So far this season, it could well be said that Barcelona have shown two faces: bar their hiccup this weekend against Celta at Camp Nou, they have mostly been breezing through both La Liga and the Champions League but on the two occasions where they faced teams of similar resources/quality they were badly found wanting, especially last weekend at the Santiago Bernabeu. While it could be argued that losing on the road to PSG and Real Madrid is hardly cause for alarm, it’s the way in which those defeats were inflicted and the stark contrast with the rest of the matches that is the concern here. Despite some moments of brilliance up front, the team looked highly vulnerable and short of ideas at several stages of both games.

At the Bernabeu, Luis Enrique started Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta in midfield – the same trio that dominated matches at will and was arguably the catalyst to Barcelona’s dominance when they were at the height of their powers in the Pep Guardiola era. But last weekend, rather than dominant and assured, the trio looked unimaginative and painfully slow, completely overrun by Real Madrid’s midfield – which would be unthinkable a few years ago. From a tactical and even from a personnel standpoint, there’s not that much difference between the team that lost convincingly at the Bernabeu and the one that 4 years ago beat Real Madrid 5-0 at Camp Nou; but that is, in all likelihood, the real problem.

The players might be the same to some extent, but they’re also 4 years older, Xavi and Iniesta in particular no longer seem to have the ability to impose their will in the biggest matches as they once did. Busquets has been struggling with injury and delaying surgery for the good of the team. Up front, Messi, Neymar and Suarez can even be argued as an upgrade on the Messi, Villa and Pedro trio. But ultimately, if you don’t evolve tactically other teams and managers are bound to come up with better ways to stop you; both PSG and Real Madrid beat Barcelona mostly by denying them space and through lightning quick transitions that left the blaugrana’s midfield and defense completely exposed. Another area where Barcelona were left exposed was set pieces, with even Verrati – one of the shortest players around – managing to score from one; lack of height all around, but especially in defense, has been an issue for a while, one that has failed to be addressed and has left the club very vulnerable to any set piece situations.

Can he turn Barcelona's fortunes around in the biggest games?

Can he turn Barcelona’s fortunes around in the biggest games?

While Barcelona still have one of the very best squads in the world – despite the on-going transfer suspension – they have become predictable and need to shake things up tactically in order to improve their performances in the biggest matches. For instance, using both Mascherano and Busquets as a double pivot, while it’d seemingly go against the club’s ‘principles’, would likely be a more effective way to control big matches; Barcelona are lucky to have two of the best holding midfielders in football and in the big matches that can be used to great effect, also giving the slower Xavi and Iniesta more cover and room to operate. At this stage of their respective careers, Rakitic over Xavi would seem like a logical move as well; the Croatian has been impressive whenever he’s played this season and he’s a more energetic presence on the field than an inexorably aging Xavi.

At the back though lie perhaps the biggest problems, height is of course the main one although the addition of Mathieu has helped in that regard; but even aside from that, Alves isn’t the same player he once was, the same being true for PiquAi?? – whose mistake conceding a needless penalty at the Bernabeu started Real Madrid’s comeback. Interestingly, Barcelona hadn’t conceded a single goal in La Liga before El ClA?sico, but Real Madrid’s pace and power really exposed the problems in Barcelona’s backline, though granted they got very little protection from midfield – the main reason why trying a double pivot with Busquets and Mascherano seems like a logical solution at this point.

This weekend’s loss at home against Celta broke the trend of domination against the theoretically weaker sides, but unless it signals a permanent downward spiral – which is quite unlikely – Barcelona still have a more than decent chance of winning the La Liga title. But if recent matches are any indication, winning the Champions League will be too tall an order, one that will require chances being made in the approach to matches against teams with similar level/resources. It remains to be seen whether Luis Enrique will be able to address the problems he’s facing; the next home match against PSG will be a decent test of whether Barcelona can bring something different (for the better) in a match against a top team.

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