Barcelona under Luis Enrique have experienced nothing but success over the past two seasons, and, up until a fortnight ago it seemed as though their domination over Spanish and European football would continue for a while yet. They sat nine points clear at the top of La Liga, held a first leg lead over Atletico Madrid in the Champions League last eight and were well on their way to retaining both trophies.
However, since then they have lost four of their five games in all competitions, including a 2-0 second leg loss at the hands of Atletico which ended their hopes of becoming the first team to defend the Champions League trophy. Their nine-point lead in La Liga has also been completely eradicated following three consecutive losses to Real Madrid, Real Sociedad and most recently, Valencia.
This is the first time since 2003 that Barca have lost three league games on the trot and panic bells are ringing in full volume at the Camp Nou. They remain atop of La Liga due to their superior head-to-head record and goal difference over Atletico but with five games remaining, their poor form could easily see the title slip away.
SIGN UP NOW
Want to become a GMS writer? Sign up now and submit a 250 word test article: http://gms.to/haveyoursay4
Article continues below
With the quality they have in their ranks, it is a real surprise to see such a collapse from Barcelona and the blame is shouldered equally between manager Luis Enrique and the playing squad. There is not one obvious reason for their poor run but here are three possible explanations to shed some light on why they have been unable to win games of recent.
Their squad is small and games are starting to pile up
Despite the plethora of world class talent in their starting line up, Barcelona are not graced with depth in their squad at many positions. They have two top class 'keepers, a good set of reserve centre backs and some depth in the centre of midfield but other than that they are light on quality backups, especially with regards to their forwards.
Article continues below
The toils of a long season are really starting to be felt - having been involved in more competitions than any other European side, the limits of their squad are being realised.
The physical strain of playing 53 games is taking its toll on all of the players and they simply don't have the necessary reserves to rest their stars. With Champions League games depriving players of midweek rest, injuries and fatigue have severely damaged their season.
When fit, Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez all start even in relatively straight forward league fixtures in which at least one could easily take a rest if they had ample backup. In general, Luis Enrique has not rotated many first team players at all and this policy is starting to catch up with him.
Munir el Haddadi and Sandro Ramirez are the only reserve forwards in the squad and both are under the age of 21 and have just three league goals between them this campaign. The form of all three star forwards has deteriorated over the past month, with both Messi and Neymar enduring long goal droughts and Suarez also regressing in terms of his scoring rate.
Lionel Messi has reportedly been playing with an injury
It is not often that Lionel Messi goes through a patch of bad form but that has undoubtedly been happening over the past month or so. Nobody really understood why this might be until Spanish football expert Guillem Balague explained last week that Messi may, in fact, be playing with fairly serious muscle problems.
Of late, it has been obvious observing Messi that he has been dropping deeper and deeper by the game, not making his typical eye-catching runs into the box and generally operating at a much slower pace around the pitch.
In the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final at Atletico Madrid, Messi failed to register a shot on target for the first time in a game since April 2014 and his goal against Valencia this past weekend was his first in over 500 minutes of football. These are startling statistics for the world's best player and certainly add substance to the implication that he has not been fully fit.
However good his teammates are, it is without a doubt that Messi being short of his best has had a huge impact on Barcelona and his lack of contribution going forward has really hindered them over the past six or so games.
Over-reliance on the front three
This may be a harsh criticism due to the fact that if you have three of the world's best strikers it is inevitable that they will provide the lion's share of the goals, but, there is a case to suggest that Barcelona rely too heavily on the deadly trio of Messi, Suarez and Neymar to win them games.
As previously mentioned, Barcelona lack a recognisable reserve forward and are paying the price for not investing more - either in developing their young strikers by giving them more game time, or delving into the transfer market to arm themselves with a reliable backup. The so-called 'MSN' trio have contributed a mammoth 110 goals already this season which is an astounding statistic but also very worrying, especially when you realise the rest of the squad in its entirety have only added 22 further goals from 53 games.
Overall, Suarez, Messi and Neymar have accounted for a whopping 83 percent of all goals scored by the Catalan outfit this season.
Luis Suarez leads the way with 45 goals to his name, whilst Messi has 38 and Neymar 27. The next highest scorers in the squad are Munir with eight goals and Ivan Rakitic who has seven in all competitions, but after them, only three players have added more than a goal each in the whole season.
The reliance on the front three is acceptable when they are all fully fit and firing on all cylinders but as soon as they run into some poor form it is evident that Barcelona do not have a plan B and really struggle to score goals. The lack of a goal scoring presence on the bench exacerbates this issue further as it is impossible to expect these three players to play every minute across a long season.
Luis Enrique really has his work cut out in terms of developing a secondary option when these players aren't able to produce goals, and he needs to do this soon because the league title is starting to slip from their grasp.
A once promising season on multiple fronts could rapidly develop into one of drastic failure if they are unable to turn this form around quickly.