Spring has well and truly rained on the Barcelona parade and the abundant 38-game unbeaten streak has withered to three consecutive league defeats for the first time since 2003 and a quarter-final exit from a Champions League they were favourites to win. April is the cruellest month, as T.S. Eliot once said, and now Barcelona look out at the wasteland before them; five games to save their season and maybe also their manager.
This is the same team that not long ago was being heralded as the best ever but now cannot be the best in Europe and risk not even being the best in Spain. There has been such a huge emphasis on the front three and this has caused problems, not least that they are under constant pressure to pull off the incredible because of the ridiculously high bar they have set as individuals and Barcelona has set as a club. If any players can thrive under pressure it’s Messi, Suarez and Neymar but even they are only human.
One of the words being thrown around that goes a long way to sum up Barcelona’s collapse is ‘burnout’. They have played 12 more games this season than Real Madrid and it shows in the players’ performances, which recently have been sluggish. Suarez and Neymar have played over 3700 minutes, Messi over 3200 and Busquets over 3500 and this is the fault of Luis Enrique who doesn’t rotate nearly enough or cleverly enough. Busquets for instance is often rested in tricky away games rather than easier home games, which is inexplicable.
It’s not just the attacking play of this front three that suffers as a result of their exhaustion. Messi made 27 tackles in the league last season but has only made eight this season while the same is true of Neymar who made 43 last season and 24 this season. This is significant because Guardiola’s Barcelona side lost much of its effectiveness and potency when the high pressing style decreased in intensity and the same is happening to Enrique’s side. The midfield is made to work a lot harder when the forwards don’t defend from the front and this puts a strain on the rest of the team.
Luis Enrique faces a similar problem to Zinedine Zidane in the fact that if either of them dropped on of their respective front three players the fans and the press would slaughter them. This means that they lose forward players who want to play regularly like Pedro who was a fairly effective backup plan. Their bench in the defeat against Valencia displayed just how bad their shallow squad problem is. It consisted of four full-backs, a centre back, a goalkeeper and Munir (who I personally think performed excellently in Messi’s absence earlier in the season) and Enrique didn’t make a single change. Even when they do rotate they can’t seem to function on anywhere near the same level. Real Madrid made seven changes after their Champions League first leg against Wolfsburg and beat Eibar 4-0. Barcelona made 4 changes after their first leg against Atletico Madrid and lost 1-0 to Real Sociedad.
Even with Pique, as good as he is, this Barcelona side has a worrying fragility at the back if they lose the ball in midfield, which they do quite often against teams who press them quickly. The system they had in 2011 where Puyol and Abidal tucked in with Pique behind to sweep when Dani Alves went forwards does not work anymore with Alves and Alba essentially playing as wingers so it is no wonder that they are caught on the counter a lot. The endless focus on the forwards has distracted from the inadequacies throughout the rest of the team which need improving. When they forwards aren’t on form, Barcelona can’t grind out results and they need to be able to.
As bad as their collapse is however, they are still on track to accomplish a domestic double which, with the Club World Cup and UEFA Super Cup, would bring their season haul to four trophies. Pep Guardiola managed just the four trophies after his treble-winning season in charge so this would be by no means a poor season for Barcelona should they win La Liga and the Copa del Rey. They have arguably the easiest run-in of the three chasing the league title but they do face local rivals Espanyol on the way and there’s no doubting that Espanyol would love to put the final nail in the coffin of Barca’s title bid.
It’s hard to deny that their April collapse has been spectacular and that, should they throw the league away, they will have massively underachieved given the players they possess. Even if they do win the league and the Copa del Rey, I can’t agree that they’re the best ever when I don’t even think they’re a better team than some from their own recent past.