Athletic Club de Bilbao ended their 31 year long trophy drought, with a convincing 5-1 aggregate victory over Spanish and European Champions Barcelona. While all of Bilbao has celebrated well through the night, Luis Enrique and Barcelona have much to address, before re-launching themselves into the new season.
Jaws were dropped, eyes were rubbed and the internet was left collectively baffled.
Such was the reaction to Athletic Bilbao’s near perfect 4-0 routing of Barcelona. A defeat might’ve not been a forgone conclusion, considering the line-up Barca fielded, but the scoreline was far worse than they could’ve ever expected.
There were lofty claims made by many within the Catalan club that they could reverse the deficit, but when push came to shove, the 1-1 second leg draw was possibly a worse result than their first leg drubbing. The defending European and Spanish Champions looked utterly listless against a side that has rarely come close to beating them. Even with their near full strength squad, Barca were struggling to find answers.
There are more than one or two reasons why.
Barca are now feeling the effects of the Transfer Ban
There was a time, not too long a ago, when Barcelona didn’t need to look farther than their own academy La Masia for their net squad (and eventually) first team player. Facing a three window ban, however, the sterling confidence in their famed academy was waning. They no longer produced Piques, Messis, Iniestas or the like. Even if they did, they wouldn’t find place for them, leading them to find playing time else where. The result of all this? Barca bought, but did not buy big enough
The highlight of their summer spending was Luis Suarez, who brought them unquantifiable glory. The rest however, were understated and practical. Mathieu and Bravo had experience, Ter Stegen was promising, and Rakitic was tried and tested.
All these however served to paper over the cracks, exposing Barca’s depth as being far less spectacular as their first team. The prodigious Rafinha was stretched to his limits against Bilbao, Vermaelen looked worse than a fish out of water, Alves looked a shadow of his former self, and Mathieu was a severe liability at Left Back.
Barcelona had failed to make a big money splash for a centre back, hoping that Mathieu and Vermaelen would suffice. The former played his part modestly and the latter didn’t play at all .
Barcelona rode of the fitness of their first team since January. The moment the fatigue and injuries set in, Barcelona will be in a fight against fitness, let alone their opposition. With trying ties close ahead, Barca will need to be perfect and hold on till Vidal and Turan come in January, which is still four months away.
Pique isn’t leadership material, and it’s likely he won’t be anytime soon
For much of the late 2000’s, Pique was the poster child for what young defenders should aspire to be. Good in the air, patient, precise, and fast. He looked then (and to an extent now) the perfect heir to Carles Puyol. The fact that he forged a formidable partnership with him added to the perception.
Mascherano’s commanding presence in both defence and midfield sorted Barcelona’s defence against counters, while building up from the back. As such, Pique was given a bit more freedom performing to the level many expect of him. Mascherano is however ageing, and Pique is still not the man to take the mantle.
The season he was entrusted as the leader of defence, Pique was unable to inspire Barca’s young defenders, especially Bartra, leading to a forgettable season finish for the Catalans.
In the second leg against Bilbao, and more recently the season before last, Pique showed that he doesn’t posses the ideal qualities to be the leader many expect him to become. Insulting the linesman for the second time, got him sent off, and effectively ended Barca’s dream for another sextuple. The contents of what Pique said remain unclear, however it clearly looked unwarranted and utterly disrespectful, to both the linesman and the reputation of the club. Incidents such as these might be isolated, but they are dangerous indications of what a player is capable of, when push comes to shove.
Selling Pedro might be a big mistake
One of the summer’s longest drawn transfer sagas has been that involving Spanish winger Pedro. His will-he-wont-he transfer to Manchester United is yet to achieve a conclusion, though he has told the club he wants a move elsewhere.
To be fair however, the entry of Suarez seemed to spell the end for the winger. The famed M-S-N triad proved instrument in securing Barcelona’s treble, leaving Pedro in the cold for no fault of his own.
The problem however, is that attacking trios rarely last more than two, maybe three seasons. Messi-Henry-Eto’o, Messi-Villa-Pedro stand as testaments to the fact. Moreover, the amount of goals that Messi Neymar and Suarez scored, far outnumbered those by other teammates and for obvious reasons. When an attacking core that effective, loses momentum, there has to be a quality contingency plan in place. Pedro was exactly that. When Suarez was serving his ban, or when Neymar injured his ankle, Pedro was there, keeping the wheels moving fluently, as he has done these past seven seasons.
During the UEFA Super Cup, Enrique tried plying Rafinha in the attacking third. Though the academy product performed admirably, he will struggle to reach Pedro’s remarkable level of performance and consistency anytime soon.
Pedro is, and rightfully so, discontent with his current situation. Given that Barcelona have half a season left to play without a new player, Pedro is a player Barcelona should hold on to, but probably wouldn’t be able to.
Suarez will have a defining role to play in Barcelona’s fortune
He might not have usurped Lionel Messi, but Luis Suarez is every inch the player that can lead Barca’s attack.
The tactic to shift Messi to the right and Suarez to the centre, was immensely risky, but one that paid more than it’s due reward. Suarez was the just the elixir that Neymar and Messi needed, fitting in with remarkable ease, and contributing with devastating regularity.
In his first season, Suarez scored 25 goals and 18 assists in 43 appearances for the Catalan giants. The numbers don’t match up to those of his illustrious Argentine counterpart, yet Suarez’ involvement in Barca’s attack remains pivotal. His assist to Messi’s goal in the second leg was instinctive of both a goalscorer and a goal provider. Granted that Messi can covert nearly any ball that comes to him, his job is made infinitely easier with Suarez working hard around him.
Moreover, the former Liverpool attacker’s biggest contribution has been the freedom he has afforded Lionel Messi. The Argentine has long carried the Barca attack firmly on his shoulders. It’s a responsibility that he both enjoys, and thrives in. Seeing him return to his original position as a wide forward however, has seen the Argentine play with a level of happiness that had gone missing along the way. Suarez’ ability on and off the ball, leaves defenders pre-occupied, offering Messi a crucial extra yard of space, which is akin to signing your own death warrant.
Enrique has a trying four months ahead
Like his previous start last season, the chips are stacked against the Asturian coach. Though the odds aren’t that against him, they aren’t as proverbially in his favour as many would assume.
With Alba’s injury and the sale of Adriano, Enrique will be forced to start Jeremy Mathieu in the left-back spot. If the last two games are any indication, the former Valencia defender will be the oppositions’ prime target. Moreover, the inevitable sale of Pedro will leave a huge question mark over who takes the third attacking spot beside Messi and Suarez.
Rafinha and Munir are options, both aren’t quite ready to handle the gauntlet of regular league and Champions League football. With Pedro gone, and Neymar still recovering from mumps, Barca might have to change their preferred 4-3-3 and move Iniesta to the advanced number 10 position.
Enrique will also have to wait until January to unleash both Aleix Vidal and Arda Turan. While both players will shore up Barca’s defence and attack respectively, they will come in to the Barca side without match experience and will still require time to adjust, no matter how long they train with the first team. Vidal will probably take over from Dani Alves straightaway, but Turan is a player that requires games to perform. If M-S-N get back to their best, there might be little place for Turan in attack. His options in midfield are likely to come, only with a change in formation, which will still be hard to predict.
Without centre-back Pique for the first two fixture, and possibly more, Barca face a tough start to the new Liga season.
Real and Atletico have both strengthened parts of their side that needed re-enforcement, and are thus looking stronger. Barca’s strength in depth will be put to the utmost test, as the club will need to start on the right foot in order to gain priceless momentum heading into the new campaign. While they are the reigning domestic and European champions, it is a very dangerous thing to rely on past glory in this ever changing world of modern football.