That team; we all remember it. Pep Guardiola without a doubt created a brand of football for Barcelona that was unbeatable. However, since the now-Manchester City boss, left and Xavi Hernandez retired are they in danger of losing top spot in Spanish football?
One thing in life, and football is that nothing stays the same forever. While Luis Enrique inherited a squad that was on the cusp of coming to the end of its peak, it is clear that last season they can’t play the same football that brought them so much success.
The manager got away with it during the first season of his tenure with the Catalan club. Their 2014/15 season signalled the end of that great team. It was their last chance to win everything with the personnel that Guardiola had put together and they did so in style.
There are many clues and apparent cracks have been papered over during the last couple of years, though now the issue seems to be unavoidable. While the only consistency over the past three seasons have been Copa del Rey triumphs, there is no hiding the fact that Real Madrid are now the dominant force in Spanish and European football.
It seems to be where Los Blancos head coach Zinedine Zidane and Enrique differed. The former inherited a squad, identified what needed to be changed and brought a new football strategy to the capital club; putting the hours in on the training ground and encouraging different approaches.
If they need to play direct, they can. Not just passing for the sake of it; each exchange has an attacking purpose. Defensively Casemiro has been a robust revelation and Isco looks like a another player.
Barcelona have faded in comparison. One constant during Guardiola’s hugely prosperous term was the tri-telepathy of their midfield. The three legs of the tripod: Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets. All of a sudden, one leg of the tripod disappeared and they’ve stumbled, never quite recovering. Last season has shown that it is in danger of collapsing altogether.
There were high hopes for Ivan Rakitic, though he simply cannot play the ‘tiki-taka’ style that has been ingrained in the club’s footballing philosophy in previous years. Not quite a square peg in a round hole, though certainly some rough edges.
Last summer, there was seemingly a mish-mash of recruits. On paper, good players, though not ‘Barcelona players’. Enrique failed to realise this – proven by the acquisition of Andre Gomes. No doubt a good player though not suited to the style that the manager persisted with – he went missing all too often in games, unable to adapt and connect to the same wavelength of Busquets and Iniesta (when he was fit to play).
Ernesto Valverde’s appointment as manager has been a long time in coming. When Guardiola left, he made two recommendations to succeed him: Valverde and Tito Villanova. They chose the latter.
Valverde arrives at the Nou Camp with a revered reputation. Perhaps Barcelona’s lack of transfer activity so far, is due in no small matter to Valverde’s highly methodical approach to management and coaching.
Links to Marco Verratti persist; the understanding that the club are yet to find a replacement for Xavi a view seemingly shared by their new manager. At Bilbao, Valverde had Ander Herrera; a player whose importance at Manchester United has sky-rocketed over the past couple of seasons.
A union at the Nou Camp appears unlikely, at least for now. One of Valverde’s key strengths is his adaptability. At the Basque club, he got the best out of Raul Garcia and Aritz Aduriz (two adept finishers in the air) by getting the ball into them early from wide areas.
Identifying the areas where the current crop of Barca players are strong and weak will no doubt form part of the strategy. Verratti can definitely bring creative rejuvenation to the centre of the park.
While Lionel Messi has just signed a bumper new contract, identifying a long term replacement for the Argentine superstar could prove to be wise move for Valverde while he is at the Catalan club.
Barcelona brought in Paco Alcacer last summer from Valencia, with the hope that he could have the same effect that David Villa had and slot seamlessly into their front three operating on a rotational basis, however, for all of his technical dexterity, he appears to lack sufficient awareness or key decision-making aptitude.
This is where Valverde’s coaching prowess could be applied. He has excelled over the years making players better and should he decide that the 23-year-old Spaniard is part of his plans, there are plenty of positives.
One such alternative is a player Valverde knows well. Iker Muniain has long been lauded in Spanish media. Dubbed ‘the Spanish Messi’ by one journalist, he has suffered with injury problems, though came through last season unscathed and looks like he can get back to his best.
A priority that had been identified at the start of the window was a new right back, having never really replaced Dani Alves after his departure to Juventus last summer. Nelson Semedo, who arrived from Benfica is just the ticket.
Nélson Semedo: "I will do everything I can to honor the shirt."
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) July 14, 2017
Equipped with an equal balance of attacking and defensive attributes, the Portuguese player can prove he was a cunning signing.
He was the third signing of the summer for Barcelona, after Gerard Deulofeu was brought back from Everton and young centre-back Marlon jetted in from Brazil.
As yet, no significantly major statements have been made in the transfer window, though Barcelona cannot afford any errors of judgement this summer, with rivals circling.