Dublin, December 14th.
A few weeks ago, had you spotted Barcelona’s trip to Granada on Saturday night in the La Liga schedule, you might well have predicted the winning team would be topping the table at the end of the evening.
Another self-inflicted disruption was the Neymar saga.
The club’s unpleasantly public courtship of their opinion-dividing former star, which continued right until Spanish transfer deadline day in early September, was a serious distraction and created a strong impression that the squad is composed of a handful of untouchables alongside a group of players (Dembele, Umtiti, Nelson Semedo, Ivan Rakitic) who would have been happily jettisoned if a part-exchange deal for Neymar had been struck with Paris St-Germain.
Messi, in particular, is facing allegations – similar to those he has regularly faced at international level – that he wields too strong an influence over team selection and the general hierarchy, especially given the ongoing starting XI status of his best friend Suarez, despite the Uruguayan’s inconsistent form over the past couple of years.
Any excessive power granted to Messi is probably unlooked for, coming rather as a natural side-effect of the unrealistic expectations heaped on his shoulders, but the suggestions add fuel to the idea that the Spanish champions are far from a happy and united camp right now.
Tactical problems leaving midfield vacuum
Despite these hindrances, it’s undeniable that a squad with Barca’s depth and quality should still be more than capable of overcoming opponents like Eibar, Osasuna and Granada.
For many observers, the fact they have failed to do so can be blamed fairly and squarely on the tactical approach employed by Valverde, whose position is again coming under serious scrutiny after he somehow survived the chop in the wake of his team’s horrendous collapse at Liverpool in last season’s Champions League semi-final.
Valverde has always been accused of being an overly cautious coach, setting up his teams first and foremost to avoid defeat in a manner far removed from the ball-playing principles espoused since the days of Johan Cruyff. For attacking inspiration, according to his critics, he places everything at the feet of Messi.
An over-reliance on Messi – dubbed ‘Messidependencia’ by the Spanish press – has been a recurring issue for five or six years, and it is certainly the case that Barca have looked bereft of ideas during his absence in the opening weeks of the season: Griezmann, for example, has not managed a single shot on target during his four away games for the club.
More worrying yet, perhaps, is the fact Barca now have the joint-worst defensive record in La Liga, conceding nine goals in their opening five games. Even the home games they won (both 5-2, against Real Betis and Valencia) were distinctly uncomfortable from a defensive viewpoint, and the oceans of space regularly available to Dortmund and Granada counter-attackers during the most recent games was an alarming indication of a team that currently knows neither how to attack or to defend.
Valverde appears particularly concerned by his midfield trio, running through four different combinations during his team’s six games and trying several more from the bench when they haven’t worked out, meaning seven players have already received significant playing time in the centre of the field – without any looking particularly convincing.
Those failings have created something of a vacuum, leading to a lack of adequate support to a shaky back four and an inability to provide sufficient ammunition to a toothless attack.
With the rest of the team more or less picking itself, configuring an effective midfield is the biggest task facing Valverde and it is one he has so far not achieved.
Valverde on the brink?
Barca’s poor start to the season, on the back of an even worse end to last season, is inevitably piling pressure on beleaguered boss Valverde, who accepted after Saturday’s loss at Granada that he must take responsibility for the team’s form.
Two important factors count in Valverde’s favour: firstly, he is still believed to enjoy the support of Messi; secondly, the same applies to the vast majority of match-going fans.
Although social media has turned fiercely against the Barca boss (any mention of his name on Twitter is invariably followed by the word ‘out’), there have been hardly any stirrings of discontent against him at the Nou Camp – probably as a consequence of the excellent home form on his watch, meaning fans who attend games have only really ever witnessed his team winning.
That, though, could quickly change. Patience is running out and it will be fascinating to see the reaction Valverde receives on Tuesday night, when Barca are back in action at home to in-form Villarreal, who have already taken points off Real Madrid this season.
If the worst happens, there are plenty of potential replacements – the long list of currently available bosses includes Pablo Machin, Quique Setien, Abelardo, Massimiliano Allegri, Laurent Blanc and (surely not?) Jose Mourinho. (Marcelino, recently fired by Valencia, is not an option because coaches in Spain are not allowed to manage more than one team in a season.)
Of those already in employment, Netherlands boss Ronald Koeman would inevitably be heavily linked given his past as a playing great with the club, as would former midfield star Xavi Hernandez, despite only just starting his managerial career with an appointment at Qatari side Al Sadd. It’s odds-on that Xavi will manage Barca at some point – the only question is whether now would be too soon.
Before long, we may find out.