When Jose Mourinho declared that this was the “worst Barcelona in many, many years,” the comment wasn’t taken too kindly as they were on top of the La Liga, in the Champions League round of 16 and had booked a date with Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey final.
After a 2-0 victory at the Etihad against Manchester City, Cesc Fabregas asked Mourinho to “mind his own business.”
“When you have players like Leo, Xavi and Andres [Iniesta], you can beat them but not if you can't take the ball away from them,” said the Spaniard.
While many experts agreed with Fabregas and waxed lyrical on Tata Martino’s tactical nous, it was just a matter of time before the cracks began to appear.
Their last three defeats to Atletico Madrid, Granada and Real Madrid have precisely shown that they can be beaten despite the opponents seeing little of the ball. And mind you, this has resulted in them being eliminated from two competitions and their chances to win the league have slipped considerably as they are now the third favourites.
This isn’t the same Barcelona of the past. Their off the ball running and the manner in which they press opponents has changed considerably. Xavi has being deployed deeper than before and that has certainly affected their style.
Cesc Fabregas doesn’t seem to have settled yet and no one knows what his best position is at Barcelona. When tasked with providing balls behind the defense from the midfield, he hasn’t been able to do so on a consistent basis. On many occasions, he has been one of the first players to be hauled off when things aren’t going Barcelona’s way.
Andres Iniesta provides the glimmer of hope with his skill and the onus of providing through-balls rests on his shoulders.
While Neymar has scored decisive goals for the Blaugrana against Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid, Martino has gone on record to state that he is mentally affected by the ongoing saga surrounding his transfer fee.
The Barcelona manager took it upon himself to ensure that Barcelona aren’t solely dependent on Messi. However that doesn’t seem to be the case as Messi has failed to score in their last three important matches.
They haven’t been shy of hoofing the ball upfront or taking the direct route when needed, something which Barcelona of the past wouldn’t dare do. Messi sent in a long ball into the box from the left in the last minute of the injury time hoping that one of his team-mates gets on the end of it.
It must also be noted that the constant forward runs by the full-backs, the midfielders running in directly behind the defense isn’t often seen these days.
In their quest for plan ‘B’, they aren’t executing their plan ‘A’ well – which made them the best team in the world under Pep Guardiola. They have become too predictable and aren’t able to open up defenses as they would in the past.
Moreover Martino has often used players in positions they aren’t comfortable in. Messi had texted Guardiola to state his intention to play down the middle but the Paraguayan deployed him on the right against Atletico in the second leg, where he ran just a kilometer more than their goalkeeper. Neymar, whose best position is on the left was played on the right last night. Why Pedro was benched must be questioned as after his introduction, there was some good pressing upfront which added more balance to their attack.
“What has changed at Barca is that fear teams had,” Sergio Ramos observed back in March.
Rightly so as Atletico Madrid won the second leg at the Calderon despite them missing their star striker Diego Costa. The same goes for their city rivals who were without the services of Cristiano Ronaldo at the Mestalla.
When Sir Alex Ferguson lost the Champions League final to Barcelona in 2011, he mentioned that the Catalans are enjoying a great spell but added that it will be difficult to find players of the caliber of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi.
“Great teams do go in cycles and the cycle they're in at the moment is the best in Europe, no question about that. They deserve it because they play the right way and enjoy their football.'
“It's always difficult to find players like Xavi, Iniesta and Messi all the time,” said the former Manchester United manager.
He couldn’t be more right. With Xavi’s legs growing old with each passing day and Iniesta just turning 30, Barcelona do not have enough depth to cover for the two players. Sergi Roberto has been relegated to a bit-part role for the last three seasons while Fabregas, as mentioned earlier as flattered to deceive. It makes one ponder as to why the Barcelona hierarchy let go of Thiago Alcantara last summer.
The less said about their defensive vulnerabilities the better. Victor Valdes and Carles Puyol are set to leave in the summer and with the transfer ban, their problems will not end any time soon. The idea of playing Alex Song, a player who shone in his final season with Arsenal more for his link-up play with Robin Van Persie than defensive shielding, was signed to provide cover at the back is indeed baffling to say the least.
The last time Barcelona lost three games in a row was in 2003 under Louis Van Gaal when they were defeated by Valencia, Celta Vigo and Atletico Madrid. Understandably the Dutchman was shown the door at the end of the season for failing to land any silverware.
Whether Tata Martino would suffer the same fate remains to be seen as there have been talks about his replacements doing the round for the last couple of months. However, what cannot be denied is that this team is in transition and Mourinho was right in his observation.