The 4th of January 2015, San Sebastián. Barcelona would have wanted to make it a Happy New Year and start the year where they had left off – opening their account in the best possible way with three points, a hatful of goals and hopefully make a statement in the process to their rivals in both Spain and Europe that the real FC Barcelona of old are well and truly back.
Sadly, Barcelona fell to a miserable 1-0 defeat and although they did push on to create something, they really did fail against an organised defensive side; an all-too-familiar sight for Barcelona fans tired of watching their team pass it around the other teams’ penalty box without any chance of a goal in sight. On a whole they were lacklustre, lazy, unmotivated and simply not good enough. Fast forward two months later to March 2015 and Barcelona have not only just beaten the champions of England in their very own back yard with relative ease but they have dispatched every opponent in their last thirteen games with the exception of Malaga who recently managed to grab a historic win at Camp Nou.
So, what has changed? Well the players are the same; there have been no transfers in the winter transfer window due to Barcelona’s transfer ban. So, how did Luis Enrique turn a side in crisis into a treble-chasing team in the space of two months?
Barcelona’s defence this season has conceded the second least amount of goals in Europe, impressive by any standard for a team known more for their risky high-line and attacking strategy. And although the Catalan outfit have been heavily criticised for their defensive displays over the last few years, the introduction of Jeremy Mathieu to their defence has at least gained some physicality and height, not to mention the recent heroics of new signing Claudio Bravo as Barca’s unlikely new number one. Luis Enrique has had his team playing a very high line since January, but unlike recent seasons, he has his midfield contributing to the defence by staying closer to the back four to kill counter-attacks before they can begin and pressuring the opposition’s midfield into crossing the ball out of play or back to the goalkeeper. Ivan Rakitic and Javier Mascherano have been vital in pressuring midfielders and covering for the bombing runs of Jordi Alba and Dani Alves, which would be considered a suicidal tactic for any other team not used to this style of play.
Consequently, FC Barcelona are now, more than ever, defending with the ball. Keeping the ball cleverly in midfield thanks to their quality and only playing the risky through passes and crosses when the chance of scoring is higher than not. The team has been playing wider than late 2014, and this gives the attackers more space to run into and pick out their team-mates thanks to the fullbacks having no choice but to mark Jordi Alba and Dani Alves, who could just as easily find an attacker if left unmarked.
Luis Suarez is another player who has also faced a heap of criticism in his first few weeks at Barcelona, perhaps most of it proving unfair, due to his seeming inability to convert chances as he did for Liverpool. Now, a few months into the New Year and Suarez is finding the form that won him the English Premier League golden boot last season and left him many considering him to be one of the out and out number nine’s in the world. And Suarez’s form has provided more than just goals for Barcelona. His form means that defenders can no longer risk leaving him unmarked, which leaves fewer players to mark Brazilian Neymar and the brilliant Argentine maestro of course being Lionel Messi, who are all equally deadly in front of goal. Simply by placing Suarez in the centre, Luis Enrique has given his opposition little choice but to commit both centre-backs to marking him, leaving just one fullback to mark Messi or Neymar, and that’s where the majority of Barca’s goals have been coming from.
The deadly trio all scored against Paris Saint Germain to earn FC Barcelona the top spot in their Champions League group and the three musketeers scored again to send the Spanish champions home from Camp Nou with their heads in their hands and diminished hopes of retaining their La Liga title. The trio also combined again against Manchester City to devastating effect, going home with a win from Manchester and looking very likely to finish the job at Camp Nou. All in all, Barcelona’s attacking trio have combined more effectively than ever since that dismal night at the Anoeta and turned the team into real goal machines, scoring more goals at this stage of the season than their best-ever seasons between 2009-12.
So, if you were to ask an FC Barcelona fan at this moment in time whether or not they would change the result of that night in Anoeta, they would reject the chance of doing so in a heartbeat. From this point on, FC Barcelona went from being a recovering team in the rebuilding phase, back to one of the deadliest sides in Europe and one of the outright favourites to come out on top in La Liga, the UEFA Champions League and the Copa Del Rey titles. Luis Enrique’s strong influence on the team’s pace, fitness and style of play have combined the famous Tiki-Taka and counter-attacking football to devastating effect, and he’s created a team that could beat the strongest sides in Europe and reclaim Barcelona’s Champions League title, which they have not won since 2011.
FC Barcelona are fit, in-form and they’re looking for revenge. They’ve destroyed Atletico Madrid over three games, the same side that beat Real Madrid 4-0 at the Calderon, they put PSG to the sword with a 3-1 win at Camp Nou and they look set to finish the Manchester City tie and before heading into a the must-win El Clasico. This team has surpassed the fans’ expectations after a miserable trophy-less season in 2013/14, and the lions’ share of the credit must go to Luis Enrique. Barcelona at this time of writing currently sit a mere two points behind Real Madrid in the league as well as progression in the Copa Del Rey and Champions League second legs with 3-1 and 1-2 leads, respectively.
Many people laughed when Real Sociedad beat Barcelona at Anoeta 2 months ago but it looks like Luis Enrique’s side are the ones now feeling the benefits of that eye-opening defeat. Who’s laughing now?
Article written by: @ElDonFCB