A decade ago, Newcastle were defeated 1-0 by Partizan Belgrade to end their hopes of reaching the Champions League. Manager Sir Bobby Robson described it as his “worst ever week at the club” before adding “but this is not Barcelona”. Robson was talking from experience: his Barça side won one game 6-0 against Rayo Vallecano. The headline the following day was ‘Barcelona win 6-0 – but don’t play any football’.
Expectations have always been high at Camp Nou. Cules argue that’s how it should be. Barça regularly boast some of the best players in world football, it’s right that they should winning trophies on a regular basis. While older fans, the type who make up the majority of match going socios at Camp Nou, can remember long stretches with no league titles, younger fans are happy to remember Pep Guardiola’s team winning all six trophies they competed for in 2009. Every subsequent team is compared to that side, arguably the greatest team football has ever seen. When they don’t measure up, murmurings start.
Take this season. Barcelona are top of the Primera Liga after 15 games. They’ve won 13, drawn one and lost one, their last league game at Ernesto Valverde’s increasingly impressive Athletic Bilbao who remain unbeaten at their new home. Barcelona are looking at the possibility of building a new home themselves, either on land close to the Camp Nou or by remodelling their existing one. If either of the long mooted but back on the table plans happen, the capacity of Europe’s biggest stadium will rise from 98,600 to 105,000. Barça’s directors will announce their preferred option next month.
That’s when Barça still hope to be top of the table, yet current form worries fans. The cheerleading Barcelona based newspaper were not slow to come down hard on Tata Martino’s team after the Bilbao reverse, especially after it followed defeat at Amsterdam and a particularly poor display against Ajax.
‘This is not our Barça’ screamed the front page of Sport.
Doubts about the style of play under new boss Martino have been prevalent for much of the season.
For months, Barça players played down the doubts. They said everything was normal, that there was no concern in the dressing room, that confidence was high. Andres Iniesta said that the two defeats had not made one iota of difference to the mentality of the players, that the team spirit and style remained unchanged. Barça watchers begged to differ.
Then Gerard Pique faced the media before Barca’s first leg cup win at third tier Cartagena. He’s intelligent on and off the field. Friends say that if you tell him something once then he soaks in the information. His view is a respected one and it has changed.
“When we used to have the ball a lot we could rest,” he said. “Now we play in a more direct way, we find it harder to hold onto the ball. We still press but it’s impossible to press for 90 minutes.”
It was an acknowledgement that Barca’s style has changed. Many say it had to do so, because it was becoming too predictable.
Now, they hit more long balls, especially long diagonal cross-field balls. In San Mames, too many were cut out by Athletic defenders. There also appeared to be confusion among Barca players regarding their tactics.
The attacking 4-3-3 system is ingrained into every player at the club from a young age, but it has been tweaked. Players aren’t sure if they have to push a high defensive line or play deep, or play balls short and long. There appears to be a lack of leadership on the pitch. Cynics would suggest that extends to the bench and the boardroom.
It’s baffling why a new top level central defender hasn’t been purchased. Carles Puyol starts, but he’s 35 and not fit. And if they’re to hit long balls forward, wouldn’t it be wise to have a big forward rather than their diminutive strikers?
That’s one reason why Robin van Persie was linked with a move, but such talk is highly speculative. United won’t sell him, he doesn’t want to leave and Barça’s only target is a central defender. The once imperious Puyol needs replacing while Javier Mascherano is a fine footballer and thinker, but he’s not a natural central defender and makes mistakes.
Xavi Hernandez, 34 next month, still has the peerless football brain, if not the movement of yore. There are other issues at Barça. Victor Valdes will leave at the end of the season, while right back Martin Montoya is likely to follow, frustrated that he’s not getting more minutes. Which is what happens when you’re competing with Daniel Alves for a spot in a team. Adriano is ambidextrous and versatile, but is he world class in any one position?
And while Neymar had his chance to step up in Messi’s absence, he tried too hard to be Messi, coming deep for the ball when he was doing fine as he was. He’s been a success since signing, though not an outstanding one.
Barça’s form hardly constitutes crisis, especially as they’ve also been missing the injured Messi, Alves and Jordi Alba, all key players, but nonetheless the misgivings will not go away.
And it’s why Real Madrid rather than Barça who are favourites to win the title. Madrid are the form team, yet Barça will be glad to get into the Christmas break at the top of the league, knowing that Messi is likely to be back when they resume in the first weekend of January with a game against Elche.
Before then, Barça need a point against Celtic on Wednesday to assure first place in Champions League group H, followed by the visit of Villarreal on Saturday and an away game at Getafe. Victories will be expected in all, victories won playing peerless football.