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Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar have been the key to Barca’s success over the past 18 months. The South American strikeforce, best known by the acronym ‘MSN’, have often been referenced as the best strike force in football history this season.
A little over a month ago, the trio were the spearhead for Barcelona’s record-breaking unbeaten run, scoring 110 of the European Champions’ total 147 goal tally – well on course to smash their previous record of 122 goals from last season.
Just as MSN’s success was a decisive factor to their team’s long unbeaten run, similarly the current slump in form can also be directly linked to a sudden and sharp downturn in the front three’s effectiveness.
During Barcelona’s five March fixtures, they scored 13 goals between them, with Messi hoarding seven on his way to his 500 landmark figure; Suarez scored two and Neymar four respectively. Compare those totals to their past five outings and there’s a stark contrast, three goals between the trident attack force – one from Messi, two from Suarez and none from Neymar.
But it’s more than just the sudden lack of goals that should worry Barcelona fans. The front three have worked synchronously over the past 18 months, you would have been forgiven for assuming they were communicating telepathically with one another. But suddenly, the South-Americans no longer appear to be on the same wavelength.
Take Barcelona’s painful defeat to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final second leg as an example, Lionel Messi, five times voted the best player in the world, did not complete a single pass to his fellow strike-partner Suarez over the entire 90 minutes and made only one to Neymar.
Clearly something has gone askew for Barcelona in recent weeks, but where does the issue lie?
Is Fatigue To Blame?
Barcelona have certainly played a great number of games this season, so fatigue is a justifiable explanation for the Catalonian’s recent struggles, as they head into the conclusive chapter of a long campaign.
The La Liga champions’ season started earlier than other clubs because of their involvement in the Spanish and Uefa Super Cups. In December, Barcelona travelled to Japan for the Fifa Club World Cup, adding to their workload – the defeat at the hands of Valencia was Barca’s 56th competitive game of the season.
Arguably, the correlation between fatigue and performance was most prevalent in the El Clasico defeat at the Nou Camp. The intense, physical fixture against Real Madrid fell directly after an international break that saw six of their starting line-up, including MSN, travel transatlantically to and from South America.
Whilst the trio looked particularly jaded during the defeats against both of their Madrid rivals, there was little evidence of weariness as Enrique’s men conceded further ground in the race for the La Liga title against Valencia, running desperately until the final moments in attempts to salvage a result.
Luis Enrique Has No Plan B
Enrique certainly takes a hands-off approach to management. Barcelona’s potential collapse has not come as a result of any rash, tactical tinkering – they have played in exactly the same manner and with the exact same personnel during their four recent defeats, as they had done for their six-month unbeaten run.
Why then, have the front three have stopped combining so well? This problem is what may yet ultimately define Enrique’s era of Barcelona management, it’s certainly the biggest dilemma Enrique has had to solve in an otherwise cushy managerial role. The win condition is obvious, if he can get MSN firing again, the team will start scoring and the accolades will continue to flow into Catalonia.
My major criticism of Enrique is that he never considered formulating a ‘Plan B’.
Barcelona are plagued by a distinct lack of squad depth, leaving Enrique with distinctly limited viable options in reserve.
Against Valencia, for example, Enrique made no substitutions at whatsoever, if that’s not a clear sign of a manager fumbling for alternative options, then I don’t know what is. Enrique evidently didn’t trust that anybody on the bench could make a positive impact on proceedings.
Admittedly, Enrique’s outfit has been weakened by the absence of Rafinha and the suspended Arda Turan, but one or two ineligible players should be expected and accounted for in a typical season – the lack of cover has left Enrique open to the criticism that the side he has constructed is almost entirely one-dimensional.
It almost seems like arrogance on Enrique’s part.
He appears to have been so confident in the success of ‘Plan A’, that he never felt the need to put a ‘Plan B’ in place. It may yet be his, and Barcelona’s, downfall because with the trio’s sudden loss of form, Barca do not appear to have any other way of winning.