Barcelona’s 1-1 El Clasico draw against Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid was perceived as a loss rather than one point gained. Though it may only be December – with more than half the season to play – Real’s six-point lead over their rivals is an assuring gap.
The Spanish champions’ recent rut includes four draws in five games, in which Enrique’s men have struggled to impose their authority on opponents and are simply devoid of attacking flair in the final third. In majority of these matches, the Catalan side’s attack was completely tame, and you could argue that in most scenarios, barring Lionel Messi’s brilliance, Barca were rather fortunate to avoid defeat.
The treble winning season witnessed Barca go on a tremendous run of form at the turn of the year that possibly coincided with Messi moving to the right so Luis Suarez could roam laterally into the channels to lead the line. Last year they broke away from the pack in the first half of the season, but suffered a losing streak in the spring – that included a Clasico defeat to Real and a Champions League exit by Atletico – and were ultimately rescued by Suarez’s glut of goals.
Perhaps the tactical periodization so heavily mentioned when many defended Barca’s poor form under Enrique is responsible for their slow start to the season, but stylistically, the issue seems more severe. Where you could once argue Barca possessed the best XI in world football, the fear of potential injuries encouraged the club to heavily bolster their depth over the summer.
The arrival of Denis Suarez, Lucas Digne, Andre Gomes, Samuel Umtiti, and Paco Alcacer provided depth in areas that Barca felt they risked vulnerability if injuries occurred. But where you can argue that the reigning Spanish champions have a better squad, Enrique’s men haven’t necessarily progressed.
Success is often the downfall for most football clubs because if you tinker with a winning side you risk tampering with the overall balance. Yet, when clubs opt to persist with the current squad or improve depth, they often experience regression as opponents identify ploys to negate their threat and equally evolve as well.
The issue many had highlighted during the early stages of Enrique’s tenure, but in terms of the club’s philosophy following the Guardiola era, the current Barcelona side still featuring Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets is drifting in a different direction. Enrique’s signings have been predominantly direct players opposed to legitimate ball treasurers, which was an integral trait in midfield during the Guardiola era.
In truth, it starts with their work-rate out of possession: the high intense pressing, and swarming counter-press in central areas is barely displayed. Dropping into two banks of four, Messi and Suarez have remained central – though they perform their fair share of closing opponents down from the front – but Barca retreat into their base shape, conceding ample space in central areas.
Elsewhere, as witnessed in the most recent draws at the Anoeta and Clasico, when Barca encounter heavy pressing, they no longer possess the personnel capable of retaining possession until the opposition tired. Simply marking Busquets out of the match deprives Barca of control in midfield, thus leaving the front trio isolated upfront and starved of service, whereas the option of Gomes, Arda Turan, Rafinha and to an extent Denis Suarez have been overrun and out-worked in central areas.
This was also witnessed in a comeback victory over Sevilla a few weeks prior, but Messi’s second half brilliance was pivotal to the eventual outcome. Messi was forced to drop deeper to spread possession, play penetrative passes in advanced positions, and ignite breaks with his dribbling, which resulted in a goal and game-winning assist from the Argentine.
Essentially it takes away from Pep Guardiola’s initial plan of keeping Messi within close proximity of the opposition’s goal, but the Argentine’s passing range prevents Barca from simply aiming to quickly play passes into the attacking trio’s feet. Talks of “Messidependcia” have decreased in recent years, but if Busquets’ influence is negated, Enrique’s Barca now seem heavily reliant on the 29-year-old.
Messi has scored 62 per-cent of Barcelona’s goals since defeating Manchester City at the Camp Nou in mid-October, and in many of those games he’s been the defining factor between wins and losses. Though Messi wasn’t at his best against Real, he was still involved in the club’s best moves and frankly should have won the game.
To be frank, that was the negative aspect of the Clasico result from a Barca perspective. Although they squandered two legitimate opportunities to secure maximum points, it took Iniesta’s return to slightly improve the entire dynamic of Barca’s play. The Spaniard is one of the few core players remaining from prior success, and though his game is heavily based on his swift dribbling, he still represents a calm presence in possession.
But Iniesta’s lack of consistency in terms of overall displays at the club level suggests that even his presence in the XI isn’t the definitive answer. Rakitic and Suarez’s poor form, the slight tweaks to Neymar’s role – that saw the Brazilian hug the touchline before cutting inwards – combined with the unrealistic demands on the new young summer signings to immediately adapt to the Barca style coincides with the current identity issue at Camp Nou.
Once renowned for their wonderful team play and built around a ball-retention philosophy, Enrique’s Barca transitioned into an individualistic side suffering in a broken system. Coincidentally, it’s rivals Real, that pride themselves in buying the best individuals under Florentino Perez, that now represents a pragmatic cohesive side under Zidane.
Real pressed the Barca midfield intelligently at the Camp Nou, and under the guidance of the magnificent Luka Modric they comfortably disrupted the hosts play and enjoyed positive moments on the counter. Even with several first-team players unavailable due to injury this season, and Cristiano Ronaldo possibly suffering from regression, Real have found ways to win games, whilst remaining compact and defensively resolute at the back.
Ironically, now, Real’s midfielders can control games though ball retention and pass their way to victories, along with still retaining the devastating frontline that can exploit the smallest errors on the counter-attack. In what’s clearly a hybrid of proactive and reactive football, the most important element to Zidane’s success involves keeping fringe players happy, and being able to count upon his entire roster to abide by the Frenchman’s pragmatism through tactical discipline.
Real Madrid haven’t been stellar this season, but unlike Barca, when playing poorly, they’ve found ways to win games. When key players were missing, and the youngsters filled their roles admirably, meanwhile at the Camp Nou it’s difficult to harp the same tune. Enrique’s tenure as Barca manager has been equally peculiar: despite claiming the treble in the first season and a league-cup double last year, the reigning champions have failed to perform well over the duration of a full season.
Losing integral players that understood what was once Barca’s default system – like Dani Alves, Xavi and Pedro – has essentially provided a stylistic dilemma, but equally placed additional workload on Messi, in particular. Where Enrique can’t be faulted for turning to youth, Messi’s brilliance won’t overshadow the issues at Camp Nou.
The increasing concern on individualism amongst the front three and quick counters leaves Barca without a clear systematic approach. Perhaps Iniesta’s return and the eventual winter break can allow several Barca players to rediscover their optimum form to alleviate the pressure, but with Real representing possibly the most settled side in Europe – given the personnel – Enrique’s margin for error is slim.
Barca may have improved their depth this summer, but at the moment they simply aren’t performing as a cohesive unit under Enrique, and the reliance on Messi is reaching insurmountable levels.