Each year FC Barcelona sets a new standard for pleasing and yet effective and result-driven football. The club has been transformed since Johan Cruyff introduced the world to an updated version of total football. Commonly known as tiki-taka, the Barcelona style made so famous by Pep Guardiola in particular continues to be practised by the current manager Luis Enrique.
But, now into his second year as head coach, the former Real Madrid and FC Barcelona forward has finally made an identity for himself, as captain of the ship. Though still rooting the team in its original philosophy, Enrique has got it moving much quicker in transition, while adding solidity to defence.
The season gone by
FC Barcelona did not have a great season in 2015-16. In the La Liga they were sluggish and had patches of inconsistent form. FCB lost their first two games, away defeats at Villareal, and Sevilla. They recovered quickly and by the half way point in the season, come January, were just a point below Atleti, who were on top.
In the new year, FCB picked up the pace and cut the slack. Messi-Suarez-Neymar finally began to fire on all cylinders, with Luis Suarez leading the triumvirate, ending the season with 40 goals in the league, and 59 in the season. Between January and April, FCB played flawless football. They remained undefeated for 23 games from December 30, 2015, onwards, and scored more than four goals on nine occasions.
Their slow but improving start also included scoring four past a clueless Real Madrid team at the Bernabeu without conceding. Madrid were already lagging in the table, and this was a strong display of dominance within the Spanish league.
However, after qualifying for the last eight of the Champions League and setting up a tie against Atletico Madrid, a poor two weeks in April resulted in a quarter-final exit. And with five games to go int the domestic league, FCB were tied on points with Atletico, with Real Madrid trailing on third, just a point behind.
FCB's attempt to be the first club to retain the Champions League in its modern avatar was unsuccessful, but it did finish with the Copa del Rey, and their sixth league title in eight years. The team finished the season on a high note, winning their last five matches with a 24-0 goal difference.
Adding to the squad
This season Luis Enrique has trimmed his squad. Enrique’s forward six have more-or-less been a constant set through the course of the season. Behind the MSN trident sits Sergio Busquets, with Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic on either side.
What has been a worry for Enrique has been his back four. Mascherano – his transformation into a centre back seems complete – and Piqué operate in the centre of the defence, and have built a sold partnership. What is worrying is the lack of depth, however, and the inconsistency of the wing-backs.
Last season, no one among Marc Bartra, Thomas Vermaelen, and Jeremy Methieu, who can all play as centre-half, earned Enrique’s trust. Academy graduate Bartra was offloaded to Borussia Dortmund this transfer window, and Thomas Vermaelen has moved to AS Roma to get his football career back on track.
With only one default left back, Jordi Alba, and Aleix Vidal having played only 14 times because of last season’s transfer ban, Enrique has moved swiftly in adding muscle to his defensive roster. French centre back Samuel Umtiti was signed from Olympic Lyon for €25m. Lucas Digne, also a French national, and a left back, was purchased from Paris Saint Germain for €16.5m.
Umtiti brings with him some needed youth in the centre-back pairing. At 22, he will have a lot to learn from Piqué and Mascherano, and is more than capable of being a replacement whenever needed. However, having made his French national debut in the recently concluded European Championship, not getting enough game time could force him either out of the club, or off the radar screen.
Digne, who was at AS Roma last season on loan, finished the year with three goals and five assists from the left side of defence. At 22, he is an ideal apprentice under Jordi Alba. But with Seri Roberto exemplifying what total football stands for – Roberto has played across the front, the middle three, centre, and right back for FCB over the last season) – Enrique’s decision to let Dani Alves move to Juventus on a free transfer might come back to haunt him.
Roberto has now cemented his position as the right-back, but with Aleix Vidal as his number two, this could raise some defensive concern over the course of this season. Just like Real Madrid, and other European power house clubs, FCB too cannot shy away from big money transfers themselves.
Enrique picked the attacking midfielder Andre Gomes – who helped Portugal win the European Cup – as his pick this year. Gomes joins FCB for €35m, from Valencia, with the prospect of warming benches on Wednesday night Champions League games. He turned out 41 times for Valencia last season, recording four goals and seven assists.
Enrique added his fourth 22-year-old as he welcomed back Denis Suarez, who spent a season with Villarreal. A one time Manchester City academy player, Suarez scored five goals and 13 assists in a promising start last season. He's a player Enrique can develop. It is evident that Enrique expects the additions to his squad to work their way into the team, and not expect immediate starts.
FCB have already begun with a two-leg win in the Spanish Supercopa, winning 5-0 on aggregate against Sevilla. They are starting the season with silverware, but will be wary of the fact that event smallest hiccup in form will reduce their trophy tally at the end of the season.
For a club like FCB, the minimum standard of achievement is set at a very high bar, partly because of the club’s finances and brand value, partly because of their tactical acumen and dominating football style. With one in the bag, winning anything less than four trophies this season would be a step backwards for Enrique and his men.