Last week Barcelona beat Osasuna 8-0. That annihilation came on the heels of two consecutive disappointing 2-2 draws, first to Real Sociedad in La Liga and then to AC Milan a few days later in the Champions League. In both cases, Barcelona held leads and arguably should have won (especially against Sociedad.) The media talked of a “mini-crisis” at the Camp Nou, creating a story where none really existed. But the talk clearly got to the Barcelona players who needed to show that they were in fact okay. Hence the 8-0 destruction of Osasuna. The Osasuna massacre was predicted over at ESPN by Eduardo Alvarez in his weekly Quiniela column, where he employed the Spanish phrase “pagar los platos rotos” (to pay for broken plays). This expression was subsequently applied to the match in reports by Phil Ball and Sid Lowe, two of the great commentators of Spanish football. I think even the Osasuna manager used it both before and after the match.
In the middle of the week, Barcelona again drew 2-2, this time to then league leader Valencia. Therefore, today’s opponents Atletico Madrid had to pay for broken plates. Unlike last year Atletico had actually started the season well. Even though talisman Sergio Aguero went to Manchester City and the unhappy Diego Forlan went to Inter (where he can be unhappy all over again as club crisis has followed him to the San Siro), Atletico added the stellar Colombian Radamel Falcao (from Porto) who has brilliantly led Los Colchoneros and greatly impressed.
It probably hurt Atletico’s chances that their crosstown rivals over at the Bernabeu (who had their own broken plates that someone needed to pay for) beat Rayo Vallecano 6-2. I imagine that the Barcelona players needed to prove that despite the draws, they were still the better side than Real Madrid. And so, Barcelona beat Atletico 5-0 with a(nother) Lionel Messi hat trick.
Barcelona’s season thus far has been both interesting and troubling. It has been interesting from a tactical point of view because, with both Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique out injured, there are effectively no center backs on this Barcelona side. It was rumored that Pep Guardiola wanted to buy one this year, but the acquisitions of both Alexis Sanchez and (especially) Cesc Fabregas effectively halted that.
The biggest knock against this Barcelona side over the past couple years has been that it is a thin squad. The doomsday scenario is that if a Messi or a Xavi or an Iniesta got injured then the season is in trouble. This is especially true about Messi who is an irreplaceable player. This scenario also applies to the back line, and it was tested last season (Eric Abidal’s illness and Puyol’s injury.) There are other players who could fill in for the full backs, Adriano and Maxwell come to mind, but there is no real backup for either Puyol or Pique–save for Abidal the left back. Andreu Fontàs is probably not ready yet, and so Guardiola has been using one of his two central midfielders, Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano as makeshift center backs. Sometimes he used both. (It’s not a completely alien concept. Last season both filled in for Puyol and in the Barcelona system, when the full backs move forward, the central midfielder moves back to become a third center back.) To accommodate the absent Puyol and Pique, Guardiola switched his system from an ostensible 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3, and that has come under major scrutiny. There have been times when the only true defender on the field was Abidal. Given that even Barcelona’s three forwards can play as midfield players, in the 3-4-3, Barcelona has become one giant box-to-box midfield. The draws against Sociedad and Milan were both results of not being strong enough at the back and not quite used to this system. And also a dearth of true defensive players.
I do not question Guardiola. He is a brilliant tactician and a true visionary, and he also can only work with what he has. Fabregas and Sanchez were supposed to allow for squad rotation and decrease the burden on the team. Yet this season already the following players have been out injured: Inieta, Puyol, Pique, Sanchez, Ibrahim Afellay, and Maxwell. Dani Alves has also missed the odd game this season.
So that is the concern. Obviously though when Barcelona beats Villareal 5-0, Osasuna 8-0, and Atletico 5-0, there is also cause for marvel. The primary reason is the Messi/Fabregas partnership, which has already been stunningly brilliant at times. I had wondered aloud on this blog why Barcelona would pursue Fabregas with such vigor, especially given the glut of talented midfielders. I had also said that I thought this year would be devoted to making the Iniesta-Fabregas partnership ready for when Xavi inevitably retires. In both cases I was wrong. Fabregas has already proven that not only was he worth every penny, but Barcelona got him for a bargain. (Arsenal must be livid right now.) But what makes Fabregas so exciting is not his potential to replace Xavi, but rather the creative partnership that he has with Messi, forged years ago at La Masia but brought to a whole new level now.
Additionally, Thiago Alcântara is proving himself to be an incredible talent. If he is still a lesser light on a marquee that showcases Messi, Fabregas, Iniesta, Xavi, and David Villa, that is going to change very soon. Whatever the defensive frailties, one cannot fault the attack which is the best in the world. (The defense, when everyone is fit, is also at the top or at least very close.)
The season is still young. There are 38 games in a league, and that does not count the Copa del Rey or the real prize, the Champions League (or the Club World Cup.) Because of injuries and transfers, and a limited preseason, Barcelona is not where it should be or can be. This is not to say that it will ultimately win everything or even anything. What it is saying is that a season is a long time, and at this juncture nothing has been decided yet. In a few months we will see what happens when the system is more familiar and/or the absent players recover.
I make only one prediction. Real Betis, the current league leader, will not be in that position come May 2012.