The unpredictability of football never ceases to amaze. Little over a fortnight ago, Barcelona looked an unstoppable force, unbeaten in 39 games and surely destined for at the very least another domestic double with odds on them securing historic back-to-back trebles remarkably short.
However two weeks and a staggering 4 defeats on and their season is in very serious danger of deteriorating into a highly disappointing campaign. They’ve lost 3 league matches in a row for the first time since 2003 and if they fail to win in A Coruña on Wednesday night, could drop to 3rd place in La Liga behind the Madrid clubs, who they held a 9 point advantage on going into el clasico when things started to turn sour for Luis Enrique and his troops.
Clearly Barcelona haven’t turned into a bad side overnight but in football there is no such thing as the perfect team. There are certainly plenty of lessons to be learned from the past couple of weeks and deficiencies that were perhaps overlooked earlier in the season have become more glaringly obvious.
For starters their dependence on the front three to win matches has always been pretty clear but hasn’t really been viewed as a problem given that trio includes arguably 3 of the best 4 players in the world. Messi, Suarez and Neymar have contributed 70 of Barca’s 88 league goals this term which equates to a remarkably high 80% of their goals. It is both an indicator of their brilliance but also the lack of a genuine goal threat from other areas of the team.
To win most games, even against good sides, Barcelona have only really needed 2 of their front 3 to be at or close to their best. However it’s impossible for even players of the quality of Messi, Suarez and Neymar, to retain their peak level for the duration of an entire season.
When one of them isn’t quite getting into their groove, the other two usually step up but over the past 5 games that hasn’t been happening. Neymar has failed to net during the period and Messi’s only goal in his last 6 games for the club was the consolation in the 2-1 defeat to Valencia on Sunday. Luis Suarez’s brace in the 2-1 win over Atleti in their Champions League Quarter Final 1st Leg was the only time one of the trio has really stepped up to the plate since the international break and it seems all 3 have hit a sticky patch at just the wrong time.
Tiredness could be one reason for that. Luis Enrique may have to shoulder some of the blame in that he very rarely rotates the core of his side and it doesn’t take a football mastermind to predict who is going to appear on a Barcelona team-sheet. However in his defence we may also finally be seeing the effect of the club’s transfer ban which prevented them from bringing anyone in last summer. He most likely would have wanted to have a few more bodies in the squad to make it easier to keep his star players fresh without seriously decreasing his side’s attacking threat which is what happens whenever the likes of youngsters Munir or Sandro Ramírez is brought in for one of their world class forwards.
The fact that the front three have been underperforming over the past few games is more unfortunate coincidence than serious cause for concern. The lack of someone further back in the team rising to the task in Barca’s hour of need is the bigger issue here and one that may need addressing this summer.
In years gone by Barcelona have been able to count on big performances in big matches from players all over the side. Andres Iniesta has popped up with countless moments of magic over the years when his team has needed it but he has almost incredibly only created 1 goal all season and has only found the net once himself too. The 31 year old is footballing royalty in Barcelona and all of Spain for that matter but some awkward questions may have to be asked if he doesn’t step up his game over the final few weeks of the season.
Likewise Ivan Rakitic hasn’t had quite as strong a season this term as last when he popped up with numerous key goals in Barca’s treble winning campaign while Arda Turan has struggled at times since making his debut in January.
Defensively Barcelona have been far from convincing all season. There were some horrible defensive performances earlier in the campaign with 4 goals conceded in matches against Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao and Celta Vigo. They’ve tightened up a bit since then but they never look totally safe in matches until they have a 2 goal lead and unlike Atleti, who grind out wins even when their forwards aren’t performing, Barca simply don’t do 1-0 victories.
All these issues have been masked by the brilliance of the front three for majority of this season. Right now we shouldn’t be questioning why Messi, Suarez and Neymar have gone off the boil as inevitably that was going to happen at some point for a short spell. The timing of it couldn’t have been much worse admittedly but the more pertinent questions lie elsewhere.
We should instead be asking why Barcelona are incapable of holding firm and keeping clean sheets in the matches where things aren’t quite ticking at the other end. We should be asking why other players haven’t put their hand up and put in a big performance in at least a couple of those 4 recent defeats.
If either of those things had happened over the past two weeks, Barcelona would most likely still have a solid cushion at the top of La Liga and they might even still be in the Champions League. As it is they are suddenly trying to salvage some silverware from a campaign that seemed destined to end in glory.