I have a longtime Barca-watching friend who likes to sniff and say that this is the worst Barcelona team in a decade. The natural reaction to such a statement is to throw facts and numbers back in his face.
Barcelona are first in La Liga with 72 points from 28 games. Only twice in the past 10 years have they accumulated more points at this stage (in 2012-13 and 2010-11) and in that time frame, they’ve averaged 67 points at this juncture. They are undefeated in La Liga and other than a Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol, have not lost since the Spanish Supercup, seven months ago. Barring divine intervention, they will win the league and they’ll probably wrap it up in April. They’re in the Copa del Rey final and the Champions League quarterfinal, which means they’re six games away from a treble.
And yet… something’s not right. And when I think back over this campaign, I can sort of see where my friend is coming from.
I think back to the Clasico, just before Christmas. That 3-0 win at the Bernabeu was, arguably, the last time they were truly outstanding in a Barca-like way (if you exclude games like the home obliteration of Girona or the second half blitzing of Betis away).
Outside of that, it’s been episodic. Even the recent 1-0 victory over Atletico Madrid felt a little flat. The win had much to do with Diego Simeone getting things wrong — hindsight being 20/20, it wasn’t a game for a conservative, grind-out approach — and the Antoine Griezmann-Diego Costa partnership going AWOL. That and the small matter of Lionel Messi.
“There were not many chances for either team,” said the Atletico boss. “If we take the jersey off Messi and put him in an Atletico one, maybe we would have been the ones winning 1-0. It’s like playing in the barrio as kids. When someone picks the best players, it’s not easy for the other team.”
It came to a head over the two legs against Chelsea; lest we forget, at the time of the first leg the Blues were 19 points behind league-leading Manchester City in the Premier League, had won just four of their previous 12 games in all competitions and had (and still have) a manager whom nobody expects to return next season.
History will record it as a 4-1 aggregate victory and it was undoubtedly deserved. But Chelsea hit the woodwork four times over the two legs. Marcos Alonso’s penalty claim, when he burst through ahead of Gerard Pique in the return leg, was rightly dismissed — though in real time, which is what the referee works with, it was a classic “seen them given” scenario — but it doesn’t change the fact that he was through on goal.
Thibaut Courtois felt he could have done better on all three goals and owned up to it after the game. And both Barcelona’s equalizer at Stamford Bridge and the second goal at the Camp Nou were the result of cheap, unforced errors.
Marca, the Madrid-based daily that occasionally admits aiming barbs at the competition, wrote that this Barca side are showing their “Messi-dependency.” They may have a point and to some degree, it’s understandable. You have the best player in the world on your team, you’d be stupid not to ride him. But it’s also a departure from past campaigns including ones when Messi was, arguably, even better than he is now.
Luis Suarez remains one of the best center-forwards around but he started the season slowly and, by his standards, is having an off-year. Ousmane Dembele’s integration into the side was stunted by his four-month injury layoff (Wendesday was only his sixth start in a Barca shirt). Philippe Coutinho has just arrived and in any case, can’t play in Europe. Andres Iniesta isn’t a 90-minute player anymore — he’s lasted the entire game just three times this year — and at nearly 34 years of age, his flashes of brilliance are, necessarily, intermittent.
To some degree, this is offset by what’s happening further back up the pitch. Marc-Andre ter Stegen goes from strength to strength. After some difficult campaigns, Jordi Alba is back to his very best (Neymar’s departure has cleared his flank and he has thrived). Sergio Busquets, the Catalan Ayer’ Rock, continues to clog the middle and distribute with metronomic efficiency; it’s not a coincidence that when he’s not fully fit (he wasn’t last night and eventually was forced off at the hour mark), opponents have an easier time getting into the final third.
The Gerard Pique-Samuel Umtiti partnership remains strong, though some folks got carried away somewhat on Wednesday when they described them as the “best in the world” on the strength of their many blocked shots. When a defender is forced to throw himself in the path of a shot, it’s because something has broken down elsewhere. That’s not what makes those two great defenders.
Overall, what you’re left with is a team that, compared to its recent incarnations, is perhaps more mature, more speculative, more shrewd, more savvy and, yes, more Messi-dependent.
It’s not a knock. When you dial back to where they were in late August — after the Neymar fiasco, before the Messi contract extension, with folks barracking president Jose Maria Bartomeu and calling for his impeachment and the frantic Deadline Day transfer pursuits — it’s absolutely remarkable where Ernesto Valverde has taken them and you have to stop to give him credit as well.
Valverde “lost” Neymar and then loses Dembele, the guy they bought with half the Neymar money, to injury. And then he has to wait half a season to get Coutinho, the other guy they were going to buy with the Neymar money, except he can’t play him in Europe anyway. The only summer signing to make an impact was Paulinho, a guy whose arrival was treated as some kind of joke.
Yet here they are. And, sure, it helps tremendously when you have Messi, but Messi also needs to be managed and kept happy and you have to put the right pieces around him in the right way. Valverde has done all of that.
To some purists, like my Barca-watching friend, it’s not a patch on past seasons. In many ways he’s right. If Barcelona play like this against a Real Madrid or a Manchester City or a Bayern in full-flight, either Messi carries them or they go out. Simple as that.
But you can’t judge this Barcelona side against the ones in recent history. No recent Barca team faced the pre-season handicaps that they faced. They’ve had to change and adapt and, of course, the process is still ongoing, which is why you get nights when they need to be carried.
At this stage, in terms of reaching (and triumphing in) Kiev, Barcelona either need to go to the next level or hope that Messi has more heroics up his sleeve. The good news is he probably does.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.