In January, Barcelona was in crisis. The vaunted front three hadn’t gelled, Lionel Messi was out of sorts and furious at being left out for the first game after the winter break (even though he had been in each of the two previous seasons as well) and Luis Enrique appeared to be a dead man walking. And that’s without even mentioning the off-field problems–the transfer ban, the boardroom wrangling, the allegations surrounding the Neymar transfer and the general sense that the club had tarnished its good name with some of its commercial deals.
Four months on, Barca is three games from the treble.
It sounds fatuous, but crisis has been averted because Barca has started winning. Since defeat to Real Sociedad in that first game after the winter break, Barca has lost only once, against Malaga. The front three has dovetailed, producing a thrilling blend of individuality and teamwork. Quite how it happened or who is responsible remains open to debate, but with Messi shifting to play more from the right and Luis Suárez taking over in the center, with his directness creating space for Messi and Neymar, the front three has become as devastating as their names suggested they could be.
Messi, after admitting he felt weary last year, is back to his very best, while Andres Iniesta is sharp again after what was, by his standard, a poor start to the season. Are the players playing well because of the change of shape, or has the change of shape helped because two key players have found form and Suárez, having served his ban, has settled? It’s probably a combination of the two, the one feeding off the other.
Many believe the change of shape was Messi’s doing rather than Luis Enrique’s, which, if true, is intriguing. He has always preferred a central role–youth team coaches would play him on the wing and watch in frustration as he drifted naturally to a No. 10 position–something that in part led to the breakdown in the relationship between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the club.
Perhaps, at 27, he is taking on greater responsibility; it’s not that he was ever wild, exactly–Messi’s idea of a good night appears to be pizza and a PlayStation–but now he can see beyond his own concerns to those of the team. And if that is the case, perhaps Enrique deserves some praise for stepping back and allowing his players responsibility.
Where Luis Enrique clearly deserves credit is in his handling of the diminution of Xavi’s role in the team. It helps, of course, that Xavi is an easy-going figure–rather more easy-going, it might be noted, than Luis Enrique was when he reached a similar stage of his playing career and Frank Rijkaard had to manage his withdrawal–but still, it’s never easy to persuade an aging player that his time might be coming to an end, particularly one who’s been as central to his side’s style of play as Xavi has at Barcelona.
It’s indicative of how smoothly the transition has gone that it now seems entirely natural that Ivan Rakitic should be playing in central midfield while Xavi is a dressing-room leader whose contribution to the biggest games tends to be limited to a few minutes off the bench.
Rakitic, Neymar and Suárez represent the only three outfield changes of personnel from the heavy defeat to Bayern in the Champions League semifinal two years ago, but there has been a significant change in Barcelona’s style. Rakitic is a far more direct player than Xavi; he’s less idiosyncratic, isn’t a hub through which every move must pass. His ball to Messi for his second goal in the first leg was typical: a quick, vertical pass that caught the Bayern defense slightly off guard.
There is more of a verity to Barca now, less of an insistence on grinding opponents down through relentless passing.
Neymar and, in particular, Suárez are also part of that, but what the front three have really awakened is the South American love of the dribble. In the first leg, Barca attempted 44 dribbles and completed 26; to put that in context, in the first leg of the Juventus vs. Real Madrid semifinal there were only 15 completed dribbles in total.
Barcelona has evolved. It may not be the manifestation of a philosophy any more, Luis Enrique’s avatar may in a sense be a less pure form of Barcelona, but at the moment the willingness to play direct passes and the capacity to dribble have produced a highly effective variety.