With the start of the new La Liga season well underway, and the first round of international games for the season done and dusted, fans will be itching to get back to weekend's of mind boggling technical football that embodies the Spanish league.
La Liga holders Atletico Madrid, and Champions League holders Real Madrid have had their respective problems with early stumbles in the league, after the summer sales of their scorching hot top goal scorer Diego Costa to Chelsea, for the former, and the creative workaholics Angel Di Maria, and Xabi Alonso, to Manchester United and Bayern Munich respectively, for the latter.
In Madrid, questions are being raised about Atletico’s ability to maintain the consistency and drive that saw them upset heavy hitters Barcelona and Real Madrid last season to claim the league title.
In another part of town, there are even more question marks over Real Madrid’s decision to sell their most creative player from last season in Di Maria, and the tempo setter Xabi Alonso, in favor of Kroos who has so far seemed lost trying to balance his offensive and defensive duties, and James Rodriquez who undoubtedly needs time to gel with the squad, but who nonetheless has seemed but a shade of the player that won the World Cup Golden Boot just a few months ago.
The main clubs at the heart of Spain may not have been off to an ideal start, but it is a different story altogether North-east of Spain, where Barcelona are off to an excellent start and have nothing but a profusion of positive highlights from their pre-season and first two games in La Liga.
After a very disappointing campaign last season in which they bowed out in the semis of the Champions League, and consistently blew up chances to gain a stranglehold of the league, Barcelona parted ways with now Argentina coach Tata Martino and employed former Barcelona B coach Luis Enrique, whose arrival saw the exit of several key figures (Cesc Fabregas, Alexis Sanchez), as well as the influx of a multitude of players in the likes of Ter Stegen, Ivan Rakitic, Claudio Bravo, Jeremy Mathieu, Thomas Vermaelen, and most notable of all, Luis Suarez.
Surely having coached Barcelona B, Luis Enrique knows and understands the foundations of the football style that Barcelona and would be placed in a more advantageous position to eclipse sky high club standards that Tata Martino couldn’t. The early signs have suggested nothing to contradict this theory, and the feeling is that Barcelona have finally captured the right man, to mirror, if not better the accomplishments of Pep Guardiola at the club.
His tenure might be yet too short to provide any sort of real insight into how he wants his Barcelona team to play, but below are a few improvements that have stood out so far in his team’s ensemble.
La Masia Revival
Incidentally, La Masia rose to unprecedented heights under the tutelage of Luis Enrique, who was the Barcelona B coach, under Pep Guardiola. Luis Enrique masterminded the success of the Barcelona youth system and in coordination with Pep Guardiola, saw the rise of a multitude of La Masia products to the first team. Under Guardiola, and supported by Luis Enrique, the likes of Sergio Busquests, Pedro Rodriguez, Jeffren Suarez, Bojan Krkic, Nolito, Sergi Roberto and Thiago Alcantara all got minutes for the first team.
The arrival of Tata Martino curtailed the progress of most La Masia hopefuls, with only Marc Bartra getting a considerable amount of playtime, but mostly due to the accumulation of injuries in the defensive department. After his stint with Celta Vigo, Luis Enrique is back with the intentions to architect the revival of La Masia.
Over the course of only the preseason and two La Liga games so far, the world is already aware of the abilities of many B team players who have featured and or have become permanent features for the first team, such as Jordi Masip, Alen Halilovic, Adama Traore, Edgar Ié, Munir el Haddadi, Sergi Samper, Sandro Ramirez, and Rafihna Alcantara.
Many of these players have been included in Barcelona’s official Champions League squad for the season, which has reassured them of the coaches’ faith in them as Barcelona tried to starve off interest from many top European clubs for these talents.
Even during Guardiola’s term in office, questions have always lingered over Barcelona’s defence. However, many of Barcelona’s defensive deficiencies then were hidden by Barcelona’s aggressive pressing game, and then captain Carles Puyol, who was simply a monster at the back. Under Tata Martino, not only did Barcelona lose its pressing game, but Puyol could no longer be relied upon to bail out the team’s defense.
Pique grew negligent, due to the lack of competition for his spot. It speaks volumes of Barcelona’s defense that during Martino’s tenure, the best defender was arguably Javier Mascherano, followed closely by the inexperienced Marc Bartra. Barcelona simply gave away too many silly goals last season, especially off set pieces, and it could have been worse had Victor Valdez not had arguably the most amazing season of his career to date.
Under Enrique, there are very positive early signs on the defensive front. The summer saw the arrival of two excellent keepers in Ter Stegen and Claudio Bravo, and defenders Mathieu, and Vermaelen who will all provide healthy competition for the benefit of the team.
In its first two League games, Barcelona has kept two clean sheets, and conceded a total of 0 shots on target which is mighty impressive. Mathieu has looked very assured in the back, and for his age, he offers Barcelona a lot of pace, aggressiveness, and height.
Pique, Mascherano (except for the red card against Elche), and Bartra have all looked solid when called upon, and the return to fitness of Vermaelen is sure to motivate them to step it up even more.
It would not be an exaggeration to claim that apart from the individual brilliance of Messi, which never ceases to amaze, no team that plays against Barcelona is surprised by what Barcelona throw at them. The Barcelona tiki-taka style is the signature style of play for all Barcelona teams, from La Masia, to the first team. It is a style of play that is edged into every single player that rises through the rank, and it is almost a pre-requisite for success at the club, with players like Alexis Sanchez, and Ibrahimovic, prime example of that. Tiki taka at its prime, was played under Guardiola, and involved fast paced close quarter passing interchanges in neat triangles, aggressive recovery of the ball led by the forwards, and above all ball possession.
With Tata Martino at the helm, Barcelona started losing their identity. The passing build ups were sluggish, ineffective long balls were played left and right, there was no aggressive cohesive attempt to recover the ball, and worst of all for the first time in 316 matches, Barcelona lost the possession battle to Rayo Vallecano. Messi represented almost all the creative outlet of the team, and marking him out of a game almost meant shutting Barcelona out, and even he, played like he had lost interest. In the new look Barcelona, the team seem to have gained some of the Guardiola era flair back, and are looking like a team with more than a few plans to dismantle teams.
There’s of course always Messi, who eternally remains a threat, and with the arrival of Rakitic, long range shooting has been added to the Barcelona menu. Add to all of that, Barcelona now have enough height at the back to not only be a threat on set pieces, but to also deal with set pieces assuredly.
Rumors last season were that he was saving himself for the World Cup, and this could be deemed accurate because the Messi who showed up at the World Cup had some degree of hunger that he hadn’t shown in Barcelona colours for a bit.
I am not referring here to his predisposition to walk on the field nowadays, which I read somewhere has to do with his muscle type (and besides statistics show is just as dangerous walking or not), but his general disinterest in getting involved in anything defensive.
Fast forward past the World Cup and into the new season, and Lionel Messi looks like ….well Lionel Messi. Against Elche, he was everywhere, and involved in everything, and took his two goals in standard Lionel Messi fashion (as Ray Hudson would say…magisterially).
Against Villareal, Lionel Messi was arguably even more impressive, not only for his resilience to keep trying to create a winner for a teammate or himself, but for also putting in a hell of a defensive shift, amassing three successful tackles, the most in the game tied with Dani Alves. It might be too early to jump the gun, but the feeling is that Lionel Messi is back, and to say that about someone who scored 41 goals for Barcelona in his ‘slum season’ last season, 28 in the league, is very terrifying to say the least.
Keep in mind only two games have been played and all these signs could very well be a smoke screen, but for now, they are there, and they are encouraging, and to think that Neymar’s form for Barcelona is something that can only improve, after his mixed first season with Barcelona, and to also think that the monster that is Suarez hasn’t even been added to the equation yet. Well, it’s best to just put aside all those thoughts and watch as the season unravels, and hope that it is a magical one.