OPINION: Where is it going right for Barca this season?

January 02, 2018

- Grant Whittington

During the summer, it’s fair to say that Barca fans were bracing themselves for a period of decline. After all, a disappointing and disjointed season had already accounted for manager Luis Enrique, while the prevailing sense of despair was hardly helped by the shock departure of Brazilian forward Neymar.

The new season has been one to savour for the club so far, however, with Barca currently unbeaten domestically and sitting nine points clear at the top of La Liga. The Catalan giants have also progressed serenely to the knockout stages of the Champions League, with a tantalising second round tie against Chelsea scheduled for February in the New Year.

New manager Ernesto Valverde must take much of the credit for Barca’s revival this term, of course, but what exactly has changed at the Nou Camp? Let’s take a look:

  1. Barca’s Back-to-basics Tactical Approach

For all of the success achieved by former manager Luis Enrique, many fans believed that his tactics deviated too far from the classic Barcelona philosophy. Not only did Enrique’s Barca play decidedly more direct football, but they also pressed far less aggressively and only in certain areas of the pitch.

The deployment of Lionel Messi on the right flank also created a slightly disjointed Barca outfit, which struggled to defend that side of the pitch and left the Catalan’s far more vulnerable defensively.

The understated Valverde has corrected these flaws, however, while adopting a back-to-basics tactical approach that strives to get the best out of each individual.

Firstly, he has restored the possession-based game that is synonymous with the club, while adopting the high-intensity, collective pressing tactic that deprives opponents of time and space on the ball. Beyond this, Valverde has also restored the talismanic Messi to his trademark role as a false number nine, with Luis Suarez shifting to the left-hand side and proving far more effective at tracking opposition full-backs.

This has created a far more balanced line-up, and one that is capable of playing to its innate strengths. Remember, five of the first-11 that won the Champions League so decisively back in 2011 remain key players at the club, so it stands to reason that Valverde should develop tactics that compliment the talents of guys like Messi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.

  1. The Success of Paulinho

When Barca completed the £36 million signing of Brazilian midfielder Paulinho from Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande during the summer, it’s fair to say that supporters across the globe were left scratching their heads (particularly Spurs fans).

This is the type of strategic and understated signing that we should have expected from Valverde, however, with the former Athletic Bilbao boss far more interested in his team’s dynamic than individual quality. Make no mistake; Paulinho’s experience and boundless energy has added a much-needed dimension to Barcelona’s central midfield, while his exceptional eye for goal has also seen him score six times in just 22 appearances so far this season.

His performance during the recent El Clasico epitomised his importance to the team, as he worked tirelessly to press his opponents in midfield while causing all sorts of issues with his clever and sustained movement in the attacking third. In fact, were it not for an excellent save by Kaylor Navas in the first half, Paulinho would have capped his performance with a deserved goal.

A box-to-box midfielder that offers the perfect foil for Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic, Paulinho is emerging as one of the success stories of the season and an integral part of Barca’s unexpected revival.

  1. The Renaissance of Rakitic

Rakitic has endured some tremendous ups and downs during his Barca career to date, with the talented Croatian midfielder struggling for any kind of form last season.

At least some of this can be attributed to Luis Enrique’s tactical approach, however, which often required Rakitic to shift over to the right flank and fill the space left by the marauding Messi. In fact, it’s fair to say that Barca’s midfielders had to do more than their fair share of work during Enrique’s tenure, with Messi, Suarez and the departed Neymar allowed to play incredibly high and with considerable freedom.

Valverde’s tactical switch has changed this, however, enabling Rakitic to operate more centrally and play his natural game. With Busquets sitting in front of the back four and Paulinho providing an energetic, box-to-box presence, Rakitic and Iniesta have a license to play with creative freedom and supplement the forwards in attack.

This means that every component in the new-look Barca team is able to operate to their full potential, with Rakitic one of several key players that has rediscovered their form under Valverde’s stewardship.

  1. A Superior Defence

At its best, Barca’s famed, possession-based and high pressing game represents an exceptional attacking tool. It can also be deployed defensively, however, as the retention of the ball in the opposition’s half makes it exceptionally difficult for teams to create chances or build sustained spells of pressure.

This has been pivotal to Barca’s success so far this season, with the Catalan club having conceded just seven goals in 17 league games (while scoring an impressive 45).

Not only this, but Valverde has also created a more rigid defensive structure that includes specialists in each position. The 24-year old right back Nélson Semedo has added some pace and balance to Barca’s defence, for example, while the injury-stricken Thomas Vermaelen has also returned to offer a robust physical presence.

With evergreen performers like Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba completing the back-line, this Barcelona side is far more resilient than previous iterations and this is laying the foundation for creative forces such as Messi to thrive.

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