La Liga preview: Barcelona go into new season low on expectation, but that might be a blessing in disguise
Tactically speaking, 4-3-3 is very much ingrained in the Barcelona's DNA but it will be interesting to see how new manager Ernesto Valverde would go about his business
For the moment, imagine you have 222 million euros in your pocket but you’ve not been able to convince any new players that you covet to sign on the dotted line and join your new project. This, more than anything else, represents the many challenges facing Barcelona going into the new season. The (former) front three of Barcelona comprising of Liones Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez was bound to guarantee goals, except, Barcelona are going to ask themselves repeatedly as to how they managed to let go of the league title that was in their stranglehold for the four seasons even after scoring a mammoth 116 goals in their 38 games.
All things considered, that they managed to win the only Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup last season represents a failure for a club of Barcelona’s ambitions and stature. Worse, their eternal rivals in white became the first ever team in the Champions League era to defend their UEFA Champions League crown.
Part of the reason why the Barcelona squad seems to have reached the end of their tether is due to the age profile. Old midfield maestro Andres Iniesta, battler Javier Mascherano, defenders Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen are all on the wrong side of 30. The dreaded third decade has also made its appearance in the case of Messi and Suarez as well. In other words, the squad is in need of a significant overhaul.
Yet, for a large part of last season, the very same squad managed to string some impressive results under former manager Luis Enrique. The free-flowing side managed to get results on the road at Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Valencia, Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao and others.
But on the other hand, when they were lucky to nick a point from Real Sociedad, it quickly became the defining image of the campaign. They were unable to profit from Real Madrid’s largesse. And, worryingly, the defence managed only 12 clean sheets in 38 games in the league.
The club may have managed to overturn a 0-4 first leg result against PSG in the UEFA Champions League but they hit an obstacle in the form of the rock-solid Italian champions Juventus, who silenced their arsenal over the two-legged tie.
Up front, it was the little hitman Lionel Messi who led the line once again with 54 goals in all competitions. Suarez chipped in with 37 goals himself, but apart from the usual three suspects, the rest of the squad struggled to cope with the demands of the club. Samuel Umtiti was probably the only good signing, and the rest such as Andre Gomes, Lucas Digne, Denis Suarez and Paco Alcacer did not either add to the quality or provide sufficient cutting edge from the bench when called upon.
At the start of new season, with a new manager in the shape of Ernesto Valverde at the helm, squad issues persist and the new man in charge has it all to do at the Camp Nou.
The club seems to have gone off the boil in the transfer market. Last year, the outlay was a significant (over 100 million euros) one, but had little to show in terms of on-field success. To add insult to injury, Real Madrid beat them to key signings such as Dani Ceballos and Theo Hernandez. Not many years ago, the shoe was on the other boot when Neymar, Suarez, Jordi Alba and others had to make their choices. Barcelona also desperately need a dominant presence at the centre of midfield to conduct proceedings. The club has signed 29 year old ex-Tottenham midfielder Paulinho, and it seems every bit a rushed purchase.
It may seem unbelievable now, but a few years earlier the club had a surfeit of central midfielders – Fabregas and Thiago Alcantara – who had to leave the club to get more playing time. One suspects that Barcelona would have thought differently in hindsight. To their credit, the club did make some noise in Marco Verratti’s direction recently but Neymar’s transfer in the opposite direction was a significant blow to the Blaugrana.
The psychological implications of the Neymar transfer are going to be significant as well. Given that both the Spanish giants were locked in a metaphorical grapple for his services, Barcelona seemed to have won the upper hand by securing his signing in 2013. In comparision, Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale acquisition seemed like a consolation prize when Florentino Perez unveiled him at the Bernabeu. Four seasons later, the heir apparent to Messi’s throne has moved on to a new league and seek his own destiny.
Barcelona may say whatever they may in public, but Gerard Deulofeu and Paco Alcacer are not cut from the same cloth. This late into the transfer window, the availability of quality options adds to the problem. Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele have been fiercely guarded by their clubs so far and the club may have to think of less than stellar alternatives, or, not signing anyone at all. A long-term quality centre back and a top right back would be nice too.
Tactically speaking, 4-3-3 is very much ingrained in the Barcelona's DNA but it will be interesting to see how Valverde would go about his business. Given how they have been overrun in midfield last season, a spare man in the middle of the park may not hurt and provide the much needed stability.
Realistically, a challenge for the league title is a good expectation to have with the present squad. Rather than setting up the team to destroy opponents in La Liga, the club would do well to efficiently pick three points and conserve energies for greater challenges in the deep end of the season. The first team is still decent but they will struggle in the latter half of the season unless the squad members step up to share the load.
A good Cup run should could also be mandated with a chance to check out squad quality. Making an appearance at the continental high table of the UEFA Champions League with recent heavyweights such as Juventus, Altetico and Bayern Munich would also be on the agenda. After winning the UEFA Champions League in 2014-15, a string of semifinal appearances would return the squad to its rightful place among the continental elite. A season of low expectations might do Barcelona a world of good. And who knows, the added unfamiliar motivation of playing as an underdog might even invigorate Messi into having his best season.
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