Barcelona have come a long way this season. Before the campaign, having lost Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain and trounced by rivals Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup, they were given little hope of stealing Los Blancos‘ crown as kings of Spain.
Indeed, the nature of the Neymar deal, which saw the Barça fail to fully countenance the brilliant Brazilian’s world-record move to Paris until a delegate for the French side arrived at La Liga’s offices to deposit the cheque that triggered the player’s release clause, left the Catalan giants red-faced and caught off guard.
The way the Barcelona hierarchy flatly ignored the spiralling speculation regarding Neymar’s future smacked of hubris, a refusal to accept the possibility any of their stars could wish for a world away from the club. And this fingers-in-the-ears approach meant their hap-dash efforts to replace the former Santos attacker – breaking the club transfer record to sign Ousmane Dembélé, then doing so again for Philippe Coutinho in January – looked desperate.
So, after a 5-1 aggregate thrashing the in Spanish football season’s traditional curtain-raiser, all and sundry anticipated a desperate campaign for the Blaugrana. Yet, with 2017/18 approaching its crescendo, they sit comfortably top of the domestic table, a Copa del Rey secured and on course to become the first side to complete a La Liga season unbeaten.
But still something doesn’t seem quite right.
Make no mistake: Barcelona will be worthy champions. With five games to play, they sit 11 points clear of second-placed Atlético Madrid, while still owning a game in hand; they are the division’s highest scorers, with 83 goals, and possess its second-meanest defence, shipping just one more than Atleti’s 18 to date.
On an individual basis, there has been consistent excellence produced by goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen, centre-back duo Gerard Piqué and Samuel Umtiti, midfield maestro Sergio Busquets and flying full-back Jordi Alba.
Luis Suárez has come to life during the second half of the campaign, Ivan Rakitić has looked back to his best after a shaky previous season, and, of course, Lionel Messi, with 40-all competitions goals and yet another double-figures assists return, has been utterly, wonderfully – typically – outstanding.
They are on course for a historical achievement, but this Barça side don’t inspire in the way the great Camp Nou sides through history have.
They are not as fluid as Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ of the early-1990s; they don’t dominate as Pep Guardiola’s side did, rapidly circulating possession into a mesmerising maelstrom that swept all in their path; nor do they possess the dynamism and breakneck speed of Luis Enrique’s 2015 treble winners, powered but the now-partly-disbanded ‘MSN’.
Instead, this Barcelona are functional. Which is fine. Which, moreover, was necessarily, given the state new manager Ernesto Valverde found his charges in at the start of the season. The embarrassing Madrid defeat would have been a wake-up call for the former Athletic Bilbao coach, who identified the need to shore things up at the expense of expansiveness.
Gone was the 4-3-3 of Guardiola and Enrique’s favour – although that shape has been occasionally revisited this term – and in came 4-4-2, allowing for simplified positional remits, two robust, protecting central midfielders, and an attacking philosophy which, more than ever, amounted to “give it to Messi”.
There have been plenty of occasions when this approach has thrilled as much as any of the great Barça sides of yore, but there have been as many times when it has been just enough, eking out results with a ruthlessness and pragmatism that Barcelona have never really worn very well, nor especially wanted to.
There have also been times when it has plainly fallen flat: by rights, Barça should have been beaten in recent away trips to Sevilla and Celta Vigo, on both occasions conceding a higher quality of chances than they mustered themselves – as evidenced by the expected goals (xG) numbers for both games – and both times requiring individual heroics, from Messi and ter Stegen respectively, to secure scarcely deserved draws.
Fourth-placed Valencia were unfortunate to leave the Camp Nou empty-handed recently and, of course, the bitter blow of Champions League elimination at the hands of Roma exposed fatal flaws that require urgent attention.
Leading 4-1 from the first leg, the Blaugrana capitulated at the Stadio Olimpico, losing 3-0 to exit Europe’s premier club competition at the quarter-final stage on away goals. The need for rigidity and stability that Valverde recognised earlier in the season has led to a degree of tactical caution that Barcelona are not suited to and do not execute well.
Indeed, such caution is highlighted by the fact Dembélé wasn’t brought on in the second leg in Rome until there were only five minutes to play, 3-0 down with momentum long lost. The Frenchman was the obvious candidate to offer the kind of counter-attacking threat that would have kept the Serie A side honest, and that Barça had lacked throughout, yet his lack of defensive qualities seem to have caused Valverde to hold off on his introduction.
In May, the Catalans host Real Madrid in what is their trickiest remaining fixture on paper. Zinedine Zidane’s men have been inconsistent domestically and will have Champions League matters as their priority, so Barça will fancy their chances of finishing the La Liga season unbeaten.
It would be an incredible achievement, of that there can be no doubt. But it would also place Barça in somewhat of a false position: posterity will likely remember this Barcelona team more fondly than is merited; they cannot allow their double haul and unbeaten status to trick them into thinking all is well.
Functionality and further reliance on Messi, who will turn 31 during this summer’s World Cup, has brought Barcelona to the brink of history. But there is plenty of room for improvement.