respected. After all, they won the domestic double and came within two league games of completing a remarkable unbeaten campaign. The one loss was a 5-4 defeat at Levante and whilst that seemed out of keeping at the time, perhaps it has foreshadowed what was to come.
Indeed, the last nine games of their title-winning campaign saw 16 goals fly in. That the league title was already wrapped up masked the problems of shipping two against Sevilla, Celta Vigo, Deportivo La Coruna and Real Madrid. Then there was the 3-0 collapse at Roma.
It is often the case that teams can lose their sense of direction and purpose, falling back on what they know best. Messi is the best player in the world and can decide matches single-handedly but last season’s successes were as much about the defence as the Argentine genius. Without the stability of a confident and settled back-line, Messi’s moment of magic may ultimately prove to be in vein.
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